May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.