Scientific Stupidity

From a great essay on scientific stupidity:

The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite.

While the essay specifically addresses the change in perspective required to successfully complete a Ph.D., I couldn’t help but to think about the same idea from the standpoint of an undergraduate institution. So much of the focus at this level is on establishing the foundations of modern biology, getting students prepared so that they can begin identifying questions at the frontiers of biology for themselves some day. The ways in which we go about helping to lay those foundations will have a tremendous impact on how easily they make the transition from student to discoverer. If we show them that the things we know today were unknown yesterday, that somebody took a chance and waded into the infinite sea of possible explanations and began rejecting some, then I think we have done our students a service.

Using Poll Everywhere for Classroom Clicker Questions

A couple years ago, we combined 2 of our 3 intro biology courses into a single organismal course, providing me the opportunity to start teaching our introductory cell biology class. When I began working on my prep for the different class, I was interested in introducing more teaching methods that have proven to be so effective in science education over the past decade, but because all of the material was new for me to teach, I defaulted to the more familiar lecture-driven approach. Now that I have been through the course twice, I felt more comfortable trying some of these new approaches this fall.

So what are these “new approaches” I keep alluding to? I mean, for example, things like Just-in-Time teaching, pioneered as a means to teach college physics; clicker questions to test and challenge students during class; more activities during class that enable students to really think and develop understanding of the material, rather than act like scribes and copy down everything I say. I’ll try to write more about my implementation of the first and third approaches later, but I want to focus on my incorporation of clicker questions for now.

My first problem with implementing clicker questions was, I don’t have any clickers. And neither do my students. Instead of asking them to buy one on top of their $169 textbook, I did some research about asking clicker questions without clickers. Most of the options involve the web, as I expected, but one of them, Poll Everywhere, also includes the option for respondents to use text messaging as a means of response. I figured most of my students would be able to get on the web in class, but all of them would at least have their cell phones, so this is the path I chose. Plus, this way maybe they or their parents could deduct the cost of their SMS plan as an educational expense, right?

Poll Everywhere is designed with a number of use cases in mind, including everything from taking a live poll of an anonymous audience to classroom use. Because I wanted to use the response data as part of my students’ grade, I needed to sign up for a paid plan. This allows me to see a list of participants and associate a response with a given student. The registration process for my students went smoothly, I emailed them a special link that took them to an account creation page and automatically associated them with my class. Those students using text messaging to respond had to text a unique code that linked their cell phone to their account.

Now that all of those logistics are settled, it works like a charm. I can pose a question in class and the results show up in real time, just like the purpose-built clickers would but with one big advantage. I can ask open-ended questions in addition to multiple-choice ones, and students can text in their free responses. This works great for big picture kinds of brainstorming, then I can collect all of the responses and, for instance, make a word cloud of them. I have used this to have the class identify the “unifying themes” in biology, and to add a few that they overlooked.

That brings me to my last point, which is the usefulness of this tool. Only two weeks in to the semester, I have seen it uncover 3 misconceptions that I could help the students correct on the spot. The first is the one I mentioned above regarding some themes in biology that students overlooked. The second was a point of confusion between electron orbitals and energy levels (see above). The third was confusion about what an isomer actually is. I am admittedly a novice at constructing sound questions for this kind of assessment, but if I have already found these misconceptions, I’m hopeful that this approach will bear even more fruit as I improve at it.

Inkling Updates Worth Talking About

I have written previously about my impressions of two electronic textbook platforms, CourseSmart and Inkling. Most of my impressions of each platform still stand: CourseSmart has a larger catalog, faithful preservation of the printed page, and lousy legibility; Inkling has better navigation through their ‘card’ metaphor that breaks each chapter into sections, excellent typography and graphics, and a small catalog of titles. I wanted to return to this issue again because, as with all things tech, the picture is evolving quickly.

Inkling just released version 2.0 of their platform just as classes are resuming here on campus, and they are touting the enhanced sharing capabilities as one of the major new features. I suppose if I were a better instructor, I would annotate my copy and share those notes with the world, but I tend to use the book much more as a reference, as I suspect do most of my students, so I’m not sure how critical this feature will prove to be in the sciences. But in playing with the sharing feature even a little bit, it seems too clunky for most of my students to bother with. It isn’t integrated with any existing social networks, instead offering an apparently random collection of users for you to follow, presumably because they have the same text. Alternatively, I could type in an email address to find a specific person, but this seems like reinventing the wheel when I’ve already done that elsewhere.

The big news to me is that, somewhere along the way, Inkling introduced the ability for instructors to request a free copy of one of their titles, which was one of the weaknesses I mentioned in my previous entry. Their hope is that by getting their product in front of instructors, they will gain a recommendation. This is no different than the rest of the textbook publishers providing free desk copies of textbooks for review. In truth, I placed links to all electronic versions of the textbook on my syllabus page this year, but Inkling was the only one I specifically called out on the first day of class, demonstrating some of its nicer features for the class. Why? It offers a great user experience, and it doesn’t expire.