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!