Thursday, September 22, 2011

Data Interpretation in the News: BPA

Here at Visionlearning, we are always looking for ways to provide our teachers and students real-life opportunities to put their knowledge to action. In scanning the news, this morning, we came across this interesting commentary on research recently released to the public on links between BPA and breast cancer.

This piece certainly conveys a strong opinion on the part of the author. But more than anything, it offers an excellent analysis of the misconceptions, misinterpretations, and bias that can occur in science. We will leave it up to you to decide if the study itself has merit. In the meantime, if you're looking for a great discussion for your classroom or community group, here you go!

Here are some links that might be useful (aside from the above article):

Let us know if you discuss BPA in your classes or community and what the results have been.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Steer away from controversy? Or grab it by the reigns?

In the August 5th issue of Science Magazine, Sara Reardon discusses the current state of teaching climate change in the K-12 classroom (see News Focus). It's an excellent discussion on the struggles science teachers face in this country, particularly in the wake of so many politicians denying its existence.  "Climate science," she says, has joined "evolution as an inviting target for those who accuse 'liberal' teachers of forcing their 'beliefs' upon a captive audience of impressionable children."

We'd love to hear your suggestions about how to handle this topic in any classroom (K-12 or otherwise). Do you avoid the controversy so as not to deal with parents and administrators? Or do you grab it by the reigns and teach what the controversy is really about? How do you, as a science teacher, deal with those in charge who have bought into the misconceptions surrounding climate change, believing politicians over scientists?

Share your thoughts here, or on our Facebook page.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

New Developments in E-Learning

When Visionlearning started up in 1999, we were on the cutting edge of e-learning. Back then, something as simple as putting educational materials on the web was considered, if not revolutionary, pretty darn clever. In the last decade, though, we've seen monumental changes not just in technology, but in how content is delivered to the masses.

The Sloan Consortium recently held a conference in San Diego that featured some of the newer efforts educators and software developers. From using virtual classroom and presentation software, like Adobe Connect and Mediasite, to utilizing gaming techniques to teach critical thinking, there is certainly a lot of fascinating stuff happening out there.

Visionlearning is in the process of revamping the website in order to take better advantage of many of these new developments. So we wanted to take a moment and ask you, our users, what you think is most important. What types of new media do you find useful? What ways do you use bookmarking tools like Diigo, or do you not bother?

Throughout our redevelopment, we'd like to know what you think, so please let us know in comments below or on our Facebook site.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Google Effect?

In an interesting article published online in Friday's Science, Dr. Betsy Sparrow talks about her study assessing the effects of the Internet on people's memory. Do we, as modern people, rely on the Internet as a giant, collective memory bank and save our own brain-space for the things that are most important to us (and not readily available online)?

Sparrow's study provides some convincing evidence that this may be exactly what we are doing. If we know that we are more likely and able to look something up in the future, we are less likely to retain that content in our own brain.

What are your thoughts on how this might effect the future of education? Not just online learning, but the classroom experience, as well?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Arsenic and Scientific Controversy

The June 3 issue of Science contained a research article written by a NASA astrobiologist fellow, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and her colleagues titled “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” The manuscript reports on research in which the bacterium GFAJ-1 was grown in an environment low in phosphorous and high in arsenic, traditionally considered a toxic and unstable metal. The authors hypothesize that not only does the bacterium tolerate arsenic, but it thrives in the environment, replacing some of the phosphorous normally used to manufacture biomolecules such as DNA, with arsenic. Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida stated that if the authors’ hypothesis proves true, it would “set aside nearly a century of chemical data concerning arsenate and phosphate molecules.”

While the findings of the research are significant, even more remarkable is the discussion and debate that began after the article was first published online by Science on 2 December 2010. By the time of its print publication in the June 3 issue, the manuscript had spawned a record eight Technical Comment articles that were published in the same issue, and a Response to the Technical Comments by the lead author Wolfe-Simon. Several of the Technical Comments questioned whether the DNA was simply contaminated with arsenic instead of having incorporated it into its genome. Others questioned whether arsenate compounds would be stable enough to be utilized in the bacterium’s DNA. In her response, Wolfe-Simon provides further explanation of their work and interpretations. But the controversy over the hypothesis will take much longer to play out. Bruce Alberts, Science’s editor-in-chief, remarked in a note introducing the Technical Comments that “The discussion published … is only a step in a much longer process.” That process will likely involve further research, additional publications, and continued debate until a preponderance of evidence eventually supports or disputes the hypothesis put forth. The research stimulated by scientific controversy is not only a healthy aspect of scientific discourse, it is, in many ways, essential to the process of science as we know it. As we wait for this particular controversy to play out, you can read more about the role that controversy plays in scientific discovery in our website module Scientific Controversy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What's the value of higher education?

There have been a number of articles recently discussing the "value" of a college education (such as this one in the New Yorker) . In other words, given the cost in time and money, is it a good investment to make? Traditional wisdom, with research to support it, is that people with college degrees earn significantly more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, so that even discounting the intangible benefits of higher education, it's still a good investment. So what is driving these new discussions?

The first is that many recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs in the current job market. The unemployment rate in the 20-24 year old age group is 15%, nearly 6% higher than the overall population. Even those with college degrees are struggling, and it's as bad as it's been since 1970.

The second is that the cost of a traditional four-year private University is now around $50k a year (tuition + lodging). Nearly a quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money, especially with the prospect of no job or a low paying job waiting for you when you graduate. With more students graduating with heavy debt burdens, the need to find a job is even more pressing.

The third is the rapid change in skillsets in demand in the workforce. In the technology world for example, four years is a very long time and skills that might have seemed important then are far less relevant now. Consider that the iPhone was introduced just four years ago, and the app store three years ago. Are colleges properly preparing students for the jobs that are actually out there? Do they adjust fast enough to stay relevant?

Finally, there is a large amount of education material available online now, from Visionlearning to OpenCourseWare and Kahn Academy. Why spend money living in an expensive area and taking classes from well paid professors when can you do it all online for free or cheap?

These are interesting discussions to have, but I feel it's important to remember one thing: higher education isn't so much about the actual content that you cover but about how you go about learning it. By physically placing students together in groups (e.g. a class) and working on difficult problems over the course of a semester, they learn skills that are useful in just about any job. The real value of the education is not in the course material but in the process of attainment.

It still would be nice to find a job though, wouldn't it?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Another editorial about teaching the process of science

There have been a lot of editorials in Science and other venues over the past couple of years, calling for more teaching of the process of science. The latest is in the most recent issues of Science, entitled Measuring Student Development, and written by David J. Asai, the director of Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Asai says, "An effective program should enable students to demonstrate an understanding of the process of science, regardless of their academic discipline."

I completely agree. In developing materials for Visionlearning about the process of science, we found it to be very difficult to assess our students' understanding in a single course - it simply does not provide enough time to see change. Asai's suggestion to approach this at a programmatic level reflects the complexity and nuance involved in understanding the process of science, and that it requires building skills over time, as should be the case in an undergraduate program.

Not that assessment at the programmatic level is any easier, but it will undoubtedly produce interesting results that can inform how we integrate the process of science into our teaching.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching about Ethics

I asked students in my research preparation class to read our module on Scientific Ethics, and started the next class by asking them their thoughts and questions about it. One student asked, "How much fraud is happening in science that we don't know about?" The simple answer, of course, is, "We don't know!"

But despite not knowing for sure, I said we can be reasonably confident that there is very little outright fraud going on. Why? I started to support that statement by comparing it to the frequency of fraud in society as whole, but I stopped myself as I remembered recent convictions of high-profile executives on Wall Street and the volume of spam email that I receive. I thought to myself that there is probably less fraud among scientists than in the general population. How could I support this wild claim?

My co-instructor jumped in and pointed out that most of the ethical questions he faces have nothing to do with fraud but are really about not being lazy. It is easier not to follow up on questions brought up by reviewers in the publishing process, for example, or to not take good notes in the lab or the field and then just fudge the data a little bit - those are the ethical issues we face everyday that affect the quality of our science. Cases of outright fraud are rare, indeed, possibly because the rewards are less tangible than the financial gains won through fraud on Wall Street.

With a room full of students embarking on their first research experience, therefore, we turned the conversation to developing scientific habits that foster ethical behaviors: taking detailed and methodical notes on procedures, acknowledging funding sources, adequately citing sources and contributions from other research group members, not being worried about having to get a particular result in order to be successful. The extreme examples they read about helped them see the importance of those little steps in their own research, and motivated them (I hope!) not to be lazy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thinking One Level Up

I was walking through the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University a couple weeks ago, and stumbled upon a group of high school students in one of the galleries, with a tour guide and a couple of teachers.  The tour guide was talking about one of the paintings, describing the artist, and pointing out details in the scene.  He was providing a lot of valuable information, yet about half the students weren't really paying attention.  I could see them shuffling their feet, staring at another piece of art, whispering to a friend, or looking at their cell phones and iPods.

Perhaps some were not interested in art or at least not in the particular details the tour guide was talking about.  Maybe they were busy thinking about their weekend plans.  It started me thinking about what I would do differently to keep their attention.

Your brain has the built in ability to absorb and process information, and then come to conclusions that are beyond the collection of facts you just absorbed.  The absorption part is natural, and it works best when you are working on a problem or thinking one level up.  This doesn't necessarily mean trying to solve complicated problems, but just a problem for which you need the information you're trying to learn.  The best demonstrations of your brain's incredible ability is on display constantly, from walking across a room to catching a baseball.  Each of those amazing feats requires advanced knowledge of physics, mechanics, and more, and cannot be easily replicated by our best robotic efforts to date.  But you didn't need to study any of those topics to get your favorite toy as a toddler: that was your one level up problem when you first starting walking, and your brain figured it all out.

Now let's head back to the art museum.  Rather than trying to have students absorb facts about the artwork, I would ask them to think about some problems.  Why did the artist choose the medium that he or she painted on?  Why is the subject off center?  Why is there so much red?  How old do you think the artist was when the work was created and why?  What would you do differently?

By acting as a facilitator instead of lecturer, we let the students build the core knowledge by thinking and then by talking. This process engages the students, and will likely draw in some of the disinterested students.  Finally, by thinking about and discussing the problems, they'll start generating their own questions and some specific interests of their own.  And the only way to answer those questions is to seek information -- which is what we wanted them to do in the first place.  It's like a learning sneak attack by asking questions, thinking one level up, and then listening instead of talking at the students.

This post was written by Peter Mangiafico, an educator, techie and private pilot living in Silicon Valley.

Do you use this approach in your classroom or study plan? Share how it's working either here or on our Facebook page.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Celebrating Diversity

It's been a devastating two weeks in terms of weather and natural events. Floods in the Southern US, tornadoes in the Midwest, volcanic eruptions in Iceland...I guess we should be glad that the greatest earthquake in the history of Earth didn't strike on Saturday. It's been hard to watch all the destruction. However, it's important to remember that change is a precursor of great things -- even if it's hard to imagine what those great things can be just yet. Adaptation to change is never easy, but it is because of that adaptation that we are able to see so much diversity in the world.

As a respite from all this upset, we thought we'd share some of the more wonderful discoveries from the very recent past (courtesy of Discovery News) that highlight the intriguing and sometimes comical ways nature adapts.

Take, for example, the Darwin bark spider that builds its webs along rivers. In addition to having the strongest spider silk known, it builds some pretty darn long webs -- the longest recorded was 82 feet! That's pretty impressive for a spider less than an inch in size. Go to Discovery News to see a picture of this cute little arachnid. It even seems to have a smiley face on its head!

Or, we can celebrate the discovery new fungi. In Oregon, scientists found the first mushroom that fruits underwater; in the forests of Brazil, a glow-in-the dark 'shroom that resembles Glow Sticks. Out of the estimated 1.5 million species of fungi on the planet, only 71 are thought to be bioluminescent.

Then there is the discovery of a rust-eating bacteria living off the remains of the Titanic. (Not good for the boat, but possibly great for the environment.)

What are some of your favorite species-discoveries of the last few years? Share with us here, on our our Facebook page!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Inspiring Would-be Scientists

Let's face it: we've all had a crisis of faith (or three) during the course of our career development. Whether we're students still working through the long list of required courses, academics trying to build our publication credentials, or established professionals looking for our next breakthrough, we've all had that moment where we look in the mirror and ask: "Am I ever going to get there?"

One of the myths that perpetuates in our society -- especially with regard to science -- is that the Einstein's, Hawking's, and Curie's were all born knowing what they wanted to do with their life and the best route to achieve great things. Without being conscious of it, many of us forget that anyone who has ever accomplished anything had to start at the bottom, and may have had a few round-about turns along their journey.

This week, Nobel prize winners attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles to share some unconventional wisdom with would-be scientists. They weren't talking about how to get into graduate school or best practices in research. Instead, they revealed the more human side of the scientific journey: like alternative careers they explored, some of the more stupid things they did, and the activities they do outside of their award-winning work. (You can read some of the responses here.) We applaud these Laureates for taking a great step toward removing the mysterious veil about scientists.

We welcome all comments: both here and on our Facebook page!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When the Moon is in the Seventh House...

...and Jupiter aligns with Mars.... Okay, we'll spare you our singing. But what we won't spare you is the heads up that this is a great month, and a brilliant week in particular, for stargazing.

Throughout all of May, the eastern pre-dawn horizon will play host to Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter clustered together in a patch of sky less than 10o wide. During the half hour before sunrise, these four planets will be clearly visible in the sky (provided there isn't cloud cover). Venus and Jupiter, in particular, will be hard to miss with their bright luminosity.

On May 11th, the planets will be tightly clustered together, then as the month moves on, they will continually form new shapes in the sky. As the folks at NASA say, "The show comes to an end on May 30th when an exquisite crescent Moon joins the four planets for a Grand Finale--five heavenly lights dotting the eastern sky all at once"

If you manage to get out of bed early enough to see this spectacular celestial display, bring your camera and send us some pics through Facebook! 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Endeavor's Last Flight

As the Space Shuttle Endeavor prepares for its last voyage (scheduled for liftoff today), we would like to take a moment to wish the captain and crew of this voyage safe travels.

The Endeavor is a ship that has certainly lived up to its name over the years, and will do so again today. Named after the ship captained by James Cook in 1768, it was the first shuttle ever to be named by school-children through a national competition, has successfully captured a damaged satellite, housed medical experiments on the human body in space... Like its namesake, it will continue today to be the vessel for new scientific opportunities.

Cook's voyage successfully mapped Australia and New Zealand, documented new plant and animal species, and generally provided the evidence that scientists are great additions to expedition crew. Today's Endeavor crew will continue in this vein by carrying postage-sized stamps of graphene and carbon nanotubes (discoveries of which recently were awarded Nobel Prizes) into space to see how they respond to radiation. Typical materials used in computers (e.g silicon) are destroyed by the radiation. If the graphene and carbon nanotube composition holds well, this could bode well for significant advances in space exploration.

Are you using today's launch in classroom lessons? Let us know how!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Using Science to Teach English Grammar and Reading

It was a wonderful day when President Obama announced the National Math and Science Initiative, drawing attention to the reality that American students are lagging behind many first-world countries in math and science. It did none of us any good to ignore the fact that we ranked 19 out of 31 in math, and 14 out of 31 in science in the last assessment from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So it has been great to see an emphasis in school systems across the country on increasing scientific and math literacy.

However, another important statistic seems to have been lost in all of these education changes. American students also ranked 15 out of 31 in reading -- an important part of the "scientific literacy" concept. Unfortunately, as the extensive budgets cuts in the education system nationally begin to take hold, preserving math and science has taken precedence over almost everything else. Including reading.

That is why it was heartening, recently, to receive an email from Dr. Roma Kriauciuniene at Vilnius University in Lithuania. While not working in the US school system, Dr. Kriauciuniene's classroom activities have taken "scientific literacy" to a whole new level. Using our Visionlearning module on States of Matter, she has devised a complete lesson on English grammar and comprehension.

In the lesson, students are asked (before reading the module) to define certain key words out of context, matching them to their Lithuanian translations. Other parts of the lesson include identifying the correct verb tense (in context), filling in the blanks, inserting omitted prepositions, and identifying proper headings for specific paragraphs.

What we love about Dr. Kriauciuniene's lesson is its interdisciplinary approach. She is teaching reading in general, English vocabulary and grammar, and science all at the same time. For those of us working in the US, building lessons like this could be an excellent way of helping our students bridge the language and literacy gaps that contribute to low science and math scores. (It might also help some of the English classes survive budget cuts...)

Do you use Visionlearning modules in a unique way? We would love to hear about it. Send us an email, or post a note on our Facebook page.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Now, where did I park the car again?

The workings of the human brain, particularly memory storage, have been a fascination of scientists and laypeople alike for centuries. For many of us with spotty memories, improving retention has been a somewhat Holy Grail -- we know there's a way. There has to be. But what is it? What could we possibly do to increase our ability to remember?

In the March 17 issue of Nature, scientists from Duke University Medical Center help to answer this question. It's about synapses in the brain and the length of time they occur. According to the authors, the length of the biochemical signaling process determines the strength of the connection in the brain, and leads to long-term memory storage. The researchers have found "a cascade of signaling molecules that allows a usually very brief signal to last for tens of minutes, providing the brain framework for stronger connections (synapses) that can summon a memory for a period of months or even years."

This discovery is likely to have significant bearing on the research into Alzheimer's disease, autism, and other conditions of the brain. For more information about the research, visit

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Need a Virtual Nerd?

There are times when even the most math-savvy of us can't figure out how to solve a problem. Other times, we struggle to grasp math concepts that are important to our research and studies. Now the folks at Quantile have brought us Math@Home to get us through.

Math@Home is the most recent addition to the Virtual Nerd system and was created to provide assistance to students struggling in math. While it's catered toward students in K through 12, it can be helpful to students of all ages and grades. Parents can create an account for children, specifying the state they live in to make sure the tutoring coincides with state curriculum, or students can create accounts for themselves. It allows you to enter textbook titles, then provides resources to augment the in-class learning (including instructional videos). The system also allows for quantile measurement, so you can track learning progress.

Have you used Virtual Nerd or Math@Home? Let us know your thoughts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who are you calling a hagfish?

Myxine glutinosa: the name (almost) says it all. The Atlantic Hagfish is well known for its ability to excrete a sticky, glutinous substance from its skin -- hence its more widely known moniker, "slime eel." The hagfish can excrete enough of this strong, fibrous slime at one time to fill a milk jug, giving it excellent protection against predators. (Imagine trying to wipe a gallon of super glue off your gills.)

But it seems the skin of the hagfish isn't just about excreting. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada have recently learned that absorption is going on, too. More specifically, as the hagfish burrows into a carcass to feed, it takes in nutrients through its mouth AND through its skin and gills. Who would have thought?

While this has been seen in invertebrate fishes, it's the first documentation of such an system in an animal so close to modern fishes and invertebrates (hagfish have a notochord, not an actual backbone). This reseasrch isn't just about nutrients, however. As a sea creature, hagfish also have to deal with saline levels (which can affect cell osmosis) and temperature changes. How their skin can handle these, as well as nutrient transfer, could lead to some interesting and important applications.

This "nasty creature of the sea" might not be so nasty after all! Read more about this new discovery here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mobile Technology in the Classroom

Mineral identification app for the iPad
It's pretty hard not to notice how ubiquitous mobile media consumption has become in the last 2 to 3 years. Comscore's 2010 US Digital Year in Review reports that "nearly 47 percent of mobile subscribers [are] connected media users" -- accessing information through browsers, apps, etc. Some institutions, like Long Island University, have started iPad Projects to assess the effect of new media technology on learning. At Visionlearning, our yearly assessment showed a remarkable increase in users accessing our site through mobile devices like iPads and smart phones.

So with this in mind, it begs the question: is mobile access the way of the future? If so, how does this change the way we (educators) disseminate information both within and outwith the classroom? And where is the content for use on these devices coming from?

There is currently a noticeable dearth of materials out there for educators and students to access. Most educational publishers seem to be going the route of exporting their textbooks into ePub and PDF format for use through apps like Stanza and iBooks. At the end of the day, though, how different is reading a book on a screen from reading it in paper format? It may be easier to carry, but in terms of its effect on learning...reading is reading.

There are many wonderful apps out there, as well -- everything from conversion tools to homework helpers. Though, again, these are created more toward revision and providing support (just like a calculator) than expanding the learning process. We can't help but feel that there is something more that these devices can be doing. Is the way forward about creating more interactive experiences? And if so, how will these experiences differ from those a student might get in the classroom or lab?  What are the benefits?

You can see there are a lot of questions, but not so many answers. Part of that may simply be that it is up to each of us to define how we use these devices and why. A significant part, though, may be that we aren't necessarily sure, yet, how the devices can enhance learning in a truly effective way -- at least not in a way that isn't already being tried with Multiple Intelligence/Learning Style theory.

What do you think? Is iPad, etc., usage in the classroom just another fad? How would you like to use these devices in teaching and/or learning?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Make Lemons Out of Lemonade

It's been a wacky winter for many of us, to say the least. It seems like every time we finish cleaning up from a storm, another one comes barreling in. While we're all probably pretty much done with snowfall for one winter (unless you ski), here are some fun ways to entertain yourself with what's already on the ground.

For example, make snow art! Not only is snow a great sculpting material, it takes to color quite nicely. Use spray bottles filled with cold water and food coloring to give your sculptures some dimension. Or, enjoy using your physics knowledge. Kristen Will and Samantha Stewart in Canada played around to see what would happen to boiling water when it comes into contact with -22 F air. Experiment and let us know what you discover.We'd love to hear what you're up to!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New and Improved Quizzes

2010 was an introspective year here at Visionlearning. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to make what we offer more accessible to you -- the result, in part, being this blog and our Facebook page. We've launched updates to our Glossary App so you don't have to set the language default to English, and added terms and names to our Glossary. We even published our Process of Science modules in book form!

And we spent a lot of time rewriting our quizzes.

With the exception of the Chemistry modules, all of our modules now have improved quizzes! In many cases it was a matter of adding more question items. (All of our quizzes have between 7 and 10 questions, now, and are more comprehensive.) In other cases it was about getting rid of old items and replacing them with fresh ones.

In our efforts to be of better service to students and teachers, we used Bloom's Taxonomy as a basis for this revision. Not only do our questions test your knowledge in different ways, they give a far better idea of knowledge gaps. What could be better than that? We translated them into Spanish! Since many of our users read the Spanish versions of our modules for support, we thought it only made sense to translate the quizzes as well.

There are more change to come in 2011, so stay tuned. And, we are always looking for feedback, so let us know what you think when you take one of the revised quizzes. If you have other suggestions for our website, send us an email! We want to hear from you.