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.
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