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?