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...

Monday, 26 July 2010

Summer Reading

Unencumbered by PhD study anymore (or more realistically, guilt about not doing any PhD study), I find myself able to relax and indulge my love of reading again - something I haven't managed to do in quite some time. So here's what I'm intending to get through before 16th August...

"Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson
I've been reading this on and off for some time. I read most of it back in April, while I was being tattooed (leading one of the other tattooists to say he had never seen anyone so laid back as me). I have the final few chapters to finish, and I'll do that as soon as I figure out where my husband has "dobbied" the book.

"The Origin Of Species" by Charles Darwin
It is my dirty little scientific secret, that I have never actually read Origin. I have started reading it many times, but to be honest it's not an enthralling read to begin with, and it's quite heavy going. Without the distractions of trying to read it on a commute, however, and being able to curl up on my sofa or in a sun lounger in the garden, it's far more manageable.

"Chocky" by John Wyndham
Having already devoured the newly-discovered "Plan For Chaos", I'm on another Wyndham roll. I very much enjoyed "Plan For Chaos", although the unusual decision of Wyndham to have an American lead grated a little.

"The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins
Always looking for more easily explained and more obvious examples of evolution for my students, a fellow lecturer at college recommended this to me. It's nice to have a colleague who is as rabidly pro-evolution as I am, as there are surprisingly few of us on the staff, even in science (worryingly).

"The Victorian Fern Craze" by Sarah Whittingham
Being something of a pteridophile, I love the idea of having lots and lots of ferns around. One day, when I win the lottery, I will have a cool fernery, a warm fernery and plenty of stumperies around my extensive grounds. Until then, I have a courtyard, a window seat and some aspirations.

"The History Of Science" by Sean Johnston
I studied "History and Philosophy of Science" for a year at Cambridge, and they were some of the most interesting and entertaining classes I ever took (e.g. "Ever notice how the greatest people were always known just by their first names? Galileo, Leonardo, Tycho, Madonna..."). I'd like a refresher, partly for my own interest, and partly to be able to answer more of my students' questions and help them understand the historical significance of theories and discoveries. As I'll be teaching a class on "Perceptions of science" this coming term, it'll help broaden my expertise.

"The Origins Of The British" by Stephen Oppenheimer
It's a big book, but all it'll take will be a few rainy days. I am constantly astounded at British and American right-wingers who complain about immigrants and what a "true" Briton or "true" American is. I eagerly await the day that BNP leader Nick Griffin, wonky-eyed hatemonger-general, is found to be 1/64 Pakistani, so that I can watch him try to vomit up all his internal organs.

"Fossil Plants" by Paul Davis and Paul Kenrick
You can take the girl out of academia, but you can't take the academia out of the girl (that phrase sounds better when it's talking about honky-tonks). So this will keep the old brain cells ticking over a bit, and get my l33t plant taxonomy skillz up to the same high standard as my animal knowledge. I am determined that my final-year students will leave with a new-found appreciation of the plant kingdom, and I hope to do that with more than just a Mimosa pudica (although they are cool).

So that's what I plan to do with myself until the end of the holiday. We're not able to get away anywhere, but I am absolutely knackered. I'd be interested to see what you lot are reading (those of you not lucky enough to be in the field anyway).

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Using The Geoblogosphere In Teaching

Since I'm on a bit of a roll here with the blogging, I'm going for this month's Accretionary Wedge carnival, hosted by the History of Geology blog. It's nice to still feel part of the geoblogosphere - Chris has added Stages Of Succession to the "allgeo" feed, and I'm finding my new niche in the discussion of evolutionary science education and good old scientific literacy.

Over my year of teaching, I have noticed something odd about my students (actually, there are a lot of odd things about my students, but those are other blog posts entirely). They use the internet way more than I do - I receive e-mails from them frequently, and I have lost track of how many times I have to boot the little darlings off Facebook during class time. They have iPhones and Blackberries (one girl has three phones for all the friends she has on different networks), and some enterprising young Polish women use an English-Polish translator on said iPhones to help them understand the course material.

But they are barely dipping their toes in. Beyond Wikipedia they are paralysed by the information (or lack thereof) available, and they have no idea about reliable sources. They are woefully ignorant of lolcats (this I find most distressing). And they do not read blogs. This may be exacerbated by the fact that the college blocks Discover Magazine and ScienceBlogs and flags them up as being pornographic (although the latter is not so much of a problem given the massive exodus of geoblogs from that site). Yet there is great potential for the use of blogs, and within that the geoblogosphere as a pretty coherent entity.

Information for Educators

Firstly, it's a resource for me. Sometimes I find myself teaching outside my comfort zone. I'm very happy teaching anatomy and physiology, and ecstatic teaching ecology and evolution. But there are aspects of climate change, soil science and plate tectonics where sometimes it's nice to have a refresher. Just after Easter, when many of my students were stuck overseas due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, I was able to get maps, diagrams and some awesome images via the geoblogosphere (especially these awesome sunset photos from Highly Allochthonous) to show the students and explain a bit about why there was a volcano in the middle of Iceland.

Case Studies, Handouts and Worksheets

I teach a BTEC National Diploma unit on "Working in the Science Industry". The students look at communication in science, including the whole peer review process and how scientific research reaches the general public. As a double-decker teaching method, where I am teaching both the content and a study skill, I have used this fantastic post by Ed Yong on the use of embargoes. Effectively Ed has taught them the advantages and disadvantages of publishing embargoes, and all I had to do was teach them a bit of comprehension and summarising (thanks Ed!). I would love to use far more blog posts in this way.

And suffice to say, nothing is quite so effective at persuading the students to cite their sources correctly as directing them to the whole Aetogate debacle.

Secondary Resources for Students

My students are pretty smart, to the extent that I have been able to give them mild forms of primary literature (I make this paper required reading for my A2 biologists, and you should read it too if you haven't yet). However, sometimes the research straight from the horse's mouth is a bit too technical for the students to understand fully, which is where bloggers using the Research Blogging service are particularly helpful. Science bloggers are brilliantly placed to translate primary literature, and it is a lot more practical to direct students to blog posts than it is to dig out our old paper copies of New Scientist and Biological Sciences Review (saves the old photocopying budget too). Plus, the course textbooks are shite.

With all of these options available to me, it is no surprise that I consider the geoblogosphere to be really important to my teaching and my students' learning. I'm tempted to let students start their own blog on our college Moodle pages, which should ensure some fresh blood for the blogosphere in a few years' time. Plus it means I have some time to whip them into shape before they embarrass me.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Modular Examinations

No sooner had we got our first group of students through the new Edexcel GCE A-Level Biology course, than the Education Secretary Michael Gove (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Pob) has announced that he would very much like to ditch the current style of modular A-Levels and go back to a single examination at the end of two years to revive "the art of deep thought".

Twelve years ago, when I sat my A-Levels, I was one of the first batches to do modular A-Levels, sitting half or just under half of the qualifications in June 1997 and the remainder in January and June 1998. I don't remember when the modules came in, but it wasn't too long before I took them. I haven't been able to track down the OCEAC syllabus from all those years ago, but it was very content-heavy[1].

I remember having to memorise all the stages of the Krebs Cycle, and being expected to be able to draw it in the exam. Paul remembers similar from his Scottish Higher Biology. I am sure many of my contemporaries will vouch for there being a guaranteed 10-mark question which was essentially "Draw and label a diagram of the Krebs Cycle". My A2 students are not asked to memorise the Krebs Cycle. They are asked to understand the major processes, the generation of ATP and the relationship between glycolysis, phosphorylation, the electron transport chain and various other biochemical processes.

After my initial horror (I did come over all Four Yorkshiremen) that they do not need to be able to draw the lot, nor do they need to be able to spell "succinate", let alone say what it does, I thought about the implications of this. I and my classmates had to memorise a diagram. We needed to know very little about the science as long as we could reproduce the formulae, carry out the calculations and if necessary then compare aerobic and anaerobic processes. How much biology does that test? Very little[2]. On the other hand, my A2s had to be able to relate cellular respiration to everything else we covered in the final unit, including muscles, exercise, drug use, nerves, the eye and habituation. Then for an encore, once they'd got through those questions they had a synoptic question based on secondary scientific literature. More than I ever had to do.

I would argue now that my A2 biologists are better prepared for university than I was. I learnt an awful lot of material by rote, whereas my students have a far more holistic education. Perhaps in contrast to the students being prepared for the AQA syllabus, I have trained my students to adapt their knowledge to new situations and to try to explain phenomena they may not have seen before. Surely this sort of independent thinking that the modular A-Levels allows is what universities are after?

It would appear that my alma mater, Cambridge University, is against terminal exams too, although they see the AS exams at the end of the first year as being valuable indicators of likely achievement, and do consider the current exams to be too modular. But they don't know how to solve this problem. I know what sort of examination I would like to see, but I'm not sure this would be remotely feasible. I would like to see a combination of examinations (30%), coursework (30%) and a good old viva voce (40%)! Michael Gove wants deep thought? Examine it the way higher degrees are examined. Any student who can get an A grade after that will have truly demonstrated a deep understanding of the course material.

The students on my course do not need to know the full Krebs Cycle, nor do they need to calculate water potential in the context of osmosis. They do not do a full analysis of the operation of the kidney and there is a distinct lack of fieldwork (which I am trying to put right). However, the syllabus now contains speciation and phylogenetic analysis, forensic entomology, ethology and behavioural psychology and a lot of ecology. I would far rather be teaching Edexcel in 2010 than OCEAC in 1998.

[1] With the possible exception of an almost worthless module on "Human Health & Disease", serving only to allow the teacher to go round the class and point out everyone she thought had a vitamin deficiency or an eating disorder. It was an all-girls independent school - everyone had an eating disorder!!
[2] I feel I should clarify that despite my inadequate high school qualification in biology I did go on to do classes in biology at university, and indeed hold a MRes in the subject, so I am at least qualified!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Educational Toy Fail

I am a bit of a sucker for globes. I've just asked my dad to order me three inflatable ones from County Supplies. I rescued the globe my grandparents gave me some 25 years ago, and brought it home with me from my parents' house at the weekend. I am mesmerised at how our delineations of the continents has changed in that time. My students, for the most part, do not remember:
  • The USSR
  • West and East Germany
  • Yugoslavia
  • The non-existence of Eritrea as a country

Because I can sit and look at a globe for hours, it saddens me when I see bits of fail in such incredible pieces of kit. Admittedly, the globe itself is pretty good, but this was worthy of a photograph and a pithy comment when I saw it in the stationers earlier this week:

What is this mysterious animal, the Camouflage? I do not doubt that it is highly adapted to its surroundings, but the mind certainly boggles. Perhaps some of my palaeo-artist friends, in a spare five minutes (when you're on the nest would be fine) would like to knock up a quick sketch of a Camouflage for our amusement and lols? Extra points if you can draw something very definitely not suitable for a child's bedroom.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Dinosaurs In Space: How Not To Get Kids Into Science

Unless you have have been in a coma for three months or you rely on getting all your world news from Fox, you will know that we in Blighty have a new party (parties?) in power and a new prime minister. With this, we also have a new science minister, David Willetts MP. He made his first big speech last Friday, in which he said:
"The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs. So that's what I intend to focus on."
Really, David? Really? You are currently battling against a tide of derision and mistrust of scientists spearheaded by the tabloid newspapers. Your predecessors brought in tuition fees and top-up fees that are putting bright students off going to university. The top universities for science in the country are contemplating even higher fees. There are bugger all jobs for scientists in the UK. And a depressingly large number of people still believe in astrology, homeopathy, psychics and detox products. And getting kids more into dinosaurs and space is the way to heal the festering wound that is Britain's disdain for science and scientists?

Don't get me wrong. I bloody love dinosaurs. I am happy as the proverbial pig when I'm in dinosaur country out in the western USA, or visiting a museum, or having them indelibly inked onto my body. But it's rather a western thing, or, dare I say, rather a white thing. I teach a lot of refugees and immigrants in my GCSE classes - very few of them know what dinosaurs are. Yet many of these young people will make excellent scientists, and they need to be encouraged too. They are unlikely to find dinosaurs inspiring.

I think space is pretty awesome too. Ten years ago I would have said you would be hard pressed to find a child who was not either dino-crazy, space-crazy or both. I don't see that anymore. Sure, I took my National Diploma students to the Science Museum a few weeks ago, and the young men in my group would have happily spent all day looking at the various rockets, probes and landers in the space gallery.

Do they want to be astronauts now? No. One of my students said during the previous term that she wanted to be the first Muslim woman in space, until she found out that someone has beaten her to it. I have directed her to my friend Brian Shiro's website, Astronaut For Hire, where she has been reading about some of the amazing projects he has participated in, and I hope I can encourage her to follow her dreams.

But here's the rub - no teacher would say it is sufficient to just expose students to space and dinosaurs. It is not enough to get students to say "Wow - that's cool!" unless they then follow that with "I could do that!". It's all about helping children realise that science is something that people like them do. It's about showing them that scientists are not all old, bald men in white coats, as the Fermilab project "Drawings Of Scientists" has shown.

I have some modest suggestions (you knew I would, right?).
  1. Talk to students about stereotypes of scientists - the images we see in the media, what their own thoughts are.
  2. Get them interacting with real scientists: take them on behind-the-scenes visits to scientific laboratories, or get them involved in the superb I'm A Scientist event. Show scientists in a good light, and for the love of Flying Spaghetti Monster STOP CALLING THEM BOFFINS!
  3. Take every opportunity to help them find out about scientists from their background and culture. Yesterday was the birthday of George Washington Carver (despite the Wikipedia suggestion to the contrary). My students have learnt about Neil deGrasse Tyson, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Rosalind Franklin, Henrietta Lacks, Stephen Hawking, and other scientists or people involved in science, who are not from privileged white male backgrounds (I'm always looking for more inspirational stories of minority scientists, so please drop me a line if you have more to add).
  4. Let students touch science. When covering plant tropisms, all my A2 students (over 18 years old) declared that plants were the Most Boring Things Ever. Which is when I presented them with a Mimosa pudica and changed their minds. They've cut up sheep's hearts, climbed trees, stroked newts and articulated skeletons.
  5. Remember that there are all sorts of science-based careers. My students aspire to study medicine, dentistry, radiography, physiotherapy, sports science, psychology, biochemistry, forensic science, biomedical studies, engineering, chemistry, ecology, palaeobiology and genetics. I doubt many of them were inspired by space or dinosaurs (well, except the palaeobiology student, obviously).
In the end, what David Willetts said about dinosaurs and space is at best, simplistic and naïve, and at worst, downright patronising to the students. Can't we encourage a curiosity in the natural world, the rewarding of intellectual endeavour and the restoration of science to its rightful place as a desirable profession?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Do You Think She Saurus?

There's a fantastically bad joke, most famously featured in "Jurassic Park", and it goes like this:
Q: What do you call a one-eyed dinosaur?
A: Do-you-think-he-saurus!
Nearest and dearest will know that, at the start of May, we lost our other little leopard gecko, Hastur The Unspeakable. We discovered that both she and Mokele had in all likelihood had cryptosporidiosis, which is pretty much a terminal condition. Their deaths opened up a big hole in our lives, and we knew we had to get another gecko soon. Via the Reptile Forums UK rehoming page, we found a little girl.

She was perfectly healthy except that she was missing one eye. As the rescuers didn't know if this was congenital or not, they were only prepared to rehome her to owners who wanted a pet rather than a breeder. Which is where we came in.

This is Dooya, short for Dooya Thinkshesaurus. We think she's about two years old, and she's fighting fit (although she does have a pretty decent pinworm infection right now). In contrast to her predecessors, she is packing in the food. She's putting on about 2g a week, and has plenty of junk in the trunk.

She has worked out what feeding time looks like, and watches Paul as he delves in the giant sack-o-locusts we ordered from Pets Or Meat, tracking the tongs. She licks her lips very frequently, helping to pass chemicals to her Jacobson's organ. She yawns, which is both adorable and annoying, as it's perfectly possible for us to catch the yawn from her, but she's immune to catching it back from us. And today she got a little attack of hiccups - no mean feat for an animal that I didn't think had a diaphragm!

Term ended on Friday, so blogging may resume more frequently. I have a few things to talk about, so it might be sooner rather than later. But now it's time for more gecko love.
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