Monthly Archives: August 2016


Frustrated with on-going problems with the blog software and in need of a pick-me up, I decided to total up the number of students who have enrolled in SC200 in the seven times I’ve offered it. I thought it must be getting close to 1,000. Turned out to be just over 1,400.

My accent: the verdict

I use the following poll to teach the students the Poll Everywhere technology.
Picture1I have asked this question of every class since 2011. I see that today’s class has the lowest ever proportion — by far — for answer C. I like this class.

(I suppose the other explanation is that my accent has Americanized)

Day 1: the impression

Hands raised in classroom

What we like to see

I am always amazed by just how energetic the class seems at the start. I thought the class was pretty responsive; lots of hands up when I asked questions, a really good sign at the beginning. I got across most of what I wanted (not classroom etiquette, which I want to do properly on Thursday). I hope I got across that this course is different from anything they’ve had before and, if they like to cram, regurgitate and want an easy A, they should go find another course. Each year I feel that more strongly. I’d prefer to teach 20 who are receptive to my way than 350 who play on their phones and moan when they don’t get an A. I implore those students: please quit my class now. There’s a wait list. Give other students a shot if you don’t want it.

My only worry was that I could already hear the whispering. The acoustics in the room are awesome. Trouble a-brewing I bet. Maybe my classroom etiquette session on Thursday will deal with it. Plan B is to randomly allocate the students to seats (thereby splitting up the perpetrators). Thursday, I’ll raise that prospect and get a vote on it, and then maybe votes later in the year if the problem grows. It should be possible to re-randomize once a month. Might be good for all of us.

Day 1: the questions

Each year, I ask students to tell me what they think is the most important and the most interesting question in science. I use it to shape what we do in class. This year, I got more diverse answers than ever, perhaps because I did it as a think-pair-square-share exercise and then used the hand of god (a random number generator) to call on students.

This is what the hand of god looked like:
hand of godA good teachable moment on what random looks like (it never looks random – note the complete absence of hits in the left hand portion). I will get back to the issue of the predictability of random later in the semester.

And these are the answers we got:

Most important scientific questions of the age:

  • How can we prevent climate change?
  • Why can’t we cure cancer? Why can’t we cure diseases?
  • What happens when resources run out?
  • How did humans come to be?
  • How many animals on earth?
  • What is deep space? What are black holes?
  • Nature or Nurture?
  • How can we regenerate cells, limbs?
  • How can we predict natural disasters earlier?

Most interesting scientific questions of the age:

  • Is flossing important?
  • What is life like on other planets?
  • What are the causes of mental illness?
  • How can we better use our minds?
  • Is it possible to reach a peak level of immunity?
  • Was the land covered by the sea?
  • Is the globe warming and is it due to humans?
  • Why do different people react differently in different situations?
  • Where does evil come from?
  • Will humans evolve in the future?
  • How can we use genetic engineering to benefit us all?

Class: please email any questions that you want to add to this list.

And Class of 2016: we're off

Today is Day 1 of semester, 112 days until the final exam goes live. Tomorrow, the first SC200 class. This year, 357 students…

Picture1I’ve now got the syllabus and schedule sorted out. Everything flows from the syllabus, in particular the grading algorithm and everything that goes with that. I’ve made changes in a couple of areas to try to encourage better time management and reach zero plagiarism. The changes come from discussion with other Gen Ed STEM colleagues. A group of us have been meeting about once a month since last fall (organised by the ever-enthusiastic Julia Kregnow — with me cheering her along). I’ve found it really good therapy, as well as an super time-efficient way to disseminate best practice among experienced colleagues. I am not sure why these self-help/self-improvement groups are so rare. Our discussions have impacted almost everything I plan to do this year. Time will tell whether those changes generate learning gains and greater peace for me, but if I get even one less case of plagiarism this year, I’ll be ahead time-wise. And our discussion have made me think a lot more about how students learn, how teachers teach, and the responsibilities of a course like this. I hope to find time to blog on these issues over the coming weeks. For now, time to prepare the first class of the year — and get the student blog working (changes yet again in the underlying software – just when we finally got a fix for last years changes. Sigh).