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July 2011 Archives

It is Friday & I still have the lingering effects of the flu :-( I hate being sick; the brain doesn't work properly, for one thing. So thinking of something sensible to write is actually rather difficulty :-(

But wait, is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Chemistry Cat, from a distant place in teh intertubes where cats, science & puns come together:

Funny Pictures - Chemistry Cat

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It wasn't all work & no play at the International Biology Olympiad in Taipei (27-hour stints in the jury room notwithstanding!). Our hosts took great care to show us some of the sights & tastes of Taipei, taking jury members on several excursions while the students were sitting their exams.

ferris wheel in suburbs.JPG

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Due to popular demand (Grant asked!) & also because I'm still a bit muzzy with the flu I picked up on my travels & don't want to attempt anything 'heavy', I thought I'd do a few posts about my experiences at the International Biology Olympiad. Overseas, this competition is a Really Big Thing - there's a huge amount of time, energy & resources poured into ensuring the event is as good as possible, and a lot of prestige hangs on doing the best you can (& ideally bringing home medals).

The esteem in which the event is held is obvious when you see that the Vice-President of Taiwan was a key speaker at the opening ceremony.

taiwanese VP opens event.JPG

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Over the last couple of days I've been following a story about Orewa College's decision to require next year's year 9 students to have an iPad or similar tablet-style computer for school. (The schools stated preference is for the iPad 2.) And my first thought was, why?

OK, I have an iPad, bought as a result of winning an Ako Aotearoa award last year (as many Orewa parents have doubtless already pointed out, they don't come cheap). And I love it. It came with me to Taipei, no need for a heavy laptop :-) For surfing the net it's brilliant (although it still doesn't handle MovableType blogging, alas!). Reading books on it is an enjoyable experience. Its word-processing app is o-kay. nothing to write home about but at least its products are compatible with Word. I'm trying out the equivalent to powerpoint at the moment, although I'm irritated by the fact that there are so few options in terms of slide style, & I seriously doubt that a big presentation is going to come through to my computer via e-mail; too big for the server (though there's always Dropbox). And it has some cool games.

But I've also taken the negative when discussing with colleagues the pros & cons of expecting our students to have one. Yes, the paucity of options in word processing is part of it; I think my students need the more sophisticated offerings in Word. But a more important question is - what's the pedagogy behind it?

This question was asked by Mark Nichols, the keynote speaker at this year's e-learning symposium run by my colleagues in the University's Centre for e-Learning. I agree with him that using technology simply because it's available isn't a good reason for doing so. Using technology in ways that enhance learning, is. Yes, technology may extend, excite, enhance, and engage students' time in the classroom, but we need to ensure that it also improves their existing learning outcomes. (In much the same way, powerpoint is just a tool; I've seen some dreaded powerpoint-assisted lectures, & also some brilliant teaching sessions where the speaker used no aids at all.) Or, to put it another way, technology like the iPad can quite probably enable pedagogy, but shouldn't be the driver of classroom practice. For example, access to the internet is great for accessing information, but not for learning what to do with that information, how to process it, how to assess it.

We need to add another 'e' to that list - 'educate'. Unfortunately that Campbell Live clip I've linked to above doesn't delve into those questions at all. And that's a real pity, because it's a dialogue we need to be having.

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As many of you will know, I've been to the 22nd International Biology Olympiad in Taipei, as an observer with the New Zealand team. This was New Zealand's most successful Olympiad to date, as described by the Chair of the NZ IBO committee, Dr Angela Sharples:

The New Zealand team of Benjamin Bai, Richard Chou, Vicky Tai and Jack Zhou are returning home from Taiwan, bringing with them a hat trick of medals won at the prestigious 22nd International Biology Olympiad. This competition pits the top four young biologists from 59 countries against each other, in an intense round of practical assessments and theory examinations.

A Bronze medal was won by Richard Chou and a Silver medal by Benjamin Bai. Jack Zhou won a Gold medal and is now ranked 21st in the world, New Zealand’s highest ever world ranking at the Biology Olympiad and our first Gold. It is an outstanding achievement for these young biologists. It was a fitting reward for their diligence, dedication and sheer hard work over the last year. Team Leader, Dr Angela Sharples said, "We should all be proud of the achievement of this New Zealand team. They have proved themselves to be amongst the world's best."

Now, as you may also know, it's NZ's turn to host the competition, in 2014, and we'll need a lot of help with this. If you're a teacher, you might like to help with the selection & training of each year's team - marking, overseeing an on-line tutorial, or maybe coming along to the practical training camp. And please encourage your students to try out for the camp. The competition isn't just about the 4 students who go on to the Olympiad. Any student who takes part in the training program will be gaining and honing thinking and learning skills that will stand them in good stead in any future studies that they undertake.

And if any of the program's alumni happen to be reading this - we'd just love to have you involved as a 'guide' for our guests!

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Sometimes I think that the word 'theory' has to be one of the most misunderstood, and misused, words in science.

A couple of science concepts that people often seem to have difficulty with are fact and theory: what the terms mean, and how we distinguish between them. One of my scientific heroes, the late Stephen Jay Gould, covered this very well in a 1981 essay. I've just been re-reading it & thought I'd post the most directly relevant section here.

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I often think it's a real pity that so many students seem to actively dislike learning about plants. Why is this? Is it because plants don't seem to 'do' anything interesting? I used some of the information described here in a test question this year - the results were a salutory reminder to spend more time working with students on how to read and interpret data sets.

One of the Biology Standards year 13 students [currently] study is called 'Describe animal behaviour & plant responses'. Now, if 'behaviour' = response to a stimulus, then that's really what plants are doing too. I guess it's just hard to think that something (usually) green, (usually) fixed in place, & with no nerves or muscles is able to behave - but plants do, & some of their behaviour is really quite subtle. You're probably familiar with plant responses to stimuli, including tropisms, circadian rhythms, & flowering in response to changes in photoperiod. But there's more: not only are there plants that actively hunt, but plants can also communicate - with each other, & in some cases with animals as well.

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Often on Sciblogs someone ends up pointing out that another commenter's 'evidence' is anecdotal, and thus doesn't offer particularly strong support for a particular point of view. I'm kicking myself for not providing the link to this video, the last time it happened :-)

At least a couple of times I've made a comment along the lines of "the plural of anecdote is not data". Now here's an excellent video (courtesy of Evidence-Based Thought) that explains why not:

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When I originally wrote this piece I'd been immersed in enrolments for the new (2009) year. The last week wasn't quite so bad as we were just dealing with the B semester, but nonetheless, the registrar & I have seen a lot of students needing program advice. So I thought I'd run through some suggestions here, that might help with your future study plans :-)

As you'll have gathered (if you read this blog regularly), last week was an incredibly busy one for me, because I was heavily involved in the process of enrolling students for their 2009 studies. This was a new thing for me & it gave me the opportunity to think about ways to ease the enrolment process, from the student point of view. (I'm assuming that many of you are planning on university study of some sort.) So I thought I'd put some of those thoughts here.

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This post is really for students in year 12 (or 11) who are still finalising their subject choices. While I'm talking about Biology here, the same applies to other disciplines. Deciding at the last minute (ie when applying for uni) that you want to be an engineer is not ideal if you've never studied maths or physics. Not an unsurmountable problem, but the solution - additional, preliminary papers - will add to the length of time you'll be studying.

... as the ancient knight said to Indiana Jones **. Okay, I'm talking about choice of subjects, so the outcomes won't be as life-threatening as the choice Indy faced, but these decisions can still have a big impact on your future study courses.

(& I'm aware that if you're considering Scholarship this year, you've most likely made those choices, so this one's really aimed at students who aren't so far through the system.)

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... you might find the following post helpful. I wrote it a couple of years back but the points I was making then are just as relevant now.

By now some of you may be thinking about entering for the Scholarship exam at the end of the year. I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the material related to this exam, so that you can get a feel for the qualities that the examiner is looking for. (And in places I've linked to things I've posted previously on this topic.) 


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On Saturday I'm winging off to Taipei as an 'observer' attached to New Zealand's International Biology Olympiad team. The idea is that I find out as much as I can about how the event is run, before coming back & getting our own coordinating group into gear for the 2014 event. (I am ever so slightly alarmed that I will be leading this, along with the Chair of NZIBO, Dr Angela Sharples.) Because I'll be away for the start of the B semester I've been really really busy with sorting out things relating to my B semester paper, finishing marking, writing conferences presentations, etc, etc - no time to blog :-(

But because I don't want to leave a big gap, I'm going to schedule a blast from the past: re-runs of selected posts from a year or three back. As many year 13 students are probably at the point of seriously considering the Scholarship exams, quite a few of these repeats will probably have that focus.

And if I get the chance, I'll try to post something from Taipei. Where apparently the daytime temperatures are up in the low 30s... (it'll be hard, but I'll manage!)

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From the 'I wish I had seen that first!' files come the following fascinating posts:

The incredibly loud world of bug sex - in which tiny little bugs make incredibly loud noises as part of their sex lives :-)

Wait, what? They did a study to find THIS out? - a question which I will confess to asking now & again. The study this blogger examined was into the effects of violent TV programs on kids' sleep patterns. (Darcy, you need to read this. Really.)

Biocranial baloney - a critical look at a new chiropractic technique...


Is your crappy boyfriend stressing you out? - an entertaining and interesting look at the effects of bad relationships on those caught up in them.


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