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Are we doing it all wrong?

At one point during the semester, we had a very unsettling discussion with our graduate TAs. We were reflecting on a new experiment we had implemented working with Schenoplectus americanus, a marsh sedge studied by Jason McLachlan’s lab.  In talking about the ups and downs of the projects, our TAs pointed out that in some ways the whole course seemed backwards.

For context, in the first semester we do some pretty intensive molecular experiments.   These are pretty cool and introduce students to important techniques, but there isn’t much that students can do to think up experiments on their own.   In some cases, like our project with Patty Champion on mycobacterium, students are doing REAL novel work.  Cool to be working on real research, right?

But in the second semester, we step back and ask students to design their own experiments.  One of these is in cardiovascular physiology and they tend to be pretty simple (or not, as I discussed here http://blogs.nd.edu/sciencespf/2013/02/08/blog-post-1-experiments-are-rarely-simple/).  It seemed to many of our TAs, that the simpler experiments where students could design their own experiments would be most appropriate to come FIRST in a lab course.   This started to make a lot of sense.  The fact that we start with molecular experiments is primarily driven by the order of topics in the lecture – small to big.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of lab course in general.   To learn the basic path of the scientific process? To learn lab techniques?  To develop your own ideas?  To contribute to novel research?   Based on which of these goals you choose, you might wind up with very different courses.

Thus, my new summer goal.  To really reflect on the specific learning goals for the course overall.  I have these worked out to some extent from the ASM Biology Scholars workshop in 2011, but I want to work on these in more detail.

In terms of implementation, I hope to also include some of the ideas of Daniel Pink in “Drive”.  The keys to motivation:  independence, mastery, and purpose.  But that is for another post.


All God’s children should code

I got to Code for South Bend on Saturday…or rather, I got to the presentation on the projects they undertook that day. It was a fantastic experience. I had spent six hours earlier in the day listening to some of the best ideas around for promoting STEM education in Michiana. By the end of my time at Code for South Bend, it was clearer to me than ever that even the best of our typical conversations about STEM education are overlooking a hugely important element that is crucial to Michiana’s future. Kids need to code. Take 10 minutes to watch this very fine defense of that claim.

Want to learn to code, but don’t know where to start? Consider starting here, at Code Academy. See my first mistake and first success, below. There are many free resources beyond this one, but I’d start here if you’re starting from scratch. (You can move on to Scratch, a free and easy-to-use program, later:)


Here’s work that one local High School student has done with MATLAB, very early on in the learning process. (He had already learned to code in another language, Java, and was only just a month or so into learning MATLAB.) Very plainly, he’s learning to tell the computer what he wants it to do. For those really interested, his code is here.

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Got tech? Code for the Bend.

This fantastic event, scheduled for this Saturday, February 23, conflicts with our Collaborating for Research and Education Forum. But if you have the time and the spark, consider attending. Register for Code for South Bend here. Even if you have more interest than technical aptitude, there are projects here for you, including the writing of a South Bend-area wiki.

If you are attending the Forum, consider joining the Code for South Bend event (as I will) for the concluding presentation of projects at 5:00 pm. Hope to see you there!

Blog post #1: Experiments are rarely simple

I thought that I would add my first quick post here to reflect on the physiology experiments currently being conducted in our General Biology Lab B course.

We told students from the outset that we didn’t expect them to produce Nobel Prize level work in Physiology in just two lab sessions.   But that our real goal was for them to have the experience of planning, conducting, analyzing, and communicating an experiment that was all their own.

This last week in lab was busy with the buzz of students doing jumping jacks, drinking coffee, listening to music, all for the sake of science.  I was a subject for two experiments; one that looked at the effect of cold on manual dexterity (I had to hold my arm in ice water for 30 sec.) and one on the effect of spinning (I was spun around in a lab chair 15 times) on a mental task (sorting M&Ms  by color).  I admit that I was lured into the second experiment by the promise of chocolate, but in retrospect, I really should have declined. Call it old age, dehydration, caffeine headache, whatever, but I can tell you that I didn’t feel right for the rest of the day.

Undoubtably for some research groups, this will all feel like a grade school science project.  But for many, I hope that they experienced the real struggle of designing a solid experiment with replication, randomization, and appropriate controls.  The statistical analysis portion of the project always brings up the “it depends” answer to the “which is the right statistical test” question.  Lessons to be learned:  even simplest experiments aren’t simple.



Superintendent Glenda Ritz to speak at ND Feb 23rd Forum

Don’t miss the 6th Annual Collaborating for Education & Research Forum on February 23, 2013 from 8:15 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. in Jordan Hall of Science on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. We’ve compiled a wonderful program for this year’s event!

Glenda Ritz – Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction

On the Road to High Quality Instruction: Creating a Culture of Support for Teachers

President Greg Jones will present an overview of the MSTCi Strategic Plan

LEARN more about Teacher Quality Metrics
REVIEW great STEM Related Opportunities for Teachers & Students
MEET new collaborators in STEM engagement activities
VISIT the lunchtime Project Fair & register for various summer activities
ENJOY a free continental breakfast and lunch
RECEIVE 5 PGPs for participating (teachers only)


To register, visit events.michianastem.org.
Please register by Feb 20th to attend.
Continental breakfast begins 8:15a.m.
Program begins promptly at 8:50a.m.
If you have already registered, but cannot attend, please contact tblacket@nd.edu.

Comet of the Century? and a March 2013 prequel

It’s early to tell, but it looks like we’re in for quite a show later this year. Comets can be astonishingly beautiful “pokes” from the cosmos, giving us a glimpse of natural processes that are typically too long in duration or too far in distance to make much of a cultural impact. This new comet could provide an exceptional educational moment. And unlike last year’s transit of Venus, no one saw this one coming…until just recently. Watch the four minute story, below.

Comet Hale-Bopp provided a nice show nearly two decades ago. A South Bend Tribune article encouraging even new amateur astronomers to photograph the spectacle drew me into astroimaging. Below is an image I took, following those published instructions, with an ordinary SLR camera and print film–remember print film?–my first night out. Comet ISON could provide as good, and potentially much better, a target for new astroimagers. Big fun is on its way.
To whet your appetite for the big ISON show in the Fall, watch this video about a naked-eye comet that should peak on March 12 and 13 this year. March 5 and 12 are other key viewing dates.

You’re invited: Collaborating for Education and Research Forum VI

We are pleased to invite you to Collaborating for Education and Research Forum VI to be held at Notre Dame’s Jordan Hall of Science on Saturday, February 23, 2013 from 8:30am to 2pm. The Forum is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Notre Dame to foster a collegial approach to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and research in Michiana. We will be discussing the opportunities and challenges facing the local STEM community. In previous years some 350 STEM professionals have participated in these Fora.

Click here to register!

This year we will be offering local K-12 STEM teachers and administrators who register and participate in the entire event a Certificate for 5 State of Indiana Professional Growth Points.

For more information and to register please visit: Forum VI Registration We will welcome last minute registrations, but for planning purposes it would be helpful if you would register by Thursday, Feb 21.

If you have colleagues who you believe would appreciate knowing about the forum, consider forwarding this their way:)

For more information please call Therese Blacketor at 574-631-1264.

NSF logo ND Shield logo

Public lecture in ND’s DVT: “Beyond Pluto: Discovery and Classification in Astronomy”


Dr. Steven Dick, Former NASA Chief Historian, will present a public lecture in Notre Dame’s Digital Visualization Theater, Jordan Hall of Science, on Saturday, February 23rd at 7 PM.

Dr Steven Dick_HIRES Official Photo 20040526

In 2006 Pluto was controversially demoted to dwarf planet status. This infamous episode is the point of departure for a discussion of the nature of discovery over the last 400 years of telescopic astronomy. What constitutes a “new class” of astronomical object? Who decides if a spiral galaxy, quasar, or pulsar is a new class? Has dark matter really been “discovered”? And how do these claims come to be accepted among scientists and the public?

You’re invited: join the variable star observing community

Hubble Space Telescope observers need your help.

Did you know that Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observers rely–sometimes–on the ground-based observations of amateur astronomers to determine the best use of their space-based instrument? Below is an American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) announcement of a request for help: observers plan to view a (“cataclysmic“) variable star on January 11 and 12, but can only get the data they need if the star is behaving at a certain way (“not in outburst”) for the Hubble to observe it.
2013-01-04_1416 Trouble is, the pattern of behavior for the star isn’t well enough known for the team using the Hubble to be sure that star won’t be in that unacceptable state. So they are asking from help from the broader community of variable star observers. (You can join, by the way…they’ll train you. Visit http://www.aavso.org/outreach.) At the Notre Dame QuarkNet Center, we’ve had high school teacher and student teams participate in this sort of citizen-science for years. (See Bremen HS astronomy educator Aaron McNeely’s blog on his team’s asteroid discoveries; here’s one student’s investigation into variable stars and the work of the AAVSO.)

When teachers and students are effectively invited into the research community in this way, it looks a lot like science education. What else, other than effective invitation into the community, would we want out of science education: when new members take on the values, the tools, the culture of the research community as members, what else are they lacking? But if they remember long lists of facts and can spout theories without even being aware of, let alone belong to, the community that generates those facts and theories, we might well ask: “so what?” Perhaps it is the centrality of the research community that has been missing in STEM education. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The AAVSO and many other organizations are developing a craft of issuing effective invitations into STEM community. In my view, the best way to promote STEM education–and the associated prosperity that comes with a vibrant STEM community–is to promote integrated STEM community where ever you can. Make connections wherever you can, and maintain them. That’s what AAVSO is doing.

Here’s the text of the AAVSO announcement. (Just click it to view the published notice.)
AAVSO Special Notice 319