Friday, March 26, 2010

Science Pick of the Week

In today's issue of Science, a study led by Dr. Robert Benson of Cambridge University reveals the discovery of a pelvic bone from a tyrannosaur in southern Australia. What is so special about this particular discovery that makes it the pick of the week?

Well, first, this bone shows that a much smaller ancestor of Tyrranosaurus rex  roamed the Australian continent 110 million years ago -- thriving tens of millions of years before the much larger, dominant carnivore. Second, it disproves the previous theory that tyrannosaurs only lived and evolved in the northern hemisphere.

The bone of this smaller creature comes from the mid-Cretaceous period, when the super-continent Pangaea began to spread further apart and differences between the flora and fauna of the northern and southern continents became more prevalent. This was also a period of time when many new types of dinosaurs evolved. Though additional research and evidence is necessary, this discovery provides the first step in showing that tyrannosaurs existed worldwide. It also may provide links to the evolution of this particular group of dinosaurs, explaining why larger carnivores such as T. rex evolved primarily in the northern hemisphere.

(image copyright Dr. Robert Benson)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Ada Lovelace Day -- Celebrating "The Enchantress of Numbers"

During the Victorian Era, women were considered intellectually inferior to men in all areas except child-rearing and matters of the home. Women interested in science, mathematics, engineering and the like were quickly dismissed. Still, a few managed to educate themselves and have significant impacts on these disciplines as we know them today. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Loveless (1815-1852) was one such woman.

Often regarded as the world's first computer programmer, this daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke had a keen interest in mathematics from an early age. When she was twenty-seven, she took it upon herself to translate an article by Luigi Menabrea from Italian to English on Charles Babbage's proposed Analytical Engine. As she worked, Lovelace added ideas of her own -- longer than the original article itself -- including an algorithm encoded for processing by Babbage's machine. The method of calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers would have allowed the Analytical Engine to operate properly, had the machine ever been built. This thorough document remains the world's first computer program.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and we here at Visionlearning would like to tip our hats to all those individuals who, for one reason or another, faced obstacles in pursuing their love of STEM disciplines, but persevered regardless.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Some Great Apps for the Lab

It's exciting when new technologies are revealed -- many of us are just counting the days until we're able to get our hands on the new iPad. More than just the latest gadget, though, Apple's "i" series has provided us with tools to make our daily life just a bit easier (if not more fun).

There are Apps for socializing, Apps for tracking our caloric intake, Apps for playing guitar -- and a whole series of Apps to make science work easier. Below is a list of some Apps you might find very useful in the classroom or laboratory:

  • Visionlearning Glossary -- a glossary of scientific terminology and biographies, available in English and Spanish.
  • Lab timer -- has four separate timers, each with descriptions. Can be very helpful when you're juggling different projects at once.
  • Measures Unit Converter -- always helpful when you're working with equations. This one is really great if you're working with different measurement systems, too.
  • The Chemical Touch -- one of the best periodic table Apps available.
  • Solutions -- just in case your memorization skills are lacking.
  • Molecules -- lets you look at molecules in 3D, which can be very helpful in modeling.
Have other Apps you think are great? Share them below!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Scientist's Research Has Him Running Barefoot

Anyone who uses creativity in their work -- whether artist or scientist -- has moments when they question their process. A mental wall is hit where it seems like nothing new or original could possibly come out of the effort put forth. This is as true for the seasoned professional as it is for the newbie and, in times like these, often the best thing to do is ask yourself: "What are other people doing?"

Asking yourself this question is not about setting yourself up to copy others. It's about finding inspiration. Now, the journal Nature is helping educators, students, and professional researchers alike by offering up a series of  videos about the process of science. These short online videos are perfect for the classroom or coffee break, offering interviews with scientists of Nature articles about their research and process.

One interview we found particularly interesting is with Harvard professor David Lieberman, entitled The Barefoot Professor. In this interview, Dr. Lieberman discusses how he and his team decided to research the differences between running barefoot and running with shoes on. The results showed an important difference in foot-strike position (the way the foot hits the ground) and its effect on the body, which could potentially influence athletes of all skill levels and prevent injury.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fact or Fiction? Helping Students Decide

Take a look at the two photographs shown here. Both are claimed to be deep sea creatures discovered by scientists in the last few years -- the Chupacabras Snail and the Blobfish. But only one of them is real. Can you tell which?

If you're feeling a little insecure on this one, you're not alone. Fact is often stranger than fiction and, unfortunately for the budding scientist, it can be hard to tell what is real and what is not by only looking at a photograph. This becomes particularly problematic when many of our students' first point of call in research is not the academic journal but the Internet.

Which is which? The Christian Science Monitor recently posted a slide show on their website, celebrating the 20 weirdest fish in the ocean.  This photo of a Blobfish is one of them. Yes, it's a real creature that lives in the deep seas off of Australia and is under threat from fishing.

The Chupacabras Snail, however, is the conception of Takeshi Yamada, a “visual anthropologist” living in Brooklyn, NY, whose artistic creations have included such items as mermaid fossils, giant sea dragons and vampire monkeys.

So, how do we help our students decide what is real and what is not?  As with any form of research, students should always consider their sources first and foremost. Who has written the material they are considering? Is is a scientist, an academic, a lay-person? When was it written and what sources are cited? If they can't answer these questions, that should ring some bells of doubt.

Taking the Chupacabras snail above as an example, a quick Google search brings up plenty of image sources and articles -- but they come from sites with terms like "hoax" and "paranormal" in the title. They don't provide credible sources to the information about the creature, and some are not dated. Conversely, the Blobfish generates results from prominent newspapers, scientific magazines, and journals with traceable sources that are timely and credible.

We should also remember to help our students draw on their common sense and knowledge base. What do we know about snails? They are invertebrates, so have an external skeleton. Does it make sense, then, that a snail would have a claw? Snails have one large, muscular foot that they contract and extend in a rippling motion. Why would the soft body have six distinct appendages? Compared to other deep sea snails, does the shell look right, or does it more resemble that of a land snail? Does this snail look as though it would be able to stand the water pressure of deep sea life?

By taking it back to the basics, we can help our students start their research off on the right foot. Questions that cannot be readily answered then provide a starting point for research. What are the physical requirements of living 800 meters below sea level? Are there examples of invertebrates that also have internal structures, such as claws? How many different types of deep sea snails are known and what are their similarities? Helping our students build their knowledge base through thoughtful investigation will better prepare them for a future of independent thinking and stronger science.

For more information on research and investigation, visit Visionlearning's Process of Science Modules and Understanding Science's Evaluating Scientific Messages.

Have some tips and tricks for teaching evaluation in the classroom? Share them with us here!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Google Pushing the Way Forward for Public Access

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google’s efforts to digitalize books outside of the US have not been hampered in any way by the court proceedings taking place on US soil – they recently announced partnerships with national governments throughout Europe to digitalize out-of-copyright texts. These latest endeavors include scanning approximately one million books held in libraries in Florence and Rome, including texts by significant historical figures like Galileo Galilei.

We think this could have interesting consequences on providing public access to educational and research materials. A similar effort, in terms of making scholarly research material public, has been underway through the Committee on Science and Technology, US House of Representatives. As educators, we understand how important it is to have free, accurate, and historically significant resources at the disposal. Should the efforts of the Committee and Google be fruitful, it could usher in a new paradigm of learning – particularly in the sciences. We can only "stand on the shoulders of giants" if we have access to a stepladder.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Using Free Multimedia in the Classroom

In the last decade, the term “multimedia” has become a buzz-word in teaching circles. For some, it’s come to be an umbrella for the incorporation of everything and anything electronic into the classroom; for others, synonymous with expensive equipment and additional training.  We hope, though, that the majority of educators have come to see multimedia in the barest sense of the word – the integration of sound, text, graphics, animations, and video, in any combination – and its potential uses in the classroom.

Recent research suggests that while matching teaching style to particular learning styles may not have significant effects, matching the teaching style (and multimedia form) to the content can help learners of all kinds. Some topics naturally lend themselves to specific multimedia forms – a lecture on animal cell structure, for example, could be supplemented with an interactive animation (see image).  Audio recordings of interviews with researchers – or better yet, live interviews via programs like Skype – could help better engage students with understanding the process of scientific discovery.

For many educators, the abundance of new media formats has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because they offer exciting new opportunities for teaching; a curse because it’s hard to keep track of all of them and some are quite costly.  The important thing to remember is that it’s not always necessary to run out and get the latest gadgets or software for the classroom in order to teach effectively with multimedia. There are plenty of free, useful materials at the disposal. Here are some of our favorites:
  • Visionlearning, for free, interactive animations, simulations and graphics in the science disciplines.
  • Lab Out Loud, for interviews with scientists and media presenters like Bill Nye.  
  • On the Cutting Edge, for teaching resources in the geosciences. 
  • The ChemCollective, for online laboratory activities. 
  • PhET at the University of Boulder, for free simulations in physics. 
Tell us about your favorite multimedia resources. What do you find most helpful in the classroom?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Scientific Misconceptions, Part 3

Wrapping up the week, we’d like to focus on one last misconception that permeates the general population about science and its practice. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty more we could write about – we could spend a year talking about the different ways the process of science is misrepresented both in general education and the media. But that would border on overkill. If you’re interested in learning more, though, you can visit here.

Since we’ve used “Climategate” as our focus on these misconceptions, we thought it only appropriate to conclude with a focus on controversy. Therefore:

Misconception #3: Controversy is resolved when experiments prove a theory right.**

As has been shown in the last decade, the more concrete evidence scientists from all disciplines provide to confirm human influence on climate, the more controversy escalates. Many take this to mean that scientists are disagreeing about the data – ignoring the fact that good research takes opposing views into account. But is that really what is happening?

Mike Hulme has written an engaging book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity that discusses exactly where this controversy originates – and it’s not the science. As is often the case with other, non-scientific controversies, cultural and political concerns inform opinions. In the case of science, every time an experiment is conducted, regardless of the outcome, new questions are created.

For the non-scientist, this never-ending process of asking questions can be daunting. We’re used to asking questions, getting answers, and moving on. But for the scientist, it simply a matter of “peeling an onion.” The scientific process provides the opportunity to ask a question, gather information, then ask deeper questions to reveal the intricacies of the subject. The more questions are asked and answered, the closer we get to forming cohesive theories and ways of understanding the world.

It can be confusing when experts have conflicting opinions, mainly because most of us don’t have the educational and professional training to understand what, exactly, they are disagreeing about. Unfortunately, these diverging opinions often get taken up by various camps whose ideology they support and interfere with the conversation of science. And worse, the seed of doubt about many of these theories is placed not by scientists, but by individuals with political interests. The more politically and culturally relevant the topic, the more heated the controversy.

Click here for more information and learning materials on the process of science.

**J. Ryder and  J. Leach. “Interpreting experimental data: the views of upper secondary school and university science students” (2000) International Journal of Science Education 22(10), 1069-1084

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Scientific Misconceptions, Part 2

The New York Times has printed an interesting article today on the nature of trust regarding scientists and their research. The timing couldn’t be better for us at Visionlearning, as it segues beautifully into the second misconception of scientific practice we’d like to address. Misconception #2 is really two, very closely related, misconceptions combined into one.

Misconception #2 – 2 ½: The purpose of scientific inquiry is to prove that a scientific hypothesis is correct, and that a scientific problem is something you solve.

As the Times’ article highlights, public trust of the scientific community has taken a downward spiral in the last eight or so months. This distrust, it is safe to assume, comes partly as a result of the widely-held idea that science is black and white, with no shades of gray. There is either a right or wrong answer, one way to test a hypothesis, and that this one test is meant to prove that a hypothesis is correct.

Unfortunately, science is far more complicated, and the way the general public often thinks it works does not coincide with the reality. Just like everyday life, there are always exceptions to rules and different ways of looking at things. Good research involves approaching a ‘problem’ from many different angles, exploring each one thoroughly. Hypotheses are simply starting points for finding answers – not statements to be proven true.

The public has put their trust in the experts to tell them the "truth" about climate change, but our current way of thinking doesn’t allow for more than one "truth" to exist at the same time. Mainly, we are missing all the gray areas in between. For example, we hear that sheets of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic are melting and dropping off into the sea – which works with our idea of global “warming”. But then we hear that Britain has had uncharacteristically cold winters with heavy snow falls and ice – which seems to contradict the idea that the earth is warming up. What is missed in between is the understanding that changes in the earth’s atmosphere influence weather patterns and that temperature increases relate to overall yearly fluctuations, not any given season at one time.

Without a proper understanding of how science is conducted, is it any wonder that government leaders and the general public have grown frustrated? The big challenge, now, is how to close the gap between perception and reality.

For more information on understanding hypotheses and the scientific method, see our teaching and learning modules Ideas in Science, Uncertainty, Error, and Confidence, and The Scientific Method.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dispelling the Myths: Scientific Misconceptions, Part 1

In the last few months, the IPCC has been the subject of much mud-slinging -- primarily from the Anti-Climate Change camp. Questions about report embellishments and document leaks have been taken by many as “evidence” that the conclusions drawn by the Panel are spurious, at best. Whether you agree with the findings or not, it has become clear through all of this that misconceptions about what science is and how it is conducted are as prevalent as ever.

This week, we’d like to spend some time discussing the misconceptions that have been leading the arguments against climate change and the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. We would love to hear how you are addressing these misconceptions about science and the controversy around the report in your own classrooms.

Misconception #1: Scientists work alone, or interactions between scientists are not important.*

Many people believe that scientists are wacky old folks who hole themselves up in labs and have little interaction with others. If you’re a scientist, or know scientists, this makes for great amusement. Of late, select individuals in government and the media have specifically targeted the Chair of the IPCC as being responsible for the errors in the latest reports (keeping alive this misconception). Why? Likely, this is because it is far easier to write off the ideas of one person than those of a consortium of experts.

Though ignored by most in the media, the IPCC has done a good job documenting their process of science in their Statement on IPCC Principles and Procedures (2 Feb 2010). The major fact to address when discussing Misconception #1 is that the IPCC's scientific practice is not taking place in a vacuum: “IPCC assessment involves a very large proportion of the climate science community at one level or another…450 scientists from 130 countries served as Lead Authors. Another 800 served as contributing authors. More than 2500 experts provided over 90,000 review comments.” Further, these scientists have all contributed their time and energy pro bono, eliminating any chance that their findings were directed by monetary interest.

Approximately 3750 scientists from nations all over the world have contributed research data and analysis to the Fourth Assessment Report, and agreed with the results. Does this mean that mistakes do not happen? Of course not – there are plenty of examples from history to show that they can and do. What it says, though, is that the conclusions drawn and the problems identified are not the fabrication of one person. Through rigorous peer review and discussion, a large body of highly trained specialists came to the same conclusions, regardless of whether they agreed with current popular theories.

If you are interested in learning more about the Process of Science, visit Visionlearning's free, peer-reviewed learning and teaching modules, including Peer Review, Scientists and the Scientific Community, and The Practice of Science.

*J. Ryder, J. Leach, and R. Driver. “Undergraduate Science Students' Images of Science” (1999) Journal of Research in Science Teaching 36(2), 201-219

Monday, March 1, 2010

Welcome to the Visionlearning Blog!

Visionlearning is a free, online resource for students and educators in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Geared toward those studying at high school and undergraduate levels, Visionlearning takes advantage of recent advances in new media to provide students and educators with quality learning and teaching materials. This peer-reviewed and bilingual content improves student understanding of science, facilitates multidisciplinary teaching and works to build community around improving STEM education.

Supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, our mission is to provide educational content that not only explores specific STEM concepts, but examines how we know these things. We feel strongly that an important facet of succeeding in these disciplines is understanding their respective histories, as well as engaging with the process of discovery.

As part of our promise to make science relevant and engaging, we have created this blog to offer educators an additional resource for classroom discussion and teaching. Even more, we hope to create a space where you can share your thoughts and experiences with others and help transform STEM teaching.