Monday, 19 April 2010

Impromptu Geology Lesson

As feared, a number of lecturers are stranded overseas at the moment. This, coupled with the college's network being down for most of the day due to building work, has meant a lot of babysitting of classes for me, coupled with very little in the way of resources other than a whiteboard and pen.

Which is a perfect opportunity to teach the kids about volcanoes, plate tectonics and global climate. Today, with my GCSE and BTEC classes, we covered:
  • tectonic plates
  • the mid-ocean ridges
  • other types of plate boundaries
  • why Iceland exists
  • what the jet stream is
  • how a jet engine works
What we didn't cover was how to a) spell and b) pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. Callan from Mountain Beltway linked to an awesome photo of the eruption:

It's incredibly exciting from an educational point of view to be able to show students geology in action. They understand why aeroplanes needed to be grounded, and by the end of the BTEC class one of my darlings said "Miss, I want to study geology" (although he may have been saying that so I didn't mark him as being 5 minutes late for class).

Incidentally, while classes have proceeded mostly as normal, at Birkbeck, one of the classes cancelled this week is - you've guessed it - "Volcanism Of The Solar System"...

Ask A Biologist Relaunched

Today is the start of the summer term, which in the UK signifies the start of the exams. My students will be sitting GCSE exams from mid-May onwards and A-Level exams from the end of May onwards.

Coincidentally, the superb website Ask A Biologist has been relaunched today, with spiffy new layout, content and super-fast clickability.

So if you're a student with a burning question (e.g. "What happens if you have two Y chromosomes?"), a teacher with a student who has just asked a question that's completely floored you (e.g. "How do snails have sex?"), or a member of the public wanting to bypass the journalists and talk directly to the scientists, go and ask a biologist!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

My Local Candidates On Creationism

On Wednesday I decided to ask my local candidates for Brentford And Isleworth their views on a subject close to my heart. Since all three candidates have Twitter accounts it seemed like a good forum:
Question for @Ann_Keen, @MaryMacleod4MP and @andrewdakers: should creationism be on the science curriculum alongside evolution? #GE2010
The first response came from - you've guessed it - my Lib Dem PPC, Andrew Dakers, who sent me a public response thus:
I think it is reasonable for creationism to be on the curriculum but I would not advocate it being on the 'science' curriculum.
Good - nice clear response and it is clear he would not be in favour of it being on the science curriculum. This makes me happy.

A day later, the Conservative PPC Mary Macleod sent me a DM (not sure why she didn't feel this was something she could @reply):
I think we should discuss different views within the curriculum including creationism, although this is down to faith perhaps not science.
Really not that clear what she'd be in favour of - do I need to "teach the controversy" or would she be happy enough for me not discussing any supernatural ideas in my science class? As she won't follow me back I can't DM her and ask for further clarification.

And what of our current MP, Ann Keen? Here's her response:
Yeah, that'd be no acknowledgement whatsoever. It would appear from her Twitter feed that she's plenty busy enough metaphorically fellating Gordon Brown and making out that the Labour Party are going to win, but this is by no means the first direct question she has ignored from myself and my husband (Paul has been in touch about the impending closure of the Tropical Zoo).

For the people who are reading the manifestos, who are watching the televised debates and engaging with their local candidates, most are finding that the Lib Dems are doing incredibly well - in some post-debate surveys from Thursday night Nick Clegg had over 60% of the votes. However, there will be problems with likely low voter turnout numbers, along with the "I've voted for X all my life and I'm going to continue to vote for X" lot.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Inkasaurus Rex

After nearly a decade of wanting a Camarasaurus skull tattooed on my back, I have one. I spent about two and a half hours in the chair yesterday (getting about halfway through Rachel Carson's "The Silent Spring" in the process) in order to get this beauty:

I am indebted to the wonderful Darek at Ouch! Tattoo, who does the most amazing black and grey designs. He dubbed my Metasequoia cone a "freaky freaky tattoo" when he did it a year ago, and was equally nonplussed about doing a dinosaur skull (but I think he really enjoyed doing it). I would strongly advise anyone in London looking for a palaeo-tattoo to check out his work and take along some ideas to him.

I'm now all wrapped up in cling-film (just because of where the tattoo is - I was advised to do this for a few days so it doesn't get rubbed by the waistband of my trousers) and wondering if this could help me lose a bit of weight too!

Needless to say, something like that hurts like a bastard to be done as the bone is so close to the skin, and although I don't understand the superficial nerves of the back it's always fascinating to see where the human body thinks the pain sensation is coming from!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Voting For Science

I am a self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal, and it's coming up to election time. So prepare for some hand-wringing and political posturing (those of you unfortunate to follow me on Twitter will already have seen that starting to crank up to speed).

Science and its status in society and education is a big issue for me, so it's time to look at the political parties' manifestos now that the Big Three have published theirs (sorry Green Party, you've got great ideas and all, but since I don't even know if you have a candidate in my constituency I'm guessing you're not really trying this time round). In alphabetical order:


Sticking on the auto-search to wade through 131 pages of the Tory manifesto, we get to this:
  • encouraging the establishment of joint university-business research and development institutes
  • initiating a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils
  • creating a better focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects in schools
  • establishing a new prize for engineering
Okay, I like the bit about focusing on STEM in schools. That's worthwhile. Onto more about education:
  • pay the student loan repayments for top Maths and Science graduates for as long as they remain teachers, by redirecting some of the current teacher training budget
Personally I like that - I'd very much appreciate not have to pay £100 a month of my student loan when I'm earning a full-time salary. But I'm not okay with having the teacher training budget diverted. Retention of excellent teachers is very important, but you also need to train new ones.
  • allow all state schools the freedom to offer the same high quality international exams that private schools offer – including giving every pupil the chance to study separate sciences at GCSE
How about rather than the opportunity to study separate sciences making it compulsory to study at least one science? I saw countless students at enrolment last year who did not have any qualification in any kind of science. A level of scientific literacy should be as vital as other basic skills.


The current government's manifesto is really difficult to read, but they at least have a sub-section entitled "Investing in science and research", from which we can glean these points:
  • We are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review
  • We will provide focused investment for Technology and Innovation Centres, developing technologies where the UK has world-leading expertise
  • We will also support university research through the Higher Education Innovation Fund, and through the development of a new University Enterprise Capital Fund
So a pledge to protect science funding is a great thing, and an injection of cash into academic research is also much needed. However, I can't help but wonder why Labour have spent the past 13 years cutting money going to science and research... On to education:
  • More young people will be able to study single science subjects and modern foreign languages
  • In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees
As opposed to more funding for bullshit "degrees" in tourism for people who want a job in a travel agents. About time.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems make it very easy indeed to find their science policies with a whole section devoted to it:
  • Respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the Comprehensive Spending Review process, is not used for other purposes
  • Ensure that the decisions on the funding of research projects are made on the basis of peer review not Whitehall interference, while recognising the need for government to identify broad strategic priorities in a transparent manner
  • Ensure that all state-funded research, including clinical trials, is publicly accessible and that the results are published and subject to peer review
  • Reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors
  • Tackle the gender gap at all levels of scientific study and research to help increase the supply of scientists
  • Safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics
Did you see that? Third point down - they're pledging open access publications!! What do you think to that one, oh Open Source Paleontologist? And there's more - the Lib Dems seem to be the only party promoting science for science's sake, treating the pursuit of science as a worthwhile career. There is an intellectual curiosity among the Lib Dems that I do not see in the other two parties - in much the same way that Barack Obama shows intellectual curiosity whereas George W Bush showed fart jokes.

And heading into the education section:
  • First to attract more top graduates into teaching. We will improve training for existing teachers over the course of their careers to keep them up to date with best practice. We will seek to ensure that science at Key Stage 4 and above is taught by appropriately qualified teachers
  • Give 14–19 year-olds the right to take up a course at college, rather than at school, if it suits them better. This will enable all children to choose to study, for example, separate sciences or modern languages at GCSE, or a vocational subject
Speaking as someone who narrowly missed being taught chemistry by a teacher who did not have A-Level chemistry, I'd be down with having qualified science teachers! And college can be the making of a student - I have several students who came from schools where they were disruptive and not applying themselves, and they've settled into college life and become my top learners.

To be honest, I think the Lib Dems win this one hands down, despite some common points. I find it very difficult to see any other option for anyone involved in science. And that's before we get onto any of the other subjects close to my heart (reproductive rights, immigration and asylum, human rights and healthcare). Ian Hopkinson has already spoken of his reasons for voting Lib Dem, and he points out their not-so-secret weapon in Dr Evan Harris, the science spokesman. Now if only more people knew about him...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Biologist's Dilemma

During the last week of term, I ordered a dozen sheep hearts for the A2 students to dissect. It is my greatest hope that some of my students become biologists like these two:

Friday, 2 April 2010

Things I Learned From My Students #4: The Easter Holidays

Two-thirds of the way through my first year of teaching, it's time to divulge some more of the little nuggets of wisdom I have picked up from my students.
  1. A surprisingly large number of students like Bon Jovi.
  2. Every group of biology students thinks they're the first ones to ever put the class skeleton into THAT position.
  3. It's really difficult trying to get a lot of very passionately anti-choice teenagers to think objectively about the biology of abortion.
  4. Despite the alleged low attention span of the average teenager, they will sit and watch a video for a whole hour completely rapt.
  5. The Spearman Rank Correlation test will become the Spearmint Rhino test in no time.
  6. Pebble jars with incentives like class trips really work.
  7. Whoopee cushions make great impromptu buzzers for quiz-show-style activities...
  8. ...But they render the student incapable of answering due to an attack of the giggles.
  9. For a teacher, being officially graded is not as important as being asked by the kids whether you will be teaching them next year.
  10. It is really awesome when your kids come running to the staffroom to say they got an offer at University X.
  11. It's even more awesome when you know they hadn't considered a) that university or b) that course until you became their teacher.
  12. The same students who feel queasy about touching a real human bone will not think twice about getting stuck into a sheep's heart.
  13. A "that's what she said" joke can even be incorporated into a dissection class.
  14. Eventually, all the students will enjoy fieldwork.
  15. Students would rather pee in the woods than use a chemical toilet.
  16. Finding a live newt is a big deal.
  17. For some students, touching a newt is the first time they have ever touched a species other than their own.
  18. Bribery and corruption works - extensions on informal deadlines can easily be paid for in Bounty bars (for the Merkins - Bounty is like Almond Joy without the almond).
  19. A-Level Biology may be the only subject where you can discuss whether being kicked in the nuts is more painful than childbirth without it really being off-topic.
  20. Dissection makes people hungry. Fact.
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