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August 2013 Archives

This is a version of something that I originally wrote for the Talking Teaching blog.

I've been involved in a few discussions lately, on the issue of what 'we' actually are. That is, are those of us who work with students in our lecture rooms, laboratories and tut classes, teachers? Is that the label we want attached to ourselves (eg in things like paper & teaching appraisal surveys)?

And I've found there's a certain body of opinion that says "no, no that's not the right name. 'Teachers' is what people in schools could be described as. But we're lecturers, not teachers." 

Interestingly, this is not a reflection of how universities are described in the 1989 Education Act. Section 162 of the Act tells us (my emphasis in bold font) that

 universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:

  • (i)they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:

  • (ii)their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:

  • (iii)they meet international standards of research and teaching:

  • (iv)they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:

  • (v)they accept a role as critic and conscience of society;

and that

  • a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning:

This all makes it fairly clear that the official view of what folks like me do, in our university jobs, is teaching i.e. facilitating advanced learning in our students, helping them to become independent, autonomous learners, and (while last, definitely not least!) promoting learning in the wider community. (I have to say, in Hamilton at the moment, this often feels like an uphill battle in the face of widespread misinformation about water fluoridation. But you can read more about this here, and here.)

And that's true whether our job descriptions include the word tutor, lecturer, or professor. To me, if the word 'teaching' is included in the description of what universities do, then we are 'teachers'.

Now, I suppose you could argue that I'm just being picky, but I think this is actually quite an important issue as it relates to what we perceive ourselves doing in our classrooms. That's because if someone sees themselves as a lecturer, rather a teacher, then they could well have a mental image of what the role of 'lecturer' entails. And part of it is quite likely to entail standing in front of a class and speaking for around 50 minutes on a topic in which that person has expertise.

And to me, this is something of a problem because there's an increasing body of research now that clearly shows that this passive-student model of teaching & learning - not just lectures, but also 'cookbook' lab classes - is probably the least effective thing we can do, in expanding students' knowledge & understanding of a subject. This was demonstrated very clearly by Richard Hake in his 1998 analysis of the outcomes for more than 6,500 students enrolled in a total of 62 introductory physics courses. Hake found that courses that used 'interactive-engagement' techniques for teaching and learning were significantly better - much better - in terms of successful learning and retention of material. Subsequently Carl Wieman and his science-education research group have built on the work of Hake and others in the physics area - have a look at the figures at the end of this 2005 paper, for example: teaching techniques that encourage passive learning by students don't result in any real long-term learning or retention. Nor is it just physics; I've written previously about similar research findings from the area of biology education (e.g. Haak et al. ,2011).

'Teacher' to me implies the use of a much wider range of classroom techniques that encourage active student engagement and successful long-term learning. And yes, I'm a teacher, and proud of it!

Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, & Freeman S (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science , 332 (6034), 1213-6 PMID: 21636776

Hake RR (1998) Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Am. J. Phys66: 64-74

Wieman C & Perkins K (2006) Transforming physics education. Physics Today Online,

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This morning's Waikato Times features the attention-grabbing front-page headline: "Anti-fluoride campaigner tries to silence science". I guess the debate is really heating up when someone from one side tries to get the other side to shut up...

It would be appreciated if we could receive some confirmation from the chemistry department that it will remain publicly neutral on the matter.

To be fair to the anti-fluoride lobby, the letter to the Chemistry Department at the University of Waikato came from a single member of the local Hamilton group. Note to the organisers of Fluoride Free Hamilton - if you are not in support of this letter, it would be really nice to hear you say so. Publicly.

The letter reproduced by the Waikato Times includes the statement that

At Fluoride Free Hamilton we intend to limit the debate to the social science and public health aspects of fluoridation.

Now, I actually think that it would be good to have a reasoned, well-informed debate on social issues relating to fluoridation. Is 'mass medicalisation' the way to go, for example? If fluoride isn't delivered this way, then how do we deal with the social costs entailed in some members of society not accessing it? How much, as a society, are we responsible for our poorest members? 

Unfortunately that's not really the way things have shaped up to date. Instead the HCC tribunal that made the original decision to stop fluoridation, the letters/opinion columns of our various local papers, & on-line discussions of media reports have been awash with dubious & frankly scaremongering claims about the ills of fluoridation. For example

that in drinking fluoridated water we're forced to drink acid  - No, we're not. (Presumably those making this claim don't eat citrus fruit, or drink wine or a certain caffeinated fizzy beverage.)

that hydrofluorosilicic acid adds harmful levels of heavy metals to our water supply - No, it doesn't.

that fluoride is neurotoxic and lowers children's IQs - again, at concentrations found in municipal supplies, no, it doesn't. (Did they even read the original paper?)

that fluoride 'narcotises' salmon at levels well below those present in municipal supplies - No, it doesn't - the original paper says nothing about this.

and so on, and on, and on... I am moved to ask (again) - if the anti-fluoridation activists are so sure of their case, then why do they need to distort, cherrypick, and misquote science in order to support it? You're entitled to your own opinions, folks, but not your own versions of the facts.

We're also seeing a fair amount of false equivalence here, where the anti-fluoridation groups would argue that their 'science' is equivalent to the science put forward by (for example) the District Health Board & my chemistry colleagues. In fact there is no equivalence - how can there be, when those claims (above) are examined & found wanting?



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Among other things, I like to knit. My mother got me started, years ago, & I worked up to quite complex Fair Isle patterns on jerseys & shawls. But the kids weren't all that keen on wearing woolly stuff once all the new 'manmades' came on the market, & a well-made jersey lasts a Long Time (30 years, in the case of one of mine), so the knitting took a bit of a back seat & I've only recently got back into it.

Anyway, I was talking about my latest project ** with some friends and Renee said, "I greatly admire people who can take two sticks and some fluffy string and turn it into clothes." At which point I thought: I bet that from a cultural evolution perspective, you could characterise the invention of string as a rather significant innovation. After all, sans string (or some form of fibre - & this would include animal sinew as well as plant fibre) there'd be no woven fabrics; no sewn garments; no nets or string bags to catch things or carry the catch home; no bows (& thus no arrows); no adzes bound to hafts or knives to handles; no sticks tied together into tripods or shelter frames... 

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I had to look twice at this undersea Liberace-lookalike before recognising it as an octopus (more precisely, a blanket octopus, Tremoctopus sp.) These beautiful creatures live in the open ocean where they grow up to 2m long. The female in this image (thanks, Science Alert) has unfurled a sort of cape (called a 'web' in this Scientific American article) that may function in deterring potential predators - after all, you'd have to be fairly big to take on something of this apparent size. The web can be shed in sections, presumably acting as a distractor if the octopus is threatened by something large & hungry.

Interestingly, it's only the females who can put on this impressive display (the cape's rolled up when not in use), for the males are much smaller.  So small, in fact, that it was some time before one of the 2.4cm males was even identified. That's a pretty extreme example of sexual dimorphism; in terms of the orders of magnitude between the size of the two sexes it must give some of the deep-sea angler fish a run for their money. 

But also - it seems that small blanket octopuses (ie males & young females) use tentacles from Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish as defensive/offensive weapons, something that was first reported on back in 1963 (there's an image here on the ToLWeb site). Presumably these cephalopods are immune to the jellyfishes' stings.

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 I know I'm straying from my usual round, but this is too good not to share. Enjoy!

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Last weekend I noticed a story in the Herald about an 'oxygen bar' - somewhere where one pays to breathe in 95% oxygen for a fixed period of time. All sorts of health claims have been made for this, & it was good to see prominence given to the scientific viewpoint: that most folks' blood will already be saturated with oxygen, so breathing in the pure gas will not make much difference to them. In addition, any extra O2 boost that might occur would be lost in a couple of breaths, so long-term benefits aren't all that likely. (Also, breathing in oxygen at that concentration can be dangerous for those with some health problems.)

The story reminded me of something I read about a few years ago (again in the newspaper, but easily found in internet ads): "liquid oxygen" as a health boost. Since oxygen turns into a liquid at -183 degrees C, I was fairly sure people weren't chugging that down! The stuff turned out to be "charged stabilised oxygen", which must be the real deal as it was apparently invented by NASA** (</snark>): basically salty water with 15% 'bioavailable' oxygen.  It comes in a handy 250ml bottle & the purveyors recommend taking 10-20ml half an hour before exercising, when you will then be able to train harder for longer. (There's also another 'liquid oxygen' dietary supplement, which it seems is based on a solution of hydrogen peroxide... yikes!)

Trouble is, as with the oxygen bars, it's hard to see how this stuff could have any immediate effects, let alone the long-term ones claimed for it, partly because there's no plausible route by which it could get to where it's needed. If your haemoglobin is already saturated with oxygen, then drinking a couple of spoonfuls of 'liquid oxygen' isn't going to make any real difference there. Not even if you had gills in your gut. 


** Strangely, a search of the NASA website using the phrase as a search term didn't turn anything up...


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When I was a kid, we'd all look forward to Friday evenings - because Dad & Grandma would come back from town with the weekly supply of comics. The ads in the back were almost as good as the cartoons, although we were very disappointed to find out that sea monkeys were definitely not as advertised! I also remember regular ads featuring a poor weedy guy who, having had sand kicked in his face by various over-muscled bullies, followed the instructions of various manly authorities and ended up developing his own set of biceps, triceps, washboard abs & all the rest: all the better to impress the girls at the beach.

I was reminded of all this earlier this week when I noticed a Facebook report on bicep-flexing in male kangaroos, based on this 2013 paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society. (It's behind a paywall, alas, but you should be able to read the abstract.)

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This week's Hamilton Press (a local free newspaper) has a lot of fluoride-focused letters in its opinion pages. After reading them I must ask, again, why those opposed to fluoride need to misrepresent the evidence if their case is so strong.

For example, we're told about Amsterdam GP Dr Hans Moolenburgh, who apparently noticed those children in his practice who were drinking fluoridated water were developing colic. (Ulcers & eczema were also attributed to this ion.) Incidentally much of the letter's content seems to be cribbed from on-line sources such as this.

"These sudden pains only took place in fluoridated Heemstede, and the cure was easy: Non-fluoridated water."

Now - aside from the issues of why fluoride, in the very low concentrations added to drinking water, would cause colic, and how likely it is that we're seeing confirmation bias - this 'cure' would seem quite significant. So, where are the publications relating to it, that would draw the attention of the medical world? Yes, I know he's written a book. But a search of pubmed and the NIH database (using the terms moolenburgh+holland+fluoride+colic) drew a blank. Searches using & google Scholar brought up a paper citing Moolenburgh, but no actual peer-reviewed publications. (Incidentally that paper is in the publication Fluoride, which does not appear to be an independent journal.)

This is really odd, because the letter writer goes on to say that Dr Moolenburgh got together a research team that 

eventually conducted a double-blind experiment, the results of which clearly established there was a definite relationship between the symptoms and fluoride in water. Following publication of their research results, water fluoridation in Holland was discontinued in 1976.

I would really quite like to read this research paper, except so far I've not been able to find anything that matches what our writer describes. Just what was their double-blind set-up, and their intervention? For it to be a double-blind study then none of the researchers should know where their patients came from, for example.

Also, while it is correct that the Netherlands no longer fluoridate their municipal water supplies, fluoridated salt is available. Indeed, as the paper I've just linked to points out, if a country's major discounters sell only fluoridated salt, then that's what everybody gets.

I'll get onto the next letter later. 



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That's the title of one of the books I'm reading at the moment: The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart. (I do not know any drunken botanists!) Contrary to any expectations engendered by the title, the book is a thoroughly engaging wander through botany, history, & a little bar-tending (although, now that I look at the recipes, there are quite a few of them!) - in the sense that it includes recipes for a range of cocktails where at least some of the ingredients are derived from plants. 

But be warned. As the author points out, just because many of these ingredients come from plants, doesn't mean you can just set to it & start brewing up a storm. She notes

Do remember that plants employ powerful chemicals as defenses against the very thing you want to do to them, which is to pluck them from the ground and devour them...

It is also important to note that distillers can use sophisticated equipment to extract flavourings from a plant and leave the more harmful molecules behind, but an amateur soaking a handful of leaves in vodka has no such control... Just because a distiller can work with them safely doesn't mean you can, too.

Which is why those consuming 'moonshine' may well be at risk of more than a simple hangover

Anyway, I am finding this book to be a fascinating ramble down a whole range of information by-ways. I've learned, for example, that the agave - whence come tequila & mezcal - is actually related to asparagus, & that it's possible to persuade the plant to produce up to 250 gallons (more than 1000 litres) of sap over a period of several months, by cutting and wounding the flower stalk just as it begins to grow. (In this, an agave plant outstrips the annual production of a sugar maple tree - but the tree has the advantage that it lives to flow another year. The agave eventually dies, exhausted.) This liquid is fermented very quickly by 'wild' microbes, & - being an innocent in these things - I thought that would be distilled to produce tequila. But I was wrong - this spirit's produced from a base of roasted agave hearts. And while you might be thinking of a metal or glass still, it seems in Mexico they used to use a hollow tree trunk as the basis of the still!

Apparently the worm is there as a marketing ploy...

So, there's snippets of genetics, & palaeontology, & chemistry, & botany, & anthropology - it really is an interesting book. And Stewart has the ability to turn some lovely phrases. I'll leave you with the following, which I love & will be using tomorrow when discussing cellular respiration in class:

The science of fermentation is wonderfully simple. Yeasts eat sugar. They leave behind two waste products, ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. If we were being honest, we would admit that what a liquor store sells is, chemically speaking, little more than the litter boxes of millions of domesticated yeast organisms, wrapped up in pretty bottles with fancy price tags.

A.Stewart (2012) The Drunken Botanist: the plants that create the world's great drinks. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ISBN 978-1-61620-046-6

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 "Have you heard of a pyrosome?" asks Carin Bondar

My immediate answer was, no; no, I haven't - but you know me, I'm always curious :) Turns out that pyrosomes - which look almost other-worldly in the video below - are colonial tunicates: the same taxonomic group as the perhaps-more-familiar sea squirts. And that means that they're in the same phylum as us, for both tunicates and mammals are chordates.

These are adult seasquirts (image from

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 I won't post the photos here - but drop over to wired & admire the stunning spider images from photographer Nicky Bay. I think my favourite would have to be the Mirror Spider (Thwaitesia sp.), which looks as though it's got a disco ball for an abdomen.

And for awesome mimicry, take a look at the Ant Mimic Jumping Spider (Myrmarachne plataleoides). In fact, I liked this one so much I went looking for more & found this video of a related species:

Looks like an ant, right? But on close inspection there are some clues that all is not as it first appears: surely there are too many legs? And then the 'ant' starts to open & close its 'jaws' & suddenly you see its wickedly sharp fangs and then its pedipalps. How cool a disguise is this?


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That's the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on "Scientists, the media, & society" by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic "yes, and here's why".

As he notes, 

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

- he's writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians' science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes - which specifically relate to science literacy - are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn't they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there's a huge body of information - which varies greatly in quality - out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it's very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) - Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages - that how people deal with that information is really important. 

So, provided that I'd given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn't matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I'm a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the 'design-an-organism' classes for a couple of years now, I've seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: 'design' a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.



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