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.
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