Ignoring the Log for the Speck

The Parable of the Mote and the Beam by Domenico Fetti (c. 1589 – 1623)

A reader sent me an article from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). It is about a summit being held by Harvard Law School. Scheduled to happen in June of this year, the summit is supposed to address problems that exist within the homeschooling community. As the HSLDA article indicates, the lineup of speakers is a “Who’s Who” of anti-homeschooling advocates and advocates of strict governmental regulation over home education. HSLDA is rightly worried about this conference, especially since there don’t seem to be any homeschooling advocates among the speakers.

The HSLDA article provides a link to the summit’s website, and I was struck by the title: “Homeschooling Summit: Problems, Politics, and Prospects for Reform.” When I read that title, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words, recorded in Matthew 7:1-5:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

The organizers of this summit are behaving exactly the way Jesus describes. They are worried about the problems associated with homeschooling, when those problems are incredibly rampant in the public schooling system. What are these problems? The website says:

The focus will be on problems of educational deprivation and child maltreatment that too often occur under the guise of homeschooling, in a legal environment of minimal or no oversight.

The irony should be obvious. Educational deprivation and child maltreatment are RAMPANT in the government-regulated public schools, but the organizers of this summit think that government regulation is needed to keep it from happening in home schools!

If you don’t understand the severity of these problems in government-regulated public schools, you haven’t looked at the data. Students in our public schools routinely experience educational deprivation. It is estimated that about one-fifth of high school graduates are functionally illiterate. Testing indicates that seniors in public school perform well under the international average in mathematics. Performance on the ACT indicates that more than 25% of high school graduates who plan to go to college are not prepared for it. The list could go on and on.

What’s even more alarming is the rate of child maltreatment in the public schools. A government report estimates that 1 out of every 10 children will suffer sexual abuse in the public schools. If you weren’t aware of how rampant sexual abuse is in our public schools, I suggest you spend some time at Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation. The stories are heart-wrenching, and unfortunately, the public schools have a pattern of covering up these incidents, which leads to them becoming even more common.

Now please understand the point I am trying to make here. I am not saying that we shouldn’t try to address the issue of educational deprivation and child maltreatment in home schooling. What I am saying is that government regulation isn’t very effective at getting the job done. After all, government regulation is much, much easier in public schools, where the students are regularly in the presence of government employees. Even in such an environment, however, educational deprivation and child maltreatment are rampant.

In the end, if these speakers and the organizers of this summit are really interested in the welfare of homeschooled students, they should work with homeschooling organizations, not against them. Homeschooling organizations know the homeschooling population better than government organizations. As a result, they would be more effective at helping to correct educational deprivation and child maltreatment among homeschoolers, which I suspect is significantly less common than it is in the public schools.

Unfortunately, based on the list of invited speakers at this summit, my guess is that the participants will advocate working against homeschoolers, which will ultimately produce more educational deprivation and child maltreatment, not less.

Our Best Computer is Positively PRIMITIVE Compared to the Human Brain

A small selection of the connections in the human brain (left) and the world’s most powerful supercomputer (right).
Image on left by the PIT Bioinformatics Group. Image on right by the OLCF at ORNL.
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I have been working on my new book, Science in the Atomic Age, which (Lord willing) will be published this summer. In the section where I cover the nervous system, I compare a mouse brain and a human brain to computers. It’s rather fascinating. Below, you will find a slightly-edited excerpt from that discussion. Please note that the students have already learned that neurons are cells found in nervous tissue and that the integumentary system is the system of organs that makes your skin:

The brain has three major divisions: the cerebrum (suh ree’ brum), the cerebellum (sehr’ uh bell’ uhm), and the brain stem. The cerebrum is in charge of most of the really complicated things that the brain does. For example, it receives signals from your eyes and interprets them so that you can see. It receives signals from your ears and interprets them so you can hear. It receives signals from all the nervous tissue in your integumentary system so that you can figure out what you are touching as well as things like whether you are too warm, too cold, or comfortable. It also helps you learn, and it stores your memories. All this takes a lot of work, so it requires a lot of neurons.

How many neurons? The average adult cerebrum contains about 20 billion neurons. That number doesn’t mean very much by itself, so by comparison, the average adult mouse cerebrum contains about 2.5 million neurons. So the human cerebrum contains about 10,000 times as many neurons as a mouse’s cerebrum. Of course, a mouse is much smaller than a person. By weight, a person is about 3,000 times as heavy as a mouse. At least part of the difference between a mouse’s cerebrum and a person’s cerebrum is due to that. But people are much more intelligent than mice, and the number of neurons in the cerebrum must also be related to that.

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How I Address the Age of the Earth in My Courses

My publisher has been getting several questions about how I address the age of the earth in my science courses. This probably stems from the fact that there is a lot of misinformation going through the homeschooling community regarding my position on the issue. I thought I would try to clear things up with a post.

First, my position on the age of the earth hasn’t changed in more than thirty years. I turned from atheism to Christianity in my late high school years, and at that time, I was happy to believe what my teachers told me about the age of the earth. It was more than four billion years old. I was told that we knew this because of radiometric dating methods, which involved studying the relative amounts of radioactive atoms in rocks and fossils. This “fact” of science was later reinforced when I went to university, so I was still happy to believe it.

Then I started my Ph.D. program in nuclear chemistry. I learned about radioactive decay in detail and started doing experiments with nuclear reactions. Most of my work was done at the University of Rochester Nuclear Structure Research Lab, which also had a group that did radiometric dating. I never did any of that work myself, but I watched them do their experiments, asked them questions, listened to their presentations at the lab, etc. Based on what I learned there, I decided that I couldn’t put much faith in the ages given by radiometric dating.

This caused me to question the age of the earth from a scientific perspective. Theologically, I wasn’t committed to any age for the earth. Certainly the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis is that the universe and all it contains was created in six solar days, and that leads to a young-earth view. At the same time, however, there were early church Fathers (as well as ancient Jewish theologians) who didn’t interpret the days in Genesis that way. So I attempted to investigate the subject with an open mind. I found that in my view, science makes a lot more sense if the earth is thousands of years old rather than billions of years old, so I started believing in a young earth. The more I have studied science, the more convinced I have become that the earth is only thousands of years old.

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Science and Creativity, Part 2

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In my previous post, I shared a very creative lab report that I received from a physics student in one of my online physics courses. In this one, I want to share something from another very creative student. In order for you to appreciate it, however, a bit of background is necessary.

In my online courses, students take tests online while being supervised by their parents. The parent has a passcode for each test, and when the student is ready to take the test, the parent inputs the passcode into a website. This opens up the test for the student to take. Some of the test questions are multiple-choice (I call them “multiple-guess”), some are true/false, and some are short answer. That, however, is not enough to fully assess a student’s knowledge when it comes to science, so I also have a few “essay” questions on the tests. In physics and chemistry, they are usually long, involved problems that the student must work out.

In order to properly assess the student’s work, I must see all the steps that the student takes to come up with the answer. If the student were taking the test on paper, that would be fairly easy. The student could just write out the equations being used, show how the variables were plugged it, and go through whatever algebra is necessary. However, on a website, that can be tricky. The program we use has an editor that allows the student to write equations, but it is bulky and cumbersome. Student can do their work on paper and then upload an image of the paper, but that is also bulky and cumbersome. As I result, I simply tell students to explain the steps they took to get to the answer, and I allow them to use any method they think bests accomplishes this goal. Some use the equation editor, some use paper and upload an image, some give equations using just text, and some give me a narrative of what they did.

Eden Cook is an example of the latter. She gives me a narrative of her work, usually in the form of an amusing story. There are typically characters in her stories, and they each have their own personality, which adds to the humor. One of those characters is “Newton.” Well, in one question where she had to determine the electric field produced by two stationary charges (represented by one one black dot and one blue dot), she decided to forgo the story and write a poem. I.T. W.A.S. E.P.I.C.

(The star is a footnote where she shows the vector addition, and her answer was correct.)

Science and Creativity: Part 1

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If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that science is not my only interest. I write plays, perform in plays (musicals and non-musicals), and play the piano. When people who don’t know me well find out about these interests, they are sometimes surprised. They wonder how a scientist could possibly have a creative side. I have always been puzzled by the idea that science and creativity are incompatible. Science, by its very nature, is creative. I know lots of scientists who can write amazing poetry, play an instrument beautifully, sing a song magnificently, or perform onstage like a professional. However, none of my acquaintances from the arts can solve a differential equation, analyze the motion of a body that is influenced by friction, or synthesize a chiral compound from nonchiral components. In my opinion, science and creativity simply go together.

That’s why I love it when students decide to be creative with their assignments. I have two examples of this, which will take up two blog posts. They both come from the online physics courses I taught the previous academic year. In those courses, students must write lab reports, and I grade them. I don’t have the students write a hypothesis, discuss materials and methods, and all that nonsense. That makes no sense when it comes to a laboratory exercise, and it doesn’t really prepare the student for university lab reports. Instead, I have them write out their data, do any calculations that are necessary, and then write a summary of what they did and what they can conclude from their results. The summary and conclusions must be in their own words.

In honor of my love of the theater, one student (Riley Harro) wrote his last experiment summary and conclusion as an audition, and it was stellar! It contains a lot of inside jokes that resulted from the discussions we had in class and the common phrases I use while teaching. To give you some context, the lab is about testing materials to determine whether or not they are ferromagnetic, paramagnetic, or diamagnetic. In the end, the nail is ferromagnetic, the aluminum paper clip is paramagnetic, and the matchstick is diamagnetic. I hope you enjoy his report as much as I did:

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My Review of Exploring Creation with General Science, 3rd Edition

The cover of Exploring Creation with General Science, 3rd Edition
I wrote the second edition of Exploring Creation with General Science more than 12 years ago, so the course was due for an update. Marine biologist Sherri Seligson has written a new edition of the course, which was just recently published. Previously, I reviewed the second edition of her Exploring Creation with Marine Biology and enthusiastically recommended it to homeschoolers. Unfortunately, I cannot enthusiastically recommend the third edition of Exploring Creation with General Science. At the same time, I also can’t say that homeschoolers shouldn’t use the course. In the end, there are things I loved about the course, things I didn’t like about the course, and things I didn’t understand about the course.

Let’s start with the things I loved. From the standpoint of what is covered, this course is a better fit for students who took Jeannie Fulbright and Dr. Brooke Ryan’s elementary course, Exploring Creation with Human Anatomy and Physiology. That’s because in the second edition of Exploring Creation with General Science, I spent an enormous amount of time covering the human body. Fulbright and Ryan’s course does that as well, so there is a lot of overlap for students who have taken their course. This problem is compounded by the fact that Fulbright and Ryan’s course is the most difficult of all the elementary courses in that series, so it is usually taken in fifth or sixth grade, just one or two years before the general science course is usually taken. This new edition of general science does not dwell on the human body, so students will not have to sift through all that repetitive material. However, as I will mention later on, students will have to sift through repetitive material if they end up taking the next book in the publisher’s series.

I also loved the discussion of graphs and tables that takes place in Module 3. It is very well done, and it is something that will be extremely useful for students who are getting ready for high school science.

Another great thing about the course is that many of the experiments are novel and interesting. For example, there are several “standard” household experiments on the subject of density, but this course’s experiment on density (Experiment 1.1) is one that I had never seen and is very effective. Another great experiment is the Rube Goldberg experiment that ends the course.

In addition, I loved the way that Seligson makes science personal. She starts the course with a letter to the student and ends the course with another one. That’s a nice touch. Similarly, I loved the fact that the last module is made up of personal testimonies from several different scientists. They discuss how the scientists came to enjoy science, what they have done and are doing in their scientific field, and how they relate science to their Christian faith. That is an excellent way to end the course.
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Bethel McGrew, Homeschool Graduate and Mathematics Ph.D. Student

The universe is inherently mathematical. Many scientists have come to this realization, but one of the first was Galileo Galilei. In his book, The Assayer, he wrote:

[The universe] cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.

I have always been intrigued by people who dedicate themselves to learning this language, and I had the privilege of interviewing one such person last week: Mathematics Ph.D. student Bethel McGrew.

Bethel McGrew
Bethel was homeschooled K-12, and her experience produced a lifelong love of learning, whether the topic was literature, science, music, or chess (she has been a competitive tournament player but can now proudly say she is no longer the highest-rated among her siblings!) She didn’t do much with co-ops or group activities, and in some ways, I would say that her experience was that of a “classic” homeschooler. Her family used curriculum when it fit their needs, and when it didn’t, they found some other way to get the job done. For example, she said that her family couldn’t find a good course for geometry, so she just read Euclid.

In case you don’t know who that is, he’s the father of geometry. His treatise, Elements, was written around 300 BC and is considered one of the most important works of mathematics to this day. That was her primary reference for learning high school geometry! This was common in her homeschooling, perhaps because her parents (each has a Ph.D.) were so academically inclined. She read many primary sources as a part of her secondary education. For example, she read the works of Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) to learn more about the history of New Testament times.

While her homeschooling experience was quite classic, her higher education was more modern. She started with distance-learning courses from Christian universities like Patrick Henry College and Bryan College. She then transferred to Western Michigan University in her home town of Kalamazoo and continued living at home while she finished her undergraduate degree. She originally thought she would pursue a career in philosophy (the field of her father’s Ph.D. and her mother’s main professional research focus) but decided to double major in philosophy and mathematics, discovering an unexpected love for the latter when some professors helped her see the beauty of math. She was offered and accepted a teaching assistantship to pursue a Ph.D. there. As a TA, she has taught everything from algebra to applied calculus, adding occasional long-distance tutoring work on the side with Asian ESL (English as a second language) students. She has earned her master’s degree en route and is currently beginning work on her dissertation in graph theory.

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Dr. Winston Ewert, Homeschool Graduate and Software Engineer

Dr. Winston Ewert
Back in July of last year, I wrote about what might be one of the most important genetic studies of the decade. It treated an organism’s genome like a large computer program that was put together using specific groups of genes as programming “modules.” The study showed that this view of the genome made more sense of the genetic similarities between certain animals than an evolutionary view. When I read the study and blogged about it, I did not recognize the author’s name and had no idea who he was. Later on, he contacted me and thanked me for blogging about his study. He also informed me that he is a homeschool graduate and used my courses in his education. I recently contacted him to see if he would be willing to be a part of my homeschool graduate project, and he graciously agreed.

Dr. Ewert was homeschooled K-12, as were his four siblings. Like many homeschoolers, his parents’ primary motivation was to school their children using a Christian worldview. However, unlike most of the homeschool graduates I have talked with and written about, he was homeschooled in British Columbia, Canada. This actually made access to university a bit more difficult for him. Most British Columbia universities weren’t “homeschool friendly” like U.S. universities, so when he graduated from homeschooling, he started his higher education at Kwantlen University College, which was pretty much the Canadian equivalent of a community college. After two semesters, he transferred to Trinity Western University to finish his degree.

He said he had developed a computer obsession by the age of 10, so he knew he wanted to study computers. At Kwantlen, he started studying computer information systems. He transferred to Trinity when he realized he should be studying computer science instead. Had he started out in computer science at Trinity, this would have made graduating in four years a bit easier. That’s the only real negative aspect he could think of regarding his homeschooling.

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You Just Never Know What Will Inspire a Student

Spoons used as resistors in series (left) and in parallel (right).

In my high school physics course designed for homeschooling, I cover the standard topics that are considered important in preparing a student for university-level physics. One of those topics is resistance in electrical circuits. Unless you are dealing with exotic substances at very low temperatures (superconductors), all materials that conduct electricity resist the flow of electrons to some extent. A good conductor has a low resistance; a poor conductor has a high resistance. The amount of resistance in an electrical circuit and the voltage of the power source determine the amount of current flowing through the circuit, so it is important to be able to calculate a circuit’s overall resistance.

When resistors are connected so that the electricity must flow through each one of them, we say that the resistors are hooked in series. Notice how the spoons are connected in the left-hand photograph above. If I hook a battery up to the handle of the right-hand spoon and the head of the left-hand spoon, electricity would have to flow through both spoons to get from the negative side of the battery to the positive side. That tells you the spoons are hooked together in series.

When resistors are connected so that electricity has a “choice” about which resistor to travel through, we say that the resistors are hooked up in parallel. Notice how the spoons are connected in the right-hand photo above. If I were to hook a battery to the handle and head of the bottom spoon, the electricity would only have to travel through one of the two spoons to go from the negative side of the battery to the positive side. That tells you the spoons are hooked together in parallel.

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Robert Rowlett, Homeschool Graduate and Deputy Attorney General

Robert Rowlett
I recently wrote about Hayley Bower, a homeschool graduate who earned a degree in Engineering Physics. When I interviewed her for that article, I also interviewed her boyfriend, Robert Rowlett. He is just as impressive as Hayley, but in a completely different way. He was homeschooled for thirteen years, kindergarten through 12th grade, and he had a very traditional experience. Unlike most homeschooled students, he didn’t get together every week with other homeschoolers in a co-op setting. Instead, he learned on his own and was entirely taught at home. His only co-op experience was teaching a co-op class.

By the time he was in high school, his parents noticed that he took after his grandfather, who had been a chancery court judge in Tennessee for 25 years. As a result, they signed him up for a homeschool speech and debate team. Initially, he found the public speaking experience nerve-wracking, but he got over that pretty quickly. As he told me:

It didn’t take six months of competing [in debate tournaments] and it became my entire high school…It’s what I loved doing, and I did it all the time.

Not surprisingly, the class he taught at co-op was a speech and debate class.

As you would expect from someone who loves speech and debate, he wanted to be an attorney. He decided to major in biology at Anderson University and then go to law school. As time went on, however, he found that the biology program was largely focused on preparing students for the medical profession, so he switched majors to political science. He ended up graduating in three and a half years magna cum laude as a member of the AU Honors Program. His B.A. is in political science with a minor in biology.

The semester before Robert graduated, an AU chemistry professor asked him to speak to a group of six incoming freshman who were recent homeschool graduates. The professor wanted Robert to share his thoughts on the transition from homeschooling to university. Guess who was one of those incoming freshmen? Hayley Bower! That’s how they met. So you could say that homeschooling is what brought them together.

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