September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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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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.