Teaching and Learning with eBooks

This is my first blog post from the 2009 NABT – part of our live blogging experiment.  As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Denver Sheraton lobby (taking advantage of their free wireless) and my head is full of plans for the day.  Too many good sessions and not enough time!!  I will try to keep you posted on the sessions as the day goes by (so forgive my typos!) and will add appropriate links and photos later.

My first session of the day was with Jean DeSaix (UNC Chapel Hill) who conducted a workshop on using ebooks in college teaching. She gave us the low down on a study they’ve conducted at Chapel Hill. It started when the state of N. Carolina threatened their university with decreased funding if they did not lower textbook costs for students.  In response, their campus Center for Faculty Excellence began a study of e-book use in fall 2008.  Twelve instructors across the campus (in seven disciplines) agreed to participate.  At the beginning of the semester, they gave the participating students a survey and then administered a survey at the end of the semester. Additionaly 10 students who used ebooks participated in a focus group.  The average ebook adoption rate by the students across nine of the pilot courses was less than 1%,while in just three of the courses, the adoption rate was 12%.  This higher participation rate was due to the teacher in those courses, making it clear (or not) that the ebook was available and encouraging them to try it.

Students report that the cost of textbooks is really important to them and it was clear, through this experiment, that the ebook did in fact lower the cost to the student.

The ebook that Jean used in her biology course (Campbell/Reece 8e) included all the text and images from the print book along with hyperlinks to other online content, highlighting function, search function, and note-taking features.

One participant asked about the access to the ebook – how long is it avaiable for students.  Jean explained that access is limited – it varies with the publisher – but, in her case, it was 180 days. She went on to say that most students weren’t worried by that because, when they buy their print books, they tend to not keep them anyway.

So, what were the results? Student reactions were mixed – some loved it, some clearly preferred the print book.  Did the ebooks help the students?  Jean didn’t have any information on the performance of the students with or without ebooks.

One member of the workshop described her experience using a completely free textbook (by Michael Faraday) this year.  She described it as an “imperfect experience” – errors, links that didn’t work, difficulty referring to content by page number but, for her, it was worth saving the students $150.  She did mention that she missed having all the support ancillaries and the adjunct instructors really missed those materials.

What Jean really liked about using ebooks was the ability for students to retreive information quickly in class.  She invites students to bring their laptops to class and they freely use the ebook during class time. She thinks that it was easier for them to use all parts of a “heavy” book which seems to reduce student anxiety. Jean made extensive use of the instructor note/annotation feature in her ebook so she was able to add  her annotations, notes, and suggestions to the material and her students could see them.  As Jean described it,  with this abilitly, I can lead them, sentence by sentence, through the book.  For instance, I can tell them –  ’this is a great summary figure – pay close attention to it and use it!’”

So, what were the problems?  Jean says the main problem was diffuse support.  If a student has a trouble accessing the ebook, it’s tough to know if the issue is their computer, the internet connection or a problem with the publisher’s delivery of the ebook.  The bookstore culture has been an issue too – they’re not wild about the ebooks and didn’t always let the students know when they were available.

In the follow-up focus group, the student reactions were mixed.   Some students just loved it but some talked about the fact that they were too distracted when they used the ebook (wandering off to check Facebook or email).  For the most part the students hadn’t used electronic textbooks before.  Many of her students described themselves as “hybrids” – they like doing a bit of both.

As for future advice, if you plan on trying ebooks, Jean suggests  that you help students map learning preferences to appropriate media (if they work better with print, buy a print book) and be sure to notify students at the start of the course about their textbook options.  Jean feels that it is definitely worthwhile to explore this  technology – it might well lead to a paperless classroom.

Written by rheyden in: Biology Teaching |

NABT Poster session–Thursday morning

Here’s a slide show of most of the posters that were presented during this morning’s

NABT Outreach Coordinator & Informal Educator Section Poster Session. I apologize for the picture quality but if you wish to see the poster closer—simply click on the slide show and it will take you to the images.


Presentations at NABT that specifically address AP Biology

Thursday’s Presentations with AP Bio in the Title or in the description:

Are We Ready For E-Textbooks
Jean DeSaix
Governor’s Square 16 Thursday 10 – 10:30

How To Enhance Student Learning
in AP and College Biology Courses
Without Impacting Your Workload
Tower Court B • Capacity: 50 Demonstration • General Biology • HS 4C
Eileen Gregory
Thursday 10- 10:30

Help Your Students Succeed in AP Biology
Governor’s Square 14 • Capacity: 120
Exhibitor Demonstration • General Biology
• GA Fred & Theresa Holtzclaw
10:45 – 12:00

AP Biology Content Update: What’s
New in Biology?
Plaza Court 4 • Capacity: 75
Paper • General Biology • HS
Thursday 10:45 – 12:00

Teaching AP Biology with Toys Plaza Court 1 Capacity: 75
Hands-On Workshop Instr.Strategies &
Technologies HS 2C
1:00 – 2:15

AP Biology Teachers’ Open Forum
Plaza Court 4 • Capacity: 75
Paper • General Biology • HS
1:00 – 2:15

Enhance Your AP Biology Presentations Using Teacher-
Generated and Free Resources from
the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Spruce • Capacity: 90
Symposium • General Biology • HS GA
1:00 – 2:15

Bio-Rad. Forensic DNA Fingerprinting
Director’s Row E • Capacity: 60
Exhibitor Demonstration • Genetics • HS

The Future of Advanced Placement The Future of APBiology
Plaza Court 4 • Capacity: 75
Paper • Teacher Prep/Professional
Development • HS 4C
An overview of the content and scientific
practices which define the new AP
Biology course, and the new instructional
materials which support it.
— Sharon Radford, Paideia School,
Atlanta, GA; Spencer Benson,
2:30 – 3:45


Biology/AP Biology with Vernier
Governor’s Square 12 • Capacity: 100
Exhibitor Demonstration • General Biology • HS 4C
8:00 – 9:15

Bio-Rad: Light Up Your Classroom with Nobel Prize Winning Science
Director’s Row E • Capacity: 60
Exhibitor Demonstration • Biotechnology • HS 4C
1:30 – 2:45

What Biological Concepts Must Be Covered in an Introductory Course for
Biology Majors?
Plaza Court 4 • Capacity: 75
Paper • General Biology • 2C 4C
Hear the results of a national survey to
determine topics that must be covered
in introductory biology for majors and
which topics may be deleted.
— Eileen Gregory, Rollins College,
Winter Park, FL; Jane Ellis,
Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC;
Amanda Orenstein, Centenary
College, Hackettstown, NJ
1:30 – 2:45

OBTA Sharathon
Plaza Ballrrom E
2:00 – 3:00


Stem Cell Summit
8:00 – 4:30

There’s Not Enough Time!
Colorado • Capacity: 32
Paper • Instr.Strategies & Technologies •
10:00 – 11:15

Investigating Mitochondrial Genetics:
A Novel Approach to AP Biology Lab 6
Governor’s Square 11 • Capacity: 100
Hands-On Workshop • Genetics • HS 4C
10:00 -11:15



Well here it is, almost November.  In my ‘neck-of-the-woods’  (by the way, where did that expression come from?)  Fall is waning, the winds are blowing and the snows of Colorado are threatening.  But this year the month of November brings some special meaning to me  (and to most biologists.)  It is the month in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species.  So much has been written and broadcast this year about Darwin and On The  Origin Of Species and evolution itself that maybe the topic has saturated our heads and our classrooms, I hope not!   In Northern Ohio we recently had a “birthday party” for the ‘Origin’ publication.  The Cleveland Regional Association of Biologist (CRABs) hosted a birthday party with a great cake and party favors and even a one hour talk about Darwin –the Man and His Science (of course the one hour talk lasted a bit more than 90 minutes, but that is typical of the speaker.)  As a take-home present for all that attended I created an interactive Origin Calendar.  It started on October 24th and had one activity for each day until November 24th (the official day of publication of On the Origin Of Species — November 24, 1859.)  (Actually the book was shown and sold out –1250 copies–on November 22, 1859.)  The Calendar can be used by anyone that travels to the CRABs web site at  The activities come from all over the Web.  ENSI/SENSI, PBS Evolution Site, Evolution.Berkely.Edu, etc……  The calendar on the site is interactive and clicking on a day will take you to a web activity.  You can also download an interactive PDF file of it from this site.

Here it is:

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

Use it well and use it often.



The Essential Biology Teacher

A week or so ago I started reading the new Dawkins book, The Greatest Show On Earth. Greatest Show It was on the recommendation of my Aussie friend, Stewart Monckton, (see his Amazon review at  Although there is much to think about and to comment upon in Dawkins’ latest discussion of evolution and evolutionary thought, it is the idea of essentialism or Platonic Philosophy that has stuck in my mind right now.

What is Essential Thinking and how does it relate to evolution and maybe more of why it is floating around my head and just what is an Essential Biology Teacher?

Let me explain in Dawkin’s own words:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and rabbits, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The rabbits that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of rabbit, the ideal, essential, Platonic rabbit, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of rabbit.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bunnies. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we all rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Dawkins continues with his discussion of rabbitness and essential thinking and paints a picture of how essential thinking can put a stop to our understanding about how organisms are related to each other and how evolution itself occurs.  Great discussion!!   But as I was reading this I started to think about teachers.  Science teachers.  Specifically about biology teachers.  Is there an essence of biology teacher?  The perfect picture of biology teacher?  In fact lets have some fun with this.  I am going to take Dawkin’s words and do a little substitution.  I’ll be right back, I’m headed for my word processing application to play with this idea of word substitution.  Sit tight, I’ll be right back.

Here we are:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and biology teachers, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The biology teachers that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of biology teacher, the ideal, essential, Platonic biology teacher, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood biology teachers may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of biology teacher.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in biology teachers as a messy departure from the essential biology teacher, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real biology teachers were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Biology teacher In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard biology teacher‘, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bio teacher. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call biology teachers will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent biology teacherness, no essence of biology teacher hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous (this may be going a bit too far, but I continue,) whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Fun, but lets think about this for a short time.  The Essential Biology Teacher ! Is this what the Standards Movement is trying to create?  The perfect biology teacher!  The biology teacher template!  Even the word standard starts to take on a shaky meaning.  Is there a Standard biology course?  Is there even Standard biology knowledge?  Maybe I push too far?  We certainly want our students to have a basic understanding of the biological world.  Should we keep the bell-shaped curve in mind?  I certainly teach biology in a slightly different manner than Wally Hintz did/does (see an earlier post about my mentor Walter Hintz.)  If it was radically different maybe I could not be called a biology teacher, but slight variations are necessary.  Just as Dawkins says “There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit….”  We have to keep an open mind to variants of biology teacher. That is what this blog is all about.  ”Here’s how I do it….”  ”Maybe I need a few new tricks in my classroom….”  ”Did you ever think about trying this web tool?”

Sometimes I get fearful that the “tests” are creating Essential Biology Teachers. What do you think?  I would love to have some of your thoughts about Standards, Testing, and National Curricula.  I dont care what you say, my ears are NOT  longer than Wally Hintz’s!!! AND Becky is NOT growing a beard!!!

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Rich Benz--Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006

Rich Benz–Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006 (Student of Walter Hintz)

Becky Haller--The "New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich BenzBecky Haller–The “New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich Benz

Sounds Downunder

Around the World in 80 Blogs

We know as biology teachers that the entire world is our classroom –or should be.  The Internet certainly makes that easier then it was when I started to teach.  We have been “talking” about using Internet resources to make our teaching more personal, more interactive, more current.  Here is a way to open up the other side of the world to your students–>  Read a blog that is posted by an Australian biology teacher.  My best friend is a biologist in Melbourne, Australia (or as he says–Oz.)  07 Eastern Grey KangarooOver the past few years as I started to post my observations and exploits on my own Biology Teacher Blog ( my friend Stewart Monckton started to put together some ideas for a blog of his own.  Well, it is live now and I find it fascinating.  I love to see the biology around my own world as I walk, drive, bike or paddle around.  Now I can “see” and “hear” and learn about the biology around the environs of Melbourne, Australia.  I find that writing a blog entry makes me see better, hear better, and learn more about my environment.  When I read Stewart’s blog I find that his entries and my responses are making me see more of the world, hear more of the world and of course, learn more about the biology in other parts of the world.  Last week he described a recent trip to an area called The Grampions west of Melbourne–or as Stewart says–> “The Grampians sit West and North of Melbourne. A four hour journey by car, longer with kids, an eternity if they are bored, restless and fractious. Luckily eternity does not beckon.”  Here is a comment that his recent entry elicited from me–>kookaburra
Benz said…

Another delightful “hike.” We often ignore sounds around us just to keep ‘peace of mind’ I suppose. Where I live I can alternately listen to a pileated woodpecker (had to mention that since you brought up your Crimson Rosella,) a noisy titmouse looking for peanuts in the mix of feeder fodder I put out, a helicopter flying overhead going from highway to hospital, and the background of long distance motor trucks on the highways obscured by the trees and forests. But my ear and mind seem to filter the wanted sounds from the unwanted ones. I can go out on my deck and listen to the rustling of leaves as the small herd of white-tail deer browse my trees and shrubs. I can concentrate on the dropping of acorns and the tapping of the hairy and downy woodpeckers–and ignore the cars and planes and school busses (this is a little easier since I retired from the classroom.) Just last Wednesday I led a night hike at a nearby Environmental Learning Center. The night was pretty overcast, therefore fairly dark. Rain was in the air, but the air was still. As we walked down the starting trail we were forced to ignore the distant highway, and were rewarded for it. A lone Great Horned Owl was making his presence known. Wait, there was an answer. Or maybe just an echo. At any rate, we ignored the highway and enjoyed the owl–our choice, our joy. RB

As you can see, he makes me think.  Stewart has asked if other biologist are interested in learning about his own environment.  I said “You bet they are!”  So here it is–

Check it out.  Learn about the environments on the other side of the world.  Oz is a fascinating place.  When you read about the wildlife, remember, they are on the “other side ” of the Wallace Line (see

Rich Benz (and friend)

Rich Benz (and friend)


Congrats Kim….

From the AP Biology Listserv:

Kim Foglia awarded the “Advanced Placement Biology Service Award”

On behalf of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) and the AP Biology Section, I am pleased and honored to announce that Kim Foglia was chosen as the recipient of the “Advanced Placement Biology Service Award” generously sponsored and supported by Pearson.

Kim’s willingness to share her materials, knowledge and insight with teachers everywhere makes her a most worthy recipient of this award. Mention Kim Foglia’s name and biology teachers from all around the United States as well around the world can tell you how they and their students have benefited by Kim’s experience, wise advice and her overwhelming generosity in sharing her curriculum, labs, Power Points, lessons and just about anything else needed to help them to become better teachers.

Many first year teachers of both AP biology and biology feel a sense of relief once they discover Kim’s Website and its accompanying teacher vault. So often the AP teacher stands alone being the only AP biology teacher in the district. By having access to Kim’s resources, teachers feel like they have a coach, a mentor and huge resource of information to help them plan their course and lessons.

As teachers, we are not always aware of the impact we have on our students. I’m sure Kim has no idea of the multitude of students she has positively influenced through her mentoring of teachers on the list serve and her biology blog for NABT.

Kim you are truly an inspiration to all teachers. Your dedication, enthusiasm, knowledge and unconditional willingness to share your expertise are an example to all teachers. You seem to have written the book on mentoring and on helping others. Hopefully others will follow your example. Congratulations and thank you!

Patti Nolan Bertino


Teaching Hardy-Weinberg and Population Genetics using Spreadsheet Models–Part 1

(modified from a post that originally appeared at

Step 11

On numerous occasions I have argued that trying to model H-W equilibrium in classroom with activities such as the AP Biology H-W lab, the M & M’s labs ( or with beans suffer from too small of sample size (population) or the models are simply too tedious for the students to explore.  Computer spreadsheets provide a unique environment that allow students to build and test their own models on how a population’s gene pool can change.  The testing, in particular, provides for a powerful learning experience for teacher and student.

Most spreadsheets have a “Random” function that can generate random numbers to model stochastic events.  Like flipping a coin or drawing a card at random in the AP Biology Lab 8 H-W lab the “Random” function serves as the basis for our spreadsheet model. Unlike our physical models/simulations (like the M and M’s lab) the computer can generate thousands of samples in a very short time.  The benefits to learning are worth the challenge of trying to learn how to build the spreadsheet.

In this post, I’ll present the essential parts of an EXCEL spreadsheet (other spreadsheets will work as well) that can be used to explore some of the first principles of the effects of population size on genetic drift.  In addition, this post is long-winded because I’m attempting to provide the strategies and questions I would use to encourage my students to develop their own computer-based models.  This is not presented as the definitive spreadsheet model or approach but rather a rather simplistic model to be constructed and modified by your students.  The idea is that if the students can find their way through building this model it can serve as a foundation as they extend the model to explore more of the parameters that affect H-W.

I’ve tried to break down the more complex model into a series of manageable steps.  I’ll cover the extensions to this model and others in future posts.  BTW, it takes longer to read this post than it takes to make this relatively simple spreadsheet. I suggest that you bring up EXCEL or some other spreadsheet in a different window and try to create this worksheet as you follow follow along.  Be thinking what questions you will ask your students so they can develop their own version of this spreadsheet.  Once you’ve mastered this and can create or modify it at will, then try it out with your students–they can handle this level of difficulty. They just don’t know it, yet–that’s your challenge as their instructor. And when they do succeed, with your guidance, they will have an effective tool to explore the basic principles of H-W equilibrium–one they have created themselves.

Step by step instructions follow, below the fold:



What’s Happening in Second Life?

Virtual worlds – what a concept, eh?  If you haven’t yet visited a virtual world to have a look around, I urge you to give it a try. What’s more, I strongly encourage you to go in with someone knowledgeable. The first time I went into Second Life, I went in alone, and have to admit that I wasn’t impressed.  The technical requirements were steep, the avatars all had a flat, paperdoll quality, and the interface was far from intuitve.  But worst of all, I just wasn’t sure I understood what the point was.  Why was this worth it?

A year later, I gave it another try.  But this time, with a knowledgeable friend. It only took about an hour, following her around from place to place, talking with other avatars she knew, and getting a short tutorial on how to build, that I started to grasp the possibilities. It wasn’t just all the things you could do there (build, shop, listen to music, learn, attend plays, look at art, dance) but it was the people you could meet. For me, it was other educators – from all over the world – whom I would never meet in other way. Creative, resourceful, and inspiring teachers who were keenly interested in figuring out how the unique affordances of SL could be applied to the challenges of teaching and learning.


My avatar in SL

I still feel a bit disoriented when I’m there, I will confess.  For example, time just flies by.  I go “in-world” and, before I know it, an hour has passed.  It’s a combination of each new place you visit leading you to something else you want to see, or someone else you want to talk with but there’s also the complete immersion of it all. It feels as if you’re diving into a deep pool.  In fact, it does remind me a bit of exploring the underwater world as a SCUBA diver.  There’s a funny feeling that you don’t really belong – that you’re a visitor in a strange and exotic land.

So, what’s going on in there?  New information was recently released on the economy of SL.  In total, since it began in 2002, Second Life residents have transacted over $1 billion dollars worth of virtual goods and virtual services over the span of a billion hours in a world that boasts two billion square meters of virtual land.  In 2008, $100 million US dollars worth of Lindens (273 Linden Dollars $ = $1 US dollar) were bought and sold on the Lindex. The in-world economy grew 94% year-over-year from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. That’s pretty impressive, but even more impressive to me is that the transactions that make up this economy are mostly micro-transactions, averaging in the $1 – $5 range.

Here’s more…approximately 1,250 text-based messages are sent every second in SL. 195 different countries are represented and the SL viewer is available in 10 languages. More than 18 billion minutes of voice chat have been used in SL, since voice was introduced in 2007. And users create more than 250,000 new virtual items every day.  There are now more than 270 terabytes of content in SL.


The Sistine Chapel

And what does all of that content look like?  Buildings, art work, clothes, animals, simulations, rockets, boats, and castles.  An accurate replica of the Sistine Chapel (pictured here), a recreation of  Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a fly-through tour of the male testes, the Great Wall of China, a real-time weather simluator, a ride-able Newton’s cannoball, a virtual Africa, a replica of the HMS Beagle, an underwater park…just to name a few.


Electron Transport Chain activity in SL

For my part, I’ve been concentrating on my building skills (learning how to build out of prims – the legos of SL and script them with behaviors and responses), meeting avatars from all over the world, and coming up with ideas for biology learning activties. In June, I helped to organize a continuing medical education event – using the virtual world as a forum for practicing physicians to meet and extend their knowledge. I built a mid-air activity where students can get a feeling for the electron transport chain by “reducing” as they “fall” from plaform to platform (pictured here). I’ve just completed a cell structure activity where students can move giant cell organelles into even more giant plant and animal cell frames and, in the process, learn about the relationships between the organelles and how cells are put together.  I’ve got so much more to learn but I’m coming along.

The thing I keep thinking, as I roam the Second Life grid, is that, regardless of whether or not Second Life survives into the future, I have no doubt that virtual worlds will.  It seems inevitable to me that worlds like these will be the way we plot our course through the internet and its vast resources.  That avatars, representing us, will be our agents, our representatives, as we navigate the electronic world and reach out to each other.

And if you’d like to come see for yourself, send me a note and I’ll give you a tour.

Written by rheyden in: Biology Teaching |

How do we teach Sustainability in a Politically unengaged community

Excerpts from my letter in ABT:

Informing Their Discretion

In September I wrote a letter for NABT’s journal that asked us to focus on Biodiversity and Conservation, as a means of teaching sustainability.  I began by saying how important it was for teachers to take what they teach seriously because to the impact they have on students.  Let me highlight some of those ideas:

I have been richly blessed the past four years with the opportunity to direct the development of an academic centre in Cuenca, Ecuador. Cuenca I have met and worked with the director of El Cajas, the national park in Azuay Provence and have heard him describe the diversity of Ecuador’s wildlife.  Ecuador has four main regions.  Most people are aware of the Galapagos Islands and the rich, wonderful life that inhabits these islands.  Many do not know of the other three regions and the wealth of diversity in those areas: the western coastal lowlands (Costa), the central spine of the Andes mountains (Sierra), and the east side of Ecuador including the western edge of the Amazon Jungle (Oriente).  There are cloud forests, inter-Andean valleys, deserts, tundra, and, yes, even snow.  The elevation changes from sea level to over 20,000 ft.  It is an area of active volcanoes, mountain streams, and so many features that something different appears around every corner.


Galapagos Islands

Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park, Cuenca Ecuador

There are estimates of more than 25,000 species of plants, 1600 species of birds, 400 species of mammals, 350 species of reptiles (200 species of snakes alone and I love snakes), 400 species of amphibians, and 800 species of fish. The number of invertebrates (especially insects) is too numerous to describe.  I won’t even tell you how many spiders there are in Ecuador (as an arachnophobic, having tarantulas in my home makes me quiver), but I think we can all agree that Ecuador is a marvelous place for biodiversity. I am reminded by the words of President John Adams from a recent HBO documentary: “I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there. Now your mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way!” (John Adams, 2008).  Wow, Ecuador is a country of so many wonders that our imaginations roam.  Yet, Ecuador is a country that struggles to keep its biodiversity in the face of progress and modernization.  This is a struggle well worth fighting.

The biodiversity of our planet is extremely important.   The struggle to understand that importance and to defend that diversity cannot be understated.  Clean water and air, soil to grow our crops, pollination of our food sources, medicines that are essential to our health are just a miniscule number of examples and not the purpose of this letter. The purpose of this letter is to remind us of how important it is for us as teachers to help make our students aware of how important should our efforts be on conservation and Biodiversity.  How can we inform our students?  There are many experts in biodiversity who are also excellent teachers who can help. Mark Plotkin and his rain forest biodiversity programs and provides excellent assistance on global diversity and conservation issues.  NABT’s own Dr. Jacqueline S. McLaughlin teaches programs in Costa Rica that emphasize Biodiversity and help both student and faculty truly appreciate the importance of insuring diversity for future generations.  Check out the museums, zoos and botanical gardens in your state and area.  Many will have programs that support and educate and may provide valuable resources.  I know that the Indianapolis Zoo provides lots of educational support.

John Moore in Cuenca

John and Student in Cuenca Ecuador

The imperative to teach for understanding about that importance of biodiversity and the necessity to conserve it cannot be understated.  E. O. Wilson, one of our country’s great scientists, educators, and writers, describes the importance of teachers (education) in this effort.   The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation illustrates this role of education in the struggle for biodiversity when it states, “Education is crucial. Only an informed electorate can appreciate the value of biodiversity and the magnitude of the perils facing it. Only people who know and care about these issues can bring needed changes in public policy.” It adds:  “A well informed, educated electorate is necessary to make the right choices for a sustainable world.” (The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, 2009;  It is our privilege; no, it is our responsibility to educate our next generation on biodiversity and conservation.  Thomas Jefferson may have expressed it best when he said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”  Let’s remember then as we begin the year that part of our purpose as educators is to inform our students’ discretion and insure the future of our planet.

So how do we inform their discretion without pushing our own bias?  By teaching the science of biodiversity.  By teaching the science of conservation. By teaching the science of sustainability.  We must teach our students to discern on their own in the future and to be able to discern the “truth” of what they hear.


Written by John Moore in: Biology Teaching |

Nano Technology in Education

Opportunity for teachers to participate in a project and get summer pay!  Whoo hoo!

Read the following post:

Dear Teacher:

Please join us in supporting the National Science Foundation in facilitating the integration of nanoscience and technology into education!

NanoTeach is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded professional development project that utilizes the Designing Effective Science Instruction (DESI) framework to integrate nanoscience and technology content into existing science curricula. It is a collaboration between Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (SNF), the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), and ASPEN Associates.

We are seeking 30 public high school science teachers to participate in our year-long, nationwide pilot test of NanoTeach beginning summer 2010. Teachers who complete all requirements will receive a stipend of $3,000 (15 days at $200/day) for the out-of-classroom time required for participation.

The application deadline is January 8, 2010. A special NanoTeach Question-and-Answer webinar is scheduled for November 17 at 5 p.m. EST. For more information, go to: <>


Elisabeth Palmer, Ph.D.

Director of Research

ASPEN Associates, Inc.

John Ristvey

Principal Investigator

NanoTeach Project

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)


Survey on Stem-cell Education

Are you a 7th though H.S. Science teacher? Do you know any 7th though H.S Science teachers?  We are getting a request from the Director of Life  Science Outreach and Project BioEYES, the Institute for Regenerative Medicine  & The Netter Center for Community Partnerships to participate in a survey.  Please help this organization gather data.  After taking the survey, please reply to this post?  Was this beneficial?  Did it help me to participate and make me more aware?  Don’t forget that at NABT conference next month there will be a summit on stem-cell education.  Come and have your questions asked, understood and answered.


Together with the Genetics Policy Institute, the University of Pennsylvania is seeking funding to develop a new and innovative Stem Cell education website and live classroom demonstration that will expand on Project BioEYES. For those teachers who are not yet involved with BioEYES, it is a live classroom experiment that uses zebrafish to teach students about cell biology, development, and genetics. It has reached over 18,000 students since 2002 and we hope to continue to offer new and exciting classroom opportunities.

This survey will help us gain insight into your interest and knowledge about how
to best develop online and classroom-based stem cells resources for teachers.

Please complete this survey so that you can have a voice in the project’s
development. We truly appreciate you taking the time to complete this! It will
only take a few minutes.

The Project BioEYES team


Of Blogs and Birds and Bugs and Belize

Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)

Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)

Blogs seem to be a real part of our lives now.  Of course, you know that–you are reading this.  But look around you.  Blogs from all the national television networks…blogs from all the major newspapers…blogs about your favorite programs…blogs about your favorite politicians and even those you would rather not hear from anymore.  But blogs from the jungle?   Yes, absolutely !  But how is this possible?  Read-on MacDuff.

I have not added much to this blog this summer.  As a teacher for over 35 years, I always seem to get out of rhythm in the summer.  It is not that I slow down, I seem to go just as fast, but in different directions.  This summer I was “out of town” and living out of my suitcase for about 43 days.  That’s pretty busy.  One hunk of this time was spent in the jungles of Belize.  I know—summer is not the absolute best time to visit Belize, but there were extenuating circumstances.  You see, I was invited to accompany my high school biology teacher on what may be his last trip to the jungle.  Wally HintzWally Hintz turns 80 this year.  Our travels together started around 1962.  We didn’t actually travel together back then, but that is when I first met Walt.  I was in fourth grade, he was the biology teacher at our local high school.  I dissected my first frog that year and needed some help.  The preserved frog had a mass of blackish “stuff” in the thorax area.  Naturally I went to the town’s expert–Walter Hintz–high school biology teacher. (How many of us have occupied this position through our careers as biology teachers?) The black stuff was only a mass of frog eggs.  Not a big find, but it did make a connection that has lasted for 47 years and counting!!!!    Over the years this connection got stronger.  Of course, I had him as a teacher (not my intro biology teacher, but my mentor in a course called Science Seminar.) But we connected in many other ways too.  I did an observation of his teaching techniques while in my undergraduate education program.  When I graduated from Kent State University in 1973 (yes, the May 4th KSU shootings happened durring my Freshman year,) I applied for a job that opened up when Walter left Wickliffe High to become a vocational nursing program supervisor.  I got the job.  We told everyone that I was there to continue the legacy of Walter Hintz (some of the administrators were not so happy about this, but it turned out to be true.)  Over the years that I taught biology in his old classroom, Walt came to visit.  He usually carried a tarantula or snake to share with my students.  In the years that I conducted a 24 hour field study with my own Science Seminar class I invited Wally to come and lead a night hike. I knew I needed to expose as many generations of excited students the best field biologist I had ever met.  After I married, Wally even brought his spider to my wife’s first grade class for show-and-tell (my wife Betsy was the last one to hold the tarantula, but she did hold it.)   We hooked up as a teaching team when I worked with him on a wonderful project that took a group of Ohio middle level teachers on a one week schooner adventure in Maine.  We were the instructors.

Rachael Carson Salt Pond

Rachael Carson Salt Pond

We taught everything from navigation, to whale ecology, to island ecology to how to use The Voyage Of the Mimi in the classroom.  What a gig.  We got to go sailing, we got to go island exploring, we got to eat lobster, we got to teach together AND we got paid for it.  (Isn’t teaching wonderful?)  We did this two times in the late ’80′s.  After I traveled to the Galapagos for the first time I knew I had to have Wally go with me the next time I visited the islands. In 1997 Wally and I lead a group of teachers on a 14 day exploration of the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador.

Wally at Post Office Barrel, Floreana Island

Wally at Post Office Barrel, Floreana Island

We returned with another group 2 years later.  On these trips I get to be the teacher AND the student.  When I got an email from Wally in March that he was going back to Belize (“…possibly for the last time,”) with his community college class and he needed another biologist to go with him, I knew I had to go.  Belize in the summer is hot, humid, rainy, buggy, but relatively inexpensive to travel to.  The trip was on.

I wanted to share my experiences in the jungle with others if possible.  Over the years I embraced technology.  Wally was still the consummate field biologist.  I enjoyed the challenge of integrating technology with the excitement of field biology discoveries.  Was this possible?  Sure if you have a pretty healthy budget, but what about “on the cheap?”  I explored the possibilities.  I knew that our accommodations, Duplooy’s Jungle Lodge, advertised WiFi connections (at least at the main building.)  I was sure that if I brought my laptop with me I could have connected to my own Benz’s Biology Blog and added my observations and reflections. (This was totally dependent upon the thickness of the cloud cover, the height of the trees and the absence of rain storms I later found out….) But I did not really want to subject the laptop to the humidity, bugs, rain storms or customs (it is a Mac, so it is not really used to bugs ; )  )  I wondered if there was another, easier way to stay in touch.  That was the answer—-  I figured I could bring my trusty iPod Touch.

The iPod Touch

The iPod Touch

It was small, it was light, it had music, and it had a great application “iBird Explorer Pro” for bird id reference.  I knew that if I did get a WiFi connection I could send e-mails.  I could not load my own photos, but I could capture pictures from the web and save these for later download or I could email the pictures to anyone I wanted.  I knew that my blogging application could be set to have e-mails from me added as blog entries (most blog applications have this capability.)  I gave it a try.  First, I sent a plain e-mail from my home to my blog site..Success!  Next I thought about the capability of sending a captured picture to the blog as an e-mail.  Success !!  Now, how about if I sent a captured picture and added a comment or title to the picture!!  It worked.  Well, what if I sent a picture with a caption that was a paragraph long?  What if the caption was actually my blog entry. Bingo!!!  So I traveled to Belize.  I sweated, I put on insect-proof clothes, I explored new environments, I enjoyed Wally’s stories (most of which I have heard many times, but they are always great,) I took pictures (lots of pictures,) I learned about Mayan customs and shaman customs,

Mayan Dig

I watched leaf-cutter ants travel an unending path into the jungle, I paddled through caverns with Mayan artifacts, I helped university students start a new archaeological dig of a Mayan ruin in the middle of the Belize jungle, I dove the Belize Reef, AND I shared all of this with my family and friends back home via my Touch, a WiFi connection and my Benz’s Biology Blog. (

Technology and tradition traveling together –exploring, learning and sharing.

Get a Touch and stay in touch.  Everyone needs to share a treasure like Wally Hintz!!!


Written by richardbenz in: Biology Teaching |

Past NABT President to receive award



Washington, D.C.—Scientist, teacher, and co-director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE), Toby Horn, will receive the 2009 Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education from the American Society for Cell Biology at their December meeting….more


Jaguar Conservation and Google Earth

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

Südamerika - Peru - Manu Nationalpark - Jaguar by Meseontour (creative commons)

I just returned from a participatory media workshop that I organized for a group of high school biology teachers at Washington University in St. Louis.  They were there for the summer institute portion of a very special masters degree program called the Life Science for a Global Community, funded by the NSF.  These 30 teachers will work together, over the next two years, to expand their science knowledge and improve the quality of their teaching in a program that combines face-to-face summer courses (at Wash U) with online courses, taken throughout the academic year.  They are a wonderful group – very curious, quick to learn, and high energy.

The program’s director of professional development, Phyllis Balcerzak, invited me to organize a workshop for this year’s cohort on new media tools, as applied to teaching biology.  I had two sessions with the teachers – the first was a hands-on afternoon to experiment with wikis, podcasts, photos, and video.  The second was an optional hands-on workshop with the virtual world of Second Life, conducted with my colleague, Liz Dorland.  As usual, when I do these workshops, I ended up learning more from the teachers than they learned from me.

I was so struck by their observations – what was easy, what was hard.  Better ways to do things.  Creativity in the face of student (and parent) objections.  Clever ways to use the new tools (one of the teachers works with deaf children and makes video – to show signing – content units).  They took to the tools well but kept a healthy dose of skepticism in making decisions about what would work with their students and what was worth their time.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

Google Earth screen showing the place-markers of the JCUs.

In order to get into this LSGC program, candidates have to submit a project that speaks to their creativity and teaching horse sense. One of the “students”, Brant Reif, a high school teacher from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa showed me his projects and I just had to share it here. The project, The State of the Jaguar, is a lab investigation that examines the status of the jaguar in Central and South America, with the hope of preventing it from becoming an endangered species.  He taped into existing data from the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a KMZ file (KMZ – or compressed keyhole mark-up language – is a file format used for displaying geographic data as an additional layer in an Earth browser, like Good Earth) for Google Earth and then wrote up a lab activity where students assess the distribution and status of the jaguar in several sites, current threats to the jaguar, identify priority areas for conversation, and then compare their recommendations for conservation areas with those of research scientists.  Whoa.  Call me impressed.

He walked me through the Google Earth layer (KMZ file) he created, zooming in to show key topographical features and to click on related photos. He created about 20 markers (from which the student could choose), that linked the actual data with images and cleverly crafted journal entries that made sense (from the data and the surrounding terrain/features) to give the students a sense of presence.  For instance, you might click on a geographical site and read entries like, “Saw scat today…” or “Spotted a single jaguar near a farm…”.

In each Jaguar Conservation Unit (JCU), students are asked to estimate the percentage of the area threatened by a set of factors (habitat loss, hunting, human activity, insufficient prey, etc).  To get a better estimate of the threats to each JCU, the students pool their data with data from two other students. When they’ve completed all the data tables, they use them to estimate the priority that each JCU should be granted. Assigning a “3″ if they feel it is low in need of conservation efforts, a “2″ for one in need of some conservation, and a “1″ if it is high need.

I asked Brant how the lab worked with his students and he explained that they loved it, but it took longer than he’d thought.  The students didn’t read the directions and so wasted a lot of time figuring things out or failing to see important information (sound familiar?).  Brant already had a plan for how he was going to address this next time (demo one JCU site in class and have the students just pick three to investigate, find new ways to make sure they read the directions).

There’s so much to love about this activity, it’s hard to know where to begin.  First off, the clever and very specific use of a powerful tool. Google Earth has so much potential but it takes a carefully crafted investigation like this one (on a topic important enough to the course to be worth the effort) to harness it and make it relevant to the study of biology.  By zooming around from location to location on the virtual Earth, Brant’s students got a sense for the enormous distances, the inaccessibility of the region, the topography, the land’s relationship to water, the proximity to major cities, and the conservation issues.  The fact that he connected the investigation to real data gave his students a feeling for how we know what we know and the way scientists work.  The students had to make important judgments and decisions – but they weren’t left hanging at the end – they had a real-life index with which to compare their decision making (at the conclusion, he asks them to explain any differences between the conservation ratings they’ve given and the actual ratings).  I also liked the way that Brant mixed media types – in addition to Google Earth, he used photos, snippets of a National Geographic video, excel for the data tables, and text to create the master document.  And there was a storyteller’s flare to the whole thing (which Brant modestly assigns to the National Geographic article he references).  The student lab introduction reads like this….”At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.”

A wonderful, shining example of new media tools used to improve teaching and learning.  In the true spirit of the networking, Brant says he’ll be happy to share the lab and the KMZ file with biology teachers – you can contact me if you’d like them emailed to you.