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Posts Tagged education

tips for effective on-line science outreach Alison Campbell Apr 19

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As you'll have gathered, I'm finding Facebook – and now Twitter – great sources of information, whether it's for teaching, sharing with my students (& others!), or blogging about. And today, this paper popped up on my Twitter feed: Ten Simple Rules for Effective On-line Outreach. Because it's published on a PLoS journal (in this case, Computational Biology), it's open-access, and so you can read the full paper here. For that reason I'll just list their 10 rules here, with the occasional aside from me.

Having noted that it can be quite a challenge to develop and keep an audience for what you have to say, here's how the authors introduce what their paper's about: 

Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and expertise through social media.

  1. Stop treating outreach and research as separate entities. This point dovetails with the comments in an article that I have in my 'must blog about real soon' list: that much published work doesn't get read & is never cited. Blogging or tweeting about research is a way of making it accessible to a wider audience, one that may never read a scientific journal but still wants to hear about what scientists do.  There's also this: 

    It should also be acknowledged that the requirement of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.
     

    Not to mention that both blogging and tweeting can increase your range of contacts and, from my so-far limited observation, lead to new collaborations.
     

  2. Be strategic. Be deliberate. In other words, plan before you act. I know that when I began blogging (seven years ago, now!), I gave a lot of thought to why I was doing it & to the nature of my target audience. 
     
  3. Find your niche & story. I've always seen this blog as outreach. Originally it was set up to reach year 13 biology students & their teachers, and although that range has expanded over time, I still have that group in mind. To that extent, I guess this descriptor from the paper applies: "a sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory tower." I like to mix & match topics, depending on what catches my attention in my reading & on-line activity; it would be really really boring to stick to just a single area or focus! 
     
  4. Branding… branding… branding… Not one I've really thought about, beyond the fact that the blog carries the University's branding, given that it's hosted by the uni :)
     
  5. Recruit a top-notch team. I wish! Group blogging would certainly share the workload and, as the authors note, allow for more diversity of voice & viewpoint. Certainly this is something afforded by Sciblogs
     
  6. Focus on the story. I agree with the authors that good communication skills include story-telling and the ability to develop a narrative. These things allow you to show the human side of science & so build links with the audience. 
     
  7. Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network. Yes indeedy. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other things I have a peripheral knowledge of: they're all ways of getting your ideas and stories out to a much wider network. My friend Kimberley Collins did her MSciComm thesis on this.
     
  8. Collect & assess data. This is not something I do in a formalised way, and I suppose that I should. (My Head of School would certainly agree!) But I do keep an eye on my blog stats, the number of 'likes' posts get on FB (I've taken to sharing each post there), and whether tweets are 'favourited'. (Social media are doing strange things to grammar…) The blog platform WordPress also shows you what search terms people used in coming to your site, giving an indication of what things are currently interesting to your potential audience.
     
  9. Iteratively assess what works and what doesn't. This follows on from #8. The authors also suggest going for shorter, rather than longer, posts; I have to admit that I'm torn on this one. Orac, for example, writes some monumental posts, but his topics are usually fascinating and he carries a large audience along with him. Carl Zimmer & Ed Yong, two other bloggers whom I really admire, go more for brevity. So both can work, but I agree that for many readers shorter is better.
     
  10. Create prestige for public scholarship. Let's finish with the authors' words:

The most important overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public. By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need to speak out on the value of their profession and training.

Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized, and they should be formally encouraged.

Bik HM, Dove ADM, Goldstein MC, Helm RR, MacPherson R, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1003906. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003906

sustainability and on-line learning… Alison Campbell Apr 15

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… and serendipity! I’ve just participated in a great AdobeConnect session, run by the university’s Centre for e-Learning, on the interfaces between academic publications and social media. It was fun, educational, & thought-provoking & has provided something of a spur to my own thinking about the value** of social media in this particular sphere. (For example, while academics are pressured to publish, & the number & position (journal) of those publications is seen as a measure of their worth, you could well ask what the actual value of the work is if few or no people actually read it. I’ve got another post lined up about this.)

Anyway, one of the things that I brought into the conversation was the value of Twitter (& Facebook) in terms of finding new information in fields that interest me. (I know that a lot of my recent blog posts have developed from ideas sparked by FB sources.) I’m a fairly recent convert to Twitter but have enjoyed several tweeted conversations about science communication & science education, and I do keep an eye on posts from those I’m ‘following’ in case something new crops up.

And so it was that when I started following our AdobeConnect host, this popped up:

Stephen’s link takes you to this article: net positive valuation of online education. The executive summary makes very interesting reading at a time when ‘we’ (ie my Faculty) are examining ways to offer our programs to a changing student demographic. It finds that on-line learning as a means of delivering undergraduate programs opens up access for people who don’t fit the ‘typical traditional undergraduate’ profile, such that those people may end up with greater life-time earnings & tax contributions, and reduced use of social services. And using on-line learning pedagogies & technologies seem to result in a reduced environmental footprint for the degrees: the authors estimate that on-line learning delivery of papers saves somewhere between 30 & 70 tonnes of CO2 per degree, because of the reduction in spending both on travel to & from campus, and on bricks & mortar.

There’s an excellent infographic here, and I can see why the report would indicate that the institution they surveyed (Arizona State University, ASU) would say that

[i]n the near term, nearly 100 percent of an institution’s courses, both immersive and virtual, will be delivered on the same technology platforms.

However, there are caveats.  ASU has obviously got a fairly long history of using e-learning platforms. This is not simply a matter of taking an existing paper (or degree program), making its resources available on-line, & saying ‘there! we’re doing e-learning’. Because unless the whole thing is properly thought through, the students’ learning experiences may not be what their educators would like to think.

In other words, this sort of initiative involves learning for both students and educators – and the educators’ learning needs to come first.

 

** As an aside, here’s an example of what could be called ‘crowd-sourcing’ for an educational resource, via twitter. But the same could easily be done for research.

music to learn by Alison Campbell Mar 19

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This was first posted over on Talking Teaching.

I’m always looking for interesting ideas that might spark student engagement. A couple of days ago this rap video popped up on the ScienceAlert FB page:

As you can see, it’s a fun post with a serious message & – I think – an excellent piece of science communication.

Anyway, then this happened:

BIOL102 chat re rap on FB

I’m really hoping that we can make this happen. It would be an excellent way to enhance interactions between undergraduate and grad students, and also with academics if they would like to be involved (& I’d hope at least some would!) It would give the grad students (& staff) an opportunity to communicate with a wider audience about the nature & significance of their work, and the undergrads who take part would gain some of the capabilities that they need in the world beyond university.

Here’s hoping!

stuff: bible lessons lead to court Alison Campbell Feb 22

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And if the Stuff story here is correct, then I can understand why parents might choose that route, particularly as they seem to have exhausted other options.

NZ state primary schools can offer ‘religious education’, and under the Education Act parents have the ability to withdraw their children from those classes. (Personally I think it should be a case of opt-in, with opted-out the default setting, but that’s not how the legislation was drafted.) The classes can’t actually be offered in school time; this is usually circumvented by ‘closing’ the school for the 30 or so minutes each session takes.

In the Stuff article it’s stated that despite the parents indicating that their daughter was not to attend her state primary school’s religious education classes, she was “repeatedly put back in”. The whole issue isn’t new, either, as this 2012 article in the NZ Herald demonstrates. This surely indicates a failure of process at the school end, and the parents are right to be frustrated by it.

But wait, there’s more. From the article:

One of the Bible class teachers from Life in Focus Trust1, a volunteer who was not a qualified teacher, said parents did not need to be notified because the classes were “history lessons” as the Bible was factually correct.

Seriously? (There’s no evidence for the exodus in contemporary Egyptian documents, for example.)

I think it would be great if students learned about comparative religions (if there’s room in the already crowded curriculum). But the fact that a document revered by one particular faith is being presented in this school, at least, as an ‘historical document’ suggests that other religions aren’t getting a look-in – and also raises questions about how the Genesis stories, for example, might be taught. Because those are certainly not ‘history’ (the comments thread to the Stuff article is quite… …. interesting).

1 Having had a look at the Life in Focus website, I can see that its classes are mapped onto the NZ Curriculum document. Since the various outcomes & attributes the program lists are already intended to be delivered in classrooms I’m not clear on why additional people, not all of whom are qualified teachers, would need to be involved, and why myths and stories from only one faith would be used in developing universal attributes in multicultural classrooms.

the 10 commandments of rational debate Alison Campbell Feb 20

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Critical thinking is a necessary tool for understanding the world we live in. And I don’t believe we teach it particularly well. I know that students in high school science classes learn how to assess the validity/reliability of a source, for example, and that’s great, but on top of that we need to get students really thinking about the information and arguments that they’ll come across on pretty much a daily basis.

And for that, something like this (found, as is often the case, via Facebook) would be a useful resource:

For example, you’ll often see someone advocating for science-based medicine described as a ‘shill’. (Apparently all of us on Making Sense of Fluoride are shills. All I can say is, if the cheque’s in the mail, it’s a long time coming.) This is an ad hominem attack that does nothing to address the person’s arguments. In fact, I’d add another: the argument from authority eg Prof X says so, therefore it’s true. (We get that a lot.) You’ll find some more examples of these rules to work by, here.

what would the world be like if we all just… disappeared Alison Campbell Jan 30

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I do enjoy asapSCIENCE – their videos are quirky, entertaining, & informative, and can provide some great talking points for science classes. But for this one, add poignant to the adjectives.

ncea & university entrance – numbers & interpretations Alison Campbell Jan 29

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January has again been a very busy month those of us involved in the student enrolment process. This year we noticed that a reasonably large number of students hadn’t achieved university entrance, and while there are very definitely options available for that cohort, it was still a concern & we’ve been waiting to see what the Ministry had to say about it.

Well, there is now a press release out, and I must say that it has a certain optimistic spin. The headline is very positive: “Upwards NCEA trend continues”, which indeed it does – at Levels 1 & 2. But the proportion of students achieving University Entrance has dropped markedly, from 70.6% in 2013 to 58.3% for last year’s candidates. This will have a flow-on effect on both those students (in terms of their plans for future study) and on the universities to which they’d applied.

There’s also this, in the context of a comment regarding the reasons for changes to University Entrance requirements:

Data showed that students who began their university studies with NCEA* Level 3 performed significantly better than students whose highest qualification was NCEA level 2.

This is a little disingenuous in that, in order to gain University Entrance, students have always had to achieve a minimum of 42 credits at level 3 of NCEA: 14 in each of two ‘approved’ subjects (eg english, history) and a further 14 from no more than two other approved subjects combined (eg at least 14 credits from biology plus mathematics). They’ve also had to meet numeracy and literacy requirements (the latter of which also changed in 2014). On top of that, many university papers have their own prerequisites for entry eg a student needs to get 16 credits in L3 chemistry to get into some of our first-year chemistry papers.

To leave school with NCEA level 3, they needed a total of 60 credits at level 3 or above & 20 credits from level 2 or above – University Entrance & NCEA are not the same thing, but both involve a reasonable number of level 3 credits.

What’s notable from the Ministry’s own figures is that the proportion of students gaining that Level 3 qualification has not really changed between the 2013 and 2014 cohorts, so the issue is apparently related to UE. (It’s relatively rare for students to come straight from school to university with only the Level 2 qualification.)

This year, aspiring university students needed NCEA Level 3, plus they had to meet numeracy, literacy, and the new UE requirement for each of three Level 3 subjects to contribute at least 14 credits to their total, and that seems to have tripped many students up. Again, the proportion achieving NCEA Level 3 is little changed: down to 78.6 from 79.2%. So students who’ve not met UE requirements seem to have missed out on literacy, &/or numeracy, &/or that specific requirement for 14 credits in each of 3 approved subjects. And we do need to know why this has happened – could it be to do with how information about the changes was communicated to students, for example, or are there other factors in play?

But as the Minister says, at this point it’s important that students who didn’t gain UE don’t feel that the door has been slammed in their faces. There are still a number of choices open to them, and one of those is definitely to approach the university they’d wanted to attend, and ask about their options.

 

* NCEA = National Certificate of Educational Achievement

should food containing dna be labelled? Alison Campbell Jan 20

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Apparently 80% of people in the USA think so, according to a Washington Post article that’s been all over Facebook in the last few days. That is, 80% of those polled in the regular Food Demand Survey (by Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics) agreed with the proposition that all food containing DNA should be labelled. (To put this in context, there is currently a heated debate in the US – driven by those opposing the incorporation of material from genetically-modified organisms into the food chain – over whether such foods should be labelled as such.)

Now, you could argue that the question was poorly worded. There’s been a certain amount of skepticism that those in agreement with the DNA proposition could be so high – after all, anything with whole cells in it will definitely contain DNA, & there’ll probably be traces in most other foods, apart from very highly processed foodstuffs like refined oils and sugars. And salt. Perhaps they thought they were talking about foods from genetically-modified sources, as opposed to ‘natural’ foods (more on that later)?

Perhaps. But there was also a question on that.

The author of the Post article suggested that the poll results were the outcome of “the insection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance”, and went on to say that perhaps many of those polled “don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realise that it is contained in almost all food.”

This is close to the ‘information deficit model’: the one that argues that if ‘laymen’ are given all the information on the scientific issue du jour, that they will change their minds & accept the scientific perspective. However, this ain’t necessarily so. As that debate around labelling of GM foods shows, there are far more factors in play than simple (lack of) scientific understanding: do people feel that their voices have been heard by those making the decisions. Do they have particular religious beliefs that affect their attitudes? How much of their feelings on the subject are shaped by personal ethical perspectives, or individuals’ experiences? This means that those communicating about science need to be aware of these perspectives and frame their communication accordingly, with an eye to real engagement rather than simply throwing information at people.

In New Zealand these issues & others were canvassed by the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification, back in 2000. This was a good example of the sort of meaningful engagement with the public that needs to become more widespread, although looking at how these questions are addressed in schools could also be interesting. I know that back in the early 2000s, we found that a small proportion of new first-year students were aware that all living things – & not just GMOs – contained DNA. A much, much, much smaller proportion than in the US survey! So at that level, maybe we’re doing something right :)

Coming back to the ‘natural’ vs GMO foods: geneticist Kevin Folta has noted that modern GM techniques give far more control, in terms of known genetic & phenotypic outcomes, than hybridisation or mutational breeding (& that genes can and do move between species without human intervention). There’s a useful graphic, comparing the outcomes of the different techniques, here.

Oh, & the Washington Post wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek mock-up of what a food label might look like, if public opinion results in such labelling becoming mandatory:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

EDIT: For other comments, try Kavin Senapathy’s post, and also this thoughtful piece on whether the question was actually inappropriate in its context, by Ben Lillie (and thanks for the heads-up on Ben’s post, Grant).

cows and physics and urban myths Alison Campbell Dec 15

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In which we encounter – cow-tipping!

This is apparently the focus of both myth & mirth in the US: the idea that cows, asleep on their feet, are regularly tipped over by tipsy youths. Now, apart from the inconvenient little fact that cows tend to sleep lying down & thus are supremely untippable at that point in their daily rhythm, our bovine friends are large and solid and (with a leg at each corner) well-balanced. Nor do I imagine that Daisy would take kindly to a shoulder charge from an inebriated young man.

And indeed, at ModernFarmer, Jake Swearingen dissects this myth & imparts a little physics with along with the humour & the facts. It turns out that back in 2005 a couple of researchers ran the numbers & decided it would be impossible for a single person to overturn poor Daisy, but that two or more tippers could – theoretically – knock her off her feet. Provided that she did not see them coming, or negate their efforts by shifting her weight, that is.

And I loved one of the comments on the Atlantic’s coverage of this story:

Lillie and Boechler are clearly unfamiliar with the conventions of this sort of work. As every mathematician or physicist ought to know, thought-experiment cows are universally spherical. And spherical cows are easily tipped, it’s just that nobody can tell the difference. Now, if you’ve got enough drunken frat boys for a full-on game of Sleeping Cow Billiards…

Spoilsports may object that real cows aren’t spherical. Neither are they rigid bodies, as is implicitly required by the Lillie-Boechler analysis. Each leg is hinged in two places, and depending on the resistance and range of motion of the joints, cow tipping could on purely physical grounds range from trivially easy to nigh impossible. If someone wants to instrument a live, sleeping cow and measure the muscular response to lateral disturbances, I’ll wait. Someplace far away.

I’m sure you could factor this into a physics class somewhere, Marcus!

a surprising misconception Alison Campbell Nov 10

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I spent much of the weekend marking first-year biology exam papers. It was a lovely weekend & I really didn’t want to miss all the nice weather, so I ended up finishing the task well after midnight last night. And in the process I identified evidence of what is, on the surface, a really puzzling misconception, one that relates to the effects of X-chromosome inactivation.

Now, we’d spent quite a while in class discussing X-chromosome inactivation in female mammals: why it happens, how it happens, & its phenotypic effects (anhydrotic ectodermal dysplasia, anyone?). One of the images I used in this discussion was of Venus, a tortoiseshell cat with an extremely unusual colour pattern:

This image comes from the NBC News site, but Venus is a very famous purrball who even has her own Facebook page, and I’ve blogged about her previously. She’s either a chimera, or we’re seeing a most unusual (but not unique) example of the typical X-inactivation tortoiseshell coat pattern. Anyway, I used a similar image of Venus and asked

What is the most likely explanation for the colour pattern shown in the coat of this female cat?

And about 90% of the class answered, “co-dominance”. Which really made me stop & think.

Why? Because it suggests that, while I’m sure they could quote me chapter and verse regarding a definition of co-dominance, they haven’t really thought any further about what that means in phenotypic terms. For if codominance were in play here, with both alleles for coat colour being expressed in each cell where the gene’s active, then we shouldn’t see that clear definition of the two halves of the cat’s face. Instead, both should be a fleckled mix (is ‘fleckled’ a word? Yes, it is; Shakespeare for the win once more) of black & golden hairs (rather like roan coats in cattle & horses).

And this gives me pause – & cause – for thought, because this isn’t a mix-up that I’d have even considered before. Is ‘codominance’ their shorthand for one gene, or the other, being expressed (due to X-inactivation)? Or do they really think that’s how codominance works? If so, it does suggest that a) I didn’t really explain codominance (or X-inactivation) all that well this year, & b) I need to review what I do before teaching that particular session again.

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