Friday, 31 December 2010

F&%@ 2010, Roll On 2011

One of the best hashtags I've seen on Twitter recently has been #fuck2010. I'll go with that. What a shitter of a year, eh? On the domestic front, our landlord has seemingly tried to kill us twice, tried to evict us once, and been an absolute arse 365 times by virtue of waking up each morning. Paul was made redundant in February, and has only recently managed to find employment (working at the same college as me - yay!).

We have lost three geckos that we had hoped to have for a good 10 years at least. As I type, Paul is building a new vivarium (the "jab-itat") for Jabba, and hoping that we will reach the end of 2011 with the same gecko we started with.

In October, our friend and neighbour Kel died. The world is quieter and less liberal, and Man Utd has lost its most ardent fan. We are just two of many who will miss him terribly.

On a more positive note, I continue to adore lecturing (but loathe the admin - especially some stuff I simply will not talk about publicly). My students mean the world to me, but if I ever told them that it'd go to their heads. One student is now at Portsmouth University studying palaeobiology, and he wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been his teacher. One of my tutees knows another of my old A2 students, and he apparently says I'm the best teacher he ever had. So maybe I have some talent for this after all.

What does 2011 hold? I will finish my PGCE in June, and then the world (of FE) is my oyster. My second A2 class will leave for university, and the BTEC students I've taught for two years will head on too. Don't tell them, but I will cry like a baby when they go.

Apart from a long weekend in Norfolk, I have not had a holiday in nearly two years. And we have not been abroad since October 2008. With the financial constraints of the past year, even travelling in the UK has been difficult, and we've barely been more than 20 miles from home all year. So this photo is my new year's resolution:

This is where I want to be at some point in 2011. Here's to a better year next year.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Snowbound In Isleworth

The timing of the British weather is impeccable. We couldn't have had a snow day earlier in the week to give us all an early Christmas holiday, oh no. It started snowing mid-morning on the last day of term, just in time for us to struggle to get to our end-of-year departmental lunch, and then to make trying to enjoy the first day of the holidays a treacherous activity. The little darlings out shopping on Hounslow High Street had successfully turned said pedestrianised road into an impromptu ice rink, and I certainly would not have appreciated a broken wrist or ankle to last me the holidays...

It does look pretty though, and out where we live it was lovely crunchy snow, and perfect for trudging down to the local café for a Full English. And I was able to capture a multi-species trackway in the back garden:

That's (from left to right) Turdus merula, Vulpes vulpes and Homo sapiens, with a bicycle thrown in for good measure.

Heathrow Airport is absolutely fubared at the moment. Makes for a quiet time for us but a rubbish time for everyone trying to get home for Christmas.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Farewell To Another Professor

Today I received my copy of GeoCam, the alumni magazine for the Dept of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. And my heart sank when I read that on 16th September of this year Professor Tjeerd Van Andel died. He was one of my lecturers for the module on climatology I studied in my third year at Cambridge, and taught the first year sedimentology course.

He told us about the North Atlantic Conveyor, about ocean currents and thermohaline circulation. We learned about CCDs and ACDs, and I got to take out my frustrations on a LOT of foraminifera. But most memorable was the lecture he gave at the end of Lent term in our first year. It was a slide show of his work aboard Alvin, the deep-sea submersible. Professor Van Andel was the first person to ever see the weird and wonderful animals living around the deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Hydrothermal vents are on the GCSE biology specification, in the context of adaptations to extreme environments. It has been, and is still, a delight to pass on some of what I learned from Professor Van Andel to a generation of eager (in theory) science students. And I am so proud to be able to tell them that I was taught by the first person to see the tube worms, crabs and snails that make their homes there.

It is an irony that, on the day I learn of this great man's death it is also announced that Alvin is to receive an upgrade for the next 50-odd years of research.

There is an obituary from the University of Cambridge, and a longer one from Standford University, along with some delightful memories of his earlier years.

In geological terms, 87 years was no time at all.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Kiwi Fruit DNA

I haven't really talked much on here about the actual subjects I teach, so it's time to remedy this. Tuesday afternoons are good times for me to do practicals with my AS Biology students (their penultimate year of high school study), and I thought it would be good fun to do a DNA extraction.

The students used kiwi fruit, but it can be done with pretty much anything living (I did caution the students against blending up their little brothers and sisters). The main hazard was giving a bunch of teenagers kitchen knives, not least because the poor darlings are so inept at food preparation that it took them ages to cut the sodding kiwis. I had a student teacher with me and remarked to him that they were all going to starve at university if this was how they cut up food. He said "No, they'll survive okay on Pot Noodles"...

We largely followed the protocol from Practical Biology, and got some pretty cool results. The bubbles in the image above are trapped in the strands of DNA, and the rather margarita-coloured substance underneath is the pulverised salty-kiwi-and-washing-up-liquid goo.

Isn't science brilliant? That's DNA, that is! In front of our very eyes.

Friday, 3 December 2010

How To Medicate A Gecko

Jabba has pinworms. It's a hazard of feeding him crickets, as not all livefood suppliers ensure their crickets are parasite-free. He had a visit to the vet last week, and didn't disgrace himself as Dooya was wont to do, and is in rude health other than the worms and a little bit of junk in the trunk to shift.

The favoured treatment for pinworms is 0.2ml of Panacur once a day for three days. So this is how to go about giving meds to a 120g bruiser such as Jabba.
  1. Assemble syringe and medicine.
  2. Open vivarium and place hand in for gecko to crawl onto.
  3. Remove escaping locust from arm.
  4. Try to grab gecko as he sprints past hand to the warm hide.
  5. Lift up warm hide to extract gecko.
  6. Retrieve gecko from behind the cold hide.
  7. Sit down on sofa with gecko on lap.
  8. Take up medicine in syringe.
  9. Retrieve gecko from between your shoulder blades.
  10. Hold gecko gently but firmly in right hand.
  11. Mop up urine from t-shirt.
  12. Gently stroke gecko's mouth to encourage him to open it.
  13. Gently stroke gecko's mouth to encourage him to let go of your finger.
  14. Gently stroke gecko's mouth again.
  15. Slide syringe with catheter into mouth.
  16. Retrieve syringe from the other side of the living room and gecko from down the side of the sofa.
  17. Hold gecko gently but firmly in right hand.
  18. Mop up further urine all over jeans.
  19. Gently stroke gecko's mouth to encourage him to open it.
  20. Persuade spouse to slide syringe in.
  21. Inject medication.
  22. Gently stroke gecko's mouth to encourage him to let go of the catheter.
  23. Retrieve gecko from underneath cushion.
  24. Return gecko to vivarium.
  25. Chase escapee locusts around living room.
  26. Nurse wounds.
He's ace though. And currently sulking spectacularly, with the look of annoyance that only a medicated pet can give.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Things I Learned From My Students #9: Snow

The UK is currently the laughing stock of the best part of Europe and North America, as we've had some snow and ground to a halt. In fairness to us, snow like this is the sort of thing for which we're about as prepared as Toronto is for a plague of frogs, due to its rarity. On the other hand, you'd think if you got a plague of frogs three years running around about the time that plagues of frogs were most likely, that you might start planning for the increased chances of being plagued by frogs.

Anyway, London only just got the snow today, and it's not bad enough to close the college. So it was on with the hiking boots to brave the treacherous two-minute walk along the ungritted road to work. And on with a few more revelations.

  1. It takes a special sort of teacher to leave the windows open in the biology lab over the weekend, rendering the internal climate positively Siberian (this was NOT me).
  2. No matter how cold the students are, they are never cold enough to take you up on the offer to put a lab coat on as another layer.
  3. Edexcel doesn't think it's worth teaching students about competitive and non-competitive inhibition anymore.
  4. Despite nearly 30 years of public outreach and education on this matter, students still think that HIV came from people having sex with monkeys.
  5. None of them had ever heard of a dental dam.
  6. Yet one of them has a fleshlight called Mirabel.
  7. They think that Coxsackieviruses are the best thing ever.
  8. Until they hear about Cummingtonite, that is.
  9. People who named towns in New England were well kinky.
  10. You never want to spot a student googling for "reason for late period".
  11. The fake foam rock stress toy I got from Blackwell Scientific a few years ago as a promo gift is more realistic than I had ever realised...
  12. The little bugger who threw the snowball through the staffroom window (open 3") to hit my desk this morning should be automatically presented with an A* in mechanics as they have an absolute mastery of projectiles.
There's a very definite "inappropriate" theme to this one. I put it down to covering disease transmission in A2 biology, physiology of the endocrine system in BTEC and the presence of a large student union-run awareness campaign around World AIDS Day. It's just been condoms a-go-go all week.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Teachers and lecturers are by no means immune to the odd gaffe here and there, so here's a gem for you (the title of this post being reference to Colemanballs). I teach a BTEC Level 2 Applied Science class on "Biology and Our Environment", and was covering some basic heredity and genetics. I did the good old blue eyes-brown eyes Punnett square, writing in the genotypes before asking the students what the phenotypes would be. To make things extra visual for them, I drew the eyes...

See what the problem is? No? My students, being 50% teenage boys and 50% teenage girls, noticed immediately...


Saturday, 13 November 2010

Changing The Guard

Friends on Twitter and Facebook will know that just over a month ago our leopard gecko Dooya suddenly died. I don't really want to go into details, suffice to say that the vets were as shocked as we were, and that they have absolutely no problems with our husbandry of geckos whatsoever.

I have to put that caveat in as it was implied by someone who should know better that we were in some way incompetent lizard owners. I also didn't bother writing about Dooya on here as some of the reactions I had on Facebook were of the "That sucks" variety (as though I was bemoaning a flat tyre on my car), and one particularly insensitive acquaintance used Dooya's death as a springboard for openly contemplating whether the carcasses of his own geckos were ready to be disinterred and mounted.

All of this was very painful. I know the vast majority of people in the world think that only dogs and cats are worthy of love, and the ensuing grief when they die, but Dooya was a very special gecko. She was our Beautiful Monster, and we were heartbroken. Irving Townsend put it well:
"We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle; easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan."
So with that in mind we are setting off around the fragile circle again. Exactly 50 days after Dooya's death (and it seems already like a lifetime without her), we are adopting a new gecko. He is fully healthy, in possession of all his eyeballs, and (impossible though it sounds) even bigger than Dooya was.

"Koona t'chuta Waxworm?"

Meet Jabba. He is over 90g and possibly a giant breed. His owner is moving abroad. We are travelling to the Grim Industrialised North next weekend to collect him, via my parents' house. I will for the first time be outnumbered by the boys in the house, and I half expect to come home and see him sitting on the couch with my husband watching daytime television and scratching his cloacal pores.

The ironing will never get done now.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Things I Learned From My Students #8: Teaching Evolution And Speciation

I feel quite fortunate. Out of my class of A2 Biology students about half believe in one or more deities, but there is only one student who has a real problem with evolution, and their beef is with macroevolution rather than microevolution (a classic issue, if one that I'm going to need to think about to combat). Although I love teaching evolution, it is a little awkward when said student (only semi-jokingly) accuses me of trying to convert him! I see them again on Wednesday to discuss "Evidence for evolution", and I have already taken the liberty of furnishing them with a copy of "15 Evolutionary Gems". I will always take some hints and tips though!

Still, it would appear that as always I have some things to learn from my students:
  1. The only reason they remember the Evolutionary Species Concept is because George Gaylord Simpson came up with it.
  2. As a result they would like all the scientists they encounter to have similarly "memorable" names (although they think Melvin Calvin's parents should be given a sound talking to).
  3. They want to petition the ICZN to change the genus of humans from Homo, as "well, the English language has changed, Miss". I cannot wait to read their submission.
  4. Thanks to Linnaean taxonomy, they cannot conceive of an instance when a paraphyletic taxon like "Reptilia" might be a problem.
  5. Teenagers appreciate being given a wadge of papers about speciation in cichlid fishes about as much as college seniors and grad students.
I've been getting a great deal of use out of the Understanding Evolution website, and especially their cute cartoons on fruit flies and reproductive barriers. Since I was telling a story, the students demanded that I put on a sing-song primary school teacher voice. I told them I would only do this if they came and sat cross-legged on the floor. Which the little buggers did. Damnit.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


It's time for this month's Accretionary Wedge, hosted by Matt at Research At A Snail's Pace. The theme is "Desk-crops" - not only are we encouraged to submit the spookiest images we can find, but there's a nice broad definition of "geological" to give me some lee-way.

What spookier way to celebrate Hallowe'en than to take you into the little shop of horrors that is my biology teaching lab? First up is my comparative anatomy collection:

Paul and I painted them up using acrylics over the summer, having been inspired by the fantastic comparative anatomy collection at the Mammoth Site. Just the right half is painted, allowing students to examine the original bones.

Also of note is the wet collection. We have amazing stuff, representative of all the animal phyla and plant divisions. I've been able to use the samples for teaching classification:

Please don't shout at me for using the word "starfish" - this was a distinctly basic science class full of students who think that nothing without a backbone is a "real" animal... Gruesome specimens also include the medicinal leech, the skate (used to investigate whether the cloaca of a manta ray really was likely to be similar in dimensions to the human vagina - a classic A2 biology moment!) and the pregnant rat complete with a dozen foetuses! The jar of lizards has also been used to rescue short-notice cover lessons and as a threat against non-science students messing around outside the lab.

It's not a bad lab - nice and big and plenty of space. Unfortunately it won't last - we are moving to a new building next year and the biology lab space will be halved. I'm going to make sure the specimens come with us, and the lab technicians are in agreement.

The most chilling specimen of all, however, is lying on top of the cabinets. The staff are divided over its usefulness and the appropriateness of keeping it. It's a real human skeleton. The older students are fascinated, but thinking it's a little undignified for the former owner of the skeleton. To this I say it's a bit more dignified than being shoved in a box and stored under the lab sink, which is where the other two bodies are.

And then the discussion starts up about whether using a skeletal human hand as a masturbatory aid counts as necrophilia, and it's clear the biology lesson is over... Happy Hallowe'en everyone - don't have nightmares.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Things I Learned From My Students #7: Ecology Fieldwork

Although I wouldn't dare suggest that school teachers have an easy ride by any means, in FE the first half term is always particularly heinous. For a month before classes start, lecturers are on enrolment duty, interviewing and testing applicants for A-levels and BTEC courses. It should be a relief when we get on to teaching, but in reality we've already hit the wall.

A tonic for this utter exhaustion appears to be arranging the A2 biology fieldwork. I alluded to this in the previous post. It was three days of pure fun, and absolutely the best environment in which to learn. So without further ado, here's what I've learnt from the little buggers this time:
  1. Having a bumper sticker saying "Honk if you understand punctuated equilibrium" is a much more effective way of getting students interested in discussing evolution than sitting them down in a classroom.
  2. Despite being fairly internet-savvy, lolcats are not nearly as funny to them as they are to me and my science buddies.
  3. They have a morbid curiosity about which plants are edible and which ones will kill humans.
  4. Most of them have no idea what a stinging nettle looks like or why it is a bad idea to touch one.
  5. Conversely, they all know about poison ivy and think (erroneously) that it's found in the UK.
  6. It is hilarious, when travelling in convoy, to draw a CDC and hold it up in the rear window for the car behind.
  7. It is not so funny when the car behind turns out not to be the other car from the fieldwork group but a hearse.
  8. My A2 students are pro-evolution, pro-choice, fiery socialists, and I love that about them.

There was a particular highlight, which came after we had left the field. I suggested a late lunch at Nando's, an extremely popular chicken restaurant, especially in the west of London. We went in, I asked for the table, we ordered our food, we ate, and we sat and chatted about life, college and the future. One of the students excused himself, I assumed to go to the toilet. When he came back, all of a sudden he and the other students burst into an enthusiastic rendition of "Happy Birthday", and a cake with a candle was brought to the table by one of the waitresses.

It was only when the cake was placed in front of me as my class chorused "Happy birthday dear Mum" that I realised it was for me. My birthday is 13th February, not 20th October. The little darlings had said to the waitress earlier that I was their adoptive mum, I had taken them all in and looked after them, and they just wanted to say thank you to me on my birthday for all my hard work.

About 10% of me is thoroughly embarrassed, maybe 2% is furious that I can probably never go back to that Nando's restaurant again (at least not without taking at least six students with me). But a good 88% of me is extremely touched that they thought enough of me to play what was a very endearing trick on me. When I am feeling undermined by management, when I am bogged down by admin jobs, and when my husband is having to drag me out of bed at 7am so I can be at my desk at 8am preparing lessons, I will treasure that moment.

This, of course, will be easier to do once the little sods who filmed the whole thing put it up on YouTube for all to see...

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Money For Education

I have just had the good fortune to spend three days on fieldwork with my A2 biologists. I am not ashamed to say that of all the classes I have, I love teaching the A2s the most. They are intelligent, curious and devilishly witty. And I listen to them. More than a lecturer, for them I am a careers adviser, substitute nurse, psychologist, relationship counsellor, and the keeper of the primary literature.

At the moment, they are really worried about money. They're facing a doubling of their tuition fees. The student loans they are currently entitled to will still be available, but I don't know enough about student funding to be able to assuage their fears of not being able to afford to join the university of their choice, let alone afford to live and study there.

I was the first year to pay tuition fees. This was tough. Everyone of our parents' generation had been fortunate enough not only to pay fees but to receive full maintenance grants. Needless to say, fees were brought in by Labour, who are now bitching like anything at pretty much every Conservative spending cut, so my support for any political party is fairly restricted at the moment. As I was liable for full fees due to my father's income, he undertook to pay my tuition fees. £4000 for my degree was a fair bit for him to fork out.

(A note to Americans who might think we have this easy - bear in mind that these were brought in with less than a year's warning, as will the increases, leaving very little time to save up in college funds.)

Now it has been announced that the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is to be cut, courtesy of the coalition government. The Chancellor's speech went thus:
We will fund an increase in places for 16 to 19 year olds, and raise the participation age to 18 by the end of the Parliament - and that enables us to replace education maintenance allowances with more targeted support.
I don't know what "targeted support" will entail, but the EMA seemed pretty targeted to me - means tested on the basis of income. For some students it's the difference between being able to eat during the day and going hungry. Or it's the difference between a three-hour bus journey across London to college or an hour-long train ride. Or it's the difference between being able to go to sixth-form or being pressurised to work full-time.

I'm not an idiot - I know cuts need to come in somewhere. But in the same speech Osborne talks about showering the early years education sector with extra funds. I can't help but think that all that money on ensuring children get the best start is going to be an absolute waste if they then face a massive funding-shaped barrier the moment they hit 16.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Leigh Van Valen 1935-2010

I read this morning (via John Hawks) that Leigh Van Valen, who came up with the Red Queen's Hypothesis (a concept I have just taught my Level 2 Applied Science students) among many other valuable contributions to evolutionary biology, has died.

Leigh was a long-time reader of the old blog The Ethical Palaeontologist, and he subscribed by e-mail. Often I would receive an e-mail from him with his thoughts. He defended me on Paleonet without ever having met me (although to this day I do not know who the original poster was). When I was skeletonising the pigeons he sent me his co-authored paper on "Terrestrial Isopods for Preparing Delicate Vertebrate Skeletons". He even sent me the lyrics to his song "Sauropod Lek", where the chorus goes:
Sperm are cheap and so the males act sexy;
They twirl their tails till they get apoplexy,
And we can choose the one whose tail’s most flexi.
I have the female version - if anyone has his male version I'll swap you!

He made a tremendous contribution to the field of palaeontology and evolutionary biology, and my students will hear all about his legacy as and when we cover speciation. He also made a difference in my life personally, and while I did thank him many times for his support, I don't think my e-mails can do justice to the gratitude I feel towards him.

I will miss him.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Things I Learned From My Students #6: The New Year

Two weeks in to a term that sees me preparing five new courses, and to be honest I'm astounded that I have time to write a blog post. It's really only because I decided I would make time to watch "300" this evening that I don't find myself with a hideous amount of marking to do or lesson prep to complete. The AS and A2 students will each be getting a test tomorrow, which gives me a bit of extra time, and A2 will be doing a practical (less for me to worry about).

But I have some modest observations to make...
  1. Your responsibilities to your students do not end even when they're heading off to university.
  2. Teaching human reproductive physiology is actually an awful lot of fun.
  3. Sometimes you have to teach a bit of undergraduate chemistry or physics so they understand the high school biology.
  4. Most forensic science students are in it because they think Horatio Caine is pretty cool.
  5. Most forensic science students are pathetically squeamish about blood and decomposition.
  6. Most forensic science students fail to see where this might be a problem.
  7. I might be the only person in the classroom who thinks a blood clot the size of a satsuma in a sheep heart is cool.
  8. Apparently lolcats are really lame and uncool now (what on earth replaced them?).
  9. The pregnant rat pickled specimen with all 12 of her foetuses on show is a really popular feature of the lab.
  10. If any students suggest that you should really listen to their podcast and that you'd enjoy it, just don't. It's safer that way.
Tomorrow, I try out chlorophyll chromatography for the first time ever. Wish me luck...

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Great Cock-Up On Great Cockup

It's time for the Accretionary Wedge, and for this month Lockwood has asked for our important geological experiences:
It may (or may not) be something that led you to the discipline [...], or a class, or a work experience, or a field experience. It might have been a puzzle or problem solved, or job landed, a degree completed. Perhaps it was something else entirely. It could have been an awful, disastrous experience from which you learned an important lesson.
I'm going to go with the latter, and this is perhaps a big one for me to admit to - it's quite embarrassing, and I just hope my fellow geoscientists can still look me in the eye afterwards.

In July 2000, I carried out my geological mapping project. I mapped an area of the Uldale Fells, the very north of the Lake District. Standing on Brae Fell, I could see the Solway Firth and over into Dumfries and Galloway. I could see wind farms. When atop Great Calva looking south, I could see right down an old fault line stretching beyond Thirlmere. It was beautiful in a wild way that we don't often see in the UK. I shared the entire Uldale Fells with three classmates: I mapped the westernmost section, with Theo, Heather and Dave mapping successively further east.

We spent four days making reconnaissance trips around the area in groups, and then began our individual mapping. I was dropped off just to the west of Great Cockup (yes, it does exist, and yes, I still think this is hilarious), and was due to meet the others at the end of the day southeast of Knott, at a parking area next to a swimming spot in the River Caldew.

About an hour before our rendezvous point, I was on the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, with Hause Gill and Wiley Gill either side of me. I had intended to go down Wiley Gill, meet up with the track along the Caldew, and stroll back to the car. To this day, I have no idea why I did this, as I was perfectly capable of reading a compass.

I went the wrong way.

I went towards Great Calva, looking for the path on the left hand side of the gill, but never found it. I was about halfway down what was Little Calva before I realised my mistake. I fished around for my mobile to ring the others. But it wasn't there. Somewhere in the scrub I had lost my phone, having kept it in my pocket for easy access down the fells. I went back to look for it, and probably wasted more time than was necessary. I realised I was going to be late.

In retrospect, the sensible thing to do would have been to find the Caldew track again and hoof it back to the car Scouts pace. But I was absolutely desperate to get a message to someone. Then I spotted the youth hostel. The warden was in, but his mobile phone had very little reception. After wandering around outside for a while, we eventually managed to get my grandmother on the phone and ask her to phone my mother (I forget why I couldn't get hold of her immediately) and for Mum to phone one of the others. Note to all field geologists - even if you have mobile reception and are in a relatively safe area, write down your contacts' mobile phone numbers just in case.

Then I had to start the route back anyway. I was mentally exhausted, gutted at the loss of my mobile phone (it had a really cool Xpress-On cover and a light-up aerial - this was, after all, the year 2000), and feeling like an absolute pillock. About halfway along the track, I spied Theo walking towards me. When he caught up with me and we started walking back, he waved his fluorescent yellow CAS strap in the air as a signal, and that was when I realised just how worried my classmates had been.

It is not my finest hour. I cannot believe what a stupid mistake I made. I have always prided myself on my map-reading and compass-using skills, so I don't understand what was with my loss of judgment and idiocy. I have never made this mistake again, and I managed to map a huge area with a combination of speed over ground and detail of observations. In fact, I got the highest mark of the year group for my mapping project.

I learned to mapread twice, walk once. I learned to write contact details in my field notebook. I learned to secure my mobile phone. I have a pink zipped case with a belt loop for my phone, so I can spot it if it falls off (not that it should, fitted onto my belt). I suspect students are no longer allowed to map alone, but I don't know what the rules are at universities now (hell, my A2 biologists will not be allowed to work in anything less than a pair in a fenced in, locked nature reserve of extremely limited area!).

Now I am a lecturer responsible for my students' safety and education in the field. I set an example to them, ensuring that I am appropriately attired and shod, with a well-stocked backpack. I spend time with each of them, making sure they know how to find their bearings, and we have a good backup of mobile phone numbers and emergency contact details. Most importantly, I am very forgiving of mistakes they make, because I remember that once upon a time I wasn't quite as shit hot at this fieldwork lark as I thought I was.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Wild Haired Scientists Online

Today, in an effort to get away from the technological whirl I've been in over the past few days, I mostly mucked out the fountain in the garden, ate cold pizza and watched repeats of Hotel Inspector and Supernanny. And now I feel ready to blog. As you know, I went to the Science Online London 2010 two-day conference on Friday and Saturday.

I was really interested in Alan Cann's breakout session on "Students in the Sandbox". Alan gave a lot of ideas for those of us involved in education to develop students' professional skills, such as editing Wikipedia pages for credit. He had settled on FriendFeed as the simplest way for him and his students to interact professionally, work collaboratively and share items of interest. Infinitely preferable to Facebook, since it doesn't involve subjecting oneself to seeing photos of one's students doing keg stands.

The problem from my perspective is that, firstly, we have a whole safeguarding issue - the Powers That Be may not be too keen on me developing an online community for my students outside of the protected environment of the college VLE, and that, secondly, it's hard enough to get the little buggers to use their college e-mail when they'd far rather use their Hotmail or Yahoo IDs (which a) they change every two weeks, and b) get caught in our spam filters), let alone sign up for another application. The ideal solution would be if our VLE, Moodle, was sophisticated enough for a FriendFeed type application to be installed - the news, blog and wiki pages just don't really cut it.

There was a brilliant session on I'm a Scientist by Sophia Collins and Shane McCracken. As you may know, my students took part in I'm a Scientist in June of this year, and it was probably one of the most useful, worthwhile and engaging activities they had ever done in the classroom. There had been some backchannel complaining about how the PIs in many scientists' labs did not approve of lobbying, blogging, and presumably outreach, so if nothing else, this is a means of engaging with young people without even leaving your lab. The scientists thoroughly enjoyed themselves - many of us have quite a shock when we first try to describe our science to someone outside of our field. The kids will not be polite if they don't understand, so it's a very quick way of learning how to communicate at a range of levels.

Being a sucker, I thought it might be fun to run an unconference session, and put forward the title "Why does the public hate scientists, and how can we restore our 19th century reputation?". This was put in as a joint session on engaging the readership with John Timmer, Ed Yong and Alok Jha. Why yes, I was punching above my weight.

The video has been streamed, and you can watch the first of three below (I presume clicking through will bring up the source page, where the rest of the unconference session is also available archived.

If you only want to hear my dulcet tones, you can start the video from 12 minutes 30 seconds, but I recommend watching all of this to hear John and Ed's opening throughts beforehand. I was rather busy engaging in discussion and keeping my eye on the ball to make my own notes during the session, but there is a rather marvellous writeup from Adam Tinworth on "Bloggers, Commenters and the Reputation Game". He comments on how, while there were many attempts to steer the discussion back to engaging with readers in blogs, there was more enthusiasm for talking about the image and reputation of scientists. My hypothesis for this is that there had been rather a lot of chatting about blogs and blogging, although the points raised by John, Ed and Alok were new, and as such something non-blogging-related received more interest.

Some observations, however:
  • Not a lot of bloggers knew for a fact that they had non-scientist readers - while most of us have readers in other scientific fields, as an outreach and engagement method, blogging could do with a bit of refining (there were some heavyweight exceptions, of which Neuron Culture and Not Exactly Rocket Science are two).
  • Very few scientists - STILL - engage in outreach, but when I laid down a gauntlet to them that visiting schools and colleges was probably one of the most effective ways of interacting with non-scientists, there did seem to be a murmur of agreement, and a couple of volunteers (note, I am always happy to have scientists come to visit, and would be particularly interested in any London-based scientists who would like a work experience kid for a week getting in touch).
  • There are data on public perceptions of science and scientists, but perhaps these don't tell us exactly what we are looking for. There is also some disagreement about whether it is the public perception of scientists or the public perception of science itself that requires some improvement.
I am also aware, having seen the photo of me looking very serious, that I need a better hairspray. When I left the house on Saturday it looked as luxuriant and voluminous as Alok's. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Science Online

Phew! Enrolment has almost finished here, and my classes are nice and full. I'm still waiting for a couple of A2 students to get back from their holiday, but I should have a dozen of them. I will be getting to teach them about ecology, biodiversity, climate change, evolution and phylogenies, with the opportunity to get into how scientists can help to communicate controversial issues in science.

I am also teaching a new BTEC module called "Perceptions of Science", looking at the role of science in the media, the general public opinion of science, a bit of HPS (although the mere mention of Karl Popper brings me out in a cold sweat) and some ideas about science communication.

So it's really rather handy that I have managed to get my college to allow me to go to and pay for me to attend Science Online London 2010 tomorrow and Saturday. I'm really looking forward to it, particularly the breakout session on the fabulous I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!. My BTEC students took part in June and had so much fun they almost forgot I was making them come in to college after they'd finished all their coursework.

I shall be on Twitter, so you can follow me @morphosaurus and the hashtag #solo10. Let's see how long the battery on the new HTC Desire lasts...

Monday, 23 August 2010

On University Applications

Around this time of year you can always guarantee three distinct stories related to the A-Level exam results. The first is that "exams are getting easier" (skilfully analysed by Ben Goldacre). The second is a token picture of a fruity young girl leaping for joy - a full selection can be viewed on "It's Sexy A-Levels". And the third, a late arrival to the journalistic fray, is the top student who got all A grades but got rejected by Oxbridge. It kicked off a decade ago with Laura Spence, and has hit a shrill zenith with Ben Scheffer, who despite achieving three A* and three A grades did not receive a single offer from any university, including Oxford.

Everyone concerned seems very puzzled by this:
The head of admissions at Brighton College, Stjohn Rowlands, said Ben was the school's best pupil and that he could not understand why he had not received any offers at all.
The article ponders whether the problem was that Ben was originally from Germany and did not sit GCSEs, or whether it was that there simply weren't enough places. But the answer is much more obvious to anyone who has guided students through the UCAS procedure:
[Ben] also said: "I didn't write the best personal statement, to be fair, it just wasn't special. And it's a really hard course to get into."
His personal statement wasn't "special". I wonder if some students think that their grades will just carry them into university. An application is not just about what the AS grades are and what teachers and lecturers have predicted for A2.

The personal statement

This has to kick some serious ass. It should have evidence that you're committed to the course, that you've been on tasters, that you have relevant work experience, that you've gone over and above what is expected on your course, and that you're a well-rounded individual. I advised two students on their personal statements this year, despite not being a tutor, one of whom is off to study pharmacology (aid work in India and a part-time job in a pharmacy definitely helps there), and the other is my palaeontologist, who has a very exciting three years ahead of him at Portsmouth (enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of current issues and interests in photography and computer programming that can be applied to much of palaeontology). The only down side of the latter's personal statement was that between us we totally called Google Wave wrong (sorry kiddo!).

The reference

Your tutor has to pretty much say you're brilliant too. And he or she will ask the lecturers for their opinion. And while they will try their hardest to put all the students in the best light, there's no good way of spinning less than 80% attendance (what, this kid misses a day of lessons a week???).

The other universities and courses

Many students are unaware that each university can see the whole of your UCAS application. This means they can see which other universities you've applied for and which courses. So don't apply for Biochemistry at Newcastle, Drama at Cardiff, 16th Century French Poetry at UEA, Law at Edinburgh and Medicine at Nottingham, because you won't get offers from any of those places. Why? Because you lack focus. And that makes you a risk. If you want to do Biochemistry, make goddamn sure you have put down Biochemistry at every single university, the exception being if, say, at once uni there is a Biochemistry and Pharmacy option, or similar. An exceptionally bright student of mine had few offers because she had applied for Medicine and Midwifery, giving the impression that she was committed to neither.

The presence of Oxbridge can be a help and a hindrance. For me, it meant that Durham, upon seeing Cambridge on my UCAS form, made me an offer within a week, desperate to poach me. Birmingham followed within a month with a pathetically low offer considering what I was predicted. For others, Oxford or Cambridge implied to some universities that there was no point in making them an offer because they'd go with one of those two.

Other admissions exams

Prospective medical students are faced with either UKCAT or BMAT (the latter for Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and RVC, the former for most other UK medical and dentistry schools). The STEP exams I took in Chemistry and Physics are no more - only Mathematics remains. Instead, science students for Cambridge, Oxford and UCL sit the TSA. This is nothing new - in 1968 my father took STEP for entrance into Cambridge. This can make or break an application.

The interview

If all of the above have so far not sucked, then there's a good chance of being invited to interview. And that may be something for another post.

In all seriousness, the meeeeeja does like to complain when Oxbridge turn down a straight-A candidate, but they fail to appreciate that there are many aspects of a student that go into each application, and any admissions tutor worth their salt must check through all of these components before making a decision.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A Campaign For Grand Teton

Some good news, courtesy of a comment Silver Fox made on my post a week ago:
Julia, the NPCA (National Parks Conservation Association) now has a page to submit a letter to Ken Salazar, head of the Department of Interior: click on "Take Action." They think Congress and the DOI need to respond to Wyoming by coming up with a deal.
I am so glad an organisation like the NPCA is involved and spearheading a campaign for the Department of the Interior to reach a deal with the state of Wyoming before the deadline imposed by Governor Freudenthal.

And the survey I put up has reassured me that the vast majority of you are either very or somewhat concerned by the plans, so I feel at least as though I'm not just one person overreacting or anything.

Four years ago on Thursday, Paul and I saw Grand Teton for the first time, and we fell as much in love with that place as we were with each other. Later, sitting round a campfire with the other guests at the ranch we stayed at, we met a couple who had honeymooned there 40 years ago and were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

I want to be able to go back there in 36 years' time, with Paul, and meet a young honeymooning couple. And I want to be able to tell them that Grand Teton is just as beautiful then as it was when we were first there. That's what I've written in my letter.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

An Open Letter To My A2s

Dear students,

Any minute now, you will be opening the envelopes containing your A-Level exam results. I still vividly remember the day, 12 years ago, going up to the high school to collect my results. I felt as though my results were Schrödinger's cat - simultaneously excellent and dire, as the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. And I don't mind telling you I feel as nervous today as I did back then.

I was lucky - my cat was gloriously, spectacularly, deliciously alive. I danced out of the hall and into my mother's arms, where we laughed until we cried. I very much hope that today will be a day of laughter for you and I cannot wait to share your happiness.

But if you've missed the grades, please do not despair. You will probably feel as though your world is over. Scream and cry - howl your eyes out. But only for a little while, because you have only a short time to try and sort out alternative plans. Talk to us, your lecturers. Think about a gap year doing something exciting and worthy. Think about whether it is you who wants to be a doctor or your parents. Maybe resits are an option.

Above all, know that I am so incredibly proud of all 13 of you. I have loved teaching you, and I hope you have enjoyed my classes. I think you have had a few novel experiences for A-Level students, such as stroking a newt, recreating a crime scene with real human bones, and using Krispy Kreme doughnuts to demonstrate statistics.

I wish you all the best for wherever your future takes you. I hope you keep that enthusiasm for science that you had in my classes, and that your combined filthy sense of humour doesn't get you into trouble. I can categorically say, without any doubt, that you are the best A-Level group I have ever taught.

Julia x

P.S.: That's what she said.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Evolution On The National Curriculum

I have just been watching Richard Dawkins' programme "Faith School Menace?" on More4. There have been some worrying examples. I was most concerned by Dawkins' meeting with a biology teacher in a faith school and her students. She freely admitted bringing their religion into her lessons, and said that her students had their own opinions on their origins related to their faith. I hope that section will make it onto YouTube soon so that I can post it, as I simply cannot do it justice.

However, I was distressed to see that when one of the students asked "If we evolved from apes then why are there still apes around?", she was unable to give any answer. This, above all else, should make this teacher unfit to teach science. Every single biology teacher will, when teaching evolution, be asked this question. Any biology teacher who cannot answer that question confidently and accurately has no business teaching science. @davegodfrey gave a superb and elegant response:
If you're descended from your grandparents why do you have cousins?
What is even more depressing is how easy it is for religious topics to sneak into the National Curriculum. This is the specification for Edexcel GCSE Science, the qualification UK students take at age 16:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of natural selection, to include:
    - How individuals within a species can have characteristics that promote more successful reproduction (survival of the fittest)
    - How, over generations, the effects of natural selection result in changes within species and the formation of new species from genetic variants or mutants that are better adapted to their environment
    - How species that are less well-adapted to a changing environment can become extinct
  • Explain how fossils provide evidence for evolution
  • Discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century
The latter point in particular provides a route in for the loathsome Truth In Science organisation. I am unfortunate enough to have seen some of their resources for National Curriculum science, and it is depressingly easy to sneak creationism and intelligent design in to this specification.

Fortunately, the Edexcel A-Level Biology specification for the exams students take at age 18 is a lot more thorough:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Describe how natural selection can lead to adaptation and evolution.
  • Describe how evolution (a change in the allele frequency) can come about through gene mutation and natural selection.
  • Explain how reproductive isolation can lead to speciation.
  • Describe the role of the scientific community in validating new evidence (including molecular biology, eg DNA, proteomics) supporting the accepted scientific theory of evolution (scientific journals, the peer review process, scientific conferences).
I plan to look more closely at the teaching of evolution over the next year. I am going into the second year of my PGCE, and I will have to produce a research project - looking at strategies for teaching evolution to a diverse group of students is definitely up there on the shortlist of topics. This year I will not be teaching the GCSEs, but I will get to teach both A-Level year groups, so I hope to get stuck in good and proper on the juicy details.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Disappointment Peak

It seems appropriate to name this post after one of the peaks in the Teton Range. Following my post just over a week ago, I e-mailed the Governor of Wyoming's press officer to attempt to get some straightforward responses:

I am a British lecturer and science blogger. My connection to the state of Wyoming is an emotional one - my husband and I spent most of our honeymoon there. In particular, we found Grand Teton National Park to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful unspoilt wildernesses we have ever seen. It is an understated, underrated gem.

So I am distressed to read in the British newspaper The Guardian, and also via NPR that there are plans to sell off two packets of school trust land, potentially to developers. These two news sources have stated that the state of Wyoming is "financially beleaguered", and said that the funds generated from this sale would be used for the educational budget.

However, this appears to be a later version of a story I have seen on Stateline's website, where Governor Freudenthal is quoted as saying:
"We're not short of revenue. We're in pretty good shape. Our revenues are ahead of projections. We’re sitting on about $800 million in cash reserves and we expect the next projections to show revenue probably $200 million to $300 million over projections. So this thing about the Grand Teton is not driven by that."
Stateline are running with the idea that this proposed sale is a means of standing up to a federal government who have simply assumed that because the land all around these school trust lands is National Park, that the state-owned lands can be used as National Park for free.

I can see that, although this news is not overly public, the community of geoscience bloggers of which I am part is likely to pick up on this. Since there are some conflicting reports on the proposed sale, I hope you, one of your policy advisers, or even Governor Freudenthal himself, would be willing to answer some questions for me, with the intention that I put these up on my blog.
  1. Where exactly are these two packets of land? Do you have a map that I could use, or GPS or lat/long coordinates for me to plot a map myself?
  2. All three sources say the land could be sold for $125 million privately. Is this the figure you hope to obtain from the federal government?
  3. Which budgetary areas would receive this money? Is it to be earmarked for education, and if so, can you give me an idea of what the current educational budget is like, and whether there is any shortfall?
  4. Does the state own any other land within Grand Teton National Park, and if so, where are these areas?
  5. Are there any plans to sell this land in the future, if it is held?
  6. This is rather poorly timed to hit the news with the upcoming 60th Anniversary of Grand Teton National Park. Are there any state plans for the celebration of the National Park?
I would be very grateful for any information you can give on this rather worrying development.

Yours sincerely,
Julia Heathcote

I have not received any response. I imagine that, given that I am neither a journalist nor an American, the press office have decided not to dignify my letter with a reply. I don't know, maybe I was too polite? I'm pretty pissed off that the Governor's office hasn't even bothered to e-mail me to tell me that it's none of my business. I don't like being ignored.

I'm also a bit pissed off that I seem to be the only person pissed off!! And this is where it's a shitter being a teeny tiny blogger, because you can betcha that if this story got on Pharyngula that it would be a massive story. Maybe I have to wait for the land to be sold off and a massive CHURCH to be built on it before anyone else gets upset.

Am I being too precious about Grand Teton? Maybe. Do I have as much right to be precious about Grand Teton as the rest of the geoblogosphere has been about serpentinite? Probably. So why is it just me here? At the moment all that's in the public domain on this is a statement given at some point in the past couple of months by Gov. Freudenthal, where he has said something to the effect of planning to sell off the school trust lands.

But is this not the best time to query this, and if it is found to be true, to campaign against it? BEFORE it becomes a big unwieldy juggernaut of legislation? You know, before we need press releases and petitions, and letters to congressmen and representatives and POTUS himself? I've put up a poll to gauge reader interest (since no one has commented on the previous post on here). It's open for the next week, over on the sidebar.

Or should the crappy whiny English blogger go back to complaining about scientific literacy and forget about things that shouldn't concern her?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Breakfast Of Champions

When I was at university, there was a brand of coffee beloved of my friends and me. And then Taylors of Harrogate withdrew it, leaving us bereft of caffeiny goodness (okay, this is a slight exaggeration). So it is with great pleasure that I can confirm that Hot Lava Java is back in stock at Tesco:

What's most impressive is that, in a move reminiscent of Spinal Tap, on a roast scale of 1 to 5, this coffee goes up to 6. Plus it has a tentative geological connection with the name...

I'm up early today for the Kempton Park Reptile Expo. Dooya is not coming with us - she'll only spend all our money on waxworms.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Lizard Behaviour

Paul and I have now owned Dooya the Eublepharis macularis for just over two months, and she seems a very happy little gecko indeed. We are concerned by the recent campaign by Lush to ban the keeping of reptiles as pets: while there are undoubtedly isolated incidents of negligent practice within the reptile-keeping community, it feels like a very personal attack on ALL reptile keepers, in a way that all dog-owners do not get accused of cruelty when some idiots keep their pets in rotten conditions. I can understand the case against wild-caught animals, but I also see the good that can be done from the conservation and breeding point of view.

So over the past few days Paul and I have been taking stock of Dooya's behaviour to reassure ourselves that she is not absolutely miserable, because honestly the thought that she may be thoroughly traumatised by being a pet is very upsetting. This is her setup:

She has a warm hide in the front right, thermostatted at 32°C, a cool hide in the back right, with water and calcium dishes, a cool moist hide in the back left, usually 21-24°C, feeding dish in front of that, and a rock for her to climb up in the front left of the tank. She will variously sit on any of the hides when the light goes out, but during the day she zonks out in the warm or cool hide.

There is a phenomenon referred to by the Lush-APA campaign as "interaction with transparent boundaries", about which very little information seems to be available (the link is to the text of an article from 1990). Is Dooya trying to get out? Perhaps. From watching her behaviour in and out of her tank it seems more likely that she is trying to climb up to a vantage point. She likes being on top of things, whether it's her hide or my shoulder. Most gecko owners will comment that their pets go straight for their shoulders when they're out.

Sure, she's checking for the presence of predators, and not feeling secure until she can see as much of her surroundings as possible. Our family dog Teddy would sit for hours in the front porch if he could, watching everyone and everything.

I think she can tell when this transparent boundary is present and absent, and I think she can tell from a distance. If we go and open the door to the tank, she looks up at us, and for the past few times she has climbed up the rock and stepped out onto our hand:

I would even suggest that a lizard who will crawl out onto our hands does not think we are predators and is not scared of us.

But I know very little about reptile behaviour other than what I have observed. I am fairly confident that she does not behave entirely instinctively - there is some higher thought. She has been classically conditioned to associate the yellow tweezers with feeding time, and will wag her tail and get excited when she sees them. I'd love to find out more about her anatomy and physiology, and then some of the current thought in reptile behaviour. I've had issues tracking down a good reptile anatomy textbook, so am really hoping for some recommendations.

And if you have any ideas what she's up to in the photo above, let me know. Current suggestions include auditioning for one of those shows in Tijuana, and practising to join the Bolshoi.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Seeing Pink

I don't have a problem with the colour pink as such. On tropical flowers it is fiery and exciting. On my gardening tools it is a necessary high contrast colour where I might drop a glove or secateurs on the soil or foliage. Shocking fuchsia pink is a colour that suits me and my skin colouring. My "Pink Pen of Mild Peril" has been more popular among male and female students alike than its predecessor the "Red Pen of Doom". It's a nice colour.

But, as this comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal shows, the colour pink is being used as a lazy shortcut to getting girls and women interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It isn't a new phenomenon by any means. There is a superb campaign called Pink Stinks, that "challenges the culture of pink which invades every aspect of girls' lives". it highlights many awful examples of this invasion on its blog. As of Saturday morning, I have a further addition to their collection of pink crap.

Ahhh, folks, remember the good old days where anti-intellectual teasing and bullying was unisex, and one could only buy black-framed "nerd specs"? If that wasn't patronising enough, then you can do a quiz on the back of the pack to see whether you truly are a "geek girl".

Particular gems include:
  • Did you have your first drink on your 21st birthday? - Oh that's good, let's have peer pressure straight off!
  • Have you ever dressed up as Slave Leia? - Not entirely sure that the set of women who have dressed up as Slave Leia and the set of women who may identify or be identified as a geek are identical...
  • Do you have an Etsy account? Have you ever knit [sic] something for a friend? - So if you're creative you must be a geek?
  • Does your skin burn rather than tan? - Aha! So only pale Northern Europeans can be geeks...
I just really, really wish this wasn't an issue anymore. But as long as we have pink, substandard items marketed just to girls, and baby boys killed for "acting like girls", this is never going to go away.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Problems At Grand Teton

Of all the places my husband and I visited on our honeymoon, Grand Teton National Park was a particular highlight. Much less crowded than its northern neighbour, Yellowstone, it is an underappreciated gem in the state of Wyoming, with truly astounding geology, landscapes, flora and fauna.

Grand Teton has had a troubled journey towards its eventual designation as a National Park (with its present boundaries) in 1950. In the Creation of Grand Teton National Park PDF, it is cited as "perhaps the most notable conservation victory of the twentieth century", and for me at least few places can match it in terms of sheer beauty.

So it was with some horror that I read this article: US National Park Faces Sale. Now, the vagaries of US land ownership are bewildering to the average Brit, but according to the Grauniad and another article from NPR, there are some parts of the Park that are state- rather than federally-owned, known as "school trust lands". Two of these pockets of land, up to 550 hectares, may be sold to generate revenue, according to Governor Dave Freudenthal, if the federal government don't make a deal.

School trust lands are meant to provide income for state education, and while the land could be worth $125 million, Wyoming only receives $3,000 a year from leasing it to a rancher. Selling the land would provide much-needed funds for a state that could obviously do with some extra cash for education.

In an ideal world, the federal government would buy these odd parcels of land in the middle of the rest of their National Park for near enough the market value. A trade in land hasn't been accepted. This is a wrangle that has been going on for a decade - throughout George W. Bush's entire term and into Barack Obama's. Sadly, I'm not convinced that Dubya left a lot of small change to counter that massive federal deficit, so Obama may not be able to do anything about it.

Which means that the state of Wyoming may sell the land to private developers. The land in question is sagebrush steppe and grazing land, seen in the foreground of my favourite photo:

While I'm aware that Wyoming desperately needs money, and I would certainly rather see the money go towards education than fuel exploration, defence or bailing out corrupt banks, I feel incredibly sad that the Governor is prepared to sell land in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks in the entire USA.

Of course, I welcome comments, especially if there are any errors or better explanations for what I've written.

Update 23:57, 07/08/10: According to an earlier, evidently unnoticed, interview with Stateline, Governor Freudenthal says:
"No, no. We're not short of revenue. We're in pretty good shape. Our revenues are ahead of projections. We're sitting on about $800 million in cash reserves and we expect the next projections to show revenue probably $200 million to $300 million over projections. So this thing about the Grand Teton is not driven by that."
So clearly the entire state of Wyoming is doing just fine and dandy. Which rather changes things, don't you think?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Organising Fieldwork

I have 10 days before I return to work full-time after the holiday, and I am starting to look forward to the first term and what I can plan for the students. I'm also getting all these out-of-office e-mails from contacts, saying they're off in the middle of nowhere playing with fossils, so I'm feeling envious. In any case, fieldwork is on my mind.

As it stands, I have the A2 biology students, one of the AS biology groups, the second-year applied science class, the first-year forensic science class and the first diploma applied science group. The A2s and second-years are going to get fieldwork...

This year we had a very successful three days at Perivale Wood. Being an ancient oak woodland with some conservation and clearing, there are a lot of opportunities for original fieldwork.

If you're Russell Crowe, you should note that the above is what an oak woodland looks like, as you never had the opportunity to act in one. </snark>

We did the fieldwork in late February of this year. It was a good time in that there were lots of bluebells coming up, so density surveys could be carried out of those species. However, it was difficult for the students to identify the different deciduous trees, and any animals were still in hibernation. Waiting until later in the year is not really an option, as the examining board requires that all coursework is submitted by May, so for the A2 students, it looks like we're going this term.

So we can do some animal diversity surveys of the various ponds (and the student who complains the most about being outside will be given the waders and dispatched to the centre of the pond). I think some enterprising students with GPS on their phones can probably do things like measuring circumference of the trees (as a proxy for age) in relation to distance from the railway embankment or the canal, or similar. And we can do the usual number of plants/number of species against light intensity/pH/moisture levels.

The applied science students, however, will get to go in April or May, as their coursework isn't due in until June. They'll be studying plant and soil sciences, so they at least will be relieved that they don't have to go in the pond.

They will, however, have to deal with what this year's A2s considered the most horrific aspect of fieldwork:

Any tips on how to get teenagers comfortable with the idea of going for a pee outside? It would appear that my "Shut up and get on with it" attitude is not overly well received.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Triceratops And Tribulations
Do a Google News search for Triceratops and you'll be faced with some worrying headlines. Screeching at you from the screen are "Triceratops never actually existed, scientists say", "Scientists: Triceratops May Not Have Existed‎", "Triceratops' status as a distinct species threatened" (note that I've italicised the genus name, because FSM knows that subtlety is lost on the majority of journalists). I'm wondering if the Daily Fail will be decrying this as Political Correctness Gone Mad, shrilly complaining about the further destruction of our childhoods...

Of course, as numerous bloggers have already commented, this is all bollocks. Nothing is happening to Triceratops.

The paper that has kicked it all off is this: "Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny", by John Scannella and John Horner (find it here). Before you even look at the paper itself, there are a couple of clues in the title, and you don't need a PhD in palaeontology to pick up on these clues.

The first is that the authors say "Torosaurus is Triceratops". While that could be open to some linquistic interpretation (perhaps more so for non-native English speakers), it is pretty clear (I checked with the Token Non-Scientific Adult, aka Paul) that this means Triceratops is the one that gets to stay.

The second is that Tricertatops was named first. In most fields, it's the first named/discovered/invented item that gets to take priority, and genus and species names are no exception. Naming animals is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and if you're feeling a bit nerdy you can look up Article 23.1:
Statement of the Principle of Priority. The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it, unless that name has been invalidated or another name is given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission.
So the taxon made up of all Triceratops specimens and all Torosaurus specimens is validly known as Triceratops, the oldest available name applied to it. It is this rule that means Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, although in marginally different circumstances.

So what did Scannella and Horner actually do? They measured their specimens using ontogenetic markers - the development of the parietal fenestrae and the elongation of the squamosals. They also looked at osteohistological features, and found a sequence from Triceratops specimens with primary, spongy bone structure to Torosaurus specimens with secondary, compact bone structure. They conclude that this is a growth sequence, and looking at the photos in the paper I see no reason to doubt this.

As for squamosal elongation, they have a fascinating graph of squamosal length/width against squamosal length (and I hope they don't mind me showing this):

Significant overlap between Triceratops specimens and Torosaurus specimens (I presume the categories of "baby", "juvenile", "subadult" and "young adult" are obtained from osteohistology samples - must read this more fully...). I'd have loved to see some of these analysed using geometric morphometrics - in such analyses elongation is most commonly the largest component of variation, but if you start looking at the smaller components you can get some really interesting results.

This paper highlights a problem that Peter Dodson discussed 35 years ago - that there is a real problem with juveniles and adults being incorrectly classified as different species or genera. Cheneosaurus and Procheneosaurus are juvenile lambeosaurines (which is all reminding me to write up my geometric morphometric Ornithopoda paper...), for example. While, with the benefit of more specimens, better understanding of osteology, microscopic techniques and improved communication within the field, palaeontologists may not be splitting juveniles and adults now, there are undoubtedly question marks raised over some of the rapidly-described skeletons from the Cope-Marsh "Bone Wars" era, of which Brontosaurus-Apatosaurus and Torosaurus-Triceratops are two examples.

I imagine my students will have picked up on this over the summer holidays, so we'll be able to use it as a springboard to talking about classification, taxonomy and the all-important "How Science Works" aspect of the curriculum. Time for me to start practising drawing Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls freehand on an interactive whiteboard!

Scannella, J., & Horner, J. (2010). Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30 (4), 1157-1168 DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2010.483632
Dodson, P. (1975). Taxonomic Implications of Relative Growth in Lambeosaurine Hadrosaurs Systematic Zoology, 24 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2412696

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Another Kick In The Teeth For Micropalaeontologists

Back in June I wrote about the plans to close the Micropalaeontology Division at the Natural History Museum. Looks like there'll be more cuts in that field.

The New York Times has the article: "Gulf Drilling Boom Goes Bust For Key Group Of Scientists". Two companies, Paleo Data and BugWare Inc., look set to fold.

The environmentalist in me doesn't want any more oil wells to be drilled, and I could weep at the destruction the Deepwater Horizon disaster has wrought. But I cannot decry the closure of an academic institution while letting the problems in the industrial branch of the profession go by unacknowledged.

Sad times.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Making Evolution Visible

There has been a flurry of discussion over the news that the creationist Noah's Ark Zoo Farm has been awarded a "Learning Outside the Classroom" quality badge. The TES has a summary of the issues, and quotes:
It has attracted controversy for its views on evolution and creation, arguing that science has tried to "remove any notion of God from our understanding of life".

"This is unjustified and we look to put the case for a Creator across to those who wish to investigate," the zoo's website says.
At least, according to one commenter, Noah's Ark is "a really boring place to go to compared to the excellent Bristol Zoo only 20 minutes away", which should be a deterrent to any teacher looking for a good all-round animal experience for their students.

So it's refreshing to see that there are attractions making evolution part of their own stories. Today, Paul and I visited Birdworld, about an hour's drive away. The birds are marvellous, and pretty tame - Paul handfed an avocet.

There's a mural of extinct giant birds, including Dinornis, Aepyornis and Diatryma, seen with Paul (looking extremely dashing) for scale. And a display on the evolution of birds:

I'd have liked to see "There's a dinosaur in your garden!" rather than "Is there a dinosaur in your garden?", but it's great to see a cast of Archaeopteryx on display. The captions read:
  1. One theory is that some dinosaurs first developed feathers (called proto-feathers) for warmth. These dinosaurs were small, light and fast like birds.
  2. Over time proto-feathers became longer to help with balance when running. Muscles in the forelimbs grew stronger with increased use. Together, the use of proto-feathers whilst running and leaping slowly lead [sic] to flight.
  3. In modern birds the large breastbone acts as an anchor for powerful flight muscles. The wishbone helps brace the chest during flight. They have replaced heavy teeth with a lightweight beak.
It's not perfect - it's more narrative than I'm happy with, and there's a bit of a suggestion of Lamarckism, but there is a nice big section saying "Birds have continued to evolve for improved flight since Archaeopteryx".

It's low-tech - it's a (beautifully) painted board with laminated printout labels. The biggest expense was probably the cast of Archaeopteryx and the model Aepyornis egg. But it doesn't need to be son et lumière with computers and holograms. This works, and it would be great if more wildlife attractions could find it in them to put a bit of evolution back into their displays.

Friday, 30 July 2010

References And Resources

A very interesting discussion is going on via the Dinosaur Mailing List (it's also on the Vert Paleo Mailing List, but there isn't a nice linkable archive for that one). How to cite information in Wikipedia? As such threads are wont to do, it has become more a discussion of whether Wikipedia is reliable, and whether it should be allowed by lecturers and teachers in students' work.

I teach three main groups of students: A-Level, GCSE and BTEC. I expect my GCSE students to be able to use information from my lecture notes, their textbook and any extra handouts I give them. For A-Level students, with the exception of their coursework, that's pretty much the same situation, although I like them to use a range of textbooks if they can. The biggest issues I have are with the BTEC students, on a 100% coursework programme, and when I'm doing coursework with the A-Level kids.

Wikipedia is sometimes an absolute blessing for teaching. I have found high-resolution images of hazard symbols, beautiful human anatomy diagrams, and superb chemical formula PNG files, which fit very nicely into my lecture notes. Used correctly, it is an excellent first port of call, and the key is to look for the sources cited on the Wikipedia page in question, before directing one's attention there.

To this end, for A2 coursework, where the students carried out independent fieldwork, they were banned from citing a Wikipedia source. AS and A2 students are required by the syllabus to evaluate their sources, and so an opportunity presents itself very early on to discuss some of the pitfalls of using Wikipedia. I recall seeing an article some time ago stating that the Spartans won the Battle of Thermopylae due to their use of superior laser weapons[*].

However, I have not, up to this point, made such a restriction on my BTEC students. Perhaps this is because, in general, the A-Level students have grasped the idea of Harvard referencing and reliability of sources more quickly (had it not been for safeguarding, I could have hugged the few BTEC students who, by the end of their first year, had managed to correctly cite a textbook). In reality, I suspect it's been down to laziness on my part. I have to mark one 3000-word paper from each A-Level student each year. I have had to look at, on average, 25 pieces of work from each BTEC student, and I've had double the number of students on the BTEC course. It takes energy to remind students each and every time that Wikipedia is not an unquestionably accurate source.

This is no excuse, of course. And to this end, I am contemplating placing a restriction on my BTEC second year students for this year. I think, however, that I will allow them to use material on Wikimedia Commons, as much of this is original material not available elsewhere.

As for how to cite things, I have found Neil's Toolbox to be a great website for helping students make their Harvard references. I put it in all my Moodle course pages, and spend time with all the students checking that they have the hang of the system. My A2 and BTEC students have all cited primary literature too, which is quite an achievement at this stage. I can't say I'd have known the first thing about primary literature when I was doing A-Levels, let alone be able to cite it.

[*]If you don't know why this is so utterly wrong, then there is no hope...

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