September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Book Review: Napolean’s Buttons

Posted: Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

by Walter O’Brien

Napoleon's Buttons Book CoverThe history of witch-hunts throughout Europe and North America during the 17-century has been well documented. Students across the United States have been taught that witch-hunts stem from a gamut of reasons such as religion and land acquisition. Yet in reality, witch-hunts served as a scapegoat for illnesses and/or natural disasters that were inexplicable at the time. Individuals accused of witchcraft included men, women and children, outcasts or prominent members of society and they consequently faced great danger and were often tortured. In certain recorded situations, those accused of witchcraft were tossed into a body of water and if the accused drowned, they would be deemed innocent; however, if the accused managed to float they would be pronounced guilty and punished further. Le Couteur and Burreson examine the issue of witch-hunts and provide a refreshing scientific reason for why some individuals were branded as witches in the first place. The authors declare that some “witches” were merely herbalists that dabbled in herbal concoctions to alleviate aliments of the time and in reality the first homeopathic remedies can be attributed to individuals branded as witches. The active compounds in herbs affected historical events and phenomena such as witch-hunts, and this message is at the center of their book, Napoleon’s Buttons.

To understand the background of witchcraft, Le Couteur and Burreson adopted an ethnographic and scientific methodology that requires only a minimal amount of background knowledge from the reader. They provide a background story and then present molecular structures with their metabolism and/or properties in order to explain historical events. In the case of witchcraft, the molecules herbalists unknowingly used are now known to be powerful cardiac glycosides, poisons, or psychoactive drugs. The active ingredients in herbs such as foxglove (atropine) and mandrake (scopolamine) produce effects in the body which the user would feel as they are placed “under a spell”. For example, some witches were known to believe they could fly and even induce a trance. The chemical explanation here as presented by Le Couteur and Burreson could be attributed to the physiological effects of certain plant alkaloids such as Lysergic acid (a derivative is known as LSD) and Ergotaminie. These two active ingredients are products of Ergot fungus found in a town’s supply of spoiled rye.

Sixteen other molecules the writers believed influenced historical events, like the ones in witchcraft, are presented in similar fashion.  The emphasis in each episode is how the chemical structure plays a role in its property. Moreover, the emphasis is extended to show how slight changes in the topic molecule can form derivatives with similar properties and uses. Some of these derivatives are molecules that many of us are familiar with such as salt, morphine, cholesterol, and heroin, (just to mention a few), which further fuel the reader’s interest. Information like this makes the book enjoyable because the structures presented are analyzed in a simplified manner for the high school level to adult reader without a chemical background.

Napoleon’s Buttons is a great supplemental book for any high school chemistry student.  A nice aspect to the book is that each chapter is independent of the others.  Thus, I am able to apply, out of order, any chapter in the book to complement the units I teach in the class. For instance, during the bonding unit taught in class, I assign the chapter on salts. Aside from covering the idea of ions and how they form crystal lattice structures, it also explains why in early human civilization salt was as valuable as gold is today. My students concurrently take a history class, and the book also does an excellent job in tapping into their prior knowledge of geographic and historical events.  Evaluation of their reading comprehension is performed through a Socratic seminar (class discussion) followed up by a quiz, essay or student presentation of what they learned.

This book is a must for any chemistry curriculum that needs a literacy component. Its cross-curricular emphasis highlights the importance and influence of chemistry outside the classroom. Use of the book can be tailored for college preparatory to advanced students.

Napoleon’s Buttons: Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Walter O’Brien teaches Chemistry at Santa Fe High School in the Whittier Union High School District and is a member of CSTA.

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.