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!

Thursday 1 September 2011

A Stroll Through My New Labs

At the end of last academic year, I said goodbye to my old lab. The old concrete science block had been built in the early 1980s, making it about 30 years old. We had wooden desks in the front, and laminate desks with grooves in the back for microbiology work. It had parquet flooring, windows that barely opened, and two temperature settings: Death Valley and Svalbard. This is now all that is left of that building:

In mid-August I moved into the new science block, and spent the first week putting all the specimens in cupboards and helping the technicians. I was the only member of the teaching staff who helped, and for this my lab technicians bought me a huge jar of Nutella, one of my (many) weaknesses. The labs are just about ready to take the onslaught of students in ten day's time.

This is the forensics lab, the only one that I was really involved in the planning for. I asked for everything to be white. I wanted it to look like a proper clean-room. There are still a few bits and pieces to be accommodated, but these will all be done next week.

The stools were not my idea. They are really quite uncomfortable, and the students will not appreciate being unable to lean back. And dear FSM, whose idea was orange?

The poster boards are 2cm too small widthwise to accommodate four of my nice new posters, and 2cm too small heightwise to accommodate two of my posters. So rather than getting eight on one board, I can get three on. Despite this, I'm rather proud of the (in progress) displays, and utterly indebted to @teachingofsci, whose posters on clinical careers and answering written and numerical questions can be seen on the right hand poster board. He's got loads of other stuff on his blog Teaching Science, and he is an awesome teacher and all round good bloke, so now I've plugged his blog he might link to mine...

And here's the biology lab:

It's by far the best lab of all. We got everything in the cupboards easily (though I made the slightly unnerving discovery that our real human skull is that of a child - I haven't told my more religious/weaker-constitutioned colleagues). Jimmy the anatomical model is at the back of the lab, and Steve the skeleton is up the front out of sight.

The pillar doesn't help matters in particular, especially when there was a very real concern that the non-interactive whiteboard might be placed to the left of the IWB, rendering it invisible to the majority of students in the class. But the IWB can be seen from nearly every seat in the lab except the two directly next to the pillar, and we're unlikely to have more than 22 students in the class.

And it wouldn't be a biology lab without some deformed-looking Pelargonium plants.

Two of my cycad seedlings are now in the lab, as they do a lot better there than anywhere in Jurassic Towers. The chilli plant will come back soon, along with a canna and parrot plant. My biology colleague and I have been discussing getting fish for the lab. I'd love to have cichlids, as whenever some cocky A2 student tries to claim macroevolution is rubbish I can then dunk their heads in a tank of sympatric speciation.

Unlike many teachers in schools (although I guess it may be different with labs), I don't have a single lab that is my space. However, as Head of Biology in all but salary, I consider the biology lab to be mine. More of my classes are taught in there than in any of the other labs or classrooms. Forensics may have been the lab I had most input to at the design stage, but biology is home.
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