Archive September 2011

sigh – another on-line hoax Alison Campbell Sep 25


I joined up to Facebook a few months ago – it was a good way to keep in touch with friends, plus it’s made ‘talking’ with various NZIBO colleagues easier in the sense that we can have group chats. But it’s also been a bit of an eye-opener in that it’s turned out to be another way of exposing just how gullible people can be…

For instance, this morning the following popped up via a friend’s page (names will not be used, to protect the unwary):


(All caps, heheh, never a good sign…)

The question that immediately sprang to mind was, say what?? What ‘news’, when? Why on earth would simply changing the colour of your icon make you exempt from a charge? I seriously doubt that the FB programmers would let that one slip! Plus, it seems a strange way to make money, if you’re going to have a loophole that let’s people opt out so easily :-)

So no, I didn’t pass it on. But I did go to to see what they had to say about this particular hoax. Turns out it’s been around (in various forms) for a few years now. The last time it popped up, it was associated with a page that supposedly collected signatures for a petition against the ‘charges’. Trouble was, clicking on links within the page had some users getting some particularly graphic Naughty Pictures on their computers, along with attempts to install malicious spyware.

So do think first, before passing these things on!

a response from ‘scientists anonymous’ Alison Campbell Sep 24


Rather to my surprise (I wrote the original post quite a while ago), I’ve had a response from the subject of that post: ‘Scientists Anonymous’. This group was drawn to my attention by a friend who’s a secondary school biology teacher, concerned that Scientists Anonymous had done a mass e-mailout to NZ teachers to promote an intelligent design article.

At the time I asked

who, exactly, are these ‘Scientists Anonymous’ who are behind the e-mail to schools, and why aren’t they prepared to put their names to the document?

Well, I’m left none the wiser by their response:

Anonymity of this informal group is upheld in the interest of those still active in the profession, but may be reviewed in future.

Why? In NZ, having a particular religious worldview is not grounds for losing one’s job (nor is it in the US -the thesis of “Expelled” notwithstanding ). However, presenting oneself as a brave maverick scientist, ignored by the mainstream, is one of the warning signs that we may be dealing with pseudoscience. So wouldn’t it be better to front up, identify themselves, and present their evidence? (Their solid, peer-reviewed evidence, not articles on the Institute for Creation Research website.) After all, as E.O.Wilson has said,

If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.

are students really as tech-savvy as we think? Alison Campbell Sep 22


Technology in its various manifestations looms ever larger in our lives – & that includes education. For example, many schools require their students to have laptops or – more recently – ipads. I’ve wondered previously whether this is done for a particular pedagogical reason, or whether it’s more a case of  ”the technology’s there – let’s use it!”

All this does rather assume that students are fairly tech-savvy: something along the lines of “they’ve grown up with all this stuff, so of course they’ll know how to use it.” Yes?

Well, no. this was recently brought home to me as I went through the responses to a survey a couple of colleagues & I carried out recently, looking at student use of the lecture-capture technology Panopto. One of our questions asked how they viewed recorded lectures, & as prompts offered ‘computer’ and ‘i-pod/mp3 player’. (I put this one in because that’s often how I view them.)

Most of the students chose ‘computer’. Very few chose ‘i-pod’. And some commented plaintively that they would have used i-pods if they’d known that option was available. Now, there’s a link on the Panopto page for my class that gives the option of downloading recordings in mp3 (sound only) or mp4 format (lecture + pictures). I’d made the mistake of assuming that because a relative technological illiterate like me (hey, it doesn’t take much tech knowledge to blog!) knew what to do, my students would to.

So next semester, “show them how to access recordings” is high on the list of Things To Do on the first day of class :-)

Seriously, though, I think it’s important that teachers realise that students may not actually be all that familiar with some of the learning technologies that we expect them to make use of.

teaching what you don’t know Alison Campbell Sep 10

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I’ve just finished writing & delivering a new set of lectures; next week we’re moving back into what is – for me anyway! – more familiar territory. At the same time I’ve been reading Therese Huston’s book Teaching what you don’t know. Huston’s examples are drawn from the US tertiary system, and as you begin reading it quickly becomes apparent that ‘teaching what you don’t know’ is a common occurrence for teachers in that sector. (And I really do mean, ‘what you don’t know’: a science lecturer teaching a general writing course, for example. At least I’m still teaching biology!)

One of the Big Questions in a situation like this is, what & how much do you tell your students? Huston notes that in some circumstances a lecturer might not want to let on that they’re teaching at the fringes of their expertise – perhaps they’ve previously felt that their authority or credibility have been challenged by students, & letting on now isn’t going to help the classroom dynamics.

Personally, I prefer to put a positive spin on this experience. First up – I’m still teaching biology, albeit an area that’s moved on a bit since I studied it. I’ve had to do a lot of extra reading, but I have the considerable advantage over the students in that I’ve already got the mental constructs into which I can scaffold my new learning. Now that I think about it, the immediacy of that learning helps me to help my students make sense of this new material as they encounter it themselves.

There’s also the fact that the pace of scientific discovery is such that it’s highly unlikely anyone could keep up with it. We don’t have the luxury of reading papers all day, every day, so we try to read the key papers, especially those in our own areas of expertise, and know with regret that there are bound to be others that we’ve missed. So the odds are good that every now and then, a curious, deep-thinking student is likely to ask a question that challenges & stretches your own understanding. The big thing is not to be thrown by this.

Huston gives a number of strategies for dealing with the challenge of teaching what you don’t know, drawn from interviews with a number of expert teachers who routinely teach outside their immediate field of expertise – & relish the challenge of doing so. One of these teachers, speaking of how quickly our knowledge of science moves on, comments that

“… we know different kinds of things, things that were unknown in 2005 we’re certain of now. And now we know that some of what was true in 2005 was wrong. They were hypotheses and we now have the data. It’s a lot of fun because students know I’m learning along with them, and we’ll say “What have we learned? What are people thinking about right now? What are the big questions that are left?”

As that lecturer said, learning new things – while challenging – is also stimulating & fun. If that sense of excitement and enjoyment carries through to your actual classes, then you’ll speak with passion and enthusiasm – how better to in turn enthuse your students?

What’s more, the mere fact of expressing uncertainty can help students learn something of the nature of science. Don’t stop at saying ‘I don’t know’ to that curly question; take it further: ‘I don’t actually know the answer to that question, it’s a bit outside my field of expertise. But I do know that in these circumstances so-&-so would happen, so I can hypothesize that such-&-such might happen in the circumstances you describe.’ And that’s a rather satisfying learning experience for everyone :-)

T.Huston (2009) Teaching what you don’t know Harvard University Press

the value of relaxed discussion Alison Campbell Sep 08

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I’ve written quite a bit, from time to time, on the value of doing more than simply lecturing to students. More than a few research projects have shown the value of group work, including problem-solving and discussions, for enhancing students’ learning and understanding in a subject. I was reminded again of this today.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy writing and delivering lectures in the area of molecular genetics, a subject that I’ve never taught before at this level. (I’m also reading Teaching what you don’t know by Therese Huston (2009), which has been both slightly alarming and pleasantly encouraging.) I always make sure there are plenty of opportunities for questions & discussion in my classes, but now I’m just about teetering on the edge of making at least some classes a combination of discussion & small-group work, no formal lecture at all. I’ve been thinking about this for a while & the class I had this morning simply reinforced my thoughts on the issue.

Yesterday’s lecture was about various molecular biology techniques used in biotechnology, & it elicited quite a lot of questions at the time. At the beginning of this morning’s tutorial class, one of the adult students commented that much of what had gone on had pretty much whizzed by above her head; could I give a simple summary, she asked. The rest all nodded; yes, please! After a minute’s thought I pulled together what I thought were the key ideas – and then the discussion really took off. What were gene libraries? How did you access them & ‘read’ their ‘volumes’ (usually bacterial cells engineered to contain another species’ DNA)? What about cloning – could we/should we clone humans? No? Then what about other mammals? Bacteria? Where do we draw the line, & why? What are some of the ecological & evolutionary implications of developing transgenic crops or farm animals? What are the ethics associated with all this – not just the biological & technical prox & cons, but the social and ethical issues? It was an incredibly wide-ranging & stimulating discussion and I think most of us were sorry when our time came to an end.

As we left the room, one of the students said, “do you know, I have learned so much today! That discussion helped me make sense of yesterday’s information & I think I’ve got a much better understanding & appreciation of the issues involved.” So, next time I teach this – or another topic with such potential for getting everyone involved in discussion, or a topic that I know will be challenging and where working on problems in groups will be helpful – well, I think I may just throw tradition to the winds :-)

the origin of modern humans – free webinar Alison Campbell Sep 07

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This comes at an opportune time for those of you teaching the Human Evolution content – and for those looking around for some follow-up reading :-) The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a whole lot of free biology education resources available on line, and this upcoming webcast looks to be wonderful stuff: Bones, Stones, & Genes: the origin of modern humans. It’s completely free; you just need to register for it. You can bet I’ll be doing my best to be there!

And hat-tip to PZ, who as usual finds out about these things first :-)

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are we ready for disaster? Alison Campbell Sep 05

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That’s the attention-grabbing title for a post on Number 8 Network.

The answer: maybe, and maybe not. That was the experience of Peter & Vicki Hyde, who live in the Christchurch suburb of Redcliffs & were interviewed by the N8N team. They’ve got some valuable lessons to share, which will well reward time spent reading the article.

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