Monthly Archives: August 2010

But what to make of this?

Today, the first pop quiz.  Ten multi-choice questions applying what I’ve been going through for the last two class sessions to a news story.  The results (the poll may take time to load):

Mmmm. What to do about the 22%?  Can these all be people who joined the class today?  Or am I getting something outta whack?  Class, say something!

Strong inference from a good experiment

Gratifying that the right data can change minds.  Midway through the last session, I asked whether parasitic worms could impair the cognitive performance of children – after I had explained basic worm biology and the pre-1930s correlational data supporting the idea (the polls may take time to load):

Then I went through the modern correlational and then experimental evidence, including the experimental on rodents and the beautiful double blind placebo trial of Nokes et al. with kids from Jamaica.  And then polled the class again.

So evidently most were persuaded.  We’ll see what happens when we get into something more contentious. Experience tells me you can use a correlation to persuade anyone of anything – if it fits their prejudices.

Groan: There is an answer.

Having worked hard in today’s class to set up the question ‘Do worms impair kids school performance’, and the correlational data, AND then explaining why correlations are ambiguous evidence for causation – I completely forgot to tell the students the punch line:  Because the recent science has been done well, we know the answer to the question I posed.  Which I will explain next time.

What did Randy Olson say – Tantalize, complicate, then resolve.   No wonder I am not teaching at a film school.  

Bozo.  Mind you, I was teaching from two computers, five programs and seven windows.  Phew.

The Introductory Class

Well, I thought it went ok.  The students laughed in the right places, and were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the other places.  So we’ll see.  The acid test is whether the class room is more or less full next time.

The answers to the question ‘Name a living scientist’ were as few as I had been warned.  Even Craig Venter goes unnoticed.  More surprising yet, none of the students had heard of Bill Bryson.  Now there’s a different course.  Fix his ‘Short History of Nearly Everything‘ as a set text and work through it.  I wonder if that would cover most of the factual knowledge that a scientifically literate person should know.  Probably.  Must re-read the book and see.  Particularly the illustrated edition, although that seems hard to get hold of.
But to more important things.  To test the polling software, we asked for views on my shirt. The answer is here.  Interesting outcome.  My wife chose the shirt.  It is the ONLY one I have that gets comments.  I hope it has loosened the students up as much as it loosens me up.
Even more important, check the reasons the students give for not doing science degrees.  Sigh.  School teachers have a hell of a responsibility.

Computer smarts

It is four years since I taught a course requiring students to use computers for more than word processing.  That was a stats and scientific inference course to final year zoologists in Edinburgh, Scotland, which I taught for almost a decade.  The experience then was that a significant minority of the students would have trouble even loading their data into the analysis package. 

Today’s discussion with IT whiz Chris suggests young people have really come on.  He asserts that a generation raised on Facebook does not need me to treat them like computer imbeciles [I wondered if he was politely implying I was the imbecile].   Well, we should know by the end of next week.   We are building this course around three separate web-based platforms.  That would have been at least two too many when I last taught.

IT progress

Long meeting Friday with Chris Stubbs, the IT guru, about how we are going to set this up.   Much learning involved.   It will be very interesting to see if all this helps or hinders the teaching.  Am very impressed with Chris Long’s presentation on the merits of using blogs to teach.   The big question is whether this will transfer from a philosophy course to a science course.   We’ll see.   Am setting up the assessment schedule to try to force the issue.

Peer Review

Long discussion with Matt Thomas, PSU Professor of Entomology, on our road trip back from a meeting in Manhattan.  The meeting was to set up our 7-year project on malaria in India, just recently funded by NIH.  Professor Jane Carlton at NYU has done a wonderful job at setting the thing up.  But she worried today about our aim to figure out whether malaria will get better or worse in India under various climate change scenarios.  Too controversial, she asked?

She might be right.  But we decided the Indians have a right to know, and we should try to contribute what we can.  This is important, whatever the answer.
We also pondered how I should teach peer review on this course.  Peer review is a pillar of the scientific process.  But how to teach it?  Maybe I have to fall back on my own personal experiences?  I’ve certainly had some cracker referees’ comments over the years.  My favorite is the recent comment calling one of our papers morally reprehensible but recommending immediate publication.