Science Teachers Battle Fake News In The Classroom, Students Fail To Determine Fact From Fiction

The term “Fake News” doesn’t just apply in the political sphere. Teachers across America are battling fake news in the classroom. Every school year, Patrick Engleman, a high school chemistry teacher plays a trick on his students to help combat gullibility to fake news and to sharpen his student’s critical thinking skills. Engleman introduces his ninth-graders to an insidious substance called “dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO).”

Engleman tells the suburban Philadelphia students that dihydrogen monoxide is “involved in 80 percent of fatal car crashes. It’s in every single cancer cell. This stuff, it’ll burn you,” according to NPR.

However, dihydrogen monoxide is water.

The “dihydrogen monoxide hoax” is also designed to convince students that dihydrogen monoxide is an extremely dangerous chemical that is present in most consumer products.

Engleman says several of his honors classes decided to ban it [water] based just on what he told them. The “dihydrogen monoxide hoax” involves referring to water by its unfamiliar chemical name “dihydrogen monoxide” (DHMO) and listing some of the effects of water in an alarming manner, such as the fact that it accelerates corrosion and can cause suffocation.

The hoax will usually call for dihydrogen monoxide to be labeled as hazardous, banned, or regulated. The lesson of the hoax is to illustrate how the lack of scientific literacy can lead to misplaced fears in the general public.

Fake news is in the classroom.

The hoax gained renewed popularity when a 14-year-old student, Nathan Zohner, collected anti-DHMO petitions for a science project about gullibility. Since its resurgence in the late 1990s, the story has since been used in science education to encourage critical thinking and discussion of the scientific method.

The lesson intended to reach students is that you can’t trust everything you hear. Engleman says that his current students have much more information to sift through than his past students. Now students will come to class with questions about things they have read online or heard elsewhere.

In the classroom, it is not unusual for students to make statements which are “incorrect or inflammatory,” according to a teacher interviewed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

“When questioned on how they know if to be they say that it was on Facebook. Students often do not believe you when you tell them what they have seen it heard on Facebook is not true.”

Fake news is hitting the classroom.

Earlier this year, Engleman received a booklet from the conservative Heartland Institute with packaging that included a cover letter, “glossy book and a CD” advising teachers to be skeptical because scientists are unsure about the cause of climate change. In addition to this, the book told recipients to “consider the possibility that the science, in fact, is not ‘settled’” when it comes to the causes of climate change.

“Students would be better served by letting them know a vibrant debate is taking place among scientists on how big the human impact on climate is, and whether or not we should be worried about it.”

According to Heartland, one of these booklets will be sent to every public school and college science teacher in America. And those teachers could be a receptive audience.

A recent study out of Penn State showed that one-third of science teachers are open to the idea that climate change could be naturally occurring, instead of human caused.

Science Teachers Across America Debate Students On Flat Earth Theory

The recent changes pose a particular challenge to educators like Susan Yoon, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who is training the next generation of science teachers.

Gurol says his seventh-grade students had picked up the notion of a flat earth from basketball star, Kyrie Irving. Irving made the remarks on a podcast hosted by two of his Cleveland Cavalier teammates.

“And immediately I start to panic. How have I failed these kids so badly they think the Earth is flat just because a basketball player says it?”

Irving is one of the most popular athletes in the NBA. He received nearly 1.7 million fan votes for the 2017 All-Star Game, which put him behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Neil Degrasse Tyson said in an interview with TMZ that Kyrie Irving has a right to believe the earth is flat, however, Kyrie’s platform of millions of young people may not understand his limitations in understanding of the natural world.

“We live in a free country, so you ought to be able to think and say whatever you want… If he wants to think earth is flat, go right ahead – as long as he continues to play basketball and not become head of any space agencies. My point is if you have certain limitations of understanding of the natural world, stay away from jobs that require that.”

Student teacher Nick Gurol detailed an experience in which a number of students told him the Earth was flat. Yoon tells her peers, whose middle-schoolers believe the Earth is flat, that science teachers are not likely to change a student’s misconceptions simply by correcting them with long held facts.

“They think that I’m part of this larger conspiracy of being a ’round-Earther.’ That’s definitely hard for me because it feels like science isn’t real to them.”

Dihydrogen monoxide is a hoax science teachers have played on students.

The teacher said he tried reasoning with the students and showed them a video and still, the students remained unconvinced.

In situations like this, Yoon suggests teachers give students the tools to think like a scientist. Teach them to gather evidence, check sources, deduce, hypothesize and synthesize results. Hopefully, then, they will come to the truth on their own.

Fake News Appearing In Homework And Classroom Discussions

Fake news is also appearing in school homework, teachers have warned. Educators across America have said that children are no longer able to distinguish between fiction and fact. More than 35 percent of teachers say that students have cited false information they have found online.

Fake news in homework

Union members that were surveyed said that in the past year they have seen their pupils citing fake news or false information from the internet as fact in their work or classroom discussions.

Educators Yoon and Gurol agreed the best option would be to give students the tools to think like a scientist and let them explore on their own.

[Featured Image by Melpomene/Shutterstock]