Monday, 29 August 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes In The Classroom

I've just got in from seeing "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" at the cinema. I really recommend it. There are some nice nods to the original, and apart from rather suddenly deciding the audience is stupid right at the very end, it has an intelligent means of linking the plot of this film to its earlier sequel.

Promotional image from this site

Because I'm a sad case and I don't get out very much, I spent much of the journey home figuring out how to use it in my teaching. Oh yes. To get a few thoughts down and maybe to help fellow teachers incorporate it into their lessons (bet it'll be out on DVD by half-term), this is what I think I could do with the film at A-level. I'm trying to be fairly vague, and I don't think I'll be spoiling things for people, but if you really want no plot details at all, maybe favourite this and save it to read once you've seen the film.

Edexcel Unit 1
Describe the principles of gene therapy and distinguish between somatic and germ line therapy.
The treatment is delivered through gene therapy, using a virus vector. Students will be able to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of using viruses as vectors. They may also be able to say whether the technology is somatic or germ line therapy (some interesting discussion points relating to Caesar's acquisition of the gene...).

Edexcel Unit 2
Compare historic drug testing with contemporary drug testing protocols, eg William Withering’s digitalis soup; double blind trials; placebo; three-phased testing.
Rodman spectacularly violates drug testing protocols. He goes straight into human testing before the animal testing stage is signed off. He does not test first on healthy volunteers, going instead for a single sufferer. It may be useful for students to look at the outcomes and consequences of this, both to the single sufferer, to the research programme and to the greater human population.

Edexcel Unit 4
Describe the major routes pathogens may take when entering the body and explain the role of barriers in protecting the body from infection, including the roles of skin, stomach acid, gut and skin flora.
The first batch of virus gene therapy is administered by injection. The second batch is administered via inhalation. This could also link back to the idea of gene therapy by getting students to think about how viruses could pass from the blood and lungs to the brain.
Explain the roles of antigens and antibodies in the body’s immune response including the involvement of plasma cells, macrophages and antigen-presenting cells.
There's a bit of a twist there, with the immune system forming antibodies to the viruses bringing the gene therapy (hence the second batch). Students can consider this as quite a common drawback of gene therapy, and how it might have been overcome (it is never really explained).
Describe how an understanding of the contributory causes of hospital acquired infections have led to codes of practice relating to antibiotic prescription and hospital practice relating to infection prevention and control.
This is a bit of an odd one - the textbooks go through a fair bit of epidemiology, although it isn't strictly on the syllabus. Worth considering how infections become pandemic. Also worth examining the ease of transmission of blood-borne diseases over respiratory tract diseases, for reasons which will be obvious by the end of the film.

Edexcel Unit 5
Describe the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans in medical diagnosis and investigating brain structure and function.
All this work on cognitive ability and Alzheimer's disease would have been (and you can see some scans) supported by MRI or CT technology. Students could discuss the relative merits of each method.
Describe how animals, including humans, can learn by habituation.
There were an awful lot of stimuli in Caesar's and the other chimps' lives. Students can discuss whether the chimps were habituated to the stimuli, such as Caesar's wearing of clothing. Now habituation is not the same as conditioning, but it is worth going further to discuss conditioning, and there are plenty of points in the film where this is demonstrated, most notably at the primate "sanctuary".
Discuss the moral and ethical issues relating to the use of animals in medical research from two ethical standpoints.
A no-brainer really as far as figuring out why this is of interest in the film. There are plenty of examples of good and poor treatment of the animals. It is interesting to note that in the UK it is illegal to perform medical testing on the great apes (chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans), whereas chimp research in the USA is a booming business.

I'll be teaching all of Units 1 and 2, but am sharing my A2 class with a colleague this time, and she will be teaching those bits of Units 4 and 5 (I still get to do the eco-evo bit, the forensic entomology, the plant sensitivity, photosynthesis, muscles and drugs, so it's all good). The one problem I'll have is actually getting the conscientious young things I teach to kick back and watch a movie rather than studiously working all class (yeah, right!). I'm considering which other films are relevant to the A-level course, and have come up with "Gattaca" (for the genetic engineering issues), "The Island" (great when they all get talking about cloning themselves for organs), "Jurassic Park" (when genetic engineering, cloning and conservation goes bad), and "X-Men" (we already discuss which mutations are plausible given the nature of the genetic code and how genotype affects phenotype - e.g. super strength, regeneration, X-ray vision are possible since proteins are involved, whereas control of the weather is not).

Any more ideas or thoughts? I might put a bit more detail (and spoilers) into this and upload it onto TES and GTN.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

When Palaeontologists Drink

Yesterday evening we were joined for dinner by Dave Hone, who very kindly brought over a bottle of gin and associated accoutrements for making G&Ts. Well, it would have been rude to refuse...

He also brought the green ice cube tray above, so we could have palaeontologically-themed G&Ts. That's a Tyrannosaurus; we have the blue Triceratops as well.

There's the skull. If you ever wanted to know what the palm of Dave's right hand looked like, well - now you know. Paul also showed off our dinosaur chocolate moulds and dinosaur cake mould. We could have got out the cookie cutters, glasses, mugs, egg cups and towels, but that might have been too much nerdery in one go.

Plus the steaks were ready.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Clearing Up Afterwards

It's all over for the year now. Yesterday was A-level results day, and really the last time I'll see my outgoing A2s. Considering some of the hurdles they've had to overcome (medical, financial, social, legal), they did brilliantly, and I'm really proud of them. Three Bs, three Cs, two Ds and an E. They seem happy enough, even those who have had to go through Clearing, as they have degrees that will set them up for good careers, and even trying for graduate entry to medicine. It's possible that, in a decade's time, if I should be in hospital and see one of them appear at the end of my bed to treat me, I won't recoil in horror at the memory of their dissection skills.

My first phone call of the day came at 6:02am, from Traumatised Student #1. Followed by e-mails from Traumatised Students #2 and #3 less than 10 minutes' later. Then a phone call an hour after that from #2. Into college and a tweet and a text from Traumatised Student #4. Down to the registry and Traumatised Student #5 and his sister were already phoning universities. Then in rolled Traumatised Student #6, followed by #4. Traumatised Student #3 later came to say goodbye and to get last minute advice about part-time degree courses. All this before 11am. Plus the AS students, who were all trying to avoid making eye contact.

I was bought pizza for lunch by #4, and given a Snickers ice cream by #2. I would not have survived much longer otherwise. Then I took the A2s to see the new labs, which they will never get to use, and for old times' sake, they asked if they could put Steve in a compromising position:

The use of the dog skeleton was a novel take on an old joke. I presume the measuring cylinder is some sort of crude dildo.

At the time of writing, I think they're mostly sorted. I'll check with their tutor on Monday. It's only with the knowledge that they have a university place confirmed that I feel able to relinquish my sense of responsibility for them. It's harder saying goodbye to this year group than the last, maybe because I taught them for 4.5 hours a week, rather than 2.5. Maybe it's because they called me Mum and convinced Nandos it was my birthday. Maybe it's because I have actually had two of them cry on my shoulder. Maybe it's because they're almost as fabulously nerdy as me. And maybe it's just because they left Steve in the lab shagging a dog skeleton in an X-rated version of "Funny Bones".

They have contact cards for me so they can get in touch even if I should move to a new college - the cards were declared to be "sick" (I did clarify - they're "sick-good" rather than "sick-bad"). And I had time to play (and lose) a game of foosball with them.

As one class of students spread their wings and clumsily flap away, I'm barely allowed to take a breath before turning my attention to the incoming class. I'm better prepared, I'm qualified and I taught half of them last year. I'm sharing the class, so I teach them all photosynthesis, climate change, the carbon cycle and speciation, then plant sensitivity, muscle contraction, exercise, injury and performance enhancement. That'll be a rude awakening for the gym bunnies, especially if any of you can find me a set of photos that I can use with the caption "These are your testicles; these are your testicles on anabolic steroids"...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Exams Are Getting Easier, Exams Are Getting Harder

Today is A-Level Results Day, and along with the results, we await the other two great journalistic certainties of this time of the year. The first is Sexy A-Levels, where it appears that only blonde girls receive results on this day (see what the Financial Times reveals about this phenomenon). Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your viewpoint), though my students may do very well, I don't expect to see them on the front of the newspapers any time soon. For one thing, half of them are male, and not one is blonde. And for another, if any photographer tried to get them to jump up and down they'd rightly tell the photographer to fuck off.

The other is the annual put-down to the kids who've just received the culmination of at least two years of study - that exams are getting easier. Old farts who should know better roll up to say that A-Levels aren't what they were in their day, usually in the same breath as calling for the cane to be returned to teachers' disciplinary repertoire (and perhaps simultaneously accusing same teachers of being lazy and incompetent). Occasionally, people actually bother to ask teachers what they think about the exams. Up to now, my hunch has been that the A-Level exams I sat relied on parroting off facts and figures, whereas current exams test students on their application of knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Well, I don't like putting about anecdotes without any data. So I set about getting hold of the papers I sat in 1997 and 1998 from UCLES (now part of OCR). They arrived last week, and it has been a pleasure reading through them all. Honestly, I do not know how I managed to get a B overall in the exams - they were heinous. The papers almost exclusively demanded recall of facts, numbers and definitions. The first question of the first paper asks candidates to "state the normal range of glucose concentration in the blood". Awful question, showing absolutely no understanding of anything about glucose levels other than an ability to remember an isolated number.

Many of the questions are similar. In 1997, Unit 1 (Biology Foundation) asked:
(i) State the direction in which sodium ions will move across the membrane during depolarisation. [1]
(ii) Explain how the impermeability of the axon membrane to sodium ions helps to maintain the resting potential. [2]
Whereas in 2011, Unit 5 (Energy, Exercise and Coordination) asked:
(c) Explain how the structure of the axon cell membrane is related to the conduction of nerve impulses. [3]
The specifications have no doubt changed massively. I remember doing plant cell biology, and I remember photosynthesis. However, I don't really recall much about ecology or evolution, though a question on 1997 Unit 2 (Central Concepts) suggests otherwise. The UCLES specification is clearly very human-oriented, and it's quite nice that I get to do more with the other 99.99999% or so of species with Edexcel now.

I'm still going through the exams, and my incoming AS and A2 classes are in for a surprise as I'm going to set them a few questions from these papers (some of the big old essay questions will make good homework assignments). However, I wanted to do a quick test that might get us thinking. I took my papers, and compared them with the papers sat by my A2 class over the course of their A-levels. So that was June 1997 Unit 1 and 2, March 1998 Unit 8 and June 1998 Unit 4. For my A2s that was June 2010 Unit 1 and 2, and June 2011 Unit 4 and 5 (they all resat Unit 4 in June, but that was okay because I resat Unit 4 as well!).

I looked at the command verbs in each question, and looked for the number of each one in each paper. I then separated the verbs into Bloom's Taxonomy low-order and high-order thinking skills. I considered "suggest" to be a high-order verb, since it required synthesis of previous knowledge and deep learning. And what do you know:

There is a significant difference between the percentage of questions testing low- and high-order understanding in the 1998 UCLES and 2011 Edexcel papers. I bunged the numbers through a t-test. The p-value for these data was 0.0005 - extremely statistically significant. This looks like pretty good support for my hunch - deeper questions are being asked, students need to think more about the science they study, and they are being given new and unfamiliar situations to analyse and evaluate.

So, if you are someone who measures learning and understanding of a topic by how many facts someone can parrot off Mastermind-style, then of course you'll think exams are getting easier - there are few questions that you will consider up to your exacting standards of memorisation and recall. But then again you probably think that knowing the precise years of reign of the Tudor monarchs is enough without understanding the societal upheaval surrounding their reigns. And your name is probably Michael Gove. And you're probably a twat.

But if you realise that numbers can be looked up, and that being able to apply what you have learnt to a new situation is not only a symptom of deeper learning, critical thinking (not to be confused with Critical Thinking) and a more holistic education, but indeed one of the most crucial skills to impart to any prospective scientist (nay, any prospective professional in any industry), then you will see the newer exams as a more rigorous way of assessing these skills. For me, if my students successfully demonstrate these skills, then they deserve all the A grades the exam boards want to throw at them.

Now I'm off to see if the exam boards have indeed decided to chuck some A grades in the direction of my kids.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Toward School With Heavy Looks

In twelve hours' time I'll be back at the chalk face. I don't have any classes until 12th September (although the students are in for induction from 7th September), but until then I'm preparing for the coming year and enrolling new students. I have a brand new lab to set up, and I'll be going around the biology and forensic labs doing the poster-hanging equivalent of shouting "Mine mine mine mine":

I have a load of lovely laminated posters that I managed to squeeze out of our budget when we were panicking about Ofsted, and I'll be supplementing these with some other posters created by Ian at Teaching Science. I'm wondering if I can get away with putting the following up at the entrance to my lab:

"I have a policy about honesty and asskicking, which is: if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it."
It's from "What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali. Although it probably goes against all sorts of equality and diversity guidelines, not to mention contravening safeguarding regulations by implying that I'll be giving out asskickings in my lab.

Today I packed my "school bag", and have decided that life is too short to have expensive bags that fall to pieces (j'accuse, Julien Macdonald...), so it's the trusty Gap record bag complete with my offensive badge collection.

And it was time for the annual Cleaning of the Dissection KitTM. This year I did three heart dissections and a kidney dissection. Heart smells meaty, being muscle, and I and my students often admit to feeling a bit hungry after a heart dissection. Kidneys are completely different, and utterly vile. They stink to high heaven. No one wants to eat anything ever again after cutting up kidneys.

So now I'm ready. I have a new diary, a clean scalpel, and pristine walls in my lab. Bring it.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Feeling Horny

My maternal grandparents' house was an amazing place. As soon as you walked through their front door you were in a hall covered in brassware. There was a sideboard with a full set of willow pattern china, dark varnished oak cabinets, a large gong (!) and some armchairs. It served as a waiting room when my GP grandfather saw patients in his study. Above the sideboards and cabinets, on the walls, hung a load of stuffed animal heads. Honestly I can't remember whether it was my grandmother's father or my grandfather's father who acquired them. Both worked in parts of Africa, as a civil engineer and a veterinarian respectively. There were antelopes, gazelles, no doubt all manner of "boks", and a couple of buffalo horns.

My grandmother had a little black book of all the things they had, and which of their children or grandchildren was to have which items once they died. Grannie left me all their maps of Shropshire, the county they had made home, and in which I was born. She also offered me the pick of the animal heads. Most of the full heads were in need of a lot of work (missing eyes, ripped skin etc), and I couldn't have afforded to do this. So I chose the five mounted sets of horns.

Yesterday I finally got round to hanging them up in my lounge.

And you can see some of the maps too:

So what have I got? I know the two above the doors are African buffalo, Syncerus caffer:


I think this one is a Grant's gazelle, Nanger granti, as the horns are enormous:

But it's these two bothering me:


I'm not too great on mammal identification. With the help of Ultimate Ungulate I think I've narrowed them down to perhaps impala (Aepyceros melampus) or gerenuk (Litocranius walleri). You should be able to click through to larger images of them. Maybe one of my loyal readers is more clued-up on their bovids than I am and can help identify them from my crappy photographs...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Apparently It's All My Fault

Good grief. You might have been forgiven for thinking that the riots were caused by angry young people with a serious chip on their shoulders. But apparently not - according to Melanie Phillips, it's all the fault of the "ultra-feminists", the "liberal intelligentsia", and of course, the teachers. Her blitherings in the Daily Fail yesterday (link - don't worry, it's an Istyosty cache of the page and won't count to their hits) have amused and appalled in equal measure. The Daily Mash have reminded us that Phillips is not well. However, @panderson1979, aka Paul my husband, is in danger of breaking Twitter with his epic rants.

Phillips shrieks:
"Instead of transmitting knowledge to children, teaching was deemed to be an attack upon a child’s autonomy and self-esteem.

Thus it was that teachers adopted the 'child-centred' approach, which expected children not only to learn for themselves but also to decide for themselves about behaviour such as sexual morality or drug-taking.

The outcome was that children were left illiterate and innumerate and unable to think. Abandoned to wander through the world without any guidance, they predictably ended up without any moral compass."
Wow. Mea culpa, I guess. I apologise for giving my students the independence to think for themselves. I apologise for showing them how to obtain information without expecting an adult in authority to tell them what they need to know. I apologise for crediting my sixth-formers with enough intelligence to formulate their own opinions about what to do with their own bodies. I evidently should have stuck with the talking-at-them-until-it-sinks-in style of teaching, breeding a class full of students who remember what they've learnt long enough to sit the exam. Because that would have stopped selected individuals (less than 0.5% of teenagers, if you go on the basis of the UK census' figures on >850,000 10-19-year-olds in London) from smashing up shops, businesses and homes.

Who could have predicted that I, as a biology lecturer, could wield so much power? Maybe I should turn myself in at Hounslow Police Station. I'm evidently to be as reviled as the Man Of Steel himself in "Superman: Grounded", too busy doing other things, and punished for not rescuing everyone.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A Tax On Gullibility

In the last week of freedom before I return to college, I have been watching a lot of daytime television, while sat on my sofa in my dressing gown, eating cereal. The target audience for the adverts should feel insulted: payday loans, bingo sites, body lotions that make you want to get nekkid, and house cleaning products. Welcome to bored housewife hell.

One advert that's grated on me since first seeing it earlier this year is for the Dettol No-Touch Hand Wash System, which "helps stop the spread of bacteria, even as its [sic] dispensed".

The premise is that we touch the pumps of liquid soap dispensers before washing our hands, obviously, so these pumps harbour "hundreds of bacteria" (only hundreds? Shurely shome mishtake...). So if we make the dispensers hands-free, then they won't have all these nasty germs (I hate that word, and fine my A2 students £1 for saying it in an immunological context) on them. Great - we can even charge £5 for it (incidentally, my regular antibacterial handwash costs about £1.50).

Except, as was pointed out in The Hard Sell, you're about to wash your hands! Dettol proudly claim to "kill 99.9% of bacteria", so wouldn't their fabulous soap take care of 99.9% of those "hundreds"?

And of course, no one has considered that the taps are also covered with "hundreds of bacteria". You go to the sink to wash your hands. You turn the tap on, you wet your hands, you pump soap onto them, you lather, you rinse your hands, you touch the tap again to turn it off. So you're touching "germy" taps, after you have cleaned your hands. So it's bugger all use even if you use Dettol No-Touch, because you're about to get more bacteria all over your hands.

Anyway, I sit firmly in the A-Little-Bit-Of-Microbes-Is-Fine camp. I'm reasonably sure there are papers out confirming that dirt- and microbe-free existences are in all likelihood responsible for increasing allergies in children. And though I will never have children whose immune system I need to monitor, I'm still not changing my "germy hand pump" for one that costs three times as much for exactly 0% more protection against bacteria.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Riots

Unless you've been in a hole for the past few days you have probably read about the riots kicking off in areas of London. For the first two days it was largely limited to the north London borough of Haringey, but last night it spread south and west, and to cities elsewhere in the country. Late last night, we heard Ealing got it. There were rumours that Hounslow was about to erupt, but apart from some knob burning a moped in the Asda car park, our borough stayed quiet and peaceful (yes, that was me calling for Hounslow to show how "chilled and friendly" we were).

But it was clear that Ealing needed some help. The pictures on the BBC show similar situations around the capital. The Metro had an unusually thorough coverage of the events.

Via Twitter, and the hashtags #cleanupealing and #ealingcleanup, a plan was formed at around 2am this morning. We met at 10am at the horse statue (that may have been my suggestion), and there were representatives from Ealing Council, including Cllr Keith Townsend:

It was heartening to see how many people showed up to help - we estimate nearly 100 people assembled first thing:

It turned out most of Ealing Broadway and Haven Green was still a crime scene, so we were asked if we could walk along to West Ealing and see if any of the small business owners needed any help. Unfortunately, the seriously hit shops were having to wait for SOCO to get there, and the less affected shops had already cleaned up by the time we arrived. I hope our presence was at least a boost to those poor people whose livelihoods are in tatters today.

Paul and I stopped in and chatted to the guys at Ouch, who'd had their window smashed. They were lucky, some of the lads were in yesterday and drove the van up in front of the shop front to prevent looting. A tattoo parlour is an unusual choice - most of the businesses hit were small electrical goods, jewellers and pawnbrokers. Pure greed, nothing more.

By 11:15am we had nothing further to do. Maybe others found as crime scenes were opened up that they were able to help. Paul and I left once some of the volunteers started demanding a physical presence to go up against the rioters. Having spoken to some of the business owners today, I do not believe any of them would wish us to form a human shield around their shops. And I'm not happy with vigilantism in any form. If further shops get hit I will help to clean up, but I am no good to them with my head caved in.

There are knee-jerk reactions all around, and the most distressing for me are that, a) all teenagers are evil incarnate, and b) this is all the fault of teachers. I have seen too many tweets, comments and updates saying that this is a symptom of an education system that puts kids down and tells them they're worthless. I wholly reject that assertion. The overwhelming majority of young people in London were not rioting and looting last night. And teachers are not bloody miracle-workers. I see my students for four hours per week - that is not long enough to rescue them, nor is it long enough to cause the seriously huge chips the rioters have on their shoulders. There is audio on BBC News 24 from two girls who are hoping there'll be more riots, and that it's fine because they're going after the rich people.

Yes, all these rich people, who have built up their family business, and whose livelihood depends on their stock turnover. These rich people who work as shop assistants in shops that were looted - don't you just hate the massive salaries of shop staff? And what about these loaded people who live in luxury one-bed flats above shops, who have now lost absolutely everything they own as it's been burnt out to a hollow shell? When this counts as "rich people" who "deserve it", then it is clear that there is a particularly fucked up attitude that no teacher can overcome.

I am hopeful that none of my kids were involved. I genuinely believe that I teach lovely young men and women, who have the support of family, friends and their community. If this turns out not to be the case, then I will be so utterly disappointed; and of course, any student of mine who has been involved will find the wrath of the criminal justice system the least of their worries once I get hold of them.

Friday, 5 August 2011

A Little Weekend Ecology Brainteaser

I'm away from the computer for a few days as my little brother is getting married tomorrow, so while I'm gone, here's a little photo that I took while fiddling around with my DSLR (I'm still learning...).

The fern on the left is Asplenium scolopendrium, a British native. I'm not entirely sure, but I think the other is Cystopteris fragilis - I'm thinking that because of the little ridges on the fronds.

Now, I like taking photos of ferns. Anyone who keeps in touch with my other blog knows that. But there's a scientific reason for taking this photo above and beyond my own pteridophilia. It's a lovely example of a stage of succession - the progression and development of communities from bare substrate to mature assemblage.

My questions to you:
  1. Is this primary succession or secondary succession?
  2. How far along in the succession is this community (use Clements' phases if it helps)?
  3. Are the species shown r-selected or k-selected?
  4. Do you reckon this would work as a good recap exercise for A-level students who've just studied succession?
Have fun, don't assume the previous commenter has got it right, and I'll be back with the answers on Monday night.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Why I Like Coursework

My dear husband, upon reading the title of this post, will with some justification wonder if I have finally gone completely insane. He dealt with an extremely stressed little lecturer around mid-May. He helped me eat the bribery chocolates some of the little dears gave me when I allowed them to breach my internal deadline. He received the plaintive text message pleas for tequila as I sat in a classroom with four kids until nearly 5:30pm on a Friday afternoon. He soothed me as I cried big girly tears of frustration because I could not get my A2s to even show up to class, let alone bring their completed reports with them. But for all that, I still sent off my A-level coursework two days before the Edexcel deadline. Go me.

This is triggered by a post in the Torygraph by Katharine Birbalsingh, saying teachers are being put under pressure to cheat, marking non-existent coursework as students haven't handed it in, and telling them what to write. On the former, I am pleased to say I had the full backing of my manager to send off the 27 pieces of submitted coursework, and the three that didn't bother could bugger off (well, he said "Good luck to them", but the sentiment was definitely the same). On the latter, they get some ideas for suggested topics, coupled with me saying "Please, do something more interesting than sodding stem cell research or cardiovascular disease - there's a whole syllabus you could write about!" (after all, reading through 15 drafts on CVD is not my idea of a fun Easter holiday), although many of them come up with amazing topics on their own, and they brainstorm what the mark scheme means to make sure they include everything needed for maximum marks.

My colleague and I have often discussed swapping exam boards, from Edexcel, who require a 1,500-word report at AS and a 3,000-word report at A2, to OCR, who require assessed practicals and write-ups. Whichever board we go with, the non-exam component is 20% of the total grade. Coursework is hard on students from ESOL backgrounds - some of them have literally only been in the country for 6 months when they are forced to compose a well-structured literature review, and they may still be having issues conjugating verbs. They undoubtedly lose marks for communication when some of their sentences are grammatically incorrect, and I am unable to help them with that.

However, I would be sad to lose the valuable skills that coursework at advanced level brings. After all, the last paper-based exam I had was in 2002 (I don't count class tests in the US or the numerous typing speed tests that I had when working as a PA). I had a viva for my MRes in 2003. However, I have lost count of the number of reports I have had to submit for deadlines, whether it is coursework for my PGCE, course evaluations at the end of the teaching year, statistical summaries when I worked in industry, and even press releases and position statements. Clearly, as far as transferable skills go, coursework-writing is a pretty good one. I'm sure when I first started applying for secretarial work, I cited my MRes and MSci dissertations as evidence that I could work to deadlines.

But at A-level I am not just prepping them for transferable skills. They are doing biology because they want to go into the sciences, whether life, physical, environmental, medical or social. And that means they have to be able to deal with scientific literature. By the time they've finished with their coursework they have learned how to:
  • Write in the third person passive tense using formal, technical language
  • Construct a proper citation and full reference using the Harvard Referencing System (Neil's Toolbox is awesome)
  • Use Google Scholar to find useful references by subject
  • Request, or ask me to request, the PDFs of journal articles on Twitter using #icanhazpdf
  • Read a scientific paper - first the abstract, then the introduction, diagrams and conclusion, then the whole lot if it's useful
  • Condense the 5,000 words that they realise they could easily have written about the subject down to at most 2,000 words
  • Evaluate whether sources are reliable and consider possible biases
  • Formulate their own means of explaining and summarising key research because they know if I don't catch them plagiarising then Edexcel will
In the article in the Torygraph, there are commenters calling for a return to final exams and a removal of coursework components. Perhaps there is some merit at GCSE, although I would have thought everything I have said about transferable skills still applies. And if done properly, then coursework involves synthesis and evaluation, and that looks an awful lot like Bloom's Taxonomy to me. Don't we want to encourage higher order thinking? I'm a lot happier seeing a student apply their knowledge of a process, structure or relationship to a new situation, than I am seeing them parrot off a definition in an exam. At A2, the sheer number of open-ended "suggest" questions in the exam papers help with this, but I still think coursework is more effective in this. Of course, this relies on teachers and lecturers having the support of their managers to do this, and I am fortunate that my manager is one of the supportive ones. For the teachers who are under pressure to get sometimes 60-120 kids through GCSE English every year, I appreciate it may be a very different story. Data, perhaps, in support of the notion that one solution cannot be applied across the board, eh, Govey?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Women In Science... Again

To those who are not interested in promoting the interests of female scientists, I probably sound like a broken record. It was only a few weeks ago that I was bemoaning more gender stereotyping in the press. This time it is research from the fabulous UKRC that suggests women are being put off science by the stereotypes surrounding female scientists.
"UKRC research suggests women scientists are stereotyped either as frumpy, glasses-wearing cartoon geeks or uber-sexy, Bond-film glamour pusses - who shake their hair out of their specs once they have split the atom."
This is taken from the BBC news story, because I can't find the paper on the UKRC's website!

I suppose I'm more towards the "frumpy, glasses-wearing cartoon geek" end of the stereotypical spectrum. Even on shows that show science in a positive light, many of the female scientists are shown as a bit weird and utterly socially inept (exhibit A, Dr Temperance Brennan, "Bones", and exhibit B, Abby Sciuto, "NCIS"), or alternatively processing crime scenes in Armani suits and heels (exhibit B, pretty much any female character from "CSI").

Katherine made a wonderful point at Endless Possibilities v3.0, when she showed the Google image searches for various scientific disciplines. And it was very interesting to see the stereotypes of female chemists. Incidentally, the stereotypical female biologist is still in the lab coat and gloves, with test tubes and pipettes instead of conical flasks!

It seems what is needed is a concerted effort to show all manner of female scientists (and yes, I would also like to see more profiles of younger non-white male scientists who have control over their hair and who are not megalomaniacs), and to provide opportunities for young prospective scientists to interact with them. If nothing else, The Rubber-Lipped TwatTM's Dream School showed us that students respond best in a one-to-one situation with someone they find inspiring.

What this video doesn't show is what went on once the blonde girl, Danielle, was the only one left, and she had the opportunity to talk to Jane Poynter about science and research (although her profile is a little disheartening). I'm not a scientist - I just play one at conferences from time to time. For some young women, though, I am the only scientifically-minded female they know, and I'm probably not considered a great role model or mentor. I've lost track of the number of times students have said "But miss, you're really clever - you could have been a doctor. Why are you a teacher?" - suppose that shows what they think of my career choice!

Then again, perhaps specific role models can be unhelpful. After all, women do themselves no favours by attempting to morph themselves into the female scientist they admire most. Biochem Belle put it well when concluding the Scientiae Carnival on inspiring women in STEM:
The goal isn’t to become those who inspire us. It’s to find a spark of motivation, an element of respect, and - most of all - the knowledge that through all our exploits, we’re not alone.
Zombie Marie Curie puts it another way:

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