Talking Teaching

March 12, 2014

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach

For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

February 16, 2014

presenting on plants at WCeLfest

This post was first published on my ‘other’ blog.

For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest – a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there’s always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I’m going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

My WCeLfest session was billed as a workshop, so to kick things off I explained that the attendees were going to experience being in what is effectively a ‘flipped’ class, getting the students’ perspective, and why I’d developed the class in the way that I had. (I added that feedback on that experience was welcome!) I think there was one biologist in the room, so for most of those present the things they’d be doing would be just as novel as they will be for many of my students.

First, my ‘class’ got some extra background information. If previous years are anything to go by, then about a third of the students in my first-year biology class won’t have studied the year 12 Achievement Standards related to plants1. This always poses something of a challenge as we run the ‘plants’ part of the paper first, flowers & fruit being readily available in late summer (& I doubt things would be different if we taught it later in the paper). So I’m always thinking about improved ways to bridge students into the subject without boring those who have a reasonable background in things botanical.

The first lecture looks at what plants are & why they’re important, both ecologically & in terms of human history. For the last 2-3 years I’ve used an active learning exercise, putting up a graph on changes in atmospheric oxygen over the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence and asking the students to interpret and discuss the information it shows. But, using the same graph with a different group of learners, I realised that some of my students might not even know what photosynthesis entails, which would rather destroy the purpose of that part of the class.

So this year, they’re getting homework for the night before: this video. And at WCeLfest, we watched it together.

As you’ll have seen, there are a few, very basic, questions at the end of the video, but we stopped the video before reaching the quiz & instead briefly discussed and answered each question in groups, plus there were some additional queries, which was great. The original set of questions reinforce the basic concepts & give those students who were unfamiliar with them a bit of confidence that they’re prepared for the next step.

Now, for my ‘real’ class I’ll be showing an additional, more complex video, but for this shorter session we just moved on to the data interpretation.

Again, I explained the rationale behind this part of the session. I’d decided to do this exercise with my first-year students for a couple of reasons: firstly, to break up the class and get them actively engaged in the learning process; and secondly, to give practice in the process skills needed to interpret information provided in graphical form. The question they needed to address, using their knowledge from the video and the data in the graph, was: without plants, life as we know it wouldn’t have evolved in the first place. Why not?

O2 concn over time.png

As I do in my normal classes, while the class split into groups to come up with an answer, I circulated between those groups2 in order to hear what was going on & field any additional questions. “What was the atmosphere made of before photosynthesis began?” was one, which led to a brief consideration of how the Earth formed. And I needed to explain oxidised/oxidation, as well. This was a really valuable process for me as it’s highlighted a couple of areas where I need to do a little more background work with my first-years.

A quick summary of the class discussion: the ‘oxidation’ part is important because that’s how we know when oxygen generation began – iron-rich rocks began to rust. It wasn’t until the exposed rocks had been oxidised and the ocean had become saturated with oxygen, that oxygen began to be released into the atmosphere, as evidenced by more oxidised rock. As O2 accumulated in the atmosphere, the ozone layer formed, offering protection from the sun’s UV radiation & allowing living things to move onto the land.

And we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged about.

The feedback was very positive, with several people saying that they could see how they might use the flipped classroom technique in their own teaching. It was also lovely to hear someone say that they’d got a bit worried when they realised we’d be talking science, but that they’d really enjoyed the experience and learned some new things along the way. And I’d learned ways to improve the exercise, so the enjoyment & learning were mutual

1 These are AS91155 Demonstrate understanding of adaptation of plants or animals to their way of life, and AS91156 Demonstrate understanding of life processes at the cellular level. You’ll find them here on the NZQA website.

2 In my ideal class3 there’d be an ‘aisle’ between every 2 rows of seating, to allow teachers/facilitators to move more freely among the students.

3 I can dream, can’t I?

September 23, 2013

teach creationism, undermine science

This is something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog.

Every now & then I’ve had someone say to me that there’s no harm in children hearing about ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world during their time at school, so why am I worried about creationism being delivered in the classroom? 

Well, first up, my concerns – & those of most of my colleagues – centre less on whether teaching creationism/intelligent design is bringing religion into the science classroom1, & more on how well such teaching prepares students for understanding and participating in biology in the 21st century. For example, if a school can make statements like this:

It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth. There can only be one truthful explanation for origins that means that all other explanations are wrong. Truth is truth. Biblical truth, scientific truth, mathematical truth, and historical truth are in harmony2.

and go on to list the “commonly accepted science we believe in”, then their students are not gaining any real understanding of the nature of science. And the statements regarding the science curriculum that I’ve linked to above indicate that it’s not just biology with which the school community has an issue. Physics, geology, cosmology: all have significant sections listed under “commonly accepted ‘science’ we do not believe in”3. (Did you notice the quote marks around that second mention of science?)

Science isn’t a belief system, & while people are entitled to their own opinions they are not entitled to their own facts. Any school science curriculum that picks & chooses what is taught on the basis of belief is delivering (to quote my friend David Winter) “a pathetic caricature of actual science, … undermin[ing] science as a method for understanding the world and leav[ing] the kids that learned it very poorly prepared to do biology in the 21st century.” Or indeed, to engage with pretty much any science, in terms of understanding how science is done and its relevance to our daily lives. And if we’re not concerned about that lack of science literacy, well, we should be.

 

although I do think this is a problem too.

2 with the subtext that the first ‘truth’ takes precedence.

Taken to its extreme, the belief system promoted in teaching creationism as science can result in statements such as this:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing…

…We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of miniscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

This does not look like a recipe for good environmental management to me.

 

September 20, 2013

charter schools can teach creationism after all

I first wrote about charter schools just over a year ago. At the time I was commenting on statements that such schools would be able to employ as teachers people who lacked teaching qualifications, wondering how that could sit with the Minister’s statements around achieving quality teaching practice. But I also noted concerns that charter (oops, ‘partnership’) schools could set their own curricula, as this would have the potential to expand the number of schools teaching creationism in their ‘science’ classes.

Well, now the list of the first 5 charter schools has been published: two of those schools is described (in the linked article) as intending to “emphasise Christian values in its teaching.” By itself that =/= creationism in the classroom – but yesterday Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint program (17 September 2013) reported that the school’s offerings will probably include just that.

In addition the prinicipal has reportedly said that the school will teach “Christian theory on the origin of the planet.”

And today we’re told (via RNZ)

The Education Minister has conceded there’s nothing to prevent two of New Zealand’s first charter schools teaching creationism alongside the national curriculum.

Two of the five publicly-funded private schools, Rise Up and South Auckland Middle School, have contracts that allow a Christian focus.

The minister, Hekia Parata, said on Tuesday that none of the five schools would teach creationism alongside or instead of evolutionary theory.

But on Thursday she told the House two of the schools will offer religious education alongside the curriculum.

Ms Parata did not specify how the two would be differentiated in the classroom.

South Auckland Middle School has told Radio New Zealand it plans to teach a number of theories about the origins of life, including intelligent design and evolution.

Point 1 (trivial, perhaps?): South Auckland Middle School needs to look into just what constitutes a theory in science. (Hint: a theory is a coherent explanation for a large body of facts. “A designer diddit” does not remotely approach that.)

Point 2 (not trivial at all): Why do people responsible for leading education in this country think it acceptable for students to learn nonscience in ‘science’ classes? After all, the Prime Minister has commented on “the importance of science to this country.” Evolution underpins all of modern biology so how, exactly, does actively misinforming students about this core concept prepare those who want to work in biology later? Nor does teaching pseudoscience sit well with the increased emphasis on ‘nature of science’ in the NZ Curriculum.

This is really, really disappointing. We already have ‘special character’ schools which teach creationism in their classrooms (see herehere and here, for example). It’s irking in the extreme that state funding will be used to support the same in the new charter schools.

October 1, 2012

how do kids learn about dna?

My significant other is forever telling me that Facebook is a total time-waster. Sometimes I do tend to agree – but also, one can Find Out Stuff! Like the study I’ve just heard about via Science Alert, on how children get information about genetics and DNA – things we might regard as being in the ‘too hard’ basket & so best left for senior high school students to grapple with. That grappling begins in year 11, when one of the NCEA Level 1 Science standards asks that students be able to “demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation”.

Is that too late? Jenny Donovan and Grady Venville suggest that it is, arguing that with the rapid growth of knowledge in and applications of molecular biology,

[citizens] of the future will be called upon to make more decisions, from personal to political, regarding the impact of genetics on society. ‘Designer babies'; gene therapy; genetic modification; cloning, and the potential access to and use of personal genetic information are all complex and multifactorial issues. All raise ethical and scientific dilemmas.

They give the example of jury trials, where jurors may hear quite complex information about DNA and be asked to consider this in coming to a verdict, and note that people may have acquired a range of misconceptions around DNA from sources such as the popular program CSI and its various spin-offs.

Children, for example, have a lot of opportunity to hear about genes, DNA, & their uses well before we start formally teaching these concepts at school. Donovan and Venville already knew (from their own previous research) that by the end of their primary schooling many students were already developing misconceptions about genetics; for example, the idea that ‘genes and DNA are two totally separate entities.’ This time, they wanted to examine the impact of the mass media on children’s conceptions (& misconceptions) around this subject. The misconceptions part is particularly important because misconceptions, once formed, can be extremely persistent – affecting learning into the tertiary years.

Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires about media use, the researchers found that their subjects (children aged 10-12) spent around 5 hours a day using various media (TV, radio, print media, movies, & the internet), with most of that being watching television. This included crime shows, and the children felt that they gained most of their ‘knowledge’ of genetics from TV. Donovan & Venville chose to question children from this age group because, with falling numbers of Australian students taking science subjects in upper secondary school, ‘exposure to genetics may be their sole opportunity to develop scientific literacy in this field’ – where ‘scientific literacy’ encompasses literacy both within and about science.

So, what did they find out?

Most children (89%) knew [about] DNA, 60% knew [about] genes, and more was known about uses of DNA outside the body such as crime solving or resolving family relationships than about its biological nature or function. Half believed DNA is only in blood and body parts used for forensics.

Very few – only 6% – knew that DNA and genes were structurally related. Around 50% of the children surveyed felt that DNA & genes are found in only some tissues & organs. (I was half expecting them to say that DNA is found only in genetically-modified organisms – with GMOs in and out of the news, it’s odd that this didn’t come up.) And 80% of them felt that TV was ‘the most frequent source of information about genetics (with teachers confirming that the subject hadn’t been taught at school). As a result of these findings, Donovan & Venville argue very strongly that instruction in genetics should take place much earlier in students’ time in school, noting that other researchers suggest that

giving students opportunities to revisit science ideas and build deeper understanding over time, enables them to grasp and apply concepts that typically are not fully understood until several years later… [and that] students need to be exposed to background knowledge from early ages in order for them to make sense of what they absorb from the world around them.

So, if kids are going to watch programs like NCIS, CSI, and Bones on a regular basis, then maybe early teaching around genetics concepts could use

lively discussions around what they have seen and heard about genetics in the mass media [as this] may ultimately help children to make informed decisions in their future lives.

An interesting suggestion – and one which reinforces yet again how important proper resourcing and support of science teaching are, if we are to develop real literacy in and about science.

J.Donovan & G.Venville (2012) Blood and bones: the influence of the mass media on Australian primary school children’s understandings of genes and DNA. Science & Education (published online 23 June 2012, doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9491-3

July 2, 2012

more on active learning in the biology classroom

At the moment I’m up in Auckland at Scicon (the national secondary science teachers’ conference. There’ve been some great presentations, including a lovely on on bioluminescence by fellow sciblogger Siouxsie Wiles (did you know that our very own NZ glow worms mate for hours & then die of exhaustion? Or that 4500 people die oftuberculosis every day? Yes, there really is a link to bioluminescence there.). I gave mine this morning & could then focus on enjoying everything else that’s going on.

My talk was about the ‘flip teaching’ idea that I wasintroduced to by Kevin Gould, &  which I’ve written about previously. Actually it wasn’t really a talk, as I simply gave a bit of background & a summary of some of the recent research, & then asked participants to do the activity themselves. At which point everyone got involved & the chatter started – & it was hard to get them to stop at the end! But we managed a show-&-tell & some great discussion before our time was up.

One of the things people really picked up on was something I really hadn’t thought much about: using it to underpin development of students’ writing skills. That’s in addition to conceptualising, discussing & drawing their organism: there are also things like annotating that diagram,  & writing descriptive paragraphs about the various ideas they’ve used. Really integrated learning!

And there’s also the issue of creativity – exercises like this are an excellent way to show students that science can be creative, & that this creative side is an important part of ‘doing’. science :-)

June 26, 2012

writing rubrics shouldn’t be an imposition

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:00 am

I had an interesting conversation with a couple of colleagues yesterday, concerning the value of rubrics. I write them routinely (must be my background as an examiner at the national level), but my friends really didn’t seem to see the point. ‘You just get a feel for what’s a good essay & a bad one,’ they said, ‘and anyway we don’t have time to write a whole bunch of model answers; it’s quicker just to get in there & start marking. Besides, you can never include every possible answer. ‘ ‘And,’ they said – we were talking about rubrics for someone else to use in marking – ‘it’s far more consistent just to do it all yourself.’

I do agree that some essays spring out as being absolutely wonderful (the very first exam script I marked yesterday was a case in point: a beautifully-constructed answer to a ‘design-a-plant’ question) while occasionally you’ll also come across one that makes you feel like banging your head on the desk. But how can you be sure that you’re treating them consistently? After all, with a big class you’ll likely be marking exam scripts for several days, & your concentration & energy levels are going to vary over that time! Constructing a marking rubric before beginning the marking task will help with that.

It doesn’t have to take a heap of time either, because a rubric is most definitely not a detailed model answer. (I’ve copy-pasted one of my own from last year’s ‘cellular & molecular biology’ final exam – itself adapted from an earlier Schol Bio exam – at the bottom of this post **.) The ones I use identify the key concepts/ideas that I’m looking for, plus usually a non-exclusive list of possible examples, & the mark weighting. I’ll often change them when I’m actually doing the marking, if students are writing good answers that include options I hadn’t considered (yes, it happens!). If my team’s marking term essays, then such changes are made in consultation – something that helps ensure consistency across markers. Moderation helps there, too – check-marking a couple of papers from each of the top, middle, & bottom cohorts will quickly show if another team member’s marking is consistent with mine.

And that ability to ensure consistency is important – not only so that students can be sure that their work has been marked fairly and well, but also so that if an individual’s marking is ever questioned (let’s say, for example, that a student’s not happy with their final grade & opts for a re-mark of their year’s work), then the rubrics can be made available to a new marker to use.

I should add that, when I set the term essay questions (which I really must do Very Soon Indeed), I write the rubrics at the same time & both are available to students from the beginning of the semester.You might ask, why? And I’d say, why not? Having a good rubric to hand helps the students in so many ways, in terms of learning how to structure an essay & an argument, & also in learning some of those key critical thinking skills: they need to assess the information they’re gathering & decide what’s relevant & what’s not, & how to pull it all together. The last thing I want to be reading is a series of brain dumps, where a student’s simply written everything they know in a rather incoherent manner. Nor do I have time to help each individual student who does that sort of thing – & we used to see quite a few, before I started using rubrics in this way. Providing a marking scheme in advance saves both parties time & helps the students acquire some desirable skills. (The old adage about leading horses to water still applies, alas!)

I hasten to add that the essay rubrics don’t include information on content in the way that an exam marking rubric does! I’ve added an essay example below as well ***, so you can compare the two :-)

 

**Final exam question & rubric

Mammoths are closely related genetically to African elephants and similar to them in body mass. Although mammoths became extinct around 20,000 years ago, a number of individuals have been found frozen in the Arctic permafrost. Some scientists believe that it is technically possible to clone mammoths from cells in these frozen bodies, thus ‘bringing mammoths back to life’ and producing a self-sustaining wild population.

Describe how this cloning could be done – including identifying a likely species to provide surrogate mothers – and discuss the genetic and evolutionary issues associated with such work. You could consider the impact of genetic drift, inbreeding and inbreeding depression on such a population of mammoths, and their long-term prospects for survival.

Describe how cloning could be done:

  • Basic description of method (3 mks)
  • Identifies African elephant as likely surrogate (1 mk)
  • Explains reason for this choice (2 mks)
6
Genetic drift

  • Gives definition (2)
  • Describes impact on population gene pool (2)
4
Inbreeding

  • Gives definition (2)
  • Describes impact on population gene pool (2)
4
Inbreeding depression

  • Gives definition
2
For all three of the above,

  • Discusses impact on population’s prospects for long-term survival from a genetic perspective. Could include eg effects of decline in heterozygosity, decreased ability to respond to evolution of pathogens/parasites, decreased fecundity
4

***Term essay question & rubric

On the basis of fossil remains, Neanderthals are viewed as a sister species to Homo sapiens. Now new data from molecular biology are changing our understanding of human evolution.

Discuss the validity of the biological species concept in the light of recent molecular data from sapiens, neandertalensis, and the Denisova hominins.

 

Introduction – should include a definition of the biological species concept, and the nature of ‘sister species’.

/4

Briefly explain why Neandertals and modern humans have previously been viewed as sister species.

How does this relate to the ‘out-of-Africa’ hypothesis for modern human origins?

 

/3

/2

/5

Outline the results of comparing neandertalensis and sapiens genomes, and the implications of these results.

 

What is the significance of the Denisova remains? (This should refer to the DNA analyses and their results.)

/3

/2

/5

How well does the biological species concept apply to Neandertals and modern humans, in the light of these findings? What are the implications for the ‘out-of-Africa’ hypothesis?

/6

Mark for content of essay

/20


April 2, 2012

in the lecture theatre – but definitely not giving a lecture!

Today’s class was a real experiment for me, & although I try lots of different things in my classes, it was also a step outside my normal comfort zone. (But hey! life would be a bit boring if we always stayed safely inside that zone!) Why? Because I put into practice an idea I stole from my friend & colleague Kevin Gould (who also very kindly let me use the resources he’d developed): today was ‘design-a-plant’ day, & probably to anyone looking into the lecture theatre during the first 30 minutes or so it would have looked as if chaos definitely ruled.

Last Friday I gave everyone an information sheet: descriptions of the features of leaf, stem & root that you might see in plants adapted to different environments. Today I trotted off to the lecture room with a box full of overhead transparency sheets, overhead pens, & printed scenarios (descriptions of a particular environment). The lecture theatre was already full – everyone had come ahead of time! This definitely wasn’t usual (it’s not that they normally trickle in late, but we’re talking seriously early) – obviously they were expecting something special. Gulp.

So I put up these slides:

then once they’d sorted out their groups I dished out pens, transparencies, scenario sheets (& copies of the info sheet for those who’d forgotten them), & away we went on a mutual journey of discovery. After all, this wasn’t my idea & I had no idea how it would really work out.

Well! The class erupted into happy, productive noise. I know it was productive because while they talked, argued, explained & persuaded, I circulated, listened in, & answered the occasional question. Those with computers had them open – looking up information related to their scenario. (Next time someone asks a question that I can’t answer on the spot, I’m jolly well going to get someone else to google it for me!) They drew, & altered their drawings, & drew some more. The original 20 minutes stretched towards 30, & still they were focused on what they were doing. I was almost sorry to interrupt :-)

Then, I called for volunteers. A hand went up almost immediately, & its owner came down to the overhead projector, not looking too nervous. She picked up the microphone, described her group’s scenario, & showed – & explained – their response. The next speakers followed just as quickly, and each speaker received a round of applause as they finished.

But the proof’s in the pudding – just what sort of plant had they designed? Well, they didn’t necessarily look like plants that my botanical colleagues could have put a name to, but nonetheless, the explanations each group gave for their particular design were sound, & science-based. They’d obviously taken on board not only the info on that fact sheet, but also the material we’d been looking at in lectures & that they’d found on line. And they’d had fun doing it. (I particularly liked the Nepalese Death Vine – the eerie noise of the wind passing through its herbivore-deterring spines apparently puts the locals off harvesting it, lol – and the Serengeti ‘cactus’ that traps water in basin-like leaves, but when there’s a fire the plant’s transpirative water loss is such that its tissues become flaccid and it wilts, spilling that water onto the ground where the dampness keeps the worst of the fire at bay.) Plus – so far, the feedback for this exercise on our Moodle page is all positive: students felt it definitely helped their learning about plants.

Thanks, Kevin – your design-a-plant lesson got an A+ from all of us today!

March 26, 2012

‘scientists anonymous’ write to me about ‘programming of life’

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , — alison @ 2:25 pm

In some ways this is quite a way off from what I usually write for this particular blog (it’s from my Bioblog). I’ve republished it here because it’s something that I do want to get out to science educators – especially biology educators – as widely as I can.

I’ve written about the group who call themselves ‘Scientists Anonymous (NZ)’ before, in the context of determining the reliability of sources. At the time, I commented that I would have a little more confidence about the information this group was putting out there if the people involved were actually identified – as it is, they are simply asking us to accept an argument from (anonymous) authoriry. (I was rather surprised to actually receive a response to that post, albeit its authors remained anonymous.) Anyway, this popped up in my inbox the other day, and was subsequently sent to me by several colleagues in secondary schools:

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department

Please find a link to the critically acclaimed resource (http://programmingoflife.com/watch-the-video) dealing with the nature of science across disciplines/strands.

Interesting to see an attempt to link it into the current NZ Science curriculum with its focus on teaching the nature of science.

 PROGRAMMING OF LIFE

  • The reality of computer hardware and software in life
  • The probabilities of a self-replicating cell and a properly folded protein
  • Low probability and operational impossibility
  • The need for choice contingency of functional information

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely

Scientists Anonymous (NZ)

So, I have been to the website. I intend to watch the video tonight (from a comfy chair), but the website itself raises enough concerns, so I’ll look at some of them briefly here. And I’ll also comment – if they really are ‘doing science’, then it’s not going to be enough to simply produce a list of ‘examples’ of the supposed work of a design entity (because that’s what all the computing imagery is intended to convey) & say, see, evolution’s wrong. That would be an example of a false dichotomy, & not scientific at all. They also need to provide an explanation of how their version of reality might come to be.

Its blurb describes the video as follows:

Programming of Life is a 45-minute documentary created to engage our scientific community in order to encourage forward thinking. It looks into scientific theories “scientifically”. It examines the heavy weight [sic] theory of origins, the chemical and biological theory of evolution, and asks the extremely difficult questions in order to reveal undirected natural process for what it is – a hindrance to true science.

The words ‘undirected natural process’ immediately suggest that this is a resource intended to promote a creationist world-view. I would also ask: if the documentary is created to ‘engage our scientific community’, then why did Scientists Anonymous send it to secondary school teachers in biology and not to universities & CRIs across the country? The blurb goes on:

This video and the book it was inspired by (Programming of Life) is about science and it is our hope that it will be evaluated based on scientific principals [sic] and not philosophical beliefs.

Unfortunate, then, that they wear their own philosophical beliefs so clearly: ‘undirected natural process’ as a ‘hindrance to true science’.

As well as linking to the trailer for the video, & the full video itself, the Programming for Life website also presents a bunch of ‘tasters’. One of these is the now rather hoary example of the bacterial flagellum (irreducible complextiy, anyone?) The website describes ‘the’** flagellum thusly:

The bacterial flagellum is a motor-propeller organelle, “a microscopic rotary engine that contains parts known from human technology such as a rotor, a stator, a propellor, a u-joint and an engine yet it functions at a level of complexity that dwarfs any motor that we could produce today. Some scientists view the bacterial flagellum as one of the best known examples of an irreducibly complex system. This is a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts manufactured from over 40 proteins that contribute to basic function, where the removal of any one of those parts causes the entire system to fail.

** As noted on my link for this example, there is no such thing as “the” bacterial flagellum as the sole means of bacterial locomotion: different prokaryotes get around in different ways. Nor is the flagellum a case of design; its evolutionary history has been quite well explained. The lack of quote closure (& of citation) is in the original.

 Mitochondria have their own executable DNA programs built in to accomplish their tasks.

Well, yes, & no. Several key mitochondrial genes are actually found in the cell’s nucleus – something that allows the cell to control some aspects of mitochondrial functioning (& incidentally prevents the mitochondria from leaving!). There’s a good review article here. That the number of nuclear-based mitochondrial genes differs between taxa is a good argument for evolution; for design – not so much.

Much like the firewall software on your computer the membrane contains protein gate keepers allowing only those components into the cell that belong and rejects all other components. The membrane is thinner than a spider’s web and must function precisely or the cell will die.

Well, d’oh – except when it doesn’t. Viruses, and poisons that interrupt cellular metabolism, get in just fine. They really are pushing the boundary with this computer metaphor.

The human eye is presented as an amazingly complex ‘machine’ – yet we have a good explanation for how that complexity evolved. And more telling (but omitted from this presentation): the eye’s structure isn’t perfect – it’s a good demonstration of how evolution works with what’s available,but hardly an argument for the wonders of directed design. The same can be said for the human skeleton, which is also in the taster selection, along with the nucleus, DNA, & ribosomes (which come with more, lots more, of the computer software imagery).

As I said earlier, if this video is not simply another example of the use of false dichotomy to ‘disprove’ a point of view with which its authors disagree, it had better provide more than metaphor. That is, I’ll be looking for a strong, evidence-based, cohesive, mechanism by which these various complex features sprang into being. Otherwise, we’re not really talking ‘nature of science’ at all.

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I was going to stop there (for now) but then I noticed the ‘Investigate the facts’ heading. It links to a list of various papers & articles that supposedly support the ‘design’ hypothesis. Richard Dawkins’ name caught my eye – he’s there for writing that

Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.

I had a couple of thoughts; a) metaphor is a wonderful thing, & b) Dawkins is a biologist & science communicator, but not necessarily big on programming. (If I am inadvertently doing him a disservice, I apologise!). Someone else had the same thoughts.

March 10, 2012

a map for ‘basic biology bits’

Students in my first-year bio class have quite varied backgrounds in terms of their prior learning in biology. I’ve had a little survey running on our Moodle page in the lead-up to beginning to discuss plants: roughly 1/4 of them didn’t take year 12 (6th form) bio; 1/4 did, but didn’t study plants; and most of the rest both studied year 12 biology and learned about plants. (For readers outside of NZ, year 13 is the final year of high school.) This is going to make teaching about plants – which occupies not quite half of the paper, quite ‘interesting’. It also means, of course, that 25% of the class don’t have any formal leaning in biology as a separate subject at all: something that my colleagues & I need to keep in the back of our minds in our teaching.

And of course, even those who report having studied something in school may not actually remember it in any meaningful way, in the sense of having accurate conceptions about the topic. However,  the misconceptions that they may have in lieu can make expanding & correcting their understanding quite tricky. For this reason, a few years ago I began starting the new semester with a class called ‘Basic Biology Bits’ – pop quizzes & discussion around a few key ideas that many students appeared to be having trouble with. Feedback from the class was positive, so I’ve kept that in the curriculum.

However, having read & blogged about visual curricula, I realised that just dishing out a set of apparently unrelated concepts probably didn’t make a lot of sense to the students, even if they were gaining an enhanced understanding of the concepts in isolation. So now I have a little map to show them where we’re heading, & I thought I’d share that here (since my last post seems to have attracted so much interest, lol).

We started off with an idea that everyone agreed with – that living things are made of cells. Cells are very small, & I wanted them to think about why this might be:

This gave the opportunity to talk about just how ‘small’ is small & to introduce the units of measurement (micrometres) that they’ll be using with their microscope work in the lab. I find a lot of bio students tend to be quite maths-phobic & a little gentle intro to these units & also to the idea of converting between them will hopefully be useful when they come to work out the size of the things they’re seeing down the microscope. And the ‘why’ question meant that we could talk about diffusion & osmosis & why multicellular organisms need some sort of transport system.

We’d talked a bit about plants being autotrophs in a previous class, but I wanted to give a heads-up that they’d be learning more about photosynthesis in another paper. Turned out not all of them were familiar with writing or interpreting a chemical equation, so showing

CO2 + H2O + light energy –> C6H12O6 + O2

was quite useful as a means of signalling that they’d need to become familiar with the basics of chemical formulae. (Also, it turned out during the body of the lecture that I’d got a mistake on the relevant slide. Someone was brave enough to point this out, & I thanked him & took the time to say that this was good; students shouldn’t be afraid of asking if they think someone’s made a mistake, just as it’s important to ask if they don’t understand something.)

A few years back I was rather taken aback to discover a particularly common misconception among our first-year bio students: the idea that plants photosynthesise, but don’t respire. Ever since I’ve taken the time to point out that all living cells respire, albeit not necessarily aerobically. I use a couple of pop quizzes on the processes that cells might need energy to carry out. And we also talk about ATP as a carrier of energy – and why cells might need such carriers.

(Don’t know how I managed to include that line just above!) It’s interesting to think about respiration & photosynthesis in terms of the carbon cycle, something that we’ll be considering in more depth towards the end of the semester.

 And finally, reminding them of the role of DNA in controlling all these goings-on. (That 25% of the class who didn’t study biology at the senior high-school level are going to need a lot of help in this area!) When we looked briefly at mitochondria & chloroplasts I noted that both organelles have their own loops of DNA – & asked why some mitochondrial genes are located in the nucleus & not in the mitochondria at all. A very interesting discussion ensued.

Teaching like this is probably more work, in some ways, than a traditional lecture. It certainly can demand more of the lecturer. But I firmly believe it provides a much better learning experience for the students! The thing is, you just need to signal what you’re going to do from the start – and explain why. “I’m going to be teaching in this way because science education research clearly shows that it significantly enhances learning outcomes for students.” That way, we’re all in the same boat & paddling in the same direction :-)

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