Teaching With Blogs 1/5 Students Reading Blogs

I read blogs. There, I said it. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? (click here if you can’t name that adapted quote.) But seriously, I love the fact that people with interesting, challenging and often funny things to say are happy to share that with the world. These people are often experts in their field. In between day jobs – because only a lucky few can make a living by doing it – they give time and attention to writing for free. As a teacher I try to find ways to turn anything I find – fossils from the beach, events in the news, random YouTube videos – into a ‘teachable moment’. So why not make blogs one of theose things?

Why?

Blog writing has some huge advantages over textbooks for enthusing our students.

  • broad – textbooks often (these days almost always) stick to a narrow syllabus.
  • up-to-date – Ed Yong for example tends to be several days, if not weeks, ahead of even the online versions of print media.
  • enthusiastic – blog writers wouldn’t do it for fun if they didn’t have passion for their subjects.
  • expert – during swine flu scares the infectious disease blog Effect Measure was invaluable as the mainstream media veered between mass hysteria and total denial.

In some ways I would see the breadth of science covered in blogs as a double advantage for teaching purposes. Some students will be inspired by the breath of the subject, as revealed by a good science blogger. More prosaically, when reading a blog post students will practise extracting information from a longer article. This is a higher-level skill, one of those L2l things none of us ever thought of teaching before the government told us we should do it. Blogs are often written informally, translating dusty scientific articles into vivid prose. The advantages of being able to include images, videos and links can’t be ignored in their ability to catch a student’s imagination. The comments provide a view of the discussion that should so often accompany science but is so often missed in textbooks and scholarly accounts. The impassioned language and often creative insults isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as anyone who’s followed the recent dispute between James Delingpole and Simon Singh can attest.)

How?

I’ve found the best way to use blogs is as one of several source materials on a relevant topic, ideally one in the news. You could give students a news topic, perhaps linked to mainstream media versions, then ask them to find blog posts about it. Alternatively, point them a particular blog and ask them to choose one post to review, ideally by commenting.

I have a list on the right which desperately needs updating; perhaps more could be added in the comments? Which you choose will of course depend on which speciality you teach and what you’re hoping the students will get out of it. For biology and great reviews of recent research, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science is fantastic – I keep meaning to have a proper look at the rest of the blogs hosted by Discover magazine. Bad Science from Ben Goldacre includes his Guardian columns and more. The Quackometer is another blog on pseudoscience, especially alternative medicine claims. ScienceBlogs – which today is focusing on the science of kissing, almost guaranteed to get a student reading avidly – is a portal to all kinds of interesting blogs, despite the recent Pepsigate ‘scandal’. Melanie Windridge blogged about nuclear fusion while on her IoP Schools and Colleges tour. Studnets who immediately claim that ‘this is all too hard for us’ should be directed to Rhys Morgan’s blog.

By considering both the science and the presentation, it is easy to learn lessons about effective science communication. Perhaps they could then write a set of rules or guidelines to apply to their next powerpoint presentation or wiki. If the blog doesn’t have links, it’s easy to find your own explanations of complex ideas online, perhaps using the ‘Simple English’ Wikipedia or equivalent sites. Can they translate or summarise what they’ve learned? Write a series of comprehension questions to be used with the blog post? Give their own responses to ethical issues raised or local implications?

And Then?

Maybe they could produce their own classroom blog – imagine one student a week is assigned to write a blog post about that week’s science lessons, with appropriate images and links. Other students could comment on the work, building on the ideas and suggesting their own interpretations or how they might apply it. I’ve seen more online about using blogs with primary classes but hope to use this, perhaps with my older students to start with, this year. In the shorter term, students could produce a hotlinked document in the style of a blog post. Imagine producing a pdf to be accessed through the school VLE, text and images with key terms expanded by external links. It’s as if we’re enabling students to be independant learners… but now I’m sounding far too consultant-y.

This post was featured in an educational technology blog carnival, hosted by Danny Nicholson at The Whiteboard Blog.

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Immunisation 4/5 Choices

This is the fourth of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together into one downloadable scheme if there is enough feedback to make it worthwhile.

Starter: Making a Choice

Ask students to spend a couple of minutes considering the choices their parents have made for them – school, part of the country, hobbies etc. Were these choices always right? Were they well-informed?

Main: Roleplay

Discussion

Put students into groups – aim to mix them up in terms of gender and ability. Each group will be assigned a role and asked to discuss arguments for or against MMR vaccination. They need to be able to justify their arguments as well as quantify them (perhaps using an opinion line?). If there is time you might want to give them a chance to research their position, perhaps in their own time. The powerpoint includes printable slides which will give them a starting point, as well as information they may choose not to share with the rest of the class. These slides can be used in the plenary, after they have chosen from the point of view of a parent. Some ideas about producing a roleplay can be found here (and I’m sure at many other places too).

Persuasion

There are many ways the students could share the arguments they have considered. If they produce a group poster or display then the decision could be run as a marketplace activity, with one ‘stall-holder’ left to explain the ideas and the remainder considering all the opinions before making their choice. Alternatively each group could present their ideas for a couple of minutes before answering questions, or make a video explaining their thoughts – perhaps as interviews for a TV show? The most challenging would be an open discussion, hard to manage and time consuming. In some ways the ideal would be brief presentations first, then ask them to speak to each other and challenge ideas one-to-one before reforming in groups for any final questions.

Decision

Finally, all students should record their choice, perhaps using anonymous votes or personal whiteboards. It is worth pointing out that although scientific questions can’t be settled democratically, people’s choices – such as whether or not to vaccinate – are much more likely to be based on persuasion.

Plenary

Tally the total score, perhaps asking them to predict the result first. How does this compare with vaccination rates, nationally and locally? (Useful figures are summarised in this report from the House of Commons Library.)

As before, I’ve put this together as immunisation4 saved as ppt. The last six slides can be printed as briefing cards for the role play, although you may have other/better ideas. If so, please share them below!

Immunisation 3/5

This is the third of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme. Sorry this post is a little late but real life got in the way (more about this in a later blog post).

3 Data in Context

Starter

School A gets 25 A* grades in GCSE Science. School B gets 44 A*s. Which is better? (Not enough info as don’t know how many students in total, how they have chosen courses, exam specification <cough>21st Century.)

Main Activities

Numbers published during news stories about Implanon can be used to practice calculations. Ask students to consider view from each ‘end’ of the spectrum – those who suffer ill effects or for whom a product fails, compared with those who are satisfied with result. All cases have odd factors/coincidences – this is why we look at large numbers. You could point students towards the news stories (or have them look themselves using Google) or use the downloadable pdfs listed below. These include Ben Goldacre’s Guardian column and an excerpt from Dr Petra Boynton’s blog post about the media coverage. These should provide an interesting balance to the newspaper’s approach. The powerpoint asks students to read and discuss their assigned article in groups before comparing to other contraceptives. (Warning: check compatibility with age and PSHE in your setting.) They then compare the coverage between groups.

To bring the focus back to MMR, students could do with examining figures of incidence and mortality for each of the three infections. Numbers are available at HPA if you’d like them to graph it themselves, electronically or by hand. Getting hold of autism numbers is trickier, but most reputable sites agree that it’s hard to tell whether it is more common or just more diagnoses. WikidScience has an activity comparing absolute numbers in California with numbers per 100000, which might be useful. Ask students how we could explain increasing numbers.

Important to give a few facts – or guide the students to finding them – showing the consequences of measles, mumps and rubella. This is the route I’ve taken in the powerpoint below.

Plenary

Challenge students to explain the difference between anecdotes and data. Realising the power of personal experience will set students up nicely for the role play in lesson 4 of the sequence (coming soon, I hope).

Printable media articles: www-bbc-co-uk : www-dailymail-co-uk : www-drpetra-co-uk : www-guardian-co-uk : www-mirror-co-uk : www-telegraph-co-uk all converted to pdf in one way or another.

immunisation3 as ppt

Any and all feedback and suggestions welcome – many thanks.

Immunisation 2/5 Correlation and Causation

This is the second of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme.

2 Correlation and Causation

Starter

Ask students to explain ‘links’ between things that happen at the same time:

  • boys growing facial hair and starting to produce sperm
  • height and shoe size
  • final exams and sunny weather (in the UK, more or less)
  • ice cream sales and deaths by drowning at the beach
  • star sign and academic success

Alternatively use the card sort and ask them to find the pairs of linked variables. You could perhaps add in one or two pairs that are causatively linked.

Printable: correlation cardsort as pdf.

Main Activities

Start by defining correlation and causation. It might be worth going back to tricky examples from the starter, pointing out when two variables are controlled by a third. (Flow charts show this nicely). Explain why observational studies can’t easily distinguish between correlation and causation, but that a link is often interesting and may help to suggest a hypothesis. Examples such as the British Doctors Study (more detail at the MRC) might be useful. Individual facts about this study could be used to produce a ‘murder mystery’ activity.

Recap definitions of variables (independant, dependant and control) and elicit ideal experimental design. Discuss limitations, especially with health-related research (compliance, ethics, comparison to placebo etc). We try to look for a pattern once other factors are excluded, then investigate links without endangering patients. Cue debate about value/ethics of animal trials!

A few weeks back Matt Parker produced a fantastic bad science/stats trap – explained here in the Guardian – suggesting a link between mobile phone masts and fertility. It is of course simple – we put mobile phone masts where there is demand. Most students should be able to suggest that this is because that’s where the people are. I suspect the correlation is enhanced by the fact that demand is linked even more closely to the section of the population aged 15-45, who are both more likely to have mobiles and have babies. He’s archived the data as an Excel file, available through his website StandupMaths. Students could plot (some of) this data and then try to explain the pattern.

Give students a simplified version of the original claims about MMR, according to Wakefield and authors. Challenge students to suggest (1)possible other factors/explanations (2)best ways to investigate this possible link. What would they have done if they had been involved in medical science at the time? What would they have recommended to parents/GPs? Instead of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it can be useful to have students show their feelings on an ‘opinion line’. This allows more subtlety, for example by letting them position themselves between ‘Cancel all vaccines’ and ‘Don’t even bother researching a possible link’ – both unhelpful extremes.

Extension/Plenary

Why is this funny?

Above cartoon is of course from the wonderful xkcd.

Some of these ideas and activities are introduced in immunisation2 saved as powerpoint.

As before, please let me know of any ideas, suggestions, improvements – through the comments here, by email or via Twitter.

Immunisation 1/5 Infection

This will be the first of five posts designed as a teaching mini-scheme about the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccination; it is partly inspired by the recently published work by Brian Deer. Please note I feel, quite strongly, that MMR is safe and highly desirable (albeit underused in the UK right now). This is my effort to provide colleagues with the tools (and printable resources etc) to provide good information. I suppose you could see it as immunising them against bad science such as that recently published in the Sunday Express. At the end of the five posts I will put the ideas and resources together, informed by any and all comments and feedback, into one downloadable scheme.

1 Infection

Starter

Distinguish between conditions e.g. asthma and infections.

Main 1: Pathogens and Immunity

  • Recap types of pathogen, basics of how the immune system works.
  • Blog is refusing to let me upload a .swf animation which is a shame as the Brainpop one on disease is quite good.
  • Ask students about their understanding of immunisation and clarify if necessary. (Depending on age they may have recently had HPV to protect against cervical cancer, which is a tricky example).
  • Might want to give examples of difficulties e.g. polio if they are up to it.

Main 2: MMR

  • Have students investigate the symptoms, mortality rates etc of a range of diseases, including MMR. How many you use will depend on class and group size.
  • Give a range of websites – I found NetDoctor, WHO, HPA (follow link to epidiomological data, fairly technical but gives good data for graphs) but I’m sure there are others – and ask them to extract basic facts for comparison.
  • Using a comparison table, or having them use something like Venn diagram to show similarities and differences, will stop them simply copying and pasting.
  • Each group could add basic facts to a wiki (if you’re feeling technical) or to the whiteboard (if you’re not).

Extension

Why is it sometimes called vaccination? Finding out why it is named for cows (vaccus) will lead students to cowpox/smallpox and Jenner’s work.

Plenary

MMR – use students’ figures to show how the MMR immunisation saves lives in the UK – compare total mortality rates for these three diseases now with those from previous decades. This graph from Wikipedia shows the dramatic change in cases (but not mortality).

One version of this teaching plan is immunisation1 saved as a powerpoint file. Please comment, both on the ideas above and the powerpoint. A full version will be produced once I have some useful feedback.

Getting Easy Marks (AQA P2 June 2010)

The downloadable powerpoint below, and associated printables, are something I’ve used with my Year 11 students to point out just how many easy marks are available on the P2 papers. This stops me from shouting “You’re making stupid mistakes!” at them, and is a much more constructive way of helping them to see how they can improve their score. Hopefully they will be useful for colleagues who, like me, used the June 2010 paper as a mock before the exam rapidly approaching.

It is slightly disheartening – there are 18 of what I would say are easy marks, basic recall and simple processing. You only need 16 to get a C. Glad we’re not dumbing down…

gettingeasymarks june2010 as ppt

gettingeasymarks june2010 as pdf

With a Sheet of Paper…

I’d like to preface this post with a disclaimer – the following ideas, suggestions and demonstrations were not in response to a lack of technician support. Our technicians are great (and as I blog fairly discreetly, I’m not even saying this to get brownie points). But it’s amazing what you can demonstrate to kids with a piece of paper in physics, which is why an off-the-cuff demo turned into a lesson plan, which has now turned into a blog post.

Air Resistance

This was the first I used – probably prompted by something I’ve seen elsewhere but I can’t place the source. A student unexpectedly challenged me about light and heavy objects falling at the same speed. While waiting for the guinea/feather apparatus I improvised. First I showed that two pieces of paper fell at different speeds when one was flat, the other crumpled into a ball. I then showed that if we removed the air resistance, even a flat piece of paper falls ‘quickly’ – the easiest way to do this was to place the paper above a book, then drop them together. As long as the paper does not overlap the edges of the book, they will still be touching as they hit the floor.

Atoms

We all have students draw atoms as a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, surrounded by orbiting electrons. I suspect I’m not the only one to add the caption ‘This diagram is a lie; discuss’ and sit back to watch the confusion blossom. But how about building the atoms out of classroom materials? If you use scrunched up balls of paper (mostly from the recycling bin of course) then they can actually start counting. Use different colours for each subatomic particle, and ask them to explain similarities and differences, or compare nuclides. You could even add treasury tags and build alpha particles to be emitted from the unstable nuclei. If you fancy it, this could be a rather more three-dimensional display than usual…

Deuterium (Hydrogen isotope)
Helium
Lithium ion

Electricity

Students regularly struggle with the parallel (sorry) ideas of current and voltage in circuits. I have them make a circuit by standing in a loop, usually around the actual circuit laid out on the demo bench. Students are designated as cell and bulb (You could have them pin A4 circuit symbols to their clothes I guess, but the ideal would be netball bibs with added ink) and you will need one or several buckets, or washing up bowls.

Each bucket is passed around the circle, representing a moving charge. It gains electrical energy (in the form of scrunched up balls of paper) at the cell, and loses it at the bulb. I explain the energy is transformed at each point, it neither appears nor vanishes. It becomes obvious that we can increase how fast energy arrives at the device (students can easily mimic a buzzer or a motor but don’t get them to ‘flash’ as a bulb!) by increasing either the energy supplied per charge carrier at the cell, or by increasing the movement of charge carriers in the circuit. You can even link up with resistance by having the students in the loop, playing the part of the conducting wires, charge a ‘toll’ for passing the bucket.

Chain Reaction (nuclear fission)

This one is fun and the students will certainly remember it – but it should probably be used with caution. Give each student two pieces of scrunched up paper and have them stand up. Emphasize it is important to do this ‘practical’ slowly as otherwise the details are lost; ideally they should wait between each stage to appreciate the changes. Explain that they are atoms of nuclear fuels, uranium-235 or plutonium, which will decay if hit by a neutron. When they decay they will emit two neutrons and then sit down. They’ll need to wait for each stage, then choose a student and throw in some paper. They will choose their targets, and (slowly or quickly) 1 decaying atom will become 2, then 4, then 8, then 16… In practice, a few ‘neutrons’ will miss – this of course will really happen in a reactor! You can model the effect of control rods by having some students with no paper to throw.

Hope these inspire a few lesson starters or plenaries. I plan to demonstrate a few together as part of their revision, and then see if they can demonstrate a concept themselves, using paper.