Monthly Archives: September 2011

The 1st blog period

Thumbnail image for blog keypad.jpgOne my aims is to persuade the students that humans have a lousy ability to judge how the world really is. Beliefs, impressions and intuitions are often wrong. Science is a way to do better. Erroneous impression detection correction (as it were) usually starts with systematic data collection.

Even though I know this, I am constantly amazed by the importance of proper data. As the first blog period unfolded, I was impressed by what the students were posting. But now that I have systematically marked it all, I discover this impression was generated by the work of a few actively engaged students (joy).  The majority weren’t engaged (the undead?).
Fails: 30 students, 10 of whom did nothing and 20 did not break a sweat. 
Passes: D (did something good, but not nearly enough), 10; C, 5; C+, 5; B-, 7; B, 13, B+, 16; and A-, 9. I was pretty generous with some of the C’s and low B’s. I used 81% (B-) as a break point: those who did enough, however shallow, got above that. Those who did less than required but did something well got above that too. But to get a B+ or A required good to excellent frequency of participation, and some great entries and comments.
Some entries really were excellent.  For example, robot intelligence, the power of playboy bunnies, sound, empathy, and Americans fake data, as well as those I mention below.  Most of the participating students did a good job on making their posts attractive with good use of images, humor, juxtapositions and snappy titles. There were also some excellent comments (e.g. immortal robots, reverse SAD, spongebob, grades versus learning, sexy male voices, sneezing, video games bad, and science and theology). Most of the students with excellent blog entries were let down by the standard of their comments. As TA Suzanne says in her excellent guide ‘How to score well on comments‘, this is not Facebook.  

How to get an A on the blog?  (1) Pay attention to the rubric in the syllabus. That’s what I’m marking off.  (2) Make sure you hit excellent on every criteria in the rubric. Participating enough is important; so too is producing excellent entries AND comments. (3) Check out the examples of good practice, including the examples I give above and below, as well as herehere and here.  (4) Work towards a portfolio of excellent work. TA Cally has some great advice on how to choose topics. A portfolio worth an A+ would likely cover a range of entries, such as gee-whizz stuff (e.g. honeyguides, circle of death, planetary diamonds), a reaction to yourself or an experience (e.g. depression), some compare-and-contrast (e.g. pain in the unborn), science and the arts (e.g. Dr Who), or important discoveries and their implications (e.g. dark matter). It might be that you don’t want to cover that sort of diversity – that’s fine, but pick topics and material that allow you to tick the “conceptually sophisticated, engaged in a substantive way with the material” and “draw upon the material to make creative and substantive points that extend beyond the material” boxes in the rubric. Controversial topics (e.g. animal testing, the Bermuda Triangle) are very welcome, but for a good mark, consider more than one point of view. 
But most important, blog.  Like life, inaction leads to failure.

Nano condoms

Yesterday, our first guest instructor, Mary Beth Williams, talked about nanotechnology.  She’s a chilli hot chemistry prof, and excellent for the students: like me, most of them have yet to recover from their chemistry ‘education’. Two comments came up on the comment wall which Mary Beth did not get time to answer.  She does now:

1. Would people try to become God by spontaneously creating things with nano tech?
This is an enormously complex question because I think at the heart of it you are asking about scientific ethics. However no scientist can spontaneously create life. But do scientists, in general, create things that have the potential to impact living things around them? Yes. They make drugs that save lives, modify plants so that they grow in droughts, and discover how DNA encodes age with telomeres. Scientists, like everyone, have to make decisions about the ethical and moral implications of their work; in the context of scientific research, it is the potential outcomes and use of research – good and bad – that is the subject of these decisions and dilemmas.  Moral and ethical decision making in science could be the subject of another course altogether….

2.  If we drink the gold stuff [your nano solution] will we start laying golden eggs?  or would we just have sparkly poop?
Well, we all know that what goes in must come out….one way or the other, although I doubt anyone in the room actually lays eggs of any sort.  But if you were to drink the nanogold solution, remember that it’s red, not sparkly, and it would be a very, very small amount so it would not be worth it to pan for gold.

Also a hit with the class was the notion of nano-condoms.  It’s amazing where nano particles are going.  One of the students asked Mary Beth whether she would recommend them over Trojan.  Nothing is sacred in my class.


Question Mark.jpgI love it.

Absolutely brilliant revision session today.  I had forgotten how much I enjoy small group teaching. You can stare into the whites of the student eyes and see if they get it. Really get it. And the students that come to revision sessions are SOOO motivated.  They are the students that deserve the huge financial subsidies their families and their futures make for their education.

For example:-
One of them got really bolshie.  “I hate these sort of questions: value judgments.” Oh yes.  Yes, yes, yes.  Now we are seriously getting somewhere.  You see something in the media about how to change your life?  You have to make judgments.  I challenge you to think rationally.  Fantastic.  And arguing back?  Doubly fantastic.
Another, the distinction between the null and the alternative hypothesis.  At one level, so simple but actually very hard at another.  Whatever, central to what we scientists sell to the public.  Best though: he asked.
And then, when I asked about the Does Prayer Heal? paper we have been discussing:  “I already get the prayer thing.  My husband prayed for a good job, and then he got one.”  Fantastic teaching moment.  The like of which I never got in Scotland.

Zombie students?

There is something wrong with the students in this year’s class.  Or me.

First, by their own admission, only two have talked with anybody about the Monty Hall problem.

wrnkly fingers.jpg

Second, prompted by one of the Otago Zoology Class of ’84, I talked about a recent paper on why fingers and toes wrinkle in the bath tub.  [Wrinkling may be a controlled shift from dry-weather to wet-weather tire tread.  No kidding.]  I tested the story on my kids, my wife, and my graduate students, all of whom thought it a cool yarn.  But when I finish telling the class, they are just sitting there, no reaction. I wait.  Nothing happens. Zip. Nada. So I say, Was that cool? Nothing. Really, you don’t find that cool? More nothingness. On my way back to the podium, I get steamed up. OK, which of you found that cool? Hands up NOW. About half of them put their hands up. 

Third, worrying that Monty Hall and wrinkles were for nerds only, I rearranged my running order and bumped up ‘Does prayer heal?’. Last year, that topic caused a near riot. This year, a few questions.

bored-students-1wbwds9.jpgSo, what gives? Maybe this stuff is uninteresting, in which case I am the wrong guy for this job. But an even worse hypothesis is that last year’s class were mostly freshmen, while this year’s class are mostly old timers. Is it possible that experienced students are less emotional, even world weary and cynical? The undead? Might be me soon.

First class test

Brad and Angie.jpgAll up, 28 multiple choice questions covering the course so far and critical interpretation of a media report (this one: how to be alluring by tilting your head).  My tests are live on-line for 24 hours, the students can take as long as they want in that window, take the test twice, and consult anything except each other…

monroe_1768780c.jpgMuch to my surprise, and in complete contrast to last year (1, 2), the class did really well overall.  Incredibly, three students got all questions right, never before achieved on any of my tests. Ever. The average mark was 83% (a low B), but the median (and mode) was an A.  Over half the class (53 students) got an A.  The rest: B, 27; C, 3; D, 4; Fail, 13, including 5 no shows. The only part of the test done consistently poorly was the part testing why good experiments give much stronger inference than is otherwise possible. I can easily teach that better.

princess-diana.jpgSo, bottom line, train smash avoided: 3/4 of the students are on track. The key challenge now is to get the remaining 1/4 there as well – while also stretching the majority.  Mmmmm

And why did the class do SO much better than last year?  The blogging standard this year seems higher too. Hard to imagine my teaching is substantially better (indeed, in class the students seem less responsive). I am using the same material, presenting it the same way, and the test questions were much the same. There are more older students this year.  Is that it?

The Full Monty


Today I gave the class the Monty Hall problem.  I like it because most people choose the wrong solution and it is extremely hard to explain the right solution without mathematics (ie the toolkit of science). The verbal explanations are somehow so unsatisfactory. Try this nonsense for example, which is technically correct Hollywood gibberish [mind you, Kevin Spacey does define professor cool].

The reaction of one of my PhD students when I told her what I was going to do: 

Oh my God, you’re not going to Monty Hall them! 

Do you have any idea the emotion that will generate? Paul Erdos didn’t get this problem and was vitriolically angry about it until it finally clicked. My husband and I nearly got divorced over it (he didn’t mention that Monty knows what’s behind the doors and will always choose to reveal a goat, then he refused to believe that those conditions mattered). You’re in a country where people may be armed… ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE????? 

which, when I explained I escaped alive, was followed by:

.…but were they genuinely not worked up about it? It made me blindingly angry, and when I brought this up once at a party as an amusing story, the point being how funny it was that this maths problem produced such passion, two people at the party almost came to blows about it. These were neighbours, not maths geeks. Also really annoyed husband’s brother, husband’s best friend…..  so what the hell is wrong with your Penn State students? Are they dead?

Well no, but I could not decide what the students made of it. Is it just too weird to wrap your head around a pointless problem that is (by the professor’s own admission) very hard to wrap your head around?  Next class I’ll discuss why it is so hard for people to wrap their head around it.  Shame no one understands that either.  At least there are some hypotheses.

Initial blog posts (the first grades)

The first assessment is done.  To teach the students the blog software, the first assignment is a post (with image + live link) and a comment (with live link).  In the posts, each student has to explain why they are not science majors and why they are doing this course.  

Almost all the students are doing the course because they need the GenEd Natural Science credits (memo to self: never forget they are a captive audience).  And most aren’t science majors because of their experience of science at school.  Tragic.  The philosophy of K-12 science teaching needs a serious rethink.  Science classes for geeks, and then broad-minded science classes for everyone else (the majority)?  We need to actually educate kids, not turn them off.
Most students did the posts and comments well (the most common problem being failure to do live links in all the right places).  So the majority of the class is running an A average right now.  The first class test should fix that.
I love this introductory task.  I learn so much about the students.  I laughed a lot, contemplated a bit and occasionally got sad.  I also developed a real sense of responsibility. This is likely to be the last science they do, and some are so optimistic about what I can deliver.  I marked the assignment listening to Adele – someone the student posts introduced me to. My 16-year old son hates it: “Chick music Dad”. I fired back with two ‘chick’ videos the students led me to (1, 2) which even my son found thought provoking. Thanks Deaven and Nadine.  Go girl.