Friday 30 December 2011

Nekkid Lady Backbone Sculpture

This week I've been earning back the car's new exhaust by tutoring on a course. I've walked through Cavendish Square each morning, and noticed an interesting sculpture.

It's a human spine. Cavendish Square is noted for the presence of the Royal College of Nursing, and it is next to Harley Street, the street for private medical practices (though I do occasionally offer a "quack quack" under my breath passing some of the clinics...). So I had a closer look.

There are 24 vertebrae there, corresponding to the seven cervical, twelve thoracic and five lumbar vertebrae. Three curvatures can be seen (perhaps a little kyphotic!), the dorsal surfaces are facing left and the ventral surfaces are facing right. But hang on a minute, those are funny looking vertebrae - I mean, my mum's had as many back operations as I've had margaritas, but even her spine is in better nick! Time to find out what's going on here.

Oh. OH. Right, it's art. Let's make a spine out of decapitated female torsos. Umm. Oh look, there's a plaque to go along with the sculpture.

I suggest that, while you read that, you grab your cheek with your thumb and forefinger and pull it in and out really quickly. That'll give you the appropriate auditory accompaniment. In that it will sound like a load of pretentious wank.

It's apparently been there since May. I'm not someone who goes crazy over art. I stood in the final hall of the Tate Britain Watercolour exhibition earlier this year shrieking indignantly at Paul: "It's a teaspoon. A fucking teaspoon. Covered in paint. For fuck's sake!" And at the Royal Academy summer exhibition I nearly took the Pink Pen of Doom to Tracey Emin's "Me Too - Glad To Hear I'm A Happy Girl" to correct "your" to "you're".

However, if pretentious arses want to produce a load of shite and get paid to do it, then more power to them. I just hope the funding for Westminster's City of Sculpture has not been diverted from other budgets. I really feel that the arts must continue to receive funding (and we happily pay for RA membership to contribute in a small way to this), but what makes me uneasy is that this festival is in aid of the 2012 Olympics, and an awful lot of money has already been siphoned from more needy budgets into this yawning black hole.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Happy Solstice

Jabba Claws is not renowned for his time-keeping, but he would nevertheless like to take the opportunity to wish you all a Happy Solstice, along with any other festivals that involve eating lots and leaving out waxworms for gecko visitors.

Remember, he watches you intently when you're sleeping, and he runs and hides in his cave when you're awake. And if you've been extra good this year, then he might leave you a festive Yule log in Poo Corner on Christmas morning.

Monday 19 December 2011

Christmas Presents

It's difficult to escape the topic at this time of year - teachers all over the world must be comparing their Christmas presents from the students. For a couple of years I watched as my colleagues got bottles of wine, chocolate, "best teacher" mugs and even £200 (!). And though I know there is not a vastly well supported correlation between "number of presents" and "quality of teacher", it nagged at me.

This year, however, my students went to town. A2 students bought me spirits - a litre of Baileys and a litre of tequila (they know me very well...). One gave me a necklace she'd asked to be sent over from Kenya. There's a nice little box of Ferrero Rocher too. I took part in my BTEC students' Secret Santa, and received a gorgeous perfume set from one lad who managed to keep his identity secret for about half a millisecond. And then I had this:

This had me in tears in the staffroom. Hand-drawn and painted by one of my AS students. It's hanging up at home now.

As sickly sweet and sacchariney it is, of course the thing I've found most touching has been what has accompanied each present - "thank you for all your help". In a line right out of Hallmark, the knowledge that I have helped these students in some way, through proof-reading personal statements, writing UCAS references, advising on university choices, counselling through personal grief, and spending one-to-one time with them on biology, chemistry and physics work, is the best Christmas present of all.

Though the booze definitely helps.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The Sound Of A-Level Revision

Back in October I announced that I had set up an Audioboo account under the name "BioLecturer" with the intention of producing short podcasts of the specification points for the AS and A2 Edexcel criteria.

I have, after two full days of shouting into my laptop, completed Topic 1, Topic 5 and Topic 2, in that order. So I'm alternating AS and A2 topics. I have Topic 6 to complete, which may not be so great as it's the only one I haven't taught this year (though I did teach it for the previous two years so it should be okay).

Listen on!

So you can listen to my dulcet tones if you're really interested. A number of the teachers on Twitter have already given the links to their students, so I hope that they're already getting some mileage out of them. I'll see my AS students on Tuesday and the A2s on Wednesday, so I'll have a chance to tell them then.

As so often happens, I expect to receive nothing but criticism from the students for missing bits out or not being quick enough uploading, or not getting it done over half-term. I put all my notes up on Moodle, along with copies of the handouts, worked homework answers after they have had feedback, past papers and useful links to extra resources. However, if I'm two days late putting the notes up, I get complaints. Clearly I've spoilt my students...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Pride Before A Fall

As has happened so many times in the past, the happiness always seems short-lived. The pride I felt yesterday at my achievements has had the edge taken off it with what I think was a crappy observation today.

I had high expectations for my group, AS Biology. I love teaching them - they are usually the most eager to learn, well-behaved and happy to answer questions. They're a dream group. We were recapping on pedigrees and genetic diagrams, doing some practice papers and then moving on to looking at cystic fibrosis, the big Topic 2 case study. It was the sort of lesson they were used to, which for that group gets results.

The observer arrived halfway through (I knew it was a middles-and-ends obs). And all hell broke loose. The enthusiastic students morphed into a barely controllable bunch of australopithecines. They would not be quiet while others were speaking, and suddenly seemed to have the attention span of a hyperactive squirrel. So suffice to say I don't think it went well.

Now, I've had crappy observations when I've had feral students refusing to learn (the second group of BTEC students per year is usually the worst behaved, as we fill up one group at enrollment then add in subsequent groups, so the motivation and ability decreases as the group numbers increase...). I've had groups where my attempts to induce learning have failed miserably (the A2 action potential lesson was memorable in that regard), and where students have said the most bewildering things (another A2 asking, in all innocence, whether the SEM image of a stoma was the female external genitalia).

However, the thing that's got me troubled this evening is the general observation by myself, colleagues and my former PGCE tutors that if a group likes their teacher, they tend to behave better than usual in observations, and if they don't like them, then they act up to get their teacher into trouble. I got an inkling today that the latter might be the case, and that has shaken me a little, especially given my high regard for this group. Teaching isn't a popularity contest - if the students do well in their exams and go on to higher education or training, then objectively it doesn't matter if they hate me.

But it matters on a personal level.

Monday 5 December 2011

Three Masters' And A Cert Ed...

In my mission to collect as many degrees as I can, I have added a Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) to the array of qualifications I have. I graduated today at Royal Festival Hall, along with loads of the friends I have made over the past two years. Paul was there to support, hold bags and generally be a rather dashing cheerleader. He also took a few photos of me looking like a right wazzock:

A gin and tonic, a walk across the stage, a handshake and two glasses of prosecco later, and we were standing on the balcony overlooking the Thames.

I went into college this morning all dressed up. Most of the comments from the Year 1 BTEC group were along the lines of "You look really professional Miss" (which rather implies that I don't normally...). However, the Year 2 lot, mostly young men, were a little more appreciative, saying they didn't think they'd be able to concentrate on work, that they wished I'd go graduating a bit more often, and pretending to warm their hands on me (!). Thank goodness they're all adults...

Back to work tomorrow in sensible jeans, t-shirt and flat-heeled boots, to disappoint hormonal boys.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Strike Three! And Being A Versatile Teacher

I'm on strike today as a member of UCU. My husband decided he couldn't walk past his colleagues on the picket line today, and so despite being on a fixed-term contract and therefore not likely to be able to benefit from union membership, he signed up for UNISON. We stood side by side on the picket line this morning outside college, and I think my students were highly amused to see me there. My hope is that they've seen that, having spent the week explaining why I'm striking, I'm not all mouth and no trousers.

I've been plagued by a black dog for a few days. In my previous jobs I'd have found it impossible to do any work, and would have been mindlessly surfing the net. That isn't an option anymore. Everyone's experience is different, and some find teaching makes it worse, but it's been a life-saver for me. I have to walk into that laboratory and teach, and I have to deal with the students, and I have to get them comfortable enough with the topics that they can cope with the exams and advance to university.

Coming out of the funk, I decided I would call the black dog Fenton. Mainly because when Paul and I see it running wild in my mind, we both sit there and cry "Oh Jesus Christ!"...

I got pissed off with the BBC News - in a story on MPs anger as science proposals are 'rejected', there was the following quote:
A survey published by the Wellcome Trust on Tuesday found too many newly qualified science teachers lacked the specialist knowledge they needed to teach the subject effectively.

The research showed that half of trainee science teachers are in fact biologists, who often struggle to pick up chemistry and physics knowledge during their one-year post-graduate teacher training courses.
I've looked at the Wellcome Trust press release, and I fail to see where they say that us biologists struggle with physics and chemistry knowledge. Seems like crap journalism to me.

I'm unimpressed with the accusation levelled at biologists. Mainly because, in my department, I am by far the most versatile of the teachers. Sure, I teach A-Level Biology, and the BTEC Level 3 Physiology, Genetics and Plant Sciences units. But I also have to teach units at level 3 (KS5, sixth form, or 11-12th grade for the colonials) on law, media studies, politics, philosophy and psychology. At level 2 (KS4, 9-10th grade), I regularly teach chemistry and physics. And I do a damn good job.

I've been tutoring AS Chemistry - my inorganic chemistry is a bit rusty, but my organic and physical chemistry is pretty fresh still. I've also started tutoring AS Physics to the same student - one of my biologists who is really struggling. I can't remember much of my quantum physics, and I rather suspect it has changed a bit in the 13 years since I studied it. However, projectiles and viscosity don't change very much, and in the space of two hours I achieved more than a colleague had in six weeks. I'm pretty sure I am just one of a large number of biology teachers who are very happy with chemistry and physics. Maybe there are biologists who shy away from maths. There are certainly physicists who find biology repulsive and respond viscerally to the thought of teaching it - every physics teacher I work with is like that. But I also know physicists who love to teach the other subjects too.

Maybe I'm lucky because I did Natural Sciences. I got to study aspects of all the sciences, and to develop a holistic view of the subject. I've done more chemistry and mathematics than pure biologists. In doing HPS as a second year subject, I learnt about philosophy, and some of the more interesting "How Science Works" bits of the course. The stress v strain and viscosity calculations I did in geophysics are beyond anything the A2 physicists have to do. Yes, at the moment I'm bragging. Because teachers are degraded and reviled at the moment, and now the BBC is trying to say biology teachers in particular are rubbish.

I'm one of many science teachers comfortable teaching any aspect of science. As Taylor Mali says, the miracle is education - I'm just the worker.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Caring For Students

One of the more hurtful comments I see from time to time about women who do not have children is that we are incapable of empathy. It is a ridiculous assumption, but it's bandied about more times than I care to recall. This week has been a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting reminder of why such assumptions are bollocks.

By the time I start teaching most of my students, they are already 18, so there are rarely any safeguarding issues. Students can therefore come to any member of staff and talk about things in absolute confidence. For many reasons - I'm one of the younger lecturers, I teach biology (making me a target for all health-related questions), and I have a reputation for being available for students out of teaching hours - students confide in me more than any other member of staff, often including their tutors.

So at the moment I'm supporting three students through some major personal difficulties. I've held up the next class at the door letting a student say what they need to say or seek advice. I've extended deadlines or forfeited homeworks altogether. I spent over two hours helping one student get to grips with AS Chemistry, though it's over 13 years since I did it myself.

On the flip side of this, I've had to discipline two A2 students for plagiarism. They say they were so worried about not having any homework to hand in to me that they resorted to copying a friend's. I had to explain to them why I was so much harder on cases of plagiarism than other teachers - that I had been a direct victim of a minor case of it, and that I had seen it cause major problems for friends. I spent an hour with these two, them licking their wounds and accusing me of hating them. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Sometimes truly caring for students means having to tell them off when they do something unacceptable, to impose sanctions on them, and to punish them if needed. Sometimes caring is giving up your free time to help them, or even just sitting there quietly with them while they sit there quietly. Sometimes it's buying Hill & Holman's "Chemistry In Context" and Muncaster's "A Level Physics" so you can fill in the gaps left by your colleagues. Not bad for someone with a barren, nulliparous womb...

The hardest thing is not losing myself. Everything I'm doing at the moment is nurturing, mothering, caring. I look after the students. I look after my garden. I look after Jabba (always able to cheer me up when I'm shattered). Paul thinks that photography might be the thing that allows me to be just me and do something for myself. The macro lens I've asked for as a Christmas present will help.

Some have said I'll worry less the more experienced I become. But I don't really like the thought of worrying less, of caring less. Though I am absolutely exhausted, and find myself lying in bed unable to sleep, thinking about these students, I think I would be a worse teacher if I didn't take such personal responsibility for their well-being.

Thursday 17 November 2011


There have been two articles resurfacing (as it turns out) in the press. One of them is an opinion piece by the Chancellor of Buckingham University (link - it's so awful my college has blocked it "because the content contained prohibited words and/or phrases"). It talks about female students being a "perk" for male lecturers and professors. Read the Guardian article on the subject - it isn't blocked for porn.

The other is a short fiction article in that bastion of hyperbolic science Nature. It's entitled "Womanspace" (or there's the PDF). It passed without much comment when it was published - just goes to show no one reads Nature for the short stories. It was only when two responses were published in today's correspondence section that women in science started to prick up their ears.

Anne Jefferson has written a brilliant response: Dear Nature, You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too. And this is it - Henry Gee (@cromacrox if you're interested...) is the Senior Editor of Nature. He approved the publication of this story. He even had the nerve to gloat afterwards:
I'm amazed we haven't had any outraged comments about this story.
Well you got them now, Henry. And you probably think it's going to drive more and more traffic to you, and that there's no such thing as bad publicity. My husband @panderson1979 has suggested that a campaign to the advertisers might hit Nature where it hurts. There's a whole hashtag, #womanspace, devoted to it already. I imagine the author, @edrybicki, is waking up to some interesting replies this morning.

I commented to a friend on Twitter that so much sexism seems to be as a result of a few men thinking they're being funny. And I imagine Ed Rybicki thinks it was rather funny. And I imagine Henry Gee thought it was also funny and a jolly good wheeze. Henry Gee has prided himself on striving for equality in academia, and especially tackling institutionalised anti-semitism. Yet he approves a discriminatory fiction story because it's discriminatory against a group of which he is not a member. He would not have published a story entitled "Jewspace". One could not get away with writing the sentence, and Henry would not publish it:
"But the answer is clear: Jews can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not."
The article would be offensive if "blacks" or "gays" was substituted in for "women". From "Blackspace":
"I said, only half-joking: 'Well, blacks seem to be able to do that - maybe they’re getting into spaces we poor guys can't?'"
And from "Gayspace":
"Gays, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish."
Just to be clear, these are unacceptably discriminatory sentences. So why would Henry Gee allow these things to be said about women in his journal?

It is hard enough to be a woman in science, and sexism is rife in academia. Sexism and the enabling of sexist behaviour is one of the many reasons I am "just" an FE lecturer, when I could have been a PhD. I fear for my female students' welfare as I send them off to university each September, and hope that their enthusiasm and optimism for their future isn't eroded away too quickly.

Update: As well as Anne's post linked to above, also look at The Biology Files and Science Sushi, who have further thoughts. And for an editor and publisher's take on this, look at my awesome husband Paul's Open Letter to Nature. Paul is fortunate enough to be 50% of one of many couples that proudly show the 1950s stereotype to be utter fiction...

Saturday 12 November 2011

A Coincidence

When two or more palaeontologists are in the same room, it is inevitable that one will suggest going for an alcoholic beverage of some description. So when real cider-lover Dave Hone stopped by for a chat and to inspect the gecko, I suggested we hit the Red Lion, home to real ales, real cider, the European pork scratchings mountain, and Eddie the cross-dressing dog. And, it would appear, pterosaurs:

It's a model of the Pterodactylus gargoyle on the front of the Natural History Museum, part of an exhibit by a local artist, Mac, who had died earlier that year. Shown, of course, with Dave for scale.

There was another Pterodactylus closer to the bar, but it was wearing a pink feather boa and wasn't so exciting (or maybe we'd just had too many pints by that point). Still, something of a fortunate coincidence to be able to take a pterosaur palaeontologist to a pub with a few pterosaur models kicking around.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Things I Learned From My Students #10: Somebody's Watching Me

I haven't done one of these for a while - nearly a year in fact. The two weeks since half-term have been absolutely mad, but that at least means some more ammunition for this.

So here's what I've learned from the little sods recently:
  1. The words "turgid" and "flaccid" are hilarious.
  2. I can still just about pass for someone in their late 20s.
  3. Everything can be expressed as "bare", "sick", "peak", "long" or a combination of any of the previous.
  4. It is a matter of some concern that a woman with my qualifications should be a teacher in an FE college.
  5. We have a child's skull in our anatomy collection.
  6. I can use this fact to extract homework from the younger students.
  7. Students may think they want to be surgeons, but they recoil in horror at a horse dissection and the autopsy scene in "Contagion".
  8. Apparently a 31-year-old, married, female biology teacher needs to be told the location of the G-spot.
  9. If your physiology class contains mostly boys, then at some point each week someone will ask about masturbation.
  10. The question biology teachers are asked most frequently is "What does this rash mean?".
  11. Supposedly mature students returning to study still think it's appropriate to refer to "poo" when writing about the digestive system.
  12. If one student misses the day of the presentation, they can have an extension. If half the class misses the day of the presentation, half the class fails.
  13. It's surprisingly difficult explaining to students how a Placebo Band works.
  14. No one teaches these kids how to draw graphs at KS3 or KS4. As a result there are 18-year-olds drawing graphs in biro without a ruler on 20% of the page.
  15. Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Monday 31 October 2011

A Word From Our Sponsor

The resident gecko on Stages Of Succession would like to wish you a very happy Samhain, and feels that an appropriate way to celebrate such an occasion is to give him lots of waxworms.

In fact, in the traditions of the festival, if you treat him with waxworms, he won't crap all over your hand.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Boo! Using Audioboo In Teaching

I joined Audioboo a short while ago. Paul has already used it for brief extracts and short stories, and as he's often the leader technology-wise in our household, I saw what he was doing with it and thought about how I could use it in my own role.

Last year, a dyslexic student asked me if there was any resource for A-level biology that he could listen to. I was able to refer him to Examstutor, but I don't know how good the podcasts are (oh if I had time to listen to podcasts!). I wondered if I could use Audioboo to make my own revision bite-size podcasts.

The result was the BioLecturer Audioboo feed. I've only done a few so far - the aim is to get AS Topic 1 sorted before the end of this week, and then move on to A2 Topic 5, then AS Topic 2 and A2 Topic 6.

Listen on!

With the caveat that you can all say "I think you'll find it's a bitmore complicated than that" about everything in the specification, I'd be grateful for feedback, listens, comments - if I've got something wrong or if there's something the students might find interesting associated with the boo, please leave a comment on my profile.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Museum Shop Items

Yesterday, Paul and I went into London to see the "Private Eye: The First 50 Years" exhibition at the V&A Museum, followed by the "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" and "After Hours" at the Natural History Museum. All were excellent, of course.


Being an advocate of avoiding stereotypes, especially for younger children, I was distinctly unimpressed to see this in the V&A gift shop:

The "Good Things for Girls" pack contains a skipping rope, colouring pencils and a knitting doll. The "Good Things for Boys" pack contains dominoes, juggling balls and a boat. Now, to my mind, there is no reason why boys can't enjoy skipping, colouring and knitting, nor why girls wouldn't appreciate dominoes, juggling or sailing a toy boat. However, they have been neatly packaged into the "traditional" roles.

I do bang on about this, but I have real trouble with an organisation that advocates itself as an academic institution (there are strict eligibility criteria for the use of the domain), which happily sells items that do not promote equality of opportunity for all children.

On a different note, there were no gender issues at the NHM, but there was a nice bit of taxonomy-fail:

Echinoids being confused for trilobites? Crinoids being confused for ferns? I think someone had a long day.

As an aside, we saw the newly-refurbished dinosaur gallery at the NHM. It's still dark, still dingy, still impossible to take a photo of an entire skeleton, still utterly inferior to pretty much every single dinosaur hall I have ever seen at a museum (I'm sure someone made a point about this a few weeks ago but I can't find the blog post to credit them). I don't know what they did in the refurb - there were a couple of new panels, and a bit of new CGI. The science is still mostly good, but bland and uncontroversial enough that it's good for a few more decades I suppose (!). It wouldn't even need so much high-tech stuff - just specimens, clean, well-lit, accurately mounted, with information about them. Or is that not enough of a money-spinner these days?

Thursday 27 October 2011

UCAS Applications: A Vignette

It is a Monday morning. My Year 2 BTECs have just had their tutorial, and are working on UCAS applications. As most of the students are ahead of their deadlines for my unit ("Physiology of Human Regulation and Reproduction"), I give them the option to stay in the classroom, where there are some computers, or go to the library (translation: bugger off to the common room for an hour). A handful of students remain, and as I know they are planning to apply for biology-based courses at university, I offer to help them.

I look up from my marking to see one of the boys staring wide-eyed at the following website:

"Tarquil," I say (names changed to protect the guilty). "Why are you looking at that website?"
"Yeah, Miss," says Tarquil. "Jocasta told me I could do this as a job."

I look over at Jocasta. She works in a local coffee shop at weekends, and is always keen to upgrade me from a small to a medium latte. She's a bright one. I start giggling. "Jocasta, did you really tell him that?"
"Of course," says Jocasta.
"Good girl," I say. "Extra tip for you next time I'm in the coffee shop."


A week later, I come in and Tarquil is looking at this website instead:

I make eye contact with Jocasta. She winks.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Microteaches #6: What Day Is It?

I don't remember being so tired coming into the first half-term of the year before. I've had to be reminded several times this week what day it is. As I went into college on Monday to do some marking, Tuesday felt like Saturday. Today felt like a weird hybrid of Saturday and Sunday. And now half-term is nearly over. Meh.

So here's some of the stuff I've been favouriting (watch the English teacher I'm married to cringing at the imaginary word...) on Twitter and in my feeds.

There's an uplifting report on women's progress in STEM, reported in the Huffington Post. I'm not overly impressed by the image used to illustrate it - blue liquid in a graduated test tube, being held by a beautifully manicured finger that is no doubt wholly impractical for the majority of scientific lab work.

However, the positive aspect of the HuffPo article is tempered by a LinkedIn study reported in Jezebel that one in five professional women have never had a professional mentor, let alone a female one. Might I still be in academia if I had? Maybe. I know that the day one female professor came to find me, told me she could see I was suffering from depression and that she was taking me for a coffee and a damn good chat was one of the brightest moments of my whole dismal experience in St Louis.

I don't have to enforce a uniform, thank FSM. I know muggins would end up being the one volunteered to tell the girls their skirts were so short one could see what they'd had for breakfast. According to the Torygraph, schools are increasingly banning skirts in favour of trousers to ensure girls don't look like ladies of negotiable affection and incur the interest of prospective rapists. Yeah, right, because no schoolgirl wearing trousers has ever been raped. I remember there being quite a to-do about whether we got to wear trousers at school. My mum, as the wife of one of the deputy heads, went up against the headmaster's wife, and won - trousers became part of the uniform. Didn't stop my chemistry teacher writing up on the board at the start of the lesson:

Sure, dress your lower limbs in pants;
Yours are the legs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance...
Have you seen yourself retreating?

Turns out a large number of the young people caught rioting in August were in receipt of free school meals and/or on the special educational needs register. And yet we're facing the deepest education cuts since the 1950s. Something doesn't quite add up - probably the budget-holder at the Department for Education.

Some oddly familiar psychadelic images from science textbooks have been dug up. Is it any wonder all us biology teachers are a bit weird?

Creationism continues to loom, though I am heartened that the OCR A-level Biology specification quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky (I want to move exam boards for A-level). There is a call for more stringent guidelines on teaching creationism. There may be reason for optimism in the face of Muslim opinion on evolution - this is something I'm following closely, as I'm very much hoping to write up my PGCE research as a paper.

Finally, Kevin Zelnio has issued a call to arms on evolutionary biology and viral marketing - the last thing we want is for creationist websites to be the top hits on Google!

Sunday 23 October 2011

Science Ink: It's Here! (Nearly)

Everyone who knows me knows I have tattoos. I am fortunate enough to not be remotely required to cover the ink when at work (it is one of the things I love about working at the college), and it gets to be a conversation point. I submitted photos of them to Carl Zimmer's Science Tattoo Emporium. When he asked for high-resolution versions for a book he was writing on science tattoos, I (along with hundreds of others) obliged.

The result of several years' work is "Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed" (link for British customers).

© Carl Zimmer, used with permission (of course!)

There are reviews on Carl's website. The Americans get it released on Tuesday 1st November - in Blighty we have to wait nearly another week.

Which tattoos went in? These two:


There are more on the horizon. But of course ink is an expensive investment and requires careful saving. I'm also a firm believer that planning, thinking about design and making sure the design is right for and unique to you is the key to not regretting it. A Darwin doodle - the famous "I think" tree - is one I want (though I am aware there are many evolutionary biologists with the same). I want a gecko - not one of my geckos, but a stylised one, just over my shoulderblade. I'd love one on my hip, or snaking up my side, but perhaps that should wait until I've lost a bit of weight - if nothing else it might be a bit cheaper then...

I could look at tattoos all day - I'm fascinated by them. I'm contemplating asking our library to order a copy of the book too (wouldn't that be awesome?), so if it's good enough for the college library it's good enough for your coffee tables. It'll make a great early Squidmas present.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Contagion And Edexcel Topic 6

Paul and I have just got in from seeing "Contagion" at the cinema. It's a film I'm thinking about taking the A2 class to see, as in Topic 6 of Unit 4 they have to cover infectious diseases. It'd be quite good fun, I think, though I am also thinking about questions I could ask them on a worksheet afterwards. I'm going to throw out some ideas about the film and its relevance to A-Level Biology, so I should warn you now that this post will contain SPOILERS.

The disease is a virus, spread via fomites. I may ask students: Can you name other means of transmitting a pathogen from one organism to another? What advice is given to people to prevent spread of the disease via fomites?

Dr Erin Mears explains the use of the R0, the basic reproduction number. MEV-1 is estimated to have an R0 of 2, which means as Alan points out, after 30 steps that's 1 billion people infected - 230 is 1,073,741,824. After a phylogenetic analysis MEV-1 is found to have an R0 of 4. Assuming a global population of 7 billion, how many days will it take to infect the entire human population? Why are 100% of the population actually unlikely to be infected?

A phylogenetic analysis of the virus is produced. What characters would they have used in order to produce a phylogeny?

The virus infects the lungs and the brain. How does it destroy all the cells in which it is grown? What is responsible for the symptoms shown by the infected people?

Dr Ally Hextall injects herself with a vaccine that is found to be effective in Rhesus macaques. She then exposes herself to the virus. What are the ethical implications of this action? How do clinical trials normally work (refer to AS study on clinical trials)? How could Dr Hextall's actions have jeopardised the research and development of the vaccine?

Dr Ellis Cheever telephones his wife and tells her the virus is serious before advising her to return to Atlanta, despite a policy decision to not inform anyone of the status of the virus. Is this ethical? Are scientists involved in research of this nature obliged to expose their families to equal risk? What would you do in Dr Cheever's situation?

At the end of the movie, vaccines are provided to people via birthdate lottery over the course of a year. Many vaccination programmes restrict themselves to children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with long-term health conditions and their carers. Why was that not an option? Which is fairer?

I'd be really interested to know what you think of this, and whether it can be improved upon. And of course, I'd like to hear from virologists and epidemiologists as to whether there were any glaring errors in the film. My guess is that, given the sheer number of scientific consultants on the film, it's been pretty well tested for accuracy and plausibility. There is a superb website associated with the film: Contagion: Are You Ready?. I think it could easily be used for in-class activities or extension assignments.

And on a less nerdy note, it was a cracking good film.

Friday 21 October 2011

What Teachers Say

Periodically the media, fed up with criticising police, medics, teenagers and single mothers, rounds on teachers as their favoured target for that week. Today comes the revelation, posted by @mattleys, of a teacher hounded by her local newspaper for daring to tweet in a personal capacity: "How to ruin someone's life for no good reason". It's such a blinding summary, I wouldn't dare try myself here. I'll offer my comments in a bit.

The other thing that I've been thinking about is the brilliant "Educating Essex", a fixed-rig documentary about Passmores School and its staff. It's been hilariously blogged about by Tom Bennett The Behaviour Guru. In the opening credits, the English teacher Mr King tells his students: "Clear off, scumbags!". The Daily Fail and Torygraph took great offence, with "What sort of example is this to set our children? Teachers call pupils 'scumbags' and the head flicks V-signs at his deputy in school praised as 'outstanding'" and "Educating Essex: teachers call students 'scumbags' at outstanding school".

Now, to any teacher, it was clear that Mr King absolutely adored that class. The worse the noun, the more highly regarded the class usually is. The class of little sods - they're the favourites. The lovely little darlings - they're the ones who'll be chucking desks on a windy afternoon. Many is the time I've come into the lab and informed the class that we're starting the lesson with a cry of "Right, shut up you horrible lot". Add that to the long list of other reasons why I'm hated by the Daily Mail.

We teach children not to swear, because it is not polite, because it is considered unacceptable in the workplace (though you should have heard the sheer number of "fuck"s coming from Humanities corner this week!), and because a large number of people take offence at hearing bad language. I am not one of those people. I am not in the remotest bit offended by swearing, unless it is being used aggressively at me (and then it's more the aggression). I have a swear box in class instead of doing the discipline thing - the money goes to Shooting Star CHASE (the students wanted a local charity, a cancer charity and a children's charity, so the head technician suggested these guys). Last year we made over £25.

Occasionally I swear in front of students, but it's quite a rare occurrence, and never with anyone but the A2s. They get a bit more of a relaxed attitude, because I think they need to (and deserve to) be treated like adults, and that means being able to have an adult conversation with them, one scientist to the other (maybe this is easier because they're at college rather than school). Fieldwork is perhaps the most sweary point of the year - the occasional mock-exasperation "Oh for fuck's sake" is allowed to slip out (usually as another endearingly inept student nearly decapitates themselves with a quadrat). And the last student to allege that women could not park cars was strongly interrogated as to whether he wished to walk home from Park Royal.

Honestly, I've rather run out of steam on this post now (it's been going all evening in and around dinner etc). But I'm angry that the media presume to be able to interpret the relationship a teacher has with his students on the basis of two seconds of footage. And I'm angry that teachers are vilified by the media when they dare to interact with others in their personal capacity. I swear like a trooper when I'm off-duty. I expect to be able to sit in a pub, have a conversation at a normal noise level and occasionally say "shit" "blow-job" or "fuck" without the Chronicle splashing me over the front page. But then teachers are expected to not drink, smoke or have sex, and they're certainly not allowed to talk about it.

Oh fuck it. I'm tired. It's half-term and I can't be arsed. I'm going to bed, and then I might get round to dealing with the Email Inbox Of Hell. Or I might sleep all weekend.

Sunday 16 October 2011

The Consequences Of No SRE Lessons

One of the unofficial roles I end up fulfilling as a biology lecturer is as a general go-to gal for discussion about sexual health. We don't have formal sex and relationship education (SRE) at the college, as all the students are post-16. We do, however, have two nurse-counsellors and an advisor from Brook who visits several times a week. Free condoms are available from the tutors, and periodically free chlamydia tests are offered.

My fellow teachers on Twitter, many of whom do have some SRE responsibility, are getting justifiably angry about a section on the Daily-Mail-in-liquid-form rant-fest BBC Sunday Morning Live (the link will only have a video associated with it up to 25 October though, so be quick), where the question was asked: "Is school sex education bad for our kids?".

One of the talking heads was Lynette Burrows, a woman who, dare I say, occasionally seems to make Melanie Phillips look like a moderate. She has form for saying awful stuff, and has been warned for homophobic comments, for example. She is the sister of Victoria Gillick, who campaigned for parents to be required to consent before children under the age of 16 could be given contraceptives (thankfully defeated - see Gillick competence). And she thinks parents should be able to smack their children.

So she is in favour of physical assault (the link above has her boast that she threatened to beat a boy "black and blue"), but she thinks that SRE is "talking dirty" and showing "dirty pictures", that it smacks of paedophilia, and that it will cause mental scarring. Plenty of teachers have been deeply offended by the accusation of paedophilia - read the further comments from Alice Hoyle, a SRE teacher who appeared via webcam to defend the teaching of sex and relationships, and consider complaining to the BBC - I will be as soon as this is published.

My mother-in-law is a primary school teacher. Most of what she and her colleagues teach as part of SRE involves the children being able to name parts of their body, understand that no one has a right to touch them in places not normally covered by their clothes, and form healthy friendships with their classmates. When I was at school, the "periods talk" came in Year 5, aged 9-10. With many girls beginning to menstruate at that age or younger, one could argue that needs to happen earlier - a friend of mine once said she had her menarche at the age of eight, before the school lessons and before her own mother had talked to her about periods. I believe it is imperative that children are told what will happen to them before it does - why would anyone want their daughter to be terrified out of their wits at finding themselves bleeding, perhaps quite heavily, from an area they don't even know how to describe?

I only teach the over-16s. The GCSE specification, when I taught it, was all about the menstrual cycle, contraception and IVF. There is naff all on the A-level specification, but there is a BTEC physiology unit on reproduction, among other phenomena. And that means there's an opportunity to review external and internal anatomy for both sexes, discuss the full spectrum of contraception, and actually talk more about what healthy relationships mean as a near-adult - that bit isn't on the specification, but it becomes almost impossible to separate out sex and relationships, so why try to maintain a split?

This is the age at which the "dirty pictures" are whipped out - no SRE teacher would dream of showing something like that to a child, though I am sure they are in the encyclopaedia if a particularly studious primary school child was interested (I know I read a lot of human anatomy books when I was younger). And here, when doing what I hoped would be a recap on previous knowledge, is where I get to see first-hand the consequences of having little or no SRE when at school.

Many of my female students do not realise they have a urethra, a vagina and an anus.

Some of them are from conservative, often religious families, and may have been withdrawn from SRE lessons at school, or attended a school that did not teach SRE (many have only recently arrived in the UK). These students are grown women - by the time they do Unit 12 they are in their second year at the college and they have mostly turned 18. I say it again - there are grown women who do not know their own bodies. Suggestions from me that they get a small mirror and, when alone and relaxed have a jolly good look, are met with horrified gasps. If I didn't teach them this, who would? Do their own mothers know that they have three orifices?

(As an aside, I am aware that some of my students may have been subjected to FGM, and I am sensitive to this, but that is a whole other discussion for another blog post.)

So if we don't teach SRE to children, much as we teach them literacy, numeracy and other skills they need in order to be a functioning member of society, and if there are parents who cannot or will not educate their children, we may be doomed to have a society full of women who think they urinate out of their vaginas. And that's before we even get on to talking about the men.

Sunday 9 October 2011

A Gneiss Photograph

I was flicking through some photographs this evening, and found one of my favourite photos of Paul.

It looks like an old photo, perhaps from the 1960s or 1970s. In fact, it was taken on my SLR with what I later discovered was damaged film. It was our honeymoon in 2006, and when this was taken we had paused on the crest of the Bighorn Mountains on highway 16. He looks like a rock star, rather than a newlywed legal secretary.

Behind him is an outcrop of the Precambrian gneiss for which the Bighorn Mountains are renowned. The Roadside Geology of Wyoming says these are Archaean - once sandstones and shales, metamorphosed and folded.

I couldn't resist taking a proper geology photo, with lens cap for scale, of the folded gneiss. Paul let me off with this bit of geo-geekery, even on our honeymoon. After all, as they say, geologists make the bedrock...

Wednesday 5 October 2011

A Retrospective On My Female Teachers

I started writing this before the summer, as a reflection on the end of my part-time PGCE, my probationary period and my second major exams season. I was thinking about some of the women who have taught me and who in doing so have shaped me as a teacher. This is not to diminish the influence of male teachers - on the contrary, my father, my utterly insane A-level chemistry teacher and numerous university lecturers were all incredibly important. But I wanted to showcase the women in whose footsteps I dare to tread. This seems pretty relevant as a contibution to Ada Lovelace Day, this Friday.

My mother
For most people their mother is their first teacher. We were fortunate that my mother was able to be at home for us throughout our childhood - even now, she is the hub of the house, and visiting my father when my mother isn't around (she spent months in hospital this year) is eerie. I probably cannot fathom how much I owe to her, but I recall how she encouraged me to read lots and lots about the human body. She taught me that On Old Olympus' Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop, although we nearly had a full-on screaming match over which part of a vertebra was anterior (when veterinary anatomy and human anatomy collide...).

© Wikimedia Commons (user FocalPoint)

Genetically, I inherit a good hand for drawing, and I attribute the ease with which I draw cells, tissues, organs and systems to her. But perhaps the one aspect of my teaching most influenced by my mother is my use of The Mayhew Look (named for my maternal grandmother, great aunt and great-grandmother). It is the you-had-better-stop-doing-that-right-now look, the I-cannot-believe-you-thought-you-could-get-away-with-that look, the you-are-in-so-much-trouble-right-now look. One of my A2s last year confessed that the only lecturer he was afraid of was me, and the look strikes fear into the current crop. That is all down to my mother and the pedigree of strong women that came before her.

Mrs Pauline Cassin, Norcot Primary School
When I was about six years old I was notoriously slow at getting changed after PE. Sometimes in desperation I would just put my school uniform on over my PE kit. On one occasion, Mrs Cassin reached the end of her tether, and she got so annoyed with me that she threw a shoe at me. She immediately went to apologise to my mother, who said it was quite okay and she would probably have thrown the other at me as well.

Footwear olympics notwithstanding, however, she noticed that I had rather a talent for mathematics, and I was dispatched every Friday morning for a gifted students class. This may have been the best thing to come out of my entire pre-secondary education. Some twelve years later, I wrote a letter to her via the local authority (she had long since retired), and told her that I had got into Cambridge. She was overjoyed. Sadly, I expect 25 years on, she may no longer be alive.

Dr Elizabeth Jones, Nottingham High School
Dr Jones was one of my A-level biology teachers, and she absolutely loved the Aqua song. She also loved to draw a Native American dwelling when discussing adenosine triphosphate. Yes, I do that now. She used different coloured pens on the whiteboard, and red always equalled energy. I do that too. She was passionate about plants and botany, an aspect of biology that utterly bored me at the age of 18. Now I find myself with classes of students all as bored witless of plants as I was, and history repeats itself. I wish I could go back and tell my idiotic teenage self to listen to her and become fascinated by the inner workings of plants and their place in ecology, but I can't, so instead I tell my students that one day they will find themselves in my position now, wishing they could go back to their biology class.

© Wikimedia Commons (user Fabelfroh)

When I left the High School, she wrote in a little notebook I had for such occasions the simple message Myosotis arvensis.

I didn't.

Dr Christina de la Rocha, University of Cambridge
Christina taught us one of our climatology classes - just a few lectures. They were the only ones I got. She was one of the few members of teaching staff, it seemed, who didn't think it was enough for them to turn up and talk at us. She taught - boy did she teach. Her first lecture is seared in my memory and that of many of my classmates - she said everything she needed to say in 35 minutes, having completely overestimated the time she'd need. She seemed utterly mortified, but we were very happy - after all, it had all made sense. Christina was also one of the few lecturers who would spend as long as it took with us on one-to-one tutorials. She gave her absolute all to her students - something I realise I do too (to the detriment of any form of social life).

She dated my undergraduate supervisor for a little while, and I remember him showing off a present she'd given him - a little vial of bioluminescent dinoflagellates, that glowed when the vial was shaken. It's something I still think is incredibly sweet, and a reminder that geeky science-based gifts can also be cute and romantic.

I'm hoping that maybe, in 20 years' time or so, I will see a blog post (or receive a holographic message delivered by a robot on a hoverbike perhaps??) talking about me in even half as glowing terms. I teach because I love it - I love the opportunity to share my enthusiasm and passion for biology, and I want to inspire more and more students to aim high and achieve great things. We do this with no expectation of thanks or reward, but it's still nice to be noticed...

Monday 3 October 2011

The Lab Goldfish

When my father was a teacher, his science lab had a goldfish. At the end of each experiment, there was always a student or two who decided to dispose of the contents of their test-tube in the tank rather than down the sink. The goldfish would apparently twitch a bit, perhaps its eyes seemingly bulged, and it would carry on as normal. No doubt the pH varied spectacularly, well beyond normal tolerance for goldfish, along with the water potential of the liquid.

I feel like that goldfish. Every time someone shoves something nasty in my tank I shudder, then carry on. Some pretty unpleasant test tubes have been emptied over me at work in the past few days. For now, I'm carrying on and dealing with the extra pressure.

But what if the next time it happens I'm found belly-up?

Saturday 1 October 2011

The Truth About Fieldwork Data Collection

Skidding in late like one of my students handing in homework, here's my submission for the Accretionary Wedge #38, with the hope that since Anne's deadline was "before you go to bed" and that there may be some bloggers in Alaska who are still up, and that crucially Anne may still be asleep for another hour or so, I can sneak in my post.

The theme is "Back to school", and I've been back at school for three weeks (many more if you include enrolment and induction). I am teaching my favourite A-level topic - "The Natural Environment and Species Survival" (and crucially have succeeded in palming off all the immunology and infection stuff on my colleague), involving a lot of evolution, climatology and ecological principles. The students covered a bit of biodiversity and conservation last year but this builds on it.

The A2 class of 2011 on fieldwork - all now off to university, and since this photo now appears in the prospectus I feel okay about posting it online...

For me, one of the most important things I can teach my students is how to do fieldwork. I appreciate that few of my students will ever go into a field-based science (although I am delighted to report that the student I dispatched to do Palaeobiology & Evolution at Portsmouth is having a fantastic time), but it is a superb skill. For the past two years the A2s haven't had a choice - their coursework component has been field-based. This year I may be giving the students an option to do lab-based work instead, but I will still strongly encourage them to still choose a fieldwork project.

It is difficult for the students to think of an original project. Lab-based projects, if unoriginal, give predictable results, and students are perhaps simply repeating the same experiment over and over again through the years. I know I looked at Elodea, photosynthesis and light intensity for my A-level practical - yawn. What I like about fieldwork is its unpredictability. Over the short period of time we have in the field, students essentially choose an area and study biotic and abiotic factors - proximity to hedges or streams, pH of soil, amount of sunlight received, soil moisture, number of species. Despite using a small private nature reserve, and having done this two years running, I have yet to see two projects with the same results - they always choose a different transect, or have a different idea about how frequently to take measurements.

And that is the the crux of it all. I had a student before the summer who, on a short practical quadrat-chucking exercise on campus complained, "This is crap, there's hardly anything here and it makes no sense". Essentially I said to him:
"But don't you see? There is hardly anything here. And you're measuring exactly what is there - you have no expectations of what the answer should be, so all you are doing is pure data collection. Collecting data without an idea of what the results should be is as close as you'll get to eliminating your own bias in ecological fieldwork. Also, do you realise that you are the first person to ever collect this data? No one has ever measured that species, on that transect before."
I saw the realisation dawn on him - this is what science is actually about. Doing an experiment and collecting data without having any idea what the result will be. I dislike the hypothesis-driven way of doing science. It can end up putting the cart before the horse. I'd rather approach a scientific investigation with "I wonder what happens if I do X" than "I think if I do X then Y will happen". There are, of course, times when either is appropriate, but when students are taking their first tentative steps towards doing "real" science, with no teachers' notes and "right answers", the prospect of Y not happening can be disheartening.

So I would encourage my colleagues to be more honest about data collection in science, and to give the students the chance to investigate questions you don't know the answer to (admittedly, easier once dealing with undergrads). Real science rarely gives you a nice straight line graph or results you can use to prove or disprove your hypothesis. Real science is anomalous, full of errors (all ready to be minimised by the prospective scientists as they hone their technique) and deliciously exciting.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Watching Dinosaurs

I've been indulging my not-so-inner dino-nerd over the past few weeks. Firstly, I was able to do something I last did eighteen - EIGHTEEN!! - years ago, and see "Jurassic Park" again at the cinema, courtesy of Cineworld's re-release. Paul and I went on Saturday. I'm delighted (and a little bit embarrassed) to say I still welled up when they first saw the Brachiosaurus. And the kitchen scene is one of the few scenes that, no matter how many times I see it, makes my palms sweat:

Despite its age (and some pretty dodgy science), it is still one of those magical movies that I can watch over and over again.

In contrast, the BBC's "Planet Dinosaur" is not so great. Having seen "Jurassic Park" at the age of 13, and "Walking With Dinosaurs" at 19, my formative years were shaped by some truly superb CGI animation, not to mention the robotics. So I hold all dinosaur television up to those rather high standards. "Planet Dinosaur" falls quite short of these.

There is a great deal of merit in the use of infographics, a cut away to a Greg Paul-esque skeleton (did they get permission or will we endure another long rant on the Dinosaur Mailing List?) and reference to fossil evidence for many of the statements being made. I am particularly delighted to see, via the trailer, that John Hurt is able to pronounce Diplodocus properly (DIP-lo-DOE-cus as opposed to di-PLOD-o-cus).

But there is much to be annoyed about. In the first episode, Spinosaurus was dribbling the basketball rather than holding it - the orientation of the wrists such that the "palms" face each other is pretty established anatomy now, and really should not have slipped by. The Ouranosaurus looked so rubbery that it was almost as if the entire budget had been blown on the carnivores, and the landscape seemed more appropriate to the example footage from a computer game advert - we were truly spoilt by WWD's use of real footage from modern areas. I shall step aside on much of the science though, in favour of Dave Hone's more detailed discussion of the first two episodes.

For me, I'm looking at the BBC as a prospective teaching resource. I was able to use some of the superb Channel 4 show "Inside Nature's Giants" for my AS Biology class, and it's nice to be able to do that with other documentaries. Sadly, "Planet Dinosaur" only has merit for me as an example of what is wrong with the reconstruction. While they are undoubtedly limited by budget and specimens available, the first episode has something like four apex predators (Carcharodontosaurus, Spinosaurus, Rugops and Sarcosuchus) and a single herbivore (Ouranosaurus). GCSE students would know that is an unsustainable ecosystem with too many predators and not enough prey. At A2 the students should know that one could not have two species occupying the same niche (with the exception of Sarcosuchus the others are pretty much in the same terrestrial top carnivore niche) without competitive exclusion or resource partitioning. There is no suggestion of this presented, though I am sure there will be a loyal reader who can tell me whether this is the sort of thing that is being thought about with such assemblages (I'm ridiculously out of touch with the literature).

Some will no doubt say I am over-thinking this. It is after all a popular science show. However, the BBC has, within its public service remit, an obligation to educate and inform. And a documentary, even based mainly on CGI animation, should educate and inform. I am unable to use it except as an example of a failure to do both, and I don't think that's what the BBC intended with the series. I am, even nearly two decades later, very forgiving of Jurassic Park - it was never meant to teach its audience about dinosaurs, but was to entertain, delight and terrify in equal measure.

The BBC, however, gets no such leniency from this particular dino-nerd teacher...

Monday 26 September 2011

Drawings Of Scientists

I am teaching, for the second year running, the BTEC Level 3 unit "Perceptions of Science". We kick off with what a scientific theory is, and I beat them soundly over the head with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. We had an interesting chat at the start of the lesson about the CERN neutrinos and what it was that scientists were trying to achieve by releasing the story and data prior to publication (and whether this was going to follow Popper's or Kuhn's ideas about how science works).

Now we've moved on to science and the media, and I'll be showing them various clips and programmes, including Brian Cox's 2010 Huw Wheldon lecture and "Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV". But I thought I'd start off with the good old Fermilab Drawings of Scientists game.

I got the students into groups to do this, and was delighted with the results. Now, I have had conversations with some rather smug, sanctimonious types (the sort who don't really like talking to anyone who isn't either a scientist or important), who think that there is no merit in this whatsoever. Still, I persevered. And the students noticed that their scientist drawings all contained:
  • Glasses/goggles
  • Wild hair
  • Beards
  • Labcoats
  • Test tubes or other "typical" lab kit
And that's all rather expected. They are, in some ways, choosing avatars of scientists - representatives of entities recognisable as scientists. Whether that is the fault of the old Frankenstein movies, or dodgy Open University shows from the 1970s is perhaps up for debate. We were able to discuss the clothes that scientists actually wear, and that labcoats are really only appropriate for a very small number of scientific disciplines (I like showing them photos of palaeontologists wearing labcoats, overalls, hiking boots, jeans and t-shirts, and even medical scrubs for aspects of their work).

What they didn't pick up on was that all the scientists they had drawn were male. And the girls in the group were in full indignant feminist rant mode, when I also pointed out to them that, for such a diverse group of students, they'd all rather stuck with white scientists. They were horrified. One student asked for his group's poster back so he could shade the skin. I was pleased with the reaction - I simply noted for them that it seemed a shame that, for all that they were achieving in the college, they still had an idea of scientists as not necessarily being people like them.

I think they'll have mulled over this tonight. And while students still have this reaction, then I still see merit in the exercise, whatever certain scientists think.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Tattooed Teacher

This has been triggered by an article in the Grauniad on tattoos, linked to by @teachingofsci. He and I (along with several others on Twitter) are tattooed teachers. Mine are pretty visible. I have a Metasequoia glyptostroboides cone on my wrist, and I end up pushing up my sleeves all the time when teaching.

I have the Ardley narrow-gauge trackway on my foot, and if I wear cropped trousers with sandals in the summer, it is also out and proud.

The third is a Camarasaurus skull on my back, and frankly it takes a tequila shot and the students not being my students anymore before I'm prepared to show that off in person.

The comments have been predictable, and this one is typical:
Tattoos are not mainstream. Intelligent people, on the whole, do not have tattoos. The only people who can afford to have a visible tattoo are people who know they will never have a position of authority or mix with educated people. A tattoo condemns you to be a loser for life.
This is similar to the question raised on the Creative Education blog: "Can you be a good teacher with tattoos and piercings?". I hadn't realised that when the needle pushed ink into my dermis it displaced and removed some of my intelligence and teaching ability. In this day and age, with so many people being tattooed, do we still have to go through this whole "you-must-be-a-stupid-loser-if-you-have-tattoos" process?

Not only do I have tattoos, many of my students are tattooed too. It's a brilliant conversation tool. The Metasequoia is an opportunity to discuss Lazarus taxa and the fossil record. It's something they have in common with me. And they've been told, by the sort of self-righteous dicks who comment on Grauniad articles, that they stand no prospect of getting a job ever with visible tattoos, so seeing their teacher with one suggests to them that maybe they actually can.

I interviewed for my current job (twice as it turns out) with tattoos. I interviewed for another role at an arguably stricter institution (with respect to dress code and formality) with tattoos and was offered the job. It has never stood in my way. I would also point out that demonstrably I am intelligent, as evidenced by former Mensa membership, an upper-second from Cambridge and a masters degree. The whole idea that people with tattoos are idiots and that teachers with tattoos shouldn't be allowed near children needs to be shot down and buried under concrete. I have enough paranoia that I'm a crap teacher before being arbitrarily assigned to that taxon on account of my ink. We're a little bit more evolved as a society now, and it would be nice to celebrate diversity in all its forms.

Friday 23 September 2011

A Late-Night Thought

As I wait for my husband to finish his nightcap cup of coffee, a thought popped into my head.

About this time of year in 2003, I was a PhD student in St Louis, MO. About six weeks on from irreparably ruining my chances of progressing by making the rookie error of defending myself from assaults by my supervisor, he was doing his best to break us all. One wonders who told him that grad school was meant to be like boot camp complete with drill sergeant shouting 24-7.

In one particular dissection of my many failings, he told me that I didn't have what it took to become an assistant professor like him and that I wasn't up to tenure track. I remember saying that I didn't want to become a professor - that I had no desire to teach and that having seen how miserable he and his wife were as assistant professors I felt a career of research in a museum was the best option.

I am so thankful that it was a knee-jerk defensive remark on my part. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone into teaching after my MRes and avoided the six really shitty years between August 2003 and August 2009. But I know I will never have a manager as awful as my PhD supervisor. I got some great university lecturing experience out of it. I may not have been such a strong candidate without that, showing up for my interview with no teaching qualification and very little time teaching under-18s.

I'm suffering a little existential crisis at the moment, especially in reference to the A-Level classes. I've taught A2 for two years and AS for a year. I know this stuff. I've passed my PGCE. I got a Grade 1 at my last observation. But lately I'm coming into the staffroom after one of these sessions and sitting there dazed, wondering if I can still do it. I've got some really bright students, genuinely destined for medical/vet school, and the weight of their expectations feels heavy on my shoulders.

But if I can't hack it, then I will prove that bastard right. And I can't have that.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

On Kidneys

Funny things, kidneys. The kidneys are totally off the Edexcel A-Level syllabus, which is a shame as ultrafiltration, selective reabsorption and the inevitable coverage of the goddamned ornithine cycle are good for the soul (when I was younger I automatically assumed any teacher who used the term "good for the soul" was a sadistic bastard. Now I use the term, and I am a sadistic bastard). But they're still on the (also Edexcel) BTEC syllabus for Unit 12: Physiology of Human Regulation and Reproduction.

So I'm teaching the kidney to a class of mainly male Year 2 students. And it's killing me, because I'm so desperate to mention something about "taking the piss", but if I do I'll have to put 20p into my swear box (them's the rules - students 10p if they swear, I have to pay double). I did teach them what micturition was, and suggested they used it when conversing with their tutor.

We've just started looking at selective reabsorption, and they're struggling a bit with the idea that the kidney rather inefficiently chucks everything out into the renal capsule, then takes back what is needed (yes, I am anthropomorphising my kidney - BTEC is not renowned for its academic rigour). On the spur of the moment, I came up with an analogy, and I thought I'd throw it out here in case it's useful to anyone else teaching the same unit.
Imagine you have a nice big bag of M&Ms. And you really don't like the red ones. The sensible thing to do would be to pick out and throw away the red ones, leaving the ones you do want in the bag for you to eat. But instead, the kidney takes the bag and tips the contents out on the floor, before picking up the yellow, green, purple and brown ones and putting them back in the bag.
The students got it after that. Flying Spaghetti Monster only knows how they'll cope with dealing with osmotic pressure, let alone the action of antidiuretic hormone.

In other winning news, one of the students had heard of a disease that meant if you put a beaker of your urine on a windowsill it would turn purple. I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was, but Paul reminded me it's porphyria. The lads were well chuffed when they heard about purple pee, but not so much when they realised they had to expose it to UV light and that the condition was extremely painful. They're going to stick with eating asparagus and beetroot though, so I've told the canteen to watch out for a sudden interest in such vegetables.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Microteaches #5: Back In The Jug Agane

I'm determined to bash something out for the blog before teaching starts tomorrow. I couldn't think of anything suitably moving. I felt envious of The Learning Spy's department - his colleagues seemed a lot keener to embrace new technologies and to genuinely improve learning. Whereas I'm the only one in mine who knows what a QR code is. That's going to be an uphill struggle. I want to use them to put links to websites, facts and trivia, exam tips and videos around the labs for students to seek out. As an incentive I might even put the answers to the first AS Biology test up there.

For all the newness and shininess of a brand new building and lab, there are still snags. The skylight in the forensics lab is amazing and it's so bright and clean-looking in there. However, it's impossible to see the IWB. So I'm crippled in there, forced to resort to regular whiteboard and pens until they figure out how to put a horizontal blind across.

But I'm still really looking forward to teaching again. I met the new AS groups last week, and can't wait to get to know them properly. Each year I have relied on the ease and joy of teaching the A2 class to cancel out any bad bits. I've not seen many of the incoming A2 class yet, and as it's a class fed in from the two AS classes last year, there are still some students I've never taught before. They've got some big shoes to fill, as the classes of 2010 and 2011 were brilliant. They'll probably manage it.

This year I am less prepared than I have ever been for classes in terms of formal paperwork. Of my five hours' teaching tomorrow, two hours are going to be nothing more than getting to know the groups and handing out the assignment sheets. I have a practical to do with one group of students after that, then there are still some induction activities going on. Broadband conked out today for a bit, so I haven't done as much work as I wanted to. The good news is, lesson plans are overrated, and I can demonstrate that I have planned my lessons (the lab technicians looked at my requests for this week like I'd just given them each £500).

So the Year 1 forensic science students will be learning about the scientific method and the nature of science. There are some awesome ideas about it, many of which focus on evolution, so we can talk about what a theory really is. The Year 2 applied science students will be hacking away at a kidney later in the week, but they will be nervous about having a unit on plant sciences to study later in the year. Maybe they'll take a bit of notice if I give them some of the important questions that plant science may be able to answer. They might also get put off animal sciences when we do the physiology of the nervous system and muscle contraction, which I intend to demonstrate thus:

The AS students will be asked to help with @teachingofsci's exit questionnaire, to which I have assigned a shorter URL of, as they'll never remember the full URL. We had a lot of students take physics this year - enough for two groups at long last - so we might not have so many non-physicists, but it's worth a go.

I'm looking for CPD. I'm going to see if I can extract some money to go to the ASE 2012 conference (hey, they'd have paid for me to go to Las Vegas for SVP, so they'd better pay for me to go to Liverpool!). I'm going to try to be more involved in the two blog carnivals I love most: Scientiae and the Accretionary Wedge. This is of course if the management lay off the Trial By Ordeal daily meeting regime of the past fortnight. I'll be taking Tom Bennett's School Bullshit Bingo card into the next meeting with me. The phrase "sharing best practice" is like fingernails down a blackboard. I have no problem with the action it signifies, but the phrase sucks.

See you in October, I guess...

Sunday 4 September 2011

Stiffen The Sinews, Summon Up The Blood

The wailing and gnashing of teeth has reached deafening levels on Twitter this afternoon, which can only mean one thing - term starts tomorrow. I'm fortunate enough that the full timetable doesn't get going until a week tomorrow. However, from Wednesday we have induction for the new bugs, and presumably the returning students will stroll in at some point if only to ascertain whether they need to get up for 9am next Monday.

After two years of teaching full-time and doing the PGCE part-time, I'm really looking forward to a year of simply teaching. I only have one new class - the science equivalent section of the Access to HE course. Having seemingly had to make everything from scratch two years running, especially at the start of the year when the few classes I had already taught the previous year were yet to begin, it has been a wonderful thing to spend perhaps half an hour putting together my first AS class materials. I've checked the PowerPoint, modified the worksheet, ascertained that the awesome video of a basilisk lizard is still available online, and set some homework.

I do enjoy the first lesson about the properties of water. I have a bit of fun with them with resources from the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division about this incredibly dangerous molecule, which seems to make them less furious when we have to do dipoles...

The mantra for this year is "Do less, teach more". I'm consolidating my teaching and focusing on getting the best out of the students. I'm no longer treading water - I'm actually swimming. I'm not saying "yes" to every extra little thing. My extra bits are investigating how to improve female students' achievement in our science courses, trying to find a case for teaching A-level geology (two of the major FE colleges in the area have closed their A-level science programmes, so we really have only two major competitors now, and we should definitely be aiming to offer as many A-levels in science as they do), and plotting whether we can do the Extended Project Qualification.

Some NQTs have asked for tips, and I put a few of mine on Twitter. Because 140 characters are not enough, here are some more tips that I've picked up:
  • Even if you have the best subject knowledge ever, you won't know the answer to every question the students ask. This is especially true at A2, where they start asking degree-level or even PhD-level questions about the topics you cover. I feel pretty confident answering anything about ecology, evolution and the fossil record. I am so screwed the moment they start asking complicated biochemistry questions. It is tempting to give them a bullshit answer, but they see through it. So far better to admit that you don't know, and for you all to work together to find the answer. A superb resource for that is, of course, Ask A Biologist.
  • Don't blind them with PowerPoints. For my first few classes I just lectured at them, because I'd only ever taught in HE, and university lecture halls with no interaction between students and lecturer were the only way I had ever taught (this is not, in fact, teaching...). I set myself a target - have at least one handout per lesson, and one extra resource online for them to look at through the VLE. That might be a link, a video, or a journal article. It's a start towards having varied resources and that dreaded word - differentiation.
  • On the subject of journal articles, let the A-level and BTEC Level 3 students have a go at reading them. Journals are a lot more accessible now than they used to be. Any teacher on Twitter can ask for PDFs of a paper (especially if they have the DOI number) using the hashtag #icanhazpdf. It's awesome. You might not always have a response, but it's great to have friends in universities who can help out.
  • You've probably been advised to get the students blogging, creating wikis, tweeting and all other manner of social media and web use. Although I've seen some fantastic examples of student blogging, this has rather embarrassingly (for the secondary and tertiary sectors) been mostly down to primary schools. Most of my students have found Facebook and porn and stopped there. One former student said "But I don't need anything else!". So don't plan expecting these teenagers to be super-web-savvy. You might actually be the most computer-literate person in the classroom (the students still had to help me with the interactive whiteboard though...).
  • The first lesson of the term is not going to be that content-heavy. I'll be going over course handbooks, outlines to the course, when exams will be, when coursework is due in, looking at assignments and getting to know the class. My returning A2s are going to need a fairly extensive debrief on their underachievement in the AS exams, with a pep talk and possibly concilatory box of Celebrations. I've championed him before, but I cannot recommend the Teaching Science blog highly enough, and his post on Setting The Scene should be mandatory reading for NQTs.
  • From an A-level perspective, the absolute best textbook ever is Advanced Biology: Principles and Applications by Clegg & Mackean. If you don't have them in your stationery store, then order yourself a copy at least (and if you have to go anywhere near a physics class, then A Level Physics by Muncaster is essential, incidentally).
I busted my guts last year preparing an entire A-level's worth of resources, test papers and slides from scratch. I'm buggered if I'm going to willingly let another teacher do that. So if you're an NQT biology teacher, find me on Twitter - I'm @morphosaurus - and ask me if I have something you can use. I have a load of PowerPoints saved in my Google Docs account, and the only reason they're not public is because I'm not sure if that constitutes fair use of the images even if they're credited. But I'll happily open up my files to you via e-mail. And I have a load of stuff in a private Dropbox folder too.

Good luck NQTs, and for the rest of us - Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
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