Talking Teaching

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part - the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

May 23, 2014

some more thoughts on facebook & student engagement

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 9:58 pm

After I wrote my last post, on using course-related Facebook pages to help enhance student engagement, I thought I’d see what students thought about the issue. So I shared a link to the post on the FB page run by our biology students, and asked what members had to say. I also mentioned the idea in class, and discussed it with a colleague (we were originally talking about student management systems, but it was one of those wide-ranging chats that grows and grows…).

Somewhat to my surprise – although I guess I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought – there are a lot of FB pages out there with links to various papers and programs. (Our registrar set one up with several friends, when they were working on a group project for a postgraduate paper, as a means of sharing ideas and working on problems.) The students tell me that they found the pages really did help with a sense of ‘belonging’, especially for those who were at a satellite campus or didn’t come onto the actual campus regularly. They gave opportunities to share information, answer questions,  & just be social.

Interestingly, several said that they found our ‘standard’ student learning management system, Moodle, difficult to use from a smart-phone: apparently you need to log on again and again; there’s no means of staying logged in for a day, for example. They also reminded me that with FB, you get notifications whenever someone posts something on a thread you’re following; on Moodle the notifications are less constant and via email.

And apparently some students find Moodle quite intimidating (& I must follow up on why), and people were more likely to comment & to answer each other on student-run class FB pages.

One thing that’s become more & more obvious to me, the more I think about it, is the immediacy and the highly visual nature of FB, as opposed to the text-based look of a Moodle page (and yes, I know you can add pictures!). Here’s a screenshot of part of the page for my A semester class:

Screenshot 2014-05-23 08.50.35

As you can see, it’s all words. If someone wants to see what’s being discussed, they have to open the ‘Discussion forum’ folder, & once they’re in there, they need to open a particular ‘topic’. They need to click on the link for a video or webpage – there’s no enticing link. And so on. Whereas on FB, the video or the page are right there with a nice visual tag. OK, posts and comments build up & will slip to the bottom of the page if they’re not active, but that happens within a Moodle forum as well.

Anyway, what I’m thinking I’ll do is set up a closed page for the B semester paper (students have ask to join) and send the link for the page to everyone in the class. I’ll make it clear that this is as well as and not instead of Moodle, which remains the official means of sharing information & resources. Also, I’ll set it up so the class reps – if they agree! – are admins (& they and I can agree on some basic house rules), so that there’s a feeling that this is more ‘by the students, for the students’. And then we’ll see what happens. (I’m sure I’ll think of more things as we go along!)

What do you think?

May 12, 2014

facebook – more than just social networking

Some of my readers over on Sciblogs will probably have realised that I quite like Facebook – not least because it’s a good source of gorgeous images and quirky facts that can start me thinking about a new science blog post. (You don’t see that side of me here on Talking Teaching :D ) Also, it’s fun keeping in contact with friends & participating in various discussion groups.

One of those groups was set up by the biological sciences students at my institution, and it’s used mainly for sharing biology articles and images, the occasional in-joke :) , and alerting other students to upcoming events that their committee has organised. This particular page sees a bit more student activity than some of our paper-specific moodle pages, so for a while now I’ve wondered about the potential of a good Facebook page to be more than ‘just’ a place to hang out and share pictures & stories.

Anyway, recently I had a conversation (on FB, lol) with a couple of fellow Ako Aotearoa Academy members about this potential. It turns out that they both use FB quite extensively in their teaching lives and gave me a lot of helpful hints – along with a very recent paper on this very subject (Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014).

Kevin Dougherty and Brita Andercheck teach a large (around 200 students) introductory sociology class at Baylor University in the US. Like all those with classes of this size (or larger), they recognised that one of the major issues they face is

the tendency for students to feel like anonymous spectators rather than active, collaborative participants

- that is, there’s a real risk that many students will not properly engage with classroom activities, & that their learning will suffer as a result. I’ve written previously about flipped teaching as an example of a technique to increase student engagement (& performance), but with a range of different learning styles among class members, what works for one student won’t necessarily work for another.

So, how do Dougherty & Andercheck use social media to enhance their students’ engagement with the subject, and their achievement (as measured against the learning objectives for the paper)?

The larger a class gets, the harder it can be – even with the best will in the world – get everyone actively involved in discussions, debates and group work during class time. Teachers might try & manage this using a Student Learning Management System (SLMS) like Moodle but again, many students don’t really engage here either. (Certainly that’s been my own experience.)

The authors wondered, what about Facebook? After all,

[s]ocial media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are part of life for the generation of students now filling college classes

and it’s easy to load material and set up discussion threads. (Even a relatively technological illiterate like me can do it!) Why not use it as a more engaging SLMS, one that’s more likely to get buy-in from students because it’s already familiar to them?

I can just hear the cries of horror that might greet such a proposition. Don’t students already spend far too much time on FB and other networking sites? It would just be a distraction. These are valid objections. But with evidence in favour from a developing body of research into such uses of social media, Dougherty & Andercheck set up a study of the impact of a group FB page on students’ engagement & performance in their own class.

For anyone interested in doing likewise, their paper in Teaching Sociology has a very useful description of how the class page is set up & administered. (One of my Academy colleagues has similar pages for MOOCs that he is involved in; due to their size, he has some students help with the admin.) It was run in parallel with their ‘normal’ SLMS, Blackboard, and the latter was where students obtained class handouts & readings. FB was for sharing & discussion; for videos, news stories, & photos; for the ‘Question of the Day’.

For students unable to participate or uncomfortable participating in the classroom discussion, we invited them to add their thoughts and reflections to the conversation on Facebook. We used poll-style questions on the Facebook Group as another means to engage students.

Students readily got involved, ‘liking’ posts, joining discussions, and posting material. Two weeks into the semester, more than half the class had joined the page, and 2/3 were part of it by the end of the paper. To see how all this activity affected learning outcomes, the researchers carried out content analysis of student postings & matched this to performance, and also asked students for feedback via the usual paper appraisals.

The appraisal data showed that half the class visited the FB page on at least a weekly basis, and that the majority were positive about its effect on their experience in the class. While  24% disagreed (ranging from slight to strong disagreement) that it enhanced their experience, Dougherty & Andercheck noted wryly that “it was students who never or rarely used the Facebook Group who disagreed”. Students also felt that the page gave them a stronger sense of belonging in the course, and also that it positively influenced their achievement of the learning objectives.

Of course, the final proof of the pudding is in the eating (sorry, channeling cooking blog here!): was this reflected in actual performance? The researchers found that FB group membership showed a positive correlation to total quiz points and total points. It also had “a marginally significant, positive relationship” with both a student’s total score for the paper and their score in the final exam, and the number of posts someone made was linked to their quiz score.

What’s more, their analysis of the page’s content and their students’ use of the page clearly shows how involved many class members became in discussion. This is a big point for me: I use Moodle in my own class & it’s sometimes a bit sad to see how little real conversation there is about a topic. We might see a question posted, followed by a couple of answers, & then it all dies down again. Would discussions become deeper & more complex in a different, more familiar (&, let’s face it, less clunky) medium? I guess there really is only one way to find out. (And I’ll be making good use of the very helpful hints provided at the end of this thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, paper!)

K.D.Dougherty & B.Andercheck (2014) Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course. Teaching Sociology 42(2): 95-104 DOI: 10.1177/0092055X14521022

April 25, 2014

plagiarism & managing it

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , , , — alison @ 10:14 pm

I’m marking first-year essays at the moment. Because these students have had little or no practice at writing scientific essays before they arrive in my class, we give them a lot of learning support. There’s a marking rubric, which students get along with the questions at the very beginning of the semester. (Alas! This doesn’t seem to stop the last-minute rush-combined-with-sheer-panic!) We spend time on tuts discussing how to structure an essay, how to cite and to reference & to paraphrase, and so on. Both the senior tutor & I are more than happy to comment on drafts – some of my colleagues think we’re nuts, but giving formative feedback early in the piece significantly improves the final essay & means less time is spent at that end. And this year I followed the example of my friend Margaret Henley and ran a drop-in session in the student centre: I was there, along with the Science librarian and staff from Student Learning, and the 50 or so students who attended moved around between us depending on what they needed. (Far more time-efficient then having the same number of students turn up to see us in drips and drabs.

And of course we also discuss at some length the issues and concepts relating to plagiarism, and students’ essays are put through the Turnitin system on submission. (This year I set it up so that they could see their score after submission, which they seem to quite like.) So I was interested to see this story on plagiarism and cheating in NZ universities,  in the NZ Herald a few days ago. It was notable that there was a bit of variation between institutions in the number of instances of cheating that were detected, which I suspect has more to do with processes than with actual differences in (dis)honesty in the student bodies. We all seem to handle it differently, too; my own institution has a student discipline committee, to which all instances of suspected plagiarism are supposed to be referred. I like this system – it is a lot more transparent in that the paper convenor doesn’t end up being the judge, jury, and executioner (with all the potential conflicts that this entails), and more consistent because the same set of standards, and outomes, is applied across the board. Which is probably why I felt more than a little uncomfortable to see that, in one instance reported in the Herald story, an individual lecturer seemed to be making the judgement call. Maybe that was just the way the story came across in the paper. I hope so.

There’s an interesting discussion here on why students plagiarise, which suggests that maybe we, the teachers, have something to do with it in that we maybe don’t do enough to help our students develop their own ‘voice’ and the confidence to use it:

Students… often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

The author, Nick Carbone, concludes that

[h]elping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

I’m not sure how feasible it actually is, in a paper that’s not first & foremost a writing paper, to help all students find their ‘voice’. (Nor am I sure that all academics would view it as part of their role to do so.) And I definitely agree with Jonathan Bailey that the ultimate responsibility for plagiarism does rest with the student. But – as he says – teachers can do a lot both to educate students about academic integrity and to minimise the temptation and the pressure to plagiarise. For example, the pressures involved around large high-stakes assignments may make a spot of cheating look more attractive. Bailey lists the following steps to reduce plagiarism’s allure (but also reminds us that the problem’s never going to go away completely):

  1. Educate on Plagiarism: Teach students clearly what it is and how to avoid it. Discuss plagiarism openly and without scare tactics.

  2. Craft Plagiarism-Resistant Assignments: Use prompts that can’t be Googled, require multiple drafts and include in-class portions when possible.

  3. Connect With Students: Offer to help and give students the support they need so they are confident they can complete the assignment.

  4. Forgive Mistakes: Understand that mistakes happen and treat them as chances to teach, not discipline.

  5. Discipline Fairly: Those who clearly are trying to cheat should be disciplined fairly and strongly as appropriate.

Which makes me feel that we’re doing something right, in my first-year papers. (It also reminds me how frustrated I get to see the same questions pop up in tests and exams, year after year. What do people expect?!)

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?

December 13, 2013

can we help students too much?

One of the (many) good things about writing exams at a national level was that it really taught me how to write a good question: one that lacks ambiguity, clearly identifies what’s being asked of the students, and gives them opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. So I was a bit saddened when marking exams recently to find that one question, in particular, wasn’t eliciting what I’d hoped for.

You see, I’d written a question in two parts. Students were first asked to summarise their knowledge the process of gene expression, and then – using the phrase “in your answer you should also” – asked to explain how various events might introduce diversity into the genome. And for some reason many students went straight past the first part and answered the second (and generally did this very well, I might add).

It’s the first time I’ve seen this to any marked degree and it really bothered me, & I’ve talked about it at some length with a colleague. We’re beginning to wonder if maybe we give students too much information around the exams. Now that may sound wrong – you’d think that demystifying exams, in the sense of giving access to previous papers so students get an idea of what to expect, would be helpful. It also highlights key themes in the subject that we return to again & again. We don’t just leave it at this, mind you: we spend time in tuts discussing things like how to ‘unpackage’ questions and how to plan the answer before actually writing it. But we’re wondering if making previous papers readily available in the study guide is leading to students ‘picking questions’ – deciding what’s likely to be asked, on the basis of what’s been asked in the past, and then not just studying around that but perhaps writing and learning ‘model’ answers off by heart. And regurgitating that answer regardless of what the question actually requires of them.

And that sort of learning is not the sort of learning I want to encourage.

So we decided to do things a little differently with next year’s study guide & include just a single year’s exam paper in it. Students will still be able to access many more through the library’s database; they’ll just have to do a bit more work themselves. And thinking more on this as I’m writing, perhaps we should also devote a bit of tut time to explicitly recognising those themes & working with the students to build up a ‘big picture’ view of the main ideas associated with them, by way of encouraging that breadth of understanding – and emphasising that this approach should allow them to approach with confidence any question we might ask.

Your thoughts?

December 5, 2013

nz’s pisa rankings slip, & the soul-searching begins

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , , — alison @ 11:06 am

The latest PISA results are out, and NZ – despite remaining in the ‘above the average’ group for OECD countries – has nonetheless  slipped in this measure of achievement in reading, maths administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment . This is of concern, & there are probably multiple complex causes for our decline. Certainly the previous PISA commentary (2009) recommended that we pay attention to matters of inequality (There’s interesting commentary here, & also on the RNZ website.)

This morning’s Dominion-Post (I’m in Wellington at the moment, at a teaching symposium) carries a story giving a primary-teaching perspective.There are two key issues here: many primary teachers lack a science or maths background; and primary teachers in general are not well supported to teach these specialist sujects. (The removal of specialist science advisors - something I’ve commented on previously - did not help things.) This is important, because if students don’t gain a good understanding of these subjects – and good experiences of them! – during primary school, then they’ll basically be playing catch-up when they arrive in specialist secondary school classrooms.  Sir Peter Gluckman’s suggestion (in his report Looking ahead: science education in the 21st century) that each primary school have a ‘science champion’ would help here, but in the medium-to-long term it would probably be even better if intending primary school teachers received much greater exposure to the STEM subjects to begin with.

Should we worry? Yes, but I definitely agree with Fiona Ell, from the University of Auckland, who’s quoted in this morning’s Herald as saying:

People get very hung up on the ranking … because it’s like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don’t think they should be ignored … but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are really dangerous in education systems.

So, there are issues that we need to address, and as Fiona’s pointed out, there are no quick fixes – we need to deal with them in a considered way that includes as many variables as possible (i.e. not just practices in schools).

One of those issues is highlighted by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, who’s said:

What’s worrying is that there seems to have been a decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of the scale.

And socioeconomic status may well play a part in this. From the Herald story:

New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student’s performance. Some countries’ education systems made up for social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New Zealand.

So any solution addressing the PISA results will of necessity be complex. It’s not going to be sufficient to look only at what’s going on in schools. Yes, support and professional development for STEM teaching across the compulsory sector will be needed. The quality of teaching is definitely important (for a student’s perspective see the Herald article). But without also seriously considering and attempting to deal with the social inequalities in this country, I suspect changes in the educational sector alone will not be enough.

October 26, 2013

doing citizen science

This is something I wrote for my ‘other’ blog, but I thought I’d post it here as well as the whole ‘citizen science’ thing has considerable value for school-level education, and I thought some of you would probably have some valuable insights into/comments on the subject.

The other day I was asked for some advice on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, discussing the results, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “e have found that proj- ects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education “, Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science.” [my emphasisi]

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them.

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. Yes, there are costs, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

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.

 

August 1, 2013

does science literacy matter?

That’s the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on “Scientists, the media, & society” by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic “yes, and here’s why”.

As he notes,

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

- he’s writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians’ science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes – which specifically relate to science literacy – are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn’t they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there’s a huge body of information – which varies greatly in quality – out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it’s very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) – Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages – that how people deal with that information is really important.

So, provided that I’d given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn’t matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I’m a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the ‘design-an-organism’ classes for a couple of years now, I’ve seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: ‘design’ a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.

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