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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