Tag: science

Wasn't expecting Him in class

In the #astro101 class I’m working on, we just reached the “what is life” section. Great timing, considering the new @NASA astrobiology discovery of a bacteria that, unlike every other living creature, uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA.

We were going to have a PPT slide that listed 4 “generally agreed-upon” characteristics of life

Four "generally agreed-upon" characteristics of "life". Kind of a boring PPT slide for such an intersting topic, no?

<Yawn> I suggested to the course instructor we switch it into a #clicker question, to get the students to critically think about each characteristic and then compare them to what they think “life” means:

The same content posed as a clicker question to, er, lure the students into thinking about each characteristic.

I intentionally added the last choice “E) other ______” so students could add their own ideas. The instructor and I talked about it ahead of time, and agreed that if students chose E), we’d invite them to share their ideas with the class.

Fast forward to class. We pose the question, not as a think-pair-share sequence but just inviting them to discuss it with their neighbours. Then the students voted.

Students' votes for A, B, C, D, E.

Excellent – 4 others. Wonder what they are?

“What other characteristics should a life form have?”

Then the shocker. From the back of the room comes

“God!”

In hindsight, we should have expected that! But we weren’t prepared for it. Kudos to the instructor, though: without even a pause, she replied, “Well, we’re not going to add religion and philosophy to this science class. Okay, let’s see how these 4 characteristic apply…”

The student’s answer was a great one. It told us he’d thought about the question we posed and compared it to his own knowledge, experience and beliefs. Who could ask for anything more? Be warned, though: if you want to invite your students to bring their religion into your astronomy class, be prepared – you can’t just wing it. (I did that once. Big mistake. Made me look pretty – no, make that very – ignorant.) And if you’re not familiar with the spectrum of religious beliefs in your classroom, you might want to reconsider the conversation before you start it. Why not be up front about it with your students:

Whenever people talk about the origin of life, some will undoubtedly want to include their religious beliefs. In this class, though, we’re going to stick to the scientific aspects of the discussion, the aspects that can be predicted, observed, proved or disproved by the scientific method. Now, about those scientific characteristics of life…

What do you mean by that, again?

Oh sure, trust me to turn a fun Twitter #hashtag into a posting about education. Well, sorry, I filter everything I read and experience through my education filter (or my will-my-kids-have-a-meltdown? filter).

I’ve been reading my tweeps #tweetmy16yearoldself messages on Twitter, thinking to myself, Geez, that kid was way more with it than I was. Like my #spacetweep friend @Zarquil, who tweeted

#TweetYour16YearOldSelf Honestly, you’ve got it all figured out already. Listen to your own heart and don’t put so much reliance on others.

Or my math teacher friend @ptruchon who wrote to himself,

Thanks for spending so much awesome time learning the guitar. I wouldn’t have time now, and I’m still enjoying it. #tweetyour16yearoldself

And then my education friend @janniaragon tweeted something that I’m paraphrasing from memory because the tweet was a couple of days ago and it’s slipped off the timeline.

“slim-leg jeans, black hair with bangs, t-shirt from [somebody’s] concert”

You see, @ptruchon and @Zarquil are tweeting TO their 16 year-old selves, sending a wise message back in time. But @janniaragon is tweeting ABOUT her 16 year-old self, a 140-character snapshot of herself back then. That’s the way I interpreted #tweetyour16yearoldself and I’m wasn’t keen to recall and share those awkward years.

Different people have completely different interpretations of the word “tweetyour16yearoldself”, producing completely different responses. Just like I see in undergraduate physics and astronomy classes every day! The instructor says an important word which sits, in his or her mind, at the pinnacle (or is that “apex”, @ptruchon?) of a pyramid of background knowledge and concepts. But the students interpret the word in a different way and attach none of the background the instructor assumes is there. Or worse yet, attach a different background and then struggle to hang the instructor’s version of the concept on scaffolding that isn’t there.

The biggest offender in my field is “theory”. To astronomers, physicists, scientists in general, “theory” is the pinnacle of science. Why, if you produce even one outstanding theory in your career, you’ve made a valuable contribution to the field. But to students, “theory” is often a vague guess, a stab-in-the-dark. Actually, let me quote from a new astronomy textbook, “Investigating Astronomy – A Conceptual View of the Universe” (W.H. Freeman and Co, coming soon) by @caperteam and @rogerfreedman. They say it much better than I can:

In everyday language the word “theory” is often used to mean an idea that looks good on paper, but has little to do with reality. In science, however, a good theory is one that explains reality and that can be applied to explain new observations.

It’s all about interpretation. Instructors, be sure to share the pyramid of background knowledge behind key words when you use them. And students, interrupt your instructor and ask, “What do you mean by that, again?”

We're all on the same team

I work at a huge institution. In 2009, there were more than 45 000 students and 10 000 faculty members at UBC, and enrollment continues to climb. We’re split into a handful of Faculties and Schools and many Departments.

With that many faculty members, it’s no surprise that people in different departments are doing the same things. And sometimes there’s mild hostility (or more) as different departments compete for bums-in-seats, grants, recognition and so on.  Sometimes there’s a feeling of, “Why are you doing that for them? They have their own people” as if we’re giving away our department’s secrets.

And that’s too bad.

Which is why I’m so glad to be working and collaborating and sharing with a couple of colleagues who don’t live in my building.

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