Say “hi” to Google Wave

picture-14Looks like there’s a new tool in town – Google Wave.  It’s basically a real-time communication platform.  One-stop-shopping for email, IM, wikis, chat, project management, and social networking. The press about it so far has been very, very positive.  One reason for the raves is that it is open source – so extensions and applications can be fitted to it in order to modify it to your specific needs.  It will be released later this year (according to the Google site).

Here are a few links to help you get a feel for it:

GoogleWave sneak peak (from Google).

Article about its release.

A guide to the terminology (but of course, there’s new jargon!).

A video clip showing a demo of it.

A few of the extensions that have already been demonstrated will allow collaboratin with maps, auctioning extensions for selling things, rating /reviewing items, and extensions that push content out to an existing blog.  Looks like this could be very interesting.  Keep your eyes and ears open.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,

Dung Beetles

Horned BeetleWhen I grow up, I want to be Terry Gross (the host and interviewer on the NPR show, Fresh Air).  She’s got to have the best job in the world.  For those of you who are fans of the show, you know that Terry Gross interviews the world’s most interesting people – from politicians, to artists, to scientists, to authors, to musicians, to entertainers.  And she’s so good at it.  She asks the best questions and always gets the full story.

She didn’t let me down this month when she interviewed Doug Emlen (University of Montana) who is an entomologist who studies dung beetles and has become an expert in insect weaponry.  Dr. Emlen described the creatures he studies and their amazing horns – so elaborate and intricate.  He walked Terry through a vivid description of the beetle’s turf battles and how they use their fancy armor to protect, defend, and establish sexual dominance.  His tales of collecting dung beetle specimens from around the world were entertaining and delightful.

Past Fresh Air episodes are all available online as podcasts.  Here is a link to the 40-minute interview with Emlen.  You can also find some amazing video of the dung beetles fighting.  And Dr. Emlen’s web  site includes a gallery of gorgeous photos of the beetles he studies.

This stuff is like biological bon bons.


Using Spreadsheets to Introduce the Logistic Population Growth Model

This post is a continuation of exploring the use of spreadsheets in high school biology.  I’ve started with a rather obvious topic:  population growth.  What I present is only one possible scenario which is meant only as a starting point.  Two themes I hope are apparent as you read through these posts:  1.  I use questioning techniques to help the students connect to their previous knowledge while they are developing new understandings and 2.  I really work hard to have the patience to allow the students time to work out their own solutions on the spreadsheets with only a little intervention from me.  That’s the beauty of spreadsheets–they can quickly provide feedback to the students as to whether or not they’ve entered their formulas correctly or even if their proposed formulas work the way the student hoped.   In other words, making mistakes and fixing them is a critical part of these exercises.  Don’t cheat the students out of a learning opportunity by providing too much help/guidance.   In these posts I’ve suggested that you work out the spreadsheet yourself before checking out the embedded sheets.   In my experience, my mistakes help to inform my teaching as well.  I doubt that I’ve ever created an original spreadsheet model the first time from scratch that I didn’t subsequently correct or modify–that’s an essential part of the process.

Earlier posts in this series:

Sparrow Lab

Exponential Growth

At the end of the exponential growth post I mentioned that mathematical models can be additive–perhaps I should have said modular.  The exponential equation developed in the earlier sheet now serves as the core for more sophisticated models.


At this point with my students I enter a conversation that explores what they see in the real world.  Do populations continue to grow exponentially?  Why not?  What factors might limit population size?  Eventually, using guiding questions we follow a path that leads to a new concept:  carrying capacity.   At this point, with student input, I sketch a graph on the board that has the x-axis labeled time and the y-axis labeled population size.  I then draw a horizontal line across the top of the graph that I label carrying capacity.  I ask the student to do the same on a piece of paper and then challenge them to sketch a line that represents a population that grows exponentially at first but as the population size approaches the carrying capacity the population growth slows and the population size levels off.   Eventually, the class agrees that a likely scenario would be an S-shaped line, with an increasing slope early on, with a transition zone where the slope changes to a decreasing slope and an eventual leveling.

With the target in mind, I bring the class back to their earlier spreadsheet model of exponential growth that had two terms:  N and r.   I ask a number of question such as:  “Which of the two terms change as the exponential equation is recalculated”  “Which term is constant?”  “If we wanted to modify the exponential growth curve into the S-shaped curve what has to happen to r?” (no longer constant)   At this point I introduce a new variable to the work:  “K” which represents carrying capacity.  (Naturally, there is further discussion about carrying capacity in the real world and in the model.)

Now, for the hard part—having the students come up with the logistic expression themselves.  First I remind the students about the algebraic form of the exponential equation that they represented their earlier spreadsheet:

Nt = N(t-1) + r*N(t-1)

The discussion has already focused on the “r” term which is in the second expression.  I ask the questions such:  “What part of the graph is population growth maximal?  minimal?”  “How can we change ‘r’ to maximize growth? minimize growth?”  “Now if the spreadsheet has a constant value of ‘r’ how might we change that value during the calculations?”    At this point I will introduce the idea of adding another expression to the equation–the logistic.  “Is there some mathematical expression that we could add to this equation that maximizes ‘r’ early but minimizes ‘r’ in later generations?”  “Can you think of an expression that includes just the N variable and the K variable that can be multiplied times ‘r’ to fill the needs of the model?”  or  “Can you think of an expression that is approximately equal to “1″ when N (the population size) is small but approximately equal to “0″ when N approaches K in size?”  At this point I let the students “discover” this expression themselves.  I ask them to try out the expressions they think will work in their spreadsheet.  To evaluate their proposed expression put it in the spreadsheet and use the graph produced to evaluate whether the expression works as planned.

The first time I tried this, the students took most of an hour and went through quite a bit of frustration.  I’m not really sure why I thought they could “empirically” determine this expression or what I thought they’d get out of it but I realized part of the value of the exercise when all of a sudden, one of the girls jumped up and yelled “Yeaaaah, I’ve got it”.  I decided to not have her share her strategy with the others—but instead prompted them to keep trying.  Eventually the entire class came around to the logistic expression:  (K-N)/K    Definitely a powerful experience.  The students learn that they can solve seemingly impossible problems with hard work but they also learn how to think about mathematical models in of biology.  It’s fairly easy to discuss  now, the limitations and the power of the model.  BTW, that first student is now a professional biologist.

I hope that you try to create this spreadsheet yourself before you ask students to do so.  Here is an example of how the spreadsheet model might be formulated.

Link to the spreadsheet in case the embed feature is not working.


Make a Book Online


Here’s an online utility that you might want to consider using for student projects – - online book creation sites.  Sites like Lulu, XLibris, and Bookemon are free utilities that allow you to create a book, using your own assets (text and images).  These sites are well designed, easy and intuitive to use.


In order to build your own book, you go to the site of your choice, create a free account, upload your pictures or text (word documents) and the site creates the book for you.  On Lulu and XLibris, you can create your own cover design. In the case of Bookemon, you can go further and design your own layout, adding text boxes, borders, and frames.

Once your book is just as you want it, you can publish it and  – if you want – buy a copy.  The price of the printed book depends, of course, on a variety of factors (e.g. length, color, type of binding) but you can typically purchase a 50-page physical book for about $20.  On the Lulu site you can list your book in their online catalog for others to purchase and you can offer up ebook versions of it for people to download.

On the Bookemon site, you can share the online version of your book with others either by providing a link or embedding code into your web site or social networking site.

Here’s a 41-page book on Acadia National Park that one of Cheryl Hollinger’s (Central York High School) students created using the Bookemon site.  The photos above are pages from this students’ book.  Her wonderful creation gives the reader a very good feel for the park – both scenically and biologically.  And she was careful to provide references and options for more information at the end.

Poetry, cookbooks, memory books, or books on a topic (like Cheryl did with her students) all sound like useful and creative ways for students to express themselves.


hESC, the NIH, May 26 and SCES @ NABT

gresga1ckwjrlw5uqyz3uhobmcevn9_hsn2wav-khdu_5The deadline is Tuesday May 26th. Do you have an opinion about hESCs or human embryonic stem cells?  Have you weighed in on the request from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for feedback on their Human Stem Cell Guidelines?  If you are uncertain how to reply you can find out a lot more about the issues at the Stem Cell Education Summit in Denver in November. 


In my last post I introduced the Keynote Speaker, Dr. Mario R. Capecchi, Nobel Laureate, from the University of Utah.  Today I will tell you that there will be three panels held during the Saturday event.  The first panel will address the issues of Stem Cell Science.  One of the guest panelists is Gabriela Gelbrin Cezar, DVM., Ph.D. whose lab seeks to identify biochemical pathways and translational biomarkers that are altered by known disruptors of human development using metabolomics* of hES cells and neural precursors derived from hES cells.  Gabby also has her own company, Stemina Biomarkers Inc and is a wonderful model for our female students who are debating if science is for them.  Read Closing the Gap The Women Behind Stemina Biomarker Discoveries. ( 


I had the opportunity to meet Gabby at the World Stem Cell Summit in Madison Wisconsin in September 2008 and she is the epitome of South American charm, brilliance and an absolute fashion plate down to the bottom of her pointy toed shoes, of which she is notoriously famous! Visit her lab at and her bio at then check out her science during the first Panel on Stem Cell Science with the other interesting researcher participants.



Postscript: Metabolomics*???  Here is an explanation straight from Wikipedia to you!

Metabolomics is the “systematic study of the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind” – specifically, the study of their small-molecule metabolite profiles [1] (, The metabolome represents the collection of all metabolites in a biological organism, which are the end products of its gene expression. Thus, while mRNA gene expression data and proteomic analyses do not tell the whole story of what might be happening in a cell, metabolic profiling can give an instantaneous snapshot of the physiology of that cell. One of the challenges of systems biology and functional genomics is to integrate proteomic, transciptomic and metabolomic information to give a more complete picture of living organisms.


According to SEED magazine Issue 21 Science is Culture April 2009, this is just the type of biomedical science that needs attention in addition to stem cell research.  So,come to the SCES and get twice the information for one sweet registration.  

Written by bunnyj19 in: Biology Teaching |

A Father’s Day Observation

All that talk about baby birds fledging in my last post got me to thinking about a blog entry I made a number of years ago.  Actually I think the journal entry that this came from is dated June 15th, 2003, but it is just as relevant today.

Just a little observation I made last June—

What a day I had last Sunday. It was Father’s Day and the weather in Northeast Ohio was magnificent. I took the opportunity of a lazy afternoon to sit on my back porch and while listening to the music of WKSU (my local Public Radio station,) to read a new history of evolutionary thought that I had recently purchased. Evolution, the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory by Edward Larson, it is called. Reading about the powerful arguments and discussions that resulted from Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origin Of Species is always a pleasure for me. But especially when sitting in my back yard on a lazy afternoon. It is a wooded lot and I have had the pleasure of watching a nesting pair of house wrens all spring. Sunday was a special day for the House Wrens, and for my wife and I as well. It was a day that reminded me about being a teacher and also about being a parent. Sunday was the day that the young wrens first left the nesting bottle that had been their home for the past 15 days or so. Betsy first noticed them early in the morning. (I was out playing golf too early to even want to remember.) She told me that she saw four small wrens, First two then the next two. They were flitting around the garden. They would fly from the hanging nest bottle to the garden fence. Then to the branches just above the bottle, then back to the bottle. First two, then the other two. Then she said she saw the bigger “parent” birds leave the bottle for a while. By the time I got home the routine was being repeated over and over again, but by noon they were adventuring out much farther a field–to the split rail fence we have maybe 50 yards away–to the branches of more distant trees–then finally back to the nest. But as the afternoon wore on and I kept glancing up from my reading I noticed that there was a ruckus at the nest. The parent birds were not to be seen, but the young were still flying about. When they landed you could see them flutter their wings. Possibly getting feathers into place? Maybe getting used to the new skill of flight? Who knows? But I kind of thought that they were pretty amazed at this flying thing. Of course I was reading a book on the history of evolution, so I was really trying to be more scientific, more objective in my interpretations. Then I noticed what the commotion was at the nesting site. When the young landed and tried to get in there was a loud distress sound coming from the opening and the young bird would fly away. The noise was the same one I had been hearing for three weeks whenever I walked near the bottle, when I mowed the lawn or checked the holes in my garden fence that the local rabbits created when they breached the security of what I thought was an impenetrable barrier around my 5 tomato, four cucumber and 3 zucchini plants. But that’s another story for another time. This distress call was pretty effective. It got my attention and I tended to move away from the nest. Pretty much what was supposed to happen. But now it was being used for another reason. I was nowhere near the nest, only the returning young. I started to wonder about the sequence of steps in the raising of a young house wren, and since it was Father’s Day, in the raising of a young daughter or son (I’m a step-dad to two daughters, but I have an imagination.) Then I thought about being a teacher. It’s pretty much the same, and I have been doing that for 31 years now. I imagined the house wren parents’ thoughts.

“We have worked for almost a month to get to this day. We flew in to the yard, we scoped out the best nest site. We checked the big wooden apple that hangs in the Maple tree near the wooden fence. We looked at a nest we built two years ago in a bottle that is mounted on the shed and even looked at the new bottle on the other side of the shed. We found the hanging bottle that we used last year and started to “fix-it-up.” I added more twigs and some soft grass. Then I lined it with feathers from my own chest. That’s when I started to mark the territory. I marked it with sound. Calling out my bubbling, chatter song at each of the corners of the yard. I did this to attract the mate too of course. Since I had the best nest sites I guess the selection was rather easy. Nonetheless, we got down to the business of creating the new lives. We had four new eggs to care for and we did care for them. Every minute of every hour, one of us was there. Sitting-on or turning. Watching and protecting. Calling out when danger came near them trying to distract any intruders. We took turns getting food for one another and watching and turning and just waiting. The eggs hatched and that’s when the work started. Food, food, food. Both of us getting food for the chicks—four of them!!! Bringing it in and stuffing it into the biggest open mouths in the nest. Get food, fly in, stuff it in and then go get more food. For twelve to fifteen days. Soon we were also cleaning up. Fly in get the white fecal sack and take it out. We did not just drop it. That would make finding the chicks too easy. We flew it away and then dropped it. Fifteen days and then the day of flight came. We taught you to fly. We taught you to catch the winds and to land. We taught you how to look for insects, to feed yourself. Later in the day we started to repeat the song, the song for territory marking and for courting. We repeated it at the four corners of the yard. We sang it by the garden and by the big maple. But we also let you hear another sound. The distress sound. You heard it when you tried to return to the nest. You were tired from your lessons and wanted to come back to the nest. But we have given you gifts. We have taught you how to fly, how to hunt and how to sing. We have given you all the tools you will need to succeed, to survive. You can’t come back home now. That is what the distress sounds mean. Now you need to go out, to go out to find a new yard with your own wooden fence, your own maple tree, your own nest bottles and ultimately your own lives. This is the gift we gave you. We gave you knowledge, skills, tools. We were your parents and we were your teachers. Now you hear the distress sound when you return because you are ready to go off and be house wrens yourselves. Fly now, sing your songs.”

Of course I didn’t hear any of this conversation, but I’m sure it what was being said Sunday afternoon. It made me think about being a teacher (and a parent.) We work hard to get the site ready—the classroom, the unit, the lesson, the special project. We study, we prepare, we devise and we plan. Then we work to give the students the skills they will need to succeed and to survive. dsc_0058That’s what we do; we get them ready to survive. Sometimes they don’t want to leave, but they are ready. They can succeed and they move on to fly, to sing their songs, and we start all over again with a new brood the next season.

So I sit here and listen to the song lessons and to the distress sounds when the young birds try to get back in and I think about doing that for 31 years and then I smile.

It has really been 37 years, but I’m still smiling!!



The new web site

The new web site

The federal government just launched a new web site:  It’s a compendium of pretty amazing (and amazingly huge!) data sets and tools – all free and available to the public.

In the “About” section of the site, they explain that the “open government” priority of the Obama administration is the driving force behind this new site.  It is an attempt to improve access to Federal data and expand the creative use of those data beyond the walls of government.

I’m thinking there might be some good stuff in here for biology teachers.  Here’s a sampling of a few intriguing data sets that I found on the site:

- FluView:  a natioanl flu activity map (there’s also a state-by-state map)

- Cancer Incidence:  Surveillance, epidemiology and end results

- Residential Energy Consumption Survey:  conducted every four years, provides national statistical survey data on the use of energy in residential housing

- American Census Data

- American FactFinder:  a tool designed to search the American Community Survey, Decennial Census, Economic Census, and population estimates.

Fun stuff.  There’s a handy search engine on the home page of the site where you can indicate the kind of data you’re interested in and which federal agency(ies) you want to query.

It’s not perfect (of course).  The data available is limited (they’re promising to add more) and, curiously, there’s nothing from the Securities and Exchange Commission (hmmm…).   I would love to hear ideas about how this might be used in teaching.


Animal Man….?? –>Web Cams To the Rescue


“Hi.  We just started a survey of the animal kingdom and were wondering if you knew of a person or place who might bring some different types of animals in and teach the classes about them?  It needs to be free because we are past the spending deadline.  Any ideas?  Thanks!”

I got this e-mail request from a long time teaching friend just last week.  We have all been there.  It is past the time we can submit P.O.’s.  We want to try to do something a little different in our class.  It is the time of the year when the kids, the teachers, even the administrators would rather be somewhere else (this might occur at any time of the year, but the bell curve is skewed towards late May in many schools.)  What to do??

Here is what I wrote back—

Not that I know of.  Wally Hintz (my high school biology teacher and a Grandfather to a student in my friend’s class,) has a few animals, ask his grandson.  The Metroparks only bring animals for programs and these have a cost.  You might contact Jungle Terry–he might be convinced to come as a promotion of his visits?????

If all else fails, assign students to find a variety of animal cams on-line, they then need to observe them for a period of time as an assignment and then have them present their web sites to the classes and discuss classification as well as behaviors.

Well, what about using Web Cams in the classroom?  It is amazing what you can find on a web cam.  Of course, many Web Cam sites are blocked by school IT departments, as you can imagine, but there are many terrific sites to be found.  Check out some of the sites that I listed for my bio teacher friend.  The National Zoo in D.C. has 20 animal cams itself.  Here is a list of the animals your class can visit, observe, and learn about:

My favorite from this list is the Naked Mole Rat, but I have enjoyed their Microscope Cam at the MicroTheatre Cam site too.  Or how about the Animal Webcam Locator and Web Site Directory, where each listing leads you to many other sites that have live animal cams?  I just now got back from South Africa……    (Well, virtually this time.)  I used the site ( and was zoomed off to the Tembe Elephant Park where I saw a lone zebra at the water hole that the Web Cam was focused on.  I had to put up with a commercial or two, but with my volume turned down, it was not too distracting. cameraimagephpBy going to Elephant Plain, I saw a number of views in South Africa because the camera had multiple positions.  Did I mention that the Web Cams usually have microphones too?  I was watching the African plains and listening to the birds that were there.  I have toruble identifying all the Ohio birds by song, now I have to learn the birds of the African plains too!!~!    Check out some of these sites, but I warn you, THEY CAN BE ADDICTING !!  I write this from personal experience.  As you might have read in an earlier posting, I have established a small Bluebird nesting box trail around the Environmental Learning Center where spend my time these days.  A friend sent me the following web site–   .     When I first took a look at the site there were 5 bluebird eggs on camera.  Within 2 days they were staring to hatch.  The next time I looked four young hatchlings were squirming about their neatly kept nest.  ”Mom” and “Dad” (or more scientifically–the male parent and the female parent,) were constantly flying in and out.  Feeding, warming, cleaning up after the four new birds.  the fifth egg was not hatched.  The site shows how may “observers” are tuned in and it also has a chat function.  I did not add to the natural chatter (the young were starting to exercise their voices every time one of the parent birds landed on the nest box,) by participating in the on-line chat, but I read what others were writing.  What about the 5th egg?  I found myself checking on it for over a day and half.  Well, according to the on-line chat, it hatched at 9 pm on the day following the first four.  I DID notice that there were 75 or so other people that were watching and cheering on hat last egg.  Over the next 10 or 12 days I glanced at the fedmecam site to watch the birds bringing food (mostly mealworms as provided by the nest cam’s owner,) picking up fecal sacs, and sitting on the new birds (the female both brought food and sat on the young, the male only brought food.)  I had the site on the big 42 inch monitor we have at the environmental site.  Visitors (1000′s of 3rd and 4th grade students from the two counties we serve,) were able to see our nest boxes, watch “our” Bluebirds flying around and in and out of our nest boxes, and they were able to see inside a nest box from Blue Ridge, Georgia.  How great is that?   But the addiction did take it’s toll.  When the birds were ready to fledge the Bluebird world was at hand.  For almost three days there were anywhere from 75 to over 100 Bluebird fans on this site.  From the chatroom chatter that was constantly being posted on the site lots of work was NOT getting done.  picture-3There were viewers from all over the US and from lots of other countries as well.   They finally did fledge, on Saturday, May 16th.  The last ones left the box in early afternoon.  All are doing fine according the owner of the nestbox cam.  But this little story doesn’t end here.

While I was on the site I started to explore setting up my own Web Cam.  The site was being broadcast by USTREAM.TV    This is a free WebCam hosting site.  There are occasional advertisements that pop up , but it is free to you and I.  I signed-up.  I experimented.  I broadcast myself all over the World!  (Of course, since no one knew the URL of my site, no one saw me, but I was there!)  Then I found another site–JustIn.TV       I tried that site too.  No problem.   This time I decided to broadcast my little garden pond.  Again, no one knew my “station”, but it was there–from one corner of the World to the other, just like the Elephant Cam from South Africa.  Now my goldfish and koi are no match for an African Elephant, but think of the possibilities!  If you want to see what this looked like I did record a short bit for all to see even when I am Off Air!  Go to JustIn.TV/richardbenz  ignore the big ugly picture of the Australian Benz and select “More from richardbenz.”   There are two clips of my pond and my fish.  If you look really close you might see a frog or two too.  dsc_0054

So there you are.  Use the World Wide Web to travel the world.  Think about creating some significant lessons with the site you find.  Think about journaling, think about recording behaviors observed, think about diversity of life studies.  I know that we need to get our students out into the real world more.  We need to be sure to “leave no child indoors,” but sometimes traveling to the National Zoo or traveling to the plains of Africa or the rivers of Alaska is just not practical.   But be careful, it can be addicting!!!


Written by richardbenz in: Biology Teaching |

When Biology Becomes Personal

medical_symbol_2I have been teaching biology at one level of academia or another for over 25 years. It is a passion for me. I have taken on the role of missionary and zealot and even proselytizer — spreading the word far and wide on how to view the world through a biologist’s eyes and how to teach biology better.

But the study of biology was taken to a whole new level for me this year; it got downright personal. In December, my digestive system started to disagree with me daily and I thought I was battling run-of-the-mill midlife gastric problems (acid reflux, etc.), but I was quite unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

There is nothing to grab a biology teacher’s attention more than an attack from within. And I find there are two people in my life living this crisis — the woman who is fighting for her life and the biologist who is watching what a body does when parts of it falter. I have never looked at the human body so mechanistically before. We are a finely-tuned machine with little tolerance for failure in any of its parts. Constrict a bile duct and watch your skin turn yellow from the backed up waste products of your liver. During radiation treatments my hemoglobin count plummeted and I was reduced to a tired, wheezing old woman who couldn’t walk up the school stairs without pausing every few steps, legs aching. But a transfusion of whole blood rejuvenated me overnight like they had changed the oil and tuned me up. Amazing what a little more oxygen will do for this machine! And natural selection takes on a whole new meaning once you contemplate a personal internal battle between your working cells and your cancer cells and you hope your selfless, cooperative, follow-the-rules cells win the competition.

After taking care of my immediate health needs and the emotional needs of my own teenage children, I realized my biggest challenge was how to tell my students. I struggled with this. My administration didn’t want me to and came up with every argument they could: it is a private matter, it will be too upsetting to the students, we would have to alert parents first, and then finally suggesting that I explain it without using the word “cancer” to which I could only reply, “Doh!”. If I didn’t personally explain this to my students what would clarify my frequent absences, my loss of hair, my increasing weakness. It was obvious to me, we (my students and I) had to tackle this together as we did the challenge of our coursework. After that it came easy.

For my AP class, I interrupted the current lesson and started a brief chat with, “OK, you know that I have been sick. I’m going to tell you what is up. We are only going to talk about this for a couple of minutes because we have work to do, and I get tired of talking about it all the time anyway…” After I finished I gave my students an opportunity to ask questions. After one student asked if this runs in my family and I told them about a genetic study I joined to investigate that, another student spoke up about how she was going through genetic testing because so many women in her family had breast cancer. This prompted another student to talk about the recent diagnosis of his grandfather. It really was a moment. A couple of weeks later another student from class came to me privately to tell me his own story of battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a child and to assure me that there was always hope. I was honored that he shared such a moment with me… I was moved to tears by his generosity.

For my 10th grade class, I found a teaching moment to segue smoothly into the discussion. At the end of the mitosis lecture after I explained how cancer was mitosis gone awry, I was able to turn to the class and say “And this is a battle I am fighting now…” and then talked about the treatments I was undergoing.

I have found that this matter-of-fact approach has allowed many students to feel comfortable enough to come to me and talk about how cancer is touching their lives now. I am startled at how many there are!

So now, I am fighting the fight… dancing with Patrick Swayze… reserving judgment with Ruth Bader Ginsburg… and hoping beyond hope that I am not ready to join the teaching ranks with Randy Pausch. I can do nothing else but use the personal lessons of my life as teaching moments for my students.

September 2009 update: After getting a good response from chemo and radiation treatments, in late July 2009, I underwent a Whipple procedure at Sloan Kettering (NYC) to battle my pancreatic cancer. I think it may be interesting to biologists to see how they re-do the plumbing in your digestive tract during such a procedure. If you think so, please check this resource at the Mayo Clinic. I have spent the last two months recovering from this daunting surgery and my body is still trying to figure out how digestions works with this new geography. I started work full-time along with the rest of my faculty in September and will be undergoing chemo through the Fall as a preventative against this usually persistent cancer. So right now, I count my self amongst the lucky 15% that survives pancreatic cancer and look forward to the opportunity of discussing my Whipple experience with my students when we learn about the digestive system!

Kim Foglia

Kim Foglia


Two Evolution Education Workshops for teachers in WA, ID, and northern CA

Evolution 101: Evolution and Biogeography
June 12, 2009

Washington State University, Pullman, WA

Washington and Idaho teachers are invited to attend a one-day workshop on teaching evolution: “Evolution 101″.  This workshop will be held on the campus of Washington State University, in Pullman, WA.  This workshop will cover a diversity of topics and will include short lectures, panel discussions, and hands-on activities.  We will also be giving away free teaching resources to all participants, and will also be raffling off some bigger prizes as well.  This will be a relaxed and fun event that will help give you the tools you need to better educate your students.

As an added bonus, all workshop participants will also be given admission to the Evolution Meetings being held on the University of Idaho campus in nearby Moscow, Idaho (see  These meetings bring together top scientists from across the world who do research on evolution and also teach it at the college level.  Workshop participants will be given full admission to the Evolution Meetings, including an Education Symposium and a lecture by Dr. Eugenie Scott, author of Evolution vs. Creationism. The Evolution Meetings are a great place to learn about the latest research in evolutionary biology and meet world-class scientists.
If you would like additional information, please go to 
Think Evolution: A summer institute for science educators
August 11-14th, 2009

University of California Museum of Paleontology

Calling all middle and high school science teachers!

Put on your evolution eyeglasses and your nature of science thinking cap and join us for a fun-filled four days of evolutionary explorations with biologists and educators from the University of California. The Think Evolution Summer Institute will combine lectures by prominent biologists with sessions focused on hands-on activities for the middle and high school classroom. Topics to include: tree-thinking; mechanisms and applications of evolution; molecular and human evolution; and the important role of developmental biology in generating new insights into evolution. Hear about the most recent developments in evolution and have an opportunity to explore how to integrate these topics into your curriculum. Follow up with biologists and participating educators at the Evo-Picnic to be held the following February.

Tuesday through Friday, August 11–14, 2009
UC Museum of Paleontology, Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley
9:00 am to 3:00 pm

$75.00 for four days (college credit available for additional cost); includes lots of free resources distributed to participating teachers plus morning and afternoon snacks.

Details at the following website:



gresga1ckwjrlw5uqyz3uhobmcevn9_hsn2wav-khdu_3So, you may have already figured out the acronym with which I ended my first post, especially if you have read the latest News & Views. Most people have lots of fun with acronyms.  What a challenge to see how creative our thinking can be when a set of letters and numbers are put before us! World Stem Cell Education Summit for Teachers is what WSCES4T represents. This is actually a bit of literary license on my part because the 2009 World Stem Cell Summit, sponsored by the Genetics Policy Institute (GPI) takes place in Baltimore this upcoming September while the Stem Cell Education Summit (SCES) takes place in Denver this upcoming November at the NABT Annual Conference. How are these two organizations connected?
Well, as it turns out, NABT is actually PARTNERING with GPI to unite educators with the Stem Cell Community.  That is GPI’s specialty.  In fact, the cover of their 2008 World Stem Cell Summit Program Guide showed how Science, Business, Policy, Law, Ethics, and Advocacy all came together in Madison, Wisconsin. UW-Madison is the “home” of James A. (Jamie) Thomson, the developmental biologist who was the first to isolate embryonic stem cell lines from a non-human primate in 1995.  Do you remember seeing Dr. Thomson’s face on Time Magazine?  Do you remember seeing Dr. Thomson in person when he was Keynote speaker at NABT’s annual banquet? Were you one of the teacher participants at Lab on the Lake (, where NABT led an afternoon workshop for teachers and also received the GPI 2008 Educator’s Award?

The terms stem cell and the field of regenerative medicine are in the headlines daily. The biology infiltrates so many of the curriculum topics and textbook chapters that we use throughout the school year-think cell cycle, differentiation, development, hematopoiesis and so on. This topic simply captivates students most especially those students who know someone with disorders like Parkinsons or Multiple Sclerosis or spinal cord injuries who is struggling to differentiate between the hype and hope of stem cell research.

As the Leader in Life Science Education, NABT is organizing the SCES for you to experience in addition to the other professional development opportunities at the 2009 NABT Conference.   Come update your understanding about this 21st Century cutting edge research and in turn that of your students and the community in which you interact.
Let me offer you one keynote reason to make your Destination Denver for NABT 2009.  As we get closer to conference, I will start to tell you more about all the expert participants who, akin to confections, present the most “mouth watering” selection of brain candy for you to contemplate. For sneak peek at the “candy jar,” go to NABT 2009-SCES.
The number one reason to get to the SCES is our Keynote Speaker, Dr. MRC. A Nobel Laureate, he did his thesis work under the guidance of Dr. James Watson of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin fame. He is “best known for his pioneering work on the development of gene targeting in mouse embryo-derived stem (ES) cells. This technology allows scientists to create mice with mutations in any desired gene.”  This work lead to his Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2007, which he was co-awarded along with Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies. AND Dr. MRC is thrilled to have the opportunity to interact with teachers.

Let me introduce you to our Keynote Speaker- Dr. Mario Renato Capecchi on the morning of November 14 and you will come to understand How Stem Cell Research is Changing the World.

Make the 2009 NABT Conference in Denver your Destination. Earlybird Registration is available until May 31st!

Written by bunnyj19 in: Biology Teaching |

Teaching and Learning with Wikipedia


Every once and awhile we hear a chorus of educational outrage over the idea of students using Wikipedia as a resource for their essays or projects in school.  Each time the kerfuffle flares up, I’m amazed all over again.  If I understand the parent and teacher concerns correctly, they are 1) that Wikipedia is not a primary source, 2) that it is not a reliable source (the information there is somehow suspect), and 3) that students will begin and end their research right there.

OK.  Let’s take those one at a time.  The first point is absolutely true.  Yup, Wikipedia is not a primary source.  But that’s alright, isn’t it?  Students have to start somewhere and it seems perfectly reasonable to start your quest with a secondary source that will give you the big picture in clear, easy to read prose.  Students can go from there to more specialized and (hopefully) primary sources (depending on the assignment).  In fact, most of Wikipedia’s 2,847,000 entries (in English, that is) have an impressive list of references and external links at the end.

The second concern, that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, is where I really have problems.  When you talk with people who get incensed about this, it usually becomes apparent that they haven’t spent much time on Wikipedia themselves.  The whole point and power of Wikipedia is that it’s self correcting – amazingly self correcting.  Every Wikipedia entry has a history tab (up at the top).  Try clicking that tab on a particularly meaty or controversial entry (like “Stem Cells” or  “Barack Obama”) and what you’ll find is a chronology of  corrections, insertions, deletions,  explanations, fixes, and debates. Experts, librarians, and amateurs are weighing in, discussing, challenging each other in order to get to the truth.  Some articles (stem cells, for instance) also have a discussion tab up at the top. This is an additional space set aside to document the ongoing collaboration to improve the article’s veracity. Seems to me that  these history and discussion pages could be a good classroom tool. Isn’t that what we’re trying to get our students to do?  To think critically about information, to question, to dig deep?  Wikipedia could be an object lesson in precisely the kind of thinking we want our students to be doing.

Consider an article that appeared in about 100 different newspapers, radio broadcasts, and on ABC news this last week:  Irish Student Hoaxes World’s Media with Fake Quote.  What happened is that Shane Fitzgerald, a University of Dublin student, inserted a made-up quote into the Maurice Jarre entry on Wikipedia, a few hours after the composer’s death on March 28th.  The made-up quote ended up in dozes of blogs, newspaper sites, and newspapers all over the world.  And here’s the interesting part.  The self-correcting Wikipedia community caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it promptly.  But the news media?  Not so much.  Finally Fitzgerald contacted several media outlets in an email and a slow process of corrections and retractions began.

The third objection – that students will begin and end their research with just Wikipedia – seems ground we’ve covered before. That’s a familiar teaching and learning challenge – not a weakness of Wikipedia.  That sort of reasoning is often applied to technology (you can think of it as making up a good-sounding reason to dismiss).  That is, people blame technology for a problem that is really a much larger, human problem. We ban cell phones from school because students will misuse them and get distracted in class.  We blame Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites for bullying attacks on vulnerable teens.  We blame Craig’s list for the violence perpetrated by Phillip Markoff.  We blame the internet for pornography. If teachers are worried about their students not citing sufficient sources in their research, shouldn’t we be addressing that problem? Teaching students the proper use of a secondary source, like Wikipedia, will help them to put it in the proper context and show them how to use it (and we know they are already using it anyway) more effectively.


Bunny Jaskot Introduction

gresga1ckwjrlw5uqyz3uhobmcevn9_hsn2wav-khdu_I came to NABT through my interaction with the Biology Teachers Association of New Jersey (BTANJ). I came to the BTANJ by virtue of being a biology teacher wanting to get involved in my profession.  I came to the “biology” part of biology teacher by finding the study of life so amazingly worthy of sharing.  I came to the teacher part by deciding to escape the words monotonous, mind numbing and humdrum to describe my career. I am sure many teachers can affirm that thrilling, stimulating and every descriptor but boring portray a career in the classroom.  That has been my path.
Nineteen sixty seven was the year my official classroom adventures began in Baltimore (Egad! Where has the time gone?) One year later I returned to my home state of New Jersey where I have been thoroughly immersed and seemingly unable to extricate myself from school-ventures despite retirement in two thousand and seven.
For those who are curious, I have been called Bunny since I was three months old having been born in the Spring when those chocolate critters, fixed in cellophane wraps, nested in pastel baskets awaited high spirited children in those places that I call family.  Legally I am Marion, having been named after my father when I was born. He was then a tail gunner, shot down and missing in action, during World War II. I was called Marion for three months till his safe return home when my mother recalled a nurse saying “she’s cute as a Bunny” and so the name stuck.
I have been enthralled with our annual conference since a supportive supervisor provided the substitute coverage for me to register and attend.  That fortuitous decision paved the way to my personal recognition of the array of opportunities awaiting those who attend and then dive into PD involvement with NABT. No matter where, when, how, or with whom I traveled to conference, the excitement and energy of the participants, their creativity and willingness to share strategies, the welcoming professionalism, and the lure of being so fully “bio,” permeated to my genomic and no doubt even epigenomic levels.  I welcome you to “Get Connected, Stay Connected” and “Grow in Connectedness” with that professional development association that we call the NABT.
In the time leading up to our 2009 Denver Conference, let me introduce you to the NABT I know.   I look to “blog” about the rich history/herstory that has unfolded. As I assume the role of President shortly thereafter, we can anticipate knowing more about our roots. When we find each other face-to-face in November, we can start to make a bit of NABT chronicle ourselves! Till the next time I blog, your challenge is to figure out this acronym, WSCES4T.  Hint:  It happens in Denver in November.

Written by bunnyj19 in: Biology Teaching |

BioBlog Notes

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Spreadsheet Exponential Population Growth Model

Earlier I covered applying spreadsheets to the old BSCS sparrow lab-Part One.

Now for Part Two:

After the students build their own spreadsheet models of the hypothetical sparrow population, as a class we discuss the parameters that taken together determine population growth or decline.  I guide the discussion with questions until the students are able to articulate the four factors that determine population growth:  birth rate, death rate and migration (emmigration and immigration).  I am careful to make sure the discussion includes reviewing a working definition of a population and that the factors identified are rates and therefore have a time element to consider.  At this point we revisit the sparrow spreadsheet model and identify how these four parameters are taken into account in the actual cells of the spreadsheet.  Students quickly identify that there is no migration terms and that the birth rate is taken care of when each pair of sparrows produce 10 offspring (column D).  They have a more difficult time with the death rate.  There is no explicit cell with a death rate parameter but only the offspring in column D move to the next year–death is taken care of by omission.

The discussion then moves to asking the students to consolidate these four factors into one term–a per cent of increase or r“.  We also establish a variable for the population size at any particular time interval: “Nt“.  The students are now challenged to represent the exponential population growth in a single equation with the variables “r” and “Nt“.

Eventually the class arrives at the following:

The new population is equal to the previous population + rate of increase times the previous population


Nt = N(t-1) + r*N(t-1)

At this point the students are directed back to their spreadsheets and challenged to develop a new model based on this equation.  This time their instructions include assigning initial values to the variables.  On the board, again I help them set up a possible structure:

r = 0.1
N = 10
Time Interval Population
0 10
1 11

It’s now up to them to create the spreadsheet using the formula.  Interpreting normal algebraic notation into spreadsheet notation is a bit of a challenge but they usually figure it out.  By iterating the formula (using the results from one time interval as the basis for the next) the students can explore and create models that without computers would require a familiarity with calculus.  Once the students have created their simple model I have them expand it to 300 generations or time intervals and graph the results.  When trying this with your students make sure that you don’t get too explicit with your help—students have to work at building this model but it is doable for most.  You should try it as well before checking on the spreadsheet embedded here:

If the spreadsheet is not loading you can find it at: Exponential Model

There is one spreadsheet technique that you need to be aware of to make this model–the difference between relative reference and fixed reference in a cell’s formula. Since the reference to “r” always points to the same cell, it should not change. The default in a spreadsheet formula reference is “relative”, which changes. You can make a cell reference fixed by adding a dollar sign in front of both components of a cell’s address. For example referring to cell: B1 is a relative reference but referring to $B$1 is a fixed reference.

Normally when I explore this topic in my class, we can pretty easily get through the sparrow population model and the exponential model in one hour. Modeling is an additive process and this is only the start. Note that the procedure thus far has only added a bit of complexity at each step–with only rudimentary math operations. The next step will be to explore the logistic model. I try and reserve at least a day for it along with a homework assignment. I’ll cover the logistic in the next post.