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January 2015 Archives

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.

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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

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Here in Hamilton it's hot, And DRY - I'm guessing we'll be up to 'water alert level 3' (ie no sprinklers) any day now. So I watched this video (link) from ScienceAlert with a mix of fascination & wistfulness - it really does show 'a big ball of water' dropping from a thunderstorm in Australia. 

Mind you, much though I'd love to have some rain, I wouldn't want to be under that lot!

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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).

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