SciBlogs

There Must be Board Games in Heaven Michael Edmonds Apr 14

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Advocates of the paranormal often complain that skeptics are close minded, so in the spirit of open mindedness I wondered what might be another explanation (other than chicanery or delusion) as to why mediums and psychics appear to communicate with the dearly departed through vague statements, and asking if anyone knows someone with the initials “J” or “M”.

The only explanation I could come up with is that there must be board games in heaven. Hence when communications come through from “our side” they are responded like a board game. Injuries are communicated through charades, for example, with the holding of abdomen or head. This, of course, makes diagnosis fairly vague, as there are quite a few things that can go wrong in the abdomen or head, but this may be enough to satisfy their grieving kin.

The identity of the dearly departed appears to be communicated through some sort of word game, perhaps using scrabble tiles? This of course could explain why mediums can’t always get things right, perhaps in their hurry to communicate the deceased accidentally holds the letters upside down leaving the poor medium looking for a Mary or Margaret instead of a Wendy?

Of course if the hereafter is filled with board games, for some it might be more like hell than heaven…

 

 

Future Learning Spaces Michael Edmonds Mar 31

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Last week I attended a two day conference on New Generation Learning Space Design. It was absolutely fascinating hearing from academics, managers, facilities staff and architects about what is currently being done with regards to learning spaces in tertiary institutions. I was also surprised to see that a number of institutions have staff whose job it is to create such learning spaces, for example, the University of Sydney have a Director of eLearning and Learning Space and Queensland University of Technology have a Director of eLearning Environments and Technology Services.

During the conference a number of common themes emerged, including:

 

1)   Learning goes beyond the classroom

Associate Professor Rob Ellis, Director of eLearning and Learning Space at the University of Sydney described how learning goes beyond the formal space of the classroom. His presentation outlined how learning could be divided into three equal components – formal learning on campus, informal learning on campus and informal learning off campus. (Note a subsequent speaker also pointed out that distance learning could also involve formal learning off campus as well). These three modes of learning need to function together coherently and as seamlessly a possible – a speaker later in the conference talked about a personal learning plan being central to this structure.

In order for students to successfully engage in informal learning on campus there must be spaces available that meet their needs – spaces that are comfortable to work (and socialise) in. This can include access to wireless and powerpoints for their devices, kitchen facilities, and even the ability to lie down and take a nap. Students equate comfort with institutional respect – they need to feel appreciated by the organisation rather than treated as a commodity. Several attendees referred to such spaces as the student equivalent of airline lounges such as the Qantas lounge or Koru club.

Informal learning on and off campus also needs to be supported with e-learning, through platforms such as Moodle and applications such as e-portfolios, Facebook and Youtube, for example.

 

2)   The modern student

Many students own more than one mobile device (mobile phone/iPad/Tablet/laptop). Such devices provide students the opportunity to learn when and where they like, if resources such as recorded lectures, online notes, references and quizzes are available. Younger students often prefer to learn collaboratively and in a comfortable environment, and many universities are trying to accommodate this by setting up areas with kitchen facilities and a range of furniture including chairs, desks, tables, cushions and beanbags in order to allow students to customise their informal learning on campus. Choice is important to most students.

By providing for the needs and comfort of students the idea is to create a “sticky”/”Velcro” campus where students will linger longer and engage socially as well as academically.

 

3)   The learning space/technology/pedagogy nexus

Optimum learning will be achieved where the learning spaces, technologies and teaching pedagogies work in synergy with each other. Academic staff needs to be involved in the design of new learning spaces, and supported when they are first used. Some universities have installed phones in new rooms with a direct line to ICT for assistance with new technologies – one (Queensland University of Technology) even has cameras in each rooms so their technology staff can see what is happening on the screen of each room so they can better help tutors with any technical issues over the phone.

Effective design of new spaces is best achieved by involving a wide range of interested staff – academics, library, timetabling, e-Learning etc.

 

4)      What do New Generation Learning Spaces (NGLS) look like?

Features of the NGLS’s shown at the conference and on a tour of the recently upgraded University of Technology in Sydney include:

  • Transparent walls between the classroom and hallway
  • Large rooms with multiple monitors around the wall. Monitors can either show what the tutor is talking about, or allow the students to do group together using the screens separate from other groups
  • Some institutions favour movable interactive screens.
  • Technology available to allow tutor (and students) to transmit what is on the screen of their device to a large screen in class
  • One institution is using foldaway podiums.
  • Screens outside rooms show what classes are booked in there and when. A central booking system online also allows students to book rooms for meetings and study.

 

5)   “Open plan offices” or “free range” office space?

The suggestion to move to an open plan office space draws universal resistance from academic staff as it conjures images of a “battery chicken” arrangement of desks. It is also typically seen as an institutional attempt to save space. Mark Freeman, an Associate from architectural firm Gray Puksand, used the term “free range” office space to describe an innovative approach to office space – rather than clinical and uniform arrangements of desks, he described the movement away from individual office spaces as an opportunity to introduce variety into the shared office environment through a mixture of desks, tables, couches, storage systems and meeting rooms which can cater for the different needs of staff. Just as students equate comfort with institutional respect, so will staff.

 

A New Generation Learning Space Design conference has been held annually in Australia for the past 4 years. While it is somewhat expensive to attend, my experience is that it is definitely worth it for anyone involved in significant building upgrades at tertiary institutions.

Sci Fi Friday – Spaceships Quiz Michael Edmonds Mar 07

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I love science fiction. It takes us into new worlds and can present interesting scientific and ethical dilemmas.

And sometimes todays science fiction can become tomorrows scientific fact (e.g. Star Trek communicators)

And the spaceships are so cool. While some don’t appear to obey the laws of physics they are awe inspiring as they speed across galaxies, through wormholes and stargates. So I thought I would create a little quiz about star ships.

Which TV programme/video game do the following spaceships belong to?

 1) The Enterprise D

2) The Liberator

3) The Whitestar

4) The Normandy

5) The Palamino

6) Ranger 3

7) Destiny

8) Jupiter 2

9) Moya

10) USS Saratoga

And just to finish, space craft that do obey the laws of physics

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Kiwibots – New Zealand Nationals Michael Edmonds Mar 04

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Over the weekend I attended the Kiwibot Nationals – where high school students from around New Zealand compete against each other to score points using robots they have constructed themselves. It was fantastic fun to attend – what better way for students to get engaged in science/engineering/computer programming.

The video below shows the final rounds between two blue team robots and two red team robots. The full rules of the game are hard to explain in a single blog post, however, a few key points are:

  • the first part of the game is in autonomous mode – where the robot moves in a pre-programmed fashion. This is then followed by 1 minute and 45 seconds of driver controlled competition.
  • points are scored by getting coloured balls in different parts of the field, by getting the smalleer hex balls into the cylinders on the right hand side of the arena, and high points are gained by hanging a robot off of the coloured beams on the left side of the arena.
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In addition to the actual competition, separate prizes were also awarded to teams with the most creative, most robust, best programming and other prizes.

Welcome to the World of Kiwibots Michael Edmonds Feb 23

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This afternoon I went along to my first Kiwibots event, a regional competition for the Canterbury region.

For those not familiar with Kiwibots, it involves students using the Vex robotics kit sets to build robots and then compete against other teams in an arena to score the most points in a task that varies from year to year. This year each team is made up of two robots and their operators to move coloured balls in different parts of the arena to score points. There are several different ways to core points and as such the robots built by different teams can vary significantly depending on their strategy for scoring points.

I was very impressed by the opportunities that Kiwibots provide for students – not only does it teach them about building and programming robots, it also teaches them teamwork and strategy. Also, despite this being a competition, it seemed a very friendly competition. In Christchurch, it is an event that has been championed by some very dedicated teachers and parents, though this year Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology is getting involved to support Kiwibots in the Canterbury region.

Next week I’m off to Auckland to see (and help judge) the National Kiwibots competition which I am looking forward to. Held at the Vodaphone Event Centre, I am told it is an action packed, almost chaotic weekend. It would be great to see if Kiwibots can be introduced into secondary and tertiary curricula in a way students can gain credits for their work, as it is a very engaging way to learn about mechanics and computer programming.

The picture below is of a previous years’ Kiwibot event.

Key Technology Trends in Tertiary Education Michael Edmonds Feb 07

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A recent report has outlined significant upcoming trends, challenges and developments in the tertiary sector (none of which unfortunately offer 3D interactive holograms as shown in the picture above – damn!)

The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition is the latest in a series of reports prepared by an international body of experts in education, technology and other related fields. The latest report focuses on the higher education sector, providing a brief outline of areas of significance along with examples and additional readings.

The first section of the report outlines six “key trends accelerating higher education technology adoption”  and comments on

1) The widespread use of social media and its’ applications in education

2) Development of online, hybrid and collaborative learning approaches

3) Increase in learning and assessments that are data driven

4) Shift from students as consumers to students as creators

5) Agile approaches to change

6) The evolution of online learning.

The second section covers “significant challenges that will impede the adoption of new technologies”. These are

1) The low digital fluency of educators

2) A relative lack of rewards for teaching

3) Competition from new models of education (e.g. MOOC’s – massive open online courses)

4) Scaling teaching innovations

5) Expanding access

6) Keeping education relevant

The third and final section of the report discusses important developments in educational technology, consisting of

1) The flipped class room

2) Learning analytics

3) 3-D printing

4) Games and gamification

5) Quantified self – technologies which allow their owners to track and quantify various aspects of their lives

6) Virtual assistants

The report makes interesting reading. Some of the trends and developments are ones we have already started to use at work. Others are ones that we have thought about but never quite worked out the best way to apply them. The inclusion of examples where other tertiary institutions have tried different approaches and sources of future readings makes this a very useful report.

Evolution vs Creationism – Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Michael Edmonds Feb 06

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On the 4th of February a debate took place at the Creation “museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky pitting popular science writer and TV presenter Bill Nye against Ken Ham, the creationist currently attempting to raise funds for a creationist theme park, complete with ark, in Kentucky.

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This debate was controversial long before it took place, with many pro-science bloggers suggesting that Bill Nye might not be experienced enough to take on a practiced creationist. Furthermore, the fact that the evening was fundraiser for Ham’s theme park project also drew criticism.

However, now that the debate is over, many of his critics are now acknowledging that Bill Nye did quite well. Not perfect, as critics are pointing out minor errors and missed opportunities – but then it is all very well to be able see these things from the sidelines and in retrospect.

At the debate, Matt Stopera from BuzzFeed provided self-identifying creationists with a pen, pad and opportunity to write down a question for those supporting evolution, and photographed. The results were quite revealing.

Two of these pictures are shown below. It is worth looking at the rest via the link provided above, to see what creationists see as being valid arguments against evolution.

 

 

Popularising Science based on Reality TV Michael Edmonds Jan 30

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In the search for new ways to popularise science perhaps it is time to embrace the trend of recent years towards “reality” TV? The last few years have provided a plethora of formats which could be easily adapted to science, for example,

Master Researcher

Contestants compete in a laboratory environment to complete various tasks with one person being eliminated every week. Contestants will be encouraged to badmouth each other behind each others back and occasionally drop contaminants into each others experiments.

 

Hells’ Laboratory

Similar to the Master Researcher but contestants have to work in teams (giving them the opportunity for up close and personal insults) with all work is critiqued by a foul-mouthed English lab supervisor.

 

Dragons Laboratory

An enthusiastic young person stands in from of a panel of 4 people explaining the innovative research ideas that have consumed their life for the past three years only to have it picked apart and criticised.

Fairly simple to do as this is essentially a televised PhD oral.

 

Man vs Lab

A PhD student is locked in a cavernous lab by his supervisor for a week and is not only expected to complete a scientific task task but must also survive on water distilled from experimental waste water and various edible substances found within the lab.

 

Laboratory Idol

Lab supervisors compete amongst each other to be the favourite supervisor (laboratory idol) in front of groups of first year students. While clear articulation of complex scientific concepts and friendliness will gain some points the occasional flash of cleavage or bicep flex may also win votes. (However, no twerking allowed!)

Element of the Week – Fluorine Michael Edmonds Jan 26

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Fluorine is a fascinating element. As a gas consisting of two fluorine atoms bonded to each other it is incredibly reactive, capable of eating into glass and igniting some substances. However, organic compounds (compounds containing carbon) containing fluorine can be incredibly stable, as the carbon fluorine bond is relatively strong.

Fluorine is a very small atom compared to most of the other elements on the periodic table, and this combined with it’s strong bonds can significantly change the properties of molecules which contain fluorine. Some of my research 5 to 10 years ago involved incorporating a single fluorine atom into biologically active molecules to explore the change in properties. For example, a single fluorine atom can either help or disrupt structures such as helices in biological molecules.

A well known organofluorine molecule (an organic molecule containing one or more fluorine atoms) is Teflon. This highly stable polymer is used to provide nonstick surfaces on fry pans as well as strong, water and chemical resistant materials such as Gore Tex.

Substances used to fluoridate water supplies contain fluorine atoms, but they are not present as the highly reactive gas, I described earlier. Instead they are present as fluorine ions, fluorine atoms which have gained an extra electron which make them far less reactive. The substances used to fluoridate water are added to give a concentration of around 0.7 ppm, a very low concentration but one shown to have a positive effect on dental health.

Fluorine is truly a fascinating element, with many applications.

Testing a Hypothesis Michael Edmonds Jan 26

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Human beings are extremely good at spotting patterns in our environment. This has served us well in terms of survival. For example, being able to identify which colours and shapes of berry are edible or toxic, or which fresh animal poo is that of a predator or of prey would have helped our ancestors make appropriate decisions regarding their survival.

However, our brains seem to be so primed to see patterns, sometimes we perceive them when they aren’t really there. For example, “seeing faces” in geological features, toasted sandwiches or a starry night sky. Or where patterns do exist, we may attribute them to the wrong thing.

And One of the things science help us to do is decide when an apparent pattern is due to a cause and effect, a correlation* or whether there is actually no pattern at all.

In science if we think we have observed a pattern, we might form a hypothesis and then test it, to see if it is true (or at least supported by the evidence).

Say for example, your cat is always waiting for you on the door step when you get home. A workmate suggests that this is because cats are telepathic and can sense when you are about to arrive home. How might you test this claim (or hypothesis in scientific terms)?

First, you would check that your observation is actually correct – is your cat always there when you get home? Often we unconsciously “cherry pick” data to fit an idea. So a first step might be to record if your cat is really there every day when you get home.

Assuming you do this for several weeks and find it to be the case then you could start thinking about alternative hypotheses that might also explain the cat being there when you get home.

How many alternative explanations/hypotheses can you think of?

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Here are three that I came up with

1) You have a lazy cat who sits there all day waiting for you

2) The cat knows what time you arrive home and turns up just before you get home

3) The cat recognises the sound of you car when you turn into your street and turns up just before you get home

So how would you test these?

You might put a video camera near where you cat sits and see if she does sit there all day. Or maybe you could go high tech and get a collar which tracks where the cat goes each day. This could confirm or eliminate hypothesis 1

To test hypothesis 2 you could turn up at different times of the day to see if the cat turns up.

Hypothesis 3 could be tested by using a different car.

If the evidence supports any of these three hypotheses then you now have a more likely explanation than a telepathic cat. However, if the evidence does not support them, this does not automatically mean you have a telepathic cat – perhaps there is another explanation you have not yet thought of? Forming more hypotheses and testing them, is the only way to see  if the original “telepathic cat” is the best explanation.

Many people think that science is about gathering together all of the information that fits your “favourite” hypothesis, but this is only part of what scientists do. As you can see from the example above, science is also about looking for alternative explanations (hypotheses) and seeing if these are better supported by the evidence. In essence, the only way to “prove” a hypothesis is by trying to disprove it. If , after trying to disprove it, it still matches the data then it is a stronger hypothesis. If it does not then the hypothesis needs to be rethought.

 

*A correlation is where there is a connection between two events but not a cause and effect.

For example, there is a correlation between ice cream consumption and sunburn because both increase in summer. This does not mean that ice cream causes sunburn (i.e it is not a cause and effect relationship).

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