Saturday, November 13, 2010

Do as I say, not as I do?

Very few of the speakers at the Reinvention Center conference have applied any insights into teaching and learning into their presentations.  We get the same talking heads, and today a bad powerpoint.

Global health

Note:  This session turned out to be a presentation about how and why to develop courses and programs in global health, not about how to bring global health issues into ones own courses, as I was expecting.  She didn't give us any outline or goal for the talk at the beginning, so it took me a while to figure this out.

Aha - she (Heather Wipfli, USC) starts by asking us to write definitions.

  • Small audience but good ideas.


  • rural
  • babies and mothers
  • infectious diseases
  • vaccines
  • We (the rich) help others (the poor)
  • Help needed by helpless innocents, not prostitutes
  • fix and move on
Who does it:
  • community saviours/superstars
  • real (Hollywood) celebrities
Changing the perspective:
  • We are all getting older.
  • Chronic diseases  (cancer, cardiovascular, asthma, diabetes) kill most people even in low-income countries.
  • Epidemiology is changing
  • Global warming and environmental issues
  • Urbanization increasing but megacities not like NY and LA.
So how should we change our academic programs?

Need to shift student perspectives from medicine to global health.  Many universities have graduate programs in global health (mostly MSc and MPH), but the number of associated undergraduate programs is increasing rapidly.

Geoffrey Rose: "Sick individuals arise from sick populations."

Every factor is interrelated with many other factors and various levels, from domestic to international.

Mexico (70% overweight, 28% obese) consumes 665 servings of Coke per capita per year.

Students are highly motivated by these issues.  How can we integrate this into our courses?

Change of topic: using electronic games to teach.  The Redistricting Game (teaches about political boundaries).

For genetics:  discuss (have them suggest/investigate) gene-environment interactions that apply to immigrant populations.

The Creative Campus - catalyzing non-routine engagement

Still at the Reinvention Center conference, Steven Tepper and Elizabeth Long Lingo, speaking after lunch.

First speaker:

Stupid jokes by a speaker (topic=creativity) who admits that he has too many slides.  Now he's reading his slide to us.  Now a slide with a table full of 4-digit numbers...  And another...  Dorky animations, annoying music.


A Master of Fine Arts degree may give transferable skills for the aestheticization of everyday life (IKEA, Apple, Target toaster).

Second speaker:

Curb Program in Creative Enterprise and Public Leadership:

Undergraduate Scholars program (4 years):

  • ability to invent
  • expressive agility, to convince
  • dexterity to develop and implement their ideas
  • ability to critically examine.

Learning inside and outside the classroom (Zemsky follow-up)

Language requirements aren't later used - if students have to study a language, we should offer special sections of upper-level courses for students who speak that language.  e.g. German history for students who had studied German.

Integrate junior-year study-abroad outcomes into senior courses.

How to assess the real important outcomes???  Maybe look at what the GRE does - what do the individual questions assess.  Some successfully assess context, not facts.

Why do students who did well in high school fail even at community colleges?

Students won't do well on a test unless they have a stake in the test.  Must make the test results important to the student.

Why do student advisors (profession advisors, not faculty) like the course smorgasbord system?  Because it makes their lives easy?

Bob Zemsky: Mission-sensitive and market-smart universities?

Bob Zemsky is Chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education and author of Making Reform Work, which was written in response to the disappointing outcome of the Spelling Commission (I don't know what this is).

People have been trying to reform higher education for decades (read "A Nation at Risk"), and Zemsky seems to have been involved in higher ed policy since the 1970s.  But I don't know where this speech is going...

Maybe about the still-unresolved need to integrate the courses and the faculty into a well designed coherent curriculum.  This problem, clearly identified 25 years ago, hasn't been solved.  Will it ever be?  The "money bet", a Las Vegas term referring to the most probable expectation, is that no, it won't (because it hasn't in 25 years).

But maybe, he says, this is the moment when the money bet is wrong.  The recession means that the public money isn't coming in to the public universities as it used to.  It's also sending the public universities more students (teach more with less), and the extra students are not as well prepared as the usual ones.

The other force for change is what we're finally learning about learning.  Read "The Art of Changing the Brain".  Learning is physical changes in the brain, not just philosophical and metaphorical.  For example, neurosciences tells us that we can't tell students to forget what they already know - instead we have to start by having them tell us what they already 'know'.

We need to learn from the for-profit institutions (the interesting ones, not the sleazy ones):  Why are they succeeding?  Unlike us, they put real money into courses at the front end, and the people who teach don't own the curricula.  Thus their transfer system works seamlessly, whereas ours doesn't.  Professional Masters degrees are becoming a big target for them.  Practical problems of the public universities:  too many students don't finish, and teaching costs too much.

"It's the curriculum, stupid!"  Not under-enrolled courses but over-enrolled students.  Students graduate with 145 credits in programs with 120-credits.  What's wrong?  Consider Oshkosh University.  It gets 1/3 of their students from community colleges, but the credits don't transfer to the courses they need (not even the 'general education' requirements.  The curriculum requirements are driven by inter-departmental turf wars and by what faculty want to teach, not by what the students need.  Faculty and departments need to stop being independent contractors; "we have to return to collective action."

We need to get rid of the curricular smorgasbord, even though both the students and the faculty like it.  Students don't connect the learning from different courses, and neither do we.

How to end the era of faculty as independent contractors?  He likes collective action by the faculty rather than profit-driven corporate-style decisions.


Undergraduate programs in engineering have better curricula, better faculty teamwork and good learning 'closure' at the end of the program, and might be good models (build on what is working).  Also architecture, nursing, and small business schools.  But Arts and Sciences faculty find these models distasteful.  And we talk about distribution requirements rather than outcome requirements.

Funding shortfalls have led administrations to push financial problems on to faculty, treating them even more like independent contractors.

Universities and community colleges need to work together on curriculum.

Liberal Arts doesn't easily give 'closure' because it doesn't aim to prepare students for specific jobs, but to make them ready for a changing job market.  But the job market is for health and business services now, so maybe we should prepare our students for this.

Faculty complain that this would take choice away from students.  But students aren't really ready for these choices, and the real faculty concern is that choice is being taken away from them.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Calibrated Peer Review

I had dinner with Arlene Russell of UCLA, the creator of Calibrated Peer Review (CPR).  With Calibrated Peer Review, students evaluate the written assignments submitted by several other students (their peers), and simultaneously gain a deeper understanding of the assignment's requirements.  For several years I've wanted to use this tool in my classes, but until now there have been logistic and legal obstacles - we can't send private student info out of the country, and UBC's instructional technology can't figure out how to run CPR here.

 Each student first submits their own answer to written assignment.  They are then given a grading rubric and  three 'calibration' submissions to review.  These submissions were prepared by the instructor; the first two have carefully chosen errors typical of those on which grading is to be based, and the third is a fully correct example.  The student evaluates each of these calibration submissions according to the points specified by the rubric, providing brief explanations for their decisions.  They then assign each submission a grade out of 10.

The students are then given feedback on their evaluations.  If the evaluations were poorly done they're given  a second try (the instructor specifies how closely the student evaluation must match their expectations.).  The quality of the evaluations will be taken account of in the next step, evaluation or real submissions from other students, with a poor calibration decreasing the impact of the grades they give to their peers' submissions.

Once the deadline for calibration evalutations is passed, each student is given submissions by three other students.  They use the rubric to evaluate them, again providing comments to justify their evaluation and giving a grade.  After they've done all three they are also asked to evaluate their own submission.

Once all the reviews are done, each student gets their grade (the mean of the four grades given by the three peers and themself).  Students also get to see the reviews submitted by the two other reviews of the submissions they reviewed, giving them a better sense of how good their evalutations were.

The grading of the whole project is critical to its success.  Arlene recommends that only 20% of the total assignment+review activity be allocated to the actual assignment grade.  30% is given for their performance in the calibration activity (how well their assessments matched those specified by the instructor), and 30% for their performance in assessment of their peer's work (how well each of their assessments matched those of the other two reviewers).  The final 20% is for their assessment of their own submission - if they gave a grade too different from those of the three other reviewers, they get zero.  This is to prevent students from unfairly inflating their own grade.

What does the instructor need to do?  Basically, design the assignment and create the calibration submissions and the grading rubric.   A number of premade assignments are available to be used or modified, or just used as guides for creation of a new one.  The instructor also needs to deal with problems that arise, especially defaulting students and inconsistent grading.

What would I use CPR for?  The letter-to-the-editor assignment.  The students would submit their draft letters for review, and then improve their draft based on both the feedback they've gotten from their peer reviewers and the experience they've gained by evaluating other submissions.  I could allow lots of time for this, maybe having the initial submissions due just before the Reading Week break, and the calibration and peer-reviews done in the two weeks after the break.  This would leave the students a week or two for their revisions, with the final submissions due at least two weeks before the end of term. Ideally the students would get their graded letters back before the end of term, and would then be encouraged to submit them to the editors or producers responsible for the error.

After more conversation, over breakfast:  The 'calibration submissions' need to be carefully designed to allow students to learn to identify the errors.  For example, if a biology submission contains both biology errors and writing errors, the student will have a hard time disentangling these.  Instead we might provide one calibration submission that is biologically correct but might contains a few or small writing errors (this would have a grade of 8-10), one that is well written but contains significant biological errors (grade of 6-8) and one that is well written but contains more biology errors (grade of 4-7).  Distribute the important errors across the three submissions, rather than combining them in one really bad example.

Using Writing to Improve and Measure Learning in STEM Courses

Objectives in preparing for this workshop:

1.  Share relevant bits of reviews of the literature.

2.  Synthesize findings and understandings.

3.  Delineate the research questions that must be addressed in future studies.

Julie Reynolds:  What we know about writing-to-learn in STEM.

WtL deepens conceptual understanding, reveals deep misconceptions.  Acculturates students into our disciplines.  Increase retention?


  • ?STEM faculty don't care about writing?  
  • ?Writing isn't integral to STEM - is a last minute add-on?  (We mislead students about this.)
  • ?It's the English dept's job?
  • ?A department needs only a few writing-in-the-discipline courses?
  • ?More writing assignments are all that's needed?  No, objectives and task-prompts are commonly misaligned.
Students only learn to write science by having to write science. They benefit from being asked about the writing (see that they're learning writing).  From writing in many courses, for many genres and audiences.

Promising practices:

1.  Lesh translation model (constructivist):  give students multiple modes of learning.

2.  Project- and problem-based learning?  Give students real-world goals - something useful to others.

3.  BioTAP:

4.  Calibrated peer review:

5.  Jing as a tool for providing high-quality feedback with minimal work.

Now I think we're going to break into groups...

Nothing in Education Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution

A talk by David Sloan Wilson at the 2010 National Meeting of The Reinvention Center.  (David Sloan Wilson blogs about evolution at ScienceBlogs.  I don't remember much about the content, but I do remember that I disagreed with it.)

Four main points:

1.  Evolutionary theory integrates all of biology.  Darwin's theory transcends disciplinary boundaries.  So evolutionary biologists already are thinking interdisciplinarily.  (But only within biology.)

2.  It can do the same for all human-related subjects.  Well yes, because humans are products of biological evolution, and everything we do has some sort of biological base.  But academics outside of biology, and even many within, think of human affairs as having little to do with biology.  Ed Wilson's Sociobiology book as a landmark - everyone up in arms at an attempt to apply biological thinking to human activities.  Evolutionary ideas are not reflected in higher education, except in biology.

3.  Can it integrate undergraduate education?  To the extent that learning and culture are biological properties, yes.  His new initiative = EVOS.  Objcctive is to teach evolution to all students, early (Evolution for Everyone" optional first year course open to all).  An EvoS seminar series and associated course directed at a wide audience.  The topics certainly would qualify as 'sociobiology'.

4.  Can learning about evolution make students smarter?  He thinks so (he's collecting the data), because a few basic principles are repeatedly applied to a diverse array of subjects.


"Everyone knows that life is a cycle.  Is evolution cyclic?"  A very tactful answer, emphasizing that evolution is not linear or goal-directed, and ignoring the claim about life being a cycle.

How to deal with the fear of many in social sciences that application of evolutionary theory to human affairs may provide very distasteful (politically incorrect) answers?  He tactfully avoids dealing with the issue by slithering to the value of evolution as a toolkit for understanding human nature.

What about how humans have evolved to interact with technology, and how we and technology will coevolve?

A asked a question but didn't really make my point well.  I want to know about the evolution of learning, and what that tells about how to teach.

Talk by Reinvention Center Director Pat Turner

This was an informal lunchtime talk by the new director, Pat Turner of UC Davis, who's also in charge of undergraduate studies at UC Davis.  She mostly talked about her undergraduate experience, especially the perspective of someone from a family with no background of higher education.  She reminded us that many students choose a university with no understanding of the distinctions that we academics think so important.

One caution she gave us is that, because most people think all universities are basically the same, the bad experience of a student with, for example, a for-profit institution, may cause all the people in their circle to expect similar problems with any university.

Students also come to university with no understanding of how universities work either (she thought that you became a professor after years of proving yourself as a high school teacher).  I had a lot of the same misconceptions.

AARRGH!!! flowers!

I just discovered that this blogger format makes all the bullet points into little flowers!  OK, I found a better (cleaner) template.

What we know about writing in STEM

Greg Bothun, U. Oregon: (at the Reinvention Center conference)

Student writing projects give unsatisfactory results:

  • book reports, factoids
  • Reliance on authority, not experiment
  • poor organization
  • not fluid presentation.
  • students are taught to be factoid-driven.
  • no motivation for reflection (takes too much time)
  • Organizing takes time
  • students think in bullet points.
We need to change:
  • Students perceive writing as irrelevant to their goals.
  • Students perceive writing as a reporting task, not as a synthesis tool.
Techniques to change this:
  • Open-ended assignments don't work.
  • Give out-there essay topics - topics that are so vague and cosmic that they can't get the answer from Google or Wikipedia ("Did humanity lose its soul in the industrial revolution?")  But how to grade???
  • Allow creative presentation as 'writing'.  Make them write poetry about the topics!!!  Newspaper article?  Work in a group to prepare a flyer for a target audience.
  • Carrots? Republication on blogs with high readership.
Collaborative writing much better than solitary writing.
  • Collaborative lab reports.
  • Reports as consultant agency -
  • Write a flyer (wind power example from a student team; could we do this in Genetics?).
  • Group oral presentations (asking for persuasive arguments, not factoids)
  • Video.
Video editing project:

"Your 15 min video will be shown at halftime in the superbowl, to get audience to change how they make decisions."

(Oops, missed the last part because I was trying to find out why my tweets aren't showing up.)


Copyright issues for videos:  He doesn't worry about.

Slacker management?  Let the groups manage this informally.  Asking students to grade each other's contributions doesn't work (not mature enough).  Asking for a one-page summary outlining what each student contributed, and saying that grades will be individually adjusted only in extreme situations.

Or have them use Blackboard etc, then you can just look at their individual online contributions.

Workshop on Writing to Learn (WtL) in the STEM Disciplines

by Chris Thiess, at the Reinvention Center conference

Designing WtL activities ( minimize work for instructors)

  • Limit the need for grades
  • Make writing integral, not an add-on.
  • Use peer response/review
  • Use digital tools (e.g. blog posts) to multiply real audiences, expose students to writing by other students, to speed feedback.
Some ideas:

Writing as a tool that helps students achieve their own goals.
  • Regular, in-class activities, one-minute task, writing about an idea from the class.
  • Help students learn to take better notes.
  • Prompts that build-in assessment criteria - think about how the assignment can prompt students to do the things you will want to assess.
  • Make draft/feedback/revision the norm for important writing.  Could we do this in presenting the assignment to them???  (i.e. we revise the poorly explained assignment in response to their feedback???)  Ask him.
Measuring WtL:  (He is addressing both how we assess the students' writing and how we assess the effectiveness/payoff of the WtL activity.)

Tools for assessment of activity effectiveness:  surveys, focus groups, discourse analysis, student portfolios and reflective essays.

The Reinvention Center 2010 National Conference

I'm in Washington DC at the 2010 National Conference of a group called The Reinvention Center, a national consortium of research universities established in 2000 and inspired by the Boyer Commission report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Universities (1998).

There's about 200 people here, almost all from major American universities.  Many people who run innovative programs in the humanities and sciences, and there are lots of vice-presidents and deans and program directors.  The sessions are strongly focused on what needs to change and how.

The first talk has just ended.  Bernadette Gray-Little is Chancellor of the University of Kansas, so her talk was focused on the changing forces acting on research universities - how students view us, how donors view us, the risks of the necessary changes to become more entrepreneurial.  
  • "The Kenmore model: As courses and other educational resources become increasingly available on-line, will universities become retailers for educational products we have not created and do not control?"
  • The proportions of minority students are shifting - disproportionate numbers are going to for-profit institutions (mostly online).  Partly this is due to better marketing - the for-profits advertise that they offer students more flexibility and maybe less debt, but the student experience is very different.
The questions are great.  The man beside me is asking about the role of ethics in these changes.  Will we risk becoming like WalMart, doing wrong to make money?  She doesn't, of course, have answers, just cautions.

We like to think about the research experiences that students can get, but most students don't because there aren't enough places in faculty labs for them.  So how do we scale our advantages?  I'm sitting beside a woman who runs an HHMI- and NSF-supported program that puts 500 freshman students (at U. Texas Austin) into research labs, in groups mentored by full-time postdoctoral teaching fellows.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Introductory Genetics ≠ Introduction to Genetic Analysis

(The ideas in this post aren't well-organized - I'm still struggling to sort them out.)

I'm finally doing what I should have done ages ago - reading the Prefaces to genetics textbooks.  This is where the authors explain what they are trying to accomplish - what the book is trying to teach.

Reading the Preface to the genetics text always used at UBC (Introduction to Genetic Analysis) clarifies why I think it's wrongheaded.  The goal is to teach students how to do genetic analysis, i.e. how to use genetic methods to find out about biological processes.  (Duh, I shouldn't be surprised, that's what the title says too.)

The framework of IGA has always been explicitly historical, which is (or at least was) sensible. Students of course need to learn how inheritance works before they can use genetic analysis, and in this framework they're taught this by learning about the classic genetic-analysis experiments that were used to discover the mechanisms of inheritance.  By seeing what was learned about inheritance from generations of geneticists studying the results of crosses, students learn both the principles of inheritance and the methods of genetic analysis.

Because this textbook has been so successful (it's now heading for the 10th edition, 35 years after the first), all the other genetics textbooks have adopted its historical Mendel-first framework even when teaching genetic analysis is not the main goal (or only one of them).

But the role of genetics has changed. Genetics is no longer a specialist topic, taught to the best and the brightest students, used by elite biologists.  Rather it's everywhere in our lives - the media (every day, in both discussions of genetics and in analogies ("the DNA of music", "the DNA of advertising"), the doctor's office, the elementary schools.  And genetic analysis itself relies much less on crosses, and more on combinations of mutant-construction, DNA analysis and phenotype analyses.  All of these are more easily taught outside of the context of crosses.

Given this, I think that the primary goal of a modern introductory genetics course shouldn't be to teach genetic analysis, but to give a solid understanding of how inheritance works and how it applies to a broad range of important issues.  

Unfortunately, for most students, this goal isn't achieved by courses that emphasize genetic analysis, especially with the standard historical approach.   One problem is that the students have changed.  Now most biology programs require a course in genetics, so the student base is much broader and more diverse.  Their background has also changed. They've already been taught about DNA and Mendel's 'rules'.  But I think the biggest problem is that the historical approach makes understanding the basic principles more difficult than it needs to be.  Early in the history of genetics, genes were a 'black box', and researchers used genetic analysis to gradually pry the box open.  Now the box is wide open, but we still start teaching it as a black box.  This encourages students to treat genetics principles as factoids to be memorized and regurgitated.

I'm also reading the Preface to Sturtevant and Beadle's 1939 Introduction to Genetics.  They don't take a historical approach at all, rather they have chosen 'to give a natural order that simplifies the presentation.'  They start with chromosomes, introducing sex chromosomes as explaining why there are equal numbers of males and females, and then follow a sex-linked mutation (bar) through crosses where the mutation is either present on the male's sole X or on both of the females Xs.  Because bar+ is NOT dominant to bar-, the phenotypes make sense (the heterozygous genotype gives an intermediate phenotype).  In a later cross using the sex-linked white locus they introduce dominance, and make the point that dominance is a relationship between alleles (they say that w+ is dominant to w-). They also introduce human pedigrees quite early.  Surprisingly, autosomal inheritance and Mendel's work aren't introduced until Chapter III, after Chapter II has discussed sex-linked inheritance and the segregation of chromosomes in meiosis.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Helping students learn when no textbook is assigned

Yesterday I met with a colleague who has given a lot of thought to how students learn from textbooks.  I wanted her advice because my new genetics course won't have an assigned textbook - instead students will be expected to use a textbook of their own choosing (I've provided suggestions) in conjunction with other materials.  These resources will be used as reading assignments to be completed before each week's classes and as study materials that reinforce and clarify the lecture material.

Not having an assigned textbook will be a new experience for these students, and for me at this level.  I'm doing it because a suitable textbook doesn't exist, but I think I can also use the experience to help students build valuable skills that will be useful in other courses and in the rest of their lives.  They'll improve their abilities to gather information from various sources and to integrate this information both across sources and across topics.

Helping students find appropriate readings:

My colleague said that one key will be to give students very explicit guidance about where to look for information.  The resources I suggest can probably be organized as 'levels', with level 1 resources being places to start, with the goal of getting a big-picture overview of the topic.  For example, for the week that will focus on meiosis, I might recommend that they begin with Wikipedia or an introductory biology textbook (even a high-school biology book), and read with the goal of finding out what function meiosis accomplishes that mitosis doesn't, and why this is important.  I'd recommend that they then move on to more specialized level 2 resource such as whichever genetics textbook they have and any specific readings I've provided, and read with the goal of finding out how meiosis accomplishes its function.  There might also be level 3 readings - places to go for details.  And I'd like to include other materials than text, such as expert and beginner animations and movies found on YouTube.

For each level's reading goals, students should also be given one or two study questions to answer.  For example, a level 1 question about meiosis might ask why meiosis only happens in the cells that make eggs or sperm, and a level 2 question might ask about the differences between the chromosome pairs seen in mitosis and those seen in the first and second stages of meiosis.  The students' ability to answer these questions will be tested in weekly on-line reading quiz due each Sunday midnight (before the week's classes); the questions in the quiz should be very similar to the study questions they'll have been given.

She also emphasized the importance of giving students tasks and activities they need to accomplish using their reading, to help them focus and to stop them from just passively absorbing the factoids. It would be good to be able to assign students to 'reading groups', with each group given a different component they had to sort out and somehow present to the other groups.  But I think organizing this and finding time for it would be too big a challenge, both for me and for the students.

I will use one technique I have used in the past with my first-year classes.  One question of each week's reading quiz will ask for the student for a question about the readings that they would like to have answered in class.  This (I hope) nudges them to pay attention to identifying the things they don't understand, rather than just comforting themselves with the things they (think that they) do understand. This might even help them to regard discovering things they don't understand as progress rather than as failure.

Helping students interpret and connect what they've read:

My colleague also suggested a way to use part of each tutorial to get students (i) explicitly analyzing what they learned from the readings and (ii) making connections between the material for different weeks.  (We have the luxury of a 2-hr tutorial each week.)  It's very low-tech, relying on flip-chart sheets and coloured pens.

Each week the tutorial starts with a blank flipchart sheet and a specific pen colour.  Let's assume that this tutorial is happening in the third week of classes, when the lectures are addressing topic C.  The TA asks the students for important points about topic C that they learned from the readings they've just done, and writes these on the flipchart (red ink).  The TA also asks them for important words they've learned, and maybe other things too.  Then the TA puts up the topic B flipchart sheet (green ink) from the previous week's tutorial (there won't be a topic A flipchart since there were no tutorials in week 1).  Now the students are asked to make connections between the two sheets, and the TA uses the green pen to annotate the points on the topic C sheet with the relevant point numbers from the topic B sheet.

As the course proceeds this organizing and connection-making activity will become increasingly complex; it will probably take half an hour in each tutorial, sometimes more.  Students will be told (over and over) that this connection-making activity is especially critical for success in this course, because we're separately introducing the two major genetic phenomena (how genes control phenotypes and how genes are inherited) and then asking students to connect them and work with the combination for the rest of the course.  And that it's also extremely valuable in other contexts.

If we also encourage students to use this part of each tutorial to share information about the sources they found useful and the problems they experienced using them, this will help all the students (and us) discover the best kinds of resources to try.  We might even be able to photograph the flipchart sheets after the tutorials and post them online for students' (and our) future reference.

I'll have to check out the room assigned for our tutorials, to see if this can work. OK, here it is, Math 103.  Wow, do we ever have chalkboards!  Lots of opportunities to have students work through problems on the boards.  And lots of space to tape up flipchart sheets.

Helping students improve their writing skills:

My colleague also reminded me that, next fall, many of my students will have been working on their academic writing skills as part of a first-year 'seminar' program .  My course will include a small writing assignment (see Don's brilliant idea), and she's going to send me a document that spells out the writing goals the students were working towards in this program.  That will let me explicitly build on their first-year experience.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What do I want in a genetics textbook?

I'm trying to complete a questionnaire about a genetics textbook (for its publisher), but it's hard because my objections to it (and all the other genetics texts on the market) are so cosmic in scale.  I started trying to write a few paragraphs that summarize what I think is wrong and what should be done.  But now I think I should write a more substantial article, that I would submit to Genetics or to Nature Reviews Genetics.  Below are some sentences:

Genetics textbooks teach students to manipulate meaningless symbols and numbers according to what appear to them to be an arbitrary set of rules.

It's pure wishful thinking to believe that most students in an introductory genetics course can come to understand how inheritance works by walking in the footsteps of Mendel and Morgan.

Nor will they learn how genes affect phenotypes by following genetic symbols through crosses that obey apparently arbitrary rules.

Nor does the ability to manipulate genetic symbols according to a set of rules show that they understand anything about how inheritance works or genes affect phenotypes.

Nor des the ability to apply technical terms to pattern-recognition images show that they understand anything about what meiosis accomplishes or how it does it.

The ability to put genotype symbols into a Punnett square doesn't mean students understand meiosis and mating.

The ability to decide whether to use an uppercase or lower case letter for an allele doesn't mean students understand anything about how allele combinations determine phenotypes.

Students naturally (wisely) treat meiosis as a pattern-recognition challenge, and think dominance is an intrinsic property of certain alleles, perhaps caused by some mysterious kind of epigenetic modification.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

If evolution is wrong...

I'm working on a one-page handout to be given out at an upcoming talk by a young-Earth creationist.    I think I've discovered a new slant on the 'why evolution must be true' arguments:

Evolution is as true as gravity:
Not only is evolution fully consistent with the other principles of science, if it were false they would also have to be false. 
If evolution is wrong:
·  Probability must be wrong.  If weak effects of genetic differences don’t accumulate over many generations, we must not understand the cumulative effects of recurring rare events.
·  Geology must be wrong.  If we don’t know how to date fossils, we must also not know how to date rocks.
·  Biochemistry must be wrong.  If biochemical pathways didn’t evolve, then metabolism makes no sense.
·  Microbiology must be wrong.  If viruses don’t evolve, we shouldn’t keep getting colds and the flu.
·  Genetics must be wrong.  If natural selection doesn’t happen, mutant genes must not be passed on to offspring.
·  Physics must be wrong.  If evolution hasn’t happened, we must not understand the laws of thermodynamics.
·  Pharmacology must be wrong.  If lab animals aren’t our relatives, our drug tests must be giving the wrong results.
·  Ecology must be wrong.  If we don’t know how species change, we must also not know how species interact with their environments.
·  Agriculture must be wrong.  If the plants and animals we eat didn't evolve by natural selection, we couldn't have improved them by artificial selection.

With young college students (my target audience) I think this may be quite a powerful argument for evolution.  Basically, if they believe that scientific research has gotten evolution all wrong, they have to also suspect all the other parts of science and technology that their lives depend on.

But I don't think I've done a very good job with the particulars.  I find it hard to twist my mind around the consequences of discarding things I'm confident are true, and I'd welcome any suggestions for improvement.

Here's the second part of the handout:

Evolution is as important as life:
As individuals and societies, we are now making decisions that will have profound consequences for future generations.
·  How should we balance the need to preserve the Earth’s plants, animals, and natural environment against other pressing concerns?
·  Can we preserve endangered species without changing them?
·  Should we alter our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources to enhance the well-being of our descendants?
·  To what extent should we use our new understanding of genes to alter the characteristics of living things?
·  How can we prevent bacteria from becoming resistant to our antibiotics?
Unless we understand evolution we will not be able to make these decisions wisely.

I think this is also not very well done.  I lifted most of it from the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences 88-page report on Science, Evolution and Creationism.  If this doesn't get rewritten I'd better remember to credit them in a footnote. 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Don's brilliant idea

I was just meeting with some genetics textbook editors and the colleague that I'll be teaching the new genetics course with.  I had been saying that I want to include a writing component in the assignments, and he had described an essay assignment he had used with an advanced class.

Later we were griping about the quality of news reporting of genetics issues, and he had the brilliant idea of requiring each student to write a 'letter to the editor' correcting some incorrect genetics information  that they had read in a newspaper, magazine or blog, or heard or seen in a broadcast.  Each student would be expected to find their own information to correct.  We could incorporate peer review, so the authors would have to revise and improve their draft letters.  The TAs would mark the letters, and the students would be strongly encouraged to then send them to the offending writer or editor.

What a blast!  Hundreds of letters sent, complaining about specific errors in science journalism.