Is it Dedication or Delusion?

“Delusion is the seed of dreams.”
Lailah Gifty Akita

Educational reform is a never-ending process, which is, in many ways, good.  The purpose of educational institutions is to provide the best education possible.  The individual teacher learns from experience and improves over time.  Research into learning and cognition lead to better understandings of how people learn and therefor better ways to teach.

However, even with our continually improving knowledge, changes in education seem painfully slow or to not occur at all.  A consistent problem is classroom size.  While just about anyone that has studied education will agree that the best way to teach someone is with a dedicated teacher in a one on one environment (feel free to disagree I would love to hear your reasons). However, in a society that wants education especially higher education available to everyone one on one education is not possible.

Don’t believe me look at the numbers.  According to the US census bureau, there are 76.4 million students in school K through University.  That means we would need 76.4 million teachers if we paid them an average living wage including overhead each teacher would make $41,923 – $46,953 (still a little low if you ask me)  this works out to 3.2 – 3.5 trillion dollars or 17-19% of the US Gross National Product.  As a comparison, the budget for the US national government was 21% of the GDP in 2015.  Also, 76.4 million students are 24.7% of the US population, three and older, if we also had 24.7% of the US population working as teachers, then almost half of the US population would be students or teachers. Remember we would still need all the support staff, and these are with current numbers, not what we would need for everyone eligible for school.

I don’t think any country can afford to devote that much of their population and resources to one thing and survive.  As someone that loves education, I would love it if some economist out there proves me wrong.  So, class size is a compromise between what we can afford to do and the best environment for our students.

However, outside of issues that are constrained by shall we call it a reality.  We have all seen programs and projects that we think can help students get canceled.  We have all seen programs developed by grants get canceled the second the grant ends.  The loss of these programs is not only that future students will not benefit, but also the loss of resources, including time, commitment, and motivation of staff.

I have been asked after several of my programs have been canceled “how many times are you going to keep building programs that just get canceled?” It’s an interesting question and one that is not easy to answer.  I was at the University of Colorado Boulder when Carl Wieman won the 2001 Noble prize for Physics.  After winning the Nobel prize, Wieman went on to advocate for the improvement of science education.  To the extent that he was appointed the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director of Science in 2010.  In 2013 I remembered reading an article Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change that was about Dr. Weiman and his frustrations with the slow changes in higher education “… Mr. Wieman is out of the White House. Frustrated by university lobbying and distracted by a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of the circulatory system, he resigned last summer. … “I’m not sure what I can do beyond what I’ve already done,” Mr. Wieman says.”

You can’t help but think if someone with the prestige and influence of Carl Weiman can’t encourage change what hope does anyone else have.  The truth of the matter is that how much someone can take and when they have had enough is a personal question.  When thinking about how much is enough, I can’t help but think of a humorous little fable Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse.  I have encountered versions of this fable many times.  I think the first time was in the science fiction book The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse

One day, while Nasreddin was visiting the capital city, the Sultan took offense to a joke that was made at his expense. He had Nasreddin immediately arrested and imprisoned; accusing him of heresy and sedition. Nasreddin apologized to the Sultan for his joke and begged for his life; but the Sultan remained obstinate, and in his anger, sentenced Nasreddin to be beheaded the following day. When Nasreddin was brought out the next morning, he addressed the Sultan, saying “Oh Sultan, live forever! You know me to be a skilled teacher, the greatest in your kingdom. If you will but delay my sentence for one year, I will teach your favorite horse to sing.”

The Sultan did not believe that such a thing was possible, but his anger had cooled, and he was amused by the audacity of Nasreddin’s claim. “Very well,” replied the Sultan, “you will have a year. But if by the end of that year you have not taught my favorite horse to sing, then you will wish you had been beheaded today.”

That evening, Nasreddin’s friends could visit him in prison and found him in unexpected good spirits. “How can you be so happy?” they asked. “Do you really believe that you can teach the Sultan’s horse to sing?” “Of course not,” replied Nasreddin, “but I now have a year which I did not have yesterday, and much can happen in that time. The Sultan may come to repent of his anger and release me. He may die in battle or of illness, and it is traditional for a successor to pardon all prisoners upon taking office. He may be overthrown by another faction, and again, it is traditional for prisoners to be released at such a time. Or the horse may die, in which case the Sultan will be obliged to release me.”

“Finally,” said Nasreddin, “even if none of those things come to pass, perhaps the horse can sing.”

In 2017 I read an article from Inside Higher Ed Smarter Approach to Teaching Science.  The article talks about a book (Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative) written by Carl Weiman that documents the research and methods to improve science teaching in higher education.  It seems that Dr. Weiman did not give up after all, and he is back and still pushing.  Perhaps the truth is that people that try and change the monolith must be a little bit crazy if crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Then again, maybe the horse will learn to sing.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Does a Letter Grade Tell You Whether Students are Learning?

“If I memorize enough stuff, I can get a good grade.”
Joseph Barrell

What do grades tell you?  Colleges and Universities accept student in part based on their GPA, which is determined by their grades.  Students get excepted as transfers based on the grades they received.  A student’s ability to move on to the next course is dependent on grades.  One of the reasons schools created grades was because of transfers and advanced degrees. “Increasingly, reformers saw grades as tools for system-building rather than as pedagogical devices––a common language for communication about learning outcomes.”  A student’s transcript is a list of the courses they took with the grade they received.  Some employers even look at grades when hiring.

We could forgive society in thinking that grades tell us everything.  In a lot of ways, modern educational institutions seem to center around grades.  Even a lot of educational professionals believe grades tell us everything.  I once participated in a meeting where a school was trying to work out an assessment to prove that an educational intervention was effective.  After a little bit of discussion about some of the possible approaches we could use, one of the individuals that had not participated up to that point spoke up and said:

“All of this is incredibly stupid, a complete waste of time.  We know this technique works.  Anyone that complains is just stupid.  After all the students pass the course, and we have good student distributions.  What more does anyone need besides grades.” (Quote Intentionally not cited)

After this statement, several people in the meeting agreed.  Now there are a lot of issues with grades and GPAs. Leaving aside the issue of grade inflation, let’s ask the question, do grades tell us how much a student learns in a course?  Were letter grades even meant to determine how much a student learns over the length of a course?  Maybe grades were just meant to show what skills a student had mastered at the end of the course?  The last two questions may sound similar, but they are not.

Let’s start with what problems we can run into using grads to assess student learning.  Let’s begin with curved grads.  Faculty started curving grades based on the belief that student grads should match the normal distribution.  The bell curve began to take hold in the early part of the 20th century. “It is highly probable that ability, whether in high school or college, is distributed in the form of the probability curve.” (Finkelstein, Isidor Edward. The marking system in theory and practice. No. 10. Baltimore: Warwick & York, 1913. p79.)  If faculty use a curved grading system, then any variations or changes in student performance based on educational interventions will be covered up by the curved grades.

Outside of curved grades, there is also the fact that different faculty and different schools (if you work in a multi-school system) will often have different grading scales. There is also the argument that the modern grading system is not about teaching but sorting.  “All stratification systems require “a social structure that divides people into categories” (Massey 2007, p. 242). Educational systems are among the most critical such structures in contemporary societies.” (Categorical Inequality: Schools As Sorting Machines).

Suppose we could deal with all the above issues.  We use a fixed (none curved) grading system.  All faculty and schools use the same grading system and the same assessments.  We record all the data year after year.  Now if we introduce an educational innovation and a statistically significant number of students get higher grades.  Then can we use grades to determine student learning?

In short, No, if a higher percentage of students continue to get higher grades, you could say that you have found a better way to teach. You can’t say anything about how much students have learned.  Assessing how much students learn in a course requires a piece of information that the student’s grades don’t provide.

To determine how much a student or group of students learn throughout a course, you need to know what their starting point is.  No student is a blank slate when they start in a course.  While part of the job of an educator is helping the student identify and deal with miss conceptions, incorrect information brought into a class.  Students will also bring correct information into a course.  Suppose you assessed all your students at the beginning of your course and discovered that all the students that got As scored 90% or higher on your pre-assessment.  Did you teach you’re A student’s anything?

 Measuring how much a student learns over a course based on their starting and ending knowledge is called Learning Gains.  The critical thing about Learning Gains is that it is a measure of how much a student can learn.  As an example, your pre-test showed that student A already knows 20% of the material that you will cover in the course.  While Student B already knew 30% of the material.  That means to reach 100% student A needs to learn 80% while student B needs only to learn 70%.  The actual learning gain of a student can be calculated using the mean normalized gain (g), which is calculated by (post-test – pre-test) / (100% – pre-test) = g.

Therefor using pre and post-tests we can measure the actual amount of learning as a fraction of the total learning that can occur over the length of a course.  While grades are useful for a lot of things, they don’t tell us how much students learn throughout a course.  Remember when you’re trying to improve your teaching use a measure that will show you the information you need.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6? Extinctions

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
Carl Sagan

An article in Scientific America asked an interesting question, Why Don’t We Hear about More Species Going Extinct? There have been a lot of stories about the planet being in the middle of the 6th mass extinction.  Reports are saying that the rate of extinction is as much a 1000 times normal.  If these articles are correct shouldn’t we see articles in the news about species going extinct?  However, I wonder if people even understand the context of mass extinctions?  If asked, what is a mass extinction, could you answer? 

To understand what a mass extinction is, we need to understand life on earth and the fossil record.  All five existing mass extinctions are in the fossil record.  The first life that appeared were microbes around 3.7 billion years ago.  They lived in a world that was quite different from present-day earth.  The atmosphere was almost devoid of O2 (molecular oxygen) and high in things like methane.  Molecular oxygen is highly reactive and will spontaneously react with any oxidizable compounds present.  The early earth was full of oxidizable compounds, any molecular oxygen that did appear was almost instantly removed by chemical reaction.

About 1.3 billion years later the first cyanobacteria evolved, these were the first photo-synthesizers. Over possibly hundreds of millions of years molecular oxygen produced by the cyanobacteria reacted with compounds in the environment until all the oxidizable compounds were used up.  A great example of this is banded iron deposits.  Only when molecular oxygen reacted with all the oxidizable compounds could molecular oxygen begin to accumulate in the environment. 

After another 1.7 billion years the first multicellular organisms, sponges appeared in the fossil record.  Around 65 million years later a group of multicellular organisms called the Ediacaran Biota joined the sponges on the seafloor.  Most of these organisms disappeared around 541 million years ago.  However, the loss of the Ediacaran Biota is not one of the five mass extinction events.  How much of an evolutionary impact the Ediacaran Biota had on modern multicellular organisms is still an open question.  Most of the Ediacaran Biota had body planes quite different from modern organisms.

The next period is especially important; it started about 541 million years ago and lasted for about 56 million years.  The period is known as the Cambrian.  This period is referred to as the Cambrian explosion because all existing types (phyla) of organisms we see in modern life emerged during this period. The Cambrian explosion is also essential because the diverse number and types of organisms that evolved during the Cambrian explosion form the backdrop for mass extinctions.

The first mass extinction occurred 444 million years ago at the end of the Ordovician period.  During this extinction event, 86% of all species disappeared from the fossil record over about 4.4 million years. Global recovery after the extinction event took about 20 Million years

The Second mass extinction occurred at the end of the late Devonian Period.  The Devonian extinction is the extinction that eliminated the Trilobites.  During this extinction event, 75% of all species disappeared from the fossil record over as much as 25 million years

The third and largest mass extinction occurred at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago.  During this mass extinction, 96% of all species disappeared from the fossil record over 15 million years.  Research suggests that the Permian mass extinction took 30 million years for full global recovery.

The fourth mass extinction occurred 200 million years ago at the end of the Triassic period.  During this mass extinction, 80% of all species disappeared from the fossil record. The Triassic mass extinction appears to have occurred over an incredibly short period, less than 5000 years.

The fifth mass extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago.  This extinction is by far the most famous of the mass extinctions because it is the meteor strike that killed the dinosaurs.  During this extinction, 76% of all the spices disappeared from the fossil record.  Research suggests this mass extinction only took 32,000 years.

Now that we have looked at mass extinctions what about regular extinctions.  Normal or background extinction rate is the number of extinctions per million species per year (E/MSY).  Current estimates put the background extinction rate at 0.1 E/MSY.  If the the current extinction rate is 1000 times the background extinction rate, then currently the extinction rate is 100 E/MSY.

The current estimate for the total number of species is 8.9 million.  That means that 890 species are going extinct every year or 2.5 species a day.  So why don’t we hear more about spices going extinct if the extinction rate is that high?  First, the current catalog of identified species is 1.9 million, which means there are currently 7 million species (79%) that are undescribed.  That means 700 of the 890 extinctions a year would be in species that scientists haven’t identified.

The second problem is that even with identified species, it is often difficult to know if a species has gone extinct.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains the Red List of critically endangered species.  One of the categories is Possibly Extinct (PE) based on the last time anyone saw an organism.  For example, no one has seen the San Quintin Kangaroo Rat in 33 years, no one has seen the Yangtze River Dolphin in 17 years, and no one has seen the Dwarf Hutia in 82 years.  It is likely that these three spices, along with several others, are extinct.

However, not being seen is not good enough to classify a species extinct.  After all, the Coelacanth was thought to be extinct for 65 million years until a fisherman caught one in 1938.  For a species to be declared extinct, a thorough and focused search must be made for the organism to declare it extinct.  These types of searches require time, personnel, and money.  Therefore, searches don’t often happen.  So with the exceptions of particular cases, like Martha the last Carrier pigeon who died on September 1, 1914, most species go extinct with a whimper, not a bang.

We don’t hear more about species going extinct because even knowing extinctions are occurring, in many cases, we don’t know about them.   Returning to the question of what is a mass extinction, and could there be a 6th happening?

Use the five existing mass extinctions as examples a simple definition of a mass extinction is an event where 75% or more of the existing species become extinct within a short (less than 30 million years) time.  Using the current estimated number of spices, and the current estimated rate of extinction we can calculate how long it will take to reach the 75% mark the answer is 7500 years. Since 7500 years is less than 30 million years, we could be on course for a 6th mass extinction.  However, as Doug Erwin says we are not in the middle of the 6th mass extinction.  If we were in the middle of a mass extinction like Dr. Erwin said cascade failures would already have started in the ecosystem and there would be anything we could do.  However, that is good news we still have time to do something.

What we need is an accurate count of extinct species.  So, do you have a class that could do fieldwork?  There is probably a critically endangered species near you.  Maybe you will even be lucky, and you will find the species then you can help with a plan to save it.

Thanks for Listening to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

How do our Students Identify Expertise?

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Charles Darwin

When can you use a title?  What makes someone an expert?  Over the years, I have built several pieces of furniture, tables, bookshelves, and chests does that make me a master carpenter?  I have met several master carpenters and seen their work; I am most definitely not a master carpenter.  Using the book Make Your Own Ukulele: The Essential Guide to Building, Tuning, and Learning to Play the Uke, I’ve built two ukuleles.  While the author of the books says once you’ve made “a professional-grade ukulele” you are a luthier I don’t think I will be calling myself a luthier anytime soon.

I have a lot of “hobbies,” I have made knives, braided whips, bound books, made hard cider, and cooked more things that I can remember.  The only one of my hobbies that I might be willing to use a title for is photography.  I have been practicing outdoor and nature photography for 30+ years, and if you caught me in the right mood, I might call myself a photographer.  What makes photography different? It’s not the time I have put into it, though I have long past the 10,000-hour mark.  I’ve had my work reviewed and excepted by people in the field, not every picture but enough to be comfortable with my skill.

I am selective when it comes to titles and proclaiming my expertise. However, there are people that are not selective about their expertise.  Believing your knowledge to be greater than it is, is common enough to have a name the Dunning–Kruger effect.  However, an even bigger problem than an individual mistaking their knowledge is when an individual mistakes their knowledge and present themselves as an expert.

The internet and self-publishing have increased our access to knowledge and different points of view.  Previously it was simply not possible, for multiple reasons, to publish everything, so editors and review boards had to decide what to publish.

While the benefits to open publications are significant, we must ask without “gatekeepers” how do we identify expertise?  Many people may ask, “why do we care?”  Well, we have issues like GMOs, STEM cell therapy, cloning, genetically engineered humans, and technology we have not even thought of yet.  How will people decide what to do with these technologies if they can’t identify expertise?

A great example of this is a recent study on GMO’s Those who oppose GMO’s know the least about them — but believe they know more than experts.  In the study, most people said that GMOs are unsafe to eat, which differs from scientist where the majority say GMOs are safe.  People’s views of GMOs are not a surprise news coverage of GMO clearly shows how people feel.  The interesting thing was the second point covered in the study.  The people that were most opposed to GMOs thought they knew the most about them.  However, when this group of self-identified experts had their scientific knowledge tested, they scored the lowest.

The difference between people’s beliefs and actual knowledge gets even more complicated when we move beyond GMOs.  While the consensus is that GMOs are safe and could be beneficial, their loss isn’t instantly deadly.  After all, we haven’t developed that GMO that will grow in any condition and solve world hunger or capture all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.  However, what about the Anti-vaccination movement?  I’m not going to get into all the reasons people think they shouldn’t get vaccinated. However, let’s talk about how their action will affect you.

I know a lot of people say it’s just a small percentage and I’ve been vaccinated so ignore it.  You may even be one of them, let me ask you to have you heard about things like efficacy and herd immunity?  Additionally, do you remember or know that the measles can kill? Let’s look at the numbers, according to the CDC; the Measles vaccine is 93% effective.  Using the recommended two doses, 3 out of every 100 people that are vaccinated can get the measles.  Even if everyone in the US were vaccinated, there would be 9.8 million people still susceptible to measles.

A lot of people don’t believe this; after all, we don’t see millions of measles cases every year.  Herd immunity (community immunity) is the reason we don’t see millions of cases.  The idea is if enough people in a community are immunized, illness can’t spread through the community. So even if you are one of the individuals were the vaccine was ineffective, you don’t catch the disease because the individuals around you have an effective immunization.

What percentage of vaccination against measles grants herd immunity?   According to a presentation by Dr. Sebastian Funk Critical immunity thresholds for measles elimination for herd immunity to work for measles, the population needs an immunization level of 93-95%.  According to the CDC, the percentage of individuals 19-35 months is 91.1% while the percentage of individuals 13-17 years old is 90.2%. That is below the level needed for herd immunity.  Therefore, individuals choosing not to get vaccinated are endangering, not just themselves but others.

Fortunately, we know individuals can learn earlier this year Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old teen that got himself vaccinated against his anti-vaccination mother’s wishes testified before congress about how he made the decision. A lot of what he talked about was reading information from credible sources and real experts.

So how do we teach students to identify credible experts and valid information?  I have heard a lot of faculty say identifying reliable experts is easy. You look at who they are and where they work.  Well, it’s not quite that easy; for example, Andrew Wakefield was a gastroenterologist and a member of the UK medical register and published researcher.  He claimed that the MMR vaccine was causing bowel disease and autism.  After his research was shown to be irreproducible and likely biased and fraudulent, the general medical council removed him from the UK medical register.  However, he continues to promote anti-vaccine ideas.

We need a better approach than where they work.  Dr. David Murphy suggests we interrogate potential experts using the tools of the legal system interrogation and confrontation. Gary Klein suggests a list of seven criteria;

  1. Successful performance—measurable track record of making good decisions in the past.
  2. Peer respect.
  3. Career—number of years performing the task.
  4. Quality of tacit knowledge, such as mental models.
  5. Reliability.
  6. Credentials—licensing or certification of achieving professional standards.
  7. Reflection.

While none of these criteria are guarantees individually taken as a whole, they can give a functional assessment of expertise.  However, we don’t often interview every individual we encounter in research. A third and likely most applicable approach involves reading critically and fact-checking.  To quote a phrase, “we need to teach students to question everything.”

One approach is the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose) developed by Sarah Blakeslee of California State University, Chico.  The CRAAP Test is a list of questions that the reader can apply to a source of information to help determine if the information is valid and accurate.  The questions for Currency are:

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Are the links functional?

The currency questions address the age of the information.  Each section of the CRAAP test has 4 – 6 questions. The idea behind the CRAAP test is that once the researcher/student answers all the questions, they will be able to determine if the information is good or bad.

As an alternative or perhaps compliment, we should be teaching our student to think and behave like fact-checkers.  One of the most compelling arguments about fact-checkers comes from the book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)by Sam Wineburg.  In chapter 7: Why Google Can’t Save Us, the author talks about a study where Historians (average age 47) from several four-year institutions were asked to compare information about bullying on two sites. A long-standing professional medical organization maintains one site. While a small splinter group maintains the other (the issues that caused the split was adoption by same-sex couples).  A group of professional fact-checkers also examined the two sites.

Many of the professional histories decided that the splinter group was the more reliable source of information.  In contrast, the fact-checkers decided that the original organization was the most reliable.  The difference between the two groups is what the author calls vertical (historians) versus lateral (fact-checkers) reading.  The historians tend to read down the page and look at internal information.  The fact-checkers jump around and leave the page to check additional information like where these two organizations came from, what others write about them, and what other groups and individuals say about the same questions.

The way information is published and disseminated has changed and will likely continue to change as the tools become easier to use and cheaper.  Education needs to change how we teach our student to evaluate information.  I think I will argue for a bit of lateral thinking.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Writing, Chances Are You Are Doing It Wrong

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Jodi Picoult

Writing is a central component of education.  We could argue that writing is the ultimate goal of higher education.  After all, the final project of an academic student is the writing and acceptance of the dissertation.  Even during undergraduate education, there is a lot of focus on writing.  Most undergraduate classes have at least one or two multipage writing assignments.  With all this focus on writing the US should be turning out the greatest writers in the world.

However, there are a lot of essays saying college graduates can’t write.  In $100K, You Would At Least Think That College Grads Could Write from the Forbes website, the author states “They (students) take lots of courses and study lots of stuff (or at least seem to), but don’t even learn how to use the English language well.”  Many others agree that students don’t learn to write.  “I didn’t say the ugly truth: that her bright boy might not graduate as a solid writer, no matter how good the college.” (Maguire)

In the book Academically Adrift Limited Learning on College Campuses the authors state “At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in CLA performance during the first two years of college.” (Arum and Roksa 2011, 204) The CLA uses open-ended questions to test critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem-solving, and written communication.  According to this study, almost half of all students show no improvement in writing ability after two years.

Outside of higher education, we see similar views.  George Leef starts his post on writing by saying, “One of the loudest complaints about college graduates once they enter the workforce is that they can’t write well.” (Leef, George. “Why So Few College Students Can Write Well.” National Review. retrieved August 24, 2019, from https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/college-students-cant-write-well/) In his essay for education week, Marc Trucker states, “My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants. Since the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked them to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.” (Trucker, 2017)

How did we get to this point were college graduates can’t write?  There are multiple issues that impact a student’s ability to write.  I have demonstrated one of the problems in paragraphs 2-4 of this blog post.  Can you identify it?  I will give you a hint.  In her article for Inside Higher Ed, Jennie Young talks about the problems that face the mostly adjunct Instructors (or graduate students) that teach the writing courses.  Based on the course load, these instructors carry, it is almost imposable to address all the problems in all the essays they need to grade. As she says, “Naturally, you begin looking for the easiest way to whittle down your load — some way to count some papers “in” and move others out of the way. And now imagine that just within your reach is the low-hanging fruit of MLA format (or APA, or Chicago or whatever).”  The title of the article is The Weaponization of Academic Citation.

Grading on style is easy, quick, and unambiguous.  The style manuals create the rubric. You can point to the rule or rules and say you didn’t follow the rules, and they are the base requirement.  Well, I followed the rules in paragraphs 2-4 of my blog; what do you think?  Actually, I followed five sets of rules (I will let you figure out which styles I used). 

I have written more than 54,000 words on my blog to this point.  I often conduct research when writing my posts.  However, I don’t follow a rigged citation or writing style. I use what feels right.  I want my readers to be able to find the works I’m referencing if they wish to, but my focus is on the thoughts and arguments I’m writing.  Would it improve my writing and arguments if I rigidly followed a style?  I guess you will have to tell me.  I do know that no style no matter how rigidly followed will correct incoherence.

Another issue with students writing abilities is the field of study.  I have had the opportunity to work with students, faculty, and administrators in many different disciplines.  What I have discovered over the years is how varied fields can be.  After all, a written critique of a new painting in the modernist style is not going to be like a research report describing a new and improved method to synthesize an organic compound.

Even within a single discipline thing can get confusing.  If you are in a field were publication is primarily through Journals articles well it seems each journal has its own rules and style guides.  If your field publishes books, it seems each publishing house has different requirements.

With all these differences between fields, publishers, and even writing styles the truth of the matter is that no matter how you write from someone’s point of view your essay, manuscript, or journal article is miswritten.  It’s a lot like the answer to the question Is hell Exothermic or Endothermic, “Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to Hell.”  Concerning writing, we could say, since every group or field has a correct way of writing, and the author can only write in one method, all writing is incorrect.

While the previous statement is an exaggeration, it is not entirely incorrect.  But I think it leads to a more critical question. At the undergraduate level, what are we trying to teach the students when it comes to writing?  What’s more important in an introductory writing class learning to construct well thought out and coherent sentences or committing to memory the proper position of every comma and period for your citations in the MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.

To reference Einstein, “why would I waste my time memorizing something I can look up in a book.”   At least for the undergraduates writing should focus on good writing, not styles.  There are tools like Zotero that will format citations and create bibliography correctly in whatever style your publisher wants.  Additionally, citation software can keep your citation style up to date without you having to thoroughly read through each new addition of a style guide looking for changes.

Yes, teaching students to write well is hard.  Much harder than taking the easy way out and quickly grading papers on incorrect styles, page lengths, and formatting.  However, no amount of style and proper formatting will save an essay from incoherent sentences and poorly constructed paragraphs. At the undergraduate level, the bulk of the focus should be on good writing.  Sometimes I think we forget that undergraduate majors don’t follow a single path.  I know students that have earned a BA in Spanish language that have gone on to pursue cares in Law, International Business, Medicine, or Professorships.  I often think the push towards specialization in undergraduate education has come at the cost of general education.

Ask yourself when you are developing an undergraduate writing assignment is that assignment helping the students learn to write? Or is it teaching them structure without substance? In the meantime, I think I will continue “citing” information in my blog based on what feels right.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Reference

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maguire, John. “Why Many College Students Never Learn How to Write Sentences.” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, 1 APR 2016, https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2016/04/why-many-college-students-never-learn-how-to-write-sentences/

Trucker, M. (2017). Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2017/01/our_students_cant_write_very_wellits_no_mystery_why.html 

Teaching Sciences: Where Should We Start

“Chemistry ought to be not for chemists alone.”
Miguel de Unamuno

Recently a video showed up on LinkedIn.  The video was a demonstration of an Augmented Reality (AR) app The Atom Visualizer made by Machine HaloThe Atom Visualizer is the first ARCore app.  In the LinkedIn demo video, the app functions with chemistry flash cards.  The demo is not the first AR flashcards several already exist, like AR Flashcards and AR Talking Cards, to name a couple.  The Atom Visualizer is the first app to use Google’s AR framework ARCore.

While there is a lot to discuss with respects to AR and education, one person compared it to televisions and said it therefor would never work.  Another talked about problems with implementation.  However, I might talk about these issues another time.  What stood out to me as I looked over the comments were comments about chemistry and education.

S., A.
“I am glad to see something like this, but unfortunately this is sending a wrong note. For ex: Oxygen is never O, it is O2 & 2 atoms of Hydrogen combine with 1 O2 atom to form H2O Sodium as Na doesn’t react with Chlorine directly, it instead reacts with HCL (Hydrochloric acid) to form H20 & NaCl.
It would be wonderful if we teach them right things right & help humanity learn faster!!” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

A., I.
“I would like to note that electrons are not volumetric particles (spheres) that orbit the atom nucleus, indeed they are present around the nucleus in the form of electron cloud, this is the probability of finding the electron at a certain point with respect to the atom. Additionally, the electron is a volume less particle. I would be amazed if really the correct model is shown and not some old classical physics incorrect info. This old model caused a lot of students to confuse chemistry as they go a little deeper into the subject.” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

M., C.
“Interesting idea, but the shape of the water molecule is wrong. There are some cool (free) apps that display correct geometries though :)” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

I would say these comments are both correct and incorrect at the same time.  After all, since the demonstration video only shows a few cool looking animations, we don’t know what the educational objective the creator of the cards was trying to achieve.  The video itself would have been much more effective presented as a 1 – 2-minute teaching lesson.  After all, perhaps the creator was trying to help people connect molecular formulas to materials H2O (water) NaCl (table salt).  In that case, the cards are not that bad.

If they are trying to teach chemical reactions, then the cards have several problems.  However, even if they are trying to explain chemical reactions should the electrons be displayed as clouds or discrete bodies.  Anyone that has a chemistry degree knows that electron clouds are the correct representation.  However, to understand electron clouds, you need to get into quantum mechanics. Leaving aside the question of whether the students have the math skills to truly delve into quantum mechanics are they ready to learn quantum mechanics.

Anyone that teaches knows we can’t learn everything all at once.  Also, successful education requires a framework to build on.  Students incorporate new information into existing knowledge.  That information needs a starting point.  One of the problems with chemistry is that we can’t directly observe a lot of the things we teach.  In cases like this, models and cartoons are a good starting point. 

Using representations, we can start building up knowledge.  The dotes make it easier for students to understand that covalent bonds are a sharing of electrons and that two atoms bound together share electrons.  Does that come across to early student if we use two or three different shaped clouds?  While an understand stoichiometry and what form elements take in the environment, they need to understand chemical bonds and the role electrons play. 

The important thing about teaching tools and models is to use them where they are appropriate. Representations like dot structure are not intended to teach students the physical structure and form of electrons. Educations is not merely the process of moving from simple to complex but also building up a framework and helping student incorporate new and more complex information. The introduction of misconceptions in STEM education is rarely because teachers present the wrong information but because the tools are misused.  

Still I wonder when and how we should start teaching quantum mechanics?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

If We Want to Discuss Scientific Ethics, We Need to Teach Scientific Literacy

Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Late last year a Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that his team had created two genetically engineered human embryos that lead to the birth of two female siblings.  I wrote an article about why this shouldn’t have surprised anyone (It Might Have Happened, We Don’t Know for Sure, But Now We Freak.) While there may still be some questions, all the technology needed currently exists.

In June 2019 Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov announced that he plans to seek approval from several government agencies to perform a similar experiment to He Jiankui. It is not currently clear that human genetic engineering is legal under Russian law, or that Dr. Rebrikov will receive approval for his trial.

Beyond genetically engineering humans a few days ago (Aug 3, 2019) a report came out about the creation of a Human-Monkey chimera First Human–Monkey Chimeras Developed in China. Professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte’s group of the Salk institute conducted the experimented in China.  According to the report, the scientists chose to perform the research in China to avoid legal issues. The same group produced a human-pig chimera in 2017.

On top of questions concerning human experimentation, there are questions about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Just like debates about human genetic engineering, the discussions about GMOs are occurring after the fact.  Today more then 90% of the Hawaiian Papaya crop is Genetically modified (How GMO Technology Saved the Papaya).  Other conventional crops like corn, soybeans, and canola oil are also mostly GMO.

I could continue listing procedures that are emerging that have or will have ethical debates associated with them.  However, if we are going to have meaningful discussions, it is essential that individuals have a basic scientific understanding.  Specifically, what are the techniques scientists use and why were they chosen.  What is genetic engineering?  What is a Chimera?  What are stem cells?  Why are we interested in these techniques?  Why should we use them? 

Let’s start with the basics according to Merriam Webster

  • Genetic engineering: the group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics
  • Chimera: an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution
  • Stem cells: an unspecialized cell that gives rise to differentiated cells

While a few of these definitions could lead to additional questions, what does “diverse genetic constitution” mean, I can live with them.  These definitions would be a good starting point for discussions in class.  However, a lot of today’s society is like to go to Wikipedia instead of the dictionary.

  • Genetic engineering: Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification or genetic manipulation, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology.
  • Chimera: A genetic chimerism or chimera (/kaɪˈmɪərə/ ky-MEER-ə or /kɪˈmɪərə/ kə-MEER-ə, also chimera (chimæra) is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes.
  • Stem cells: Stem cells are cells that can differentiate into other types of cells, and can also divide in self-renewal to produce more of the same type of stem cells.

Fortunately for society, many of these definitions are excellent; in fact, the Wikipedia definition of Genetic Engineering and Stem cells is probably better than Merriam Webster’s definition.

So that means that GMOs are the product of Genetic Engineering. So why would you want to create GMOs?  There are lots of reasons let’s talk about Golden rice.  Golden rice is a GMO designed to combat vitamin A deficiency.  Due to starch content, white rice is a good source of calories. However, rice lacks several essential nutrients (including vitamin A).

To combat Vitamin A deficiency, scientists engineered rice to produce β-carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A.  Scientists created Golden rice by the insertion of two genes into the rice genome.  The final product is rice, that is a golden color and provides β-carotene.  So, in the case of golden rice, the reason for genetic engineering was to combat malnutrition. Other researchers are trying to create crops that need less fertilizer or pesticides, that have better yields, or to do less damage to the soil.

There are people that no matter what the goal is will say GMOs should be outlawed.  The question, of course, is why? After all, we have been modifying our food for thousands of years.  Let’s talk about Cauliflower.  The many types of cabbage, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, and cauliflower are all descended from the same plant. Brassica oleracea also called wild cabbage (The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea).

Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Over thousands of years farmers selected for traits they found desirable, leading to all the variants, many of which don’t even look like the same plant like cauliflower.

A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Research into Arabidopsis thaliana flower development by scientists using a mutagen (a chemical compound that creates changes in DNA) to create mutations.  One of these mutations produced plants that looked like cauliflower (Molecular basis of the cauliflower phenotype in Arabidopsis).  Additional research showed that the gene muted in Arabidopsis to produce the cauliflower phenotype was the same naturally occurring mutation in Brassica oleracea that was selected to produce cauliflower.

The research into plant development means that I could reproduce cauliflower in three different ways.  One, I could selectively breed Brassica oleracea to produce cauliflower.  Two, I could create mutations in Brassica oleracea using chemical mutagens and select for cauliflower.  Three, since we know the gene, I could use genetic engineering to create cauliflower from Brassica oleracea.  Most importantly done correctly, I could produce cauliflower using all three of these methods, and genetically, they would be identical.  However, even though there would be no difference between the three varieties, people would insist that the GMO cauliflower caused all kinds of problems, why?

While GMOs are already out in the wild and because of the spread of pollen, it is unlikely that society will ever put GMOs back in the box.  With several of the recent occurrences, it might also be too late for human genetic engineering, human GMOs.  Now let’s talk about Chimera’s. 

One of the primary goals for human-monkey or human-pig chimeras is the production of organs for transplant.  A common statistic is that 20 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant. In the case of organ transplants, individuals would donate cells that scientists combine with an early pig embryo. The human cells would then give rise to the lungs, which doctors would transplant.  Currently, scientists have not produced chimeras with enough human cells to create organs that are viable for transplant.  However, it is only a matter of time until this becomes possible.  Will people wait until the first transplant occurs to talk about chimeras?

However, just as significant as the question, “will we discuss something before it happens?” Is the question of whether we are doing enough to teach science so the general society can adequately discuss the issues?  How important do you think science classes for nonmajors are?  Nonmajors class might make all the difference to the future of scientific research and medical improvements.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg