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Posts Tagged education

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.

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!

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