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.)

Friday 27 July 2012

For Want Of A Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Ecosystems are very finely tuned. Species depend on each other trophically and symbiotically. Sometimes the smallest change can have huge implications, as the proverb quoted above demonstrates.

We have a cooking apple tree in the back garden. It's sandwiched between a "tree of heaven" (Ailanthus altissima) and some privet (Ligustrum vulgare), but has always done pretty well. In 2006, when we moved in, we had a bumper harvest. Same in 2008 and 2010. The odd-number years were usually half as good - I remember reading that apple trees often alternated years. So, being 2012, I was expecting lots of apples.

We have one. And not a particularly impressive-looking one at that. We had a bad apple harvest predicted at the start of the year, due to the mild winter. So the buds started forming early, only to be destroyed by colder, wetter weather during the spring. So hardly any blossoms. The lack of blossoms meant fewer bees were attracted to the garden anyway. Some were able to pollinate the blossoms, but only one fruit developed. Normally by July we have windfalls all over the garden - there has been nothing.

One consequence of windfalls is an increase in the number of wasps. On one hand, it has been nice to sit out in the garden with Paul without wondering whether he's going to knock down plant pots in his bid to escape the next time a wasp appears. On the other hand, wasps are jolly useful for getting rid of pests. They eat aphids. A lack of windfalls means few wasps, which means loads of aphids. Aphids appear to attract the ants, who are busy harvesting them off my Tetrapanax.

So, though the full picture is much more complicated, our dodgy winter and spring has been responsible for loads of aphids around here.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Unmonitored Account

Dear Ms Anderson

Thank you for your correspondence to the Secretary of State expressing disagreement with his decision to support the Exemplar New Business Academy Free School project with its links to the Everyday Champions Church. I hope you will appreciate the Secretary of State for Education receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.
I'll bet he does. Probably all of it from teachers like me wondering what the fuck he thinks he's playing at. Still, I'm miffed that the DfE couldn't even manage a form letter pretending to be Govey.
No Free School is allowed to teach creationism. The Free School application guidance published by the Department now specifically says creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas cannot be taught as valid scientific theories.
Which is all well and good, except that you have organisations like the abominable Truth In Science, who have been sneaking their resources into state-funded schools for quite some time. You say they will not be able to teach creationism, but you have not said that they have to say that evolutionary theory is the best explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. This leaves them with plenty of opportunities to criticise evolutionary biology.
Furthermore, the funding agreements for all Free Schools state that divine creation should not be taught as an 'evidence-based view or theory' (a scientific theory) in any lesson: so if a school did do this they would be putting their funding at risk. We are confident that the Free School project you mention will follow the rules, having explored these questions robustly with them at interview.
See above. This is not a strict enough definition - it still allows the teaching of what is a non-existent controversy by making out that it is critical thinking. Are you familiar with the Wedge Document?
Prior to entering into a funding agreement, the Academy Trust is required to carry out a consultation about their plans to open a Free School. Consultations can be run in a number of ways including surveys, the launch of a simple website, meetings of key individuals and open public meetings.
How many scientifically literate members of the Trust are involved with each consultation? Are any of them experts in science?
Academy Trusts also need to demonstrate that they have considered the views of their stakeholders. Most do this by publishing a report setting out the key findings of their consultation.
You could have done a lot for your transparency by suggesting where it might be possible to find these reports. You know, so we could see the key findings and assess for ourselves whether a rigorous consultation has been carried out.
Every application approved has had to demonstrate that the new school will provide a broad and balanced curriculum. Free Schools are subject to Ofsted inspections in the same way as all other state schools, and the government has powers to intervene in a school where there is significant cause for concern.
And in the same way that we invested in two dozen new waste bins, put up displays of student work and told the more "challenging" individuals to not bother showing up for a week, so any school can game the system when Ofsted come around. Unless the teacher themselves is unaware that the people who've just walked into their lesson are from Ofsted, one can always pull out of the bag what should be happening in a lesson.
Please be assured that the Department will be working with the project mentioned over the coming months to ensure that the assurances they have provided us with are honoured.
You don't actually know which project I'm referring to, do you? This is your standard response to every single letter querying the possible teaching of creationism in state-funded schools.
As part of our commitment to improving the service we provide to our customers, we are interested in hearing your views and would welcome your comments via our website at: www.education.gov.uk/pcusurvey
I'm more annoyed than I should be that you missed out the full stop at the end of that sentence.
Yours sincerely

Guy Manly
Public Communications Unit
Come on now. "Guy Manly"? That's a made up name. Like Bloke Personage, or Dude Chaps. I'm suspicious that the publicity lot are involved with this - it implies this is more making Govey look good than ensuring the policy is enforced rigorously. I am not reassured.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Summer Homework 2: Science Communication

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?
Several methods of communication exist for scientists to educate others about their research. They range from the formal (journal articles), to semi-formal (conferences), to informal (newspapers, television shows, outreach programmes).

Journal articles and edited books
In general, when scientists wish to communicate their research formally to other scientists in the field, they need to subject their work to peer-review, where other scientists in the field read the work, try to replicate the results and give (hopefully) formative feedback that will improve the quality of the research. Scientific journals are considered the best way of achieving that. Scientists are assessed, especially if they work in universities, on the length and prestige of their publication record. With a few exceptions, it seems the shorter the journal title, the more prestigious it is, e.g. Science, Nature, Cell. The advantages are, no doubt, the prestige, the rubber-stamp of authority from the peer-review process, and the knowledge that the important researchers in your field will see your work. The disadvantages are the length of time it takes from submission to publication (18 months is not unusual), and the cost of accessing the articles for people who do not have an institutional subscription to the journal.

When scientists have work in progress, a conference can be a good place to present this, prior to publication. Abstracts (short summaries) are submitted, and subjected to a mild form of peer-review (i.e. the committee decides whether the abstract sucks or not). They are then published in a conference volume. The conference takes place, and the scientists present their work either as a talk, usually between 10-20 minutes long, or as a poster in a 2-3 hour poster session.

The advantages of this are the ability to talk to scientists in related fields, get ideas, swap knowledge of specimens/techniques, and to showcase one's own talents. It's an opportunity to collaborate with others. The disadvantages are the cost of travel and accommodation, and difficulties with getting time out of teaching or other commitments. Often, the conference organisers will have a press conference, which can raise a problem of a specimen being reported in the press that has not been officially named or published in a journal. This can be awkward for all involved.

Press releases to newspapers
If a piece of work is considered worthy, then the institution or journal may write a press release. This is sent to journalists in advance of the release of the article, so they are able to research and write their own piece. Sometimes this can result in an unfortunate game of Chinese Whispers - the press release doesn't quite get the science correct, and the news report doesn't quite interpret the press release correctly, and a scientist may find, say, that they've been quoted as saying that there are only 500 dinosaur species left to be discovered (!). However, this is probably the most common means of getting information to the general public, through the popular press. And there have been some really interesting cases that have arisen from press releases and press conferences.

Blogging and outreach
With some of the issues related to press releases, many scientists have decided to cut out the middle men (the press officers and journalists) and communicate directly with the public. Science blogging is becoming more and more popular, with big organisations such as Scientific American, Wired and Discover Magazine getting in on the action. The advantages are that the scientists get to tell the public exactly what they want to say, and the public get to ask the scientists questions directly. However, the disadvantages are that, while there are many journalists that slip up on the science, there are many scientists that really don't have the communication skills to make their science sound interesting. Plus, any old nutjob can set up a blog...

Where next?
Peer-review is a pretty decent method, all told. It gives credibility to the research and shows that other scientists have deemed the methods to be accurate and the data to be genuine. Publication in a scientific journal is a chartermark of sorts. However, it is not foolproof - there have been examples where peer-review has not caught academic fraud. I'd like to see double-blind peer-review as standard - the authors don't know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers don't know who the authors are, until publication. There is evidence that this improves the representation of female first authors, so presumably removing inherent sexism and prejudice that female authors can't do science...

Journal articles are also prohibitively expensive - it can be $35 to access a short communication in a journal, rendering much research inaccessible to people who are not at a wealthy university with an institutional subscription. However, there are moves towards open access for all government-funded research (surely only fair?), and there are pretty high-impact open access journals such as PLoS, who are giving the big academic publishers a run for their money. I would like to see more online free publication of scientific journal articles, each with the means to comment on them and debate the implications of the results or conclusions. That would be awesome.

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Monday 23 July 2012

Equality For All

When I saw the headline: "Trans teen banned from exam reads teacher her rights", I genuinely assumed it was in the USA. I associated this kind of discrimination with schools in red states, and was shocked to read it was in the UK. I stand corrected, America - we've got our fair share of douchebags too.

I'm troubled by this:
According to her mum Miranda, a senior teacher told her daughter that gender dysphoria didn't exist, while another imitated her walk in front of other pupils.
Teachers should never do this. It's unkind, uneducated and unprofessional. Sometimes a minority of unsuitable characters give the rest of us a bad name.

I'm also unimpressed by the highly biased and rather snooty Torygraph article (don't read the comments if you are easily upset by what utter bastards human beings can be), which refers to the student, Ashlyn, as "he" throughout. Also wrong. Ashlyn is "she". She wishes to be known as Ashlyn, not Lewis, so she is identifying as a young woman. She should bloody well be treated as such. What she has been through to get to that point doesn't bear thinking about, but I expect her life has been hell. It is reassuring to see that her mum is loving and supportive - many transgendered people don't have that.

I hope that, when Ashlyn goes to college in September, she finds it a more inclusive and diverse institution, and that her teachers are less bigoted. I hope she finds lecturers who welcome her equally with the rest of the students, who can support her and help her to come back from this rotten experience. I hope her GCSE grades have not been adversely affected. And I hope she and her mum take this rotten school to the cleaners.

Friday 20 July 2012

Summer Homework 1: My Life In Science

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?
I am Julia Anderson, biology lecturer. I used to be Julia Heathcote, palaeontologist.

I was fortunate, growing up, to have parents who were pretty progressive in terms of gender stereotypes. I had as many trucks as dolls, a Fisher Price tool kit and doctor's kit. I pretty much lived in dungarees as a baby and toddler.

I was already perfecting That Look, though I think my hair looks better now.

Dad had cause to visit London at weekends, and would often stop off at the Natural History Museum when it was free for the last half hour or so. And he bought me a plastic dinosaur. It was a dark maroon injection-moulded Tyrannosaurus. This was swiftly followed by a beige Triceratops, yellow Iguanodon and green Megalosaurus. I was hooked.

From then on it was all about the science, and even more so, it was about the dinosaurs. My junior school teacher was impressed that, at the age of nine, I could spell the word "palaeontologist". My dad was convinced I was going to be his "Ellie", and that I would be a great scientist. There was a whole-family outing to see "Jurassic Park" when it came out in the cinema. On our first and only holiday as a family to the USA we went round an obscene number of museums. They endured afternoons fossil-hunting on beaches in Scotland and Dorset while on holiday.

I was academically excellent, so I won a scholarship to Nottingham High School for Girls for the sixth form. It was the only way I could do four A-levels (how times have changed!). I applied to, and was offered a place at Gonville & Caius College, the same Cambridge college my father had attended. I got the three A grades I needed, and spent a moderately miserable four years at university, before doing a Masters and being offered a PhD place in the US. That didn't work out so well, and I returned to the UK. I spent five years drifting from admin job to admin job, before taking a leap of faith and figuring I may as well become a teacher.

I was fascinated by the unknown, the other worlds that had existed on the Earth, completely unrecognisable. Dinosaurs and other large, mostly extinct taxa, have captured the minds of people in this way for centuries. I was particularly enamoured of sauropods, the ones with the long necks and tails. The evolution of gigantic forms was fascinating. Nothing like them has existed since. What was it about the Earth's environment that enabled this size increase? I remember a common put-down from my PhD supervisor being "You're not curing cancer". No, but sometimes knowledge for knowledge's sake makes human beings better people. Sometimes understanding the past can help us avoid disastrous conditions in the future. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But in the end it wasn't for me. I tried to combine teaching with a reboot of my PhD part-time, but couldn't combine the two successfully. In the end, my students won. I have never regretted this decision. I get to work with clever, funny, curious, irreverent, kind youngsters every day. I get to help them see what a wonderful and awesome universe we live in. I get to raise their aspirations and create the scientists of the next decade.

I will never lose my curiosity and enthusiasm for science. I love to read up on new discoveries and breakthroughs, and I love to share that with my students. I will never be Dr Julia Heathcote, but as Mrs Julia Anderson I get to be Miss, Jules, Mum (!) and Prof - all genuinely things I've been called by students. And one day, maybe, a student who has been inspired to study life sciences at university by me and my teaching, whether it's an A-level, BTEC or HND student, might cure cancer.

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Thursday 19 July 2012

Just A Teacher

Occasionally, though I barely interact with anyone on it these days, I see on Facebook a "repost-if-you-agree" status doing the rounds. It approximates to:
JUST A MUM????..... I cant stand it when people say, "You're JUST a mum?" Yes, I am a Mum! That makes me an alarm clock, cook, maid, waitress, teacher, nurse, referee, handyman, security officer, photographer, counselor, chauffeur, event planner, hairdresser, personal assistant, tailor, ATM & I scare away the boogie man. I don't get paid holidays, sick pay or days off. I work through the DAY & NIGHT. I am on call 24/7 for the rest of my life. And that's just with BEING A MUM!! I may not be anything to you but I am everything to someone!! Re-post if you’re a proud mum, that would do ANYTHING on this planet for your children!!!!
And so worth it!
Various things a few days ago got me thinking about all the different roles I have as a teacher (along with a good old " 9-3 job, my arse!" rant). So it seemed like a fun idea to do a similar status...
Just a teacher? I can't stand it when people say "You're just a teacher?" Yes, I am a teacher! That makes me a mentor, professor, scientist, psychologist, counsellor, police officer, judge, examiner, chauffeur, fashion adviser, stand-up comedian, DJ, bodyguard, lawyer, nurse, cash machine, animal trainer, gardener, personal trainer, dietician, sexual health adviser, social secretary, careers adviser, social worker, friend, big sister and, yes, mother. I work during my holidays and never take a sick day. I think about my students day and night. I am on call for those students 24/7 for the rest of my life, and if they need me I will drop everything to go to them. I may not be anything to you, but I am everything to someone. Repost if you're a proud teacher, that would do anything on this planet for your students. They're worth it.
Perhaps I'm just a little tired and emotional...

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Faith Schools

It's often a little unwise for me to blog when I've had something to drink, but bugger it. It's 5 o'clock somewhere, and I've had a margarita. Today, faith schools have pissed me off on two fronts. I find them an utterly illiberal concept, and I long for the secularisation of the state school system, and both Paul and I actually attended faith state schools for our primary and secondary education (Catholic and Church of England respectively). I still remember being told by the priest attached to our school that I shouldn't support the Green Party because David Icke thought he was the son of God (now I don't support the Green Party because they're anti-science).

Anyway, I digress.

HPV Vaccination
Hot on the heels of the news that the Schools Minister doesn't think it's necessary for children to know the correct names for parts of their anatomy is the revelation that some faith schools are opting out of the HPV vaccine, and that the schools or PCTs are not informing local GPs or letting the parents/guardians know where they can access the vaccination instead. The original article in GP Magazine is available if you register, otherwise the Grauniad fairly accurately reflects the original article. The reasons given for this decision are that "pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and do not practise sex outside marriage".

I'm reminded of the attitude of Cambridge college porters towards TV licence enforcing officers. The porters turned away the officers at the porters' lodge, because college regulations stipulated that students were not allowed televisions. Therefore no students had televisions and no TV licences were required. Yeah, right. Making up rules prohibiting something is no guarantee that the rules will be obeyed, whether it is not having a television or not having sex before marriage.

In any case, this assertion does not allow for the fact that a) abstaining from sexual intercourse does not appear to guarantee a young woman will not acquire HPV (non-penetrative sexual contact is a plausible infection route, as are fomites, vertical transmission and skin-to-skin contact), b) young women are usually held up to standards of virginity that are not expected of their prospective husbands (so a female virgin could still acquire HPV from her husband on her wedding night), and c) women who "follow strict Christian principles" can still be raped or coerced into sex.

An article published earlier this year investigated possible effects of offering the HPV vaccination on girls' sexual activity. They concluded:
  • Being offered the HPV vaccine was not linked with higher rates of sexual activity.
  • Receiving the HPV vaccination was not associated with increased sexual risk-taking.
  • HPV vaccination is unlikely to affect girls' sexual behaviour.
Well then. A move like this has no benefit to the school or to its female students. And by not informing the GPs in the area, the girls' doctors are prevented from offering a safety-net of vaccination. I tell my male students to check their testicles, and I tell my students to check their breasts and to have regular cervical smears when they're called for them. And yes, I tell them to have their HPV vaccines. It might save their lives.

Teaching Creationism
And so creationism raises its ugly head. We could have predicted this particular outcome of the disastrous free school programme. Yesterday I had a notification from the British Humanist Association regarding three creationist free schools that had been given approval to open, including Grindon Hall Christian School. According to the BHA, Grindon Hall have the policy that:
We will teach creation as a scientific theory and we will always affirm very clearly our position as Christians, i.e. that Christians believe that God's creation of the world is not just a theory but a fact with eternal consequences for our planet and for every person who has ever lived on it.
Eek. Classic "teach the controversy" stuff, part of the "wedge strategy", and just plain wrong. According to the Grauniad article linked above, the head of Grindon Hall has said this policy is out of date, and that they won't be doing that, but there is no real indication of what will be taught. The DfE hit Twitter to reiterate their position that no free school is allowed to teach creationism as scientific fact, but the statement on their website is not exactly clear:
We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.
Doesn't exactly lay down the law, does it? I'm tempted to respond that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Not an explicit ban on the teaching of creationism as science. And that is where, I fear, the schools will start to chip away at the teaching of evolution. This is the thin end of the wedge in UK schools; this is where it begins.

So there you have it, two ways in which faith schools are damaging their students physically and intellectually. I need another drink.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Summer Homework: Doing It Myself

A few weeks ago, I set summer homework for my little darlings. Some of the posts have been brilliant, and all have been enjoyable to read.

However, there are a lot of students who haven't yet made their blogs, let alone started posting. One of my girls has said I'll find all the posts appearing on 15th August, the day before the deadline. This is possible, but it's more likely that I won't see any work at all from any of the students.

There will be a number of complaints, such as it being too difficult, or them not having enough time, and so on. So I'm going to show them (though unless the AS students have found my blog already they won't see it until after the deadline) that the work can easily be done.

Not only that, I'm going to write all six posts, including a practical writeup of a quadrat-chucking exercise. I'm going to borrow a quadrat from the College and analyse the biodiversity of my back garden. This will hopefully take account of the advantage I have of being a more experienced writer.

I'll be posting these regularly over the next month, and when I do, I'll try to remember to update this post to include links to all of the individual articles. I'll even shove in a word count so they can see I'm doing about 400-600 words just like them.

Summer Homework #1: My Life In Science
Summer Homework #2: Science Communication
Summer Homework #3: Ecological Fieldwork
Summer Homework #4: Saving The World
Summer Homework #5: An Exciting Discovery
Summer Homework #6: A Question For Slartibartfast

Saturday 14 July 2012

Names For Genitals

Yes, it's time for another classic post on penises. This one is triggered by the publication of a letter from Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, indicating that it wasn't important that children were able to correctly name the parts of their bodies. To which I say: bollocks testicles.

I covered this at great length back in October of last year, albeit with a focus on SRE lessons for older students. Still, I mentioned the issues with primary education, and these have been described extensively in a press release by the PSHE Association.

In my first year of teaching, I taught GCSE Biology, which included some lessons on the menstrual cycle, fertility and secondary sexual characteristics. I'm fortunate to have some (now rather elderly) plaster models of male and female genitals, and these were particularly popular. Suffice to say the vulva is as polished as the nipples on bronze statues in museums, one half of the shaft of the penis has broken after the BTEC boys dropped it (you'd think they'd know how to hold it properly), and I've lost track of how many male students have fallen over themselves in their eagerness to proclaim that they know the location of the clitoris.

But there were a lot of students who found it difficult to bring themselves to look at the models, and some of the girls wouldn't touch the male genitals model. Perhaps it was a little cruel of me to make every student in the class shout out the word "PENIS!" at the start of the next lesson, though once they'd done that they all felt better.

In one such lesson, I wanted the students to brainstorm secondary sexual characteristics. So I split the class into boys and girls, made the boys list the female secondary sexual characteristics, and the girls the male secondary sexual characteristics. Holy crap, did I learn a few new phrases that day! I also learnt that Leonardo da Vinci wasn't going to have any competitors on the anatomical illustration front from that class, but there you go.

Some of the many words that had been written down included a variety of "playground terms" for the male and female genitals. Interestingly enough, the students thought it was fine to write "cunt", but they starred out "pussy" so it was "p***y". Then one lad asked me why a penis was sometimes referred to as a "dick" in English. I confess, this question threw me. If anyone knows the etymology of "dick" for "penis" then I'll be grateful for the insight. I said that there were a lot of different nicknames, and that it was something of a personal preference (yeah, I totally bullshitted that one...).

Then one of the young ladies piped up: "Yeah, I know one guy who calls his Thunderbolt!"

The lesson ended ten minutes early because I was laughing too much to continue.

Friday 13 July 2012

What Went Well; Even Better If

Ah, the old WWW and EBI. Tools of formative assessment. Praise what was good about the piece of work, and then tell the student how they can improve on the work. Personally, I like to add on TBSDDIA - That Bit Sucked, Don't Do It Again...

It's a chance for me to regroup and gather my thoughts for the next academic year (though I have about ten months of sleep to catch up on, plus a load of Jeremy Kyle to watch). So here's some formative self-assessment of my performance over the 2011-2012 academic year.

What Went Well
I am more confident and knowledgeable with the A-level subject matter in particular. I have made a stimulating environment in my new lab that is conducive to learning. I have raised the aspirations of many of my students, helping them to investigate university courses and careers that they hadn't considered. One of my BTEC girls has got into Liverpool to study Pharmacology. Again, I have students that will turn up to my class when they won't to other lecturers' classes, because they believe it is worth their while. I had the best feedback in the department in terms of the quality of my assessment. I organised a kick-ass National Science and Engineering Week. I got four students to consider Oxbridge, and to go to Caius College for an open day last week.

I tried a tactic of bringing in little bits of evolutionary theory to all the topics we discussed in A-level classes, so that addressing evolution and natural selection at the end of AS didn't come as a surprise, and it worked well - it was the first year I'd had no objections to the topic. I started using social networking for the students, with Twitter and Audioboo, and it was appreciated. The student blogs are looking really good.

Even Better If
I still don't think I teach some topics well at all. I still struggle with the immune system and windows of development in the brain, and my students deserve better, so I should be reading up more in detail on these subjects. I think the coursework for A2 will be better if we revert to fieldwork rather than labwork. I dropped the ball on the Level 2 forensics unit, and must put the same amount of effort into this class as I do into the A-level and Level 3 course - I promised them a trip to the Crown Court and then failed to deliver on this promise. Also, the crime scene needs more blood. I need to improve my understanding of SOLO taxonomy, and roll it out to more classes - using more techniques than just hexagons.

I should be encouraging more of a collaborative effort in teaching where there are two teachers teaching the same unit to different groups. It can get isolating otherwise. I should also be getting more involved with the teachers on Twitter, especially those teaching OCR A-level, or HND Applied Biology, as these will be new courses for me this year.

That Bit Sucked, Don't Do It Again
Laying into one of my more feck-deficient BTEC students, starting with "Are you taking the piss?" and going downhill from there. In front of his classmates. That was the last one of my lessons that he bothered to turn up to. I think there's a causal link there...

Sunday 8 July 2012

Close Encounter Of The Bird Kind

I was going to go to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show today. In the end I was still in bed at midday and decided it would be a waste of money to go. We had a late lunch, and at about 3:30 I was settling down for an afternoon nap when Paul shouted through from the bedroom that there was a baby bird on the ground outside. He'd just noticed it and thought it might have fallen from its nest.

I grabbed my gardening gloves and went out onto the front drive to investigate. I'm very good at leaving fledglings alone (the exception being the dumbass robin that flew into our bedroom three years ago), but it was clear this baby was much too young to be a fledgling. At this point Paul was doing a much better job of flapping around than the baby - it was lying on its back in clear distress.

So I picked it up and examined it. It was a wood pigeon, and only a few days old. On its left flank it had a large angry-looking contusion, and there was a smaller one on its left wing. I saw a single blood droplet but it didn't appear to be bleeding from anywhere. It did a good job of trying to peck my fingers, so there was hope.

We got it into a box lined with paper shreddings, and closed over the lid a little. Then I phoned the RSPCA. I feel for the people who operate the helpline, who must get a lot of calls from do-gooders picking up fledglings all over the place, but this was demonstrably a nestling. I think the operator and I had different ideas on what constituted feathers, and perhaps referring to down and pin feathers wasn't a great move on my part. Fortunately, the fact that it was injured and breathing heavily trumped any semantics on its stage of development, so a field officer was called.

So I spent an hour this afternoon sitting in the bathroom with a heater on, watching a little spiky ball of fury breathing. The officer arrived and promptly referred to it at as fledgling (!), but he agreed that it was injured, and he took the bird away to the welfare centre. I don't know if the bird will be treated or humanely put down, but either will be better than leaving it to bleed out internally on the drive or at the mercy of the neighbourhood cats...

Saturday 7 July 2012

Vicious Detritivore

I'm still recovering from the final week of term. Suffice to say, I do not want to see kiwi fruit, flapjacks or 5:00am for a very very long time. Yesterday I took four of my very best AS students to Cambridge for an open day at Caius College, which was a great success (though it pissed it down for much of the day). I'm hoping to have at least one of them apply in September, maybe more - they're all exceptional.

Earlier in the week I was briefly able to sit in the garden for a short while, and I spotted a very large beetle on the gravel. So I picked it up and put it on the table to poke examine it further.

It's a stag beetle, no doubt about it. The only question is whether it's a greater or lesser stag beetle. Well, the yellow "trim" and the brown colour to the carapace is a giveaway - it's the female of the greater stag beetle, Lucanus cervus.

She was clearly furious with me, rearing up on her hind legs a few times. Apparently the females can give a nasty bite, so I did well to avoid her jaws there. I did put her back on the ground to continue her evening's activity, which was presumably trying to find a male stag beetle or a place to lay her eggs.
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