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  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.


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.



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 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

Watch the International Space Station at 6:30pm tonight

Via email from astronomer extraordinaire Chuck Bueter:

“Tonight is a good night to look up. The International Space Station zooms over Michiana from 6:34 p.m. to 6:39ish, southwest to northeast. You can’t miss it, so take a friend or family member outside with you.

Then the Geminid meteor shower happens late into the night and morning darkness. I’ve been watching some dazzling Geminds the past few nights. The weather forecast is favorable (again, in Michiana), and the moon is nearly new, so out of sight. For details see “Go Outside December 13-14” at ”

I’ll be watching:) ~ Tom

Speed of light and STEM culture


Yesterday the world heard from CERN the announcement of a remarkable preliminary finding: that neutrinos arriving at the OPERA detector seem to be showing up too early…about 60 nanoseconds too early. That doesn’t sound like much of an offense. But that 60ns early arrival corresponds (very roughly) to the neutrinos being more than ten yards further along in their journey than they could have possibly traveled in that time frame, if Eistein and lots of subsequent physics is right that the speed of light is an upper limit on how fast anything can travel. And the early arrival seems especially well documented, with more than 10,000 events in a context where the distance of the more than 700 km trip is known to within 20 cm and the timing to within 10ns. So the offense seems real, and seems to challenge a central tenet of modern physics. This interpretation seems unlikely to everyone, but very serious efforts to interpret the measurement in some other way have so far not succeeded; this is at least part of the reason why the experiment opened up their results to the world, so that others might help to find an alternate interpretation. So far, no one has. So the OPERA announcement is interesting news in itself.

I had a chance to watch the announcement live (now here on video) from CERN with three high school physics teachers at Mounds View High School in Minnesota. We were gathered in an I2U2 CMS e-Lab workshop, and were scheduled–not kidding, here–to do an overview of the “big questions” in particle physics at that very hour, which we accomplished differently than expected by watching 90 minutes of the OPERA announcement. These teachers (the four of us) are all QuarkNet teachers, participants in a program designed to connect high school teachers with high energy physics. I cannot imagine a single snapshop which better testifies to the success of QuarkNet than the image of four teachers engaged in a professional development activity in a high school setting, their scheduled review of big physics questions being set aside for genuine participation in a major announcement from CERN.
These teachers had interacted sufficiently with particle physics in recent years to absorb–drinking from the hydrant though we were–the main thrust and many of the details of the 90 minute modestly technical presentation to the world’s high energy physics community. In fact, these teachers are part of that community in a broad but very real sense. They could hardly wait to share the news in their classrooms, thus inviting students into participation in STEM community as well. QuarkNet has made research in high energy physics, the core activity of the particle physics community, look good to high school teachers: we were spellbound by the presentation, and wouldn’t have wanted to be doing anything else at that very moment. Culture makes what is good, look good. That’s just what QuarkNet has made happen for teachers, and for this group of the four of us in particular. The CMS e-Lab is one strategy for making it happen for students, too.

Teaching Well Using Technology

How can you not like this tool? It’s one of my favorites from a workshop offered by the Kaneb Center: Teaching Well Using Technology . Jamie Antonelli and I attended the workshop today. Perhaps unlike my favorite tool linked above, many of the tools and tips we received were quite useful.

The workshop uses a wikispace site, on which Jamie and I created a project page, advancing a project (also hosted on a wiki) begun last year.

Without any pretense of coherence, below is a list of highlights from the workshop.

One very interesting tool to which I”ve just now been introduced is EtherPag (or in this case, a free version called TitanPad. This tool allows anyone to set up a “backchannel” during a workshop…something like a chat room where notes can be gathered and responded to as the workshop advances. Everyone can type into it at the same time. Lots of online presentations use a backchannel of this sort, and I find them helpful. But this is the first time I’d run across a free version which can be integrated into almost any other technology (such as a wiki home page for the workshop.) If I had just employed the correct rule of thumb–“if you can think of it, it exists online, and is free”–I’d have found it earlier:)

Another new tool for me is grooveshark (mentioned only incidentally in the workshop, but of great interest to me.) Grooveshark enables you to share music, even in a widget; my first experiment with it is here.

Jamie Antonelli found the “insert invisible frame” solution to navigating through a single slide in Prezi. (I’ll hyperlink his solution from here when I gain access to it.)

McKeechie’s Teaching Tips was recommended as a great useful text for folks teaching in higher ed.

Here’s a Google slideshow illustrating 66 ways to use Google Forms in a classroom context.

More resources used and/or recommended in the workshop can be found here. Enjoy.