Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Best Bits

Events over the past few days have triggered a few trips down memory lane for me. Submitting an extremely late UCAS entry today, going for a drink with the A2s on Monday and dinner with the BTECs last Friday, and generally watching these little baby birds spread their wings and fly away. A few of them have asked me what university is like, and what my fondest memories of university were. Sadly many of these events took place before digital cameras were around, and I haven't scanned half the incriminating photos associated with this, so imagination it is then.
  • The cleaner in my first-year halls of residence, who looked after me like I was her own daughter when I got gastroenteritis
  • The engineering student from upstairs who carried me from his room to my own and put me to bed, before sleeping in my armchair, the night I drank enough to die
  • Being able to do a full evening's studying and go out clubbing at 11pm
  • Soup with an absorbance of 1%, salmon en croute with sultanas and desserts constantly served with condensed milk because the chef did not like his puddings being "adulterated" with custard
  • One of the geologists having their birthday during our Dorset fieldtrip, and the DJ in the "Ace Disco" in the basement of the hotel in Weymouth playing "You'll Never Walk Alone" for the happy scouser.
  • The demonstrators' risk assessment for Tintagel, Cornwall, which warned of the dangerously high cholesterol levels associated with the Cornish pasty shop at the top of the hill
  • Experimental sandwiches from hotels and B&Bs, such as beef and cranberry, or cheese and stuffing
  • Cycling against the bracing Cambridge wind, whichever direction we were going in ("Nothing between here and the Urals")
  • Working in the Sedgwick Museum with "Uncle Rod", a kindly curator who bore more than a passing resemblance to Hammond in Jurassic Park
  • Enjoying a 46oz margarita in New Mexico on fieldwork
  • Skinny-dipping in the Gulf of Evvia (Greece) in mid-December, after way too much retsina
  • Getting to work on a real dinosaur fossil for my MSci project (still amazes me)
  • Being taken seriously as a scientist by other scientists
  • Certain undergrads from the year above me chucking cuddly Pokemon toys around the library when the librarian wasn't looking, and playing LaserQuest after dark in the department
  • Coming out of our final exam and hearing the champagne corks pop
  • Some cute LLM student from another college asking me to marry him at my May Ball
Let's hope equally fond memories await the matriculating class of 2011!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Two Great Geological Words

It's time for another Accretionary Wedge, and Evelyn has asked for our favourite geological words. I briefly toyed with mentioning all the rude words and phrases (my AS Biology lads are rather taken with the thought of entering a profession where they can say "fantastic cleavage and a significant prospect of bedding" without being fired, slapped or both). My own dear husband gets far more mileage out of "schist" and "gneiss" than any non-geologist should.

Instead, I went with two words with similar etymology: "turbidite" and "bioturbation". Both stem from the latin noun turba, meaning "disturbance". Now, turbidites were some of the first aspects of geology I remember studying, and I'll confess to not having a bleeding clue what the lecturer was going on about until much later. I had some turbidite sequences in my geological mapping area, but no beautiful Bouma sequences.

SEPM have an excellent page describing the fining-up nature of a Bouma sequence. When one finds it in the field it is an indicator that these rocks were once on a continental slope, hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean. A mind-blowing thought for any first-year undergrad in geology.

I made a pseudo-Bouma sequence with some of my BTEC students a couple of weeks ago (although not in the context of geology). We did the old soil jar test. Sure enough, when we'd given our jar of soil and water a good old shake, the largest clasts settled out first. The silt settled within an hour, but the clay actually took well over two weeks to completely settle out of the water.

Yes, that is my dinosaur ruler, bought from the Natural History Museum nearly 30 years ago.

Bioturbation is a geological event that is a lot easier to see as it happens. Thousands of organisms make their homes within the sediment, and most of the rest exist on top of the sediment, whether on land or underwater. Their burrows, footprints and traces churn up sediment and leave sometimes an indelible mark in the rocks. I love a good dinosaur trackway, I do, and it's great to see them in their most recognisable orientation:

But in cross-section the story would be very different. There are three claws that dug into the sand, distorting the layers underneath. The pressure of this bipedal dinosaur would have been enough to compress layers under its footprint, like these footprints from the Mammoth Site.


I spent a very happy summer working at the Mammoth Site, giving tours of the bone bed, and can remember these exact footprints from the second stopping point of the tour. It was a great way to introduce how the mammoths got trapped - the sediment is all messed up from the suction generated by the mammoths trying to move their feet in the mud.

All through my geology degree it was a race to get to the outcrop before the lads tried climbing it, as it would invariably be subjected to some post-lithification bioturbation, accompanied by the shrieks as they slid down the rock face. So I have fond memories of my fellow geologists wrecking the outcrops for the next year group as well.

Plus, "turbidite" sounds a little bit rude.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Things My Students Learned From Me

Last year (for some reason I didn't do any this year) I regaled you all with the things I learned from my students. It is now the end of term, or near enough - I don't expect to see the BTEC students in next week as they've all handed in their work, and in fact as this post is published I am sitting down to dinner with the class I've taught for two years and their tutor. The A2 students are all done bar those insane enough to do A-level physics, who have their final exam on Monday. And the AS students have had quite enough Intro to A2, and hopefully are defoliating trees to do the leaf margin analysis I set them as summer homework.

Occasionally I am reminded that my students learn things from me. Obviously one would hope that the key points of the syllabus are the major things they learn, but sometimes they say something that lets me know they were listening to an off-the-cuff remark or brief aside.

The word "misanthropic"

In an attempt to wear me down at the start of the year, whenever I asked a student of non-white heritage to move seats (I asked a lot of students to move - many of these were not white!), a couple of my absolute favourite students shouted out "Racist!". My response to this was "I'm not a racist, I'm a misanthropist - I hate everybody equally". The outcome of this was one of my A2s taking that word as a lifestyle choice, and Misanthropic Network was born (fortunately they haven't posted anything since April as they are all far too busy revising for exams). You should check it out - the "Walking With Humans" video is very funny.

Skinner boxes

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching GCSE biology last year was a brief section on animal behaviour, including classic and operant conditioning. The students, being bloodthirsty little boys and girls, really responded to the idea of electrocuting rats and pigeons, and thought it should be a central aspect of college discipline.

Skinner box scheme 01

Some of those students are now in my AS class, and if any of the others misbehave, or if I am trying to encourage attentive and responsive behaviour in class, one of my former GCSEs will pipe up "Get the Skinner box, miss!".

The true nature of pollen

When talking about plant anatomy to a load of students who really don't give a shit about anything that isn't human biology, it sometimes helps them if I make the connections between the organs and tissues. This means I really labour the point about flowers being plant genitals, for example.

It made my day when I heard a student sneeze in my class and then squeal "Stupid tree sperm!" - something embedded itself in her memory.

When to say "bastard" in polite company

Why, when you're referring to the bastard wing or alula, of course!

We have a swear jar. It's 10p for "shit", "fuck" or "cunt". If I drop an F-bomb I have to put in 20p as I'm a teacher and I should know better. The A2s have to put in £1 if they mention the word "germ" during the immunity topic. Some of the little darlings tried to get me to say "bastard" in an attempt to extract 20p from me for the swear jar, by retrieving one of the pigeon wings and asking me what the label said. They got part of their wish, for me to say "bastard", but they also got a long lecture on why it was called so and why that was not a swear word.


I rest my case.

It might be worth taking action against AGW

I scraped the surface of climate change on Tuesday with the Intro to A2 class. They saw the evidence, but were a little sceptical still. So I showed them this video:

Usually some of them zone out if I bung on a video, but they fixed on the screen and watched intently for the whole 10 minutes. They even said that it was a really good video. And then they said I'd ruined their summer for them and made them really depressed.

So I reminded them that there was still plenty that could be done and that they could go some way towards doing those things, and I bid them on their way for the summer.

Monday, 20 June 2011


This summer my colleagues and I will be leaving our 30-year-old science labs and moving into a brand new state-of-the-art science block, although perhaps they'd be a little more state-of-the-art if the physics lab had vacuum or compressed air taps...! This has meant a lot of consolidation of materials. Where possible, specimens and resources have been donated to other organisations - a number of local schools are the proud recipients of some of our pickled animals, some charities have many of the textbooks, and skeletons and dried specimens have been split between staff and students as mementos of their happy times in the lab.

It has meant that I've been able to snaffle some absolute gems. For one thing, we are only taking the microscopes with built-in lights. So the models with mirrors and separate lights are going. I have two (one for me, one for my father), and some enterprising AS students who were in the right place at the right time have the others.

A microscope would be useless without anything to look at, so here is a representative histological set of animal and plant tissue. I shall have great fun with this!

There were several rock and fossil specimen trays going. I grabbed them all. If we ever offer an A-level in geology (or even a BTEC unit) then I will willingly return them. The most intriguing is this one, which appears to be from the Open University:

There are the usual rocks, mostly igneous or metamorphic. Lovely specimens of granite and basalt especially. An obligatory hand-lens is included, plus some odder kit. There is a little compass, some magnets and some iron filings. None of the rocks appear to be magnetic! So I'm wondering why I have this stuff. I know I spent much of my first year at university drunk, but I'm sure I'd remember using compasses and iron filings to identify rocks. I also have a little photographic slide with a lot of little white lines in an otherwise black film, and a green filter.

I've also, as you'll see, got a spectroscope. Now, I really don't remember ever using one of them to study rocks! This is a set from before my time, so had techniques changed before 1998, when I arrived at university?

I'm in two minds as to whether to make this my new field kit box (as the old one is falling to pieces), or to use it for my lunch when we move to the new staffroom...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Gecko On My Feet

Everyone should have an awesome friend who knits. Usch is my awesome friend. She and I met at Cambridge, studying earth sciences, and found ourselves at Imperial for our masters in linked disciplines. She has shared the happiest times of my life, and my moments of deepest despair.

I came home from work the other day to see a package from Australia - a belated birthday present from her. Look what was inside!

They fit perfectly, of course (Usch is very good at this sort of thing), and she rather wanted to see them with Jabba for scale. This is quite a logistical operation, but the lizard only grumbled a little bit when we lifted him out of his viv, and there wasn't even a dirty protest this time.

He doesn't like looking at the camera much, and seemed more fascinated by Paul's left armpit:

Eventually, he was persuaded that my feet were okay to perch on (yes, my feet are small, but he's a big fat monster of a gecko):

And then he decided "sod this for a game of soldiers" and stomped off in search of waxworms.

Thank you so much Usch - these are the best socks ever!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Anthropogenic Global Warming In The Classroom

It is never a good sign when the first thing I read in the morning gets me angry. According to the Grauniad late last night:
Climate change should not be included in the national curriculum, the government adviser in charge of overhauling the school syllabus in England has said.
This is the big old review of education that Pob Michael Gove has been banging on about since January. The Grauniad have interviewed Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment, who is one of the "experts" involved in the review.

Tim Oates is not a teacher. He may not even be a scientist.

Now, undoubtedly he has spent a considerable amount of time in curriculum development. But curriculum development is not teaching, nor is it science. He says:
"We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date [...] We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."
Oh what a worthy ideal. Although I'm not sure how more curriculum reforms fit in with his concerns at the end of last year that schools were being overwhelmed by a constantly changing curriculum.

I rather bombastically claimed on Twitter this morning that climate change was the second most important topic I taught in biology after evolution. After a day of arguing with my AS students (now starting on A2 biology) about why they bloody well should learn about climate change, my views have not changed. I teach evolution because it is the grand unifying theory of biological sciences: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". The would-be doctors and pharmacologists will need to deal with evolution on a daily basis. Evolution explains our anatomy and physiology, the diversity of the human species, the diversity of life on earth.

Climate change is important for a different reason. There is a very real rise in global temperatures. Preliminary (and non-peer-reviewed) data correlate with three other major studies. If temperatures continue to rise, then so will sea levels. My students are going to have an awful lot of data presented to them demonstrating global warming. They will probably see more data and more evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) than they will for the Calvin cycle. Yet they will be far more accepting of the latter. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project is just one of those pieces of evidence:

If I am lucky, then I will not live to see the full horrors of AGW. But my students, a decade and a half younger than I, may well do. They may have to make some very difficult decisions, the likes of which I can only imagine. Some of them flippantly suggested that all we needed to do was to "make everyone only have one child" (wouldn't mind seeing a few years down the line if they stick with that). Some of them wailed that there was no point in them turning off the lights in their house when China was still belching loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (a fair comment, but if all of us took that view we'd be even more screwed than we are at the moment). I'll be trying to address all of this over the next few weeks.

I tried to show them why we should study ecology. I played them Carl Sagan reading "Pale Blue Dot". I thought some of them might understand the need to conserve the Earth, and indeed to preserve our existence. But they giggled through it.

My students, and indeed all of us, need to be scientifically literate about climate change. The AS students are beyond the scope of the National Curriculum per se. But scientific literacy should permeate the National Curriculum. There is sometimes a tendency to treat the sciences in school as a feeder subject for medical students. There is certainly a lot of emphasis on human medical issues and concerns.

Is the curriculum bloated? Yes. So let's get rid of the forensic science component of science courses. It's only there because some policy wonk figured it would get more people to do science if they thought they could be the next CSI superstar. Let's rip out the diet-health-BMI wankfest at A-level. Getting me to tell a bunch of 18-year-olds that they shouldn't eat their favourite Big Daddy Box Meals is a waste of everyone's time. You want to focus on facts? Let's teach real science then - and that includes the carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect, and the effect of temperature on organism growth rates. How can you possibly teach these three and skirt around global warming??

It isn't just the causes of or evidence for AGW we are teaching. It's the understanding that sometimes scientists disagree. We discuss it when looking at evolution. Sometimes scientists see different data and draw the same conclusions. Sometimes they see the same data and draw different conclusions. They may agree to disagree, or they may engage in bitter and public spats. Knowing that this is going to happen, and knowing that does not make the subject any less valid, is an important aspect of science, and one that is perhaps more fundamental than "oxidation and gravity".

We should be teaching biology as the study of life, for the purpose of better understanding the world in which we live. A good grounding for scientific study at university is but a bonus.

Friday, 10 June 2011

In Which I Discuss The Edexcel Biology Cockup

It was laughable really. It was the very first exam of the exam season. 31 of my finest piled into the hall. I didn't really get a good read through of the paper other than to smile inwardly at the knowledge that all my students should have been able to do all the questions, that I had predicted the "usual suspects" correctly for my private tutee, and that there should be a nice sprinkling of A grades come 18th August.

As an invigilator, I had to stay to the end of the other exams that morning, and was unable to catch up with any of my students until 3:15pm. The sole A2 student sitting the exam had spotted it, as had one of my colleagues' class. We both sat down and flicked through the paper, attempted the question, realised within about 20 seconds that there was a definite error. I e-mailed the exams officer.

At 3:30pm I sent the following tweet:

Nothing from anyone else. Not a peep. It was odd. January 2010 had taught us that students get quickly and amusingly angry if they think their exam is a pile of poo.

The next day I followed up via Twitter:

Fortunately the exams officer phoned me early, asked me if I was sure, and then said she would phone and ask them why they had not checked it (anyone who knows our exams officer would know that has been heavily censored). Edexcel confirmed to her that they had noticed it, there was an emergency moderation meeting happening later on the 17th, and that we were advised to apply for special consideration in case our kiddlywinks needed it (which we did).

It was really odd though - no one picked up on this. No journalists, no students complaining. It wasn't until Wednesday 8th June when I noticed the BBC had the story. I guess eventually it became big enough news. I felt rotten, because the question was such a gift. Here, crappily scanned and annotated (and I would argue, in line with Edexcel's copyright notice that says "the material on this site may only be reproduced for personal, non-commercial use" - I have fewer blog readers than students and no adverts on here), is the question:

Those of you who still remember your GCSE and A-level biology will be able to work out exactly what went wrong here. This is what the complementary strand should be:

And this is what the options were:

These sorts of questions are gifts for teachers and students alike. If you remember that C pairs with G, and A pairs with T except in RNA when it pairs with U, then you can do one of those questions in about 5 seconds. Because it's DNA you're asked for, you can immediately exclude options B and C as they contain U. Look at the remaining options, and because your RNA sequence starts with C, you know it must be option A. Except it isn't. My lot were pretty well drilled in this sort of question. They knew it was almost bound to come up, and they knew it was a good thing if it did. So it was a real kicker that it was one of the nice questions that was stuffed up.

However, my kids also have the sense to know when they've done it right, and when they know the answers given are wrong. I reckon they spent maybe two minutes struggling before carrying on. I have absolutely no sympathy for the student on the BBC article on the exam who said:
"For the first 15 minutes I looked at that question when I should have spent one minute on it"
I'd have no sympathy if he was one of mine - there's no excuse for spending 15 minutes on a MCQ one-mark question at the expense of the rest of the paper. Had this been a bigger issue, like the Maths and Business papers (and as I type more and more exams are materialising with huge errors), then students would have reasonably spent much more time on it.

Edexcel, conspicuously silent, appeared to have issued a statement to the media saying something along the lines of:
"Weeeeell, it's only one mark out of 425 so it's no big deal." (may not be actual words)
The BBC reported it as:
"The exam board said the question was worth one mark out of a possible 425"
The Grauniad said:
"Edexcel, which set the paper, said the question was worth one mark out of a possible 425"
Well, when you put it like that it's rather miniscule isn't it? Except that 425 is the total number of raw marks available for an entire A-level in biology. For the Unit 1 paper concerned, the marks are out of 80. Small fry compared to the Maths and Business papers, but enough to trouble a student. One mark could make the difference between an A and a B. It could also, at the other end of the scale, make the difference between being able to squeeze through to A2 and being forced to stop at AS.

I am invigilating my A2 biologists resitting (yes, all of them, and they've promised me they're really working this time) Unit 4 on Monday. I have only nine of them, so hopefully I will have an opportunity to work through the questions myself. As has been mentioned, for this set of A2 students, there are no second chances - these guys have got to get to university this year or face the hike in tuition fees that their successors are stuck with.

What should the exam boards be doing? Clearly checking more papers. It seems there is an unprecedented number of duff papers this year. This is the sort of thing that university undergrads could be paid to do, or even, you know, the teachers. The Independent suggested that MCQs should have an option for "none of the above", although that doesn't work if it's a worked question like the others. Just get some people in with decent subject knowledge to actually do the questions, not just flick through for proofreading.

And don't try to spin it by saying it's one mark out of 425. Because it's not and you know it.
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