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November 2011 Archives

 Over on 'of trees and birds and other things' Jarrod points out why it's not a terribly good idea to base your view of a scientific issue on a single story in the popular press... (& hat-tip to David Winter on the atavism, who alerted me to this new evolutionary blog!) For the teachers & students who read my blog: Jarrod has an interest in forest ecology & his research area is evolutionary ecology, so I think it will be well worth dropping over to his place from time to time :-)

PS apologies for the original 'dud' link - all fixed now :-)

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 As a distraction (or should that be 'procrastination'?) from what's currently filling up my diary (ie processing student enrolments), I've decided to look at another of those 'science' statements from the school documents I linked to in my last post. "What about the archeopteryx?" they ask. Well, what about it? This, from their webpage:

The archeopteryx is an extinct, unusual bird. Two fairly complete skeletons have been found in Europe.

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 Over lunch today I had a really interesting conversation about environmental history and why it's a Good Thing to know about. Much of the discussion was around the environmental history of Palmerston North, where I lived for about 22 years, first as a student at Massey University & subsequently as a teacher (first in various secondary schools before returning to Massey on the other side of the lectern). Palmy can certainly be a soggy place** - but I suspect very few residents know that until relatively recently it was a place of lagoons & wetlands. One such site was the Awapuni lagoon, in the area now occupied by Palmerston North racecourse - I used to walk through there all the time with my previous dog Bella (who used to loooove puddling around in the Mangaone stream). While it's now simply a low-lying area (prone to pooling quickly in prolonged downpours), in the not-so-distant past the lagoon was a significant food source for the local iwi, who had a small village there.

But this history doesn't have to be hidden, & in fact you could argue that it's really important for school students to learn about it. After all, how can you really make sense of your current environment, except in the context of what went before. One person who's actively telling these stories of our past environment is Dr Catherine Knight, who writes the blog envirohistory NZ (& who sat across the table from me at lunch). She's created a veritable goldmine of stories about our past, relevant to students of history, geography, social studies... it's not just biology students who could benefit from it. Pop over & have a look :-)


**I can still remember the flooding that occurred back in 1988, Cyclone Bola hit New Zealand. We were living in Rongopai Street at the time, 2 doors down from the Mangaone. There'd been some dumping of hedge-clippings, by someone who lived further upstream, & when the stream rose rapidly under the constant heavy rain, said clippings blocked the culvert & the water spread rapidly across neighbouring sections. Including ours. We'd actually been out to see friends on the other side of town - OK, I'll admit it, to see the flooded paddocks (dratted sightseers!) - and when we got home our section was awash & there was water flowing through the garage. The house was all right, being on a high pad, but the rabbit had fled his tunnel under the sunporch & taken refuge in the greenhouse, courtesy of the neighbours who opened the door for him. The veges took a while to recover from that little incursion!

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In my last post on a 'creationist biology curriculum' I asked the question: what, exactly, do they teach? Over on the Sciblogs site (where this blog is syndicated), a commenter answered by pointing me at another school's curriculum. As I read through it, I could feel the area beneath my collar getting distinctly heated.

This was partly due to the sections listing Commonly accepted science we believe in and Commonly accepted "science" we do not believe in. What we have here is an a priori assumption about the world, followed by rejection of anything that doesn't match that particular worldview. This is not how good science is done. (And note the use of scare-quotes denoting the science that the authors don't believe in.) And this makes me wonder just how well their students will understand the overarching strand of the national science curriculum, the nature of science.

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 I was spurred to write this by a comment  Grant made on my previous post on the various NZ political parties' stances on science education. In that post I linked to the website of a 'special character' school: one with a religious underpinning & which states that they replace 'evolution' with 'creation' in the school's science curriculum:

All strands are covered as stated in the National Curriculum: The Living World, the Physical World, the Material World and Planet Earth and Beyond. As a Christian school we change the sub-strand called 'Evolution' to 'Creation'. This links with our extra subject Creation Studies.

Which leads me to wonder exactly what such schools do teach in science classes... 

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The Science Media Centre has just released its 'Science Q&A' - a set of questions put to all main political parties. As a voter I'm interested in all the responses, but today I'll wear my science educator's hat & look at the responses to this question:

Not only does New Zealand have problems persuading young people to study science at university, it has difficulty persuading graduate researchers to eventually settle in this country. How will your party make science and technology more attractive to students looking ahead to tertiary education, and what can be done to encourage them to work in New Zealand? 

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My post about zeolite & the supposedly 'chemical-free' nature of various dietary supplements containing the stuff led to some interesting comments, & generated a few 'I wonder if...' moments. After all, as Krebiozen said (in the comments thread to that post):  With the right sales pitch you could probably persuade some people that eating feline 'tootsie rolls' is good for them. They are 100% natural after all!

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 I'm always looking around for ways to improve my teaching, & my students' learning. (The two go hand in hand. I might think I'm a good teacher, but unless my classroom practices improve my students' learning experiences & outcomes, then I'm not. Not really.) Part of my search involves quite a bit of reading from the science education literature, and recently I read something that gave me a bit of a wake-up call. As Brydget (who runs our first-year labs) said, "it seems so obvious when you think about it!", but neither of us had actually thought from that particular viewpoint before?

So what was the idea that made us that little bit uncomfortable, & shifted our thoughts on communicating science in the classroom? (That discomfort, incidentally, is a Good Thing, & something we should seek to elicit in our students every now & then.) It's contained in my current 'light reading': a book by Linda Nilson (2007) called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map.

I bought the book because I'd been wondering for a while how better to communicate with my first-years about my papers: what they'll be doing, when they'll be doing it, that sort of thing. There's always been a proportion of the class who fairly obviously don't bother reading the 'standard' paper outline (they're the ones who are startled to find out that yes, there's a test tomorrow night! even though that information is there in black-&-white in the paper outline that they received on the first day of semester. That, plus the fact that I use concept maps a fair bit in my teaching anyway, made Nilson's book catch my eye.

We use paper outlines (syllabi - or should that be syllabuses??) to communicate (we think!) a lot of information to our students. Of course there's the list of topics to be taught & when they'll be taught, plus a list of student learning outcomes. (The latter are intended to allow the students to judge their progress towards the paper's goals.) But then we include a whole pile of administrative stuff, like required textbooks, due dates for items of assessment, what constitutes plagiarism & why they should avoid doing it... And we expect them to read all of it.

Nilson suggests there are good reasons why many students don't or, if they do, why they don't seem to process the information particularly well. Part of the problem may be that the syllabus is all text - she cites research indicating that [only] half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States read a book of any kind in 2002, and only 22% of 17-year-olds read daily in 2004. And worse - for many of those who do read the document, it may not actually make much sense to them.

This is the point where Brydget & I had that 'aha' moment. When a lecturer puts together a paper outline, they do it from the perspective of someone who's totally mastered the content and the language involved. But for students, especially first-year students who are 'content novices', it's a different story:

Even if students do read the syllabus, the content-heavy sections might not make much sense to them. Certainly one of the most content-laden sections is the schedule of topics that the course addresses. The topics usually contain technical terms of the discipline, terms with which the students are initially not familiar. if they already knew these terms, they wouldn't be in the course to learn about them. Not surprisingly, the topics in syllabi in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering are almost exclusively technical worlds that a typical student wouldn't understand until well into the course.

This is actually a deeper issue than a simple failure to read all that 'stuff' at the start fo the study guide, or in the first handout of the semester. It may also mean that the students don't get any real idea of how the course is organised. You might think, "what does this matter? They'll have it sussed by the end of the semester." But there's more to it than that. When we learn new things, if we're to learn them in any meaningful way we need to be able to fit them into some sort of mental scaffolding, or schema. As Nilson says,

learning and storage take place only in the context of a logically organised conceptual framework. Deep processing, as opposed to simple memorisation, necessitates seeing the structure of new knowledge and integrating it into one's existing structure of prior knowledge.

What's more,

Our thinking is so dependent on structure that if we don't have an established, complete logical structure to interpret and explain an observed phenomenon, we will make up connecting pieces or entire theories.

So there's a real risk that many students won't actually be learning what we think they're learning, however well-structured our classroom teaching practices may be. So how can we help them understand the organisation of a course, so that they can use that to help incorporate the things they'll be learning into their existing body of knowledge? nelson suggests the use of 'visual' syllabi that present course structure in flow charts or concept maps, showing what they'll be learning (both content & process knowledge), how it all fits together, and how it links to material they might have already learned and to future courses.

I've used concept maps in class for years now, but while I know how well they help students to come to a deep understanding of complex information, I'd honestly never thought of using them to visualise the organisation of an entire paper. So that's my next little project - to develop such a visual syllabus for the first-year biology papers I coordinate. And, at the end of the semester, I'll be asking students for some feedback, so that I can gauge how useful that schema might have been to their own learning.

After all, my own learning journey is nowhere near its end :-)

Linda B. Nilson (2007) The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map. pub. Jossey-Bass. ISBN978-0-470-18085-3

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Years ago, when my old dog Bella was still alive, I was the happy recipient of several doggy haiku verses. One of them read:

The cat is not all bad./She fills the litter box/with tootsie rolls.

I was reminded of this when reading the comments thread on a recent post by Orac. Some commenters were discussing claims that the mineral zeolite has enormous healing powers and other health benefits. Going by the amount of the stuff that Bella would have ingested along with the aforementioned 'tootsie rolls', perhaps it's no surprise that she reached the advanced (for a labrador) age of 15...

However, the comments left me with alarming mental images of people also chomping through kitty litter, albeit in a finely-ground form and without the organic inclusions that so delighted Bella (& which also delight young Ben-the-poodle). You can certainly find the stuff widely promoted on-line (at, for a start). And yes (alas!) there are purveyors in New Zealand as well, although the outfit that came up tops on a google search sells it in liquid form. 

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