Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 10:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine

Students and alcohol are never far apart, but most manage to hold off the booze when they’ve got an important test the next morning. Now it seems they needn’t worry, as researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health have found that combining last-minute revision with a couple of beers isn’t a problem. Heavy drinking the night before an exam had little effect on a student’s academic performance, but they did have worse moods and slower reflexes.

The researchers recruited 196 student for the study, and randomly assigned them to either a strong beer or a non-alcoholic placebo beer. The students spent the evening drinking in a controlled environment before retiring for the night, and then in the morning were subjected to both academic and mental performance tests. One week later they did it all over again, but with the opposite beverage.

Drinking sessions lasted just over an hour, during which male students had to drink an average of around 3 pints of beer, while females were served closer to 2 pints. The particular amounts were tailored to each individuals body weight, with the aim of achieving a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.12%. The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines “binge drinking” as a BAC of 0.08%.

Unsurprisingly, 70% of students assigned to the alcoholic beer complained of a hangover the next morning. This didn’t seem to affect their exam performance however, as regardless of beverage all students scored relatively high on a mock exam and a quiz on a lecture from the previous day. Despite this, students rated their own test performance as worse if they were hungover.

These findings contradict previous research showing links between alcohol consumption and academic problems. The researchers suggest that a third factor such as personality could be the cause of both – perhaps some failing students are driven to drink. They also warn the research shouldn’t be used as an excuse for excessive drinking:

“We do not conclude…that excessive drinking is not a risk factor for academic problems. It is possible that a higher alcohol dose would have affected next-day academic test scores. Moreover, test-taking is only one factor in academic success. Study habits, motivation and class attendance also contribute to academic performance; each of these could be affected by intoxication.”

I’d be inclined to agree with them. Taking exams isn’t fun and neither is being hungover, so why risk the combination? Instead, wait until the test is over, then head to the nearest pub. Just don’t spend the entire evening dissecting the exam questions!

Howland, J., Rohsenow, D., Greece, J., Littlefield, C., Almeida, A., Heeren, T., Winter, M., Bliss, C., Hunt, S., & Hermos, J. (2010). The effects of binge drinking on college students’ next-day academic test-taking performance and mood state Addiction, 105 (4), 655-665 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02880.x

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 10:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Last month it was widely reported that a study had found Facebook users have lower grades. At the time I had my doubts about some of the conclusions newspapers were drawing. Now a new study criticises the original, and finds no link between Facebook and grades.

The authors were unhappy that although the previous study, which they refer to as “FG”, only looked at simple correlation, ‘Facebook harms grades’ became an established fact as it disseminated through the media. They found 500 references to this in three day span, despite the “unpublished and inadequately reviewed” FG study being merely reported in a press release.

It’s not just the media at fault though. They say the FG study used a sample of convenience which did not adequately reflect the population it sought to examine. It was heavily weighted to graduate students with only six first- and second-years, making it “unrepresentative of any university population at all”. Other aspects of the FG study, such as a lack of control for demographic variables, also come under fire.

Not content with mere criticism, the paper also describes a new study lead by Josh Pasek, a Ph.D. candidate in political communication at Stanford University. The researchers looked at three groups of students. One consisted of 1,060 first-years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), whilst two others were drawn from a larger study, the annual National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY), for another 1,250 participants.

In all three groups there was no negative link found between grade point averages (the typical US measure of academic performance) and Facebook use. Results were mixed, either showing no correlation or a small positive one – Facebook users were more likely to have slightly higher grades. This increase was not statistically significant however when limiting the sample to just university students, as the previous FG study did.

The researchers are quick to point out that their results should not be used as a definitive answer to the question of Facebook’s effect on grades. They warn that since Facebook only emerged in 2004 it could be too early to tell, and predictions are difficult because of our “constantly evolving media environment”. They also point out that excessive participation in any activity, be it browsing Facebook or otherwise, will have an “extreme time replacement effect”. As I said in my post on the FG study, procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can.

Interestingly, published alongside the paper in online journal First Monday is a response from the author of the FG study, Aryn Karpinski of Ohio State University. She defends her study as “merely planned…for a conference”, and makes the fair point that she was a victim of media sensationalism.

Karpinski in turn criticises the new study’s methods, particularly their choice of samples. She argues that the UIC sample of first-years is not representative of the country as a whole, and the NASY survey is invalid as it only had a 45% response rate. It could be that those who didn’t respond are negatively impacted by Facebook use. The statistical methods used in the study are also attacked.

It doesn’t end there. In the same issue of First Monday Pasek et al respond to Karpinski’s response to their study, which was in turn a response to her original study. Perhaps it would have been easier simply to have the discussion on their Facebook wall-to-wall. They defend themselves of course, and ultimately “look forward to a continued rigorous academic dialogue on these issues”. Quite.

Josh Pasek, Eian More, & Eszter Hargittai (2009). Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data First Monday, 14 (5)

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 6:23 pm by Jessica Bland
In Education, Happenings, Musings

CP Snow’s proclamation of a rift between the two cultures of arts and science is fifty years old this week. His Rede lecture in 1959 caused a global response in both the media and academic circles. Last night, The Royal Society in London held a public debate assessing the relevance of Snow’s comments to today’s cultural landscape. The debate was recorded and is available online here.

I was lucky enough to attend in person, quite a thrill for a science communication geek; Melvin Bragg was chairing, and Marcus du Sautoy, John Denham, Sian Ede and Stefan Collini sat on the stage with him. The directors of The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and South Bank Centre spoke from the floor.

But, from the opening speeches, it was clear that each of them had interpreted the theme of the evening quite differently. This does not have to be a problem in a debate, but it was in this one. We spent an hour arguing about culture, but the notion of what a culture is seemed to be different for almost everyone. And so, or as well, why science might be distinguished from the arts also seemed to be different for everyone. Why this is might have made for an interesting discussion. Instead, we ended up with some cross-purpose interchanges, which achieved very little. Stefan Collini summed this up well, saying that the topic of two cultures is just a vehicle for whatever particular grievance people have about science.

What Snow meant by two cultures was very specific. He argued that the academics in science and literature occupy separate spheres with very little interaction. Moreover, in England, the scientific sphere was seen as inferior to the literary sphere. This was, according to Snow, due to the stubborn remnants of the prevailing attitude of a previous age; a clever boy would go to Oxford to study Classics. A slightly less clever boy would move into the sciences.

Snow saw science as providing his country with a secure and prosperous future. But if science continued to be stigmatised with intellectual inferiority, this future would not be possible. New science and technology would be developed elsewhere. Leaving England with Shakespeare scholars, but little else. The Times reviewed his lecture the day after its first presentation. Their argument backs up this interpretation of Snow’s position. At that moment, Britain’s fall from empire to island was of huge public concern. Any way to aid a graceful fall was of interest. The Times article points to science and technology as just such aids. It argues that Britain should bolster funding in science education and research. The country should fight to retain its position as world leaders in this field, fending off the threat from the new planned economies in Russia and China.

In ‘The Two Cultures’, Snow demarcated science from literature as a device for promoting science: for promoting a certain kind of academic pursuit that he felt was dangerously overlooked. The cultural division, even the very mention of culture is slightly beside the point. It is a vehicle for Snow’s complaints about science’s funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

In this way, the discussion yesterday at the Royal Society echoes Snow’s original point. Admittedly, it explored how science and literature are professional cultures, how they are perhaps one joint culture of human curiosity and why science is not part of our current definition of ‘culture’. But these uses ideas about culture were mainly frames for complaints about the status of science funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

Although these complaints followed similar themes to Snow’s, their content had moved on. Today, some scientists are accorded higher social status than classicists. But state-funding of science is more widely questioned. School education now addresses scientific controversy and concentrates on creating citizens who are aware of the processes and practices of science. And there is wider access to university science courses. Yet, science numbers at A-level are still dropping. Questions at the debate did not centre on whether everyone can recite the second law of thermodynamics – Snow’s example of the lack of scientific literacy he found amongst his peers. They were instead concerned with our current buzz phrases: dialogue between scientists and the public and deliberative models of science policy making.

These are the same complaints we hear at philosophical, political and media-related discussions of science. They were just framed around a notion of culture. And this framing confused the conversation. The mutual rhetoric tangled together distinct issues so that questions and answers missed each other’s points. And Denham, as the politician in the corner, was even able to squeeze in a speech from his swine flu-related soap box.

It was a shame that the hype surrounding the anniversary of Snow’s lecture did not lead to anything new. But then his lecture was not, at its time, about anything new. It was a vehicle for his insightful analysis of problems faced by British science. Last night, unfortunately, the idea of culture was again just such a vehicle.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 12:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy

This week in Ben Goldacre news

Everyone’s favourite doctor/columnist has put an extra chapter of his book Bad Science online for free. I’m actually a bit behind the times on this one, it was meant to go in last week’s Roundup but I forgot, so you might have already read it. If not, you can grab the PDF here.

The chapter deals with vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath, who was suing Goldacre and The Guardian when the book was first published. Now that they have won the court case the book is being republished with the extra chapter, but Goldacre was kind enough to provide it for everyone else as well. Isn’t he nice? For the next few days you can also see him on the latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. His section starts around 11 minutes in, with a tirade against “the media’s greatest ever science hoax”, the MMR vaccine.

New science journalism course at City University

The Association of British Science Writers has highlighted a new science journalism course starting this September at City University. With tuition fees of £7,495 it’s a lot more expensive than the Imperial course (which covers more than just journalism), and the general feeling on the ABSW members mailing list is it’s perhaps just a re-branding of City’s existing journalism courses with a bit more science thrown in.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

Speaking of Imperial, fellow sci-commer Tim Jones has put his group project online for all to see, and it’s a far cry from my group’s altar piece. Along with Arko Olesk and Graham Paterson, Tim drew inspiration from the exquisite corpse of the surrealist movement to create a picture of science as perceived by the public, the media, and scientists. Go have a look.

Time to feel small

As both Douglas Adams and I have said before, space is big. Really big. So big that I’m only able to include a small part of this excellent illustration in the post:

You ain't seen nothing yet.
You ain't seen nothing yet.

Go here if you want to see the rest, and appreciate just how vast the universe is. Unless that’s just too much for a Sunday afternoon!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 4:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Wrong

A recent study from Ohio State University has found that university students who use Facebook spend less time studying and get lower grades. How do you think the media reported this? That’s right folks, it’s time for another round of “correlation does not equal causation”!

Three paragraphs in to the press release, co-author of the study Aryn Karpinski makes it clear that she has only shown a correlation between Facebook use and bad marks: “We can’t say that use of Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying – but we did find a relationship there.”

I did a quick (and non-exhaustive) Google News search to see who was reporting the study, and how they were presenting its findings. The results are pretty much what you would expect.

“Pupils who spend time on Facebook do worse in exams, study shows” – Daily Mail
“Facebook students underachieve in exams” -The Telegraph
“Facebook fans do worse in exams” – The Times
“Facebook users do less work” – The Sun

The extent to which each news outlet pushes the idea that Facebook has caused these poor results varies. The worst offender is The Times, who’s strapline “Research finds the website is damaging students’ academic performance” is simply inaccurate. The others merely state the existence of a link, that students who use Facebook are also students with bad grades, but heavily imply that one has caused the other.

As one commenter on the Mail story points out, the whole idea is nonsense. Imran from Bristol says:

How silly, you could write an article called “Students who spend time down the pub” “Students who spend time watching the telly” or “Students who spend time doing do worse in exams, study shows”

Procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can. Be it Facebook, watching TV, or going to the gym, if you put off studying then you are going to be outperformed by those who apply themselves and get good grades. The media love a Facebook story though, especially when it’s contributing to the downfall of modern society as we know it, so that’s the angle we get. Now, I should probably stop blogging and get back to revising…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 3:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

One of my friends is a maths teacher, and we’ve often discussed the many problems with maths education in this country. I’d never cut it as a teacher, but it’s still clear to me there is something wrong with the numeracy levels of the general UK population. New research shows that this could be because we’re teaching maths backwards.

The standard way of teaching maths starts out with a few examples before moving on to generalisations. In other words, you learn that 2 x 3 = 6 before moving on to a x b = ab. A study by psychologists Bethany Rittle-Johnson and Percival Mathews of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has that this may not be the best way for children to learn.

“Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said.

“This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (which may or may not be this one as it seems to be six months old…) showed that children who were just taught how to solve problems without the concepts behind them found it difficult to adapt to new problems. Those who understood the concepts however were able to figure out the problems for themselves.

Will this research lead to a change in maths education? I hope so. Mathematician and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus Du Sautoy has likened current methods to teaching kids scales and arpeggios without actually letting them play music. A more conceptual view of mathematics would be a welcome move away from this.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 March 2009 at 9:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Stunning CT scanner art

Satre Stuelke is an artist and medical student who uses a CT scanner to examine every-day objects in a new way. CT scanners are normally intended for medical imaging, but by using them to create art and inviting others to join him, Stuelke hopes to “plant a seed of scientific creativity in the minds of all those inclined to participate.” I quite like this image of a set of Russian nested dolls:

The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.
The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.

Science exams are slipping

Ofqual, the government body that regulates examinations, has said that an investigation in to the standard of teaching in GCSE science has “raised significant causes for concern.” It said that the exams are not up to standards, and do not offer enough of a challenge to the most able students. The following recommendations were made:

  • Improved quality of questions, to stretch and challenge all students
  • Work, including further training for senior examiners,  to improve the quality of objective tests
  • Tighter marking criteria to ensure that only the answers deserving of the marks are credited
  • Some internal assessment tasks have been revised to ensure better challenge to students and a closer link to the practical work. These changes took effect from last September.
  • Where possible within the existing specifications, the number of options available to candidates has been reduced. 

It’s vital that we keep exam standards high. Ofqual said that mathematics and English literature exams are maintaining their quality, so why has science been allowed to slip?

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 March 2009 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this week declared that all MIT papers will be freely published online and be readable by all. The MIT faculty voted unanimously to approve the motion, demonstrating a strong commitment to open access.

The rules will apply only to papers published since Wednesday, which was when the vote took place. This decision makes MIT, which is one of the top ten universities in the world, the first institution to promise full access to all of its research papers. All such articles will be held in MIT’s own online repository.

Individual researchers will however be allowed to opt-out of the open access scheme. This is in order to allow publication in journals that wont allow work to be distributed elsewhere. Harold Abelson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and part of the committee that made the decision, thinks that the opt-out will be used “a fair amount” initially.

He hopes though that the new policy will allow MIT to use its prestigious standing in the academic community to negotiate new terms with publishing companies. MIT is also hoping to avoid paying journal subscription fees, often necessary for simply accessing their own papers. In 2007 the university spent three-and-a-half times more on subscriptions than in 1986; the new measures will attempt to combating this price increase.

MIT will now look to other universities to follow in their footsteps. Although some departments at Stanford and Harvard already have similar policies in place, Abelson sees this as just the beginning:

“It’s going to take a while to work things out. Even though MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are big places in terms of the amount of published papers, in the world of research, they represent a small fraction of published papers.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 12 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

A few months ago Alom Shaha asked me to contribute to his “Why is science important?” project. I, like many others, submitted an answer to his website, but the site was only one part of the project. Alom has now completed the accompanying film, and you can view it online for free.

I’ve had a watch, and I’m really impressed. When Alom first told me about the project, I wasn’t quite sure how the website was going to link in to the film – would it just provide more information for interested viewers? It turns out that the website is really the star of the film, with Alom using it to work out just why science is important.

Many of the website contributors, such as Susan Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis, pop up in the film to reiterate their message. Others make their way into the film with choice quotes from the website, including yours truly.

I can tell Alom had a lot of fun making this film. He gets to run on hot coals, take a spin in a giant centrifuge, and travel the country in search of an answer. It’s been produced for Teacher’s TV, so is understandably a little classroom focused at times, but I enjoyed the chance to have another think about this thing we call science.

My original answer for Alom took me a number of drafts, and I still wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Alom’s effort lets the viewer hear from a range of people and figure it out for themselves – it’s definitely helped me refine my thoughts.

As a follower of everything Web2.0, I’m also intrigued by the idea of linking a website to a film. Don’t look out for Just A Theory: The Movie at your local cinema any time soon, but I’ve definitely got a few ideas brewing…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 6 March 2009 at 6:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Happenings

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, which is no doubt why the British Science Association’s website for National Science and Engineering Week announces, without a hint of irony:

National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) is a ten day celebration of science, engineering and technology which will run from the 6 – 15 March 2009.

Emphasis mine, of course. Joking aside, there’s all sorts of sci-comm events to be had. You can join the Save our Bees campaign, discuss your thoughts with scientists and engineers at the Change Exchange, or check out one of the many other events in this comprehensive database. There are also science festivals in Cambridge, York, Newcastle and Oxfordshire.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. Smack bang in the middle of essaymania, it looks like I’ll be missing out. Well, time to get back to it…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 28 February 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

If everything has gone to plan, I’m currently enjoying a weekend in Paris. This has coincided nicely with another bumper weekly roundup, so enjoy your two-part summary fun.

Sex began even earlier than we thought

The discovery of a long-dead fish is unlikely to get many people hot under the collar, but it appears that a 380 million-year-old fossil could have a few things to teach us about sex. Scientists have found the remains of a placoderm, an armoured prehistoric fish, that contains a two-inch embyro.

The specimen had actually been housed in the collections of the Natural History Museum since the 1980s, but it is only now that the tiny bones inside the fish are believed to be its offspring, rather than its dinner! This evidence for reproduction by internal fertilization is, when it comes to fish, pretty hot stuff. You can watch interviews with some of the scientists involved here.

The science of Watchmen

If you know anything about comics, you’ve probably heard of Watchmen. Arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, most of the heroes it features don’t have any special powers. The one exception is Dr. Manhatten, a glowing blue man who is the very personification of the atomic bomb.

For the upcoming move adaptation of the book, the film-makers enlisted physics professor James Kakalios as a scientific consultant. Having just examined the role of such consultants on my course, I found the clip quite interesting. Does anyone really benefit by Dr. Manhatten being “explained” in such detail? I’m not convinced, but make up your own minds:

Open access papers benefit developing nations

I’m a strong supporter of open access science, in which scientific papers are placed online so that anyone can read them for free. A study published in Science last week suggests that open access articles receive more citations than those in closed journals, but the effect is particularly strong in the developed world. England and Germany saw an increase of citations by around 5%, whilst in India it was almost 25% and close to 30% in Brazil.

James A. Evans, lead author of the research, spoke to SciDev Net:

“Our study shows that people who have access to journals in poor countries use them,

“If they weren’t freely available they wouldn’t use them with the same frequency, and they may not be able, as a result, to themselves publish in top journals.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 27 February 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Psychology

Well, I think so anyway. A large part of my three years of maths at Bristol were spent learning how to be an inefficient photocopier, as a one hour lecture often produced as many as eight sides of A4 notes. I’d often feel that lecturing really wasn’t the best way of learning, with sometimes just five minutes out of 60 resulting in something actually useful.

As such, I was quite interested to read a report New Scientist that recent psychological research supports my idea. A paper published in the journal Computers & Education suggests that students who receive a podcast of a lecture learn better than those who actually turn up in person.

Psychology students participating in the study were split into two groups. The first attended a lecture on perception, and were given a copy of the PowerPoint slides used during the lecture. They were told the purpose of the study was to examine the use of these slides, and whether they would aid note-taking and later studying. As an incentive to do well in an exam on the material, the student with the highest score would be given a $15 iTunes card.

The other group were told the experiment was investigating the use of technology by students, and given a podcast instead of attending the lecture. They were also encouraged with the reward of an iTunes gift card. The podcast was recorded with software that syncs the audio to PowerPoint slides, thus providing a reasonable facsimile of the lecture experience.

When it came to the exam, the difference between the two groups was substitutional. Podcast listeners scored an average of 71.24%, whilst those who attended the lecture achieved only an average 62.47%. The authors of the study found this result surprising, given that we normally assume attending lectures leads to higher results!

The benefits of the podcast appear to only apply to those students who also took notes whilst listening however. Note-takers on average scored higher on the exam with 76.23%, but those who just listened showed similar results to the lecture group, with 62.08%.

The authors admit that these results were generally lower than they would expect from their classes, and cited lack of motivation as a possible explanation – the exam didn’t really count, other than for extra credit. This applies to everyone in the study however, so motivation alone cannot account for the results.

Dana McKinney, the psychologist who lead the study, does not think that podcasts should completely replace lectures, but believes that students who have “never known a time before cell phones and personal computers” could use additional ways of learning.

“I do think it’s a tool. I think that these kids are programmed differently than kids 20 years ago,” she says.

Personally, I agree. It’s not entirely comparable, but in the module on radio that I am taking at the moment, the lecturer provides us with audio to listen to before the next week’s class. Rather than wasting time listening in the lesson, we can put it to good use with interesting discussion. Bring on the podcasts!

Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 February 2009 at 5:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Space & Astronomy

I don’t think I’ve posted before about NASA developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, but I recently read a preview that I thought I’d share.

For the uninitiated, an MMO game is one in which large numbers of players come together in a shared game world. Rather than playing your own single player game, you can team up with people across the globe. The most popular of the genre is the fantasy based World of Warcraft, but NASA are hoping that their game, with its basis in reality, could be a tool for learning as well as fun.

A screenshot from the NASA MMO.
A screenshot from the NASA MMO.

The game, set around the year 2035, is being created for NASA by development company Virtual Heroes, who also produced America’s Army for the US military. In-game missions will include dealing with the possibility of an asteroid impact on Earth and mining other planets for fuel. Completing these tasks will build your persistent character and unlock new abilities and places to visit, much like in other MMOs.

Interestingly, the game will also encourage players to work together to stave off virtual climate change. Founder and CEO of Virtual Worlds, Jerry Heneghan, explains:

“There is a component for the space station that needs to be built to combat the environmental concerns around an impending event that is happening,” explained Heneghan. “People are actually cooperating together to mitigate this crises. There is a sense of urgency about the gameplay in which players will want to get better and not let their team down. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

It’s not just futuristic missions that will be available, however. Virtual Worlds also plan to include historical scenarios such as the Apollo missions, allowing players to relive moments like to Moon landings from a first person perspective.

Sounds fun, but why is NASA spending money on building a game instead of spaceships? The idea is to inspire players to become NASA’s next generation, and to encourage an interest in science. An interesting concept, but we’ll have to wait until the first part of the game is released this autumn.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 February 2009 at 12:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The University of California, Berkeley has launched a new website, Understanding Science, as a resource for teachers and the public about science and the scientific method. Roy Caldwell, one of the leaders of the project and a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, hopes that new site will show how science “really works”:

“The Web site presents, not the rigid scientific method, but how science really works, including its creative and often unpredictable nature, which is more engaging to students and far less intimidating to those teachers who are less secure in their science.”

The “science is AMAZING!” tone of the site is a bit too much at times, even for me, but there are a few nice areas. I particularly liked the science checklist, which can assist in sorting the science from the psuedo:

Is it science? Check the checklist.
Is it science? Check the checklist.

As well as working through the site in a linear fashion, visitors can take “sidetrips” for more information. For example, whilst reading about the requirement for science to be evidence-based, I took a small diversion to find out about scientific funding. It’s a nice way of providing additional information for those who want it, whilst also avoiding an overload. These sidetrips also examine what isn’t science by measuring intelligent design and astrology against the checklist.

Other topics covered include a more realistic view of how science works than the typical textbook model of question, hypothesis, experiment, data and conclusion (including an info box on the phrase “just a theory”), what science has done for you, and how to evaluate scientific messages in the media.

Overall, I think the site is a really good resource. There are a few more “coming soon” notices than I normally like to see, but there is already enough content up there to make this only a small issue. Whilst it probably is best used in the classroom, there’s no harm in having a read even if your school days are far behind you. It’s also an improvement on the British government’s recent effort, Science: [So What? So Everything], which as I’ve said before seems to be mostly style over substance. Perhaps DIUS should take a look across the pond in order to understanding understanding science?

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 January 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

I recently started some work experience with the Association of British Science Writers. As such, I appear in an article from the latest European Union of Science Journalists Association (EUSJA) newsletter (PDF). It’s on page 10, but I’ve also reproduced the text here:


A popular option in the UK for students who complete a science degree is to look to science communication courses. Over the past six years there has been a growth in the number of universities offering MSc courses in science communication. Supporters say it gives young wannabe journalists a good start, critics say there are already too many freelancers on the market looking for work and not enough jobs to go around for existing hacks.

At the ABSW (Association of British Science Writers) so great was the demand for information about science journalism that we have started a new category of membership – student – and run a series of training workshops and briefings. A mentoring programme is now being investigated.

One of our newest members is 22 years old Jacob Aron, a maths graduate from Bristol. He is now enrolled on to a year long science communication course at Imperial College. Over now to Jacob to tell us why he decided on the course and what he hopes for the future:

“Although I studied maths at university I have always enjoyed writing in my spare time, so when I found the science communication MSc at Imperial it seemed like the perfect career for me. The course is set up to allow an overview of science communication; not just straight journalism, but also PR, museum curating, and even science fiction. As I’m still working out what are I want to move into, this broad approach was more appealing to me than the sister MSc (science media production) which is more broadcast focused.

“Going in to the course, I was concerned about the availability of jobs, especially considering I would be in direct competition with my forty-odd classmates once graduating. My fears were quickly put to rest however, as Imperial say that 60% of graduates end up in directly related science communication jobs, whilst 80 to 90% in total find work in PR and related areas.

“Without studying science communication, I’d be hard pressed to land any of these jobs. Looking at my CV an employee sees a maths degree and a stint working in a bank; not traditionally the makings of a good writer. The MSc is helping me to hone my skills and experience working in a range of media. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a job come this October – and it’s not like the banks are recruiting these days anyway!”

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 18 January 2009 at 2:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Education, Evolution, Weekly Roundup

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

Haven’t you always wished for something a bit more exciting than a teddy bear for your child to cuddle up too at night? Something…anatomical…perhaps? Well look no further: I Heart Guts have everything you need.

Hes a friendly little guy
He's a friendly little guy

They sell cuddly versions of many of your own internal organs. There’s the brain, the heart, and even the pancreas – or why not go the whole hog and purchase the entire set? Beware though: the uterus is being recalled as a potential hazard to children…

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

GM food is always a hot issue these days, but new research shows that in the past, farmers may have breed their animals to produce new coat colours for their own amusement. The study, published in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, looked at how the genetic cod of wild and domestic pigs has altered over the years.

Other suggestions for the farmers’ selective breeding include changing the coat colour to eliminate camouflage, making the animals easier to to keep track of, or perhaps to mark out the animals with the best traits. Dr Greger Larson, one of the researches at the University of Durham, had this to say:

“The Mesopotamians had different-coloured farm animals 5,000 years ago and, in that regard, they were no different to Paris Hilton, who has a pink Chihuahua, or anyone else with animals with unusual coat colours.

“This study demonstrates that the human penchant for novelty stretches back thousands of years.”

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

The other day I stumbled across this video, which demonstrates the “death of a jelly baby” experiment. Apparently a favourite of school chemistry teachers, it involves dropping the sweet into a heated test tube of potassium chlorate, and then sitting back and watching it “scream” as it burns. It’s supposed to demonstrate the principle of oxidation of sugar, but you confectionery-murderers aren’t fooling anyone.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 15 January 2009 at 10:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

Sometimes you read a news story that you simply can’t believe. Not that you find it impossible, mind – I don’t mean news of the “Elvis ate my baby” variety – I mean news that you just can’t accept as true.

I’m actually referring to the government’s recently released figures on GCSE results, which (according to the Guardian) show that “[h]alf of pupils leave secondary school without a basic qualification in science”. When I read that this morning, I think I gasped. It just couldn’t be true that half of the country’s 16-year-olds were failing to achieve a GCSE in science, surely?

Well, the good news is that the Guardian were overselling just how bad these results are. If you read the report from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it actually shows (on page 17) that 50.3% of pupils gain two or more A*-C grades in science.

For those who don’t know, science GCSEs work like this: pupils can either take “double science”, a general course covering a range of topics from biology, chemistry and physics, or opt for a GCSE in each subject individually. Thus, pupils are normally expected to gain two or three GCSES in science.

Whilst these results mean that half of pupils are getting at least Cs, it doesn’t follow that the other half are getting a science GCSE at all, as they are awarded from A* to G. I’m not saying a G in science is fabulous achievement, but the Guardian are stretching it a bit to say pupils don’t have the qualification.

Still, the results aren’t great. When considering my options post-MSc, going in to some sort of science education policy has often been at the back of my mind. News like this pushes it a little further towards the front – something must be done to sort out science in this country.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 14 January 2009 at 3:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

What is it about roundup posts that bring out the puns in me? I think that even science doesn’t have an answer for that one. Have some maths-related nuggets:

Maths failures cost the UK £2.4bn a year

Accounting firm KPMG has found that children who are bad at maths end up costing UK taxpayers up to £2.4bn a year. KPMG say that children who struggle with maths at school are more likely to be unemployed, and claim more benefits whilst paying less tax.

The Every Child a Chance trust is asking businesses to raise £6m in an effect to raise child numeracy. John Griffith-Jones, chairman of both the trust and KPMG, says that the charity has developed a nationwide plan, in which businesses will make annual contribution of £12,000 each to local schools for three years.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded to the report, saying:

“Let’s be clear: the picture in maths is a positive one…we are leading Europe in maths and science at age 14 and we have risen 11 places in international league tables since 2003 to seventh place.

“Of course there is more we can do and catch up and stretch classes will ensure those falling behind get the additional support they need whilst those who excel are kept motivated.”

Should we be teaching the odds? Probably

Professor David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge believes that children need to be taught “risk literacy” – a knowledge of statistics and probability to help them make important decisions in their adult life.

Speaking to the Times, Prof Spiegelhalter said that risk was “as important as learning about DNA, maybe even more important,” because the human mind has a tendency to latch on to “improbable” coincidence that often turn out to be very possible.

I often point this out to people when unlikely occurrences crop up with this example: if an event has a million to one chance of occurring in a given day, and the population of the UK is about 60 million, then 60 “million to one chances” happen up and down the country daily! The maths doesn’t quite work like that, but it’s a close enough approximation.

As such, I completely agree that ideas about risk should be taught in the classroom. We might then avoid stories such as “beer gives you cancer“, from a couple of weeks back.

Maths: an ideal subject for the lazy

This Times interview with Marcus du Sautoy, the new Oxford University professor for the public understanding of science, is worth a read in general, but I noticed a quote that particularly resonated with me:

Maths, according to du Sautoy, is the ideal subject for anybody who is lazy or has a bad memory (because if you forget something, you can work it out from first principles): “If you do maths, you can get away with hardly doing any work at school and winging it in exams.

This is a notion that I suspect many mathematicians secretly harbour: once you have a grasp of the basics, maths is actually not that hard. Being able to work stuff out from first principles has got me out of a number of tricky exam situations. Another old favourite is starting a problem from both the beginning working forward, and the end working backwards, in the hope that the two sets of calculations will meet up in the middle and save you the trouble of figuring out the problem in the first place!

Of course, there are downsides. Now that I’m on a course full of set readings and essays, I’m dreading actually having to learn and remember facts – I’m not sure I know how!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 December 2008 at 4:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Shell I never

A photo from the Boer War has revealed that a tortoise named Jonathan is one of the world’s oldest living animals, at age 176.

Jonathan in 1900, aged around 70, on the island of St Helena

It’s crazy to think that this tortoise was born in 1832. The same year saw the birth of Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the death of the mathematician Évariste Galois, whose pioneering work in group theory ended when he was killed in a duel. Of course, Jonathan has no connection to this events, but still – he’s pretty damn old.

LHC still broken, but not broke

Poor Large Hadron Collider. You just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. It seems that when the particle accelerator leaked helium earlier in the year, the damage was quite extensive. Repair costs will be almost £14m, and the LHC won’t be ready to turn back on until next summer.

Now, £14m isn’t much compared to the £4.4 billion it cost to build in the first place (yes, £4.4 billion, not million as The Telegraph is reporting…) but it’s still a fair chunk of change. LHC haters shouldn’t have to worry about the begging bowl being passed their way however, as CERN hope to meet the costs within their existing budget.

£250m for training new scientists

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK’s funding body for science and engineering, has pledged £250m to invest in training the scientists and engineers of the future.

The money will allow the creation of 44 training centres across the country, and give funding to more then 2,000 PhD students. Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, was enthusiastic about the centres:

“Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive,” he said.

“This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.”

It’s nice to see that even in these times of economic woe, scientists aren’t being forgotten!

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 4 December 2008 at 8:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Just a short little story for you today, but it’s quite a sweet one. Earlier this week, four teddy bears have been sent to the very edge of space by a group of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, with the help of members of the Cambridge University Spaceflight student club.

Boldy going bears!

The brave bears were lifted to just over 30 km above sea level with the aid of a helium-filled latex balloon. Each bear wore a different space suit, designed by the kids to determine which materials provide the best insulation against the -53 °C temperatures they would encounter during their mission.

The Daily Mail have a few quotes from the kids involved. Thia Unsworth, aged 12, said:

“It was unbelievable to see the balloon take off and it’s incredible to see the pictures of the teddy bears in space.

“I’ve always loved science before, but I now understand how it helps in the real world.”

It’s great to see kids involved with activities such as these, which allow them to see that science isn’t just sitting in the classroom and reading textbooks; it also involves getting out into the field and designing experiments. Their teacher, Steve Hinshelwood, seems to agree, as he told the Guardian:

“Suddenly scientific ideas such as insulation, convection, conduction and radiation became important. Thinking about weight made ideas of buoyancy, pressure and the composition of the atmosphere relevant,” he said.

“The need to get the teddies back gave the students a chance to think about computer control and radio communications.

“I don’t think that the students realised how much science they were learning – they were just having fun.”

2 Comments » Posted on Friday 28 November 2008 at 3:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Education

I’ve been pretty hard on the Royal Society of Chemistry recently. The RSC’s seminal work on Yorkshire puddings and the Italian Job did little to impress me. Luckily for them, a recent report has got me back on the RSC’s side. In June 2008 the society ran a competition entitled The Five Decade Challenge, in which GCSE pupils from across the country were invited to tackle chemistry questions from the 1960′s to the present. How did they fair?

Pupils found modern questions much easier. (Graph from the RSC report)

Well, it seems there is definitely weight to the argument that exams are getting easier. The average score on questions from the 1960s was just 15%, rising steadily to 35% for questions from the past decade. It is possible that is due to changes in the language used in questions in the past 50 years pupils struggled with the comprehension of older questions, rather than their content – I certainly remember GCSE papers having a particularly idiosyncratic nature. It is unlikely that this provides a full explanation for the differences, however.

Pupils found questions requiring a single mathematical step (one multiplication, for example) to be the easiest, but multi-step, unprompted mathematical questions – common in older papers – were much harder. The RSC see this as evidence that mathematical education needs to be beefed up in order to further science education. As they say in their report, science teachers should not have to be teaching fundamental numerical techniques.

They Society also call for new grading standards. Although the majority of pupils taking the challenge were of A or A* standard, many failed to score well. There were exceptions however, with the top scoring pupil gaining a total of 93.8%. The report calls for the meaningful differentiation between pupils of this level – though thankfully they don’t seem to suggest the introduction of an A** grade!

So, are exams getting easier, as this report suggests? I think that a combination of factors are at play here. The science syllabus has changed greatly over the years, as one might expect. Much more importance is placed on “science-in-society” – applying science to pupils everyday lives and the world around them. I would argue that this is no bad thing. Not everyone who takes GCSE chemistry will study chemistry at university, and a sound knowledge of chemistry in the wider world will serve pupils much more than memorisation of the periodic table.

On the other hand, we must not fail the highest achieving pupils who will go on to be the future chemists of the nation. Teaching to the test means that these pupils gain high marks with ease, but leaves them ill-equipped for undergraduate chemistry. Somehow, a balance between these two interests much be struck.

I’m not suggesting that these problems apply only to chemistry – far from it. I’m sure physics, biology and other scientific subjects would show similar results. I do however applaud the Royal Society of Chemistry for this useful report, and hope that they stick more to education reform and less to silly competitions!

As a footnote, if you want to have a go at the challenge it is included in the report linked above, but the Guardian have handily stripped out both the questions and answers. Ironically, I think I found some of the 60′s questions easiest due to their highly mathematical nature, allowing me to ignore the chemistry all together!

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 27 November 2008 at 2:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education

Early this week the Natural History Museum launched a new project in the hopes of engaging future bio-scientists. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) will allow members of the public to take part in scientific surveys in their local area – even in their own back gardens.

The first of these surveys kicks off in March 2009, and will see people up and down the country hunting for earthworms. For such a common feature of gardens everywhere, surprisingly little is known about the wriggly creatures and the soil that makes their home.

You can reserve your survey pack at the OPAL website. It will contain a guide to performing the survey, along with a chart of common earthworm types for easy identification. Results can will be entered on to the website and instantly be added to an interactive map, where you’ll be able to view other people’s findings as well. It’s mostly aimed at schools and community groups, but individuals can register as well.

The OPAL project has been awarded £11.7 million by the Big Lottery Fund, in order to encourage people to spend more time outdoors and exploring their local environments. Future surveys will cover air, water, biodiversity and climate. My home away from home, Imperial College, will be collecting the data gathered during the project and present it for publication in 2012. These will take the form of a formal scientific report and a more accessible format for those who took part.

So, if you fancy hunting for worms and doing a bit of science, reserve your survey pack and be ready to get your hands dirty!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

[This post was meant to go up yesterday, but due to technical difficulties with Virgin Media my internet access is currently limited. Blog updates may be unfortunately sporadic this week.]

Conservative MPs are to be made scientifically literate from the next election, The Times is reporting. Newly elected members will be taught about scientific method and other concepts, in a move to address concerns about the lack of scientific knowledge in Parliament. Existing MPs and peers from the House of Lords will also be offered the chance to attend the induction sessions.

The plan is being spearheaded by Adam Afriyie, the party’s spokesman for science and innovation. He does not have a scientific background himself, but, sees the importance of a basic scientific understanding for politicians. Speaking to The Times, he said:

“The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Be it climate change, GM food or stem cell research, science is increasingly entering in to the political sphere. Despite this, the over whelming majority of politicians and civil servants come from a humanities background. According to the Times, both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have just one member each with a science related degree; John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who studied chemistry; and Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary and a medical doctor.

I have to congratulate the Conservatives on this new initiative, and can only hope that Labour and the Lib Dems will follow suit. The Tories are acknowledging that science plays an important role in our society, and that basic understanding of the facts is a necessity in navigating the issues arising from that role. Hopefully their MPs will now avoid phrases such as “humanzee” and “minotaur” when discussing hybrid embryos, for example, and debates can be carried out in a more reasoned manner. One can only hope.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 November 2008 at 12:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Musings

The credit crunch. Will it ever end? Everything costs more, we’re lending banks money so that they can lend it back to us, and I’m even beginning to tire of breakfast cereal jokes and Robert Peston impressions. Still, it appears that the dreaded crunch could be good news for science according to the news agency AFP.

Back in the heady days of the pre-crunch era, science graduates were often taken in by the high life and high pay a City job could offer. I certainly remember as an undergraduate the likes of Deloitte and KPMG throwing money all over the university campus in an effort to recruit.

Now that times are tougher, and firms are more likely to be firing than hiring, a number of people are leading the call for science over salary.

“The glamour of the Wall Street jobs is gone, and that leaves more room for science and technology,” said Georges Haour, a professor of technology and innovation management at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Although the salaries are not the same, the salaries (in finance) are zero because people are being fired,” he told AFP.

Haour has also noted that universities around the world are seeing an increase in the number of applications to study science. Institutions such as the University of Tokyo have seen a “big surge” in both engineering and science.

Elspeth Farrar, head of the careers service at my own Imperial College, also weighed in:

“Engineering companies who, in the past, have struggled to recruit the numbers they really want, this year might be a good year for them,” she said.

“Inevitably there are going to be fewer jobs directly in the finance and banking sector, so I think automatically that will mean more science and engineering students will be thinking about continuing in their sectors.”

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 10 November 2008 at 2:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

A survey by Teachers TV has found that nearly a third of the 1200 teachers who participated belive that creationism should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom. More worryingly, out of the 248 science teachers who were included in the poll, 18% agreed with this notion. Should these people really be allowed to call themselves science teachers?

I do have a few doubts about this poll. It was conducted via email, which means that selection bias could be a factor. Those who are strongly propionate’s either way about this issue are more likely to respond to an email poll than those who aren’t too bothered. This could likely mean that the percentage of science teachers in the UK who believe creationism should be taught in school is lower than 18%. This isn’t really that important to what I have to say, however.

Regardless of how representative the poll is, there are still 44 (or possibly 45, as 18% of 248 doesn’t give you a whole number) science teachers out there who would like to teach creationism in their lessons as an equal alternative to evolution. This is nonsense.

I’m largely reiterating points I laid out in the wake of the Michael Reiss incident, in which the director of education at the Royal Society was widely misreported to have called for creationism to be taught in science lessons, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the post. What he actually said is that science teachers should be able to answer questions on creationism rather than deflect them, and more importantly show why it is not science.

Creationism isn’t science for the same reason that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God: it’s unobservable, untestable and most importantly cannot be falsified. Evolution can be falsified. For example, if DNA sequencing of two species that appear to be similar (say, chimpanzees and humans) showed wildly different genomes, then it could not be possible that we evolved from a common ancestor. Fortunately for evolution, we share something like 96% of our genes with chimps.

The previous paragraph is an example of how I would like to see creationism taught in schools. Thankfully, almost half of the surveys respondents agree with me, in that they feel the complete exclusion of creationism from the classroom is counter-productive. The question is, how do you change the minds of those teachers who truly believe it is science?

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 4 November 2008 at 11:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

The Guardian is reporting that al-Qaeda terrorists have attempted to gain access to scientific laboratories in Britain by posing as postgraduate students in the hope of gaining access to the ingredients for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons

A Foreign Office spokesman said that these students have been denied access to UK institutions “to stop the spread of knowledge and skills that could be used in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery,” adding “There is empirical evidence of a problem with postgraduate students becoming weapons proliferators.”

This worries me. Of course, we must not let dangerous material fall in to the wrong hands, but international students add huge cultural value to a university – not to mention a big wad of cash, with the high fees they pay. If we start rejecting students left and right from “countries of concern” such as Iran and Pakistan, it will only be to our own detriment.

It could also work against security efforts. An enthusiastic science student who finds himself barred from entry into a British university because of – let’s face it – his nationality, might end up in institution in another country, still with access to dangerous materials, but additionally an animosity to the UK. Such a person might find themselves more open to radicalisation.

I’m not saying this has happened, or even will happen, but the UK government has a recent history of over-reacting to terrorism, and it isn’t far fetched to imagine them implementing a “better-safe-that-sorry” approach to international students. I don’t want this blog to get too political, but it’s certainly something to watch out for.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 1 October 2008 at 11:27 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

Playing a video game for 20 minutes a day can increase your mathematical potential, a study by Learning and Teaching Scotland has found. Apparently a daily dose of Brain Training on the Nintendo DS helped Scottish school children gain higher scores on their maths tests.

For the uninitiated, Brain Training is a fairly simple game that challenges players with short tests such as mental arithmetic or counting. The idea is to play the game daily with a view to improving your “Brain Age”, a fairly unscientific measure of how “young” your brain is. It’s pretty popular – even Nicole Kidman is at it – but can it really improve your thinking power?

To find out, over 600 pupils in 32 primary schools were given a maths test at the beginning of the study. For the next nine weeks, those in the control group received their normal teaching, whilst the other group were given 20 minutes of Brain Training at the start of each day. At the end of the study period the pupils were tested again, and the two scores compared. The control group showed some improvement, but those training their brains saw a further increase of 50%, from an average of 78 to 83 out of 100. They were also able to solve problems faster, dropping five minutes from an average 18.5 to 13.5 off their total test time.

Interestingly, children who were less competent at maths found the game more beneficial than their more able classmates, showing a larger increase in test scores overall. It could be that they find this non-traditional method of teaching more engaging than their standard lessons. The research also showed that both girls and boys benefited equally from using the game.

All positive results then, but will we be seeing Brain Training in classrooms an time soon? Unfortunately, I think the cost of equipment might prove to be prohibitive. The researchers who carried out the study make it clear they did not receive any financial aid from Nintendo, so presumably they forked out for the game and console themselves. Brain Training sells for around £15, whilst a Nintendo DS is close to £100. For a typical primary class of about 28 pupils, that works out at about £3200.

It makes me wonder if this would be the most cost-effective method of improving pupils mathematical ability, and perhaps more research is needed to find the teaching method with best “pound per percentage-point” ratio. Still, if you’d like to have fun and improve your mind at the same time, it could be that Brain Training is just the game for you. Personally, I think I’ll stick to Super Mario.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 27 September 2008 at 10:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

Children as young as 11 are being turned off learning science, argue two reports released by the Wellcome Trust, funder of biomedical research and the largest charity in the UK. Published under the joint title of Perspectives on Education: Primary Science, they look at the past 60 years of primary science education, and suggest the need for change.

The first report was authored by Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol. She found that whilst it is important for science to be a core subject, the resulting SATs testing has had an impact on both learning and teaching. Judging schools and teachers on SATs results leads to “teaching to the test” and affects children’s understanding of science.

The second report, by Professor Peter Tymms and colleagues of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, drew similar conclusions. Tymms felt that children’s early science education was not having the desired effect on future results:

“We suspect that the current national approach to science in primary schools is not impacting on children’s scientific thought and curiosity as much as is possible. Despite the pass rates in public examinations later in secondary school, research suggests few students acquire a proper understanding of the science curriculum.

“The purpose of science in primary school should be to foster a sense of curiosity and positive attitudes in the young child. It should also guide the child in solving problems to do with the physical, natural and human worlds. There is now a strong argument for reconsidering the approach to science in English primary schools, and for doing this in a systematic, evidence-based way.”

Part of the problem is primary school teachers’ confidence in teaching scientific concepts. As most are not specialists in science, they can sometimes struggle to communicate ideas to pupils – indeed, there is evidence suggesting that some parts of science are “too difficult” for primary school teachers to teach. There does seem to be an improvement in teaching ability over time, however.

I’m not sure these findings apply only to science. Isn’t teaching pupils to pass exams, and only to pass exams, bad in every subject? I personally think that far too much emphasis is placed on a pupil’s performance in SATs, including streaming into different ability classes based on results. Really, they are designed to assess the quality of the teachers, not the knowledge of a pupil.

On the other hand, what other way is there to find out the ability of a teacher besides testing how well their pupils learn? Harlen’s report suggests “National tests should be replaced by moderated teachers’ assessment”, whilst Tymms calls for a debate on the purpose of science in primary schools, and the development of new approaches to teaching (without suggesting what these might be). It seems like a problem that won’t be solved any time soon.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 September 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Brain drain?

A poll published by Shell claims that Britain could be “losing” 60,000 scientists a year. A sample of 4,000 children aged nine to 14 found that 10% are inspired by science but don’t intended to pursue their interest past the age of 16. Nationally, this could translate to 60,000 fewer scientists a year.

These figures seem pretty dodgy to me, in much the same way the music industry claims massively inflated figures of “lost revenue” due to piracy. More worrying is the finding that only 6% of children want to be a scientist when they grow up, compared to 20% footballers and 20% actors – no doubt a product of our celebrity obsessed society.

Suspect stripes

Research by Peter Thompson at the University of York has found that, contrary to popular belief, wearing horizontal stripes can make you look thinner, not vertical. He asked people to compare 200 pictures of women wearing dresses striped in both directions and identify which they thought was fatter. He found that to make the women appear the same size, the one wearing horizontal stripes had to be an extra six per cent wider.

Horizontal vs vertical - which makes you thinner?

There is one problem I have with this research – in the sample image, the stripes aren’t the same size, and the dresses are different colours. Without controlling for these factors, how does Thompson know it isn’t size or colours of stripes, rather than direction, that makes you appear fatter? Interestingly enough, none of the media reports I have read have mentioned this…

Aliens among us

Check out these beautiful pictures from Socotra Island. Isolated from the African mainland for the last 6 or 7 million years, some truly unique species have evolved. My favourite is the ominously named Dragon’s Blood Tree:

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 12 September 2008 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

“No” is the answer that immediatly springs to mind, but comments made yesterday by director of education at the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, have kicked up a bit of media storm.

Speaking during the BA Festival of Science at an event entitled “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?“, Reiss has been reported by (amongst others) the Times, the Guardian and the BBC as calling for creationism to be taught in science classes. Today, the Royal Society has put out a press release stating Reiss’s views have been misrepresented by the media. He issued the following clarification:

“Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.”

What Reiss is basically saying is teachers should be able to respond to pupils who bring up creationism in their science lessons and explain to them why it is not a valid scientific theory, unlike evolution. As we saw in The Genius of Charles Darwin, when Richard Dawkins spoke to science teachers about challenging creationism in schools they were almost terrified of the idea.

Ducking the question is not a solution. As I stated in my review of the programme, evolution is not the enemy of religion. It’s a point worth labouring: evolution is not the enemy of religion. If you wish, you can choose to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who supposedly created the universe after “drinking heavily”, but evolution is not inconsistent with a creation myth. It doesn’t even contradict the idea that “man was created in God’s image” – God just took his time about it, starting with single celled organisms and letting it go from there. After all, he’s supposedly omnipotent and would know exactly which random mutations would lead to the human race.

I’m digressing. Creationism should not be taught in science lessons – that’s laughable. It’s right at home in a religious education class (or more properly, a personal and social education class), and science teachers could just deflect pupils’ questions to RE teachers. What’s wrong, however, with using those questions as a launching point for discussions on what we call “science”? Why is evolution a provable science fact, whilst creationism is not? Conversations such as these would go a lot further in improving a child’s scientific education than simply ignoring their questions.

Lord Robert Winston, also speaking at the BA Festival of Science, agrees that simply dismissing religion without discussion is “dangerous“, and criticises Dawkins and others for doing so:

“I would argue that the ‘God Delusion’ approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views … Religious people can say, ‘look these guys just don’t understand us’.”

“We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don’t think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they’ve limited it – that worries me”

You’ll never change anyone’s mind with simple “you’re wrong.” Show children the facts of evolution whilst pointing out their absence in creationism will allow them to make up their own mind – the approach taken by teacher David Campbell, who I praised at the start of the month, is definitely the way to go.

As for the media’s reporting on Reiss’s comments, I think journalists are often all too ready to whip up the debate between religion and science, especially when it comes to religion. Just a theory, of course.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 August 2008 at 7:12 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

Bit of a cheat this post, as most of the work has been done by someone else, but as I’m just about to leave for the Science Blogging conference I thought I’d quickly through this up. I’ll give a full recap of the days events tomorrow, and probably bump the weekly roundup to Monday. Ok? Now, on to the post:
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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 August 2008 at 1:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

As promised, here are the answers to yesterdays test set by the Telegraph.
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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 16 August 2008 at 5:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

The Telegraph have published an “adult revision guide” for those who think A-levels are getting easier to test their own knowledge. Let’s have a go at the Science section – the answers will be published tomorrow.
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Comments Off Posted on Monday 11 August 2008 at 2:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

How should GCSE students be taught science? The Confederation of British Industry thinks that more students should be taking “Triple science”, with separate lessons for physics, biology and chemistry and three GCSEs at the end. Currently only 7% of students take Triple science, with the rest taking Double or Single science GCSEs which combine all three subjects in to one set of lessons.

The CBI say there are not enough pupils learning science and the needs of industry, particularly the energy industry, are not being met. They propose that 14-year-olds who gain a Level 6 in their SATs should automatically be put forward for a Triple science GCSE – but with the option to “opt-out” and take Double science. Director-General of the CBI Richard Lambert said:

“Young people are missing out. They are doing better than ever in science tests at 14, but hardly any are going on to study Triple science GCSE, despite the opportunities and learning it offers. We need to create an environment in schools that reflects the importance of science, and the value of studying it. We also need to send an unambiguous message to young people who are good at science that science as a career can be fascinating and worthwhile, and will reward you well.”

Are pupils not taking Triple science because it isn’t being offered and encouraged, or because science is an unpopular subject? There is already a shortage of chemistry and physics teachers, and providing lessons in all three subjects would only increase demand – which is perhaps why Triple science isn’t currently widely taught. I think, however, that pupils impressions of science is as big a problem as the lack of teachers. When I was at school, cries of “Sir, when am I ever going to need to know this?” were a common occurrence in science lessons.

The problem is the usual one. Science is viewed as only for the scientists. It’s something alien, that “ordinary” people don’t need to know about. By the time pupils reach Year 10 and choose their GCSEs, they’ve probably already made their mind up about science, and the portrayal of science in the media plays a huge part in their decision. I think changing this is more important than quibbling over the choice of two or three GCSEs. Get more pupils interested in science and the depth can come later at A-level – after all, science A-levels are already split into subject, and are essential to a scientific career. The end result, an increase in British scientists, will be the same.

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