May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Caveat Lector: The Perils of Critical Thinking for Today’s Students

Posted: Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

by Kevin Raskoff and George I. Matsumoto

The world has changed remarkably for our students, with information more readily available, easier to find, and of increasingly poorer quality than at any time in history. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics are receiving more attention in the classroom and the new Next Generation Science Standards1 (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards2 (CC) focus on deeper understanding and application of concepts rather than memorization. Critical thinking and problem solving have been outlined as essential components of both NGSS and CC, and being able to demonstrate understanding by asking and answering questions is core to these new benchmarks.

In today’s fast-moving world of the internet and social media, the time spent in libraries researching material has disappeared except, perhaps, in the minds of educators. Textbooks are increasingly shifting to electronic versions and students are being flooded with information – but how do they learn to evaluate this information? Caveat lector is Latin for “let the reader beware.” Many students have learned to visit fact-checking websites like Snopes, Politifact, and Skeptical Science to learn if a rumor or story that they have read is based in fact. However, it is surprising to find how naive some students are in terms of believing what they read on the internet – especially given the finding that students (8-18 years) are spending enormous amounts of time with electronic media – averaging more than 7.5 hours a day3.

Despite this familiarity with media, students often are surprised to find that there are purposely disingenuous websites when they are asked to evaluate websites for veracity or bias4,5. Add to this the finding that more and more jobs, at all levels – not just science – require knowledge of STEM6,7. All of this points to a need to train students to critically evaluate what they are reading, to be able to find, identify, and understand primary literature, and realize that publicly edited resources, such as Wikipedia are not a valid primary reference (although they can be a good place to start for many STEM topics). In an electronic culture where gut feeling or “Truthiness8” reigns, what we need are students who will strive to question the sources of their information– especially for topics that are not clearly defined or understood, or are being “debated” due to some bias (political, economic, etc.). We would like students to be able to engage in a multi-step process to evaluate the merits of any information. Many similar recommendations can be found on academic websites worldwide9,10,11,12. Here is one proposed set of recommendations that can be easily modified by instructors at any level to fit the needs of their students.

The student should evaluate any source for:

Credibility– Who is providing the information, what are their credentials? Why should we believe them?

Bias– Is the information presented in a balanced way, or is there a strong point of view? Does the strong opinion presented match the evidence behind the claim? Identifying the biases inherent to any author or reader is crucial.

Audience– Who is the information written for? Is the goal to simply inform, or is it to sway, convince, or otherwise influence?

Accuracy– What is the valid (peer reviewed) evidence to support the information being given? Is it fringe or mainstream? Is the information cherry-picked and/or misrepresented?

Currency– Scientific understanding can change quickly, and references should be recent enough to present an accurate view of the current state of knowledge on a subject. A reference from 410AD might be adequate for a mathematics proof, but a six month old reference on climate change data may be too old.

Relevance– Does the source present information that is relevant to the topic? Does the source add to your understanding, or is it too peripheral to be of appropriate direct use?

An amusing and interactive training site for students that addresses many of these issues can be found at the Internet Detective13. Although primarily designed for college and university students, we encourage high school and even middle school students to try it out as well.

As educators in any field and at any level, helping our students become more accomplished critical thinkers should be at the forefront of our learning outcomes, whether explicitly stated or not. Our jobs in the classroom are getting harder in this endeavor as the sources and types of information streaming into our student’s heads is vast in quantity but of unknown quality. Whether trying to produce successful science students, or trying to produce successful citizens, our society’s need for a population that can critically evaluate sources of information has never been more urgent. As our state, country, and planet deal with increasingly challenging environmental, social, and economic issues, our best tool is a critically thinking mind. Starting in the formative primary grades and continuing through to the end of their university training, our students need to be trained in these important tools and they should be practiced often. The incredible flow of information in today’s age is a double-edged sword. The world is at our fingertips, often literally sitting in our pockets, but knowing how to process and filter that wondrous flow of information is a skillset all of us need to mindfully practice.

Kevin Raskoff is Department Chair for the Department of Biology at the Monterey Peninsula College; George I. Matsumoto is a Senior Education and Research Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. They were invited to write by CSTA member Valerie Joyner.

1Next Generation Science Standards ( (accessed January 3, 2015).

2California Department of Education. Common Core State Standards ( (accessed January 3, 2015).

3Generation M2. Media in the lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. January 2010.

4Bradley, P. (2012) Fake websites or spoof websites. Examples of false sites to aid in evaluating internet resources ( accessed December 26, 2014

5Rao, A. (2012) 11 Hilarious Hoax Sites to Test Website Evaluation. ( accessed December 26, 2014.

6Lacey, T.A., and Wright, B. (2009). Occupational employment projections to 2018. Monthly Labor Review, 132(11), 82-123. Available at:

7National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Committee on Highly Successful Science Programs for K-12 Science Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

8American Dialect Society. (2006). Truthiness Voted 2005 Word of the Year. ( (accessed January 3, 2015) Truthiness- the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

9Kennesaw State University. (2014). Evaluating Websites: Helpful tips for evaluating websites. ( (accessed January 3, 2015)

10Cornell University Library. (2014). Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools ( January 3, 2015)

11The University of Edinburgh. (2015). How to evaluate website content. ( (accessed January 3, 2015)

12Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Evaluating internet information. ( (accessed January 5, 2015)

13Place, E., Kendall, M., Hiom, D., Booth, H., Ayres, P., Manuel, A., Smith, P. (2006) “Internet Detective: Wise up to the Web”, 3rd edition, Intute Virtual Training Suite, [online]. Available from:

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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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.