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Facing Challenges in the Classroom: Brandon Haught

We asked applicants for the NCSE Grand Canyon Teacher Scholarship to explain, in 500 words, how they’ve addressed challenges to the teaching of evolution, climate change, and related issues. Here is part of scholarship winner Brandon Haught’s explanation of how his experience fighting creationism in the Florida board of education differs from the challenge of addressing creationist students’ objections. Haught and Crystal Davis will receive an all-expenses-paid trip down the Grand Canyon, thanks to generous donations from NCSE supporters.


Brandon HaughtI am still early in my teaching career. This is only my second year teaching high school science. In my first year I taught biology, which is a course required for all students to graduate here in Florida. A chunk of that course involves evolution. I thought I was ready for it. Before becoming a teacher, I advocated on behalf of science education via my participation in the stateside organization Florida Citizens for Science. We fought hard during several highly publicized battles over the teaching of evolution in our state’s public schools. Fortunately, we were successful in beating back the anti-evolution groups. I thought this experience would prepare me for teaching teenagers about evolution. It didn’t.

Students come into the classroom with already formed yet half-baked ideas about evolution. They’ve clearly heard about the concept before but not from the most reliable of sources. My job is made more difficult because students are not empty vessels. Their ideas are muddy and sometimes polluted. My first task is to find out what they already know, or think they already know, and then try to clean out the misconceptions. This is by far the most daunting job. Unsurprisingly, some come armed and ready with the old trope of “if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys” or other such ill-informed challenges. Sweeping students clean of such notions without being confrontational is tricky, especially for a brand new teacher. I’m not sure if I’ve been successful. Teens are a skeptical bunch when they have certainty, even if it’s false, planted firmly in their minds. The students in my first year didn’t debate me but some also didn’t seem entirely convinced.

Rafting the Grand Canyon with NCSE will help me hone those skills and brainstorm new approaches for confronting science denial in my classroom.

From The Canyon to the Classroom: Brandon Haught

We asked applicants for the NCSE Grand Canyon Teacher Scholarship to explain, in 500 words, what lessons or knowledge they expected to gain from rafting the Grand Canyon, to enrich their students’, colleagues’, and neighbors’ understanding of evolution, deep time, climate change, and the natural world. Here is part of scholarship winner Brandon Haught’s explanation of what he hopes to bring back from the Grand Canyon to his Orange City, FL, high school. Haught and Crystal Davis will receive an all-expenses-paid trip down the Grand Canyon, thanks to generous donations from NCSE supporters.


Brandon HaughtHands-on training in real-world environments is one of the best ways to learn any subject, especially science. Unfortunately, my Environmental Science high school students are trapped within the confines of the classroom. I can’t make every class a field trip, but I gain valuable experiences any time I can by visiting all the nature museums and events possible so that I can then bring those experiences into the classroom. I was recently on hand to watch rehabilitated sea turtles being treated and released back into the wild. Later, I saw a clear difference in my students when I told them about what I personally saw and shared photos and videos with them. Lessons like that are worlds apart from the textbooks and worksheets they see every day. I pride myself on having real-world know-how from my previous military and law enforcement careers that appeal to the students. It shows that I know what I’m talking about when I tell them about the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. It makes what I say in the classroom more relevant and gives me added authority and credibility.

Climate change and evolution are required subjects in my curriculum. This motivates me to get off the school campus and away from the books and discover ways to get my hands on something meaningful and real. Spending several days in the Grand Canyon, learning from professionals and sharing with peers definitely fits the bill. I’m fortunate to work at a school that values collaboration among teachers. Nearly every day, I am brainstorming, troubleshooting and developing creative ideas with my fellow science teachers and even teachers in other subject areas that we can put to immediate use in the classroom. I would love to share with them anything and everything I learn on the Grand Canyon trip that would help all of us reach and inspire as many students as possible.

Going on NCSE’s Grand Canyon trip will definitely help me educate the wider public in any way I can by sharing with them everything I learn. I am the communications director for the statewide science advocacy organization Florida Citizens for Science, and blog for them and on my own website, sharing tales of Florida creationism past and present and exciting new science. I also have presented many talks to the general public over the past few years at events like Nerd Nite Orlando, and I can easily see myself telling tales from a Grand Canyon trip to audiences everywhere I go. The evidence for evolution is all around us. We just need to show the average Joes where to look.

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Answer Monday

Fossils!

These were the teeth of a xenacanth, genus Orthacanthus: a freshwater shark found from the Devonian to the Permian—400 million years ago to 250 million years ago. Timothy J. Bradley, who wrote and illustrated the excellent children’s book Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest (2007), explains:

Orthacanthus developed an eel-like shape, with a long fin running down its back. Orthacanthus was 10 feet long and had a massive set of powerful jaws, with double-fanged teeth in its wide mouth—perfect for catching the slippery fish and amphibians that swam through the muddy waters of what is now Europe and North America.

I am pleased to be able to give Bradley’s book a little plug. When we corresponded a few years ago, I told him that a young acquaintance enjoyed his book and he kindly sent a sketch of a Helicoprion in reply. See, virtue is rewarded, eventually.

I hope that it helped that I described the Orthacanthus teeth as double-fanged. Most of the pointy bits in the photograph aren’t especially pointy because they’re broken. But hey, let’s see how intact your teeth are after hundreds of millions of years of fossilization.

Congratulations to Dan Coleman for being the first to identify the teeth’s owner, if amid a series of three suggestions, and a tip of the bicuspid hat to Dan Phelps for providing the photograph.

In the Classroom: A Scientist’s-Eye View

My day as a “scientist in the classroom” was a fun, collaborative experience with Robin Bulleri, an energetic AP Biology teacher, and her awesome class. Once we were connected through NCSE’s Scientists in the Classroom program, Robin and I discussed what aspect of evolution I would cover with her class. As a visiting scientist, we decided it made the most sense for me to talk about the tools and evidence that scientists use to study evolution.

In the classroom, I presented information on how scientists use the fossil record, extant species, and DNA evidence to build phylogenetic trees. In the process I touched upon some bigger concepts in evolution (e.g. homology) and talked about evidence of evolutionary processes observable within our lifetime (e.g. pesticide resistance in some insect species). Since her students had been studying evolution for a couple weeks before my visit, they were quick to offer their ideas and suggestions when I posed questions. I had come across a group of science-savvy young people!

For the classroom activity, the students worked in groups to construct phylogenetic trees using an imaginary animal called Caminalcules. The activity, which I found on the nifty resource bank on NCSEteach’s website, required students to think through several challenging concepts surrounding relatedness. One of the main challenges of the exercise was piecing together the incomplete fossil record while also considering which species were still extant. It was rewarding to weave around the classroom and answer questions as students puzzled over the project and worked together to complete the phylogenetic tree. This was my favorite part of the classroom visit because it allowed for me to get to know the students on a personal level and answer their insightful questions about the activity at hand, as well as what it is like to be a scientist.

Beyond the topic of evolution, I also spent a portion of my time in the classroom talking about my life as a scientist. As I described my field of work and specialty, I incorporated the day to day questions and thought processes that all scientists go through in order to “do science”.  My goal was to broaden their ideas of what scientists do, how they do it, and even what they look like (i.e. not just an older gentleman).  Finally, I touched on my own academic path, which was circuitous at times, to show them that it is not essential to have a defined career path at the beginning of college.  Rather, I encouraged them to let their interests guide their academic journey. Interestingly, this aspect of my visit piqued the interest of several students. They asked a lot of questions about local institutions and the science and engineering degree programs available. Who knows, maybe I’ll be having some of the students join me at North Carolina State soon!

Scientists in the Classroom was a really fun opportunity for me to dip my toes into teaching, contribute to evolution education, and connect with educators and students within my community. This journey isn’t over quite yet; Robin and I have continued to work together into the spring!

Allison Camp is a graduate student studying Environmental Toxicology at North Carolina State University. She was a part of the Scientists in the Classroom pilot program and is an enthusiastic supporter of science education in her community.

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What We’re Reading

We Can Do It!From http://climate.nasa.gov/blog/2438

Some mind-numblingly painful non-science below. Indeed, from one of the items: “It’s quite an achievement, really, to be so wrong i[n] so many ways on so simple a subject in so few words.” Feels like there’s a lot of that going around lately……

On the other hand, Susan Hassol, interviewed on a NASA blog below, says there are plenty of reasons for optimism, and we need to make sure to give people reason to believe that we can tackle climate change. We’ve cleaned up our messes before—remember “Burn on, big river, burn on”? Well, the Cuyahoga is no longer flammable. So chin up, and get to work!

  • Global Warming Feels Quite Pleasant The New York Times, April 21, 2016 — Global warming has made the weather overall more pleasant in the US over the past few years, making Americans more lethargic over climate change.  Will a drastic change in weather be needed for people to act? 
  • A Day with Ken HamSlate.com, April 25, 2016 — The formidable Zach Kopplin, winner of NCSE’s Friend of Darwin award, reports on his experience attending one of Creation Museum founder Ken Ham’s “Vision Conferences.” That vision is decidedly idiosyncratic and resolutely anti-evolution. Most alarming, it appears that public school trips to the Creation Museum, a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, are continuing to happen. You won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Ham doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state.
  • 10 Astounding Moments in a Creationist Textbook: Revis[i]ting Of Pandas and People, Poppycock, April 25, 2016 — Prompted by the acquisition of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics by the Discovery Institute, Carrie Poppy offers a listicle about FTE’s most infamous publication, Of Pandas and People, the “intelligent design” textbook at the center of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.
  • Why Creationists Are Out of Time With History and Science, The Guardian, April 27, 2016 — Paleontologist Dave Hone is unimpressed with creationist misunderstanding and misuse of his work on pterosaurs. “It’s quite an achievement, really, to be so wrong i[n] so many ways on so simple a subject in so few words.”
  • We’re Over Being Bummed About Climate Change and Ready for Solutions, NASA Global Climate Change, April 28, 2016 — Oceanography teacher and NASA science blogger, Laura Faye Tenenbaum interviews climate communication expert Susan Hassol about flipping the message about climate change from doom to zoom: No question, climate change is an enormous challenge but there’s a lot to be positive and optimistic about. And the sooner we get to work, the less it will cost.
  • Unfriendly ClimateTexas Monthly, May 2016 — “Texas Tech’s Katharine Hayhoe is one of the most respected experts on global warming in the country. She’s also an evangelical Christian who is trying to connect with the very people who most doubt her research. Too bad the temperature keeps rising.”
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