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6-second science Alison Campbell Jun 23

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This video is a compilation of the best clips from the 'Six-second science fair' run by GE recently. (Apparently it attracted more than 600 entries!)

Could be really interesting to set something like this as a classroom project – rapidly changing technology (including the apps) has really opened up the options :)

pharaoh’s serpent Alison Campbell Jun 09

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Definitely don't try this one at home! The changes shown in the linked video are an example of intumescence, where a substance swells when it's heated. Fascinating to watch, but since we're talking mercury fumes it's definitely not one for the classroom.

carl wieman on active learning Alison Campbell Jun 08

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Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the 'STEM' subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl Wieman. Wieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman's results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.
Wieman goes on to say 
However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?
Personally I'd go for the former; there's a wealth of information out there now. What's needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there's a challenge!
 
C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111
 

"If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers" Alison Campbell Jun 01

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There's an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I've written about before, but I'm always interested in reading more on the subject. And let's face it, the more evidence the better, when you're wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you'll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I've used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included "occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs" (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students' mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes "were 1.5 times more likely to fail", compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a 'raw failure' rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I'm wondering if that doesn't reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I'm wondering if that might be because it's easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I've got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as 'flipped' sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run 'design-a-plant/animal' sessions, there's time for only a sub-set of student 'teams' to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it's perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist "ask, don't tell" approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The 'bunny slippers' quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high 'fail' rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these 'distance' classes?

And of course, we aren't really talking a simple dichotomy between 'traditional' lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the 'non-traditional' methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% 'active' component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled "In Defence of the Lecture". I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of 'lecture'. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn't agree more. And maybe that's a message that's being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

facebook – more than just social networking Alison Campbell May 12

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This is something originally written for the Talking Teaching blog, following a discussion (on FB – where else?) about social media & student learning.

Some of my readers here and on Sciblogs will probably have realised that I quite like Facebook – not least because it's a good source of gorgeous images and quirky facts that can start me thinking about a new science blog post. Also, it's fun keeping in contact with friends & participating in various discussion groups.

One of those groups was set up by the biological sciences students at my institution, and it's used mainly for sharing biology articles and images, the occasional in-joke :) , and alerting other students to upcoming events that their committee has organised. This particular page sees a bit more student activity than some of our paper-specific moodle pages, so for a while now I've wondered about the potential of a good Facebook page to be more than 'just' a place to hang out and share pictures & stories.

Anyway, recently I had a conversation (on FB, lol) with my friend Kelly Pender and another Academy colleague about this potential. It turns out that they both use FB quite extensively in their teaching lives and gave me a lot of helpful hints – along with a very recent paper on this very subject (Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014).

Kevin Dougherty and Brita Andercheck teach a large (around 200 students) introductory sociology class at Baylor University in the US. Like all those with classes of this size (or larger), they recognised that one of the major issues they face is

the tendency for students to feel like anonymous spectators rather than active, collaborative participants

- that is, there's a real risk that many students will not properly engage with classroom activities, & that their learning will suffer as a result. I've written previously about flipped teaching as an example of a technique to increase student engagement (& performance), but with a range of different learning styles among class members, what works for one student won't necessarily work for another.

So, how do Dougherty & Andercheck use social media to enhance their students' engagement with the subject, and their achievement (as measured against the learning objectives for the paper)?

The larger a class gets, the harder it can be – even with the best will in the world – get everyone actively involved in discussions, debates and group work during class time. Teachers might try & manage this using a Student Learning Management System (SLMS) like Moodle but again, many students don't really engage here either. (Certainly that's been my own experience.)

The authors wondered, what about Facebook? After all,

[s]ocial media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are part of life for the generation of students now filling college classes

and it's easy to load material and set up discussion threads. (Even a relatively technological illiterate like me can do it!) Why not use it as a more engaging SLMS, one that's more likely to get buy-in from students because it's already familiar to them?

I can just hear the cries of horror that might greet such a proposition. Don't students already spend far too much time on FB and other networking sites? It would just be a distraction. These are valid objections. But with evidence in favour from a developing body of research into such uses of social media, Dougherty & Andercheck set up a study of the impact of a group FB page on students' engagement & performance in their own class.

For anyone interested in doing likewise, their paper in Teaching Sociology has a very useful description of how the class page is set up & administered. (One of my Academy colleagues has similar pages for MOOCs that he is involved in; due to their size, he has some students help with the admin.) It was run in parallel with their 'normal' SLMS, Blackboard, and the latter was where students obtained class handouts & readings. FB was for sharing & discussion; for videos, news stories, & photos; for the 'Question of the Day'.

For students unable to participate or uncomfortable participating in the classroom discussion, we invited them to add their thoughts and reflections to the conversation on Facebook. We used poll-style questions on the Facebook Group as another means to engage students.

Students readily got involved, 'liking' posts, joining discussions, and posting material. Two weeks into the semester, more than half the class had joined the page, and 2/3 were part of it by the end of the paper. To see how all this activity affected learning outcomes, the researchers carried out content analysis of student postings & matched this to performance, and also asked students for feedback via the usual paper appraisals.

The appraisal data showed that half the class visited the FB page on at least a weekly basis, and that the majority were positive about its effect on their experience in the class. While  24% disagreed (ranging from slight to strong disagreement) that it enhanced their experience, Dougherty & Andercheck noted wryly that "it was students who never or rarely used the Facebook Group who disagreed". Students also felt that the page gave them a stronger sense of belonging in the course, and also that it positively influenced their achievement of the learning objectives.

Of course, the final proof of the pudding is in the eating (sorry, channeling cooking blog here!): was this reflected in actual performance? The researchers found that FB group membership showed a positive correlation to total quiz points and total points. It also had "a marginally significant, positive relationship" with both a student's total score for the paper and their score in the final exam, and the number of posts someone made was linked to their quiz score.

What's more, their analysis of the page's content and their students' use of the page clearly shows how involved many class members became in discussion. This is a big point for me: I use Moodle in my own class & it's sometimes a bit sad to see how little real conversation there is about a topic. We might see a question posted, followed by a couple of answers, & then it all dies down again. Would discussions become deeper & more complex in a different, more familiar (&, let's face it, less clunky) medium? I guess there really is only one way to find out. (And I'll be making good use of the very helpful hints provided at the end of this thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, paper!)
 

K.D.Dougherty & B.Andercheck (2014) Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course. Teaching Sociology 42(2): 95-104 DOI: 10.1177/0092055X14521022

‘slow life’ – corals and anemones strut their stuff Alison Campbell Mar 29

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When I was a kid we used to go to the beaches of the Mahia peninsula most weekends. (Well, memory says 'most weekends' – it might not have been that often!). Sometimes we'd stop at the sweeping sandy shores of Blue Bay, but on other days we'd go round to the exposed rocky coast & spend happy hours messing around in the rock pools. I used to love floating my fingers past the sea anemones & feeling the tiny tugs as we touched (at the time, of course, I had no idea that those tiny tugs were the anemones discharging nematocysts into my fingers!) And to me it seemed that these intriguing little animals, which retracted into blobs of jelly when touched less gently, didn't really seem to do much.

Similarly corals – when we've snorkelled around corals I've been amazed by the forms they take and – in living corals – by their colours. But it's hard to see much actually happening.

But tonight a friend of mine posted this video – "Slow Life" – on their Facebook page. It's gorgeous, visually stunning – and it shows the hidden life of cnidarians in glorious technicolour. Best on the big screen, I think; I'm looking forward to showing it to my first-year class next week.

Enjoy!

most excellent epiphytes Alison Campbell Mar 28

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A couple of years ago I spent a lovely afternoon in the huge domed glasshouses of Singapore's "Gardens on the Bay". The 'cloud forest' was my favourite – both for the concept & for the wonderful range of epiphytes on show there.

Singapore cloud forest mountain.jpg

So you'll understand that I enjoyed reading about it again on this blog, written for the New Zealand Epiphyte Network. Anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand's native plants should drop by the site. And maybe sign up to be part of their citizen science project while you're there?

Go on, you know you want to :)

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach Alison Campbell Mar 12

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For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

an entertaining take on plants & plant cells Alison Campbell Mar 02

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The new semester kicks off tomorrow & right now I'm adding resources to my first-year bio moodle page & running through the powerpoints for the week's lectures. After a couple of introductory sessions we're diving into the section of the class that focuses on plants, and I'm giving some serious thought to how I present that material given that it looks like more than half the class didn't study the relevant year 12 Achievement Standard. 

So among other things I've looked around for some engaging short videos on plant biology, and I found this one (part of what looks like a great sequence, which I've bookmarked for future use): 

OK, I know the humour might not appeal to everyone, & he does speak rather fast at times, but the presenter's engaging, the graphics are good & the key points are emphasised and repeated – a nice little primer for my class to watch for homework as preparation for making sense of plants.

thoughts from a conference: scientists and science communication Alison Campbell Feb 17

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I spent much of today at an international symposium on “Transforming Public Engagement on Controversial Science & Technology”. It’s been fascinating & I’m looking forward to day 2, having learned a lot from both the formal presentations and the round-table discussions. I also got to lead a discussion session after a keynote address by fellow sciblogger Shaun Hendy (hi Shaun!), who looked at the reasons scientists do – & don’t – get into science communication. Set the questions “should scientists be active in science communication, should they be ‘brokers’ of science knowledge or take on more of a ‘science advocacy’ role, and how best should we (society) support them in doing so, the participants came up with quite an extensive list. I’ve riffed on them a bit here in the hope that this may engender even more discussion.

  • Which scientists? Are we talking natural/physical scientists, or should the net be broadened to include social scientists, political scientists, & so on? Should we distinguish between them – there’s a case to me made for closer cooperation between the various disciplines (something of a ‘hybrid’ model). Also, do we really want open slather – there’s a risk of dilution of effort if everyone should happen to get involved. It could be better to have clear ‘go-to’ people for the media, in particular. (Here, of course, we need to remember that there are many ways to get involved in science communication. Fronting to the media is important, yes, but there are other avenues: presenting at Cafe Scientifique or science-in-the-pub events, helping schools during primary science week, & speaking to general interest groups spring to mind, but I’m sure there are many more.)
  • Science vs knowledge: science is only one lens for viewing the world; we also need discussions around ethical implications of novel technologies, for example. (Our table had an involved discussion, in a later session, around different cultural perspectives on assisted reproductive technologies, which had nothing at all to do with the mechanics of the actual technologies, and everything to do with the social and cultural impacts of both the application of those technologies and the very words we use to talk about them.) We can’t talk about science without also considering the social context in which it’s set, and the question of what society does with the science is up to society as a whole (or its elected representatives).
  • Communication may involve education around a particular aspect of science; advocacy (for the process, the nature, of science or for a particular application – although here you’d surely be moving into the realm of opinion?), or about policy issues. All must be evidence-based. Scientists are also citizens, and it’s not possible for us to be entirely objective about our work. We need to be clear about whether we’re communicating around our particular field of expertise, as compared to advocating for a particular action. And there does need to be discussion about and engagement with the nature of science, as well as the results of that science (advocacy for the scientific method, if you will).
  • Science communication is a two-way street: we need to listen and learn, as well as speak out.
  • We need to consider other forms of communication besides the spoken & written word – here Siouxsie Wiles and her glow-in-the-dark squid sprang immediately to mind :) More interactivity, more ‘non-traditional’ modes of communication!
  • Scientists are used to taking time to consider their responses to queries, while the media require quick (if not immediate) answers to requests for information. Shaun touched on this, too, as one of the reasons that some scientists may be reluctant to get involved in dealing with the members of the fourth estate.
  • Issues around conflicts of interest, memoranda of understanding, and confidentiality may affect individuals’ availability, willingness, and freedom to speak. The nature of the particular discipline, sources of funding, and potential impacts on job security may also influence decisions.
  • Why would scientists communicate? Should they? In a different, more scientifically-literate world, maybe we wouldn’t have to. Or there might not be so much need, anyway. However, these days, with very few specialist science journalists in the media, the need remains. As to the ‘why would we’ part, as Shaun noted, there are many potential reasons. Some – I think very few – do it simply as a means to raise their own profile or attract more funding. We may do it through sheer frustration with the way the media or society deal with scientific issues. But probably most scientists involved in science communication do it in the hope of making a difference; we’re usually motivated by a sense of social responsibility or by an interest in a particular issue. (I originally got into science blogging, for example, as a means of supporting secondary biology teachers and students.)
  • Scientists don’t always have to work though the media but may work in the community at the request of that community on local initiatives.
  • How do we enable scientists to communicate about what they do? Basically this activity needs to be incentivised, by funding and/or official recognition. (Writing science blogs, no matter how solid the science in them or how widely they’re read and discussed, doesn’t count in the PBRF stakes.) We also need to respect the work of those who don’t communicate; it’s not something that everyone can or should get into.
  • It’s a real challenge to communicate the uncertainty of science. This is something I’ve noticed in the fluoride debates, for example. People want a degree of certainty in their lives, while science is never 100% certain – though we may speak of an issue being ‘effectively settled’, there remains that hint of uncertainty. This can be unsettling, and it can work against science in some forums.
  • It’s also a challenge, at times, to avoid issues with equivalence or ‘false balance’. The media in particular are keen on presenting ‘both sides’ when from a scientific perspective there’s only one. (Hence we’ll sometimes see stories on vaccination paired with claims that this is linked to autism, or on evolution ‘balanced’ by the views of intelligent design proponentsists, for example. And no, that was not a spelling mistake on my part.)

Please feel free to add to or comment on any of these points!

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