May
23
2010

Biology Challenge

IMG_2417Here’s a cool but complex ecological interaction directly involving at least three species going on in my backyard. (Olathe, KS)

We’ve had a mostly cool and wet spring to date.  The plant involved is about 0.6 m tall at this point and there is a large flower bud within these leaves.  For this challenge, let’s start with the names of the species involved (at least to genus) followed by a description of the interactions involved.  Turns out there is a great site on the web that has this all documented with photos and scientific papers.  Maybe you can find that.  Part of the reason I put this challenge here is to hopefully inspire biology teachers into thinking just what they and their students might be able to investigate with just a small butterfly garden.  Another image:

IMG_2413

btw, I’m putting this challenge up on the KABT BioBlog at the same time—I want to see who figures this out first–the KABTer’s or the NABTer’s……challenge on.

May
15
2010

New Worlds, New Wonders

photoLast week I introduced a group of young people to a new world of wonder. It has been a short time since I noticed doing that, but in reality I have enjoyed a lifetime of “new world” introductions. You see, I spent the majority of my life (so far,) as a biology teacher. Though I retired from the high school classroom 4 years ago, I still teach. Sometimes I teach groups of students that visit the Lake Metroparks Environmental Learning Center (that is in Lake County in northern Ohio.) Sometimes I teach my granddaughter Maddie, and sometimes I simply teach people that happen to be standing next to me. But this week I was reminded of how exciting it can be to learn too. I work with a group of third through fifth grade honors or gifted students from a local school district. I guess they are “gifted” because they have been tested and identified as “cognitively gifted,” but I think they are gifted because they show up every Tuesday afternoon, after a full day of school, with notebook in one hand, snack in one hand, camera in one hand, and usually some other artifact in one hand. They accomplish this because they are third through fifth graders, they have an almost unmeasureable amount of energy, they are gifted, AND they are curious!! This week I gave them access to the microscope. This week I gave them access to new worlds. Their energy, and their curiosity did not disappoint. I decided to start their adventure with some microscope basics. I wanted them to appreciate how special this exploration tool is. I wanted their journey to be less frustrating and more successful. I wanted them to be able to see and to measure with the microscope. They were ready, willing and very able to explore new worlds. The world I introduced them to was an import from my small, backyard pond. As I left for the Environmental Learning Center I stopped and collected a bagful of pond water and a few handfuls of hair-like filamentous algae. The major genera in my pond is *Cladophora. (Sometimes called “pond scum,” but I prefer Cladophora.) My favorite thing to see in pond samples is, in fact the alga types. I love the green color and the ability to see into the cellular landscape. I love seeing the intercellular spaces and the dots of color in the chloroplasts. I love trying to “notice” the nucleus in the cell. I say “notice” because that is what you do when you start a journey into the microscopic world. Often the new adventurer will fail to notice what is clearly there. “Can I get a new sample?” “There isn’t anything in mine!”. I go over to take a look at this “empty” field of view. “Wow!” I scream. “Look at this!”. I tend to “notice” more stuff. Of course I see the algae. I describe the cellular boundaries, the cell walls, the membrane, the chloroplasts, the nucleus (if lucky and the lighting just right.) Then I look beyond the strands of algae and “notice” the hundreds or thousands of euglena scooting around the filaments. They are small. We have the 10X objective employed, but visible if only you are willing to “notice.” occasionally a much bigger paramecium swims by. I go crazy! By this time the young explorer wants her microscope back. They want to “notice” what’s on the slide too. New worlds, new wonders! Then we load up the slide with some daphnia. Daphnia is what these scientists want. They are big enough to be easily observed.

They are complex enough to look like real pond monsters. Daphnia are small microscopic crustaceans. They have a heart, gills, a digestive system, an eye spot AND they are “see-through.”. Perfect for a young scientist to get excited by this new world. They can see something happening. Thirty-four years teaching biology, four years of undergrad biology classes, two classes of biology in high school, and I still get goofy when I see a captured daphnia on it’s side, heart pumping, gills waving, food moving through the intestines, living its little life on the microscope slide for all to see.

No wonder the mini-explorers get so excited! As a special treat , we gave each of the little scientists their very own “daphnia-in-a-tube” to wear on a string around their neck and to take home. Their own new world, their own new wonder!

*Recently a discovery of a new use for this pesky pond clogger has been made. This web site discusses a possible use of the cellulose abundance of Cladophora. They may be harvested for use in new, efficient , paper batteries. They can come to my pond and harvest all they want. Check out this site. http://ceramics.org/ceramictechtoday/materials-innovations/green-algae-harnessed-to-make-paper-based-batteries/

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Location:Misty Ridge Dr,Painesville,United States

May
09
2010

The Biggest Playground On Earth

Lately I have been playing around with people that think kids should go outside and play!! Well, actually I have been listening to speakers that have been promoting this idea, and meeting with lots of folks that agree with this. A week or so ago, April 13th to be exact, I attended a lecture sponsored by The Holden Arboretum (see– http://www.holdenarb.org/natureplaymatters.asp,) “Nature Play Matters.” the speaker–Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough, Harvard University, was “speaking to the choir” as it were. From what I could see the audience was comprised of outdoor educators, outdoor education activity coordinators, outdoor program organization representatives and just plain outdoor types. (I didn’t actually look, but I bet most of the footwear consisted of some form of hiking boot! But I digress!) But the message about natural play was important for all to hear none-the-less. It is not a new idea, In fact there has been legislation in Washington since early in 2009.

According to Open Congress, the bill is sponsored by Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD). Officially called H.R.2054 – No Child Left Inside Act of 2009,

This bill seeks to enhance the environmental literacy of American students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, to foster understanding, analysis, and solutions to the major environmental challenges facing the student’s state and the Nation as a whole. Appropriations would be provided to train teachers for such instruction, provide innovative technology, and to develop studies assessing the worth of these programs in elementary and secondary school curriculums.

This legislation, known as “No Child Left Inside Act of 2009,” is currently in committee. Basically it amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This movement is a response to the popular book “Last Child In the Woods,” by Richard Louv, and has a companion movement throughout the country in the Children and Nature Network and in Ohio in the statewide movement “Leave No Child Inside” collaborative. http://lnciohio.blogspot.com/2010/04/children-and-nature-awareness-month.html

This brings me to the meeting I attended yesterday–The Northeast Region of the statewide Leave No Child Inside. The organizing meeting was attended by representatives of most of the noted Northeast Ohio Outdoor organizations–Of course, Lake Metroparks and The Holden Arboretum, but also included were professors from Hiram College, and Mount Union University (new name as of August.) Also, the YMCA Outdoor education facility was represented as were the Stark County Metro parks, and a few others. Imagine that, all these folks and all this energy to get us to take our kids outside! Is this all necessary?



YOU BET IT IS!

Our kids are turning into an “inside species.” They even sit inside and watch programs about the outside. The programs aren’t bad. In fact I love them. But now that we are all amazed by the “Life” that is a part of our world, lets get out and enjoy it. Get out to the Parks. Get out to the backyards. Go for a walk. Watch a pond. Plant a tree. Observe a bug. (Remember

watching a group of ants marching on the sidewalk? Well, they still march!) Feed a bird. In fact, just go outside and play. We have the biggest playground in the world just waiting for you and your kids. What do you think?




May
09
2010

WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Wind in the Willows and Oaks and Maples and all around me. This is what has been getting my attention as of late. The recent winds that rolled through Northern Ohio brought a great deal of stress and some unexpected costs to lots of folks this past weekend. What good can come from such a natural phenomena as a 50 mph wind gust? Well, not a lot of good, but lots of natural impacts. That’s what I was thinking about as the big Oaks and Maples and other giants were being whipped first one way and then another Friday night and all day Saturday.


My first thought in a wind storm is “will one of the tall trees be visiting my family room before the weather front passes?”. But then as I watch the trees bending back and forth, I am amazed at their strength. I know the basic biology of trees, the structure of wood, the chemistry of cellulose, but still, it is truly amazing to watch how strong these tall trees really are. As the leaves come sailing down I enjoy thinking about the ones that stay attached. The preening of the dead branches in my back woods during a wind storm will help clear out the upper reaches of the trees helping to prevent these branches from becoming “deadfalls” when I go exploring in better, calmer weather this summer.

Now that the canopy of leaves is a bit less dense more sun seems to leak through the trees. Does the extra light that streams down to the floor of my forest promote more wildflower growth? Or allow some of the treelets (or should that be treeettes?) to take hold more successfully? It is hard to say. But these are the things I think about during and after a wind storm. (Except a few years ago when a black locust fell across my deck and into the side of my house. Then I was thinking of insurance and repairs and contractors and bills. But let’s get back to biology.)

As we drove past a large grassy field I saw one of my favorite natural pictures. Sheets of wind were causing the field to flow. Waves of amber grass would work as a description. The field of weeds was being turned into a pasture of soft, tumbling waves of grass. The rhythms of nature were all around me. It is often difficult to see waves. But not in a wind storm. I guess I am discussing the physics of wind and grass, not the biology, but science is science. One great big way of thinking. We are the ones that separate it into biology and earth science, and chemistry, and physics. But that is another discussion for another time.


I’m going out to pick up some of those branches that escaped the confines of my woods and settled onto the small patch of mowed grass I call my back lawn. I’ll probably watch the plethora of birds that successfully “battened down the hatches” during the storm and are now attacking my feeders. I wonder how they maintained their stations in the 50 mph gusts. Were some relocated? Will I see some unusual visitors that rode the arms of the storm from up north? I guess I’ll have to go outside and watch some science to find out.

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Location:Misty Ridge Dr,Painesville,United States

Written by richardbenz in: Biology Teaching |
May
09
2010

40 Years and Counting


So here it is, Earth Day 2010. 40 years and counting. A lifetime for many and yet it seems like a blink of an eye. Forty years ago, Kent State University (12 days before it became “famous” worldwide,) a freshman bio major and ready to let my voice be heard. The first Earth Day was a big event on campus, at least in the biology building, Cunningham Hall. Senator Gaylord Nelson had proclaimed the first Earth Day and we were ready. Ready to march, ready to learn, ready to teach and ready to change this ailing planet. That really was a lifetime ago. Well, a career’s lifetime ago. Thirty-four years in the biology classroom. Thirty-four years with approximately 100 students a year (some years less, some more.) 3400 youngsters that learned about their world, our world, THE WORLD. 3400 young folks learning about where in the world they are and how they need to understand it and take care of it. Some years we all forgot about the health of our planet. Some years it was fashionable to care. So how are we doing now? Well, the planet is still ailing. We can make a list of the wounds, but suffice it to say that an extended
stay in the critical care ward is called for. But at least it is again fashionable to care about the health of the planet. The “Green” word is good right now. Actually it is profitable for businesses to be “Green.” Maybe that is the direction we needed to go. Not “It isn’t easy being green!” as my friend Kermit always said. Now we can say “It is easier being Green than it was before” and that is a good thing.

Today I worked with a group of excited students from Perry Middle School. We were learning about how to use a compass, and how to navigate through the wilderness using a hand-held GPS. The take-home lesson was supposed to be about how scientists use GPS technology to help their research. But since it WAS Earth Day, I was happy that we were able to help them understand just where in the world they were. If we all just knew where we stood in the world, the health of the planet just might start to improve. Certainly before the next 40 years go by and these students reflect on their experiences at the 40th Earth Day celebration. Let’s hope. Well, let’s do more than just hope, let’s act.

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May
04
2010

Mini-posters–>authentic peer review in the classroom

Miniposter--Jai Hoyer

Miniposter--Jai Hoyer

Background and Rationale:

Almost 20 years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to my first Bioquest Workshop at Beloit College. Maura Flannery covered the Bioquest experience in several her columns in the American Biology Teacher. These workshops challenge and inspire you as you work with a number of like-minded biology educators working on the edge of new developments. What really caught me off guard was the intensity of the learning experience. Before the end of the first full day, each working group had to produce a scientific poster presentation. This was my first, personal experience with building a poster so I’m glad that I don’t really have a record of it. I talked to John Jungck about the poster requirements—he told me that the students in his labs prepare a poster for each laboratory–rather than a lab-write up and they have to defend/present them in poster sessions. I immediately saw that a poster would help me evaluate my student’s lab experience while provide a bit of authenticity to my students doing science. That fall I had my students do a poster session that was displayed in the science hall. It was a big success with one exception. For my high school class, the experience was a bit too intense and too time consuming. It turned out that we could only work in one big poster session that year. One of the little bits of clarity of thought that comes from teaching for decades instead of years is the realization that students need to practice, practice, practice—doing anything just once is not enough. I thought about abandoning the poster session since it was too time consuming. However, I witness great learning by all levels of students with this tool. I didn’t want to abandon it. With this thought rolling around in my mind, I was primed as I visited one of my wife, Carol’s, teacher workshops. She’s a science teacher, too. In this workshop she was presenting an idea to help elementary teachers develop science fair project—a mini-science fair poster. This idea involved the used of a trifolded piece of 11″ x 17″ paper. The teachers were inputting their “required” science fair heading with post-it notes. Revision was a breeze. The teachers learned the importance of brevity with completion. They added graphs and images by gluing their graph to a small post-it. It was all so tidy, so elegant, so inviting, I probably stared a little long, struck dumb by the simplicity of the mini-poster. Once I came to my senses I realized that the mini-poster was my answer–a way to incorporate authentic peer review, formative assessment in my science classes. My high school classes could be like John’s college classes.

Making Mini-posters:

Jai putting her mini-poster together

Putting the miniposter together

Over the years, mini-posters have evolved into the following. We take two colored (for aesthetics file folders, trim off the tabs and glue them so that one panel from each overlap—leaving a trifold, mini-poster framework. Each student gets one of these. For these posters we go ahead and permanently glue on headings that include prompts to remind the students what should be included in each section. Later, they can design their own posters from scratch. The image at the top of the page and the ones following will give you an idea. By using post-it notes the posters can easily be revised and we also reuse the poster template several times over the year. Don’t feel that you have to follow this design–feel free to innovate.

Implementing Mini-posters:

Defending the miniposter

Defending the miniposter

For the first mini-poster experience, I give my students as much as a class period to work up a poster after completing an original research investigation. (We do quite a few of these early in the school year with others periodically throughout the rest of the year). Sometimes poster work is by groups and sometimes by individuals. Once the posters are ready, the class has a mini-poster session. The class is divided up in half or in groups. Half the class (or a fraction) then stays with their posters to defend and explain them while the other half play the part of the critical audience. To guide the critic, I provide each “evaluator” with a one page rubric and require them to score the poster after a short presentation. I restrict the “presentation” to about 5 minutes and make sure that there is an audience for every poster. We then rotate around the room through a couple of rounds before switching places. The poster presenters become the critical audience and the evaluators become presenters. We then repeat the process. By the end of the hour every poster has been peer-reviewed and scored with a rubric–formative assessment at its best. The atmosphere is really jumping with the students generally enjoying presenting their original work to their peers. The feedback is impressive. At this point I step in and point out that I will be evaluating their posters for a grade (summative assessment) but they have until tomorrow (or next week) to revise their posters based on peer review—oh, and I’ll use the same rubric. The process works very well for me and my students and my guess is that it will for yours as well. You’ll naturally have to tweak it a bit—please do. If you find mini-posters work for you, come back here and leave a comment.

The images are from our UKanTeach Research Methods course first assignment—a weekend research investigation.  Thanks to the Research Methods course for the images.

Here’s a file that illustrates what a miniposter might look like constructed in MS Word.

Links to websites for advice on making scientific posters:

http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/posteradvice.htm

http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/NewSite/index.html

http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/posterpres.html

http://www.tc.umn.edu/~schne006/tutorials/poster_design/

http://www.the-aps.org/careers/careers1/GradProf/gposter.htm

Apr
07
2010

NatureEd Podcast Series

Nature EdCast

Nature EdCast

I just came across a new podcast series from the folks at Nature Education (a new division of Nature Publishing group) called Nature EdCast.  This is a series of 10-minute podcast interviews with various scientists and educators – the interviews primarily focus on science teaching and learning – doing something new or thinking about science in unusual or different ways.  For example, there’s one with David Shenk on intelligence; one with Felice Frankel on visual communication; and one featuring Malcolm Campbell talking about Synthetic Biology. There are six interviews up on the site now, and, apparently, there will a a new one every month.

You can subscribe to the series (RSS feed), stream the podcasts right there on the site, or read the transcript. Definitely worth checking out.

Apr
05
2010

My House Hawk

image001

This is interesting.  We ID birds 200 feet in the air, with backlight conditions, moving in circles and we are incredibly confident in our calls.  Here is a bird, sitting in a small leafless tree in my front yard, “captured”, enlarged and cropped, and we have three or for pretty good birders not quite sure of it’s kind.  Of course John Audubon would know what it “was”.  I say was because he would have shot it, stuffed it and mounted it before he painted it and named it.  Chucky D would probably not know this bird since its range does not include any areas visited by him,  but he would be the first to bring up VARIATIONS.  I recently enjoyed reading the new Dawkins book–The Greatest Show On Earth, and he talks of rabbitness. That is, we all try to explain what the ideal rabbit looks like, but we know deep in our biological souls that there is no perfect rabbit! There is a spectrum of rabbitness. Of course we can look at a hawk and suggest that it is a Coopers Hawk or a Red Shouldered Hawk or a Sharpy, or ……..     We know there is no perfect Cooper or Sharpy that portrays all the characteristics of the Coopers Hawk species. There is Coopers Hawkness or Sharpyness that lies somewhere on a spectrum of characteristics and we deem the bird a Coopers ( or Red Shouldered, or what have you!) So how do the great birders always “get it right?”   First, they don’t always get it right, and second, they use more than just field marks and colors.  They combine marks and colors and patterns and maybe most importantly–behaviors.  That is what my picture is missing–behaviors.   The success of good bird identification is not simply knowing what a bird looks like, it is also knowing what it is doing, how it is behaving.  Maybe the pinnacle of bird spotting is on the top of Hawk Mountain in East Central Pennsylvania.  During the Fall migration hundreds of hawks of various species can be seen.  Think about Darwin’s variations with this scene–  50 or 60 Cooper’s Hawks or over 1600 Broad-winged Hawks that were spotted last September 17th.  Which one was the perfect Broadwing?   How did the spotters know all 1600 were really Broadwinged Hawks?  It is what Barbara McClintock called  ”a feeling for the organism.”  On this same day a total of  1646 hawks of various species passed by Hawk Mountain.  A total of 8 different species of raptors were recorded.  The total for the whole 2009 migration season was  15,592 birds, 21 identified species and 1 in the category “other”.  (I wonder what “other” was.  Is this the only bird they could not identify???)   As I looked over this data I thought about Dawkin’s species problem, the perfect Red Tail, or Cooper, or Bald Eagle.  I also pictured the bell-shaped curves that Darwin’s variation concept predicted.  In fact, I even pictured bell-shaped curves soaring past the North Lookout of Hawk Mountain.  Hawk Curve.001Well, not really, but now that I wrote about it I cannot get the image out of my mind!!   So there it is.  One hawk, one picture, a waterfall of thoughts.

DSC_2272 - Version 2

The young Red-Shouldered returned a few months later and brought along a partner

.  Now I watch them both as they pick off a series of moles and chipmunks that wander along the forest edge in my backyard.

What a lesson in evolution I have unleashed because a young hawk decided to take a rest at 10437 Misty Ridge Drive!!

Apr
04
2010

Springtime Trouting

MyPictureSo there I was –  standing in the middle of a small riffle just upstream of the confluence of Big Creek and the Grand River in Eastern Lake County, Ohio.  I was in the Grand, but I could see the waters of Big Creek joining the Grand river watershed just over my right shoulder.  The water was clear enough to see the river bottom AND the Steelhead Trout that were just starting their downstream run back to Lake Erie after spending the Fall and Winter upstream.  Northern Ohio was having a very unusual  March heatwave. A week after a quick snowfall, the temperatures were pushing almost 85 degrees (F).  The last days of March in Northern Ohio are often mild (the proverbial lamb,) but mild around here in March is usually in the 60’s, not the 80’s.  El Nino weather patterns make strange shifts in lots of measurements.  Some places get extreme rain, some higher temperatures and data shows a change in the patterns of tornados and hurricanes too.  Here we were rewarded with a short lived summer.  The rivers that flow into Lake Erie alternated between too low to be fished and too high and muddy to be fished this past year.  Of course, the dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool, fishermen’s fly casters go out no matter what the river looks like.  I am as much an observer of fish as I am a catcher of fish.  I do enjoy the activity of fly fishing.  My gearCasting to a particular pool.  Avoiding this log or that shrub.  It may be as much about my fishing skills, but fish watching is pretty entertaining too.  That is what I was doing while standing in the middle of the Grand River last week—fish watching.  I was trying to catch a steelhead or two, but studying them was pretty good too.

I found a nice deep part of the river just beside the shallow riffle where I was standing.  The shale that makes up most of the river bottom in the Grand creates shelves and ledges in the river’s structure.  Some of the shelves or ledges create waterfalls, some create deep pools.  The pools provide sanctuary for the big fish as they make their way up or down stream.  Often, a large three or four-year old trout will be resting or logging in these pools.  Sometime more than one can be seen.  That is what I was watching (and casting to,) on this wonderfully warm weekday afternoon.  There were a few other fisherfolk around, but not many.  Most seemed to be fish-watching too.  steelheadTroutSteelhead trout on their spawning run (both up stream and down,) are not really interested in eating.  Eating is what they have been doing all summer in the lake.  Occasionally they will attack a floating bug or nymph (as much from habit as from hunger,)  and that is what a Steelhead trout catcher is hoping for.  The particular large fish I was watching did not seem to want to attack anything other that other trout that happened by.  I nymphed, I egged, I streamered, but mostly I watched.  But that was ok.  What a scene I was watching.  The  fish I was “playing” with was probably a 3 year old (maybe 2 years since the size of a fish under water is a bit difficult to accurately estimate due to the tendency of water to magnify,) 24 inches or so and wonderful to observe.  As smaller fish entered the pool the “resident” cleared them out.  A short rest seemed to be fine, but only a short one.  If a smaller trout stayed too long, it was scooted away.  If too many smaller fish entered the pool, even a short stay was not allowed.  I was casting to the rest stop, but mostly I was watching the residents.  Occasionally I would hear a noisy splash behind me.  Not a big splash, but kind of a  splatter.  In fact, a series of splatters.  As I turned to see the cause of the noise I saw a younger fish making its way down the riffle.  Sometimes they start down a shallow section of the river instead of staying in the deeper runs.  When this happens they need to “skitter” along the gravel and rocky riffle areas.  This creates a splashing noise and is great to watch.  Of course, if I was really just trying to get fish I could simply net the skittering fish, but I was here to watch and appreciate as much as I was to catch fish.  And appreciate I did!  I have been watching the tremendous new television series on the discovery Channel.  This series called LIFE, is wonderful.  But I was IN this “Life” episode, so I just watched.  When I view the Discovery version of “LIFE” I am amazed. The photography is remarkable even if the narrator’s explanations leave a little to be desired (in the US version, Opera Winfrey is the narrator.)  I have found a few too many explanations of wonderful design as the reason for a particular animal’s shape, color, structure or success to be comfortable.  I’m not sure how Sir David Attenborough narrates, but I’m sure the BBC version discusses the evolutionary processes a bit more accurately.  But here I stand in the middle of  a river, watching my own episode of LIFE.  That’s what this essay is all about.  We all need to watch the episodes of LIFE all around us.  Whether the tapping of a pileated woodpecker, or the hunting of a red shouldered hawk, the hunting practice of Fitzroy (my cat,) or fledging of a house wren, LIFE is all around us.  Paying attention to the world around us is actually the theme of my Australian friend’s entire blog.  It is called “Paying Ready Attention” and can be found at http://payingreadyattention.blogspot.com.  This blog is deserving of a good long look, or rather many looks since Stewart adds to this site quite frequently and every entry is worth reading.

That is what I was doing last Thursday.  I was standing in the middle of a riffle, up-stream of  the confluence of Big Creek and the Grand River “paying ready attention.”  I’ll be back.  I will search out this pool.  I may ‘tease’ the resident for a short while.  I may try a nymph, or a streamer, maybe an egg pattern.   He  (or she) many not even be there, but I will certainly be paying ready attention to the LIFE around me.

Mar
12
2010

Sue Mullican’s Biology Students

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Alexis Miller's Human Homunculus

Through the wonderful world of the web, I’ve recently gotten to know an incredible high school biology teacher – Sue Mullican. Sue teaches at Jenks High School, in Jenks, Oklahoma. We first met at the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) meeting, when she attended a workshop on using participatory media tools in teaching biology.  Since then, Sue and I have been corresponding, exchanging ideas, and sharing favorites sites and tools.

Sue was new to all of this but, true to her creative roots, she took to it immediately.  The first thing she did was to build a class wiki.  As you can see, she uses it to post biology in the news type stories, give assignments, feature student projects, and make announcements.

What really strikes me about Sue is that she’s completely internalized the idea of her students as “producers”.  She sees these new media tools as vehicles for her students’ to demonstrate their understanding in new ways.

Take for example this video, created by one of Sue’s physiology students, Alexis Miller.  The assignment was to build a human homunculus out of clay – one sensory area at a time.  For those of you not currently enrolled in Human Anatomy and Physiology, the word “homunculus” is Latin for “little human”.  In biology courses, it refers to a scale model of a human, distorted to represent the relative space occupied by human body parts on the somatosensory cortex (somatic sensory homunculus) and the motor cortex (motor homunculous).  In other words, on a sensory homunculus the tongue would be HUGE.  In the original assignment document, Sue suggests that the students take photos, each step along the way, as they build their clay homunculus, and showcase their photos or assemble them into a PowerPoint deck.  A clever assignment by any measure – but Alexis took it a step further and created this video. Gotta love Alexis. Gotta love Sue. Gotta love Jenks High School for being smart enough to hire a teacher like Sue, support her, and send her to national conferences.

Mar
02
2010

Wisdom from the Niles High School District

Photo credit:  Tom Denham

Photo credit: Tom Denham

I just returned from moderating a teacher workshop at the Niles District’s (just out side of Chicago, Illinois) Institute Day.  Ruth Gleicher and Anne Roloff invited me to spend three hours with a group of 10 high school teachers from the two high schools in the Niles District.  The workshop was called, “Participatory Media, Learning, and Literacy” and it sprung from a session I offered at the 2009 NABT conference.  Ruth Gleicher, who is a biology teacher at Niles West HS, attended that NABT session and thought that it might be a good fit for her colleagues.  Together, she and I designed an experience with a little presentation and a lot of hands-on and discussion.

The session went well, I think.  I sure enjoyed it!  I was so impressed with this group of teachers.  They were biology, chemistry, earth science, english, and special ed teachers.  And they were all – to a person – hard working, creative, and very committed teachers.  We started off the session, going around and introducing ourselves.  I asked them to share with the others how they’re currently making use of new media tools with their students and to describe one new thing they wanted to try.  So we spent the first hour or so in a candid exchange of ideas, things that worked and didn’t, questions they had, and plans for the future.

I love these conversations. And I suspect that you do too – here are a few of the gems that the Niles teachers shared with each other….

Students aren’t as proficient as we think they are with online tools….they don’t know how to download a photo, they’ve never edited a wiki, they don’t understand intellectual property.

Amen to that.  And I would add that many of them don’t know how to set the privacy controls on Facebook, they don’t know how to create and post a video in a safe and responsible way, they are unaware of their digital footprint and how it might work to their benefit, and they forget about replicability, forwarding and the persistence of content.  Our students need help with all of these things.  They must become more aware of the power of online information and they must be more exacting judges of the credibility of what they find there.  They need teachers to help them understand, respect, sort and discern.

As teachers, we need help sorting out what’s the right tool for the job and which – if any -  of the options is worth our time.

Another good point!  There are so many intriguing online options these days – fun tools to try, capabilities to explore, and a huge range of ways to express ourselves, demonstrate our understanding, and deepen our experience.  But how to evaluate them?  How to decide if the time it will take to learn how to use them well (and then show others how to do the same) will be worth it?  With this conundrum, my advice is  – try it yourself first.  Get inside whatever the new thing is with your own projects or interests (a hobby?  a small thing – just enough to learn, or maybe on something you need to do anyway).  Make failure cheap.  Discover the affordances of the tool for yourself and then you’ll be in a good position to judge whether or not it’s worth using it in your classroom.

What I don’t evaluate or grade, my students won’t do.

Yeah, I hear that a lot.  The point these teachers were making was, if we don’t give credit for blogging, contributing to the class wiki, or creating an animoto, our students won’t do it.  I feel their pain.  I can’t help but think that much of this behavior stems from conditioning.  We’ve trained our students (in our assessment-crazed, high-stakes testing world) to think in these terms.  Intrinsic motivation seems to have left the building. But I don’t think that’s due to any character flaw in our students – I think that “we” have set it up this way (I was talking to a friend yesterday, who relayed the story that her kindergartner came home with homework on which “points” would be given by the teacher).  But even if we agree on that, what’s to be done about it?  By the time teenagers get to high school (or college) they are steeped in that tradition.  What’s an individual teacher to do, in order to break the cycle?   I would love to hear your thoughts on that – comments?  ideas?

Feb
18
2010

Digging Up Our Family Tree

I am the instructor for an online course for teachers titled “Teaching Evolution”. When I surveyed these teachers this past fall about some of the most common misconceptions their students have with respect to evolution, they all chimed in – “humans come from monkeys”.

This should probably not be too surprising, given that (1) children are taught to confuse monkeys and chimps from an early age – Curious George is not a monkey, he has no tail and is therefore an ape – and yet, repeated throughout the stories is the phrase “Curious George was a monkey”, (2) human evolution does not appear in state standards in many states (see Mead and Mates. 2009. Why science standards are important to a strong science curriculum and how states measure up.  Evo Edu Outreach 2:359-371) and is therefore often not taught; (3) even good educational programs like NOVA can, unfortunately, perpetuate part of the misconception. Don’t get me wrong, I love NOVA. Their Judgment Day documentary about the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial is great. I just watched What Darwin Didn’t Know and I love how they explained the importance of similarities in embryos as evidence for evolution, among other excellent points made in the film. And overall, I liked the Becoming Human series. However, it has drawn some criticisms worth revisiting as we look back on 2009, a year when the description of the fossil hominin Ardipithecus ramidus was hailed as the most important science discovery of the year. An accurate understanding of human evolution does matter.

Unfortunately, the NOVA Becoming Human program, in attempting to explain the evolutionary transition between our hominin ancestor and present day humans, constantly draws a comparison between modern day chimpanzees and Homo sapiens, which is really an incorrect comparison to make, and fuels the misconception that humans evolved from “monkeys”.  For example, numerous times statements like “[m]illions of years ago, we were apes, living ape lives in Africa” are paired with video segments of modern day chimpanzees and gorillas, which unfortunately promotes the misconception that we evolved from modern day chimpanzees, or even monkeys, since I’m guessing many people do not readily distinguish between chimps and monkeys.

[A quick digression: Why use of hominin instead of hominid? Hominini is a tribe of Homininae that comprises humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, their ancestors, and the extinct lineages of their common ancestor. Members of the tribe are called hominins. Hominids, taxonomically Hominidae, form a family that includes humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans and the extinct lineages of their common ancestor. Hence when speaking of our ancestor with chimps, given the current taxonomy, we should use hominin.]

The assumption behind the human-chimp comparison is, of course, that our hominin ancestor would have looked much like modern chimps, and herein lies the problem. Chimps have their own evolutionary history. Yes, they are our closest living relatives, but looking to chimps for information about our hominin ancestor is about as informative as looking to my third cousin for information about my great-great grandmother. I can certainly hypothesize that traits found in both my third cousin and myself were present in our common ancestor, my great-great grandmother, but each of us also have our own evolutionary history and I certainly wouldn’t assume that my great great-grandmother looked exactly like my third cousin. We only have to look to Darwin for clarification of this point “[i]n the first place it should always be borne in mind what sort of intermediate forms must, on my theory, have formerly existed. I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself, forms directly intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor; and the progenitor will generally have differed in some respects from all its modified descendants.” (Darwin 1859 Chapt. 9)

The Becoming Human series should have made explicit why they were making such a comparison, since the search for shared derived characters or synapomorphies is actually the foundation of cladistics and much of modern evolutionary biology. There are a number of shared derived characters which indicate our shared ancestry with chimps, and which separate apes from other primates. These traits include: relatively large brain, absence of tail, more erect posture, greater flexibility of hips and ankles, increased flexibility of wrist and thumbs, and changes in structures of the arms and shoulder. However, each lineage (one leading to chimps and another to modern day humans) also accumulated different traits, and the shared derived traits along the direct lineage to humans, the lineage that begins since we shared a common ancestor with chimps, informs our understanding of where, when, and how we became modern humans.

The most appropriate comparisons are with our actual ancestors, for which we now have many examples.   Here is another issue with the NOVA program: it did not include the most recent discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus. We can excuse this omission on grounds that Science had yet to publish the most current findings; however, Ardipithecus ramidus had been known of for 15 years. Could the Becoming Human series have waited a few more months? Without discussion of Ardipithecus ramidus, the best depiction of the earliest fossils of the tribe Hominina comes from Sahelanthropus tchadensis. However, only a skull, five pieces of jaw and some teeth comprise what we know about this species. It is not clear whether Sahelanthropus tchadensis walked upright. Evidence from Ardipithecus ramidus, however, suggests that by 4 million years ago, our  ancestors did walk upright, and that our upright posture evolved long before our brain capacity increased.

By the end of the three part program, however, I was less stressed over the perpetuation of the chimp to human comparison, and more excited by some of the newer findings presented in the series – for example, that extreme fluctuations in climate were probably associated with the array of evolutionary changes taking place, and that we can tell we inherited the FoxP2 gene from our common ancestor with Homo neanderthalensis -work by Svante Paabo indicates the gene is the same in both groups. The picture of a group of individuals, described as Homo heidelbergensis, migrating north into Europe, giving rise to Homo neanderthalensis and a separate group being pushed to the edges of Africa, giving rise to Homo sapiens, was also enlightening. Here again, however, what helped visualize human evolution was the inclusion of trees – phylogenetic hypotheses explaining our current understanding of the evolutionary relationships among various extinct and extant species. Again, these are hypotheses, which will undoubtedly be altered as new fossils are discovered, and new technological advances allow us to gain more insight into our genetic connection to chimpanzees and perhaps even our hominin ancestors. In light of the tentative and useful nature of trees, I’ve included one here, showing some of the more significant synapomorphies for various clades of primates, along with the current names for these groups.

Family-tree-cladogram

I also found the additional resources provided for teachers at the NOVA Becoming Human website to be very useful.

Resources on NOVA site

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/beta/evolution/our-family-tree.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/beta/evolution/compare-skeletons.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/beta/evolution/zoo-you.html

Written by louisemead in: Biology Teaching |
Jan
29
2010

A Different Kind of Educator’s Workshop

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

Spiral Theas and Chimera Cosmos

A friend and colleague of mine, Liz Dorland and I decided to organize a Second Life Eduator’s group.  We kept meeting these fabulous teachers who wanted to learn  more about the application of the virtual world to education and so, we thought, what the heck – let’s set up a workshop series for these teachers. We’ll meet for just an hour – two times per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for four weeks, as an experiment.  We can show them beginning navigational stuff, introduce them to basic building skills, and take them to other educational builds, favorites of ours, for inspiration.

For those of you unfamiliar with Second Life – it is an online virtual world that consists of a flat-earth simulation of roughly 1.8 billion square meters (if it were a physical place, it would be about the size of Houston, Texas). First launched in 2003, SL is an example of an immersive, three-dimensional (3D) environment that supports a high level of social networking and interaction with information.  Visitors can access the virtual world through a free, client program called the Second Life viewer. You enter the SL virtual world, which residents refer to as “the grid”, as an avatar (Second Life “users” are referred to as “residents”). Once there, you can explore environments, meet and socialize with other residents (using voice and text chat), participate in group and individual activities, and learn from designed experiences. Built into the software is a three-dimensional modeling tool, based around simple geometric shapes, that allows anyone to build virtual objects. These objects can be used, in combination with a scripting language, to add functionality.

While virtual worlds with their 3D landscapes and customizable avatars, seem similar to popular massively multiplayer online games, they do not adhere to the traditional definition of a game.  Virtual worlds, like SL, are more focused on socializing, exploring, and building.  As a result, there is an active educational community in SL. Over 300 colleges and universities have “builds” in SL where they teach courses and conduct research. A number of organizations (NASA, NOAA, NIH, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Public Radio), along with a host of government agencies, museums, and educational groups stage regular events, seminars and workshops in world.

Since I started exploring around in Second Life last year, it’s seemed to me to be a great way to involve students in science.  But before we can think about the applications with students, I knew we needed to get teachers in there.  So, Liz and I thought we’d start with these simple workshops.

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

Comicbook-Style Handouts, designed by Liz Dorland

What sounded like a relatively simple (and fun idea!) has turned out to be quite a bit of work – but it’s also even more fun that I would have imagined. First of all, it gives Liz and I an iron-clad excuse to investigate lots of interesting places and activities we’ve been wanting to learn about any way.  It’s also forced us to be more systematic about understanding the basics of getting around in Second Life (as always, you learn the most when you are going to teach). We’ve created handouts and step-by-step instructions for the participants. Then, of course, we needed an online place to store and display all of those, as well as a place to keep the schedule – so we built a wiki site for the group.  And then we wanted to document the sessions – so we started a Koin-Up group where everyone in the class can post photos.  Now, I’m experimenting with recording options so that we can archive the sessions.

This week, we had our first session.  13 teachers showed up (there will be 17 when everyone attends) and they’re from all over – Great Britain, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, and Boston.  Some teach college students, some are curriculum developers, some teach primary years, and some secondary grades.  Men and women – older and younger – some experienced in SL and some brand spankin’ new.  I love the diversity.

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

Teachers in our Second Life "Skybox' Classroom

We started with some basic navigational stuff (creating landmarks, map reading, inventory) and then we teleported up to our skybox classroom.  Everyone learned how to “buy” a chair, find it in their inventory, and then rez it on their spot on the classroom floor.  Then we had a little lesson in camera controls, learning how to zoom in/out and focus.

Chichenitza – view from the top (taken by Kirsten Loza)

After that. we teleported down to the ground and then bounced over to Chichenitza for a bit of fun.  Everyone picked up the free Mayan costume and then climbed the magnificent stairs to take in the view from the top.

I was very impressed with how well everyone did.  They seemed to follow along beautifully and were patient with the various technical hassles one inevitably has with a platform like this.  For Liz and me, it was great fun and a welcome challenge (that’s us, up there in the photo at the top of the post – I’m the one with the  yellow hardhat).  We work well together – trading off the various responsibilities, and supporting each other (I would never do this by myself!).  When one is leading the class, the other is adding helpful explanations to the backchat, taking snapshots, and giving extra support to those who need it.

Next week we’ll be visiting Yifeng Hu’s Department of Communications Studies virtual location.  Yifeng Hu is an instructor at The College of New Jersey (in Ewing, NJ) where she teaches a course called ‘New Media and Health Communications’.  As part of her course, Professor Hu take students into Second Life for activities, lectures, and touring. We’re going to visit her virtual campus and hear how she uses the virtual world with her students.  They’ve used their time in Second Life to, among other things, examine whether the communications theories they learn about in class are applicable in the virtual world. Here is an article about Professor Hu’s work.  We also hope to visit Michael Demers virtual classroom.  Dr. Demers teaches geology at New Mexico State University and has done some really interesting things (including how to use GIS equipment) with his students in the virtual world. Here’s an article about his experiences.

All in all, this is turning out to be a worthwhile experiment.  I’m learning so much from our “students” and seeing my way toward a path to make this work for students.  If anyone is interested in joining us, in world, drop me a line!

Jan
25
2010

Involve your Students in a Citizen Science Project

A post just came through the KS-Bird list about an interesting Cornell Citizen science program–especially for those in the East and SE:

The Rusty Blackbird Blitz

Rusty Blackbirds are in decline and Kansas is part of their winter range. This “blitz”/survey is set up for the first two weeks of Feb. Check out the link for protocols. If you decide to get out and count blackbirds don’t just report to eBird; share your experience here on the KABT BioBlog.

An excerpt from the Cornell eBird website:

January 11, 2010
Participate in the Second Annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz! Singing male Rusty Blackbird, Alaska. Photo by David Shaw (www.wildimagephoto.com).

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds are crashing! Their numbers have plummeted by as much as 88-98% over the last few decades, according to data gathered between 1966 and 2006 for the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count. A species that was once considered to be abundant is rapidly disappearing before our eyes. Your observations can help save this species by arming scientists with critical information about its ecology. The Rusty Blackbird Working Group has developed the Rusty Blackbird Blitz, a winter survey whose goal is to count Rusty Blackbirds range-wide just prior to spring migration. From 30 January – 15 February, search for Rusty Blackbirds in your area and report your observations to eBird.

Jan
09
2010

Now that’s taking extinction seriously!

Mole cricket tatto

Mole cricket tattoo

Most of us worry about the growing list of endangered species, many of us donate time or money to groups who work to protect them, but how many of us have taken steps to promote the cause by tattooing images of extinct organisms on our bodies?  I mean, really.  I ask you?

Well, 100 dedicated folks in Great Britain have.  That’s how seriously they’re taking it.  It started with a group called ExtInk and a November, 2009 exhibit of drawings, illustrating 100 of the most endangered species in the British Isles. Creatures like the water vole, the tundra swan, and narrow-leaved hellaborine.  It concluded with the live tattooing of the drawings on 100 willing volunteers. Apparently, you had to apply for the priveledge of having one of these tatoos (would love to read a few of those letters!).  Here’s the full list of all the participants, along with which tatoo they received.

I love the idea of these 100 people, walking around as bold biodiversity ambassadors.  Can’t you imagine the conversation?  ”What’s that on your arm?”  …”Oh, that?  Well, that’s a red-backed shrike.  Let me tell you about it…”

Written by rheyden in: General Biology | Tags: ,