The Home Scientist Continues!

“RickH” here. I’ve been working with the new owner of The Home Scientist (Ben Siciliano) to rebuild the web site and move it to a new hosting place.

If you have followed along with Barbara’s blog, you might have noticed that Barbara and Ben have come to an agreement for Ben to take over The Home Scientist business. I’ve been working with Ben to get the site rebuilt with new design and some content changes. Most of the changes have been in the ‘back-end’, using PHP functions for commonly-used items to allow those items to be more easily changed.

There will also be a new customer support forum (not quite ready yet) for customers.

The site is available to you, gentle readers (and lurkers), for a ‘beta read’. If you could take a look at the pages to make sure the content looks consistent, and try out the “Buy Now” buttons (make sure you cancel the order on the PayPal checkout page), that would be helpful. You can use the Contact page on the site for any issues or comments.

The new site is currently at . I’d appreciate if you spending a few moments to poke around the site.

Here’s the announcement that will appear on the site (once per day).

I would like to formally announce that The Home Scientist is under new ownership!

Since 2011, the Thompsons have produced a line of high quality, high value science kits in chemistry, biology, and forensic science. To honor their tradition of service, we will continue to offer these kits, which as you’re probably aware, had been created to provide a meaningful laboratory experience for students and enthusiasts – something increasingly difficult to come by these days.

Over the next several weeks, we will be re-stocking the complete line of kits and making it easier for you to obtain technical support for the experiments covered. We’ll also be starting a new customer support forum area.

We’ll be making some changes to the look of this site as we move to our new hosting platform, but our products will still have the same high quality. We thank you in advance for your patience, and welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Please use the Contact Us page for questions or comments.

I’m looking forward to being of service.


Ben Siciliano, the new owner of TheHomeScientist LLC

Ben is restocking all the kits, and hopes to have them all ready by the end of the month.

Thanks for your help on being a ‘beta reader’. And thanks to Ben for agreeing to continue The Home Scientist as Robert and Barbara intend.



Saturday, 24 May 2014

08:17 – The morning paper ran an article about the North Carolinians for Home Education annual conference that’s currently running in Winston-Salem. The article mentioned that North Carolina is a “homeschool friendly” state, which is kind of true. North Carolina is friendlier to homeschooling than many states, but it’s by no means in the top rank. Some states have no requirements at all for homeschooling, not even requiring notification of intent to homeschool. North Carolina requires notification to register a home school. The requirements are not onerous, but they do exist.

What surprised me was the number of registered homeschools in Forsyth County: 1,600 of them. That means that 1,600 families in this county are homeschooling. Some homeschool families homeschool only one child, but many have two or more learning at home. One homeschool family that lives down the street from us has four or five kids being homeschooled, and that’s not an unusual number. I think it’s safe to assume that the average homeschool family has at least two kids being homeschooled. That means there are 3,000+ students being homeschooled in Forsyth County. ISTR that Forsyth County has about 50,000 students in public schools, which means homeschooler students here are 6% or so of total students.

This fast-increasing percentage of homeschoolers doesn’t bode well for public schools. On average, homeschool students dramatically outperform public school students by every measure. That’s not because home schools are “better” than public schools. It’s because there’s self-selection going on. Brighter kids are much more likely to be homeschooled than average or slow kids, simply because brighter kids are much more likely to have bright parents, who in turn are much more likely both to care about their kids’ education and to have the resources to take on homeschooling. What we’re watching is the dumbing down of public schools, as they lose many of their best students to homeschooling. If this trend continues and accelerates, which I suspect it will, public schools are going to end up being warehouses for average and below-average students, with most of the above-average and really bright kids being homeschooled or attending private schools.

10:36 – Speaking of reasons why any sane parent who is able to do so homeschools their kids or sends them to private school, take the case of poor Gwendolyn Williams. She’s eight years old. She stands 4’1″ (125 cm) tall and weighs 66 pounds (30 kilos).

The New York City Department of Public Education is very concerned about overweight kids. They send notes home with the kids to report to the parents on their weight status. They tell the kids not to look at the notes, but of course nearly all of them do. Gwendolyn’s note reported that she is fat, which of course horrified her. This was not a mistake, you understand. The NYC DPE honestly believes this little girl is fat, not that they are in any way qualified to have an opinion. They base their judgment on BMI, which has been known for decades to be worthless. But they accomplished what they apparently intended to accomplish: they now have this little girl and presumably tens of thousands of others believing they are “fat”. Way to go folks. I wonder how many cases of anorexia nervosa they’ll cause. Not to mention how many little girls will have their self-images destroyed for no reason. Here’s a better image of Gwendolyn than they used in the article. She looks to me like a normal little girl, with a stick-like figure. Only a moron could believe that this little girl is “fat”. But I’m sure that the NYC DPE has lots and lots of morons on staff.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

07:58 – The main headline in this morning’s paper was N.C. students not as ‘college ready’ as peers

The results from spring 2012 are in. The average score of North Carolina public high school juniors taking the ACT dropped from 21.9 the previous year, which was a full point above the national average, to 18.7, which was dead last. In fairness, the article did point out that this drop was expected, and why. In 2011, only about 20% of public high school juniors took the test; in 2012 100% of the juniors were required to take it. Obviously, the average is going to be much lower if you test all students than if you test only the top quintile.

The article also pointed out that white and Asian students have higher average scores than black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, but it failed to draw the obvious conclusion. Comparisons between states are meaningless unless those results are normed to take into account both the percentage of students who take the test and the racial makeup of the tested population. States whose students are primarily white and Asian are going to have better averages than states with significant percentages of black, Hispanic, or American Indian students.

Less obviously, the percentage of students in a given state who are home-schooled has a disproportionate effect on average public high school test scores. Home schooled students are, on average, much brighter than public school students. There’s self-selection going on. Homeschooling drains the best students from public schools. I don’t have the data at hand, but I’d be willing to bet that if homeschooled students from across the US were grouped and treated as a separate state, their average scores would put them not just first of all states, but far, far above whichever state ranked second.

Most colleges and universities now recognize the reality that homeschool students are the best of the best. Only a few years ago, many colleges were leery of homeschool students because they lacked public school transcripts. Now, many colleges and universities, including many of the most prestigious, are actively recruiting homeschool students.

13:49 – Oh, yeah. A couple of very important things about homeschooling and standardized test scores that I forgot to mention in my earlier post. First, students who’ve been homeschooled for only a year typically average 59th percentile on test scores. Students who’ve been homeschooled for several years or longer typically average 90th to 93rd percentile. Second, for homeschooled students, racial disparities in standardized test scores begin narrowing quickly even after only one year of homeschooling. After two or more years of homeschooling, racial disparities in standardized test scores essentially disappear. That is a truly damning indictment of public school systems.

Monday, 8 July 2013

07:41 – Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. I asked Paul about the lab skills of incoming freshmen chemistry students, and he said that with very few exceptions they pretty much didn’t have any. Many of them are very bright kids. They easily grasp the theory, but they’ve never had any hands-on lab work to speak of so they’re clueless about how to do even simple procedures. Paul mentioned one first lab class where they were doing simple procedures that he said either of us would have finished in half an hour. Hours later, the kids were still struggling and nowhere near finished. He finally just told them to go home. Paul particularly remembered one boy, who was extremely bright but had no practical experience. Paul was horrified to find the boy weighing out a chemical by transferring it directly to the pan of the scale rather than using a weigh paper or boat. He asked the boy how he planned to get the chemical off the scale. Presumably by inverting the scale to dump the chemical.

When I was doing high-school and undergrad chemistry, we spent much, much more time in lab than kids do nowadays. That’s probably a result of both costs and concerns about safety. Many public schools nowadays have limited or no lab facilities and the cost of materials is a big hurdle for most of them. A year-long highschool chemistry course in many public schools provides little or no actual hands-on lab work. Students watch demonstrations. If they’re lucky, it’s the teacher doing an actual demonstration, but increasingly it’s demonstration videos. As I’ve said, that’s kind of like trying to learn to drive a car by watching a video of someone else doing it.

Homeschoolers generally do better, but still devote too little time to hands-on lab work. A typical homeschool chemistry course may devote one day every two weeks to lab work. When one of them asks me, I recommend that they average spending 40% to 50% of their time on lab work, call it two sessions or more a week. And I also recommend that they reverse the usual prioritization. Instead of making textbook lecture first priority and filling in any remaining time with lab work, devote as much time as necessary to getting through all the labs and then use whatever time is left over for lectures. Their kids will be better prepared for college science. They’ll hit the ground running.

Yesterday and overnight, we had almost 3 inches (7.5 cm) of rain. Another month’s worth of rain in one day. Things are getting a bit soggy around here.

11:25 – I’m filling some containers with chemicals that are hazardous or obnoxious, or both. These are ones that I won’t let Barbara deal with. I just finished a batch of thirty 25 g bottles of sodium dithionite. It’s hazardous because it’s a spontaneously flammable solid, and it’s obnoxious because it reeks to high heaven. The odor isn’t intense or immediately obvious, but it’s persistent and it smells like something died.

Next up is filling a bunch of polypropylene RIA vials with 500 mg each of crystal iodine. It’s nasty stuff, a strong corrosive. It’s not as bad as bromine, which in turn isn’t as bad as fluorine, but it’s still pretty bad. Not something I want to get on my skin, so I’ll wear nitrile gloves. Which should tell you something, because I usually don’t wear gloves to handle the big three concentrated mineral acids–hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric. But iodine is corrosive enough that I won’t take chances with it. Put it this way: one time I was weighing out iodine to make up iodine-iodide solution and made the mistake of using a chrome-plated steel spatula. As I transferred the iodine crystals from the spatula to the weigh boat, I noticed that the spatula was no longer chrome-plated where the iodine had contacted it.

After that, I’ll fill a bunch of polypropylene RIA vials with 500 mg each of ninhydrin, which isn’t particularly hazardous but is another of the chemicals I won’t let Barbara handle. Ninhydrin is used to visualize latent fingerprints. It reacts with skin oils to form an intense purple dye. Which means it also stains skin an intense purple color, which stains aren’t easily delible.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

08:31 – In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, I wonder how many more parents have decided to pull their kids out of public school and homeschool them. Parents homeschool for many reasons, but the safety of their children is certainly an important factor for many of them.

A lunatic shooting up the place is by no means the only danger to students. Such incidents grab the world’s attention, but they are extremely rare. As someone commented in a newspaper article this morning, the probability of a child being a victim in a mass school shooting is considerably lower than the probability of that child being killed by a lightning strike. What’s unfortunately commonplace, even in “good” schools, is children being bullied, beaten up, extorted, threatened by gangs, and exposed to alcohol and drugs. Is it any wonder that more and more parents are choosing to homeschool their kids?

Saturday, 19 November 2011

09:04 – Barbara and I are about halfway through the seven seasons of Despicable Housewives on Netflix streaming. In what I think is a first for me, I like most of the male characters, but with the exception of Andrea Bowen in a supporting role as Julie Mayer I can’t stand any of the women characters. They’re stupid, greedy, whining, phony, lying, weasely, cheating, stealing, murdering scum. Literally. I don’t understand why the male characters don’t just strangle all of them.

Last night, we watched a couple episodes about a tornado hitting the fictional Wisteria Lane and the aftermath. Those were pretty powerful episodes, particularly since just a couple days earlier a real tornado devastated an area in a county that adjoins ours. As Barbara said, the devastation on the TV show looked exactly like the newspaper photos of that town just down the road from us. She also said that from now on when we’re under a tornado warning, we’re going to head for the basement.

11:30 – For all I complain about public schools and NCLB, there are occasional success stories. For example, the Dallas News reports on the stunningly good math and reading test scores achieved by third-grade pupils at Field Elementary school. There was a minor downside, though. They achieved those high math and reading test scores by devoting essentially all of their effort to teaching these kids math and reading, which of course meant they had to skip science and other subjects almost entirely. Not to worry, though. The kids still got grades in those other subjects. Of course, those grades were faked, sometimes assigned by teachers who’d never even taught the subjects in question. If I had school-age children, I’d do whatever it took to either homeschool them or get them into private schools. I don’t believe public schools–any public schools–can any longer be trusted to educate kids.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

08:45 – Merkel has gotten the most favorable court decision she could have hoped for. The German court ignored the law and decided not to drive a stake through the heart of the Euro. Although the Maastricht Treaty explicitly forbids the EU itself or any member nation from assuming responsibility for the debts of any other EU nation or nations, the court ruled that bailouts using German taxpayer funds were legal. The court’s only figleaf, and it’s a small one, is that the founding treaty made an exception for member nations providing short-term aid to other EU nations in the event of natural disasters. Treating massive and ongoing fiscal irresponsibility by the weaker EU nations as a “natural disaster” is legally questionable, to say the least, but at least the decision allows the Euro to live for another day. Ordinary German citizens, at least most of them, are disgusted by what they see as the court approving ongoing transfers of their money to wastrel southern-tier EU nations. Merkel’s party has lost the last six elections in a row, and I suspect German voters will show their fury at this decision in the next election.

PZ Myers doesn’t much like homeschooling, but he’s posted a link to an excellent resource for home schoolers: Information falling from the skies! Right into your hands!

Monday, 29 August 2011

08:58 – As regular readers know, I’m no friend of either government or religion, which I consider to be twin plagues on humanity. Either on its own is bad enough; the two working together have historically been the single greatest threat to human rights. As you might expect, I’m a strong advocate of the separation of church and state.

So it may surprise you that I’m also a strong advocate of school voucher programs, despite the fact that these vouchers are often used to support religious schools. This morning, I read an article in the paper about a small school voucher program in Indiana, only about 3,000 students, that’s being decried as the apocalypse by public schools. Then, when I flipped to the editorial page, I found an article by George Will about a school choice program in Castle Rock, Colorado.

These stories have the same thread in common. In both cases, opponents have introduced the red herring of church-state separation. In both cases, religion has nothing to do with the issue, other than peripherally. The real issue is that public schools–whose employees are grossly overpaid, grossly underworked, and grossly underperforming–live in fear of having to compete with private alternatives. They understand that, given the choice, parents will opt for superior schools provided by the free market. There go their ridiculously high salaries and benefits, not to mention their job security. They’re fully aware that they can’t compete.

My solution to this problem has always been simple: establish school voucher programs without limitations on the number of students eligible. Make them dollar-for-dollar programs. Parents who wish to enroll their children in private schools receive a voucher in the amount of the average amount spent per student in the public schools, including facilities costs. That amount is deducted from the amount provided to the public schools. And homeschoolers should be eligible to cash these vouchers up to, say, three students worth, to help stay-at-home moms and dads who are educating their own children at home.

If such programs were widely implemented, the results are predictable. Public schools would wither. The only students who would attend public schools would be those whose parents don’t care enough to seek better alternatives for their children. The overall educational level of children would soon show huge gains, since private schools and home schools are demonstrably hugely superior to public schools. The total cost of education would plummet as public schools died and the voucher amount was adjusted downward to reflect reduced costs.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that such programs would also nearly eliminate home schooling in the current sense. Many, probably most, parents who currently home school their own children would not do so if they could instead send their children to schools that they approved of. Traditional private schools, religious and secular, would initially grow by leaps and bounds, but alternative small private schools would also thrive. Most of these alternative private schools would be founded by homeschoolers who really enjoyed what they were doing and were good at it. Instead of educating just their own children, they’d begin educating other children as well, and eventually become actual schools.

Of course, the teachers’ unions and state government education departments will do everything they can to prevent this from happening. We see that now, with artificial restrictions and regulations enforced on home schoolers to prevent the homeschool phenomenon from developing further. In many states, for example, it would be illegal for a homeschool family to hire my friend Paul Jones, a chemistry professor at Wake Forest University, to come in and teach chemistry to their children. Those state laws consider the parents qualified to teach their own children, but do not consider Dr. Jones qualified to teach them. Similarly, many state laws prohibit a homeschool mom or dad from teaching other people’s children, once again to prevent small private alternative schools from flourishing. At the behest of teachers’ unions and other self-interested parties, many states have ridiculous health, environmental, and facilities regulations for any school that teaches students from more than one family. Again, those have nothing to do with the safety of or quality of education for the students themselves. They’re there only to protect entrenched public education interests.

That’s why I’m encouraged every time I read an article about good things happening for home schoolers and the advance of school choice.

Saturday, we shipped the last two chemistry kits we had in stock. We now have another dozen and a half in the final stages of assembly and have gotten started on the next batch of two dozen. We’ll ship outstanding orders tomorrow or Wednesday.

11:02 – At least some of the MSM are starting to catch on…

Eurozone crisis: ‘I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C!…’ Click, and out

Ordering for more kits

As we headed for the post office this morning to ship more kits, Barbara pointed out that I’d better get off my butt and get more components ordered. So that’s what I’ve been doing this morning, ordering components for five dozen more kits.

Well, five dozen in terms of most components. In some cases, I’m buying enough for many more. For example, I just ordered $106 worth of 650 mg sodium bicarbonate tablets and 500 mg vitamin C tablets, which is enough for probably 150 kits. What the heck.  A $99+ order got me free shipping, and I’m going to need the stuff anyway.

As of now, we’re shipping four or five kits a week, which is actually a lot more than I expected at this point. Early summer is a dead time for science kit orders, and we’ve just started to get the word out. For most people, such kits aren’t impulse purchases. They need to think about it for a while, determine how it’ll fit into their curriculum, and so on. I expect the pace to pick up in mid- to late August and continue at a higher level through September and well into October. I don’t want to have to backorder, but on the other hand I don’t want to be covered up in components and assembled kits. Five dozen at a time, we can handle.

What really scares me is knowing that when the home biology book is published, we’re going to get a flood of orders for the biology kit, probably a couple hundred or more in the first couple of weeks, and possibly 100 a week or more for quite some time. I’ll talk to Barbara about that, but right now I’m thinking about pre-building at least 100 biology kits and keeping components in stock for a couple hundred more. There are obviously inventory storage and working capital issues, although fortunately nothing in the kits will have a short shelf life.

Lab day

I need to schedule a lab day or two, but I keep putting it off. That’s because this won’t be lab work in the good sense–running experiments–but in the bad sense, making up solutions and other boring routine stuff. I mean, it’s pretty hard to get excited about making up a liter of 100X Chalkley’s medium concentrate or aceto-orcein stain. But it has to be done.

Which of course is why science kits are such a wonderful thing for homeschoolers. Sure, they could make up all the stuff they needed, or buy it piecemeal, but either of those is both time-consuming and very expensive relative to just purchasing a kit that contains what they need.