Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Word-cloud of the 3491 questions about biology

Here's a Wordle analysis of the 3491 questions posed by my Biology 121 students last year:

And here's a different representation:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ideas from a creationist

Last night I went to a talk by a creationist, 'Professor' Walter J. Veith, chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. It was part of a two-night series called "The Genesis Conflict", with two talks each night (creationists must have a lot of stamina). I couldn't find out who sponsored it, though collection baskets were passed and a lot of people put money in them. There was a big poster at a bus shelter in Tsawwassen - I took a photo of it which I'd like to put here, but I'm afraid I haven't figured out how to access photos that I took with my iPhone (I can copy them to my laptop but then I can't find them).

Veith's mini-biography on the flyer says, inaccurately, that he served for many years as chair of the Zoology Dept. at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Apparently he only served for a few months, after which the department pushed him over into the Physiology Dept, where his anti-evolution ideas would be less problematic (see this archive). He's been retired since 2003, and has lots of tapes and DVDs for sale. His current affiliation is Seventh-Day Adventist. Over the next two weeks he's giving another series of 10 talks on the topic of "Reformation Rekindled", which appear to be about how the true spirit of the Protestant Reformation has been squelched by the wicked Roman Catholics.

This talk was titled "The Genes of Genesis". His premise was the old canard that the requirements for life are far too improbable to have arisen by chance, so we must instead infer the hand of a designer. He began by calculating the odds of 300 nucleotides assembling in the right order to encode a specific 100-amino acid protein (2^300 = 1-^127). He then pointed out that this was far larger than the number of particles in the universe, and asked "You decide, chance or a designer?"

He put this question to the audience each time he added another requirement for life onto his list (ribosomes, chaperonins, regulatory proteins,multicellularity, differentiated cell types, biochemical pathways, chromosomal rearrangements, sexual reproduction...). He was quite glib, throwing in enough technical terms and genial explanations to impress the non-scientific audience. He didn't make any other points, just kept pushing the numerical improbability of the origin of life/animals/people.

I especially enjoyed this because I explain the resolution of this 'paradox' in the very first class of BIOL 121. If it were true that 'life' couldn't get started evolving until a fully functional microbial cell had arisen by chance alone, then the origin of life would indeed be a big paradox. But it's not true. We can set aside the issue of that we mean by 'life', and just consider how much chance is required to produce something that natural selection can act on. Before the catalytic properties of RNA were discovered, only entities with RNA-directed protein synthesis machinery were thought to have the heredity and variation needed for natural selection, and these really are much too complicated to arise by chance. But now we know that RNA-like molecules can, in principle, catalyze their own replication. This means that evolution could have gotten started by the chance production of a single relatively simple molecule. Improbable maybe, but not nearly as improbable as a designer.

I think I can improve this BIOL 121 class by introducing it with a description of Veith's talk. This will bring home to the students that

I tried to stick around for the second talk ("Creation to Restoration"). Judging by the first few minutes, it was going to be about how the animals in Eden (vegans all) became nasty carnivores and parasites and pathogens. He had lots of just-so stories ready to go, beginning with how Eden's snakes transformed their salivary glands into venomous fangs, and how roaches in Hawaiian caves evolved eyelessness in 8 months. (The latter appears to confound colonization of Hawaiian lava tubes with Australian cave cockroach evolution.)

When I came out I was pleased to find a flyer from the local Humanists Society tucked under each windshield.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What they learned in kindergarden

I had breakfast with a kindergarden teacher, and we discovered some similarities in our jobs.

In both kindergarden and first-year university, students are learning to function in a new environment. They must discover what's expected of them before they can do what we expect.

In both kindergarden and first-year university, some students are very reluctant to speak up, because they don't feel intellectually safe (they're afraid of saying the wrong thing). We need to find ways to build their confidence, not in being right but in the value of not (yet) understanding. This problem is much worse in university than in kindergarden. That's probably because learning how to do new things is what young children do (they're used to succeeding), whereas high school somehow shifts their focus to being concerned about failing to learn at the expected rate or under the given circumstances.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Teaching Philosophy, Take Two

(Yes, this is a completely different organization that I tried in Take One)

Why I chose to teach first-year students:
 Most faculty prefer to avoid teaching introductory courses, but in many ways this is the most important teaching of all.  First, it fills a more urgent need - the inability of the general public to approach the world scientifically is much more critical than the supply of new professional scientists.  Second, it has more impact - first-year students are more open to new ideas.  Third, it's more interesting - first-year courses deal with the big questions in biology, and teaching them pushes me way out of my area of expertise.  Below I describe some specific issues that arise, and my approaches to them.

Learning how to teach:  Like most academics, I initially planned to teach the way I wished I had been taught, but soon realized that what would have worked for future faculty didn't work for the great majority of students.  I then sought out pedagogical expertise, especially from a colleague in the Faculty of Education with whom I still meet regularly.  This exposed me to many innovative ideas, a number of which I've implemented.  But I also realized that, although most of these ideas sounded good on paper, few had ever been critically tested.  The example of the physics Force Concept Inventory convinced me that chances to teaching strategies need to be grounded in rigorous evaluation: science faculty should apply to their teaching methods the same requirements for evidence that they apply to their science.  My involvement with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative is now enabling me to begin contributing to this evidence,in the form of a very well controlled experiment testing the effect of written homework on both students' writing skills and understanding of biological concepts.

Teaching how to learn:   Most first-year students' biggest problem is that they don't yet know how to learn.  Despite much excellent teaching in high school, they expect university biology to consist largely of applying their demonstrated memorization skills to more advanced facts.  Because these skills have served them well in the past, students are very reluctant to replace them with what they see as more risky approaches.  To help them experience "not understanding" as a necessary stage in learning rather than as failure, I award marks for posing questions about each week's reading material.  To help them see the value of cooperative learning, I encourage students to consult their neighbours before answering in-class questions.  To help them learn about how they learn,I also explicitly explain the pedagogical issues underlying different class activities and assignments.  To help them learn that understanding is more valuable than rote memorization, all my tests and exams are open-book.

Teaching science as a process:  Initially, first-year students think of science as a body of facts generated by specialists, an attitude that can't be changed by simply telling them "Science is a way of knowing".  To demystify science, and to help them begin to see themselves as beginning scientists, I incorporate new research results into course work, and have students use the same tools for their homework assignments that researchers use for their research (e.g. HapMap, News & Views articles, and text and figures from recently published papers).  Many students also earn 15% of their course grade by reading and reviewing a research paper of their own choice.

Reinforcing relevance:  Students view course work as unrelated to their real lives, needed only for the test and perhaps for more advanced courses.  To help change this, the homework activities have been carefully designed to focus on issues the students care about: cancer risk, the environment, human diversity.  Many students earn 15% of their course mark for community-service learning projects in inner-city schools.  By receiving course marks for what they consistently describe as a "life-changing experience", students learn that the university values their ability to help their communities.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Teaching philosophy

It's time to write a new 'Teaching Philosophy' section for my CV, so I though I'd work on it here.
I think there should be four headings:
  1. Why I've chosen to teach first-year classes
  2. Problems ("Challenges"? "Goals"?)
  3. Solutions - principles
  4. Solutions - what I'm doing.
1. Why I've chosen to teach first-year classes: The inability of the general public to approach the world scientifically is much more important than the supply of new professional scientists.

2. Goals: A. Increase students' confidence in their ability to learn at the university level (to learn as scientists). B. Help them see the broad relevance of their learning. Not just the relevance of the material I'm teaching them, but that their having learned it makes a difference to more than their grade in the course (in their lives and what they can do for the rest of the world). C. Get them comfortable with not-understanding, as not a failure but a necessary prelude to understanding. D. Get them comfortable with working collaboratively. E. Convince them that rote memorization has little or no role in university learning. Help them transition from rote memorization to real understanding.

3. Solutions (principles): A. Scientists have been very slow to apply to their teaching methods the same requirements for evidence that they apply to their research. Where possible, make changes supported by evidence (preferably from peer-reviewed sources. Work to generate evidence. B. We can't blame high-school science teachers for the misconceptions our first-year students arrive with - we're the ones who taught those teachers.

4. Solutions (what I'm actually doing): C.
Giving only open-book midterms, exams, quizzes. Giving students choices - letting them modify what they take on and how they are assessed. Talking about the learning process - explaining why topics are presented in certain ways. Using clickers (I pioneered this in Biology 121). Providing opportunities for students to consult with each other in every class. Running a research project on the effect of written homework. Asking that they learn to pose their questions in writing. Incorporating the latest research into the course - exposing students to appropriate research papers from the start. Regularly consulting with a colleague in the Faculty of Education whose expertise is in biology education. Providing a community service learning option - this is the most popular component of the course. Giving homework assignments that are relevant to issues in health and ecology. Explicitly incorporating material that will prepare them to deal with creationism. Giving marks for asking questions, not just for providing answers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I should be doing more of this

An article by Martha Kinney in today's Inside Higher Education explains how the military's training methods can be applied in the college classroom.  The basic points are: make expectations explicit, have students crawl, then walk, then run, and be thick-skinned enough to seek out informed criticism of your teaching methods.

She points out that college instructors may apply this conscientiously to the content of what they teach, and yet completely fail to use it in teaching the skills they want students to build.  For me, the big difficulty is that I need to clarify for myself exactly what skills my class will develop (not just "I want them to be able to think like scientists.").  Perhaps focusing on understanding how scientists write would be best (following on my recent conversation with a colleague in the English Department) - this would let us build both writing skills and interpretation skills.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Showmanship for teachers?

A post on BoingBoing a few months ago prompted me to order Magic and Showmanship: a handbook for conjurers, by Henning Nelms.  This book isn't about how to do conjuring or 'magic' tricks, but about how to incorporate drama, suspense, human interest etc. into performances in order to make the tricks much more compelling to the audience.   

My hope is that some of this advice will also apply to teaching.  If even a little bit rubs off on my classroom persona, the students will find my classes more interesting and, I hope, find the material easier to remember.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Learning to think/write like a scientist

Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague in the English Department. Her research concerns the interactions between reading, writing and disciplinarity. In her role as Associate Dean of Arts she's been working to improve the usefulness of the Arts courses that Science students are required to take. I had thought she might be a good source of advice about interpreting the 'homework project' data, but it was other ideas that got me excited.

We talked about how students make the transition from (a) their high-school relationship to science ('science' is a body of facts I am learning) to (b) seeing themselves as practitioners of science ('science' is how we learn about the world). Reading and writing in the discipline can be a big help with this transition. But it's important that what is read be genuine scientific writing, not writing for students. We talked about how to help students understand the language styles and conventions of research papers (I think her word would be 'genres'), and how this can help them understand how science works. I am going to adopt her practice of taking a paragraph from a research paper and working with students in class to pull it apart and understand what it is communicating, and how. I can use paragraphs from the research papers used in the homeworks, which will also help students see how the homework material is indeed closely tied to the course goals.

We also talked about helping students shift their emphasis from answers (what are the facts?) to questions (what do we want to find out, and how can we do that?) My course's textbook does this very well, but I haven't really tried to reinforce it by what happens in class. I told her that the most successful change I'd made this past year was having students pose questions about the textbook readings (see 3491 questions about biology). Next year I'm going to expand on the question-posing, both in class and in the homework assignments.

This colleague has also, in her capacity as Associate Dean, hired some post-doctoral fellows to work on student writing issues. I'm hoping we can set up a collaboration, using them and perhaps our science teaching fellows, that will enrich the experience for everyone.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Problems with Blackboard Vista

In previous years my courses used versions of the WebCT course software, but this year they were 'upgraded' to the Vista platform; WebCT has been bought out by Blackboard, so this is a Blackboard system.

Some new 'features' of Vista have worked very well (for example creating and giving homework to sub-groups of students), but others (and some old stuff) have not. I've been keeping a list of the issues that our local tech support people didn't solve, hoping that someone would someday ask me about problems I've experienced. But nobody's asked, so I'm posting the list here (Mainly so I can throw out the sheet of paper it's written on).

First a complaint about the technical support. The problem isn't the support people, who do their best, but the way UBC allocates resources. Years ago UBC decided to transfer funds and responsibility for computer support to local units (Faculties and Departments), rather than providing it centrally for everyone. I don't know whether this was driven by budget issues (dreams of 'cost recovery' were in the air) or by the hope that local support would better suit user's needs, but the consequences for university-wide resources such as Vista have been disastrous. Instead of having a central support group with experts available when we need them, we have many dispersed department-level support people, each working part-time (ours is only available after 4pm) providing support for a system they haven't been able to learn in depth. Worse, each answer they provide is only available to the individual who asked the question. Because there is no discussion board individual users have no way to learn from answers given to anyone else.

So here's my list:

I can't connect to Vista with Safari on my office computer. I can connect with Safari at home, and with Firefox in my office, but when I try to connect with Safari I get the message that I already have a connection and can't have two. And yes, I've emptied the Safari cache, and tried quitting Firefox.

When I do connect with Firefox, I get several problems that I didn't get before I upgraded to Leopard.

First, every time I connect I get 'Code not verified' security warnings (two). I can't find any way to stop them appearing.

Second, when I try to upload files to Vista from my computer, I get a warning that a Java applet isn't working and that I will have to use a more cumbersome method.

Third, when I download results from quizzes, all of the question marks, percent symbols, and single and double quotes in students' answers have been replaced by 'Unicode' codes (e.g. ''' replaces every '?').

Other problems may not have anything to do with using Leopard:

For a while I couldn't upload student marks for one segment of the course. I'd get a 'System exception' error, which apparently just means that for unknown reasons Vista has failed to do what was asked of it.

When I click on View Submissions for an assessment in the Assessment Manager, sometimes I'm taken to the submissions for that assessment, and sometimes I'm instead taken to the submissions for whatever assessment the Manager feels I should be looking at. No rhyme or reason that I can detect.

Sometimes the settings for quiz questions appear to have been reverted, even though I'm quite sure I set them up correctly.

The system claims that it will show me the number of times individual students have read discussion board posts, but the numbers it provides are obviously very wrong.

I've had lots of other problems that our local support person was able to solve, but not these.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Homework project progress

Grades are in (and so far have generated remarkably little student angst), so now the homework project shifts from teaching to research. I see that I haven't posted about this project here, so here's a link to a post about it on my research blog, RRResearch. Basically, my ~400 introductory biology students were split into two homework groups - one group got homework with multiple-choice questions to answer, and the other had to provide written answers (one sentence to one paragraph in length).

I'm working with a teaching fellow in our university's Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI); we're addressing two questions. First does having to generate written answers and explanations improve students' understanding of course content? This will be assessed by comparing the scores of the two groups on different parts of the final exam. Second, does the homework writing, and the feedback they get, improve students' ability to write clear and correct sentences and paragraphs? This will be assessed by scoring the quality of their writing on written-answer exam questions and on other components of the course. For most of the writings we'll only be looking at basic errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax etc.

Now that the exams have been graded we have the data to answer the first question. I've just done some preliminary mean-calculating and graphing, but I'm not going to describe the results here yet, partly because these results need careful checking (I could have made yet another Excel error), and partly because I need to first discuss research-blogging issues with my teaching fellow partner in this project.

We can't answer the second question yet because the students' writing hasn't been scored. Luckily we don't have to do this ourselves; the CWSEI has given us funds to hire assistants to do this. The assistants will be Biology grad students, but we need to first check that the students we hire have good enough English skills to catch all of the students' errors. Our first idea was to put together a small set of error-filled student writing and ask potential assistants to grade it with the rubric that was used for grading the homework answers. We've now polished the rubric to make it better for this new purpose. But in the meantime we realized that we probably weren't the first researchers needing to assess basic writing skills,a nd that our research would have more credibility if we assessed our assistants using tools that had been previously validated. So this morning I called our Writing Centre, which provides a number of non-credit courses to improve students' ability to write in various contexts (Language Proficiency Exam, term papers, etc.). The helpful director suggested I call the English Department's first-year program, which she thought had a test they had previously used to assess potential tutors. I'm waiting to hear back from them.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

3491 questions about Biology

One innovation this year was intended to build students' abilities to ask questions. Before each week's lectures the students had to complete a brief multiple-choice reading quiz (usually about 5 questions) based on the assigned readings for the week.  This year the last question on each quiz (worth 1 point, like the others) asked
Please give one question about this week's material that you would like to have answered in class.

To earn the point your question must be stated as a question in correct English (e.g. "How do birds fly?", not "how birds fly" or "I want to know how birds fly.").
The writing was initially bad, but both the writing and the quality of the questions quickly got much better, and I started posting each week's questions on the course web site for students to read, and using some of them in class.

Now I've assembled all of the questions, unedited, into a single Word file titled "3491 questions about Biology", which I'm going to email to the other instructors teaching this course. I'll also post it on my own web site; here's a link.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Still here...

How ironic that teaching diverted the attention I was going to put into my teaching blog. Classes are over and my final exam is on Saturday afternoon.

Yesterday afternoon I attended a "LEAD Meeting", one of 8 sessions organized by the Vice President Academic (in charge of education at UBC) to find out what faculty think should be doe to improve education. He's hoping to get short-term funding for what appears to be a pedagogical 'surge', and wants us to tell him what needs to be done. That is, he wants to invest as-yet-unidentified resources into interventions that will produce a long-term and stable improvement in teaching (and learning) at UBC without requiring any increase in long-term funding.

LEAD stands for Lasting Education, Achieved and Demonstrated; apparently they spent a lot of time coming up with this. Here's what I suppose is the mission statement:
"A central goal to the UBC LEAD initiative is to enable faculty members to create and maintain a rewarding teaching and learning experience. Through a series of LEAD Meetings involving more than 300 UBC faculty members, we seek to learn from our experienced educators the building blocks of a lasting education, and how the university community could further empower and enrich these experiences."
Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) all we came up with was platitudes like "Encourage creative thinking", "Prepare students for the future", and "We need to learn how to change learning as well as teaching". The leaders seemed very happy with this, and I gather that the previous groups did the same.

I don't know why the people behind this initiative decided to waste our time with such poorly informed and undirected meetings. It was a bit like asking a gathering of philosophers how they thought the universe ought to work, based on their day-to-day experiences with reality. There's a lot of data out there on how learning works and how teaching can be improved, and one of its major themes is that we instructors can't trust our intuitions and feelings.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What we did in school today (well, yesterday)

Friday's BIOL 121 class wasn't a lecture at all.  Instead I took advantage of the personal response system (PRS, clickers) to have students spend the 50 minutes working through a particular kind of genetics problem.  The clickers let me give students points for correct answers and also let all of us see where the difficulties were.  (If this course had the tutorials it deserves, this kind of activity would be done there, but that's not an option.)

This let the students build their own understanding of how the alleles (versions of genes) an individual has are passed into the gametes they produce.  Having this process clear is essential for our next step, understanding how the alleles of the two parents determine the genetic properties of their offspring.

The problems we did were designed to take us through increasingly complex situations.  The complexities arise from several factors.  We began by considering alleles of a single gene, then moved to alleles of two different genes.  We also began by considering the results of a single meiosis, which I could demonstrate by labeling and moving around transparent coloured strips on the overhead projector, and then moved to considering the pooled results of the many meioses that produce, for example, sperm.  With two genes we also had to take into account whether they were located on different chromosomes or on the same chromosome, and, if the latter, whether there could be a crossover between them.

I wanted students to work through these problems using paper strips as model chromosomes (they can write the allele names on the strips, move the trips through meiosis, and then look at which alleles end up in which gametes).  Some students did this, and the expressions on their faces showed the discoveries they were making.  But many students clearly felt that working with model chromosomes was unnecessary, and that they could solve the problems either by just thinking about them or by drawing chromosomes in their notebooks.  Sadly, repeatedly getting the wrong answer didn't seem to change this attitude.

I thought these were very simple problems, and yet most students initially got them wrong. This is where the clicker technology really reveals its value. I think I now need to figure out how to tabulate the students' answers so I can share them with other instructors of this course. I think they may also not realize how difficult these concepts are for students.

Although we didn't actually deal with a situation where a crossover did happen, I would like students to be able to deal with this, at least at the level of a single meiosis.  But we'd have to spend at least a bit of class time on it.  Maybe I could demo it with the transparent strips, and then give it as a clicker question for the next class.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Paper chromosomes

It's late on Saturday, and I just snuck down to the administration area, pilfered some sheets of coloured paper from the Microbiology Dept, and ran them through a shredder belonging to one of the secretaries. Now I have a big cardboard box full of skinny strips of coloured paper to take to Monday's class.

Why? Because on Monday my students will need to learn how mitosis works, which I hope will prepare them for Wednesday and Friday, when they'll need to come to grips with meiosis. By using paper strips as pretend chromosomes, they'll be able to model what chromosomes actually do. Because the strips are coloured, they'll be able to keep track of chromosomes of different types, or with different histories. And because the strips are paper, they'll be able to write the names of alleles onto them.

In the following weeks we'll be doing genetics. I think that most students find genetics difficult primarily because they don't understand meiosis. One reason for this is that they usually encounter it as a series of 'stages', artificially frozen images of what is really a continuous process. Each stage has a name to be memorized, as does each feature of each image. Students have a hard time connecting these static stages with the genetic consequences of meiosis. Watching an animation of the process (even the lovely ones our textbook company has provided) isn't much help.

By encouraging the whole class to use these paper strips simulate mitosis and meiosis for themselves, I hope they'll more easily remember what these processes accomplish. By then having them repeat the simulations with chromosomes labeled with their alleles, I hope they'll come to see how Mendel's 'Laws' are simply an inevitable consequence of what the chromosomes do in meiosis.

Students often mistakenly think that activities like this are babyish, and that as university students they should put away such childish pastimes and settle down to the serious business of learning from books. But I tell them that we're at the frontiers of our abilities here, so we need to use every resource we can to help us understand. This includes a lot of drawing coloured pictures and playing with bits and bobs.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


The university bookstore has run out of our textbook, as has the nearby discount textbooks store. This may be because they know that a new edition will be used next year and don't want to get stuck with copies they can't sell. Or it may just be incompetence.

The classroom DVD player has epilepsy, or maybe it's Parkinson's disease. Now I recall, it was misbehaving last year too. I've emailed Classroom Services asking for a permanent solution - I suggested taping it shut, with a note telling instructors to use the computer's DVD player instead.

The only way to format short-answer answers to quiz questions in our Blackboard/Vista course management system is with Perl 'regular expressions'. But there is absolutely no support for using these. Not in my 800-plus page Vista manual, not from our part-time Faculty of Science Vista support person (she's doesn't know anything about them and in any case is swamped with other faculty's requests for help) and not from Blackboard, who just point vaguely to web sites offering support for Perl programmers. I do have a Perl for Beginners book, and it has a whole chapter introducing regular expressions, but nothing in there explains why Vista insists on giving students 2/1 for a correct answer. (Yes, it knows the question is only worth 1 point but nevertheless awards 2 points.)

But the students seem pretty good - they had interesting and thoughtful ideas about whether natural selection could happen to snowflakes! Today I gave them some very big ideas to chew on, about the origin of 'life' (of entities that naturals election could act on), and on Friday I'll reprise these to help the students fit them into their world-view.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Why is it so hard to clearly explain what 'chromosome' means?

I'm polishing up some of the material I'll present in classes #4 and #5 of my intro biology course. I think class #4 is OK. It introduces DNA, chromosomes and genes, although 'introduces' is hardly the right term for something the students will have been learning about about since grade school. In this class chromosomes are just DNA molecules big enough that they have lots of genes, and different chromosomes have different sequences and different genes. But it gets a lot more complicated in class #5.

Class #5 is about how DNA and genes and chromosomes vary. It first introduces the evolutionary concept of homology - defined as similarity because of descent from a common ancestor. Then we take the previous class's introduction to chromosomes etc. and consider the relationship between our paternal and maternal sets of chromosomes, and why we refer to them as 'homologous'. I push the idea of these being different versions of the same chromosome, but students often find the whole business confusing, which puts them in deep trouble when we move on to meiosis and genetic analysis.

Part of the confusion arises because chromosomes are physical things but they are also conceptual categories of things. Two particular DNA molecules in a particular cell in your body (e.g. in the skin cell closest to the tip of your left index finger) are chromosome 13s, but we can also refer to 'your maternal chromosome 13' (of which there are as many as there are cells in your body, about 10^10) and to 'human chromosome 13' (2 x ~10^10 x ~7x10^9). And these are far from identical.

Students need to think about the differences between the versions of human chromosome 13, as well as what unites them, and this isn't easy. This point in the class will be a good place (one of many) to emphasize the importance of variation in biology. For first-year students, having to think about variation and diversity will be new, and it's one of the big things that separates biology from the physical sciences (see Why biology is harder than physics).

Maybe I can give them a sketch that moves out from the single cell to the human population. Let's see what I can pull together from Google Images.

HapMap for beginners?

This year I'm going to use the human polymorphism map (the HapMap) as part of the framework for thinking about genetics and evolution in my first-year biology course. I haven't done this at all before, but I can see a lot of places where it would fit naturally. Most of the other instructors in this course seem to be content to teach the standard Mendelian genetics, but I think students need to learn about the modern resources and issues that the popular media will expose them to.

Classes start tomorrow, but we won't get into the HapMap until next week, when we start talking about DNA and genes and genomes and chromosomes. Monday these will be introduced, and Wednesday we'll consider how they vary. Then on Friday we'll consider how human variation corresponds (or doesn't) to conventional views about human races.

In some ways using the HapMap will mean moving the level of understanding up a notch, but in other ways it may help students make sense of what their genes and chromosomes are.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My recent provocative post on Why biology is harder than physics has been discussed by both Philip Johnson on Biocurious (critically) and Larry Moran on The Sandwalk. (favourably). One commentor on my post, Fred Ross, then complained that I was misusing the term 'complex'.
It's also a pet peeve of mine that biologists insist on calling their organisms "complex," a very specific, technical term which I have never seen justified in biology. They are complicated, but I have seen no evidence that they are complex. There are problems of graph theory that are complex, but the graphs that biologists insist on writing down of protein interaction and genetic networks aren't sufficiently well posed to take any difficult mathematical problem that appears in them seriously.
This is a timely point as I've been thinking quite a lot lately about words that, like 'complex', have both an everyday meaning and one or more specialized meanings. Evolutionary biologists have been fumbling with this problem as it arises for the word 'theory'. When we speak of 'the theory of evolution' we are using the work in a very special philosophy-of-science sense, but creationists then criticize evolution as being 'just a theory', using the term in its everyday sense and counting on the general public not knowing the difference.

One context where such words create big problems is for students learning science. In biology we have words like adapt, assort, base, segregate, phase, message, membrane, sex. Two colleagues even wrote a whole article about many meanings of the one word 'cross' ("The crosses genetics students have to bear"). The teaching fellow associates with my Biology 121 course has been compiling a list of such words, and I'm going to ask my students to start collecting them for their own learning.

But I've also started putting out feelers about such words to linguists and educators, wondering if they have insights into how our brains (and our students' brains) deal with such words. I'm even wondering if we might get together a workshop of researchers in different disciplines to try to clarify the issues they raise.