Sunday 23 December 2012


Our department is in a precarious position at the moment. Our manager left suddenly (rumours abound about why, but it is no secret that a lot of the figures for our area were found to be completely inaccurate) and we have an interim manager from another department. She is amazing, and I am enjoying the sensation of having a supportive, empowering manager. The other CL in the department is also on extended leave, so I am assuming some of his responsibilities. I'm realising that, while I am not quite the longest-serving lecturer, I am now the most senior non-managerial lecturer.

Questions were being asked about the department's future, and the Director responsible for our department (among others) asked my manager if I was interested in becoming the permanent manager. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is hell no. And this is why:

  • I am a teacher. Teaching is what I do. Any managerial position will take more teaching hours away from me than I am comfortable with.
  • We are short of staff. We need more full-time lecturers. And we need more competent full-time lecturers. I have supported students with AS and A2 Chemistry, and AS Physics, in addition to my normal teaching duties. Losing half my teaching hours to management would be disastrous.
  • I left the private sector to get away from days spent peering at an Excel spreadsheet. I certainly don't want to return to that.
  • The £10k extra a year is not worth the hassle.
  • I am unlikely to find myself with a supportive, empowering manager further up the scale, and this will bother me, perhaps to the point of a relapse into the anxiety and depression that has been so paralysing in the past.
  • I'm an aggressive, passionate, sweary mama-bear, and I will do battle for my students to the detriment of my own position. That is not a particularly desirable managerial trait.
  • I do not wish to rise from the ranks and become the manager of my own colleagues. I have no desire to manage my PGCE mentor, or the A-level Coordinator, or the head lab technician.
  • Timetabling seems to be worthy of its own special level of hell, and I would quite like to not have my summers taken up with it.

Finally, when discussing this with Paul, we drew some comparisons between college management and "Game Of Thrones" (which we have finally watched, after months of being told to by my students). Management is a game of thrones, thrusting staff into the line of sight of the Directors, requiring people to play politically or risk being removed from their post. As Cersei Lannister says, "When you play the game of thrones you win, or you die". I have no desire to play the game of thrones. I am, apparently, Ned Stark - best left to be Lord Lady of Winterfell My Lab, and to try to avoid being called to King's Landing for as long as possible, in case I lose my head...

Saturday 15 December 2012


I was at my College's staff Christmas party when Paul showed me the awful news of the mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We've both watched the coverage of this with horror and deep sadness. There is much to criticise of the things said (the media's continued demonisation of all with mental illness, the continued worshipping of guns in the name of the Second Amendment, and their assertion that only a parent could possibly imagine the grief felt by those caught up in it), but most of those are for another post, another person, another day perhaps.

For now, I want to pay tribute to the teachers, our brothers and sisters in education, whose actions saved the lives of their classes and without whose bravery the loss of life could have been even more terrible. This is apparently going to be the front page of the Independent on Sunday:

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic
Under the photo, the caption reads:
As the shooting started, teacher Vicki Soto, just 27, hid her 16 pupils in the cupboard, and when the gunman came into her room, she told him the class was in the gym. He murdered her, then turned his gun on himself. The children survived.
Three other teachers were also killed while trying to protect their students.

Five and a half years ago, during another massacre at a US educational establishment, Virginia Tech, Liviu Librescu died barricading the door to his classroom and allowing his students to escape. 16 years ago, just four months after the Dunblane disaster, Lisa Potts suffered terrible injuries to her arms defending nursery school children (even younger than those at Sandy Hook) from a machete attack. In Mexico, Martha Rivera Alanis kept her children safe during a shoot-out a block from their primary school, getting them to sing songs while they kept out of the line of fire.

Numerous teachers have surely done the same in their time. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the Executive Director of Gun Owners of America has said teachers should be armed - I have not seen a single teacher saying they agree with this. Teachers with guns would not help in the slightest. Where would we put them? In our desks, locked away? It would take too long to access it. On our person? That just tells a shooter to take out the teacher first and then the students. And where would we fit in the training needed to be able to shoot to kill someone who was trying to kill us? Members of the Armed Forces spend months - years even - being trained to do so.

To suggest that, had the teachers had guns the tragedy could have been avoided, is to lay the blame for this at the feet of the teachers. Yet another thing that is apparently teachers' fault. As with the examples above, and no doubt many more, teachers have shown again and again that when the lives of their students are threatened, they will step in to defend them, to buy them time, to let them escape, to give their lives for the youngsters they love.

We have not had a major incident at my College. We have a lock-down procedure, which will override the computers in each classroom with a warning. We have to lock the doors, switch off the lights and hide away from doors and windows. The doors in our new building can only be opened from the outside with a staff pass and my lab is the furthest point from the main entrance.

My thoughts are with the families and colleagues of all those killed yesterday. I can hardly imagine something like this happening here, on my campus, but I only hope that, if that terrible day comes, I can muster some of the courage of the brave men and women who have put themselves between their students and an attacker.

Thursday 13 December 2012


I worry.

I worry about my students.

I worry that, after all that they've done, the students I've prepped for interview at top universities won't get offers.

I worry that my prospective vet student just won't manage to pull three A grades out of the bag.

I worry that this is my fault for failing to teach him properly.

I worry that trying will do him more harm than good.

I worry that some of my students will slip through my fingers because I'm too busy trying to hold on to some other students.

I worry about the pressure of the HND programme on my frayed nerves.

I worry that Michael Gove is going to do to teachers what Thatcher did to miners.

I worry that it's been so long since I ate proper food that I have a vitamin deficiency.

I worry about why the staff in Domino's know me and Paul by name and our usual order.

I worry that I spend too long at work and not enough time at home with Paul.

I worry that Paul spends too long at work and not enough time at home with me.

I worry about the results.

I worry about the feedback.

I worry about how long I can keep this up.

I worry that Ofsted might be just around the corner.

I worry that I am not, in fact, an excellent teacher, and that all I do is entertain while relying on nothing more than charisma to engage the students.

I worry that I am a charlatan, an imposter, a pretender.

I worry that nothing I do as a teacher is ever good enough.

I worry that I'm too emotionally involved with my students' education.

I worry that one day I'm going to punch a colleague in the defence of one of my students.

I worry about burnout.

I worry that I have slowly regressed to the lifestyle, hours and vices that I had as a PhD student.

I worry about dying young.

I worry that I'm doing this not to impart enthusiasm and knowledge to the next generation but to surround myself with admirers.

I worry that I'm the cool teacher.

I worry that I'm not the cool teacher.

I worry that my hair will break from the bleach and dye.

I worry that underneath the bleach and dye my hair is grey.

I worry for the welfare of the young people I teach.

I worry that they will have their hearts broken.

I worry that sometimes I'm the one who does that.

I worry about worrying.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Past And Present

One of the things most likely to get me into Mama Bear-mode is criticism of modern A-levels that suggests that students are getting worthless qualifications. I frequently find myself having to remember that it is frowned upon in polite society to punch the lights out of ignorant wankers telling you that your students are stupid and that teachers are failing them. With the proposed end of January A-level exams, the opportunity presents itself for idiots to weigh in with their opinions.

I imagine the Daily Fail has been saying exams are getting easier since exams were invented, but it certainly seems that this has escalated in recent years. I've mentioned before that I acquired my past exam papers, and I had a fantastic opportunity to do a small test with my A2 students a few weeks ago. We had just finished looking at photosynthesis, so I copied a question from my 1997 Central Concepts paper.
A cell suspension of a species of Chlorella, an alga, was supplied with carbon dioxide, initially at a concentration of 3%. This was then reduced to 1% after 100 seconds, and then to 0.03% after a further 200 seconds. The levels of RuBP and GP (PGA) present were determined at intervals.

(a) With reference to the figure, state the effect on:
(i) the concentraion of GP when the carbon dioxide concentration is reduced from 3% to 1%. [1]
(ii) the concentraion of GP when the carbon dioxide concentration is reduced from 1% to 0.03%. [2]
(iii) the concentration of RuBP when the carbon dioxide concentration is reduced from 1% to 0.03%. [3]

(b) Explain the observed change in the concentration of RuBP during the 100 seconds immediately after the carbon dioxide concentration was reduced to 0.03%. [4]

(c) State the evidence provided by the figure which indicates that the concentration of carbon dioxide may not be a limiting factor. [3]
Then I gave my students one of the Edexcel questions from June 2012, with a remarkably similar graph.
An investigation was carried out into the effect of reducing the carbon dioxide available for photosynthesis. Cells of a unicellular alga were suspended in a solution containing 1.0% carbon dioxide. After 250 seconds, the carbon dioxide in the solution was reduced to 0.003%. The cells were illuminated with a bright light and some were removed at regular time intervals for 500 seconds. The concentrations of ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP) and glycerate 3-phosphate (GP) in the cells were measured.

(i) Suggest two reasons why a suspension of cells of a unicellular alga, in a solution, is more suitable for this investigation than using leaves. [2]
(ii) Suggest why it would be advisable to illuminate the cells at a high light intensity during this investigation. [3]
(iii) The graph below shows the results of the investigation.

Describe and suggest an explanation for the changes in the concentrations of RuBP and GP shown in the graph. [6]
So, which paper do you think the students found easy? Why, that would be the 1997 paper. The majority of the questions involved very little mastery of the subject knowledge. I imagine a numerate non-scientist could do quite well on the 1997 paper, just reading off the graph. The A2s preferred the clarity of the graph in the 2012 paper, but I think much of that can be attributed to it having been reduced from A4 to A5 and scanned.

The "suggest" questions in the 2012 paper involve students applying their existing subject knowledge to an unfamiliar experiment. The final six-mark question is a QWC question, meaning students are not only assessed on their biological knowledge, but their ability to present it clearly and logically. My A2s hate QWC questions, and they really hate "suggest" questions; because they have to show an excellent command of the subject, rather than being able to pick up marks for stating the bleeding obvious.

Sure, this is only one example. But I bet colleagues in other subjects can show where the exams are indeed more rigorous, demanding more detailed subject knowledge, a greater degree of critical thinking, and the ability to apply all of this to new situations. Gove and Co have spent so long chipping away at the exams my students sit, telling them their coursework is nothing more than teacher-sanctioned cheating, that they don't work hard because they know they can always resit their exams, and that modular exams are too easy. They claim to want more rigorous exams, but as Paul said, in the spirit of Inigo Montoya, they keep using that word; we do not think it means what they think it means.

So here's a multiple-choice question to the Department for Education. How should students be assessed in the academic pathway before leaving school or college?
(A) A combination of practical and written exams and coursework, enabling students to demonstrate complex subject knowledge and application, with opportunities to resit units, reflecting the way that pretty much every university degree, and indeed every assessment they will face in life, is set up.

(B) A single terminal exam in each subject, requiring students to memorise facts, definitions and explanations, with no resit opportunities.
Option B seems to be what Gove wants. But I don't think it's what any student or any teacher wants.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The Many Vices Of Steve

Every biology teaching lab should have a skeleton. The best lab skeletons have names. My skeleton is Steve.

Steve has featured in a number of outgoing class photos, and it is a joy for me each September to see how long it will be before the new students try to make Steve grope his non-existent breasts. Just over a year ago, the Class of 2011 decided to show one of Steve's peccadilloes - in this case, it was bestiality:

He likes Halloween, and was most impressed with his outfit:

And in the absence of a Christmas tree, he gallantly stepped up to be covered in decorations:

Courtesy of the Class of 2012, Steve lost his head and indulged in a bit of fisting:

But on Friday it all got a bit too much for him, and my HND class made him into a NEET:

After many years, two dislocated shoulders, a missing atlas and a pigeon chest, Steve is retiring. He has been replaced by Steve 2, who is taller, better put together, and crucially this time, actually a male skeleton. Steve 1 is coming back to Jurassic Towers, which will be his forever home.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Scientific Literacy and Misinformation

Some of the most commonly peddled scientific misconceptions are related to the development of the human embryo and foetus. The anti-abortion groups love to show shocking photos of incredibly baby-like embryos and foetuses in an attempt to persuade women not to seek abortions. Women are all capable of making a decision that is best for them and their families (however that is defined), and they need to have accurate, unbiased information to do so.

I only read the Sunday Torygraph because it was being given out free as Paul did the Royal Parks Foundation half marathon today. I really wish I hadn't. It's unscientific and elitist at the best of times, but this was downright misogyny.

The image of the 12-week foetus is probably about half the size of the image of the 23-week foetus. This is way too big. At 12 weeks gestation the foetus is about 2 inches long. At 24 weeks it reaches 12 inches long. Even accounting for allometric growth of the head, the scale of the three images is misleading, no doubt to make it appear that lowering the abortion limit from 24 to 12 weeks is no big deal.

I also think they've got it wrong in terms of development. I think that 12-week foetus is actually much older. Compare it with this image of a 12-week foetus from the Science Photo Library:

I'm never going to stop newspapers (though they are not the trustworthy media organisations they may have once been) from publishing bad science and misogynistic misinformation. I'll never stop the anti-abortion campaigners from grossly over-estimating foetal development in a callous ploy to shame women into continuing with unwanted pregnancies. And don't even get me started on what a prime example of Cockney rhyming slang Jeremy Hunt is. Everything I have to say about him is an anguished sweary scream, which doesn't translate well to text.

But I can at least educate my own students, in the hope that 100 young people every year learn that pictures like the ones in the Torygraph are utter bollocks.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

How To Tackle Plagiarism

I still dip into the Geoblogosphere, and really enjoy keeping up with what colleagues in academia and research are up to. Over a year ago, Evelyn wrote a post about the carbon cycle, from the carbon atom's point of view. It was an endearing and entertaining story written years ago by a 10-year-old Evelyn.

Today Evelyn received a comment from a biology teacher called Mrs Kim:
Please delete this post. I am a biology teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Two students were caught plagiarizing this article for a carbon cycle assignment. The issue has been resolved, but we need to guarantee this does not occur in the future. Thank you.
Understandably, many earth scientists and interested parties have responded. I felt I had rather more to say than could easily be put in a comment. There are a number of possibilities. Firstly, in the age of the internet troll, Mrs Kim could be a bored youngster. However, on the balance of probabilities, she is a genuine teacher at the school in question.

So, perhaps through being a little naive about technology and the internet (I'm really trying hard not to go for the alternative explanation that she's a moron), Mrs Kim has found the source of the students' plagiarism, and decided that the appropriate course of action is to ask the author of the original work to remove it.

If I asked for all the websites my students plagiarise to be taken down, then it's safe to say Wikipedia and wouldn't be half the online monsters they are today. Just in the past two weeks I'd have had to demand the removal of every article on the kidney, nephron, ultrafiltration, the acid-base mechanism, cell structure, mitosis, DNA and protein synthesis. Even if it had at one time been the normal course of action to remove a book from the school library if it was notorious as a "plagiarisable" source, it is unsustainable with so much information online.

And, as is so rightly pointed out by a number of commenters, the burden is on the students and their teacher to prevent plagiarism, not the author of the original work. So, here are my methods for detecting, punishing and preventing plagiarism.
  1. Put the fear of Flying Spaghetti Monster into them at the start of the year, and tell them exactly how much shit they'll be in when (not if) they plagiarise.
  2. When they submit work, make sure they do so electronically. If your institution has been able to afford subscription to TurnItIn then use that. Otherwise, copy the text into the box at Article Checker. If all else fails, type a few phrases into Google.
  3. Strike through every single plagiarised word and only mark text that is entirely original.
  4. Hand the work back and tear student a new arsehole in private.
  5. Issue a general "hairdryer treatment" bollocking to the entire class. Show them examples of academic dishonesty. Make it clear this is one of the most serious offences a scientist can commit within their field.
  6. Promise the class that you will find and punish all subsequent instances of plagiarism with the full weight of whatever disciplinary system you have at your disposal.
  7. Tell them that if they pull this kind of stunt at university they can be kicked out.
Alternatively, ensure every single piece of work set is one with a significant amount of reflective thinking - the sort of personal work that can't be easily copied and pasted off Wikipedia.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Like A Candle

A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others.

I don't know what it is about teaching an A2 class. More so than any of the other classes I teach, these students get to me. Perhaps it's the fact that I am their only biology teacher for two years, but even the Year 2 BTECs don't have such a profound effect on me.

This year is taking a lot - my wick is burning very quickly at the moment. I have high achievers who need to do better in their A-level Biology exams than I ever did (I scraped a B, which made my decision to do Natural Sciences (Physical) a stroke of genius), because they have a realistic punt at Oxbridge or medical school. I have some at the opposite end of the spectrum who I feel like I'm hauling up from a D or E to a C using the world's most inefficient pulley. I have some coasting in the middle, who I want to grab by the shoulders, shake and scream "Why won't you work? You could do so well!" And I have my fair share of utterly heartbreaking situations.

They're all under my skin, despite half the class asking me in my first lesson when their other teacher was coming back from maternity leave (honest answer? I hope never, because I don't like sharing). I know if I let every year continue like this, if I come home every Wednesday and Friday and cry my eyes out for what they're going through, then I'll burn out way before I'm too old for them to want to go down the pub with me after their final exam.

On the other hand, I can't make myself put up an emotional barrier to them. Some of them won't talk to their tutor or the counselling service, and I'm fighting a losing battle trying to get some to see their doctors about depression. I'm all they've got. And I can't separate the caring and support from the emotional involvement. I don't know how other teachers do it.

I'm consuming myself trying to light the way for my students. It will be the end of me. But like the candle, it's my sole purpose in life. So I'd better keep burning.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Up The Creek

One of my little darlings managed to transmit a rhinovirus to me this week, so while my immune response takes care of it, and the Golgi apparatus in my nasal epithelia work overtime to produce how much?! mucus, there are some thoughts based on news in the past week or so.

A bastarding rhinovirus, currently making me feel like arse

Paul was affected quite badly by the AQA GCSE English scandal - he looked at the grades his students got, and what they could have got had the grade boundaries not been screwed, and at least two of them could have got a C. No mean feat for a class of students every school in the borough decided it couldn't or wouldn't teach. He's been following it more than I have - I don't teach GCSE, and haven't for over two years. It's all he teaches.

So, having fallen into that dangerous 10pm sofa snooze last night, I was woken by Paul saying "GCSEs are gone". News was carefully passed on to tame right-wing newspapers leaked that Gove would be replacing GCSEs with O-Level style exams in 2015. The Grauniad picked up the story when it could. Some of the chatter on Twitter last night offered further details, that it would be graded 1-6, with 7 being a fail. Paul pointed out that wasn't Gove recreating O-Levels - he's bringing in Scottish Standard Grades. Recreating his own childhood north of the border perhaps?

There will apparently be a consultation. I suggest everyone who has ever been to, has any children at, plans to send any children to, or feels like employing anyone who has ever been to a school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at some point, submits their responses to this consultation. Too many people are confusing rote learning with rigour, and the two couldn't be further apart.

Every year, I and my students get a good bashing from the media and pretty much everyone not involved in teaching, to say that exams are getting too easy, and that we are sending idiots off to their universities unable to do the basics. The sensible response of universities to any perceived grade inflation would surely be to raise the offer level? After all, when I went to Cambridge I had to get AAA. Earlier generations had to get AAB, and now students are routinely asked for A*AA to get into Natural Sciences at Cambridge. Seems like a logical and rational choice if one feels that an A grade isn't a true representation of a clever and able individual.

So the Torygraph proclaiming that students are accepted onto degree places with E grades simply makes me wonder whose fault it is that universities are getting students unable to cope with the basics of their subject. Some of my students with D and E grades did get into university - however, with my blessing they've mostly gone to do foundation courses that will give them a further chance to get that grounding, and they'll be better graduates at the end of it. Let's face it, when the shitty syllabus from Edexcel waffles on about plant stanols at the expense of the ornithine cycle, there's not a lot I can do to give the students that grounding is there?

I love teaching, I do. Being in the lab or classroom is where I feel most alive, and I really enjoy my work when students have those "I get it" moments. By and large, I agree wholeheartedly with this article about being a teacher. I also have no desire to go up into management. Anything taking me away from my students is bad (though I am happy to have a couple of hours remission to coordinate our HND course).

That said, I did object a little to this paragraph:
I'm very fortunate to be teaching English. If I was a geography teacher I might need pupils to have understood Oxbow lakes, if I were a maths teacher I might need them to know about surds but as an English teacher I want them to understand more than using English devices to generate rapport: I get to give them the opportunity to be a better human being.
Now, English teachers get a rather rosy treatment in Hollywood, what with Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Dead Poets Society and so on. But English teachers absolutely do not have the monopoly on being inspirational teachers, giving students the chance to be "better human beings" or getting their charges climbing on the desk shouting "O Captain! My Captain!" (though my lab technician would be furious if she found footprints on the benches!).

We all think we teach the best subject in the world. Otherwise we wouldn't be teaching it. But with Gove doing everything in his power to utterly destroy the education sector and the lives of the young people passing through it we could do with a little less point-scoring and a little more presenting a united front.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Three Days In

This year, I think all my colleagues share my feeling that we all started on the back foot. There was so much to do before the students began classes that there was very little time for planning. So this week I've been playing catchup.

My timetable is up in the air a bit, but the best case scenario is taking on two HND groups and losing BTEC for the year. That would be nice - nothing but A-level, HND and Access.

I felt rusty starting up on Monday morning. More than previous years it was striking how much easier teaching is when you know your students. And unusually, I didn't see any of my previous students in any of my Monday classes, or at all until this afternoon. It was something of a relief to see the A2 class - I felt back on top of my game. It helps that I have lucked out again with the students in my A2 class. They even met Hypnotoad, and screamed like a bunch of big girls' blouses when he lunged for his food. And we were studying succession, which as you may imagine, is one of my favourite topics to teach.

(Incidentally, since I get a spike at this time of year from A2 students all over the country googling "succession" or "stages of succession" to do their homework, I recommend going to this website instead.)

Other things I am learning - there are many different ways of getting from the staffroom to the print room if you spot a student you really don't want to speak to near the main entrance to the building. Astonishingly, sometimes Level 2 BTEC groups take better to microscope work than AS classes. And no one brings lead pencils, colouring pencils, rulers or calculators to a biology class anymore.

Also, Paul and I have realised that we have pretty much kissed goodbye to our social lives until at least half-term. We're both working 10-12 hour days in the college, plus whatever we do at home. And weekends are back to one full day of planning and one full day to do every single thing that needs sorting round the house - business as usual. Perhaps the only surprise is that it doesn't bother us at all.

Thursday 6 September 2012


The students are back. The new bugs have either been inducted or induced (never 100% sure which is the more appropriate past participle), they have been shown the important places on campus (cafeteria, pool tables, smoking area), and they have been dispatched with their timetables. Tomorrow is the freshers' fair, which was compared (perhaps unwisely) by a senior member of staff to Just as well we're giving the students condoms then...

I find it easier to set New Year's resolutions in September than in January. It makes more sense when dealing with northern hemisphere academic years. So here are a few things I'll be aiming for in the 2012-2013 academic year, related to teaching.
  • I will get my arse in gear and finally apply for Registered Scientist (RSci).
  • I will get some fish for the lab. They will be resistant to sulphuric acid.
  • I will ditch the bullet-point slides and draw and write more on the whiteboard.
  • I will get ALL my A2 students blogging and tweeting.
  • I will not let my new responsibilities as a curriculum leader make me less effective as a teacher.
  • I will not eat burgers from the canteen.
  • I will fill every windowsill in the biology lab with variegated Pelargonium plants.
  • I will bring evolution into all aspects of the biology I teach, so the evidence is in place when I cover it formally.
  • I will mainline Hot Lava Java on a daily basis to keep me at the top of my game.
  • I will continue to be as sarcastic, terrifying, insane and sweary as I always have been (apparently), and fearlessly overprotective of my students...

Saturday 25 August 2012

Retail Therapy

After yesterday, I needed some cheering up, and Jabba needed some food, so we went down to Ashford to TC Reptiles, purveyors of the finest locusts in town.

We'd missed out on the Kempton Park Reptile Expo a couple of weeks ago, as it was the hottest day of the year and we remembered it being oppressively hot and overcrowded the last time we visited. So I was on the lookout for some more creepy-crawlies for the lab. I had been advised that several students, teachers and lab technicians would not come near the lab if I bought a tarantula, so that was out.

Anyway, TC had some Pacman frogs, Ceratophrys ornata. And they're aggressive little bastards. The owner had his favourite, which was permanently furious, and could be lifted up by the food it had just bitten. We got the second most aggressive.

It doesn't have a name yet. I'm saving the honour of naming it for my incoming A2 class. Though Paul has been calling it Hypnotoad in the interim.

I plan to draft in "Hypnotoad" for informal detentions:

Me: "You, misbehaving student, come here and put your finger in the tank."
Frog: *chomp*
Me: "Now you stay here until Hypnotoad lets go."
Student: *whimper*

Friday 24 August 2012

Significant Interventions

AS Biology ... has failed to make the required improvements in spite of significant interventions.
This was in this week's staff newsletter. A massive slap in the face from a senior member of staff, for every lecturer, administrator, support assistant to see, not to mention the ladies who run the canteen, the caretakers who check I haven't died at my desk late at night, and the lab technicians without whom I'd be lost.

I rarely criticise where I work. I don't want to do that (that way disciplinaries lie). I just want to wail about how hurt I feel about all this where I know I have a sympathetic audience.

I've been teaching for three years. I have been graded good or outstanding in every observation I have had (and I rarely put on a show for my observers because I want to be graded on the lessons I give every day). I took on a second AS group halfway through the year, and battled through the "we liked the other teacher better" criticism until I think, maybe, some of the group actually liked me and my teaching. I undertook a workshop to boost performance. I pleaded with the students who needed it to attend. I spent hours tutoring students after classes. I embedded literacy. I honed their bullshit detectors. I got them reading and citing peer-reviewed journals (and not just Biological Sciences Review and New Scientist).

In the end, this year, weak students just flopped. They failed physics, chemistry, maths, English, sociology, psychology, and so on. No student who failed biology only failed biology - they stuffed up everything. And yet here I am, as the only full-time permanent biology teacher, taking the flak in public across the entire college.

I am ashamed to see the people in other departments who I know. I can't bring myself to look them in the eye knowing that they'll have read that, and that they'll make judgements about me and my competence. Because they don't know that I eat, sleep and breathe this job. They don't know about the evidence-based teaching methods I use, about the high expectations I hold of my students, about the sheer energy I put into making damn sure the students understand the material. All they see is that I was apparently given "significant interventions" but failed to deliver.

It's enough to make me second-guess myself and my ability. Maybe I'm doing it all wrong. Maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security by a history of good pass rates, excellent observation feedback, my name being passed around as "one to watch". Amazing students have got crappy coursework grades, and I'm scared a re-mark won't show up any errors of marking. Students who had effectively another block of A-level time for one-to-one tuition haven't performed any better than if I'd left them to teach themselves. I've been flipping between raging indignation that such words have been written about my subject, and self-doubt that I'm a mediocre teacher getting by on sarcasm and charisma, putting on a good show but lacking substance.

By Tuesday, when we return after the bank holiday weekend, I'll probably feel better. Maybe I'll play the video my BTECs made for me. Maybe I'll read some of the cards and e-mails I had over the years. Maybe I'll remember all the hugs from students whose lives I have apparently improved beyond measure.

But for now I'm hurting.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Let The Student-Bashing Begin

Tomorrow is A-level results day. I've been here twice before. In 2010 I wrote a letter to my students. In 2011 I whacked out a statistical analysis of exam command words and concluded that my students were dealing with tougher exams than I had to pass.

I nearly came to blows with an industry scientist a couple of months ago when he told me that the students I and my colleagues were "turning out" were utterly incapable of doing anything for themselves. He maintained that the most important thing was for them to know facts, not to be able to apply their knowledge. To which I respectfully say bullshit.

It doesn't stop the traditional right-wing press student-bashing festivities, which coincide with the traditional right-wing press "sexy A-levels fruity girl jumping" photos. Exams are getting easier every year, say the papers. Something must be done, they squawk. So exam boards were asked to "fix" the results, to ensure that the number of top grades was limited. Ofqual have now instructed exam boards to stall the pass rate.

Gove already has a weird idea that true understanding of a subject involves being able to parrot off facts and figures. To paraphrase Einstein, if we measure a fish's ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it's stupid. When we are teaching deep understanding of a subject, an exam testing whether a student can reel off the resting blood glucose concentration of a healthy adult is no use whatsoever.

For the past two weeks we've watched world records being smashed in the Olympic Games. Rebecca Adlington's bronze medal time for the 400m freestyle was faster than her gold medal time four years earlier.

Men's 100m times have been steadily increasing, as this analysis in the New York Times shows. Many teachers on Twitter have wondered whether this means the 100m dash or the 400m freestyle are getting easier. I wouldn't be so naive as to say that athletics and exams are absolutely comparable, but is it not possible that students are doing a better job of passing the targets that have been set for them? Are students cleverer but the exams aren't keeping up?

One thing is for sure, the people who are being blamed for this are those who are least able to change the system - the students. Telling them on results day that the exams they've studied so hard for are worthless and far too easy serves no purpose but to make them feel wretched.

The newspapers won't listen to me - there'll be claims all over the place that exams are easier than ever. One wonders if they'll ever figure out that if exams get harder they'll have a smaller pool of fruity blonde girls jumping up and down to photograph. My students might listen to me though - so I'll say this to them: fuck what the newspapers say, I know you worked your socks off.

Good luck to students and their teachers tomorrow. Nil illegitimi carborundum.

Monday 13 August 2012

Summer Homework 6: A Question For Slartibartfast

Imagine you could ask Slartibartfast (look him up!) any question about the Earth. What would you ask him, and why?

This prompt was a bit of a leftfield task for my students. Many of them have never read/listened to/watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I, on the other hand, apparently made my entrance into this world while my father repeatedly read the first chapter of the book out loud, and the radio series was the soundtrack to many long car journeys.

When I got to Cambridge University, it turned out that one of my lecturers, Simon Conway Morris, was rather a big fan of the book too. His lecture notes were peppered with references to 42, "life, the universe and everything", and in particular the character Slartibartfast. Slartibartfast designed planets - he designed Earth, and after the Vogons blew up Earth #1, he was in the process of designing Earth #2. This prompt is a paraphrase of a genuine Part III long essay exam question we sat. Buggered if I can remember what I asked him - it was a decade ago - but this is what I'd ask this time.

When you make a new planet, do you have to start life off from scratch, or can you copy and paste it in from another planet?
I've already mentioned in the previous post my interest in abiogenesis. If life arises independently on each planet, then the conditions must have been optimum for the synthesis of more complex organic molecules on the Earth at the time. If it is possible for organisms or complex organics to be transported through space, then the conditions under which life originated could be very different to those experienced during Earth history. The hypothesis that living organisms had extraterrestrial origins (and we're talking single-celled organisms or even nucleic acids here, not ET phoning home) is called Panspermia - most of my students will only have heard of it in the context of the film "Prometheus" - the film is not a scientific account of this hypothesis...

What made you decide to go for carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen as such fundamental elements? Why not silicon, lithium, boron and fluorine?
Life as we know it requires water. All metabolic reactions occur in an aqueous environment, and I should think (though I am not a great biochemist) that such a demand places certain constraints on the molecules involved in these reactions. But I'd be interested to know if this is the only option. I remember the odd "Star Trek" episode involving silicon-based life-forms - no jokes about Katie Price, these were invariably sentient rocks (oh okay then, you can make a joke about Katie Price).

Seriously, what was wrong with dinosaurs? Why did you kill them off and leave their bones in the ground as tantalising glimpses of our prehistory?
Just because, damnit, I think they're awesome. I'd like to understand exactly what was going on environmentally at the end of the Cretaceous, and to be able to see why non-avian dinosaurs and many other taxa were unable to cope with these conditions. Palaeontologists have a jolly good idea about this, but it would be nice to understand what made dinosaurs so successful, and why they could not weather the bolide impact.

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Saturday 11 August 2012

Some Study That I Used To Know

I saw this parody of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know", and I thought of my students.

However, I shall not be berating my students for forgetting all their A-level biology whilst naked. I'm scary enough with all my clothes on.

Friday 10 August 2012

Steps Through Geological Time

The great curse of being a geologist is never being able to go anywhere near a landscape without wondering (or being asked) about the geology beneath the surface. The great curse of being a teacher is never being able to go anywhere without thinking about whether it could be a learning opportunity.

So Paul rolled his eyes when I pulled off the main road in Derbyshire to head to the National Stone Centre. It was a popular place for my parents to take me on the way to or from Dovedale (which, as it happens, is where we were off to). Now, it's probably about 20 years since I last went there, so I have no idea whether this is a long-standing feature, but I was rather struck by the Geosteps:

From Precambrian at the bottom to Palaeogene at the top, the stones represent half a billion years of British rocks. And of course I'm going to show you (ages are quoted from the literature at the NSC)...

Antrim basalt (58-62Ma) and Portland limestone (146Ma)

Sherwood sandstone (230-240Ma) and Magnesian limestone (256Ma)

Rough Rock gritstone (316Ma) and Bee Low limestone (330Ma)

Much Wenlock limestone (425Ma) and Caradoc granodiorite (463Ma)

Borrowdale Volcanics green slates (453Ma) and Strinds sandstone (550-560Ma)

The ultimate destination, however, was a more intimate encounter with the rocks, as we headed to Dovedale to climb Thorpe Cloud.

It's a cracking ascent up a Carboniferous reef knoll for a hot summer afternoon. But it was a straightforward hike, and Paul even pretended to give a damn when I stopped to show him some crinoid fossils in a lump of scree.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Summer Homework 5: An Exciting Discovery

What, for you, has been the most exciting scientific discovery of the past decade? How has it influenced your life or your studies? Why do you consider it to be so exciting?
In 1996, before I began my A-levels, I was set some summer homework, to collect relevant biology-related news articles. This was in the days before readily available internet, and so I had to read newspapers. Just under a month before I started sixth form, the world went crazy over Martian microbes.

SEM image of "microbe" structures in meteorite ALH84001, from NASA

Later, while on my ill-fated attempt at a PhD at Washington University in St Louis, fellow students and their professors were involved with the Mars Exploration Rovers. Our Head of Department was the deputy science PI. We were all herded into the large lecture theatre one Thursday afternoon to watch NASA's "30 Seconds To Mars" video of the landings (though it didn't have this soundtrack):

The objectives for the mission were largely geological and hydrogeological - confirming the existence of water on Mars. Spirit and Opportunity did not disappoint. Within a couple of months of landing, Opportunity identified minerals indicative of a watery past - minerals such as haematite and jarosite form in the presence of water. Not only that, jarosite forms in acidic water, similar to that found in Spain's Rio Tinto, which provides an analogue for the environment in that area of Mars. Spirit found goethite, which only forms in the presence of water.

Four years later, the Phoenix lander found ice at the poles. Over the past decade rocks have also been found with cross-bedding and other features, indicating liquid water existed on Mars at some point.

In the early hours of Monday 6th August, the Curiosity rover landed on the surface of Mars, bringing with it the Mars Science Laboratory. The aim of the mission is to identify organic molecules, or at least trace molecules indicating that organics existed on the surface of Mars. This would provide evidence for life on Mars at some point in its history.

Why am I, a palaeontologist-turned-biology-teacher, so interested in the evidence for liquid water on Mars? One of the most frustrating misconceptions I come across is the erroneous idea that biologists are trying to use evolution to explain the appearance of life on Earth. In fact, evolution does nothing to explain origins of life - this is all down to abiogenesis. By studying what might have happened on Mars, we have the opportunity to look back in time. We know a fair bit already about how molecules can join together in increasing complexity, and we know a bit about early archaean organisms. But in Mars we may have a "stopped clock" of early life in the Solar System.

In short, if we can figure out why there is no complex life form on Mars, then we can figure out why there is complex life on Earth. It goes deeper than just being a "Goldilocks planet". In answering questions about our neighbouring planets, we may find the answers to the questions we're asking about ourselves.

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Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Stokenchurch Gap

I've just got back from a visit to my parents' house up north. One of the best bits about the journey up there is the drive up the M40. We go through the Chilterns, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest - the Stokenchurch Gap.

I was in the rare position of being in the passenger seat and having my smartphone to hand for photos. It was also not raining, snowing or foggy.

It's known as the Aston Rowant Cutting on Natural England's citation, and it is protected for the following reasons:
A stratigraphically important site providing the best Coniacian section in central England, part of the Upper Chalk succession. Above the Chalk rock exposed at the base of the cutting there is a late Turonian to basal Coniacian section of coarse grained nodular chalk, extremely rich in fossils and important in defining the boundary between Turonian and Coniacian age rocks.
It's late Cretaceous, containing a number of marine organisms.

It would be lovely to explore, but I imagine the combination of the SSSI and its location next to one of the busier motorways in the UK makes it fairly inaccessible.

However, with views like this, and such impressive chalk geology rising up on both sides, I'm content to drive through it every few months.

Sunday 5 August 2012

A Letter To Sir David Attenborough

Dear Sir David,

I've heard that you said you didn't think you influenced people to study science, and my first reaction was sadness that you were unaware of just how special your work has been. You have been a constant in my life, and I am so fond of you, though I have only met you briefly to ask a question after a talk.

When I was about eight years old, my grandmother bought me a video. It was a double bill of the Wildlife On One episodes "Meerkats United" and "The Impossible Bird". Of the videos we had (cartoons, films, television programmes), it was this that had the most plays. And you were the narrator. You narrated my television-watching experiences well into adulthood. Every BBC wildlife special, "The Trials Of Life", "The Private Life Of Plants" - you were there, on screen or your disembodied voice.

You were one of the many adults who shaped my love of the natural world. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my parents, grandparents and a select few teachers. And I followed you to Cambridge. I studied Natural Sciences, and focused on Geological Sciences. You and I adorn the same corridor outside the teaching labs, as members of the Sedgwick Club many years apart.

You have extended my appreciation for living things beyond the obvious. "Life In The Undergrowth" has made me appreciate invertebrates - I was quite keen on the fossils, but since seeing your series I have been persuaded to get up close to spiders, cockroaches and scorpions, and I now keep two giant African millipedes in my lab. Perhaps some of your "Life In Cold Blood" is the reason why my husband and I own a leopard gecko who brightens up our lives.

Now I am a teacher. I pass on that awe to my students. You help me to do that. You teach my AS students how the juvenile basilisk lizard uses the surface tension of water to its advantage. You explain thigmotropism to the A2 and BTEC classes. At the Natural History Museum you demonstrated to AS and A2, with more grace and patience than I have, our origins. You helped me to show a GCSE class the intense physical cost of attracting a mate through your filming of birds of paradise. In developing the entire genre of wildlife and nature documentaries, your legacy will continue to educate children and adults long after you and indeed I have entered the carbon cycle.

What amazes me the most is that, well into your eighties, you still find something new and exciting to look at. You show awe, wonder, delight at whatever you see. Your enthusiasm is infectious. It encourages me to show my own delight and enthusiasm, because that is what I remember from your teaching, and I remember how engaging that was.

You inspired me in my studies of science. You inspire my teaching of science. You will inspire future generations to love science.

With much love,

Julia Heathcote Anderson

For more details of the "Letters to Sir David Attenborough" campaign, have a look at their website, or their Twitter account.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Summer Homework 4: Saving The World

Is there any point trying to save the Earth? Describe arguments for and against environmentalism, and offer your conclusions on the fate of the human race.
The Earth has been through some interesting times in its 4.54Ga history. There is evidence that it was covered in ice at various points (though the extent of this ice is somewhat debated still), and that there were times when it was a really crap place to live, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Life on Earth has been through a number of mass extinctions, most notably the Permian-Triassic extinction, resulting in the obliteration of 90% of marine species.

Marine extinction intensity, from Wikipedia

Species have appeared and disappeared. More than 99% of all species that have ever existed on the Earth are extinct. Big deal.

The climate has changed - though we are talking about global warming, we are in a much colder period now than many periods in the past. It has been both warmer and colder than this in the Phanerozoic eon alone. So who's to say that this hasn't all happened before? In fact, the idea of a "resilient Earth" is used frequently as an argument against anthropogenic global warming.

Phanerozoic climate change, from Wikipedia

And yet this is not a comforting state of mind to have. Species go extinct, climate changes, all over geological time scales - that is, over millions of years. Historically, climate has changed sufficiently slowly as to enable species to migrate or facilitate adaptation and evolution. Local changes may be rapid, but global changes are slower (notwithstanding bolides, large-scale volcanism, and so on). What's happening at the moment is faster than we've seen before.

Hockey stick curve, from IPCC 3rd Annual Report

Now, it is possible that we are seeing this rapid change because we are able to see our recent fossil record with greater resolution than the more distant past. However, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we have burnt millions of years' worth of fossil fuels, chucking tonnes of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere over and above the normal flux of the carbon cycle. There is a causal mechanism linking atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to global temperatures, via the greenhouse effect. We have lost the golden toad, the Yangtze river dolphin, the Pyrenean ibex, the Western black rhino and the Pinta Island tortoise, just in the past decade or so, and that's just the cute cuddly vertebrates - Flying Spaghetti Monster only knows how many invertebrates and plants have become extinct in that time (though my guess would be hundreds).

As these organisms die out, they clearly affect the ecosystems to which they belong. And of course, Homo sapiens is part of these ecosystems. A soundbite often attributed to Albert Einstein says we'd have about four years left if the honey bees became extinct. It may be hyperbole, but it's rooted in a truth - we depend on the pollination of plants, whether it is by insect or wind. Extinction of many of these species will have a disastrous effect on our survival.

Climate, too, will affect us. We are seeing more droughts, more storms and more extreme weather. As the average annual temperature increases, the arid and semi-arid biomes spread towards the poles. We can grow Mediterranean crops in the southern UK. The boundaries of our major ecosystems are pushing polewards, leaving plants and animals stranded, unable to migrate or colonise quickly enough.

In the end, the Earth probably will recover. The ferns, the cockroaches and the lawyers will survive the next great extinction. The populations of other organisms will bottleneck, and there will be increased diversity millions of years later. But humans are unlikely to make it.

We need to save the Earth and its residents. Without the bacteria, fungi, plants and other animals, we are doomed. The Earth is the only home we have ever known, and if we break it we're not getting another.

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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Remembering Glucose

One of the (many) things my AS students struggle with is drawing biological molecules correctly. And even I often have to refer to my notes when drawing monosaccharides (though I never have a problem with amino acids or triglycerides). Well, with this simple aide-memoire, my students will never forget the structure of D-glucose:

This shows the direction of the hydroxyls when the D-glucose molecule is in a linear form, as shown:

Now, when I teach the structure of glucose, we mostly look at α-D-glucose, which has the structure:

So, I need to be able to adapt it a little. Turns out it's quite easy.

The fingers correspond to the hydroxyl groups on carbons 4, 3, 2 and 1. So for α-glucose, they need to raise their left hands and flip me the bird. They'll like that.

I might have to warn the invigilators before their Biological Molecules exam though. Don't want the little darlings to get kicked out for swearing at one of my colleagues...

Monday 30 July 2012

Arms Race

In the garden, my nemesis is Bubba the squirrel. Bubba has been the bane of my life with respect to gardening since we moved in. I imagine we're on the second or third iteration of Bubba, but suffice to say, it's been war.

I love feeding the theropod dinosaurs in the garden, and have had feeders up for some time:

Bubba quickly got to grips with the feeders and started chewing away at the plastic to get at the seed. While I have a number of students who are a bit nifty with an air rifle (or perhaps an SA80!), I was reliably informed that at the sort of range I was looking at, I'd end up with a thin layer of pulverised squirrel goo all over the garden. And that would probably attract foxes.

So it was on to chemical warfare. The RSPB advice is that squirrels cannot tolerate the taste of chilli powder, but that birds cannot taste it. So I duly added copious amounts of chilli powder to my mixes. And that worked for about five months.

Until I saw this:

Little fucker. That used to be a feeder full of spicy sunflower hearts. And Bubba had ripped a hole right down the side of the feeder. Perhaps the chilli had blown or been washed away - we've had some rain recently. No - I checked the strength of the chilli powder using the most powerful test known to man: I got some in my eye. It was still pretty damn capsaicin-y.

The chilli alone doesn't seem to be doing it anymore - whatever generation of Bubba we're on may well have a selective advantage in being unaffected by the chilli. Maybe they got lucky with a mutation leaving them with no taste buds at all.

So it was time to break out the big guns. Die-cast aluminium feeders. Let's see the bastard chew through them.

The lid also has a larger overhang than the crappy plastic ones, which might foil Bubba's tactic of dangling from the tree by its hind legs. And of course, MOAR CHILLI POWDER! I wonder what the LD-50 is for chilli in small mammals...

Sunday 29 July 2012

An Unqualified Teacher

On Friday, it was announced that academies would be allowed to employ unqualified teachers, that is, teachers without Qualified Teacher Status. This is not a post on whether I think this is a good idea or not. This is a post about how appalled I am by some of the vitriol directed towards unqualified teachers.

I got my PGCE (also known as DTLLS) in 2011. Under Institute for Learning regulations, I have five years from when I first began teaching (September 2009) to gain QTLS. However, perhaps influenced by a campaign by my union, UCU, it is no longer compulsory to be a member of the IfL. Which means it is no longer compulsory to have QTLS to teach in FE.

As a result, I have not yet applied for QTLS. And the advice from the head of teacher training at the College is basically "Don't bother, it'll be gone in a year". So, according to the DfE, I'm an unqualified teacher.

A horrible hashtag has sprouted up on Twitter: #noQTSnoTeacher. The suggestion that a lack of QTS makes someone not a teacher has been made. The kneejerk response from the qualified teachers online has been to go all-out to insult those of us who teach without QTS - namely the FE and independent sectors (though I accept that many independent schools will have their own requirements).

I'm used to being looked down upon by friends who lecture in universities - though my title is "lecturer", they think that I and my colleagues are just jealous of the prestige of a university teaching job. What I'm not used to, is being looked down upon by friends in the secondary sector. We both teach GCSE and A-level. We both have to teach BTEC L2 and L3 to students who The Powers That Be have deemed non-academic. We both have surly teenagers to cope with. We both have pastoral roles to fulfil too. Where my role is different is that I have Access and HND students where secondary teachers have KS3, but is there any reason why I couldn't teach upper school science?

One year after completing my PGCE I have taught for three years - double the length of time that a teacher completing their NQT year has. I have been rated good or outstanding in every single observation I have ever had. The suggestion that I'm not a real teacher is deeply upsetting. I am a real teacher, damnit. My husband is a real teacher too, and he hasn't even started his PGCE. But he got 18 of the worst-behaved students in the borough to show up to their GCSE English exam. He made a difference.

Michael Gove is doing his best to dismantle the teaching profession, and if segments of the profession start attacking each other, then the policies don't need to do very much at all for him to be successful. If we want to stop Gove, then we need to figure out how to ask for what we want without slagging off our allies and fellow teachers. Teachers - qualified and unqualified, state and independent, secondary and FE - need to value what we all bring to the classroom.

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Summer Homework 3: Ecological Fieldwork

Summarise the ecological practical work you carried out on campus. Describe the factors affecting the distribution of the organism studied. Apply what you have learned about competition, niches and abiotic factors to this distribution.
Loathing, as I do, the desire to have a monoculture of grass, I'm quite happy to see other plants in my lawn. In particular, I love how soft the moss feels when I walk barefoot on it. The moss concerned is Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, the springy turf-moss, and it is the most common moss found in lawns in the UK. It's pretty ubiquitous, and adapted to a wide range of soil types, though all mosses depend on moist conditions.

Fig. 1: The garden, looking south to the widest part of the garden.

The garden is trapezium-shaped, and this section of turf is 18m long and 6m wide at the narrowest point. There are four trees in the garden. The three between 13m and 15m from the left hand side have, in the past, left the soil underneath very dry, killing some of the grass.

Fig. 2: Cartoon map of area of garden used in study.

I set three belt transects, 18m by 0.5m, using a 0.25m2 quadrat and a tape measure. The transects were 1m apart. I systematically sampled every 1m along the transect, estimating the percentage cover of moss, and measuring the pH and moisture content of the soil at 5cm depth.

Fig. 3: Average percentage cover of moss against distance from wall

There is a clear decline at 12m, coinciding with the proximity to the three large trees in the garden. However, there is no clear change in either pH or moisture in this area. I would add that we are currently having the wettest summer I can remember, and that a more accurate idea of soil moisture or precipitation would require long-term monitoring rather than shoving a cheap meter in the soil at regular intervals.

There is also no correlation between the percentage cover of moss and either pH or moisture.

Fig. 4: No correlation between pH or moisture and percentage cover of moss.

Spearman's rank correlation coefficients for these pairs of data are -0.1238 and -0.0483 respectively, which supports my assertion of no correlation. It is possible that biotic factors such as competition for resources from the other plants, namely the three large trees (two maples, Acer pseudoplatanus, and a half-dead, woodworm-infested excuse for an ash), are responsible. Whether it is an undetected competition for water, or perhaps minerals, I cannot tell. The grass, clover and other plants seem to be the opportunists, just finding space to grow where the moss cannot, rather than the other way round.

In the end, though, I suspect that soil moisture is responsible. I did not look at the water levels at shallower depths, which may have reflected the availability of water for the moss more accurately. Nor did I consider the long-term trends in the garden in terms of soil moisture. The investigation could be enhanced with the longer-term monitoring of water levels, perhaps considering the sunlight (though the areas with highest moss distribution are the sunniest, by my observations!), and maybe investigating the macro- and micro-nutrient content of the soil. I'd be very happy to remove all the grass from the area too, to see if the grass was outcompeting the moss, contrary to my suggestion.

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(Note, students: I don't expect anything more than this. I don't even really expect much in the way of statistics, just that you have considered the ecology of the area you have studied.)
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