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Posts Tagged education

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.

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial Alison Campbell Nov 05

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This is a post originally written for my ‘other’ blog at Talking Teaching.

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

pechaflickr, connected courses – education in the future? Alison Campbell Oct 28

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Recently I had a blast, attending an inspirational workshop by Alan Levine (I grab professional development opportunities like these with both hands!). The workshop gave me some ideas for new things to try with my students next year, and I thought I would share the notes I made at the time (with commentary) in case there might be useful things there for others.

Alan kicked off by asking us if we knew when the internet was created (heaps of history here), by whom (I’ve never really understood why so many people think it was Al Gore), & for what. It was originally intended to allow scientists to better communicate with each other – but sometimes it feels as if the science is being swamped & lost in amongst everything else that’s posted on the web. (A friend once said to me that one day the internet could collapse under the weight of funny cat pictures. She could be right.)

The web certainly allows openness, reduces insularity, and engenders connectedness. Well, in an ideal world it does, and many parts of the internet do function in that way (eg the sub-reddit on science), but at the same time the web has also seen the development of various silos where dissent isn’t tolerated and the ban-hammer is wielded on a regular basis.

But in education openness is to be valued, because we can all – teachers & learners alike – learn from each other. Alan introduced us to one of his projects, which involves videoing teachers as they talk about what goes on in their classrooms. You’ll find these stories at True Stories of Open Sharing, and he sees them as a form of ‘paying it forward’. At this point one of the others at the session volunteered a story about how she’s using twitter to support student learning. I still haven’t got into tweeting & I found the whole thing quite fascinating- it seems an even more direct connection than Facebook.

Alan noted that people see many barriers (perceived and real) to doing this sort of sharing around teaching:

  • lack of confidence
  • not comfortable with spontaneous story-telling (and yet narratives are such a great way to engage others - the link is about working with children, but everyone loves a good story!)
  • don’t have original ideas
  • fear of being seen as mediocre, or not good enough – worried about what others think
  • the worry that it may affect how peers or employers perceive you
  • the lack of face-to-face contact, so you can’t judge your audience (& for many of us that is very important; I can’t get quite the same buzz going when I do a panopto recording in my office, for example, although that could be lack of practice, perhaps?)
  • don’t want to be seen as commonplace, repetitive, or wrong.

Which I guess may be why many of my colleagues don’t actually share a lot about what goes on in their classrooms – too many perceived barriers.

Yet that sharing & feeling of the personal are important, because education is becoming less about ‘product’ and more about relationships, connections, and engagement. With information so readily available on-line at the click of a mouse (think MOOCs, for example), universities do need to re-examine, & perhaps re-invent, the way they do business. What is the ‘added value’ that we provide, that makes students want to continue to come to a bricks-&-mortar institution? And how do we make on-line learning a valuable and engaging alternative, for those who choose it?

Because the knowledge is already out there. We need to move from seeing ourselves as deliverers of content, to delivering a learning experience. And that really does require some fairly significant changes; we’re not really talking business-as-usual. (One of those changes will probably be the development of a code of ethics around how we share materials, ideas, and content with each other & between institutions.)

After this we moved on to the idea of improv(ing) ourselves – as in, improvisation: being natural, rather than forced. After all, the ability to improvise is a valuable skill as classes don’t always go as expected. Alan asked who knew about pecha kucha (usually, speaking to no more than 20 slides for no more than 20 seconds per slide – it really forces you to focus on your message!). I’ve used this presentation style several times now, & in fact had something of a baptism of fire for my first one: got roped in to do one at my first Academy symposium – except that I didn’t know the subject until just before speaking, & someone else chose the slides :)

Anyway, quite a few of us knew of pecha kucha – but what, he said about pecha flickr? He set one up for us, with each person taking a slide in turn. It was hysterically funny and we could straightaway see that Alan was right: this sort of improv changed the energy levels in the room, raised enjoyment (as if we weren’t already having fun!) and engagement, and got everyone participating. I could see how good it would be as an icebreaker at a (smallish) conference, but I also started wondering how we could use it in first-year bio classes. Maybe in tuts, as a revision tool? The students would have to be comfortable about it, but the technique would have a lot of potential for diagnosing gaps in knowledge and also for giving practice in verbal communication.

And we finished off with the idea of ‘connected courses’. (This was very brief as we’d spent so much time having fun.) There’s a need to find ways of making on-line spaces personal, welcoming, & engaging - connected. For example, MOOCs tend to have a high attrition rate, & it’s possible that’s because they’re a bit like motel rooms (Alan’s metaphor): impersonal, & with no real sense of ownership. In contrast, many blogs are the equivalent of a personal bedroom, with comfort, boundaries, & security. How can on-line courses generate that sense of connectedness? One way to find out is to experience it – at Connected Courses: an open course in how to run an open course :) I’m really hoping that next year I’ll find myself with the ‘free’ time to invest in investigating this one further!

quirky science demonstrations Alison Campbell Oct 20

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A very brief post before I dive back into marking!

My friend Cathy pointed me at this short, fascinating video that shows some quirky chemistry & physics demonstrations (afficionados of Facebook will find it here). I had a couple of ‘wow!’ moments while watching it; science teachers will probably get the same response when sharing it with their classes.

Thanks, cathy :)

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

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