Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The End of the Line or over it?

This blog is about something I don’t know anything about, which believe it or not is a first for me. But I’ve been seeing a lot of news and reviews for a new documentary on overfishing, and although I can’t get to see it at the moment, I’m fascinated by the campaign to make this film into a happening, “An Inconvenient Truth of the Oceans.”

The film is called The End of the Line. Its makers describe it this way –
Imagine an ocean without fish. Imagine your meals without seafood. Imagine the global consequences. This is the future if we do not stop, think and act. In the film we see firsthand the effects of our global love affair with fish as food.

It examines the imminent extinction of bluefin tuna, brought on by increasing western demand for sushi; the impact on marine life resulting in huge overpopulation of jellyfish; and the profound implications of a future world with no fish that would bring certain mass starvation.
Filmed over two years, The End of the Line follows the investigative reporter Charles Clover as he confronts politicians and celebrity restaurateurs, who exhibit little regard for the damage they are doing to the oceans.

Overfishing – catching fish faster than their populations reproduce - is indeed a threat to the marine ecosystem, to the human food supply, and to the economic well-being of many regions. The UN Fisheries and Agriculture Organization’s 2008 report on the state of the world’s fisheries concluded that 75% of the fish stocks it monitors are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted, and that sustainable management practices are lacking worldwide. The End of the Line explicitly aims to tackle this situation –

The film lays the responsibility squarely on consumers who innocently buy endangered fish, politicians who ignore the advice and pleas of scientists, fishermen who break quotas and fish illegally, and the global fishing industry that is slow to react to an impending disaster.

The End of the Line points to solutions that are simple and doable, but political will and activism are crucial to solve this international problem.

The End of the Line premiere at Sundance will also kick-off a global campaign for citizens to demand better marine policies. Leading international environmental organizations are lending their full support to the film.

The End of the Line will be released worldwide in 2009 using multiple formats and venues including theaters, broadcast and cable television networks, film festivals, online video campaigns, aquariums, museums and special screenings for environmental and educational organizations.

Now this is where it gets really interesting to me, this unabashed mingling of science and activism. I’ve found that I have to be very careful exposing introductory and non-majors students to subjective material. They often struggle to recognize the biases in advocacy science, or can be mislead into thinking that all scientific work comes with an agenda. I suspect though, that the blatancy of The End of the Line is exactly why it could work well as a teaching tool. From what I’ve seen, the film makes its points with a sledgehammer – that can open a lot of avenues for study. Students often react strongly to being hit over the head, and are motivated to dig deeper into a subject, to look for other ways of interpreting the data, and to debate the issues with their classmates.

The End of the Line will be released to theaters in selected cities on June 19th. In the meantime, you can poke into the story around the documentary at the sites below -

The End of the Line website

National Geographic has a page on the documentary, and links to their own articles and videos on overfishing

Babelgum is streaming segments of the film and additional videos online.

In addition, a number of science blogs have already reviewed the film. And the book of the same name by Charles Clover is widely available in bookstores and libraries.

Anyone seen The End of the Line? What did you think about it’s suitability for the classroom? I’ll blog again once I’ve watched.

Monday, June 1, 2009

You'll Never Walk Alone

The Human Genome Project was launched to map the DNA sequences carried inside every human cell. Now that the HGP is largely complete, biologists are working to map the DNA of our closest and most intimate companions, the bacteria carried in and upon every human body. The Human Microbiome Project seeks to identify and describe the complement of microbes that inhabit healthy humans, and to see how changes in that biota correlate with disease and other environmental disruptions. The project subdivides the body into biomes. In ecology, biomes are geographic regions characterized by distinct climate patterns and plant and animal communities. In the microbiome project, biomes are body regions distinguished by their physical and chemical conditions and their bacterial communities. The first steps in HMP research are sampling various biomes, such as the skin, digestive tract, nose and mouth and identifying and comparing their bacterial inhabitants.

Biologists have known for a long time that our skin teems with microbial life. But most of these bacteria don’t grow well in petri dishes, so it’s been very difficult to study them in any detail. DNA sequencing has provided a new way of exploring the microbiota. Ribosomal RNA is extracted from swab samples taken from a biome, sequenced, and analyzed to determine the diversity and composition of the bacterial community. The results of such a study of the skin have just been released. Samples collected from 20 places on the skin of each of 10 volunteers yielded over 1000 species from 200 different genera and 12 phyla. Samples from the same site on different people were far more similar than those from different spots on the same person, suggesting that the biota of human biomes do represent real communities. The forearm bacteria were the most diverse, averaging 44 species, with a paltry 19 found behind the ear.

Researchers now plan to gather samples from volunteers with skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and skin infections. They hope that differences in the bacterial communities between healthy and sick people will provide insights into the development and progression of disease and suggest new treatments.

As an active area of research and a novel way of approaching human health, the Human Microbiome Project has a lot of natural hooks for biology education. There’s something very charming and at the same time slightly unsettling about thinking of your body as a complex and crowded ecosystem, isn’t there? I find myself giving my forearms a lot of sidelong glances lately. Just what is going on over there?

Illustration: Skin sample sites for a study of bacterial diversity. Credit: Jane Ades, NHGRI

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Citizen science - distributed computing

Interested in searching out aliens? Want to help find a cure for cancer or muscular dystrophy? Discover more effective AIDS drugs? Breed more nutritious rice? Then try distributed computing. Distributed computing is the use of many separate but networked computers, each running the same program, to solve complex problems. When volunteers download the software for a particular project, their computers quietly set to work using idle processing power to sift through enormous data sets or crunch through intricate calculations. The combined efforts of many thousands of computers can make otherwise unworkable research possible.

Distributed computing is perhaps the most indifferent type of citizen science. You can participate without knowledge, effort, or observation. Nonetheless, these projects are valuable teaching tools. The home pages of most distributed computing projects include detailed information on the science involved, written specifically to capture the attention of non-scientists. Many include blogs, activities, and links designed to keep participants informed and engaged. Others have forums with often lively debate over the merits and problems of various projects. The range of projects is broad enough to include work that applies to any biology curriculum and that should appeal to most students. Besides the basic science of these projects, distributed computing also can be used to explore other topics, such as the ethical and practical implications of intellectual property rights and patents related to organisms, drugs, genes, and other biologic material, and the competition between diseases for funding and public attention.

Here are a few good places to get started. Googling distributed computing and volunteer computing will bring up many other resources.

SETI@home is the largest and best known distributed computing project. Users scan through radio signals from space searching for patterns that could indicate extra-terrestrial life.

Folding@home examines the links between the structure of proteins and diseases such as mad cow, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

BOINC is a software system that many distributed computing programs run on. The home site acts as a clearinghouse for projects, and includes tips on how to evaluate and choose programs. BOINC allows volunteers to divide up their computer time among multiple projects. Projects include work on malaria control, climate modeling, the evolution of DNA sequences, and the genetic links to disease.

The World Community Grid is dedicated to “projects that benefit humanity.” Current projects includes research on drugs targeting dengue fever, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and cancer, on new strains of rice to combat famine, and on finding more efficient materials for use in solar cells.

Image - Lion, drawn by Morito Iokawa, age 5. Died of acute lymphocytic leukemia at age 6. The Help Fight Childhood Cancer Project is a distributed computing project run through the World Community Grid. Image credit - Children's Cancer Association of Japan.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine flu (what else?)

The H1N1 virus
I’m confident there isn’t a biology class anywhere that hasn’t already talked about the swine flu. Or any biology blog either. But the flu and its fallout are going to be with us for a while, so I thought I’d post some links that might be helpful. Please comment with other good resources that you’ve found worthwhile.

Swine flu
  • The CDC’s H1N1 Flu page has the latest information on the current outbreak. Press releases, maps, prevention and treatment information, twitter updates, and photos.

  • Wired Science covers speculation on possible links between the virus and factory farms and the search for the ‘smoking pig.’

  • Reuters Swine Flu section is an archive of news articles, videos, and photographs of the current flu outbreak. It’s a good source for examining media coverage and public sentiment about the flu situation

  • The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health have a very thorough review of influenza in general. It includes fact sheets, Q&A’s, tutorials, images, and links to almost everything you’d ever need to say about flu.

  • The pages on Flu Wiki aren’t consistent in quality but it does have a lot of information and is quite accessible to non-biologists.

  • PandemicFlu.gov describes how government agencies plan for influenza outbreaks and monitor national and international flu trends.

  • This World Health Organization chart describes the Pandemic Alert Levels being used internationally to characterize the stages of this and other pandemics.

  • The Great Pandemic is a Dept. of Health and Human Services site with terrific information on the social and medical context of the 1918-1919 influenza outbreak. Many of today’s swine flu worries draw on this event.

Every health scare is accompanied by a rash of unscientific, often flat-out crackpot, ideas as to its cause and cure. Bloggers are often the first line of defense against pseudoscience – independent scientists and health professionals, and even well-informed laymen can respond with a speed and vigor that government employees can rarely match.

  • Beyond the Short Coat takes on the notion that enemas can prevent swine flu.

  • Repectful Insolence addresses the enema claim too, and includes a particularly nice video on pseudoscience in general.

  • Scienceblogs.com is a good place to search for analyses of swine flu claims and coverage, but I’d be careful about directing students there because the commentary can get a bit rough.

Photo credit CDC/ C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cry wolf

A slow, sad drama is unfolding on a remote island, in the process providing a tailor-made teaching window into population genetics and bioethics.

Isle Royale, a large, forested island on the northwest end of Lake Superior, is separated from the closest mainland by 15 miles of cold, deep water. This isolation has produced a unique and relatively simple wilderness ecosystem, which includes a pair of species – wolves and moose – tied together by a two-link food chain.

Moose arrived on Isle Royale sometime around 1900, after a long and dangerous swim from Canada or perhaps Minnesota. Wolves followed 40-50 years later, walking across on the ice of a particularly cold winter. Since then, the wolves have been the moose’s only predator, and the moose the wolves’ primary source of food. During the last 50 years, this relationship has been observed and recorded continuously by biologists with the National Park Service and Michigan Technological University. It is the longest running study of large mammal predator-prey relationships ever made, and it has provided many insights into how ecosystems develop and operate, and how they respond to environmental change. Recent work has revealed that this small but important community may be doomed.

Genetic testing has shown that the wolf packs on the island are all descended from a single female. After generations of inbreeding, the genetic diversity of the population has fallen by half, and most of the wolves are suffering from a congenital, inherited bone defect. This condition is marked by malformations and growths of the vertebrae, which interfere with spinal nerves and cause pain, muscle weakness, and paralysis. Many wolves also have extra vertebrae and early onset arthritis, which may be genetic as well. This discovery may explain recent declines in the island’s wolf population and suggests its future is likely to be both short and bleak.

Biologists and policy makers are now grappling with the difficult question of how to respond to the wolves’ predicament. Do they let nature take its course, and use the opportunity to learn more about the progress and consequences of local extinction events? Or do they attempt a “genetic intervention” and bring in one or more healthy, unrelated wolves to deepen the gene pool, which might both save the Isle Royale population and also provide valuable experience and knowledge on restoring the health of threatened species?

The story of wolves and moose on Isle Royale provides a wealth of opportunities for biology teachers. The ethical questions surrounding the wolves’ future are ripe for classroom discussions on conservation, wilderness, and the interplay between science and public policy. The data provided by 50 years of moose and wolf studies can easily be used to illustrate population dynamics, the founder effect, genetic drift, and interspecific competition. Students can be asked to use their knowledge of ecological processes to predict the environmental impact of wolf extinction on the island’s ecosystem as a whole, or to describe how even such a remote setting is influenced by regional and historical trends such as climate change and agricultural and wildlife management practices.

Photos courtesy of www.isleroyalewolf.org.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bacteria can run but they can't hide

I just stumbled across a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_xh-bkiv_c&feature=kp) of a neutrophil chasing down and engulfing a bacterium. Although it’s one of those old, slightly grainy science films from the 1950s, there is something really compelling about the frantic vibrations of the bacterium, the remorseless pursuit by the neutrophil, and their eerily silent battle among the red blood cells. It’s a little Hitchcockian, don't you think? I leaned forward while I watched it, and now I can’t help anthropomorphizing the heck out of it while I discuss it. Although that isn’t completely out of line, since this very scene is being repeated a million times over right now inside me and you and every human. At any rate, it was interesting enough to get me to Google around a bit to refresh my memory on just what a neutrophil is and does. So you go, 1950s filmstrip.

As is so often the case in biology, what looks like a simple process – see bacteria, catch bacteria, kill bacteria – is actually quite complex. Neutrophils are one variety of a kind of white blood cells called granular leucocytes, which form a major part of the immune system. The cell membrane of each neutrophil is studded with chemical receptors. These receptors are specialized to detect the proteins that immune cells release when they encounter an infection or inflammation. When neutrophils receive such calls for help, they follow their chemical gradient back to the source with great speed. Upon arrival, foreign bacteria are destroyed through phagocytosis – the neutrophils engulf and then digest the invaders. The bacteria do get revenge of a sort. Eventually the neutrophils die, and are themselves phagocytosed and subsequently turned into pus, which isn’t a particularly glorious end for such staunch defenders.

Neutrophil (yellow) engulfing anthrax bacteria (orange). Scale bar is 5um. From PLoS Pathogens Vol. 1(3) November 2005.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Those who can, doodle

JFK's White House Doodles
I’ve been seeing lots of news stories lately about a research study that suggests that doodling improves memory. A group of test subjects who were directed to doodle while listening to a series of long, dull conversations remembered the details much better than the group who simply sat and listened. It seems that the brain is adapted to be active, and if the world doesn’t supply enough stimulation to keep it going, it’ll make it’s own through daydreaming. Doodling keeps the brain just busy enough that it continues to pay attention to the outside world. Daydreaming takes more mental effort, and distracts the mind from its surroundings.

There are obvious implications for teaching in this. As a biology student, I doodled a lot – the citric acid cycle, that would do it. The electron transport chain, every time. But I mainly did it when I thought I could do it on the down low, sitting in the back of the room or in a large lecture hall. In a smaller class, I became the master of the glassy stare and the falsely inquisitive head tilt instead.

As a teacher, I’m sure I’ve given more than one doodler the skunk eye. Now I wonder if I should encourage it. Every lecture has its boring bits – anything that keeps a student learning through the dull spots is worth using. Maybe I need to add doodles to the hands-on demo, the small-group discussion pause, the five-minute stretch and soda break, and all the other straighten up and pay attention tricks. At the least, I'll try and see doodling as a genuine attempt to learn rather than as a surefire sign of slacking.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The TEACH Act: Copyright in the Classroom, part 3

You thought copyright was confusing before, but no, this is where it gets tricky – copyright law in online education. When you post something copyrighted on a web page or send it across the internet, you are in a sense publishing that material, and that’s quite different than showing a slide for a few minutes in a classroom or handing around a photocopied article to a few students. That’s giving everyone, everywhere the ability to take or use someone else’s work without compensation.

In order to address the unique aspects of online education and copyright law, Congress passed the TEACH Act in 2002. The Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act made it legal for teachers employed by accredited schools to use copyrighted materials in online education in pretty much the same ways they could be used in face-to-face classroom settings. Sounds great, eh? Oh, but there’s a catch – there are a set of conditions that must be met for the TEACH Act to apply:

    An institution must have an established copyright policy and educational information on copyright law available.

    The copyrighted material must be used in a lesson or instructional activity – supplemental material used for additional information or extra reading is not allowed.

    Access must be limited only to enrolled students, and only for the duration of a class or course.

    Technological controls must be in place to prevent students from downloading or copying material or transmitting it on to someone else.

    Commercial materials created explicitly for distance education cannot be used. Required textbooks and workbooks cannot be posted instead of purchased. Illegally acquired material cannot be used.

    All material available to students must come with a notice about copyright law.

Those conditions are tough to meet, especially the ones about controlling downloads and access. Luckily, all is not lost if you cannot do it.

Links - Instead of giving your students copies of copyrighted material, give them the links to go the original sources online. It’s more efficient anyway. All you have to do is check frequently to make sure the links are still good.

Permissions - Copyright holders will often grant permission to use their work for a fee or for educational purposes. Sometimes an email is all it takes, but more often it’s a lengthy process.

Fair use - The fair use exemption to copyright law can still be used in online education, but you need to be very careful. As a practical matter, your treatment of someone else’s intellectual property in the classroom is just between you and your conscience. It might make it hard to insist that your students do not plagiarize when you make someone else work free, and all but impossible to show them that science is all about honest and ethical inquiry. But the chances of being caught or prosecuted for copyright infringement are vanishingly small.

With distance education, though, it’s a different story. Once you put something online it’s there for anyone with a search engine and a professional or financial stake in protecting their rights to find. So I suggest you post as little copyrighted material as possible (use links instead), and show good faith by always crediting the author when you do. Once a class is over, take the material down.

For more detailed information on the TEACH Act and distance education, visit these sites -

TEACH Act Toolkit
Stanford Library's Fair Use website

Friday, February 20, 2009

Well, it seems fair to me: Copyright in the Classroom, part 2

Anyone who teaches biology needs to use copyrighted material. You can’t convey the scope of life on Earth or the complexity of biological processes or the secret inner life of cells without using pictures, videos, and diagrams. Only a small amount of the good stuff is in the public domain, so there’s really no way to avoid copyright issues. Here are some options --

Creative Commons – Look for material with a Creative Commons license. Many authors are willing to share their work with some strings attached. Various CC licenses give the public permission to copy, distribute, and display material as long as the copyright holder is credited or the work is not altered or used for profit. Frequently the graphics and photos on Wikipedia and flickr and articles in online science journals have attribution/non-commercial licenses – just follow the simple rules and they are free for the using.

Fair Use – U.S. copyright law allows educators to use copyrighted materials legally under the principle of fair use. A set of 4 kind of squishy conditions are weighed to determine if a use is fair. Here they are, as described by the Association of Research Libraries (I can copy their discussion here, because it’s published under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial 2.5 License):

This “fair use” provision of copyright law doesn’t provide hard and fast rules to tell you whether a use qualifies as fair. Instead, the unique facts regarding a use lead you to a reasoned conclusion. Your evaluation should weigh four factors:

1. Purpose and character: If your use is for teaching at a nonprofit educational institution, this is a factor favoring fair use. The scale tips further in favor of fair use if access is restricted to your students.

2. Nature of copyrighted work: Is the work fact-based, published, or out-of-print? These factors weigh in favor of fair use.

3. Amount used: Using a small portion of a whole work would weigh toward fairness. But sometimes it may be fair to use an entire work (such as an image) if it is needed for your instructional purpose.

4. Market effect: A use is more likely to be fair if it does not harm the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. But if it does, this could weigh more heavily against fair use than the other factors.

Consider each of these factors, but all of them do not have to be favorable to make your use a fair one. When the factors in the aggregate weigh toward fairness, your use is better justified. When the factors tip the scales in the other direction, your need to obtain permission from the copyright holder increases. Don’t worry that the answer isn’t crystal clear. Just decide whether the factors weigh enough toward fairness so that you are comfortable not seeking permission. Some suggest reliance on the “golden rule” — if you were the copyright holder, would you see the use as fair and not expect to be asked for permission?

Fair use allows teachers to use, reproduce, and distribute copyrighted material in the classroom. But in return, teachers are required to exercise restraint. You cannot copy all or most of a textbook or workbook so that students do not have to buy them. You can’t copy a nature program off the tv and show it every semester if it is available for sale or rent. You are not allowed to put together a thick packet of articles for your students to buy from you or the local copy shop. Be reasonable - the people who write textbooks and make films need to make a living.

Copyright Clearance – If you really need to use copyrighted material in a way that doesn’t fall under fair use, you can and must get permission. Most textbook publishers will sell clearances that allow making lots of copies for educational uses. You can seek permission yourself, or use a clearance services. Many scientists and other copyright holders will also grant permission for you to use a photo or illustration or other material if you ask nicely and want to use it in a way they find reasonable.

For more information on copyright and classroom teaching, check out Stanford University’s website on Copyright and Fair Use. It’s fabulous.

Next time, the TEACH Act and copyright law in distance education.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Copywhat? Copyright in the Classroom, part 1

Science and teaching are both collaborative ventures. Every scientific discovery is built on the work that came before it, and scientists freely, eagerly share their ideas with one another. Teaching is all about sharing knowledge as much as possible. I wonder if that’s why so many science teachers have so little regard for copyright law? And we don't, we really don’t. I know I’ve happily used copyrighted photos and diagrams in almost every lecture, shown bootleg nature videos a lot more than once, and photocopied plenty of articles for lab handouts. None of that ever gave me a second thought. Until now.

I’ve spent the past several months editing an online biology course put together by social authoring – different professors write each chapter and supply illustrations, homework and lab assignments. I was taken aback, no, I was stunned, well actually I was sent into sputtering fits and rants by how often people sent in copyrighted material. They weren’t trying to pull a fast one, they genuinely thought it was okay. Okay to copy definitions because they were just a sentence or two. Okay to use someone else’s chart if they wrote their own description of it. Okay to cut and paste data or directions since they’d been using them for years in their classes.

Once I calmed down a little, I realized that although I did know all of that was illegal, I was not all that up on the details of copyright law. Was what I did in the classroom legal? Or when I posted material on my class web page or emailed information to a student, how about then? I’ve been exploring the convoluted rules of copyright law and fair use and distance education, and am going to share it all with you. Whee! This is the first of a series of blogs on copyright in the classroom. If I confuse you or myself along the way, I hope you’ll speak up.

Let’s start with the basics:

CopyrightU.S. copyright law gives the author of a work the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display all or part of that work for varying periods of time. Material published before 1923 is now in the public domain. Work created in 1978 or later is copyrighted for lifetime of the author plus 70 years. The stuff produced between 1923 and 1978 is in a bit of a gray area. The best bet is to assume anything younger than 1923 is copyrighted unless it specifically says otherwise.

It’s important to note that copyright law protects the expression of ideas, like articles, drawings, and videos, but it doesn’t apply to the ideas themselves. It’s a violation of law to copy a genome map produced by a biotech firm, but it is perfectly legal to describe the genome in your own words.

Public domain – Material in the public domain is a form of public property and it can be copied and reproduced at will, though it is still considered unethical not to attribute the work to the original author. Public domain works include material whose copyright has expired or whose authors have waived some or all of their rights. It’s important to realize putting material out for public view is not the same as putting it in the public domain. Writings and graphics on the internet fall under copyright laws as much as if they were written on paper. Again, it’s best to assume that anything you find online is copyrighted unless it clearly says otherwise.

One thing that often trips up science teachers is how the U.S. government works. Material produced by the federal government and its employees is in the public domain, and a good thing too because they put out some of the best science. But government scientists often collaborate with people who work in the private sector, and they frequently retain the rights to their work even if they grant the government permission to use it in a publication. Make sure you read the fine print.

So those are the basics of copyright and public domain. In later blogs, I’ll cover how you can and can’t use copyrighted material in face-to-face and distance education, the doctrine of fair use, and the TEACH Act.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

What's new in science?

How will I know without the Weekly World News?

In my last blog, I described a couple of ideas for helping students notice how often biology pops up in the news. I think it’s useful because it helps them to see science not as a collection of random facts they have to memorize but as a natural part of their lives. It's just as important for me to keep aware of what is new in science, if I’m going to communicate to my students that the field is full of excitement and promise and is worth pursuing. If I’m not interested in what I’m teaching, they won’t be, either.

I admit it’s not easy. I spend a lot of time in paperwork these days and hardly any in the field or at conferences. I try to keep up with my specialty, but I don’t have a bunch of colleagues to argue with all night over pizza anymore. I don’t have easy access to a great library with the latest journals and books anymore. It can be really tempting to keep using the same course notes, the same examples and illustrations, the same labs as I did last semester or the one before that. But I know I’d be bored, and it would show, if I did. Besides – I love science. I love finding things out. I love reading about discoveries and unexpected connections and even finding out that something I thought I knew is completely wrong. Why else would I be here?

So I keep up with science, as much as I can. Luckily the internet does all the heavy lifting. It’s full of sites that gather and summarize the latest research. My list of bookmarks gets longer all the time, but these are some of my favorites:

Science Daily – the most complete source. It updates several times a day, has separate sections for videos and pictures, and includes reference articles along with the news.

Science News – doesn’t update as often as some of the others, but includes articles aimed specifically at kids

LiveScience – navigation is a little clunky and finding the news takes a little digging, but the columnists are quirky and interesting

These sites are also good places to send students who are looking for research or paper topics, and also those who have shown more than a passing interest in biology. It’ll be hard for many of them to stop at just one click.

Do any of you have other good websites to recommend? If you don’t do it online, how do you keep up with the new ideas and research results in biology?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Breaking Biology: Butter Not

Farewell, sweet peanut.

The widening outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter products is an inconvenience for many and a tragedy for some, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity for teachers to bring biology home. From the details of the investigation to more general explorations, there’s something for everyone in food and food safety. A few obvious starting places for discussion and research include:

Bacterial infections

Immune response

Food safety

Food borne illness

The National Peanut Research Lab (who knew?)

Mostly I teach non-majors, students who need some science credits and take biology or geology simply because they sound less awful than chemistry and physics. They learn it, and they even like it, but it’s a challenge to get them to see that they live it. Events like this outbreak can make the difference.

Even less dramatic news is worth working into the classroom. One of my first college professors brought a newspaper into class every few days and handed out random sections to everyone. The first person who found a story or ad and could make an argument for how it related to material covered in the last lecture got extra credit points. Another gave over a lecture or lab entirely once a month to research and discuss the latest natural disaster (it was California, so there was also something). I often assign students to put together a Breaking Subject Matter News journal over the course of a semester.

Anyone else have ideas on incorporating current events into teaching biology? Do you plan for surprise events in your syllabus or lesson plan, or work them in somehow if they happen?