September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.