Building Build, Thyself

“Good buildings come from good people, and all problems are solved by good design.”
Stephen Gardiner

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, an IT technician was repairing the lab internet. He asked me, “So when will we be able to grow cars?”  The first thing that popped into my mind was how complex a modern car is.  According to Toyota, a modern car is made up of 30,000 parts if you count down to the bolts.  Electric vehicles don’t have as many “parts” according to an article in Handelsblatt Today, an electric car has 200 parts while a gas or diesel car has more than a 1000 parts.  I answered, “It will be quite some time before we can grow a car.  There is still a lot of work to do.”

It might seem strange to ask “about growing cars”; however, writers fill science fiction with the unbelievable.  In the television show Earth: final conflict, the alien Taelons grew buildings. The Leviathans are living spaceships in the television series FarScape. While a science fiction show is not the best barometer for what is possible, it’s not a measure of the imposable either.  When the television show Star Trek debut in 1966, most of the technology seemed imposable.  However, a lot of “Star Trek” technology exists now.  Google translate, while not perfect, makes a passable universal translator.  We also have handheld communicators (cell phones) and tablet computers.  There is even a subset of 3D printers that focus on food (the replicator.)

Technology tends to make truth out of our imagination. That technology is often driven by challenging scientific endeavors.  One of the most complex scientific efforts currently being pursued is sending people to Mars.  One of the biggest problems is providing astronauts with safe housing.  Beyond the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars, the surface of the planet has two other significant issues, the temperature, and the surface radiation.  The average daily temperature of Mars is -81° F (-63° C).  While the average yearly surface radiation on Mars is eight rads, on earth, its 0.63 rads.

The surface of Mars is lethal to astronauts.  Currently, the “best” idea for providing protective habitats for astronauts is to bury the habitat under several feet of Martian soil.  The Martian soil would provide insulation and protect against radiation.   However, burying the habitats would require large equipment so that the astronauts can move large quantities of soil. Alternatively, we could send prebuilt habitats with walls that are highly insulated and resistant to radiation.  The exact thickness and weight of the habitats would depend on the material used.

The biggest problem with these ideas is the weight. Either the habitat or the equipment to build the habitat weighs a lot.  It is both expensive and difficult to transport heavy objects.  According to NASA, it currently costs $10,000 per pound to put an object into earth orbit.

So, what does science fiction technology, questions about growing cars, and visiting Mars have to do with each other?  Well, science is again working towards making science fiction reality.  NASA scientists are researching the possibility of using fungus (mushrooms) to grow buildings.  When we think of fungus, especially mushrooms, what you generally picture is just a small part of the whole organism, the fruiting body.  The fruiting body of the mushroom produces mushroom spores and allows the fungus to spread.

The bulk of the mushroom grows underground or inside a decaying log and is called the mycelium, which is a fibrous material composed of hyphae fibers.  The idea is that engineers will seed lightweight shells with spores and dried food.  Then when the structures reach their destination water, collected from the local environment would activate the spores, which grow filling the shell creating rigid, durable, and insulated buildings.

When the building is full-grown, withholding water and nutrients will stop the growth.  Later if the structure is damaged, astronauts can add water and nutrients, and the building will repair itself. Using biologicals materials like funguses to build buildings would have an additional advantage for places like Mars.  If you want to expand a building, add another shell filled with water and nutrients, the mycelium from the old structure will grow into and fill the new one.

The final advantage of biological buildings is that once they are no longer needed or reach the end of their life, they can be composted and used to either make new buildings or grow crops.  Reusing the fungus as nutrients will reduce the production of waste materials and make the site more efficient.

Additionally, using techniques like CRISPR, the Mycelium could be engineered to secret natural resins or rubbers, turning them into complex composite materials. It is even possible that eventually, we could engineer the fungus to grow into specific shapes.   Imagine a giant puffball mushroom engineered to grow into a hollow sphere 10-12 feet in diameter.

In addition to using fungus, other groups are exploring the use of other organisms to build buildings.  A group out of the University of Colorado at Boulder has developed a method using cyanobacterium.  The researchers’ mix cyanobacterium, gelatin, and sand together into a brick-shaped mold.  The bacteria grow into the gelatin, where it uses light and CO2 to produce calcium carbonate.  The result is a rigid cement-like brick after all calcium carbonate is one of the components of cement. 

Additionally, the bricks can heal themselves if cracked or even reproduce themselves if broken in half.   The researches cut bricks in half placed half back in the mold with more gelatin and sand, and the bacteria reformed the brick.

While I don’t expect to be living in a house, I grew myself anytime soon. It is starting to look like science will again make science fiction a reality.  While most of what scientists are developing is for use in resource-poor areas like the moon or Mars. We will see offshoots of this technology in use here on earth.  For instance, the bricks created by cyanobacterium absorb CO2 from the environment, unlike regular cement, which produces CO2.

Additionally, the company Basilisk out of the Netherlands is already selling self-healing concrete, which uses calcium carbonate producing bacteria.  For schools and universities, there is a tremendous research opportunity.  While researchers have established the basic idea behind biological building materials, there is still a lot to learn.  For example, there are large numbers of microorganisms that deposit minerals, which ones work best.  Does a mix of multiple microbes work better than one?  What is the most efficient sand size is it only one size or various sizes? This type of research that involves testing thousands of small permutations is perfect for undergraduate researchers and undergraduate classes.

I don’t know what effect all these biological materials will have on construction, but I’m sure it will be fascinating.  Maybe next time someone asks me, “when will we grow cars?” I will tell them, “I’m not sure, but I can grow your garage.”

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

How Genetic Engineering Should Be Done

“As medical research continues and technology enables new breakthroughs, there will be a day when malaria and most all major deadly diseases are eradicated on Earth.”
Peter Diamandis

It seems that I have written about genetic engineering in humans a lot.  Most of the writing has focused on Dr. He Jiankui and his experiments to produce humans genetically resistant to HIV.  For a while, it was not even clear where Dr. Jiankui was, though he was said to be under house arrest. On January 3, 2020, Nature published a news article, “What CRISPR-baby prison sentences mean for research.” This article adds several pieces of information to the CRISPR-baby story.  First, China has confirmed that there was an additional birth.  Dr. Jiankui had previously stated that a second woman was pregnant.  However, the mother was in the earliest stages, so it was not clear whether the pregnancy would carry to term.  We now know that a third child was born.

Second, Chines news announced that Dr. Jiankui and two of his colleges were convicted.  The Chines court said, “in the pursuit of “fame and profit,” He and two colleagues had flouted regulations and research and medical ethics by altering genes in human embryos that were then implanted into two women.” Dr. Jiankui received the most severe sentence of three years in prison while his calibrators received shorter sentences.

While some scientist thinks this is a positive step. “Tang (a science-policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai) says the immediate disclosure of the court’s result demonstrates China’s commitment to research ethics. This is a big step forward in promoting responsible research and the ethical use of technology, she says.”  Lu You another scientist worries this could negatively impact other research into CRISPR mediated social health care. “If I were a newcomer, a researcher wishing to start gene-editing research and clinical trials, the case would be enough to alert me to the cost of such violations.”

I suspect that a lot of people will find it surprising that after the controversy over Dr. Jiankui’s use of CRISPR to engineer babies that there is any work going on using CRISPR and humans.  However, not only is their research into using CRISPR to treat human disease, some of this research has reached the stage of clinical trials.  Additionally, this use of CRISPR is a whole different animal from Dr. Jiankui’s work. Now that we have reached the end of Dr. Jiankui’s story, let’s talk about how to do human genetic engineering correctly.

First, when it comes to human genetic engineering, there are two general classifications, heritable and nonheritable. As the name implies heritable means, it can be passed on to children and released into the general population.  In nonheritable genetic engineering, parents cannot pass the genetic changes to their offspring.  In general, the difference between heritable and nonheritable genetic engineering is the cells that scientists genetically engineer.  The nonheritable engineering usually uses cells taken from an adult often adult stem cell.  In both cases, we will be discussing the use of CRISPR to modify adult blood stem cells.

Blood is composed of four components, red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma.  The four types of blood cells have a finite lifetime, and the body continually replaces them.  The body uses stem cells to produce new blood cells.  For example, a red blood cell also known as an erythrocyte, develops from the common myeloid progenitor cell (Figure 1 B).  The common myeloid progenitor cell develops from the Hemocytoblast (Figure 1 A), which is a multipotent stem cell.  Hemocytoblasts are a stem cell because when it divides one of the daughter cells regenerates the Hemocytoblast while the other daughter develops into a mature cell type like an erythrocyte.  It is a multipotent stem cell because its progeny can develop into multiple types of cells (Figure 1 D1-10).

A basic diagram of hematopoiesis. Image modified from Hematopoiesis simple.png by Mikael Häggström. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
A basic diagram of hematopoiesis. Image modified from Hematopoiesis simple.png by Mikael Häggström. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

In addition to regenerating themselves and producing a differentiating daughter cell, hemocytoblasts can divide to produce two hemocytoblasts.  Since hemocytoblasts can produce two hemocytoblast stem cells, scientists can expand populations of hemocytoblasts.  The ability to expand the stem cells makes them particularly useful for genetic engineering.

Hemocytoblasts can be clonally grown in culture in a lab.  Growing cells clonally means that the population starts from a single cell. Therefore, all the cells are genetically identical.  The specifics of clonal cell culture are not essential to this article, but you can read the basics here. Clonal cell culture gives us the first advantage over embryotic genetic engineering.  When scientists genetically engineer an embryo, the only way to know if the change was successful in all the cells is to test all the cells, which will destroy the embryo.  With clonal cells, you can test as many of the cells as you want and grow more.  Additionally, since the cells are clonal, you know all the cells in the population are genetically the same. 

The other advantage of genetically engineered hemocytoblasts is that they can be transplanted into patients using the techniques for bone marrow transplantation, which brings us to the current generation of CRISPR mediated medical treatments.

The first clinical trial using CRISPR was carried out by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China.  The plan was to use CRISPR to increase the immune system’s response to aggressive lung cancer.  The researchers removed cells from the patents and then disabled the PD-1 gene, which should enhance the immune response.  Dr. You is currently working on a manuscript describing the results of his work. This experiment is not a surprise; genetic engineering of immune cells for the treatment of cancer has a long history.  What CRISPR has added to the technique is a faster, more accurate way to change the cells.

In addition to the cancer work in China, the US has also approved CRISPR mediated medical treatment.  The treatment we know the most about involves Victoria Gray, who suffers from sickle cell anima.  Sickle cell anime is a painful, debilitating disease that causes red blood cells to become misshapen and sticky.  Victoria Gray volunteered to have her blood stem cells engineered so that the red blood cells express fetal hemoglobin which the doctors hope will compensate for the defective adult hemoglobin that causes sickle cell anima.  Victoria received the transfusion of genetically edited cells early this summer (2019) and the results are quite promising.  Doctors will follow Victoria’s progress for months perhaps even decades.  The researchers will also have to repeat the treatment with additional patients.  Using gene editing to treat sickle cell anime is by no means a done deal but for the first-time individuals that suffer from the illness might have a real permeant treatment.

Hopefully, people will be able to see how the work that scientists are doing to engineer adult cells for the treatment of diseases is different from what Dr. Jiankui did.  One of the most important things we need to get across is that there is nothing wrong with CRISPR or gene editing in general.  Gene editing is a powerful research tool with lots of benefits not only for general research but also for medical treatment.  Scientific techniques are not good or bad by themselves; they are only good or bad in how people use them.  After all, I bet Victoria Gray likes CRISPR.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Gene Editing in Humans Part Two

“The power to control our species’ genetic future is awesome and terrifying. Deciding how to handle it may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”
Jennifer A. Doudna

A year ago, He Jiankui announced that he had used CRISPR to create two gene engineered baby girls.  Since the initial announcement, there has been little new information released.  The government terminated Dr. Jiankui’s lab and research activities. “China’s Vice-Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping quickly shut down Dr He’s lab, ordering a full investigation and flagging some form of punishment for the researchers.”  It is also not clear where Dr. Jiankui is located “Hong Kong media reported that the university president, Chen Shiyi, personally flew to Hong Kong to collect and escort Dr He back to Shenzhen, where he was put “under house arrest”. The university denied Dr He was detained, telling the South China Morning Post “nobody’s information is accurate” on Dr He’s whereabouts, but refused to provide any details.

For about a year, this was the state of the information about the first two genetically engineered human beings.  Then early this month (Dec 2019), MIT Technology Review published a series of articles about Dr. Jiankui’s research.  It seems that He Jiankui wrote a 4699-word article titled “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” while the paper remains unpublished Dr. Jiankui submitted it to Nature and JAMA the Journal of the American Medical Association (China’s CRISPR babies: Read exclusive excerpts from the unseen original research.) Dr. Jiankui’s unpublished work answer several questions that were left unanswered last year.  However, the answers are perhaps more troubling than the speculation.

To understand what Dr. Jiankui was trying to accomplish, we need a little bit of history. Dr. Jiankui calms that he was trying to engineer humans to be resistant to HIV. The HIV-1 virus infects CD4 immune cells.  Over time an individual infected with HIV reaches a point where they cannot produce enough CD4 cells to mount a viable immune response. Leading to the collapse of the immune system and often death by disease.  Around 1996 a naturally occurring mutation in the CCR5 gene was discovered that rendered individuals resistant or possibly immune to infection by the HIV-1 virus.  The CCD5 mutation is a deletion of 32 base pairs (called Δ32) in the coding sequence of the CCR5 gene.  (Homozygous defect in HIV-1 coreceptor accounts for resistance of some multiply-exposed individuals to HIV-1 infection.)

The Δ32 mutation makes it so that the HIV-1 virus can’t bind to the CCR5 protein.  Since the HIV-1 virus uses the CCR5 receptor to enter cells, this mutation renders cells resistant or immune to infection by HIV-1.  According to his paper, Dr. Jiankui used the CRISPR technology to engineer the CCR5-Δ32 mutation into the in-vitro fertilized embryos of a couple where the husband was HIV positive, and the wife was HIV negative. The genetic change, in turn, would confer immunity to the children born from these embryos.

In the abstract, Dr. Jiankui says they were successful in editing the CCR5 gene.  “Genomic sequencing during pre-implantation genetic testing and after birth confirmed that the twins’ CCR5 genes were edited successfully and are thus expected to confer either complete or partial HIV resistance.” (China’s CRISPR babies: Read exclusive excerpts from the unseen original research) However, the actual data in the paper shows that one of the embryos has a frameshift mutation in the CCR5 gene, while the second embryo has a 15 bp delegation.  While both mutations cause changes in the CCR5 protein, they do not create the same disruption as the CCR5-Δ32 mutation.  It is not clear that these mutations will confer immunity to HIV since not every single mutation in CCR5 confers HIV immunity.  Beyond the question of the effectiveness of the created mutations, new research suggests that being homozygous for the CCR5-Δ32 mutation leads to a decrees in life expectancy (CCR5-∆32 is deleterious in the homozygous state in humans.)  Additionally, it appears that the cells in the embryos may not have all changed to the same extent leading to mosaics.

In addition to the potentially harmful nature of CCR5 mutations, there is a question about the type of genetic engineering.  If you are going to induce a mutation in a gene because of an observed effect, you need to create the same mutation that caused the original effect, not a similar mutation.  The reason is twofold one if you create a new mutation, you don’t know that the new mutation will have the same effect as the old one.  Two of the new mutation could cause a new and unintended consequence that the original mutation did not have.

Now at a first pass, Dr. Jiankui’s motives sound reasonable and altruistic.  He is trying to help a couple that is HIV positive have children.  Dr. Jiankui even states in his abstract, “Millions of children are born annually with inherited genetic diseases or infectious diseases acquired from parents.”  (China’s CRISPR babies: Read exclusive excerpts from the unseen original research) As stated by Rita Vassena, scientific director of the Eugin Group, there are well-established techniques to prevent transmission of HIV from parent to offspring. 

“It is worth remembering that HIV infection is not passed on through generations like a genetic disease; the embryo needs to “catch” the infection. For this reason, preventive measures such as controlling the viral load of the patient with appropriate drugs, and careful handling of the gametes during IVF, can avoid contagion very efficiently.” (China’s CRISPR babies: Read exclusive excerpts from the unseen original research

From a medical point of view, it is rarely if ever considered acceptable to use an experimental and potentially dangers technique when effective options already exist.

Beyond the question of whether the technology was ready, Dr. Jianjui’s foray into genetic engineering brings into sharp focus a question about the utilization of genetic engineering.  Dr. Jianhui attempted to create a new biological function in the twins.  He tried to engineer viral resistance.  What makes this especially troubling is that while we know that CCR5-Δ32 confers resistance to HIV-1 research into the normal biological functions of CCR5 is still ongoing.  The work showing that being homozygous for the CCR5-Δ32 can be harmful to the life span was published this year (2019). Instead of trying to create something “new,” why didn’t Dr. Jianjui try and fix a “broken” gene.

If Dr. Jianjui had at least tried to use genetic engineering to reverse a disease-causing mutation to the normal function, he would not have had to deal with the potential conquests of changing a gene function he would have restored it to normal function.  While this article should make it clear that gene-editing technology is not yet specific enough for reproductive genetic engineering, at the rate the technology is improving, it will not be long before we the technology can make specific changes in an embryo without producing additional defects.

A companion article also from the MIT Technology Review Opinion: We need to know what happened to CRISPR twins Lulu and Nana States that Dr. Jianjui’s papers need to be made public.  Specifically, Dr. Kiran Musunuru says, “Why must the information be public? It’s because He’s work reveals serious, unresolved safety concerns. It’s not clear that any effort to directly edit human embryos, even if done ethically and with full social approval, can reliably avoid these problems.”  While I think Dr. Musunuru’s interpretation is a little extreme.  I don’t believe Dr. Jianjui had a good enough grasp of what he was trying to do to use his research as a cornerstone of the technology limits.  After all, most of the information uncovered in his unpublished work is in aliment with the concerns and beliefs put forward by the scientist when human engineering was first made public.  I do agree that we need to discuss the uses and potentials of genetic engineering.

However, for people to have discussions about the ethics of genetic engineering, people need to understand the basics of genetics and genetic engineering.  Humans have been using genetic engineering since we planted our first crops and domesticated the first animals.  Our faithful companion, the dog, is the product of thousands of years of genetic engineering.  We are entering a point when we can change our ecosystem and ourselves at a rate faster than ever before. However, how much does the general public know about genetics?  Can we make a legitimate decision about genetic engineering if we don’t even understand the basics of what is going on?

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The Teaching Cyborg

Misconceptions in Cell Biology

“Every living thing is made of cells, and everything a living thing does is done by the cells that make it up.”
L.L. Larison Cudmore

Cells are the building blocks of all biology.  Every living organism is composed of cells.  All cells came from preexisting cells.  If you are a trained biologist, you recognize the last two sentences as The Cell Theory, one of the core theories of modern biology.  A lot of The Cell Theory seems basic considering what we know.  However, remember cells are smaller than can be seen by the naked eye.  Until the invention of microscopes, we didn’t even know cells existed.  The word cell was first used by Robert Hooke in the 1660s while examining thin slices of cork.  Hooke used the word cell to describe the structures he observed because they reminded him of the rooms of monks.

Additionally, it wasn’t until Loise Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment in 1859 that the idea of spontaneous generation, life spontaneous occurring out of organic material, was disproven.  Therefore, every cell must come from a preexisting cell. With the importance of The Cell Theory, it is not surprising that students spend a lot of time learning about the structure, function, and behavior of cells.  However, because cells are not visible to the naked eye, it is not surprising that many students have misconceptions concerning cells.

What is a misconception? Scientific misconceptions “are commonly held beliefs about science that have no basis in actual scientific fact. Scientific misconceptions can also refer to preconceived notions based on religious and/or cultural influences. Many scientific misconceptions occur because of faulty teaching styles and the sometimes-distancing nature of true scientific texts.”  When we teach students biology, how good are we at dealing with misconceptions?  The critical questions are what the student’s misconceptions are and how do we deal with them?

Musa Dikmenli looked at the misconceptions that student teachers had in his article Misconceptions of cell division held by student teachers in biology: A drawing analysis.  In the study, Dikmenli examined the understanding of 124 student teachers in cell division.  According to the study, these student teachers “had studied cell division in cytology, genetics, and molecular biology, as a school subject during various semesters.”  Therefore, the student teachers had already studied cell division at the college level.

At a basic level, cell division is the process of a single cell dividing to form two cells.  Scientists organize cell division (the cell cycle) into 5 phases Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase.  The cell cycle is often depicted using a circle. 

Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett
Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett

Instead of answering quiz questions or writing essays, the students were “asked to draw mitosis and meiosis in a cell on a blank piece of A4-sized paper. The participants were informed about the drawing method before this application.” (Dikmenli) The use of drawing as an analysis method has several advantages.  The most important of which is that it can be used across languages and by students in multiple nationalities.

After analyzing the drawings, almost half of the student teachers had misconceptions about cell division.  Some of the most come misconceptions are, when DNA synthesis occurs during mitosis and mistakes about the ploidy, the number of chromosome copies, during meiosis.  The research results mean that individuals that are going to teach biology at the primary and high school level are likely to pass their misconceptions along to their students.

So, where does the problem with student misconceptions start?  Students learn misconceptions from their teacher about cell division.  However, the teachers all have biology degrees from colleges, and their college faculty failed to address their misconceptions. However, perhaps we are not asking the correct questions.  Instead of trying to decide who, K-12 or College, is responsible for correcting student misconceptions, we should ask why students get through any level of school with misconceptions?

I can hear all the teachers now, while obviously, students get through school with misconceptions because it’s difficult to correct misconceptions. However, we know a lot about teaching to correct misconceptions.  Professor Taylor presents one method, refutational teaching in the blog post GUEST POST: How to Help Students Overcome Misconceptions.  With a quick Google search, you can find other supported methods.  In all cases getting the student to overcome the misconception, the student must actively acknowledge the misconception while confronting countering facts.

It is unlikely that the problem is that it is hard to teach to misconceptions, let’s be honest most teachers at any level are willing to use whatever techniques work.  No, I suspect the real problem is that most teachers don’t realize their students have misconceptions. So, then the real questions are why instructors don’t realize students have misconceptions.  In this case, I suspect it is the method of assessment.

Most classroom assignments and assessments ask the students to provide the “right” answer.  The right answer is especially prevalent in the large lecture class where multiple-choice questions are common.  However, the fact that a recent review article A Review of Students’ Common Misconceptions in Science And Their Diagnostic Assessment Tools covers 111 research articles suggest that identifying misconceptions is not complicated if teachers use the correct methods.  Therefore, the incorporation of the proper assessment methods alongside teachers’ standard methods will help teachers identify student misconceptions.

However, it is not good enough to identify misconceptions. The misconceptions must be identified early enough in the course so the teacher can address them.  Finding misconceptions is a perfect justification for course pretests either comprehensively at the beginning of the course or smaller pretests at the start of unites.  In an ideal world, pretests would be a resource that departments or schools would build, maintain and make available to their teachers ideally as a question bank.  Until schools provide resources to identify misconceptions, think about adding a pretest to determine your student’s misconceptions.  It will help you do a better job in the classroom

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Double-Blind Education

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
Arthur Conan Doyle (via Sherlock Holmes)

Several years ago, I was attending a weekly Discipline-Based Educational Research (DBER) meeting. Two senior faculty members led and organized the weekly meetings.  Both faculty members had trained in STEM disciplines.  One had received their educational research training through a now-defunct National Science Foundation (NSF) program, while the other was mostly self-taught through multiple calibrations with educational researchers.

The group was discussing the design of a research study that the Biology department was going to conduct.  One of the senior faculty members said if they were serious, they would design a double-blind study.  The other senior faculty member said that not only should they not do a double-blind study, but a double-blind study was likely a bad idea. I don’t recall the argument over double-blind studies in education ever getting resolved. We also never found out why one of the faculty members thought double-blind studies were a bad idea in educational research.

Double-blind studies are a way to remove bias. Most people know about them from drug trials.  Educational reform is not likely to accidentally kill someone if an incorrect idea gets implemented due to a bias in the research.  However, a person’s experiences during their education will certainly have a lifelong impact.  While double-blind studies might be overkill in education research, there is the question of what is enough.  As I have said before, it is the job of educators to provide the best educational experience possible; this should extend to our research.

How do faculty know how they should teach? What research should faculty members use?  Should we be concerned with the quality of educational research? Let me tell you a story (the names have been changed to protect the useless).  A colleague of mine was looking for an initial research project for a graduate student. My college told me about a piece of educational “research” that was making the rounds on his campus.  Alice, a well-respected STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) faculty member, had observed her class.  She noted what methods of note-taking her students were using.  At the end of the semester, she compared the method of notetaking to the student’s grade. On average, the students that used the looking glass method of notetaking had grades that avraged one letter grade lower than the other method of notetaking.

Alice told this finding to a friend the Mad Hatter, a DBER (Discipline-Based Education Research) expert.  The Mad Hatter was so impressed with the result that he immediately started telling everyone about it and including it in all his talks.  Now because Alice did her study on the spur of the moment, she did not get research approval and signed participation agreements.  The lack of paperwork meant that Alice couldn’t publish her results.  With such a huge effect, my colleague thought repeating this study with the correct permissions so that it could be published would be perfect for a graduate student.

They set-up the study; this time, to assess what methods the students were using to take notes, they videotaped each class period.  Additionally, the researchers conducted a couple of short questioners and interviewed a selection of the students.  After a full semester of observation, the graduate students analyzed the data. The result, there was no significant difference between looking glass notetaking and all the other types.  Just a little while ago, I saw a talk by the Mad Hatter. It still included Alice’s initial results.  Now the interesting thing is neither Alice nor the Mad Hatter would have excepted Alice’s notetaking research methodology if it was a research project in their STEM discipline.  However, as an educational research project, they were both willing to take the notetaking results as gospel.

While there is a lot of proper educational research, researchers have suggested that a lot of faculty and policymakers have a low bar for what is acceptable educational research.  The authors of We Must Raise the Bar for Evidence in Education suggest a solution to this low bar in educational research.  Their recommendation is to change what we except as the basic requirement of educational research.  Most of the author’s suggestions center around eliminating bias (the idea at the core of the double-blind study) their first suggestion is,

“to disentangle whether a practice causes improvement or is merely associated with it, we need to use research methods that can reliably identify causal relationships. And the best way to determine whether a practice causes an outcome is to conduct a randomized controlled trial (or “RCT,” meaning participants were randomly assigned to being exposed to the practice under study or not being exposed to it).”

One of the biggest problems with human research, which includes educational research, is the variability in the student population.  As so many people are fond of saying, we are all individuals.  By randomly assigning individuals to a group, you avoid the issue of concentrating traits in one group. 

Their second suggestion is, “policymakers and practitioners evaluating research studies should have more confidence in studies where the same findings have been observed multiple times in different settings with large samples.”  The more times you observe something, the more likely it is to be true (there is an argument against this, but I will leave that for another time.)

Lastly, the authors suggest, “we can have much more faith in a study’s findings when they are preregistered. That is, researchers publicly post what their hypotheses are and exactly how they will evaluate each one before they have examined their data.”  Preregistration is a lot like the educational practice used with student response systems were the student/researcher is less likely to delude themselves about the results if they must commit to an idea ahead of time.

If we are going to provide the best educational experiences for our students, we need to know what the best educational experiences are.  However, it is not enough to conduct studies. We need to be as rigorous as possible in our studies.  The next time you perform an educational research project, take a minute, and ask yourself how I can make this study more rigorous.  Not only will your students benefit, so will your colleagues. Thanks for Listing to My Mussing
The teaching Cyborg

Virtual Education

“There are as many applications for VR as you can think of, it’s restricted by your imagination.”
John Goddard

Virtual reality is an exciting technology.  For the last several years, there have been numerous articles talking about Virtual Reality (VR) the emerging technology. As a small example:

What makes virtual reality interesting is that for an emerging technology VR is quite old.  While the term virtual reality was coined in 1987 by John Lanier devices and the idea at the core of the technology can be traced back to 1935 (The Very Real History of Virtual Reality (+A Look Ahead).) Therefore, VR is more than 80 years old, though the first working example didn’t appear until 1957.

One of the first custom-built educational VR programs I encountered was the Boise State Universities Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety at the 2015 WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) conference. This system was designed as a supplement or replacement to nurse training with expensive medical manikins.  Additional studies showed that students that used the VR system had comparable pass rates on practical skills tests compared to students that used the Manikins.

While we have seen a few of these educational VR programs developed over the last couple of years, A recent Chronical of Higher Education article, Virtual Reality Comes to the Classroom, presents a different approach (the article is also available here.)   Nhora Lucía Serrano added VR to her literature course at Hamilton College.  Professor Serrano’s students designed a virtual environment based on the novels they read.  The students used Unity and Tinkercad to build their virtual worlds.

Unity is a game engine which as Unity says, “A game engine is a software that provides game creators with the necessary set of features to build games quickly and efficiently.”  Unity also has a personal version that is free if you make less then 100K a year on your Unity projects.  Tinkercad is a free 3D modeling program. These two tools give students or faculty the ability to create and modify 3D objects and then build a VR environment.

Professor Serrano’s use of VR in the classroom reminds me of video essays.  While most people are probably familiar with the video essay, the idea behind a video essay is to take the analytical structure of an essay and build a video instead of a written essay.  It is probably only a matter of time before we see someone try and create a VR essay.  However, we do need to be careful that we don’t run to VR simply because we are attracted to the shiny new thing.

As the Chronical article says, “But what is the pedagogical value of a virtual or enhanced experience? Just because students may like it, does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” Pedagogy is essential we need to use technology to solve problems.  However, the question “does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” is not really the correct question.

There is nothing wrong with using technology, even if the outcomes are the same as a “simple computer program or a textbook and lecture.”  If that new technology is more accessible more engaging easier to use or more cost-effective, then there is nothing wrong with using it.  Additionally, even if the outcomes are the same, there is value in using a tool that engages the students differently.  There is always something to be said about using different approaches to relieve the monotony and potentially engage a broader audience.

While professor Serrano’s VR project appears to have been engaging and quite successful, it is posable even likely that the learning gains were not from VR as much as they had another way to access and think about the material.  It is quite posable that the pedagogical advantage of VR won’t be strictly speaking derived from the virtual world.  It is more likely that the benefits of VR will be the ability to do things that would otherwise be imposable or prohibitively costly.

As an example, it would be impossible to visit all the locations discussed in a course on the history of western civilization.  Even if it were posable to travel to all the places in the time frame of a single semester, the cost would be prohibitive.  High fidelity VR recreations would give students the ability to see and explore these sites.  Additionally, it would be impossible for every student in an architectural class to build a multimillion-dollar building in real life.  However, in VR, not only could they build the building, other students and faculty could walk around explore their structure.  Another example in an astronomy class VR would make it possible for students to stand on the surface of the Sun or Mars.

While it is possible, we will develop a VR pedagogy.  It is also important to remember that sometimes, a tool is just a tool.  We don’t talk about the pedagogy of the hammer, yet it is an essential tool in building a set for a theater production or collecting a rock sample in geology.  Whether or not we develop “Pedagogy of VR” and whether it’s better than existing technologies, there is always a place for tools that let us do the otherwise imposable.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Technology and Cheating Two: The Rules

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
B. F. Skinner

In my last blog post, Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?, I discussed the question of whether modern technology fundamentally changed what it meant to cheat.  The article was about an online anthropology course and the instant messaging app GroupMe.  I concluded that the problem was not with technology changing what it meant to cheat but misuse and incomplete rules concerning the technology.  The situation discussed in the GroupMe “scandal” is also representative of the reason why a lot of schools only want their faculty and students to use approved applications.

So, if technology has not changed cheating, then what went wrong in this case?  How did 70+ students end up in trouble when only two students directly cheated?  The Chronical article says:

“More broadly, the scandal highlights the difficult issue of expanding technology in the classroom, students in the Google generation who view the free exchange of information without citation as not problematic, and faculty members who are wary of the use — and perceived abuse — of new digital tools.”

Now let’s be clear. I think this statement confuses issues in the article.  Nowhere in this GroupMe scandal would the addition of a citation fix the problem.  According to the professor, a student posted information about a test that is not allowed.  It would not have mattered if the student added a citation.  Also, we are talking about an online class, so it is doubtful that the professor is wary of technology.  Additionally, research is the core of the academy. These researchers want their discoveries disseminated.

The research community has been at the forefront of the movement to make research articles free to the public.  Also, the Google generation uses citations; writers of Wikipedia articles use citations.  The problem is whether students are using valid sources.  Modern technology gives everyone the ability to create content.  Some of that web 2.0 content is incomplete or invalid.  Contrary to how it is often presented, it has always been necessary to teach students that they need to cite their references.  Modern technology means we need to teach students not only to cite but validate their references.

So, if it is not a change in what it means to cheat, and it is not a conflict of generational beliefs then what was the problem?  It could be that the students did not think the question was cheating.  However, I think the problem is more fundamental than that.  The course rule the professor accused the students of violating is, “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”  The question that caused the violation is “a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test.”

Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said.”  Now let’s be clear faculty have the right to establish and enforce rules based on their judgment.  However, in this case, I think the instructor might be better suited to a rule that is not quite so broad.  Suppose the student had asked a different question “What topics have we covered in the course so far?” The answer would be the same list.  I would not find anything wrong with that question, and I suspect that question would not have led to charges of cheating.

If we accept that there is nothing wrong with the second question, even though it produces the same response, then the only reason for a cheating charge is because the question contained the word “test.” In this case, I think the professor needs a rule or set of rules that are not quite as broad.

While the rule might be too broad, did all the students violate the rule?  In the previous article, I discussed how it was not clear that all 70+ students saw the post.  However, the students are not able to prove they did not see the information.  Additionally, did the professor tell the students what to do if they encountered a violation?  Did the students ask what to do if they encountered a violation?  Technology makes it faster and easier to disseminate information; both faculty and students need to think about protecting themselves. 

Why should students protect themselves and why should faculty provide instructions on what to do if their students encounter a violation.  Let’s look at a potential scenario, I’m a student taking the same anthropology class, and I have signed up to the course GroupMe.  I have a terrible time in the course and become disgruntled.  I create an alternative account on GroupMe and ask the questions, “Does anyone know what is going to be covered on the next exam?” Then using my primary GroupMe account, I post, “Here are the answers for the next exam.” along with a list of the answers.  Now I have not explicitly said it in the post, but the reason for these posts is to sabotage the course.

Would it be fair to fail all the students in the GroupMe?  Of course, not, but how do we determine if something like that is what happened?  It could be hard to prove.  So instead of trying to figure out what is going on after the fact, we need rules and instruction ahead of the time.  As a faculty member, you need to not only have rules concerning what students can’t do but what the students should do if they encounter a problem.

As for technology, schools need tools that work for their needs.  Apps like GroupMe get used because they meet the requirement of students.  However, GroupMe has no way for a moderator to delete a post from all the accounts.  There is also no way to flag posts as inappropriate. 

Technology has changed our life in a lot of fundamental ways.  However, the fact that faculty member’s rules don’t fully account for a situation doesn’t mean we need to change what it means to cheat.  As I have said before, schools need to be proactive in the review and development of technologies for use in education.  Beyond that, it is more important than ever for schools to provide resources and training for faculty and students. 

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg