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Week of 1 December 2008


Latest Update: Saturday, 6 December 2008 08:36 -0500

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Monday, 1 December 2008
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07:51 - Here's a sad commentary on the state of science education in Britain. There, as here, the focus is on students' test scores. If those scores start to decline, the obvious solution is to make the test questions easier. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) presents a detailed study (PDF) of what happens when current students are tested using questions from old tests. As expected, their scores are abominable.

The PDF includes the actual test given to these students, as well as their actual scores. The results are not just disappointing but, as the study says, catastrophic. The questions are easy ones, including the questions from the tests given in the 1960's. Any good student, having completed a first-year high school chemistry course, should score very well on this test. If I were a high school chemistry teacher with a class of, say, 30 students, all of whom were destined to go on to university, I'd expect at least two or three of them to score at or near 100% on this test. Another two or three should have scores in the 90's, with perhaps 10 students in the 80's and the remainder in the 70's. Perhaps one or two might score less than 70, which would mean either that I hadn't done my job or, more likely, that these students didn't belong in an academic track.

The actual results are truly catastrophic. Not one of the 1,301 students from the 333 schools involved got 100%. The top 5% of students tested averaged about 60% on questions from the 60's, 70's, and 80's. The top scorer, Nathan Brown, received only 93.8% on the test. A 77.0% score was sufficient to make it into the top ten students of the 1,301 students tested.

Pretty clearly, chemistry is no longer taught in Britain. This is what happens when test scores are the top priority. Teachers teach to the test. Test scores improve, or at least remain static. The students learn nothing. And, lest we become too smug, this is exactly what is happening here in the US with No Child Left Behind.



Today is the first of the month, and I'm going to be working heads-down all month to finish the forensics book. Don't expect much here other than infrequent short posts until the book is complete.


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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
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Thursday, 4 December 2008
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08:35 - I've been reading about the catastrophic problems in Zimbabwe, and it occurs to me that most people think of this as an anomaly. It's not. It's the normal human condition.

That we think of it now as an anomaly rather than as the norm is thanks to those two greatest of human inventions, science and capitalism. And both of those inventions are and have for many years been under unremitting attack by the know-nothings who are the enemies of humanity. If they win, which is not beyond possibility, our children's children's children will find themselves living in a world that makes the hellhole that is now Zimbabwe look like a paradise.

It's time and past time to begin fighting back. Teach your children well. Teach them to recognize ignorance and superstition for what they are, and to fight back with reason and with science. Educate them. Teach them how to think rationally. Give them the tools they need to prevent the coming of a new dark age. Everything depends on it.


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Friday, 5 December 2008
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08:18 - Barbara just left for work, and we won't see her again until Sunday evening. She's going straight from work to her parents' house to pick up her dad for their golf club dinner. She'll sleep over there tonight, because she, her parents, and her sister are all leaving at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow on a bus tour to a Christmas pageant in South Carolina. It's just the dogs and me until Sunday evening. As usual, there'll be wild women and parties.

If we can find any wild women, that is. I haven't had much luck with that on Barbara's past trips. Oh, well. Perhaps we'll have a Firefly marathon instead. Or I may just work.

I finished the equipment chapter for the forensics book and posted it for review. I should finish the chapter on chemicals, consumables, and specimens today. Over the weekend, I'll try to get a good start on the laboratory practices chapter, and perhaps even finish it except for images. Then I'll dive into the lab chapters, which mostly involves rewrite and shooting images. I hope to have the book complete in the next five weeks or so.


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Saturday, 6 December 2008
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08:36 - I think I've found another good source for laboratory equipment and particularly for chemicals.

HMS Beagle: The Ultimate Science Store

I came across this company a couple of years ago. Originally, they produced gorgeous old-fashioned chemistry sets, with furniture-grade wooden cases. I don't think they do that any more, but about six weeks ago they brought up an on-line store that offers a wide variety of home science equipment and chemicals.

I haven't ordered anything from them yet, but I plan to place a small test order soon. I'm particularly excited about some of the chemicals they stock, which aren't readily available elsewhere in small quantities at reasonable prices. Most are reagent grade, but some are lab grade, USP, or even technical grade. They stock some really hazardous stuff, including arsenic(III) oxide (15 g/$12.00), potassium cyanide (30 g/$5.25), and 48% hydrofluoric acid (100 mL/$7.50). They even stock 48% hydrobromic acid (25 mL/$6.15). They also carry a reasonable range of basic organics, although there are quite a few missing that you'd expect to be there.

Obviously, they're still having some teething pains with their shopping cart system. For example, "chemicals" is one item with 500+ entries, although they do allow you to search by first letter. Even so, you'll have to do a lot of scrolling to get to the chemical you want, and the site is pretty slow. Also, they badly need cross-referencing by alternate names. They use IUPAC naming, so for example you won't find "acetic acid" in their list. Instead, you have to know to look for "ethanoic acid", which is the IUPAC proper name. Same thing for such common chemicals as acetone and isopropanol.

Despite those minor criticisms, this looks like a great source for stuff that's difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. I'm in the closing stages of the home forensics book, so I'm busier than the proverbial one-armed paper hanger. That means it'll probabably be February before I get around to placing my small test order, because I have to figure out what I need, which means planning some lab sessions that I couldn't do before because there was no readily available source for the chemicals.


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Sunday, 7 December 2008
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