Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Politics: Safely stupid.

While bemoaning the sad state of science education in this country out one side of its mouth, the federal government is doing everything it can, via its long-running War On Common Sense, to snuff any remaining interest in science among younger kids.

When I was growing up, I ran with the geeks. We all had chemistry sets, made black powder and home-made rockets; the more talented among us went on to lasers and tesla coils and careers in science. Nowadays, however, the national fear of "They Might..." has paralyzed this curiousity in kids. The Consumer Product Safety Commission fears they might make verboten fireworks. The DEA fears they might make crystal meth, or whatever the scary drug du jour is. Liability-conscious school boards across America fear they might poison themselves in the school chemistry lab. And so on.

Just twenty or so years ago, the kid down the street kept himself in soda money by selling his home brewed black powder to the rest of us neighborhood urchins. Eight bucks bought a coffee can full, and you could use it do do all kinds of cool things out in the woods behind the house, mostly involving little rafts in the creek or your little brother's plastic army men. He had researched its manufacture himself, and even figured out how to corn the powder using urine, which greatly increased its potency (even if it did gross out his clientele, once we found out what his new secret ingredient was.) Somehow we all managed to graduate from school with all of our digits intact and, so far as I know, none of us went on to cook meth in Alabama trailer parks, so the possession of home chemistry sets appears to be a fairly benign thing if our experiences are worth anything.

But the .gov knows what we might have done, and for that, today's children are stuck with balloons and soap bubbles instead of bunsen burners and sulfur. Having grown up wearing safety glasses to blow up balloons in "science" class, what will today's kids see as acceptable restrictions on their own future offspring? In the quest for a perfect Nerf World, it appears that the death of scientific curiousity is acceptable collateral damage.

(Big thanks to pax for pointing me at the article.)


Anonymous said...

Yeah, we were always making bombs and such as a kid too. We survived. Little did I know, i could be considered a felon.


Anonymous said...

On the same topic
Check this out...

Physics teacher under fire for gun experiment

Physics teacher under fire for gun experiment
Parent's complaint raises issue about legality of stunt
- Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Every year, physics teacher David Lapp brings his Korean War era M-1 carbine to school, fires a shot into a block of wood and instructs his students to calculate the velocity of the bullet.

It is a popular experiment at Mill Valley's Tamalpais High School, where students are exposed to several unique stunts that Lapp performs in his five classes every year to illustrate inertia, velocity and other complex formulae.

Turns out, it also may be illegal.

It is a felony to bring any rifle, loaded or unloaded, onto a school campus without the written permission of the school district superintendent or his designee, according to Marin County District Attorney Ed Berberian.

Actually firing a gun inside a classroom would, in all probability, be considered a "reckless discharge" and could bring about harsher punishment under Penal Code section 626.9, better known as the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1995.

The problem of guns in schools has been a particularly emotional issue, especially since two students went on a rampage and killed 15 people at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.

Through it all, though, the focus has always been on students with guns. Nobody expected teachers to bring firearms to school.

"I'm hoping that this is not happening in Marin County," said Berberian, who groaned when informed that it was. "If he just did this in an open classroom with a block of wood, there could be ricochets. That in itself would be a presumption of recklessness."

The rifle demonstration would not even be an issue if an anonymous parent had not complained.

Lapp, a former military police officer who has been teaching for 20 years, said it is the first complaint ever lodged against the so-called "ballistic pendulum" experiment, which he contends is completely safe.

The .30-caliber bullet, he said, is fired into a foot-long, 8-pound block of wood hanging by cords from a ceiling mount. The students take measurements of the block's movement and mass and use that information to calculate bullet speed.

He said he fires the shot from point-blank range with all the students standing behind him, so there is no danger of an accident or ricochet. There has never been an injury or close call, he added.

"I've been doing this for years," said Lapp, who skipped two or three years after Columbine. "The students love it. They ask about it very early on in the year. It's one of the more exciting demonstrations."

Exciting is not the word, said Ted Feinberg, the assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists.

"It's just absolute madness, from my point of view," said Feinberg, one of the founding members of the National Emergency Assistance Team, which has responded to most of the school shootings in the country. "It is not only crazy in concept, in light of the world we live in it is absolutely irresponsible."

Feinberg said he is shocked that a teacher would bring a gun to school in the wake of tragedies like Columbine, regardless of the educational purpose.

"Were there not other ways of illustrating whatever physical principles he was trying to demonstrate?" Feinberg asked. "What's the message we are giving bringing a loaded gun into a public setting and firing it off. It's a terrible model to project on students."

Lapp, who served in the Army from 1977 to 1980, became a teacher in 1986. He said he and the former Tamalpais High principal checked the legality of the experiment when he first started doing it around 1992 and determined that there were no laws against it. It has recently been done with the full written consent of Principal Chris Holleran.

Although Bob Ferguson, the current superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District, was unaware of the experiment, both Lapp and Holleran said they believed the ballistic pendulum experiment was legal.

"It is certainly something that one pauses about, but we felt that it was something that was OK because of the educational value," Holleran said. "Most students get a lot out of it. It's an interesting and dramatic example of physics in action."

Holleran said school administrators and the district will review the legality of the experiment and immediately make changes if, in fact, what Lapp is doing is illegal.

Unusual experiments are a hallmark of Lapp's five physics classes, two of which are honors courses. In addition to the ballistics test, Lapp also lies on a bed of nails and invites students to break a cinder block on his chest with a sledge hammer.

"It's a demonstration of Newton's law of inertia," he said.

In another experiment, Lapp cooks a steak in 15 seconds between two sheets of metal that are hooked up to a wall outlet.

"If you were a senior in high school and you were wondering what the relevance of high school was, it would be much more authentic if you measured actual things, like the speed of a bullet," Lapp said. "It lends authenticity to a classroom."

It is not clear what will happen now, but, Holleran said, if the school's approval of Lapp's experiment was a mistake, it was in an attempt to reach out in an innovative way to teenagers.

"He's a terrific teacher who does a lot of wonderful things to bring physics to life," Holleran said. "The students really get a lot out of his class, so we provide him with a lot of latitude. We've never had complaints about (the ballistic pendulum experiment), and it has probably been done in front of 900 to 1,000 students over the years."

Joe Powell said...

An excellent point.

The problem seems to grow from two highly prevalent beliefs: Fear is our most important emotion and Suspicion is our best ally. Both are traits I used to associate with the superstitions of medieval Europe.

I'm waiting for the minds of this generation to eventually implode from the hypocrisy and contradictions.

phlegmfatale said...

This is distressing and--sadly--not at all surprising. The next Thomas Edison will have to be from Calcutta or Istanbul, I suppose. Good thing we already have light bulbs and refrigerated air.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

Meddling sons-of-bitches... I just realized it's these litigious freaks that caused me to run short of supplies in my chemistry setup when I was a young'n.

From Anakeesta rock comes sulfuric acid; from sulfuric acid and time comes just about any chemical you want, purity not guaranteed but darned close.

I can't even really form a good argument right now, our timid little sheep are making me see red.

BobG said...

I was dismayed at that article; many of the chemistry experiments I did as a child would be illegal for me to obtain materials for as an adult these days. Back then it was just assumed that adults did some supervising, and that you didn't give a chemistry set to an irresponsible idiot.

Anonymous said...

From your linked article:

"Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as “commonly associated with meth labs” are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites."

“To criminalize the necessary materials of discovery is one of the worst things you can do in a free society,” says Shawn Carlson, a 1999 MacArthur fellow and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. “The Mr. Coffee machine that every Texas legislator has near his desk has three violations of the law built into it: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker, and a heating element. The laws against meth should be the deterrent to making it – not criminalizing activities that train young people to appreciate science.”

Heh, coffee machines are made illegal in the War on terror/drugs/civil-rights.

al said...

In my sophmore year of high school I had a chemistry teacher who loved to blow things up - usually during a lecture. He always had the classes attention and encouraged us. A few of us took this knowledge and combined it with model rocketry. I guess they were surface to air missles. Lots of fun - esp when the explosion occurred a lot lower than planned... 23 years later my son had a similar teacher. I think she was the last of the breed as my daughters chem teacher isn't much fun. Time to dig out my old books and see what we can do.

This mentality is hitting the shop classes too. I built hammers, screwdrivers, chisels,etc ... all kinds of fun stuff. Forging, grinding, all the fun stuff. Now shop class is cad.

The best way to learn is to do. By taking that away we are hurting the kids and their future.

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school, I had free run of the chemicals, as long as I told the teacher what I was making.

I got extra credit for blowing up our model rockets. I got to make stink bombs and set them off in class for credit. It was fun, and it kept the entire class entertained(scared?).