The Childhood Aquatic

The author's original "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau" book set.

The author’s original “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau” book set.

One my earliest memories is sitting down with my dad as he turned the colorful pages of “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau”. His love for the undersea world was palpable to my young, developing brain. I haven’t thought of these memories in years. Life has a way of getting busy. But recently I stumbled upon these old friends.

I have been trying to organize my life more, so I have decided to tackle my basement.  Boxes upon boxes of material that haven’t been touched for years. My mind is telling me to let them go, but I convinced myself to be absolutely sure there was nothing of priceless value hidden away in those boxes. Who knows, an errant original Van Gogh could be in there.  So there amidst the cardboard boxes was the milk crate containing my “Ocean World of Jacque Cousteau” book set.  I have seen it in its spot a hundred times, but today I noticed something different.  Peeking out ever so slightly from the holes of the milk crate was a very faded, very old, scrap piece of paper diligently holding a place in one of Jacques’ books for the last 25 years.

I became intrigued as it was literally put there by an 8 year old me and hadn’t been touched since, indicating something I found to be of great importance at the time.  So I picked up the book and flipped to the marked page….

“Chapter III. Survival of the Fittest” emblazoned across the top of the page in aquatic blue.  A two toned white and gray map showing the Pacific coast of  South and Central America with a zoomed in window highlighting the Galapagos islands. On the facing page a full color photo of a giant tortoise giving the camera a coy look. This literally marks the first time in my life that I learned the single principle that would dictate the rest of my life.  While the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, the text in the book focuses on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  I have studied evolution for years and it is now the cornerstone of my teaching career. It was buried in the  pages of a 20 volume book set, but 8 year old me was struck by it, and so marked it for reference.  I sat there, reading over the words, memories I forgot existed came flooding back.  Then, as if scripted, I looked up at the rest of the books and saw many more hastingly ripped up scraps of paper marking various pages of significance to a younger, less knowledgable me.

And as I revisited each page and followed the now unrecognizable path of my 8 year old thought process pieces began to fall into place. My whole life suddenly came into clear and perfect focus.

These books shaped my life.  Going through them as a child, page by page, over and over again, mesmerized by the pictures and intrigued by the words, they began to sculpt and shape my brain.  Sure the initial interest was there before the books, but how many children when asked what they want to be when they grow up say “I want to be a vet” or “I want to work with animals”…..and how many do?

Genes are interesting.  You can have the genetics  for a specific trait but if you are never introduced to an environmental stimuli that gene might never get turned on.  For example, the arctic fox is brown in the summer and white in the winter. The simple reason is that the gene that produces melanin (responsible for brown) does not work below a certain temperature and thus no color is produced and you get a white fox.  If you take an arctic fox and keep them in a warm climate they will never turn white.

 

Photo Source: http://jwlloyd.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/arctic-fox_winter_summer.jpg

Photo Source: http://jwlloyd.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/arctic-fox_winter_summer.jpg

So I began to wonder, if I never got those books,  would my interest have subsided?

My dad purchased them at a yard sale when I was around 4 years old. I remember, clearly, sitting on our couch with him and flipping through those books before I could even read.  Looking at the pictures.  I have a clear memory of the  joy I would get seeing that shade of green on the cover of the book because I knew that color meant something I liked was in there (is it coincidence my favorite color is green?)

Then I began to think: why of all things did my dad choose these books? I asked my dad this very question and he replied

“My dad and grandfather were commercial fishermen and I used to sit and watch the Cousteau series on TV with my dad. It was a big event in the house. I bought them because I wanted you to have a connection to the sea, but honestly, I think I bought them for myself knowing I would eventually give them to you”.

In the early seventies, at 17 years old  he purchased an old tank, weight belt, and double-hosed regulator at a yard sale for $125. His first underwater adventure was when “my dad’s fishing boat was tied to the pier and the water was about 12 feet deep. My dad tied a rope around my waist and let me go to the bottom.. I walked around, and when I felt a tug I came back up.”

Did I inherit the genes for science and exploration of the natural world from my father? His career path was exactly the opposite of mine, so I always assumed the answer was no.

But something was in there, because  he was scuba diving before it was really a hobby, and something made him buy those books. There was a seed in there that just never got germinated.

Growing up he did not choose his career path as much as it chose him.  Having to work at a young age and not having a lot of money limits your opportunities, as does having a son at 23.  He didn’t have the freedom to choose as much as the need to support.  He became a laborer, was in a union, experienced injustices in the laborer environment and when he did have the opportunity to choose his own path he became a labor lawyer.

No doubt, largely influenced by his years as a laborer.

What if when he was barely old enough to read someone handed him a set of books about the natural world. If his parents brought home a set of books from a yard sale about outer space.  Would that have triggered the same genes that are responsible for my inquisitiveness?  Would that have been the water needed to germinate that seed? What if he brought me home a set of books about outer space, would I have chosen a very different career in science?

Perhaps if he got those books on space, he would have purchased a telescope instead of an old scuba set and I would have grown up watching him peering into space instead of disappearing below the water.

I sat there, having just realized for the first time the real impact these books have had on me. This is the responsibility we have with young children. As parents, as educators we need to make sure those seeds of science germinate. Never underestimate the value of a lego set, an old microscope, a solar system poster, an old set of books, but most importantly, you.

 

[I previously wrote about these books on a personal blog. This is has been re-edited for the science education audience.]

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Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association received a lot of media attention. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed:

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ

Headlines from Bloomberg, the LA Times and the WSJ | Click to enlarge, click links to read the articles

The media latched onto this “40%” statistic and ran with it, despite the researchers clearly stating that this was not their intention. In fact, from the paper itself, they said (in their conclusions):

Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance. (emphasis mine)

This makes me wonder how many journalists read the article, how many got to the end, and how many just saw what other people had reported and ran with the same headline and narrative.

Here’s the thing – they’re technically correct (the best kind of correct). Yes, childhood obesity dropped 40% based on that report, and if that is true, that is a dramatic decrease. However, that is one group, and even the researchers themselves conclude this may be meaningless. It begs the question why, and if this is an actual association or just an artifact of something else like the type and number of statistical tests used. But since the narrative had already been written, everyone followed suit, and next thing you know we’re all slapping hi fives and proclaiming that there has been a drop off in childhood obesity that may not actually be something worth celebrating.

Now, had the results been portrayed fairly, two things would have happened. For one, the findings would not have been as positive as they are now. In fact, the headlines would have read “Business as usual: Obesity the same for the last decade” or “Obesity up 20% among elderly women!” (The latter refers to the finding that the prevalence of obesity went up among women aged 60 years and older from 31.5% to 38.1%). Secondly, a much more detailed discussion of the study findings would have happened – why has the prevalence stabilized? Have we finally reached saturation? Are all the people who could be obese now obese? Or is something else going on? But these weren’t the findings that were focused on.

The worst outcome of this media exposure won’t be felt right now. It will be felt in the next study. You see, this study in JAMA was reported all over the media, and millions would have heard about how we’ve finally “turned a corner in the childhood obesity epidemic” (to quote the New York Times). Unfortunately, this may not be the case, and if a new study comes out saying the opposite, this further undermines the public’s confidence in science, even though the researchers in question never made any such claim.

And that, dear readers, is the darkest of all lies.

References
Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA, 311(8), 806-814.

Category: Public understanding of science, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

No time for coats: Jupiter is outside.

I only noticed the cold after my fingers had stopped responding.

I wasn’t able to press the camera shutter button any longer. In that 20 degrees F night, I was standing in the sidewalk with Science Online friends, and I had only a party dress on.

We had attended a few days of SciO14 lectures, when the conference attendees gathered for a party. One of the party guests, astrophysicist Katie Mack, bursts through the double doors and approached us with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She had an ominous look in her face. It was urgent. Through background chatter and music, I overheard:

“Jupiter’s four Galilean moons are visible tonight. We got big binoculars and we are going outside.”

Everyone in an audible radius of Katie immediately followed. No questions asked. No time for coats.

DSC03317

A small crowd of Science Online partiers scrambled outside in the sidewalk. One of the attendees set up the giant binoculars on a tripod. The term “binoculars” does not give it justice: the instrument looked more like a small telescope on stilts. (It’s peculiar how Science Online attendees arrive prepared. In their suitcases I found vials of freshly-collected caterpillars, and supersized mascot costumes. Which gives me an idea for my next photographic project. But I digress).

DSC03293

People took turns shivering and looking through the binocular lenses. Every time someone re-joined the crowd, a “just-seen-a-ghost” expression took over their face. An expression I knew very well.

DSC03298

I had felt it growing up, every time I peered through my telescope lenses. My first time feeling part of the global community when I could, like them, see the same comet. Or, years later, about to witness a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, stood in a Florida sidewalk with NASA fans watching the International Space Station flyby.

You finally understand that something is truly, literally, out of this world.

DSC03299

Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io (my favorite) were all brightly visible surrounding Jupiter. I had never seen the moons before. The scene reached its poetic peak when Katie, trembling (cold, giddy, or both?), narrated the story of Galileo’s discovery.

DSC03303

I was not sure I would be able to describe that moment, which is why I had pulled out my camera earlier that night. I had to flash-freeze the “human behind the scientist” scenes I’ve been observing throughout the Science Online conference. Before, I was secretly shown a squirming caterpillar, heard a first-hand speech on lemur costumed gloves, and got pulled out of a party to watch Jupiter.

Those warm and fuzzy Science Online moments can easily make one forget any turmoil.

This community made me feel welcome.

Later I noticed someone had draped a fleece coat over my shoulders.

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Sci-Ed present at Scio14

Tomorrow, Sci-Ed team members Cristina and John start their journey to attend Science Online 2014. The conference starts on the 27th and is packed with science communication topics (in fact, there are so many interesting sessions it makes it difficult to choose). The organizers call this event an “unconference”: attendees are active participants in open forum discussions.

I’ll attend the Non-English Science Communication panel, and both John and I will attend the video workshop, among several other sessions. We’ll also tour the Duke Lemur Center and hopefully see a sideways hopping Sifaka (fingers crossed).

sifaka Duke Lemur Center

Sifaka lemurs, when on the ground, hop sideways. Photo credit: Duke Lemur Center.

 

Feel free to send us questions (@russo_cristina and @paleoromano), and follow us in real time using twitter hashtags #scio14, #sciox, #sciolang, and #scioprep.

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Guest Post: bridging the work-skills gap

Anna Trainer and I share the love for Brontosauruses. Specifically, of Brian Switek’s “My Beloved Brontosaur“: it was during one of Switek’s readings that I first met Anna. We continued to bump into each other in science writing events, and she quickly became my go-to paleontologist. Finally, it dawned on me that it would be great to have her perspective at Sci-Ed. Enjoy her guest post below, and find more information about Anna’s background on the bottom of the post. 

Last November, I observed university professors, school administrators, and employers from large corporations doing something unusual: agreeing with each other.

They were all attendees of The Close It Summit, a conference designed to find creative solutions for the work-skills gap. They were discussing the work-skills gap, an increasingly prevalent problem in the United States. The work-skills gap describes the discrepancy between the highly skilled, often highly technical jobs available and the college graduates with the requisite knowledge to fill them (a problem that greatly affects individuals in STEM fields). The conference brought together educators and employers to brainstorm innovative solutions for addressing these issues. It was a refreshing experience without any of the blame game that usually accompanies discussions about the skills gap. Both educators and employers recognized that the situation must evolve on both sides of the equation for the gap to be closed. Some of the propositions discussed included developing more intensive on-the-job training, offering co-op and internship experiences for students, and providing apprenticeships for high school, vocational school, or community college students.

The Work-Skill Gap: What is the role of educators?

Employers complain that they cannot find skilled workers to fill their vacancies, even when we were in the midst of the economic downturn. They maintain that the American education system is failing to prepare student for careers in highly scientific or technical fields. The reality is that the situation is complex and there is no simple solution. Although employers often blame the education system, educators contend that it is becoming more difficult to prepare students with the specific job skills when budget cuts hamper their efforts. Additionally, there is debate that the fault may lie not with the education system but with employers themselves. One simple solution often recommended by economists would be for employers to offer higher wages in order to get the skill sets they desire; oftentimes, with so many people desperate for jobs, it became easier to complain of a skills gap then to offer higher salaries. Students themselves, some of whom have earned degrees in STEM fields, are left frustrated at their inability to find good jobs. The problem continues to grow, and meanwhile the gap between the highly skilled and well compensated, and the low skilled and poorly compensated worker continues to widen.  Despite these issues, there is evidence that our educational system is not keeping pace with the demands of STEM careers. In a time where access to education should be more prevalent than ever in the United States, with knowledge and resources readily available at the click of a mouse, what is the explanation for the shortage of science, math and problem solving skills in our students?

What does money have to do with it?

The answers may not be the result of a deficiency on the part of education, but instead may be rooted in economics and politics. From pre-school through college, there are socioeconomic barriers to education. For example, preschool is not available to all students, despite the fact that it has been repeatedly demonstrated to be beneficial, both in terms of school performance and eventual socioeconomic status. Teaching has become less attractive as a career option, with teachers rarely being compensated competitively, combined with funding cuts, large class sizes, and ever-intensifying pressure to raise students’ standardized test scores. Barriers to higher education for individuals are difficult to overcome if they were raised in a low or even middle income family. With the costs of college seemingly exponentially on the rise, many people either decide not to go to college at all, or drop out with their degrees unfinished. The result is a young American populous pursuing jobs that they do not have the skills for, applying at companies who have no interest in using their own resources to train them.

It seems that even college graduates are falling further behind. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrated a troubling trend: American students are losing ground to their international peers in math, reading, and problem solving skills. Additionally, current American students are also falling behind earlier generations of Americans on literacy tests, with the current generation testing more poorly than 30 year olds did in 1994.  Another recent report agrees with these trends, citing inadequate education as the driving force behind the skills gap. However, the burden must not be laid solely at the feet of the academic institution. If employers are seeking the students with the best skills for their positions, they need to think of innovative methods for finding and training these workers.

Educators can’t do it alone!

Academic institutions are not designed to be vocational schools. Employers must also be willing to train workers for the jobs they have instead of looking for inexpensive employees who already have the skills. Apprenticeships, internships, and student co-ops are all viable options and should be further pursued across the scientific disciplines, as studies have shown that students with co-op experiences have higher starting salaries and employment rates.  In the meantime, college grads with degrees in the STEM fields will continue working for food in the hopes that the skills they earned in college will be enough for an employer to take a chance on.

The talented and skilled workforce is out there. There are thousands, if not millions, of college grads with the requisite skills for the workplace that are being overlooked by employers. The real difficulty seems to be in getting these individuals connected to the available jobs (and having an employer willing to pay you the wages your skills demand!). Recently, educators and employers have been joining forces to provide students with the necessary training. The Close It Summit is an example of this, but more work is needed, and requires a collaboration of employers, educators, and policy-makers. Opportunities in STEM fields will continue to grow; we just have to ensure that our workforce is given the chance to use their skills, and that those still in school are ready to achieve these opportunities in the future.

 Citations:

  • Barnett, W. Steven. “Benefits of Preschool for All.” National Institute for Early Education Research (2006).
  • Samuel Berlinski, Sebastian Galiani, Marco Manacorda. “Giving children a better start: Preschool attendance and school-age profiles”. Journal of Public Economics (2008)
  •  Munby, Hugh, et al. “Co‐op students’ access to shared knowledge in science‐rich workplaces.” Science education 91.1 (2007): 115-132.

AnnaAnna Trainer is a Biological Anthropologist who enjoys all things related to human evolution and science education. Her recent research includes examining the variation found in the modern human mandible and pondering the age old question of why humans have chins. She has additionally studied hominin occupational behavior in the Middle Paleolithic time period of Central Asia. Anna can be contacted via Twitter at @AnnaKatieT

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Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

Reference:
K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Survival Guide to Snakes in the Classroom.

John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.

John Romano with an Eastern Indigo snake.

My wife is very forgiving which is why I can store my frozen rodents in the freezer. No, we are not dining on these rodents, but the menagerie of snakes in my life are.  In my previous post I discussed the benefits of keeping snakes in the classroom. An animal long stigmatized has the ability to instill confidence and curiosity in students.

I have been keeping snakes since I was in my early teens and worked as a reptile behavior researcher before becoming a teacher. The entry of snakes into my classroom was a natural progression for me and it was because of my vast experience with them that my administrator had no problem allowing them into the classroom. I have discovered science teachers get a little more leeway in acting eccentric. So a snake as a classroom pet is within our realm of normalcy.

In this post I hope to give other educators a good foundation for keeping snakes in their classroom. A classroom pet is always a good way to teach responsibility. Administrators love any outside-the-box methods of teaching. Let them know students will be using this animal not just to learn science, but to learn important life skills like responsibility and compassion.

Your administrator may bring up questions about health risks. Salmonella is often associated with pet reptiles. This can be a bit misleading. Most animals, including pets like hamsters and guinea pigs can carry salmonella, but because turtles are wild caught, and often live in terrariums there is a better chance of salmonella living on their shell. In fact the CDC considers turtles, water frogs, chicks, and ducklings to be risky pets. I have seen all of these animals in classrooms. Most snakes are kept in the same cage setup as hamsters and have little risk of ever having salmonella on their skin. I have been handling snakes for 25 years and admittedly have poor hand washing skills and have never had an issue. I do keep multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom and make sure the students properly sanitize after handling and/or cleaning.

I would wager students are more likely to salmonella in the lunch line than they are from snakes in a classroom.

So how do you get the students interested in taking care of snakes?

Most kids have a natural curiosity that will lead them there. A great way to pique this interest is to handle the snake in front of the students so they can see how easy it is. Modeling is always a great method for teaching students. Once one student comes up and holds the snake others will follow. From this point, when you have students asking to hold the snake is where you begin to add in the caretaking responsibilities. Which believe it or not are minimal. A student needs to changes the water bowl every couple of days or whenever it gets dirty (snakes love pooping in water bowls). When the snake does not defecate in the water bowl spot cleaning needs to be done. Simply taking a paper towel and picking up the feces. Other than feeding (we will get to in a minute) this is all that needs to be done.

I have a rule with my students, you cannot continue to hold and interact with the snakes unless you partake in the care taking process. Of course I let them interact with the snakes before they have any cleaning responsibility, you need to get them hooked. Plus you need to make sure they feel confident going in and out of the cage.

Feeding the snakes is what the students want to see. I do not feed live rodents. I learned my lesson when I was breeding mice for snake consumption and a student came up to me asking where Mocha and Cinnamon had gone. I feed my snakes frozen/thawed rodents. Simple, easy to do, and much cheaper.

I will on occasion feed a live rodent to a snake for students because it is an amazing process to watch. For most students it is like have a nature documentary unfold in front of them.

I do let the students personally feed the snakes, they really love this part. It makes them feel very accomplished to be able to say “I fed a rat to a python”. Which they will often brag to their friends about which will in turn bring more students to me asking to be involved.

I have set up a system where I have one student leader, this year she is a senior. The student leader has proven to me over the course of a year she can handle the animals and is trusted to lead younger students in snake keeping. There are about five other students who come twice a week to take care of the snakes with her. To sweeten the deal they earn community service hours, a requirement at our school.  I am there in case anything happens but I try to step back and let the students own the program. The worst case scenario is a student gets bitten by a snake. This is not a frequent occurrence but it does happen. Usually the end result is them taking a picture of a tiny spec of blood. All of them comment on how little it hurt and they were more scared of the surprise than of the bite. Smaller non venomous snakes don’t really pack any sort of a punch. A paper cut hurts worse than a corn snake bite, but the initial surprise is what frightens most people.

Once bitten, the students lose most of their fear and wear it as a badge of honor.

The most important aspect of making a snake work successfully in your classroom is you. The level of enthusiasm and interest you have dictates the level the students have. If you begin to lose interest in the animal so will the students. But really, who could ever lose interest in a snake?

If you are looking for more information on the nuts and bolts of keeping snakes I highly recommend the website. Kingsnake.com I have been using it for 15 years. It has everything you need from care sheets to breeders to reptile events.

As always, if you have any questions you would like to ask feel free to tweet me @paleoromano. I will be more than happy to answer any questions.

 

 

 

 

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On overcoming writer’s block

This is a cinder block.

This is a cinder block.

The setting is your office. You’re bathed in the dull glow of your computer screen, staring at a blank page in Word, trying to write a paper.

Blink.

Blink.

The cursor is watching you, mocking you, laughing at your inability to get words out.

Blink.

Blink.

Your mind locks up as you wonder “what do I have to say?” The more you try to force out words, the harder it becomes, and eventually the frustration leads to you sitting there, at your desk with your head in your hands, wondering how you’ll ever finish.

Blink.

You then Google “how to overcome writers block” and end up on this post.

The official name for this is the "? block"

The official name for this is the “? block”

Writer’s block is a tough thing to deal with, but one we’ll all have to tackle at some point – either at the start of our training while we’re writing outlines and proposals, at the end when we’re writing up manuscripts and theses, or afterwards, as we’re working on papers and other documents. As science communicators, the toughest part is often figuring out exactly how to begin, and how to frame the core message that we want to get across – a process that can be incredibly frustrating. So the question becomes, how do you deal with it?

Now, I’m going to state the obvious here, but it’s a necessary point: The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Once you start though, it becomes infinitely easier to get content out onto the page. To help you kick start your writing process, I’m going to give you a few tips, and as always, I’d love to hear what you do to overcome writers block when it hits in the comments.

1) Isolate yourself. Remove all distractions – phone, coworkers, cats, get rid of it all. You want to be able to focus exclusively on writing. The fact is that if you have an easy out, you’re more likely to take it, i.e. “I’m stuck, I wonder if anything has changed on Facebook in the past 3 minutes? And this Buzzfeed article seems great, and look at what this cat is doing…” It’s tough to start writing, and removing distractions means you’ll struggle through those tough parts rather than put it off and do something else. You need to power through this part.

2) Talk it out. This one sounds strange, but is one of my favourites and has been hugely effective for me. Occasionally, I’ll close my office door, stand up, and pretend I’m giving a talk about whatever it is I’m writing about. Now only does this get you thinking about the topic at hand, but without the intimidation of the cursor and blank word document staring at you, it is easier to just get your ideas out. Be organic: stand up, pace back and forth, talk like you normally would, and don’t focus on the minutia of your project. Talk about the broad strokes and the flow of your arguments, and see if they helps you over the initial hurdle.

Alternative: Grab a coworker, go for coffee, and outline your paper/idea to them. Tell them their job is not to have a conversation with you – their job is to ask questions and prod you when you get stuck, and help you jump start your writing. Obviously, you owe them coffee/donut(s) for listening to you :)

TUPAC SHAKUR

Tupac Shakur released a song called “My Block” (click to listen)

3) Write an outline. For those who don’t like talking things out, this is an effective alternative. Sketch down the key points you want to make in each paragraph, and write as much information about each paragraph as you can without losing momentum. Even if you do talk it out, this is a good way to conceptualize your work. By the end, you should have something like this:

Paragraph 1: Open with a scene about writers block
Paragraph 2: Describe writers block, transition into list
Paragraph 3: Start outlining key points
etc

This is an engine block.

This is an engine block.

4) Start writing. Don’t think about grammar, phrasing, punctuation or language rules. Just get words out. Ignore word choices, ignore making things sound “professional.” Just get those ideas out and onto the page. At this point you want to have something out there to look at and critique, and hopefully, if you followed steps 1 through 3, you’ve got a few ideas up your sleeve now. Remember: the ideas don’t have to flow. You can write two distinct paragraphs, making two very different points, and that’s fine. You can go back later and fine tune things. Again, all you’re trying to do here is get something out onto the page that you can work with.

5) Do something else. Up until this point, I’ve talked about isolating yourself and focusing on writing. Here, I’m going to suggest leaving it, but with one caveat. Go and do something else that gets you moving, but not something that engages you entirely – something like cooking, cleaning, going for a run, lifting weights etc. Something that allows you to get yourself up, but without taking your full attention. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower, and turns out it’s because of the combination of 1) the release of dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted enough that your subconscious can engage and work on a problem, results in you being more creative (science here)

mutombofingerwag

Dikembe Mutumbo was famous for his ability to block

Before you know it, you’ve got an outline, some body text and a fleshed out idea of what you want to say, and that’s half the battle right there. After you’ve got a skeleton to work with, it becomes a lot easier to start writing, and begin building your arguments.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

This post originally appeared on MrEpidemiology.com

Category: Higher Ed, Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Snakes in a Classroom

snakes in a classroom

 

“Mr. Romano, I finished my work can I go get a snake?”

This often asked question by my students is the reason I became a teacher. More so, I have discovered that snakes can be an unbelievable teaching tool in the classroom. Lessons from Mendelian genetics to evolutionary adaptations reside in the cylindrical body of one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.  I have been keeping snakes in my classroom for well over a decade. I keep a variety of species from my first boa I got at the age of 16 to an Eastern Indigo, a fascinating and protected species of snake.

The biggest reason I keep snakes in the classroom is not just for my enjoyment. I keep many at home as well. The reason is that snakes have the ability to instill confidence. Snakes, like bugs, come with a stigma. A fear that is so deeply rooted in some it is believed to be innate. I have had many students complain about the snakes in my classroom when they first enter my class. The complaints are generally about the inability to focus because they are nervous, but my favorite snake complaint so far in my teaching career was when a student raised his hand and said “Mr. Romano, that snakes keeps looking at me.”

The students may enter the year uncomfortable with the room, but daily exposure to snakes  in a controlled environment soon turns that fear into comfort, and comfort soon becomes curiosity.  Watching the body language of a student change as they hold a snake for the first time is what teaching is all about. Timid, stiff, and shaky when its first put into their hand. Then as the snake calmly moves around and they realize they are actually holding a snake they fight an urge to smile, stand a little taller, and in today’s current age of technology say “Can you take a picture with my phone”.

This is the real essence of teaching science, to develop curiosity and confidence in the student.  This combination provides the foundation for education, especially science education. The drive for inquiry is only as strong as the person’s ability to deal with setbacks. Students are going to face obstacles in both their education and their life. I know my students will face adversity in their pursuit of science in higher education. I may not be able to bring  equality to the world, but I can bring out the confidence in a teenager so they can overcome the inequalities and succeed.

Enter the serpent.

I have been keeping a variety of snakes in my classroom for over a decade. Each student is exposed to the snakes within their own comfort level. Minimally they see the snakes in the cages in the room, and at the other end of the spectrum they will participate in holding and feeding the snakes.  Regardless of where they start, all the students end up shifting forward on the spectrum. Those that were only comfortable viewing them from across the room eventually view them from in front of the cage. Those who were comfortable watching someone hold them eventually end up holding one themselves.

The ultimate reward for me came when one of my students decided to start a reptile club for other students. Saniyyah is a senior and has worked with me for a few years. This year she has gained enough knowledge to work with the snakes unsupervised.

Saniyyah attended Science Online Teen and was in a session about Women in Science being moderated by Hilda Bastian. Hilda asked the students to write something positive someone has said to you on a notecard. I was not in this session, but through the power of twitter I was able to see her response.

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There is grandeur in this style of teaching, that from so simple a form as a snake, endless lessons most inspiring and wonderful have been, and are being learned.

Oh, a snake’s ability to instill confidence is not limited to just students, it works on Phd possessing PLoS Sci-Ed bloggers as well.

Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.

Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.

Next week I will lay out the simple task of acquiring and caring for one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.

 

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Kids ask, scientists answer!

When I was a child I suffered with this puzzling question: if my dreams feel so real, how do I know that life itself is real?

I was not a unique child – many others have the same question. It was only much later, when I was already in college that I came across some of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophical concepts of defining reality. Curious child Evie, however, already got her answer to this same question at 5 years of age:

“Often wdoes my goldfish know who I ame have dreams and they feel so real that we might wonder whether we’re dreaming right now too. It feels like you’re wide awake now, but doesn’t it feel like you’re wide awake in dreams too? How on Earth can you tell the difference? Maybe you’ll wake up in a moment and realize you weren’t reading this book — because it never existed!

 Well, at least you know you’re probably real. Because even if you were having a dream right now, there would have to be a you somewhere who was having that dream about yourself. But before your head starts spinning too fast, here’s the important thought. We only ever really know about the stuff we see and hear and feel, and that’s only a tiny part of what’s around us. (For example, you can’t see what’s happening in the next room, or in someone else’s head.) We can only guess at what’s real from the little bit we know about — and often we get it very wrong. … So even though you’re probably not dreaming, it’s worth remembering that you’re only aware of a small part of what’s real, too.”

That’s how invited guest Derren Brown answered to a kid’s question on the book Does my Goldfish Knows who I am? Big Questions and Instant Answers. Editor Gemma Elwin Harris compiled several kid questions and sought scientists, writers, philosophers and many others to answer them. Other questions include: why do we cry; how does our brain store so much information; whether the universe has an edge; or – my favorite –if animals have accents:

“Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school — which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.”   

Answers like those are not just lovely, but a great way to enchant audiences – I’d even risk say they work for any age, not only for children. Going through the answers might help us – science educators and communicators – with our goal of communicating with clarity and ease.

Finally, I should thank wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Samanta Floor, who first pointed me to the book.  Along with the link, she sent me the comment:  “it reminds me of you answering science questions”.  You just made my day, Samanta, you just made my day.

Samanta Floor scientist and dog

Artist Samanta Floor also illustrates scientists and their dogs.

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