Monthly Archives: September 2010

Stimulus overload?

Thinking back over yesterday’s class, I talked about life on other planets, the ethics of randomized control trials, cuckoos, the weaknesses of medical intuition, the hand washing-flu correlation, as well as introducing probability, while also giving feedback on the first blog post, introducing the new pop quiz, running a poll and responding to the comment wall. 

I wonder if this diversity of topics and delivery systems is distracting for the students?   Or does it suit the attention span of a generation raised on video games, internet and cable TV?

That’s an idea: banners scrolling across the bottom of my power points, and ads in sidebars.

What to call me?

My experience in New Zealand and, to my surprise the UK, got me accustomed to the idea that professors and students operate on first name terms.  That seems not to be so in the US; I find myself referring to close colleagues as Dr Cavener and Dr Marden when students are around, even though they are obviously Doug and Jim.

But what should I encourage the students on this course to call me?  I opted for Andrew – science is about ideas, not hierarchy.  I am happy to eat humble pie from anyone who knows better or has an interesting idea, no matter their pay grade.  It was a privilege to learn that from John Maynard Smith.  I did slightly worry that there might be title problems when the Dean joins the course, and I noticed that none of the students called our visiting Nobel Prize winner ‘Barry’, at least not without the ‘Marshall’ attached too (12345). Perhaps they were right in that, and I should not have been so informal.  But, hell, he is Australian.
Now I note that some of the SC200 students can deal with Andrew, but most can’t. Its Dr Read – or no name at all.  Perhaps I should never have put them in a difficult position. I dunno. I still think its best to teach the true nature of science by example.

Assessment of the 1st blog period

I finished assessing the first blog period – the first four weeks of blogging activity.  

Fourteen students were either completely absent from the blog or posted only the introductory posts.   For the remaining 56  students, the means mark was B (83.4%), made up of 3 D‘s, 11 C‘s, 36 B‘s and 6 A‘s.    Overall, I was pretty pleased that we’re achieving the main aim – a significant number of non-science students are reading, thinking and writing about science and realizing how much science impacts in their lives – and that it is interesting and  important,  and can even be fun.   Now the aim is to stretch the students further – making them think harder about what they are taking on board.  The most disappointing feature was the willingness of many students to reach conclusions based on one story, or one website.  The world is rarely that simple – especially for politically divisive issues like drugs, alcohol, abortion and genetic testing.  Or alien abduction.

Personal reactions dominated in the posts and comments, and that is great – we want lots of those.  But at least some of the contributions from each student should extend things to the outside literature and bring new data-based or theory-based arguments to bear.  A lot of things can not be deduced from personal experience (like, do we live in America’s safest city?). That is a key conclusion of the scientific enterprise: common sense, anecdote and experience are often inadequate or misleading guides to the world.

The posts varied considerably in depth of analysis.  Some were thorough, such as Pluto, Flynn, Doomsday, or thoughtfully raised new problems, like Placebo. Many failed to give more than one or two links to sources or further reading; some gave none, as if they had got the content from mars.  Minimally, some were just constructed as portals to a story somewhere else.  The worst just copy and pasted from other sites, instead of saying their own thing and then linking to those sites.  This was especially disappointing after so many had said they were put off science at school because they just had to regurgitate facts from books.  

There were some excellent comments, but these were rarer than I expected.  The good ones covered their own reactions, plus looked into the literature and took things further (e.g. 1234 and 5)

A pleasant surprise was that the writing was generally more lucid than I had been warned to expect.  Only a few students needed to be reminded that proof reading is important:  the normal rules of grammar and spelling apply in this context too.  

One interesting development for a number of students might be to further mine the seam they have already identified.  For instance, dreaming, the health implications of coffeecuckoos and animal senses.

I gave extra credit to one post – the only one that blew my socks off.  A surprising point beautifully put.  Three posts irritated me in a stimulating way (1, 2, 3), several amazed me (e.g. cockroaches) and one ended up posted on the wall of my lab (Dutch folk work with me).  A few were beautiful in a strange kind of way (1, 2, 3), and some managed to be beautiful and thought provoking at the same time (1, 2).  And a post and a comment shocked me.  

But hey, both of those shockers were posted in the blog period we are now in.  Which ends Oct 22 at Noon.  Blow us all away folks.

Evidence-based mice

Today’s class was about how the failure to use the scientific method in medicine has killed people.  An awful lot of people.  Put another way: when science gets done properly, an awful lot of lives are saved.

The only gasp I got was when I described experiments deliberately inflicting brain trauma on mice.

The Comment Wall

Computer allowing, I run a live comment wall in class.  Students can text to it in real time.  I show it to them from time to time, but mostly only I can see it. The main aim is to give them an anonymous means of asking a question if they are too nervous to put up their hands.  This element of it is working well, so far as I can tell.  I’ve also been surprised  how funny it can be, and also how much I enjoy the sense of real time reaction to what I am saying.  

Here’s a smattering of the first 250 or so comments, covering the first 5 weeks (it may take some time to load):

I do find it slightly distracting because it is often moving while I am talking to the class, and it does mean the students can be fiddling with their phones rather than paying attention to me, but I think the gains outweigh those slight disadvantages.  I also like the discipline that it imposes: I have to be more interesting than their phone.

The next pop quiz

A few weeks back, I did the first pop quiz.  Not great results.  Today the second such quiz, again a multi-choice test of interpretation/criticism of a journalists rendering of a scientific report.  Big improvement (the poll can take a while to load):

So we’re beginning to get on the same wave length.

Best after-class question yet

One of the students hung back after class today to ask how we scientists handle the balance between skepticism and coming to a conclusion about anything.   

That fine line is so hard to find and follow. Its the difference between great scientists and everyone else.  If there was a formula defining that fine line, science could be done by computers.  

Not easy

Many of the students said in their 1st first blog posts that they hated school science because it was all about memorizing facts, and that they’d chosen this class because it looked easy. 

First class test last Monday.  Class average 70%, only one A, and several fails. Students and I very disappointed.  The test was on-line, to be done in their own time in a 24 hour window. They could consult anything except each other. No facts to memorize. Having gone over the questions and the student answers, I can not see anything obviously wrong with the test. 

I could deal with the student disappointment by scaling this test up and dumbing future tests down, and several colleagues have suggested that. Certainly an easy solution. But the students deserve better – this is about skills for life. 

So I’ll go over the questions with the students, go back over the relevant bits of earlier lectures, and re-emphasize the key concepts as we work through different material in the three weeks until the next test.  The final score comes from the two best of four class tests – we’ve got three to go and can do lots of practice before then.

What is clear is that I am not getting the conceptual side of things across to many of the students.  Yet another reminder that scientific thinking is not common sense.  I suppose humanity did take thousands of years to figure it out, and most of the world still doesn’t get it.  So it probably was a bit optimistic to think I can get it across to non-scientists in a few classroom hours.  But that’s why we have tests.  We all learn from them.  Just so long as the students don’t start wishing there was a bunch of boring facts to memorize.

Medicine and evolution

Three seemingly unconnected happenings.
1.  Last night, I was at dinner for PSU’s Physician Alumni, a dinner put on by the Eberly College of Science.  Interesting how lives in medicine work out.  I got a real sense of people hungry for intellectual stimulation. 
Two things stood out.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was interested in how this course is going.  They all loved the aspiration, and immediately got the vision.  They are also very curious as to how we are trying to achieve it – and whether it is working.  I keep saying it’s too early to say….  a line that should work for at least the next few years.
The other thing was a conversation with a cancer surgeon.  We got talking because I could name the first US surgeon to successfully remove a lung*, something I learnt teaching this course.  But our conversation then meandered into evolution.  The surgeon was concerned that humans had not been around long enough to evolve into what makes us humans.  I realized after that I completely mishandled the conversation.  A problem like this needs to be better defined.  What trait(s) did he have in mind?  Everything follows from that.  We share SO much with other primates.  Lets say Homo sapiens became recognizably distinct just 100,000 years ago.  How much of what happened since is evolutionary, in the sense of genetic change? Probably not too much.  Indeed, if I had one of those first humans in my class, could I pick them out?  If they had been raised in a modern American family, I bet not.
2.  George Williams just died.  One of the first to aggressively argue that medical students and physicians need to know more evolution.  But he said even more important things.  His master peice was his 1966 book Adaptation and Natural Selection.  Oh, to think and write with even 20% of that clarity.  George, so long and thanks for all the fish.
3.  The course blog just got its first evolution post.  An impressively brave student statement.  Lets see where this discussion goes.
*The surgeon I met pointed out that for every operation there are two firsts: the first time it is attempted, and the first time the patient survives.

Smoking is good for education

I just finished two class sessions on ‘Is smoking bad for you?’.  We all know the answer, but its powerful stuff to teach to.  By 1950, literally millions of people were dying horrible deaths because the science was not being done properly.  Indeed, the way to do the science properly had not yet been invented.  A decade and a half later, all the lines of evidence we have now were in hand (to be fair, maybe the exact biological mechanisms involved were only slightly more mysterious then than they are now).  And the smoking rate in my class is 18%.

The broader implications are also profound.  It took 50-100 years to figure out a single factor with ENORMOUS health risks, and it was contentious for decades.   What hope then for public discussion on something when the effects are smaller (high fructose corn syrup?) or multi-factorial (colony collapse disorder in bees?), or where the same level of experimental data simply is not possible (climate change?).  This is a key point to deliver to the class: things go seriously awry without the scientific method; but equally, the scientific method is often incapable of delivering complete certainty – and on the way, it can be powered by and generate controversy.
Next year, I might teach the whole thing the other way around.  Could I step in front of the class and by ‘revealing’ new (ie made-up) data analogous to smoking, convince the class to stop eating ice cream?