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March 2011 Archives

Most of us will have seen still and video images of a disturbing, violent assaut by one Wanganui schoolgirl on another. (And maybe some have wondered, as I did, whether we really needed to see that footage again. And again. And again.) It was a horrible act and one that has been deservedly condemned.

What really got me thinking about society's responses to this, & other acts of violent, physical bullying that have hit the headlines recently, was the editorial in today's NZ Herald. Why? Because it seems to be pointing the finger at one particular part of the community - our schools. This is understandable - up to a point! - when, for example, we see bullies 'stood down' for a few days and then allowed back to class. But what about this?

The expelling school [on occasions where the perpetrators are expelled] has already failed to give the culprit an environment that makes him or her feel sufficiently dignified to respect the rights of others.

This may, or may not, be correct. But why stop at pointing the finger at schools? Children are in their care for around 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, for about 40 weeks a year. So is it right to sheet the blame home to schools alone? What of the family; the whanau; the community; our wider society? Messages about self-worth and the rights of others need to come from all quarters, and if the school's actions and expectations aren't supported by people whose actions and opinions matter to the bully, then frankly whatever happens at school may not make much of a difference. (This is not to say that schools shouldn't try!)

And in any case I wonder if we aren't inadvertently giving our young people quite the wrong message here. Remember, there's more to bullying than physical violence: emotional & mental bullying are also common, and made easier by the pervasive nature of electronic communication. (Hence the actions of Ngaruawahia High School's principal, who is seeking to ban cell phones from the school - although that won't stop their misuse outside the premises.)

Now, consider some of the currently popular 'reality' shows on prime-time TV. I would argue that they almost normalise a culture of bullying, with 'weaker' contestants reduced to tears on a weekly basis. How are schools supposed to deal with bullying, how are children supposed to get the message that bullying - in any form! - is just plain wrong, when such behaviour is presented as part of the evening's 'entertainment'?

It's not just the responsibility of schools. This is everyone's problem. What's that saying again? It takes a village [a community] to raise a child.

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Last year the NZ Council for Education Research published Inspired by Science (Bull et al. 2010) - a discussion paper intended to promote debate about the future of science education in this country. I found it an interesting paper, although I also thought that it didn't really address some issues (funding, for example, or the fact that secondary schools these days have to do much more than simply prepare students for university study).

Now we have the next step along this path: the launch of Looking ahead: science education for the twenty-first century via an interactive broadcast on Tuesday 5 April (4-6pm). This report's been developed by the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Committee, along with the Royal Society & the Ministry of Science & Innovation. (You can read more, plus register for the launch, here.)

I've registered for the event already - when the details of where the event's being 'held' (or at least, where to come to watch it) are available I'll add them here. I'll be particularly interested in hearing about how future strategies will mesh with the current, new, curiculum & upcoming changes in assessment standards; how teachers will be supported in delivering any new initiatives - and also, for pointers on how to swing societal attitudes to science around, something that changes in the classroom alone probably won't do.

And of course, I'll blog about it after the event - maybe even try 'live-blogging', provided I can a) type fast enough & b) manage to pay attention to what's being said at the same time that I'm writing about it!

A.Bull, J.Gilbert, H.Barwick, R.Hipkins & R.Baker (2010) Inspired by science: a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor. New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), August 2010

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... not to put beans in your ears. But in the case of our fruit-loop of a burmese cat, Fidget, the operative word should have been 'blowflies'.

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I'm beginning to think there should be 36 hours in a day - I might be able to catch up with things then! Anyway, I was talking with a colleague this evening about a seminar he'd just done with his MSc students, & he said he'd begun with 'that duck paper' as it was a session on resource use. I liked that paper when I blogged on it originally, so I thought I'd re-post it to share it with my newer readers.

Of course they can't - they're birdbrains! Right?

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One of the (many) things I enjoy about teaching is seeing students develop the confidence to take part in discussions & present (& defend) their own views on the topic du jour. Classes where that happens are really seriously enjoyable. And so it was on Friday, when I was in a tutorial class & we were (initially) working on gaining skills in paraphrasing.

This is a key skill that I would like all my first-years to develop. As part of the assessment for this paper, they need to research and write an essay, and when I'm marking I don't want to see any evidence of plagiarism. So when they find a paper that has informaton that a student would like to use in their essay, they need to a) read for understanding, b) recognise how that material can be integrated with the narrative of their essay, & c) put that information in their own words (with appropriate citations & references, of course!). If they can do that, not only will they be avoiding the pitfalls of plagiarism, but they'll also have developed a better understanding of the original information & of the wider topic.

But this is a learned skill & needs practice. So for the tut, I presented the class with a couple of selections from recent papers - one from a paper that I & a colleague had published last year, and another on symbiosis (which I've written about here). It was the first excerpt that really got things going, so I'll give you the selected text here & then talk about what happened next:

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Poppa's been in hospital for the last two weeks. Until he was transferred to a hospital closer to his home we were visiting him regularly, but there was one member of the family that he couldn't have cuddles with, & he really missed that.

And who was he missing? Ben, the little poodle.

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Yesterday I received an e-mail from someone using the pseudonym 'WinteryKnight, who said:

I was just wondering if you have any recent research publications on experimental biology? I am thinking about writing a blog post comparing you to Michael Behe, and I want to be as fair as possible when I compare your research publications on experimental biology in peer-reviewed journals. Please send me a list of the ones that involve lab experiments, like the Lenski experiments, in an e-mail so I can include and compare it with Behe's research. I don't want you to be "Marked Down" unless I find out what you can actually do in the lab.


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A few days ago my fellow Scibloggers & I had a bit of a discussion around blood donations (as part of a wider discussion of issues relating to the disastrous earthquake in CHristchurch on Tuesday 22 February). While at present the Blood Service isn't calling for extra donors, I thought I'd write another post on donation anyway - we need 3100 donations each & every week (700 of those in my local region, the Waikato) to keep up with normal demand, & a quick look around those reclining on couches round our local donor centre would indicate that the average donor isn't getting any younger. So there's a need for new blood (excuse the dreadful pun) & with the Blood Service on campus this week I thought it would be good to draw attention to that. (And a big 'thank you!' to all our students who have gone along to the Rec Centre & rolled up their sleeves for the cause.)

Every blood donation is an act that has the potential to touch a number of lives. My siblings & I were enormously grateful to the unknown donors whose simple, caring act helped provide the blood that improved my mother's quality of life during her (mercifully brief) battle with cancer. The memory of that is one of the reasons that I became a regular donor myself. And other donors gave the blood that my elderly father-in-law needed as a 'top-up' during major surgery earlier this week. (He might actually have ended up with some of my platelets - but of course I'll never know.)

So, if you're ever considered the possibility of giving blood - take the next step. Contact the New Zealand Blood Service and talk to them to see if you meet the criteria. At the cost of maybe 30 minutes of your time every 3 months or so (for whole-blood donors) you can make a real difference to the lives of others.

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We understand a fair bit, these days, about the evolution of the complex, 'camera-type' vertebrate eye. Not that this has stopped creationsists (most recently the 'intelligent design' camp as represented by the Discovery Institute) from arguing that the eye is an excellent example of How Evolution Is Wrong - what, they ask, is the use of half an eye? (The answer is, plenty, if an organism can detect the direction of a light source, or the movement of a predator - & in fact it's been suggested that the evolution of even the most basic photoreceptors may have had a hand in the rapid increase of animal taxa during the Cambrian.)

However, one of the unanswered questions (& thus fertile ground for creationists) has always been, when? Just how deep in time is the origin of the vertebrate eye & its specialised light receptors. A new paper just out may help us to answer that question (Passamaneck et al. 2011).

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Well, colour me startled! It seems that some of the things I said in a recent blog post & its associated comments thread have attracted the attention of the Discovery Institute. They don't appear to be particularly happy with me. I don't think that I've ever been called "dishonest" and "a liar" before, had my teaching methods impugned, or been described as stifling free speech and academic freedom. I must have reached the big time!

But seriously. As one commenter has noted on that thread (& on his own blog), the writer of the DI piece seems to have merely skimmed the original piece - how else could he have missed my comment that discussion of 'intelligent design' would be quite appropriate in a class on the philosophy & nature of science, for example? He does, however, show a certain ability in quote-mining.

And the supreme (and hilarious) irony: to be accused of trampling on students' rights to free speech  by someone who does not allow comments on his own blog.


PS a colleague has noted that I must be more influential than he realised - after all, the DI post cites me as justification for legislative change in the USA (heading me off at the pass in case I ever decide to emigrate)!

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... and it ain't pretty :)

 (I thought another chuckle might be good for us all)

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Fellow SciBloggers Peter Griffin & David Winter have recently written posts on Ken Ring's (in)ability to predict earthquakes (here and here respectively). This is something I've also touched on earlier & I thought I would follow up on it now - the specific issue I want to address is that of hedging one's bets.

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