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...
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