Saturday 20 October 2012

The Many Vices Of Steve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 He has been replaced by Steve 2, who is taller, better put together, and crucially this time, actually a male skeleton.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

Sunday 7 October 2012

Scientific Literacy and Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 2 October 2012

How To Tackle Plagiarism

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

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

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

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

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