What the Fudge


Session 1: Epistemology

10 min discussion: Here’s a question, What is a question.
How do we know? voice inflection, etc.

5 min activity: How do we know what we know.
Offer a list of facts, and get ideas about how we know. e.g. We all exist. The sun will rise tomorrow. The earth revolves around the sun. We are made of atoms.

10 min writing activity: Making a question.
Take a statement of fact, add who what when why where how etc. to make it a question.

15 min writing activity: Writing Jeopardy
Pairs of teams each write answers to questions, then take turns trying to guess the questions.

5 min full discussion: Good and bad questions.
What makes a good question? What makes a bad question?
Good questions contain a path for their answering and have answers that can be found or tested.  Bad questions are too broad or vague, or ask the unanswerable.

10 min activity: What Questions can’t be answered.
List and collect questions that can’t, for whatever reason, be answered. e.g. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What did George Washington’s breath smell like. What is the biggest turd ever made?

10 min activity: What about questions you wouldn’t want to know the answer to?
List and collect questions we don’t want to know about. e.g. How am I going to die? How does the world’s worst breath smell? What does my sister really think about me?

10 min discussion: What makes good questions good?
They are open ended, they are concise, they lead to answer paths: what ifs as opposed to hows.

15 min activity:  Write a good question.
Collect topics, group into panels to each ask 4 good questions.

10 min final discussion: Choose the best questions.
Describe the next workshop and gather the questions, then as a group, vote on the ones most people want to have answered.

Back pocket: What do you know. What have you heard but can’t believe. What do you believe but have heard was wrong. What do you think everyone else thinks they know but that you think is wrong? How are your parents and teachers full of it?

Session 2: Research

15 min discussion: Review of previous session.
Presentation of sample questions collected by the group.

5 min activity: Team up.
Split up the list among various teams.

15 min activity: Make team names and flags.
Students will vote to name their team, then work together with craft materials to create a team flag.

10 min discussion: Good Google!
Use projector to demonstrate various google features: Image search, Google a day, Boolean search strings: +/-, and/or. Wonderful Wikipedia.

20 min activity: Controversies.
Each team picks from a list of controversies, or suggest their own.  
e.g. MSG/Aspartame/tap water/?? is bad for you. Chem Trails? Sugar causes hyperactivity. Creativity is from the left brain and reason from the right brain.
Teams divide into two sections who each research the same question independently.  Compare answers and vote. Analyze effect on team affiliation on results.

10 min discussion: Valid vs. reliable.
How can we tell who is right. Consider various controversies.

15 min activity: Answering our questions.
Return to list of student questions form the first session. Can any may be answered by research? Teams try to find answers and narrow questions via research.

15 min discussion: Scientific method:
Describe rigorous process: Question. Assumptions. Hypothesis. Testing. Records. Results. Conclusions.
Model based inquiry.
Existence of biases. Use of double blind studies. Limiting and controlling variables. Identify remaining research questions.

15 min activity: Break down questions.
Groups separate elements of questions into discreet elements that can be tested.

20 min discussion: Design experiments.
Select from the potential questions that have not been answered, and identify what variables can be tested, how these tests can be made, and what materials will be needed to do them. Create an experimental plan for next session.

Session 3: Experiment

Note: Materials and processes needed will have been pre-determined by staff in analysis of previous work to allow students to do an experiment to answer a question from the previous sessions.

5 min activity: Watch Mythbuster video.

10 min discussion: What did Jamie and Adam do?
Decode the scientific method form what was done in the video.

10 min: Divide into teams.
Specific roles and will be divided among the teams:
Lab Book team will record the conditions and results in a Lab notebook.
Videographers will record images and sound.
Principal investigators will oversee and make crucial decisions.
Lab techs teams:
manipulate materials.
make measurements.
safety monitors.

30 min activity: Set up experiment.
Distribute gear, demonstrate use, and set up.

15 min activity: Run first round of testing.

10 min discussion: Analyze results.

15 min activity: Adjust parameters and retest.
The whole session will be devoted to following through on the experimental plan and duplication repeating and modifying it as many times as possible while rotating team members.

20 min discussion: Final analysis and Conclusion.
Group discussion of results and conclusions. Suggestions for further improvement of the experiment and new questions it may have brought up.

A video of the testing should be cut each week, posted and provided for download by the students.

© Nesdon Booth 2013


18 thoughts on “What the Fudge

    1. Well, I do start with “We all exist.” The bigger problem, from my experience with the zombie apocalypse workshop, will be that scientific thinking is a little hard to come by among the humanities-heavy 826 volunteer pool.

      We were playing a cool zombie simulation, where we had a bunch of variables we could adjust. I coaxed my team into doing working on an initial cost-benefit analysis where we altered each individual variable independently at equal costs, and then ran the simulation 5 times and took an average. Everyone else was like, ‘how about this: a=x, b=y c=z?’ And then just wanted to see whose guess won, and cheered if theirs did.

      Training the tutors will be the biggest challenge. Julius made a valiant effort, but almost all of them revealed a certain antipathy. The priority, rightly so, of 826 is FUN. If we get more in great, if not, at least there is a wedge that opens their hearts to the joy of learning, a value you can tell is being eroded in many of their classrooms.

  1. I wasn’t clear that this was targeted specifically at 826. Science as a way of knowing is certainly the most critical skill to develop in the kids. But there’s also the requisite skill of questioning dogma, even scientific dogma. Dancing with the ponderable unknowables every now and again is a good reality check on reality..

    1. I recently added the middle session about doing online research. In my initial thinking about the subject, I wanted it all to be empirical, in an effort to foster the understanding that everything science has to offer to the edifice of the human knowledge has been based in empirical evidence and not authority.

      But I realized that this ability to question and sort information and dogma becomes an increasingly important skill in kid’s media-saturated lives. In the Rolling Stone article (excellent BTW) about Jahar Tsarnaev, they quote a salon client of his mother Zubeidat: “During one facial session, she says, Zubeidat told her she believed 9/11 was a government plot to make Americans hate Muslims. ‘It’s real,’ she said. ‘My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet.'” I hear this all the time. The other thing I hear all the time is that Wikipedia is garbage, a comment which itself is garbage. People are drowning under this avalanche of information, and learning how to deal with it critically is starting to feel equally as important as understanding what science is.

      I read this good if flawed article by Steven Pinker in the New Republic http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities about ‘scientism.’ I’m not at all for taking on the trope, especially since in its name, he makes some glaring and common errors about scientific dogma: “We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago.” But, I’m solidly in the panspermia camp believing that the statistics and timeline can’t support the evolution of even the simplest biotic structures in the short time available after the cooling of the earth, and think it more likely that the process must have occurred over a much longer time on a number of planets. I suspect the early rise, ubiquity and long term stability of the of archebacterial population on on the early earth is evidence that Pinker’s statement is false, a strong argument against scientism.

      Sadly, what I judge to be an appropriate level of skepticism, is too rare, even in the scientific community, let alone middle schoolers. So, given that we cannot run all the experiments ourselves, we often end up needing to rely on reputation, a scary proposition. I am still evolving on how we need to address this confirmation bias problem, which we are all too susceptible to. I think Jeff Bezos may have made a great deal in buying the Washington Post when I realized I would be much more likely to accept the validity of a Washington Post story over a New York Post one. Reputation feedback was after all the key in making ebay work.

      1. Hear what you’re saying about panspermia. The real ‘missing links’ are the ones between amino acids and cells.

        Nonetheless I don’t think we’re really in any position to evaluate the relative probabilities of cellular life emerging here vs blowing here on a comet or meteorite. It seems entirely possible that an entirely different self-replicating system that is no longer evident (or that we are yet to detect) provided the organisational scaffolding to boot prebiotic chemicals into life.

        One theory I find intriguing is that the first ‘life’ on this planet was actually an ecosystem of complex, self replicating patterns in tidal clays that eventually evolved carbon based systems as augmentation (perhaps to preserve data against environmental extremes to enable ‘reseeding’ of particular kinds of clay bed organisation). The carbon based stuff eventually went feral (in a manner akin to how RNA viruses are believed to have split away from DNA based cellular organisms) and by appropriating resources and modifying their own environment eventually destroyed the ecological niches that enabled their silicon based forbears to exist.

      2. I think at least some of the appeal of the panspermia theory comes from the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy and is defeated by the weak anthropic principle (i.e. Panspermia still posits that the apparently incredibly unlikely emergence of cellular life must have happened somewhere, it merely says its more likely if you have a whole galaxy to play with rather than just one planet. But we are only asking about the origin of life because it does exist on this planet and there is no inherent reason it would be less likely to emerge here than anywhere else).

      3. Thanks for the replies cabrogal! I get so few. I converted to the panspermia camp (I always wrote it off as some sort of acid flashback from Timothy Leary) when data came in a few years ago about a massive meterorite bombardment, and its coincidence with the emergence of life and the transition of the planet to a habitable environment all at about 4 billion years ago. It took 2 billion years to get from prokaryotes to eukayrotes, then another billion to get to multicellular, a half a billion to get to complex organisms, and then all the rest of what we tend to think of as actual plants and animals in the last half a billion.

        That is a fairly exponential, and so I would expect the first part, to get from mud bubbles and amino acids to archebacteria should have taken even longer. My hunch at this point is that life has been basically evolving for the whole history of the universe (why shouldn’t it have been?) After all, really, the evolution from H to He to C and Fe, to H2O and H2NCHRCOOH has taken place over time and really can be seen as part of the process.

        The other part is that for all the sense of the immensity of the universe and the great distances between stars, they really are not all that great in the context of geologic time. The nearest star system to earth is in fact only about an 10 solar system diameters away, and the galaxy is only about 20 times bigger than that. 100,000 light year diameter of the galaxy just isn’t that far given these millions of years in which we measure evolutionary time. Our solar system is orbiting around the galaxy, and likely completes a revolution every 200 million years. Ten times around between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, wow! All this means that almost any lump of stuff floating in our galaxy would have a pretty good chance of ending up on earth.

        The theory of an earthly origin of life seems to me like just another of our silly self-centric biases. It seems from all this so much more likely that ‘we’ took, say, 1 billion years to cell membranes on alpha whatever until it crashed into beta whatever and ejected frozen some mud bubble globs for 5 million years across interstellar space to delta whatever where we spent another billion getting to amino acids…. and so on.

        So for me it’s not so much the space available in the whole galaxy, but the time needed.

      4. I see a few problems with accepting panspermia on that basis.

        Firstly, you would expect such a massive bombardment to have knocked any pre-extant life back to a few isolated niches and eradicate evidence of its prior prevalence.

        Secondly, we have never seen any evidence of extra-solar meteorites or comets from beyond the Oort cloud, so there is still a big question as to how interstellar life could have both crossed from another solar system and survived the hard radiation, re-entry, etc.

        Thirdly, the universe itself is barely three times as old as the earth, so based on considerations of time alone there is only a 3:1 chance of first life emerging somewhere other than here. When you run that figure through the difficulties of crossing interstellar space and hitting the tiny speck we live on it hardly seems likely there would be better than an even money chance of that explanation over local genesis.

        Finally, I think I dealt with the notion of ‘self-centric’ bias with the Texas Sharpshooter and weak anthropic principle.

  2. Encouraging epistemological questioning is so important to developing critical thinking skills.

    The fact it is so rarely done in our education systems makes me question what the actual purpose of formal education really is.

    1. No kidding! I tend to think it is mostly a process of indoctrination into a shared reality. Critical thinking is in some ways a threat to the consensus of shared values. For most institutions an army of subservient automatons is optimal.

      There is always this horrible tension between stability and growth. We desperately need homeostasis, and yet without change, we would be just a vast global slime field. Oh the horror and yet immense foundational creativity of death.

  3. BTW, if Leary or Alpert had come up with Panspermia while on acid (or Sagan while he was stoned) I’d probably be more likely to give it credence.

    Reason doesn’t always rule, you know ;).

    1. Of course Leary was in prison when he wrote the Starseed transmission, so he probably wasn’t high at the time.

      Thanks so much for the dialogue!

      A number of folks have hypothesized that the energy of the bombardment may have somehow accelerated the process. But to say that there is no evidence of meteorites from outside the Oort cloud is looking at just a few hundred years of analysis of a small number of found extraterrestrial bodies. Our whole solar system clearly coalesced out of the remnants of a previous supernova, possibly interstellar dust from numerous nova. That seems like proof that material from one star system is able to travel to and become incorporated into another star system.

      My take on that 3:1 ratio is that it is three times as likely that life could have evolved elsewhere. The nature of ALH 84001 is not a settled question, and the chance that it does indeed include fossil bacteria, is additional support, of course not validation. Additionally, bacterial spores have been shown to be very very robust, and numerous studies have shown that space travel and reentry are indeed possible.

      More importantly, my instinct about the timing has been evaluated mathematically by Sharov, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1526419/ who follows the same reasoning and using more rigorous biology and math, puts the time required at 9.7 billion years.

      To my mind, panspermia evidence has just kept mounting for the last 200 years. One would think that the various experiments to, e.g show that life could not survive reentry, and all the rest, any of which could have weakened the theory, but none have. The only real evidence for unique earthly biogenesis is that life exists on earth.

      Generally, when a theory and model of a process continues to gain experimental, mathematical and logical support, as panspermia has, one would think its acceptance should increase. The only reason I can think of for the unique earthly origin theory to persist as the conventional wisdom is the self-centric bias, which I find to be more supported than refuted by the sharpshooter fallacy. I’m not sure how you interpret the weak anthropic principle to refute panspermia. To me it is one of the ideas that fundamentally supports it.

      1. Our whole solar system clearly coalesced out of the remnants of a previous supernova, possibly interstellar dust from numerous nova. That seems like proof that material from one star system is able to travel to and become incorporated into another star system.

        Now you’re implying there are organisms that can not only survive being boosted from wherever they evolved, millenia of exposure to hard radiation and near zero temperatures and reentry into planetary atmosphere, but also the explosion of their native star. I can’t imagine what sort of planet borne selection events would lead down that evolutionary path nor that there would have been sufficient novas of life-containing systems in the history of the universe to drive such an evolution.

        I know that balls of bacterial spores have been shown to survive relatively short bursts of hard rads by sacrificing their outer layers, but if there is any research hinting at how they could do this long enough to cross between stars I’d appreciate a link.

        If there is such a lifeform that could survive what you’re talking about methinks it would have to be very different to ‘life as we know it’ (crystalline perhaps? And not just the protein coat, it would have to be virtually the entire organism). DNA would almost certainly denature back to amino acids long before it crashed onto a planetary surface.

        If we really evolved from something that different, the clay hypothesis would be considerably more conservative.

        Seems to me that Sharov is drawing a lot of long bows with his genomic clock model of evolution. I’ve got a bit of background in population genetics and I see this sort of thing all the time as people try to ‘prove’ migration hypotheses based on genetic drift of non-coding DNA in humans and they come up with wildly differing estimates – and that’s just in one species. Indian geneticists are quite fond of using this method to ‘prove’ that various Indian populations have been living in India for longer than the human race has existed (even since before the breakup of Gondwanaland!).

        ALH 84001 is not the first meteorite to ‘show evidence of fossil bacteria’ and while I don’t have anything like the expertise to evaluate the claims made for it I can’t help noting that none of the previous claims have panned out.

        The reason the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy applies to the notion that local genesis is self-centric is because we already know that life exists on this planet. To draw a bullseye around it and declare ‘Wow! What an unlikely shot!’ is precisely the fallacy in question.

      2. Occurs to me I gave an incomplete explanation of why the TSF applies to self-centrism as an argument against local genesis.

        We have no idea how likely it is that life would have arisen on our planet or any others, but we know it exists on ours.

        If we knew of fifty planets containing life and postulated on little or no evidence that ours was the origin it would be self-centric.

        We have 100% evidence that ours contains life and 0% evidence that others do, so to postulate it arose on ours is not self-centric.

      3. I was not at all suggesting that life survived a nova, only trying to refute you claim that only material from the Oort cloud has arrived on earth. It was a only a proof that physical transmission of material from one star system to another obviously has happened, and is therefore possible with other, possibly life-bearing material.

      4. I can only think of three ways life bearing material might escape a stellar system, though I’m sure there’s plenty I haven’t thought of.

        One would be reaching system escape velocity via something like a nova, but it would have to be either extremely robust or heavily shielded.

        Another would be artificial. I wonder if they swabbed down the Voyager and Pioneer probes.

        Spores or something similarly light might be pushed by solar winds, but I can’t see how they would tack ‘upwind’ to enter another system. Maybe they could eventually reach an Oort cloud and piggyback on a comet. That’s how I always envisaged panspermia working but it doesn’t overcome the radiation and re-entry problems. So far nothing more complex than amino acids has been found on a comet to the best of my knowledge, but all of that gummy stuff seems to offer the best hope.

        But I still don’t think panspermia is the most conservative hypothesis for life on earth and I don’t think we have anywhere near enough data to calculate relative likelihood against local genesis.

        I actually think some religious hypotheses are more conservative than panspermia. Not the notion of a biblical style creator being of course, but rather something more like Advaita where consensual/phenomenological reality is some sort of semi-illusory overlay to an organising principle that tends to impose complexity and self-awareness on it.

      5. Yes 100% evidence that we have a bullseye here on earth, but that only looks at earth. If we widen our gaze and consider other evidence, it becomes clear that other hypotheses are valid. To reject those using our obvious and inevitably narrow focus on earth, by saying we have 0 evidence of life elsewhere still seem to me to be falling for the TSF, as we cannot really see very much of elsewhere. The point is there is other evidence. I do not wholly reject unique earthly biogenesis, but I in no way think other hypotheses can be invalidated by TSF or other logical fallacies.

        Funny that we each use the same idea to refute opposite claims. I think to look at earth and say, wow, what a singularly unique event, is exactly TSF.

      6. Funny that we each use the same idea to refute opposite claims. I think to look at earth and say, wow, what a singularly unique event, is exactly TSF.

        And I would agree.

        My point is we literally have no idea how likely local genesis is.

        This could be the only planet in the universe with life or it could be arising independently all over the place. There could be non-DNA/RNA self-replicating systems sharing the planet with us right now that meet the criteria for ‘life’ and that could pass their self organisation onto other mediums under the right conditions.

        You could argue that panspermia is a ‘middle way’ between single genesis here and multiple genesis everywhere but I don’t think that recommends it, especially with the interstellar crossing problem still sitting in the middle of the room.

        Although we may differ on this point, I see no evidence whatsoever for life beyond earth so to suggest it is most likely to have arrived here from outside seems cloud castle stuff to me.

        All we know is that there’s life here.

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