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Monthly Archives: November 2014

Book review: Guns, Germs & Steel

Jared Diamond’s book is a wonderful read because it demonstrates the utility of integrating ideas and information from a huge number of fields in order to try to get a handle on questions such as “why did domestication of plants and animals occur where it did, when it did?” and the symmetric “why did such events not take place earlier or later or elsewhere?”. The text showcases an active curiosity as well as the value of gathering information–and determining what information can illuminate a question. All the pieces are assembled to argue that the titular elements arose as consequences of… lots of food.

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Book review: the Eighth Day of Creation

Horace Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation” (only available used, to my knowledge, but worth every penny and who cares if your copy is a little tattered) was a foundational book for me in the path that lead to my career. It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in how science actually takes place–conversations, inspirations, blind alleys, discovery. A brief book review follows.

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Patterns in scientific discovery: the Periodic Table

While primarily claimed by chemistry (and rightly so, I grudgingly admit), the periodic table is a delightfully clear example of DISCOVERY science and of fundamental importance to an understanding of Biology. I’m creating a distinction here between what I might call ‘fill in the gaps’ science or ‘next steps at the endpoints’ science because I think students are exposed almost exclusively to the latter two. In this usage, discovery science would be discerning a new law or pattern in nature, establishing an ordering principle, or revealing something transcendent. Many of these situations arise because of recognition of ordering patterns; the periodic table is perhaps one of the most clear and readily understood.Periodic table of the elements

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Death by 1000 cuts: Vocabulary in Introductory Biology

Brain in the form of the maze

I have read that the average number of new words of vocabulary in introductory biology textbooks exceeds that found in… a foreign language learning text. This can’t be well-considered; new words are the primary purpose of a foreign language course; they are a barrier to understanding in a Biology course

Some thoughts on how vocabulary in introductory biology is a horrific educational crime, and concrete proposals  about what can be done, as well as available tools, follow

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What’s important about… Key Concepts in Biology

Before we design courses, textbooks, assessments, labs, we need to determine what is important to teachputting puzzle piece in plate in Introductory Biology. I think we’ve failed to do that, or at the very least confused concepts with content. Part of the problem is historical–textbooks are a product of inertia, each new one modeled on the ones that came before rather than initiated de novo to reflect principles in biology or pedagogy. Secondarily, I think a lot of effort in revamping biology curricula is being driven by older efforts in Chemistry and Physics, where a lot of the critical material is more operational and less conceptual. I’m writing this post to lay out one possible schema.

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PatternMaster: Real Scientific Method

Sitting in a classroom, a beginning biology student can easily come away with the impression that the Joy of Science lies in memorizing what is already known… and that historical problem solving and experimentation was about confirming what was obvious or inevitable. This describes no one I have ever worked with, and no lab I’ve ever worked in. The challenge is in delivering the excitement of figuring things out; too many labs are about taking (often stale) data.

PatternMaster (now playable via web/tablet!) lets students make discoveries about how things work using the Scientific Method. To quote the NGSS ‘Crosscutting concepts’:

1. Patterns. Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.

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