Friday 29 June 2012

Side Effects Of Teaching

Three years in to my career as an FE lecturer is a good time to reflect on how teaching has changed me. I expected to completely lose my social life (check), to consider six hours sleep a really good night (check), and to be doomed to never make it through an entire episode of "Law & Order" (check). But there are some interesting symptoms that I didn't predict...
  • Seeing friends on a "school night" is only feasible if they come over to see you, bring food, and only stay for an hour.
  • Breaking out the high heels for an awards ceremony results in serious muscle pains the next day.
  • Alcohol tolerance becomes inversely proportional to desire for said alcohol.
  • Everyone you work with is taking omeprazole.
  • Your body has evolved a mutated form of glucocorticoid that prevents all inflammation and immune response symptoms save for a constantly itchy soft palate.
  • The sight of this man can make you want to punch your hand through your computer monitor.

  • Every news story about a shooting or stabbing of a young person induces a reflex "Please don't let it be one of my students" thought.
  • You become a fierce advocate of students and young people, to the point that your friends have to remove you from pubs before you glass a Daily Mail reader.
  • If you weren't before, you're now left-wing.
  • Finally you are now in an environment where your astounding ability to lower the tone of a conversation is not only tolerated, but appreciated, nay, envied.
  • You'd rather hang out with your students than some of the friends you have from university.
  • You're on first-name terms with the guy who runs the coffee shop, your Dominos delivery driver, and the brothers that own the Costcutter, but you hardly know your neighbours.
  • One day you find yourself saying "init".
  • The first few times this horrifies you.
  • After a while, you say "init" in a wholly non-ironic way. Init.
  • You have a "look" that can stop anyone in their tracks, from your students, to some kids talking during a film, to your own spouse.
  • You have picked an outdoor lunch spot that provides the best opportunity to give a bollocking to the greatest number of students as they pass.
  • Your colleagues refer to this as your "drive-by bollocking".
  • On the third Thursday of August you buy a copy of the Torygraph and a box of man-size tissues. Without fail.
  • You find yourself entertaining insane thoughts like "It'd be great fun to set up a Duke of Edinburgh award group at College".
  • You've managed to infect close family members with this psychosis.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Making Science "A Girl Thing"

This all broke yesterday, when I was rather busy trying not to cry as I said goodbye to my A2 class. An A2 class that, by and large, are off to study sciences at university, and who do not in any way identify with the teenagers portrayed in the video below. When I did get a chance to catch up with the catastrofuck on Twitter, this is what hit me:

This is one of the worst ways of getting girls interested in STEM careers that I've seen in some time. Certainly since the pink geek glasses and microscopes. The video quite rightly attracted the scorn of a number of scientists and teachers. A number of criticisms were made, summarised below.
  1. That sort of clothing would be a health & safety disaster in the majority of laboratories, despite what CSI suggests.
  2. There is a hell of a lot more to science than knowing what goes in makeup.
  3. They still can't resist a man in a white coat looking down a microscope.
  4. It's promoting short skirts and makeup to pre-teen girls.
  5. The "i" in "science" is a lipstick, FFS. I'd almost have been tempted to download some of the free posters for the lab, but for the lipstick.
  6. The website is full of stereotypes and "avatars" of science - inaccurate Rutherford models of atoms, flasks and beakers of random coloured liquids, and some mathematical equations that I don't think make any sense.
  7. It detracts from the actual message of the campaign.
  8. It's fucking patronising.
The unfortunate thing is that the profiles the EU project is promoting are really interesting. Paul and I were saying that all that was really needed as a teaser, was each scientist introducing herself with a few caption slides in between. And ditch the lipstick.

The people behind the campaign did remove the teaser video, realising that it was detrimental to the message they were trying to convey, but I fear the damage is done. For one thing, even if the aim of the teaser (cynically) was to get people talking on the basis there's no such thing as bad publicity, the teenagers just weren't present for the conversation. We were all adults on Twitter, bitching, swearing or contributing to the hilarious #scienceboything hashtag. Some adults reported back what their children thought of the video, but that was it.

Sophia Collins, who developed the I'm A Scientist concept, had some more constructive things to say. I'm A Scientist has been without a doubt one of the most effective means at my disposal of getting all my students, male and female, interested in science as a career. Seeing a range of different faces doing interesting things in science is powerful. And they don't all have to have perfect manicures, glamorous wardrobes and crippling high heels. A day or two earlier, @teachingofsci linked to an abstract for a paper entitled "My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls". I'd love to see a copy of the whole paper, but I'm most struck by this line in the abstract:
"Study 2 suggested that feminine STEM role models' combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls."
So for all that, the EU campaign could end up having the opposite effect, as teenage girls feel even more pressure to conform to a certain formula even within the STEM field. We're also facing a deeper look at the "macho culture" in the sciences, since it is turning women off to science.

Could we not just stand to improve the range of scientists that children learn about at school? Maybe not cutting the Researchers in Residence scheme would have been a good idea. And maybe employers could put in decent equality policies to silence sexist jokes, harassment, assault and discrimination against wormen.

Until then, I will stand at the front of my lab, refusing to be manicured, made up and tottering around on high heels, and I will be the role model my female (and indeed male) students need - unapologetically enthusiastic about science, full of high expectations for them, and their biggest cheerleader.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Gove And Mullen

Politicians in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) have an annoying habit of pretending to leak stories to the press, when in actual fact it has been carefully planned and directed to certain media outlets. Late last night the Daily Fail (please don't feel obliged to click on the link - it will only give them advertising revenue) "broke" the exclusive that our favourite Pob look-a-like, Michael Gove, plans to scrap GCSEs by 2016 and replace them with a two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs, like we had before 1988.

I think this is a monumentally bad idea. He is simply pandering to an elitist bunch of old farts who look back on the 1950s and 1960s as a Golden Age of Education. The GCSE system is not perfect by any means - we could always stand to improve on it, and given proper consultation I would be in favour of this move, but going back to a set of qualifications that were deemed unfit for purpose in the 1980s seems a little antediluvian, to say the least. He's also planning to get rid of the National Curriculum (opening the door for all sorts of pseudoscience and creationist bollocks to be taught in the name of science), and to replace the three big exam boards in England with a single one (the least bad idea of the lot, but Gove will not find it easy to destroy three big companies like Edexcel, AQA and OCR).

How many teachers are feeling today...

There have been some quite excellent posts expressing the overwhelming teacher opinion on this all, including the Grauniad, and the FT. The latter has the advantage of data, showing clearly who the most adversely affected will be.

And then there's this article from the Torygraph. According to Peter Mullen (do check out his Wikipedia page - he's one of the worst ambassadors for Christianity I can think of), we are useless, illiterate, ignorant, airport novel-reading, rock gig-attending, anti-elitist, "overpaid, unionised thugs".

How demotivating. For me and for my students. The students are in the middle of exams at the moment - many in the College are part-way through their GCSEs. They've just been told that their exams are meaningless. Paul and I saw a number of tweets this morning from students wondering if they should even bother to go in and sit the rest of their GCSEs. It was very sad to see.

I also saw tweets from other teachers, saying this had reinforced their decisions to leave teaching, or was likely to result in them leaving in the next few years. It will probably reduce the number of people applying to become teachers. Why would they, when a distinctly un-Christian priest who can't keep from breaking the odd Commandment is telling them they're shit?

I am not a shit, useless teacher (though on bad days full of BTEC I sometimes feel that way). I look after my kids, even the kids who are older than me. I teach them to be enthusiastic about biology, to develop their inquisitive skills, to be able to apply their deep subject knowledge to new and interesting situations. I give them a well-tuned bullshit detector and the ability to do Harvard referencing in their sleep. I cuss, I speak sarcastically, I tell dirty jokes. Hell, I've baked them all flapjacks for every single A-level exam, because I know that for some of them it's the only meal they're going to get all day.

Flapjacks, cooked to the recipe I posted yesterday.

So, as pissed off as I am, and as hurt by the words, I know that I, and the vast majority of teachers, do not fit in with Mullen's attack. I do not recognise the people he is criticising. I just wish that this sort of attack didn't demotivate and sadden.

But if Mullen wants to put his money where his mouth is, I'd be more than happy to go head-to-head with him sitting a load of GCSE exams. I'll take on Gove too. I'd like to see these arseholes demonstrate their supposed superiority. And if they decline, well, fuck them.

Wednesday 20 June 2012


I don't think I've ever done a recipe on here, but my students have asked for my flapjack recipe after I inflicted some on them before each A-level exam, so I may as well share the love. This is a mutated form of a recipe I think my mum got from Mrs Beeton's book - I've adapted it for my own needs, and I think it's clear that I'm a biologist rather than a chemist or physicist...

200g butter/butter spread
200g demerara sugar
500g porridge oats
2 massive tablespoons of golden syrup

  1. If you remember, shove the oven on to about 180°C.
  2. Melt the butter or spread in a saucepan on a hob.
  3. When liquid, add the sugar and stir until it's all mixed in.
  4. Add the oats and stir well.
  5. Add the golden syrup and find someone with half-decent upper body strength to stir it a bit better.
  6. Grease a baking tray. Actually, sod that, just line it with kitchen foil, because otherwise you'll be chiselling flapjack off the tray.
  7. Pour the mixture into the tray and spread out with a wooden spoon until it's evenly distributed.
  8. Put in the oven and watch it intently until the edges look as though they might start to burn in the next minute or so.
  9. Remove from the oven and cut into pieces before allowing it to cool.
Once you have this basic recipe working, you can experiment. For instance, I did plain flapjacks for the Unit 1 exam, but then put a layer of milk chocolate cake covering over the top of cooled flapjacks for Unit 2. For Unit 4 the request came in for white chocolate and strawberry flapjacks, so I added two packets of dried strawberries to the flapjack mix, then poured white chocolate cake covering over the cooled flapjacks.

I have no idea what to bake for Unit 5.

Monday 18 June 2012


After several years of teaching a class of students, I feel compelled to give them something to remember me by; something they can take with them on their next step. Last year I had a really small A2 class, so I bought them all a copy of Do We Need Pandas?. This year's cohort is nearly twice the size, and it was clear I couldn't stretch to buying books for everyone.

So I've gone with something much more personal, but significantly cheaper. Still, it is most definitely the thought that counts in this case (I nearly made the Chemistry lab technician cry when she saw what I was doing). I've found quotes for each of my students, printed them and framed them:

This is what I've found for each of them.

The student whose devotion to their daughter has been a delight to watch:
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. (Rachel Carson)
The student whose study strategy has been a rather scattergun approach:
In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last. (Hugh Walpole)
The student who has suffered through my teaching for two years with barely concealed despair:
No man who worships education has got the best out of education.... Without a gentle contempt for education no man's education is complete. (G.K. Chesterton)
The student who just never stops to sniff the roses:
I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.' (Kurt Vonnegut)
The student who was notably excited upon learning that research was something scientists could do as a career:
An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer. (Max Planck)
The student who has dealt with major issues and come out the other side relatively unscathed:
A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water. (Eleanor Roosevelt)
The student who nearly left it too late to ask for help:
No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. (John Donne)
The student who is going to train as a midwife:
You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it. (John Updike)
The student who does not, and will not conform to expectations:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. (e.e. cummings)
The student who desperately wants to change the world:
We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee. (Marian Wright Edelman)
The student who perseveres and claws back success from the jaws of defeat:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
The student who never quite lets on how brilliant they are until the last moment:
Don't live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. (Wendy Wasserstein)
The student who needs to know things get better:
Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The student who is a hopeless romantic:
The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance – the idea that anything is possible. (Ray Bradbury)
The student who has changed paths:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. (Robert Frost)
Each framed quote has been wrapped, and accompanied by a little card bearing the words Myosotis arvensis. Some of these students have been mine since GCSE, and it's a wrench to see them go. That said, if they cock up their exams I'll probably see them next year as they get a place on our HND through Clearing...!

Sunday 10 June 2012

Things I Learned From My Students #11: Procrastination

What better time for a blog post than when I should be writing a statement of application for an internal vacancy? My A2 students have their Unit 4 exam this coming Friday, so I should think there are 15 alpabetised sock drawers in west London, as an indicator of the amount of procrastination taking place. Anyway, here are some pearls of wisdom to pass on to you.
  1. Apparently it's entirely normal to e-mail your biology lecturer Led Zeppelin lyrics at 3am on a Saturday morning.
  2. Yet apparently it's not an achievable task to e-mail your biology lecturer the outstanding coursework at 3am on a Saturday morning.
  3. There's no point committing a long name like Cedrus libani to memory when you can just call it Big Crazy Tree Mudafuuuu.
  4. It's impossible to memorise three Latin names for plants, but perfectly reasonable to memorise the first and last names of the entire Polish football team.
  5. No matter how awful a student's home life is, they are always thankful that their name is not Melvin Calvin.
  6. Barnacles deserve maximum respect.
  7. Hangovers really aren't conducive to starting the first part of the A2 biology syllabus, and may result in the bunking off of the afternoon's physics lesson.
  8. If you're a teenage boy, every round object resembles breasts, and every long object resembles a penis.
  9. When doing an experiment to measure the volume (and therefore density) of an irregular object, some joker always asks if they can measure the volume of their penis.
  10. These jokers don't like it if you hand them a 10ml measuring cylinder.
  11. There is no such thing as bad weather; only inappropriate clothing. And boy, is there inappropriate clothing for fieldwork...
  12. Kitten heels are not great footwear for a trip round a plant nursery.
  13. Until such time as I can train my lab pelargoniums to do a dance routine to "Somebody That I Used To Know", my students will never be truly interested in plants.
  14. The level of disgust expressed at being defaecated on by a giant millipede should never be underestimated.
  15. Millipedes have "too many legs".
  16. The word "bodman" apparently means "condom".
  17. It's perfectly acceptable to refer to your female teacher as "Bro" or "Bruv".
  18. I may need to wear lower-cut tops if my students are confused about my gender.
  19. Flapjacks really are very well received pre-exam sustenance.
  20. The Marmoset Song exists. Thank you. I mean it. Really.

Monday 4 June 2012

Setting Summer Homework

I have the onerous task of setting summer work for my AS students, who return to College for two weeks of A2 study on Wednesday. As we have literally no money, the possibility of taking them on fieldwork has been ruled out. So they can't get their coursework written over the summer. Arsebiscuits. So I've been trying to think of something productive that they could do, that would be helpful to them for their A2 studies. I've copied my proposed handout, and would be grateful for feedback. Some of you who are alumni of the Cambridge Earth Sciences Department will recognise the final question as one of Simon Conway Morris' favourites for the Part II essay question. If any of you have some suggested amendments or replacements, please let me know.

This is your summer homework. It is non-negotiable. If you wish to do A2 Biology in September then you must complete the assignment. You are going to set up and maintain a blog over the summer. You will be expected to keep this blog going throughout your A2 year, using it for short assignments, revision notes and requests for help.

Over the next two months, you will choose at least four of the six topics listed, and write a blog post on each. You should be able to write 400-600 words for each topic. Some of these topics you will think are pointless and dull, but several specification points on Topic 5 examine the role of scientists in the communication of science, how scientists arrive at consensus, what consensus means in the context of science, and the nature of science itself. At A2 you are also expected to understand the criteria listed in the How Science Works document. You should be reading scientific articles more frequently, reflecting on your own learning, consolidating your thoughts and getting ideas from your peers. Contrary to this being a pointless exercise, this could be the most important thing you have ever done in science.

  1. Introduce yourself (to the extent that you are willing to be identified). Write about your earliest memories of science. How have these influenced you to study the sciences? Do you wish to continue to study sciences at university? If so, what made you choose this subject? If not, what has captured your mind more than science?
  2. Research the ways in which scientists can communicate with other scientists and with the general public. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the existing peer-review method for academic publications? How do you feel peer-review could be improved?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. Imagine you could ask Slartibartfast (look him up!) any question about the Earth. What would you ask him, and why?
You should set up your blog in the final lesson of the Introduction to A2 course, and submit the URL to me. Ensure that there is an RSS feed available for the blog. I will collate all the blogs and put a group feed up on Moodle, so all blogs can be subscribed to at once.

You should write four blog posts at least, between now and 16th August. Since all work can be checked throughout the holiday, it will not be necessary to submit any written work in August. A checklist will be provided at Enrolment listing those who have successfully completed the work.

I will comment on each blog post to give you feedback, and I will encourage other teachers and scientists I know to do the same. I highly advise you to comment on a few blog posts too, to give your own feedback to your classmates.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Microteaches #8: Eye Of The Hurricane

This coming week is, for schools, half-term. For those of us brave souls who have decided to work in FE, there is no half-term, only a weird week of no exams, between the AS and A2 period. I've just caught my breath from the AS exams, only to go full-pelt into A2 in just over a week's time. And then it's all over for another year.

Like the eye of the hurricane, this is the oddly calm area sandwiched between two violent storms. So while I can, here are some links and thoughts.


The video "The story of a single heartbeat", available from Understanding Life, should be required viewing for all A-level students looking at the heart.

If that's not enough, then just when they thought they were beginning to understand genetics, they should read this press release on gene modifications. And on the subject of genetics, they should look at Alby's post on Consanguinuity and the coefficient of relationship, which has relevance to much of Edexcel's Unit 2.

There was excitement in the entomology world a few months ago, when giant stick insects, thought to be extinct, were rediscovered on an isolated island. Students of mine who can't cope with the millipedes in the lab may not wish to look at the photos in this link. This is a great example of the role of zoos in captive breeding and reintroduction programmes.

Any students (or teachers for that matter) looking for cell biology images, would be advised to check out The Cell: An Image Library. That said, much of what I teach them at A-level and BTEC is a massive simplification, or a model, of what is actually happening in the cell. For example, mitosis is way more complicated than my A-level students think. And I genuinely had no idea that cells shut down during cell division.

There's a sweet illustrated guide to the evolution of different skin colours, which is a little simplified for A-level, but a nice introduction nevertheless. On our evolution, there's another hypothesis on why we walk upright.


It's one of the most stressful times of the year for teachers, and certainly for their students, so it is good to be reminded of the physiology and treatment of stress, by Informed Education.

Putting into perspective my own success and progression rates, it is a timely reminder that, according to this DfE report on progression, in FE colleges, only 55% of AS biology students progress to A2.

For my students who are feeling demotivated, and worried that they are going to be outperformed by independent school students, there is research indicating that state school students actually do better in their university exams. Your time will come, my darlings.

I'll be trying to shake off the image of Cambridge as a toff's playground when I take four of my finest to the Cambridge open day in July. Nothing will make me prouder than being able to show off my students at my alma mater. I've even found my CAM Card...

Finally, I'm reassured by this post on being the "right kind of science role model" by Marie-Claire Shanahan. As a teacher I have a worrying amount of influence on my students. None of them want to be FE biology lecturers any time soon, but occasionally I get a breakthrough. It is a comfort that I am helping by engaging with them, discussing careers and being open about gender differences in the sciences. I'm probably helping more than my (male) physics lecturer colleague who declares that "biology is for women".
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