X-Mas Men: When Science Teachers Host A Holiday Assembly

Many schools have holiday assemblies that involve singing, historical portrayals, plays, which are usually run by the drama department. But what happens when the science department takes over? Or specifically when two high school science teachers run the show?

X-Mas Men!

Our school is a private boarding school that grants scholarships to students from a limited means background. We have a Lower School (1st – 6th) and an Upper School (7th-12th). The assembly began a few years ago when we were trying to to make sure our students would have a good holiday. Because of the nature of our school’s admissions policy, we have  a lot of families that cannot provide financially for their children.

Our assistant academic dean suggested a Make A Wish idea.The students decorate an ornament with their wish on it and hang it on a tree. The wishes are then collected and the faculty comes together to make them happen. Granting 150-180 wishes with only about 20 educators is no easy task. In fact, our Make A Wish assembly gained recognition by various news groups when a student wished to hug the people of Newtown.

Organizing and granting the wishes are tedious tasks. Our assistant academic dean approached me and another science teacher about running the show. We are both young, enthusiastic, and childless – perfect for the long hours needed to pull this off. As most of you know, science teachers never do anything the easy way. Many became science teachers for the simple reason that we get to blow up, dissect, and infect students with our irrepressible love of science (often times doubling ingredients to reactions to get a bigger result). So how about infusing that spirit into our Holiday assembly?

It took my colleague and I .004 seconds before deciding to don our alter egos and bring some science fiction to a holiday that is severely lacking it. Some fiction is there though, and overlaps with sci-fi: an individual that can bend space-time, defies the laws of physics, and brings gifts to all deserving girls and boys. Seems like Christmas Beast and Wolverine Claus could potentially be plausible hosts for our Holiday Assembly.

Science teachers Scott Sowers (L) and John Romano don their alter egos for the X-Mas Men Assembly.

Science teachers Scott Sowers (L) and John Romano don their alter egos for the X-Mas Men Assembly.

 

The Holiday Assembly was the perfect time to highlight these teachers for the heros they are. I assembled the faculty and laid out the plan: we would film a video introduction called X-Mas Men. I would shoot and edit the video, play it at the beginning of the ceremony, and set the tone of a Holiday assembly straight out of the pages of a Marvel comic. With furried and clawed hands my colleague and I passed out baseball gloves, sketchbooks, breakfast sandwiches, candy, shoes, and a bicycle. 160 gifts in all were delivered to the students by two holiday mutants, backed up by a room full of everyday superheroes.

Teachers aim to bring a better educational experience to their students. They know that they cannot bring  their bad day, personal problems, exhaustion, sickness or anger into the classroom.  Storm may have been talking about teachers when she said “There’s more to it than simply possessing super powers. To be an X-Man means possessing a strength of will – of self identity – that nothing can subvert. For better or worse, being an X-Man means not merely being born a mutant….but a hero.”

Science teachers do not have an off button, we don’t just love our content, we live it. This passion is infectious. The students see grown men and women dressing as their favorite science fiction characters and living out childhood fantasies with genuine enthusiasm. These experiences are important to the development of the student scientist. They discover that science is not something to fear, but something to enjoy.

 

Category: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Insights into Coping with Hearing Impairment within Post-Secondary Education

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne back to the blog to discuss hearing impairment in higher education for her second post (for the first post, click here). For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Previously, I discussed five principles for communicating with hearing-impaired individuals. Now that you are acquainted with some of the communication challenges that hearing impaired individuals face, I want to discuss my experiences as a hearing impaired individual within the context of post-secondary education. I should stress that my experiences might not be reflective of others with hearing loss, as the level of support required will vary considerably between individuals.

My experience in the Classroom and at Conferences
As an undergraduate student, I managed to duck many of the issues that hearing-impaired students face in the classroom. I was lucky in that my level of speech understanding allowed me to get by without formal accommodation so long as I arrived at class early enough to get a seat front and center. However, this is problematic if you have a professor who likes to wander around, or when students ask a question from somewhere in the back row in a large classroom. Occasionally, I would have to ask a friend or a neighbour to fill me in on something. However, because there was a lot of redundancy between the material taught in class and the contents of the textbook, I managed to get by for the most part without any major problems (although there was one exception, which I will get to shortly).

Given my relative ease in coping with hearing loss in the undergraduate classroom, I managed to convince myself that I could make up for all the added challenges of having a hearing impairment without much substantial outside help. Then I started graduate school. Although the classes in graduate school were smaller, I found myself struggling even more because the material was more difficult. As I mentioned previously, the process of compensating for hearing impairment often involves using context and experience (or even the PowerPoint slides) to fill in the missing gaps, but when the material is also challenging, it is difficult to concentrate on both at the same time. Quite simply, I had reached my limit of compensation. To add to this, most of my classes and meetings involved group discussion, so it became essential for me to pay attention to what my peers were saying, which is difficult when everyone is spread out in a large boardroom.

In graduate school, I wasn’t always able to show up early to get the best seat. While most people in undergrad shy away from sitting in the front, it seems that most graduate students prefer to sit at the center of the conference room table (or at least that seems like the natural thing to do when you are one of the first people to arrive in the room). I was extremely shy about asking my peers if I could switch seats with them in the boardroom so I could be in a better position to see everyone. I often did not even bother asking, which compromised my ability to participate in discussion. I eventually recognized that these obstacles were easily surmised once I worked up the courage to ask my peers to trade seats with me, which they were more than willing to do.

Another issue I faced is that listening to someone with an accent is challenging for most people. However, whereas the average person can adapt pretty quickly, this is more difficult for someone with hearing loss, especially if there is noise in the background. In two cases during my undergraduate career, this required me to seek note-taking services for these particular classes. But in the academic or working world, this isn’t always an option. For example, conferences bring researchers together from around the globe, and it can be frustrating for individuals to carry out a conversation with someone you cannot understand. Not only is it also frustrating for them, but they often become self-conscious about their English ability and their accent, which adds awkwardness to a conversation. Secondly, when listening to a speaker with an accent, it is more difficult to follow along, especially when they are talking about a very dense and difficult subject. This is also a problem I’ve encountered in working with ESL clients.

Conference Calls or Online Lectures, or Videos
This domain has really been a test of my advocacy because most of the challenges I encountered here involved the process of obtaining supports for these mediums. I can recall two situations with two different professors over the course of my graduate career. The first one involved my assignment partner and I having to critique a lengthy video we had recorded of us practicing therapeutic techniques in a simulated environment. This required us to record our session using a stationary camera, which made it difficult to see anyone’s lips, and the audio quality wasn’t particularly great either. I asked the professor for video transcription, but this never materialized, which meant that it took my partner and I at least twice as long to critique our video as it should have, since she had to translate everything for me. In hindsight, I felt that I didn’t advocate for myself as much as I should have; if faced with the same situation again, I like to think I’d have acted differently. I didn’t talk about having the transcription as being necessity rather than convenience. Although the professor undoubtedly had good intentions, I walked away feeling that an extension on the assignment wasn’t a fair solution for my partner and myself.

In a second situation, we had an online conference call during one of our classes for a guest lecturer. I had assumed that since we’d be able to see the speaker’s face, it wouldn’t be an issue (and again, I was shy about advocating for myself at the time), but unfortunately, there was too much of a time delay between the audio and the video for it to be effective. Between shifting my attention back and forth between the speaker and the dense slides, I essentially got very little out of it. Thus, the professor and I agreed that we would need to recruit help for the second online guest lecture. In the end, this worked out really well. We moved the class to a classroom that was better equipped to support video, and I received an online transcription in real-time, which was very helpful to me (although not perfect, as they rarely are). However, I must confess that obtaining these supports felt like both a hassle and a struggle for all involved. I was also left with the impression that (at least at first), my professor didn’t appreciate the true extent of my disability and my needs, but in the end I certainly appreciated the efforts that the professor and disability services extended in order to make the lecture accessible to me.

My experiences in the clinic
Clinical or psychoeducational assessments rely on an accurate assessment of a client’s cognitive abilities or achievement. This frequently requires administration of a test where clients have to read out pseudowords (these are not real words but sound like they could be). Differences between syllables and mistakes in pronunciation are very difficult for me to hear (since even a mild hearing loss affects the frequencies in which speech sounds like “s” or “th” are produced). My strategy was to record my client and have someone else check it over at a later time, which usually worked well, and concerns were rarely raised. But this wasn’t always the case.

There is a memory test that requires the individual to repeat back words that he or she was asked to remember. Clients being assessed for dementia or cognitive impairment may make articulation errors that are indicative of a neurological condition, or they may falsely recall a word, instead naming a similar but incorrect word than the one they were asked to remember (for example, in a list containing several animals, they might remember “leopard” instead of “lion”). This case is problematic for someone with a hearing impairment like myself because I often rely on contextual cues for speech understanding. In this case, if I wasn’t sure what I heard, but I knew it was something that started with an ‘l’, based on contextual information, I would deduce that it would be more likely that the client would have said “lion” than another animal that begins with the same letter. But this isn’t always the case. Moreover, certain populations of patients with neurodegenerative disease will mispronounce words in ways that are subtle to even a hearing person, and such mispronunciations are important diagnostic clues. No one questioned the accuracy of my clinical notes and administration until my sixth and final practicum supervisor carefully reviewed the audio tapes that I had always been keeping and noticed that I had made an error in my scoring, even though I was so absolutely sure that I had heard the words correctly.

The apparently infallibility of my hearing ability was upsetting to me. Not only did it force me to think back on how many other errors I might have made in previous assessments, it really challenged my notion of feeling that I could be self-sufficient and minimize any indications that I might be “different”. Although this is a revelation that had been insidiously creeping up on me since I started graduate school (if not much earlier), its full impact didn’t fully manifest until I was forced to confront it directly. The notions of disability and shame that I had quietly developed quickly became disentangled for me.

As difficult as it was for me to hear, the conversation I had with my clinical supervisor dislocated me from my conditioned state of denial. The less I resisted, the more I began to appreciate the extent to which I minimized the physical barriers to my education. I started to see how some of the barriers were self-imposed and the impact of them on my actions; for example, my fear how my peers would react to switching seats with me actually perpetuated feelings of exclusion within a classroom environment because I was too afraid to ask for what I needed. At the time I thought this was okay. A 20-year history of coping without additional supports enabled a false sense of self-sufficiency, one that not only made me even more reluctant to not only seek help, but also to accept it.

Now, I only wonder how many others there who feel similarly. Or worse, I wonder how many people feel ashamed of their disability and don’t even know it.

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

Here at Sci-Ed we started investigating reasons that may explain the fear of bugs. We mentioned repulsion, disease-carrying potential, cultural aversion, and even deeper philosophical issues. Now, we list suggestions to encourage the general public to value insects:

  1. Changing our perception of the bug. Phillip Weinstein recommends we “put insects in a more positive light, and to remove such fears as may be passed on from parents, zoos and museums can play an integral educational role.” At the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, Dan Babbit creates a safe and fun environment for visitors to learn more about insects and arachnids. Which brings me to the next topic…

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.

  2. Creating mesmerizing museum exhibits.  At the Smithsonian’s insect zoo, visitors can face their fears by watching the daily tarantula feedings. Children sit on the floor in expectation, and adults toughen up to touch a cockroach atop a researcher’s hand. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors can watch students and volunteers pin butterflies for the museum’s lepidoptera collection. (An epic collection, housed in a three story building, library-style: each book-sized spot contains one box of butterflies or moths). If you catch curator Andy Warren, you may even get a behind the scenes tour of oddities in the moth and butterfly world.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

  3. Fostering cool class projects, like spidernauts. Babbitt, who keeps a space spider in his freezer, has talked to Sci-Ed earlier about engaging the public and raising their interest in arthropods. Stories like the space spiders brought a lot of attention to those invertebrates. Jumping spiders were sent to the space station and broadcast to thousands of classrooms on Earth. Kids accompanied the arachnid’s journey by observing their own hand-caught spiders. After the experiment was over, one of the spiders, Nefertiti, was flown back to Earth and housed in the Insect Zoo. Visitors who may walk right past a spider exhibit felt compelled to stop and ask about the space spider.

  4. Exploring resources. Websites have resources for kids, such as a bug identification chart (pdf) and “mini-beast” mansion tutorial.   Bloggers such as Alex Wilde and Bug Girl are popularizing the insect topic.

  5. Taking advantage of outreach programs. According to entomologist turned psychologist Jeffrey Lockwood, “About 20 percent of children fearful of spider and insects report learning their aversion from parents”. Kids are not innately afraid. During a visit to the University of Florida Entomology Department, I asked resident expert Stephanie Stocks if she observes the parent effect during school visits. Much like Dan Babbit, Stocks brings zoo bugs in tow. She reported that, up to second grade, children are unanimously curious. Some older kids, however, learned from their parents that they should step back. Arachnologist Chris Buddle visits kids in their classrooms and describes the experience in his blog – along with a powerful call to arms. Buddle states that spending time teaching kids about entomology is always worth it.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.

  6. Participating in pop culture.  Like we said before in Sci-Ed, using storytelling and heroes to teach science won’t hurt. One study (pdf) found, unsurprisingly, that children did much better at identifying Pokémon types as opposed to animal or bug species. Films such as A Bug’s Life and Antz took the anthropomorphic route. In the words of Lockwood, “If turning humans into insects countenances hate, then turning insects into humans has the opposite effect. Artists humanize insect heroes by transforming their alien features into eyes, mouths, heads, and appendages more like our own.”

    A Bug's Life. Photo credit:  Walt Disney Pictures.

    Anthropomorphized insects in A Bug’s Life. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

  7. Keeping a pet bug.  Curator Andy Warren told me he was once afraid of spiders, which sounds like a peculiar setback for an entomologist. Warren conquered his fear after caring for a pet tarantula. One study tracks thousands of children to look into the effects of  keeping an invertebrate pet. The authors observed several benefits from keeping a pet insect that go way beyond loosing fear of bugs and contribute to an expanded view of ecology and science.

I might get a pet beetle myself. And hope that one day we won’t need to start classes by asking if anyone’s afraid of bugs.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

  • Balmford et al. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science 295 (5564): 2367b, 2002.

  • Prokop et al. Effects of keeping animals as pets on children’s concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates. International Journal of Science Education, Vol 30, No 4, 431-449, 2008.

  • Snaddon et al. Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002579 , 2008.

Category: Informal Science Education, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research, Science Museums, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Using Math to make Guinness

William Sealy Gosset, statistician and rebel | Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Let me tell you a story about William Sealy Gosset. William was a Chemistry and Math grad from Oxford University in the class of 1899 (they were partying like it was 1899 back then). After graduating, he took a job with the brewery of Arthur Guinness and Son, where he worked as a mathematician, trying to find the best yields of barley.

But this is where he ran into problems.

One of the most important assumptions in (most) statistical tests is that you have a large enough sample size to create inferences about your data. You can’t make many comments if you only have 1 data point. 3? Maybe. 5? Possibly. Ideally, we want at least 20-30 observations, if not more. It’s why when a goalie in hockey, or a batter in baseball, has a great game, you chalk it up to being a fluke, rather than indicative of their skill. Small sample sizes are much more likely to be affected by chance and thus may not be accurate of the underlying phenomena you’re trying to measure. Gosset, on the other hand, couldn’t create 30+ batches of Guinness in order to do the statistics on them. He had a much smaller sample size, and thus “normal” statistical methods wouldn’t work.

Gosset wouldn’t take this for an answer. He started writing up his thoughts, and examining the error associated with his estimates. However, he ran into problems. His mentor, Karl Pearson, of Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient fame, while supportive, didn’t really appreciate how important the findings were. In addition, Guiness had very strict policies on what their employees could publish, as they were worried about their competitors discovering their trade secrets. So Gosset did what any normal mathematician would.

He published under a pseudonym. In a startlingly rebellious gesture, Gosset published his work in Biometrika titled “The Probable Error of a Mean.” (See, statisticians can be badasses too). The name he used? Student. His paper for the Guinness company became one of the most important statistical discoveries of the day, and the Student’s T-distribution is now an essential part of any introductory statistics course.

======

So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve talked before about the importance of storytelling as a way to frame scientific discovery, and I’ve also talked about the importance of mathematical literacy in a modern society. This piece forms the next part of that spiritual trilogy. Math is typically taught in a very dry, very didactic format – I recite Latin to you, you remember it, I eventually give you a series of questions to answer, and that dictates your grade in the class. Often, you’re only actually in the class because it’s a mandatory credit you need for high school or your degree program. There’s very little “discovery” occurring in the math classroom.

Capturing interest thus becomes of paramount importance to instructors, especially in math which faces a societal stigma of being “dull,” “boring” and “just for nerds.” A quick search for “I hate math” on Twitter yields a new tweet almost every minute from someone expressing those sentiments, sometimes using more “colourful” language (at least they’re expanding their vocabulary?).

There are lots of examples of these sorts of interesting anecdotes about math. The “Scottish book” was a book named after the Scottish Café in Lviv, Ukraine, where mathematicians would leave a potentially unsolvable problem for their colleagues to tackle. Successfully completing these problems would result in you receiving a prize ranging from a bottle of brandy to, I kid you not, a live goose (thanks Mariana for that story!) The Chudnovsky Brothers built a machine in their apartment that calculated Pi to two billion decimal places. I asked for stories on Twitter and @physicsjackson responded with:

Amalie (Emmy) Noether is probably the most famous mathematician you’ve never heard of | Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There’s also the story of Amalie Noether, the architect behind Noether’s theorem, which basically underpins all modern physics. Dr Noether came to prominence at a time when women were largely excluded from academic positions, yet rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential figures of that time, often considered at the same level of brilliance as Marie Curie. Her mathematical/physics contemporaries included David Hilbert, Felix Klein and Albert Einstein, who took up her cause to help her get a permanent position, and often sought out her opinion and thoughts. Indeed, after Einstein stated his theory of general relativity, it was Noether who then took this to the next level and linked time and energy. But don’t take my word for it – Einstein himself said:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.

While stories highlight the importance of these discoveries, they also highlight the diversity that exists within the scientific community. Knowing that the pantheon of science and math heroes includes people who aren’t all “math geniuses” can make math much more engaging and interesting. Finally, telling stories of the people behind math can demystify the science, and engage youth who may not consider math as a career path.

Category: Open science, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science education research, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pardon Me? How to Enable Successful Communication with the Hearing Impaired

Today, Sci-Ed is happy to welcome Rachel Wayne to the blog for the first of three posts to discuss hearing impairment in higher education. For more about Rachel, see the end of this post.

Here are a few things you should know about me: I am a PhD student in clinical psychology. I enjoy writing, hiking, single malt whisky. I love to travel and listen to live music.

I’m also hard of hearing, and have been since birth. I was born to two deaf parents and my sister is hard of hearing as well (Note: Both the terms “deaf” and “hard of hearing” refer to individuals with hearing impairment; those who rely on sign language for communication generally identify as being deaf, whereas hard of hearing refers to those relying primarily on oral speech).

Estimates of the prevalence of hearing impairment in the general population vary dramatically depending on the criteria used. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of permanent, congenital hearing loss in the US is roughly 1% . However, approximately 25% of individuals aged 65-75 years and 70-80% of individuals over the age of 75 suffer from age-related hearing loss.

These are hearing aids that I wear

These are hearing aids that I wear | Click the image to go to the manufacturer’s website

I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss and I wear two hearing aids. In case you’re wondering, no, I can’t hear anything without them. Through a lot of effort and support from my family and speech therapists, most people are largely unaware of my hearing impairment, that is, until we find ourselves in a noisy hallway or café and I ask them to repeat themselves (often numerous times). I’ve encountered some unique challenges during my undergraduate studies, but now that I’m in graduate school, the environment has changed. And the stakes are higher.

In retrospect, I’m very lucky to be where I am, and I’m committed to improving the lives of hearing impaired individuals and students.

In order to understand the perspective of what it’s like for someone with hearing loss both inside and outside of the classroom, it’s important to dispel some common misperceptions about coping with hearing impairment. Below are five key strategies requisite to successful communication with hearing impaired individuals (Please note that most of these points assume that the individual uses oral speech rather than sign language).

1) It’s not just about amplification, it’s about clarity.
I once emailed a well-known psychologist who produces demonstrative therapy videos for students and clinicians. Her DVDs were not subtitled, and as such I could not benefit from having access to them, so I asked if it was possible to obtain a set with subtitles. The response I received from her staff member (who had PhD and thus was academically endowed) was that they did not provide subtitles, but that I might consider listening through a headset so as to increase the volume level. Similarly, in high school, I asked my French teacher to repeat something, and she responded with “turn up your hearing aid”.

Good hearing ability requires both good sensitivity (i.e., level of volume), as well as good acuity. While hearing aids and other assistive listening devices provide a boost in sensitivity (that is, they make sounds louder), they unfortunately don’t compensate for deficits in acuity (meaning that they don’t make sounds clearer or more resolvable). My research supervisor likens this to taking someone who has myopic vision and increasing the brightness of the room without giving them glasses. Thus, as you can see, amplification is only a partial solution to the problem.

2) We need to see your lips.
Because of an inability to rely on auditory input, many hard of hearing and deaf individuals rely heavily on visual speech input (or lip-reading) for speech understanding. We actually all do this, but people who are hard of hearing, like myself, rely on visual speech more than the average person. In fact, you may be surprised to know that many of these individuals can understand you through lip-reading alone! However, it’s important to remember that visual speech is affected by lighting conditions, distance from the speaker, and visual obstructions (like covering your hand with your mouth, which people often do, to be polite while eating). For this reason, it is also considered polite to get the attention of the individual before you start speaking to them. Incidentally, it’s also not a good idea to over-enunciate; we have less experience with exaggerated speech movements, and thus they are often actually more difficult to understand! However, the catch is that everyone’s visual speech looks a bit different, so individuals with accents or less typical speech production movements can be harder to lip-read.

3) Hearing is especially harder when there is background noise
Individuals with hearing loss are significantly more adversely affected by interference from background noise or disruptions. Given the deficits in hearing acuity, it is very difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to separate the target message from the background. Therefore, they have to rely more on context, experience, or informed guesses to understand what’s being said. Which leads to the next point…

4) Speech understanding requires effort
Since those with hearing impairments have to rely on visual information and other sources of information to boost speech understanding, this means that hearing is more effortful in this population. As an analogy, think about trying to hear a conversation in a noisy restaurant or a crowded pub; it’s not as easy as when you’re listening in a quiet room. However, the reality is that most of our conversations (especially outside of the classroom) take place in these environments. In addition, understanding becomes more effortful not just as you increase the background noise, but also as the content of the message becomes more challenging (e.g., think about trying to follow an intense academic discussion in a pub vs. talking about what you ate for dinner last night). Both of these factors draw on your cognitive capacity.

5) Subtitles for Audiovisual Media are Absolutely Necessary
Audiovisual media are largely unsuitable for even someone with mild hearing loss. In the case of voice-over narration or when the camera is facing elsewhere or too far away from the speaker, lip-reading becomes impossible. Even if the camera is focused on the speaker for the entire duration of the clip, the resolution and visual clarity often does not match those of real-life conditions, making lip-reading difficult. This is also complicated by the fact that films or media often have music playing in the background. An analogy I often give is watching a foreign movie in a language for which you aren’t entirely fluent without subtitles. Not very easy or enjoyable is it? Subtitles (or closed captioning) aren’t a luxury for those with hearing impairments; they are a necessity.

In conjunction with the above principles, successful communication with hearing-impaired individuals ultimately relies on sensitivity and patience. You may sometimes forget to employ some of these strategies from time to time, and that’s quite normal. In fact, my friends and colleagues occasionally forget to look at me while speaking, apologetically remarking that they often forget I have a disability. I take this as a great compliment. The suggestion that my disability has faded into the background, I think, is the hallmark of true integration.

References:
1: http://www.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/bod_hearingloss.pdf
2: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001045.htm

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on understanding ways in which we use environmental cues, context, and lip-reading to support conversational speech, particularly in noisy environments. The goal of this research is to provide a foundational basis for empirically supported rehabilitative programs for hearing-impaired individuals. Rachel can be contacted at 8rw16[at]queensu.ca

Category: Equity in science education, Higher Ed, Public understanding of science, Science communication, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Philadelphian in the Galapagos

How one shy student left the inner city to become a world-traveler photographer

“Usually when I think of the city I always think of buildings and police sirens. When I think about being in Ecuador I think about vast lands, mountains, and people….people that are just walking and smiling….”

Zyaira in Ecuador, a vastly different landscape than her native Philadelphia

Zyaira in Ecuador, a vastly different landscape than her native Philadelphia

I couldn’t hide my smile when I heard Zyaira say this. It was one of those moments every teacher lives for. For the last decade, moments like these are what I call my “bonuses”. While some people are paid in money for a job well done, teachers are not. We get something better. We get the reward of changing lives.

Let me back up and give you some context.

I am John Romano, you may remember me from such Sci-Ed guest posts as Science Education through Science Fiction and Creating Scientists in 140 Characters (Thank you Troy McClure). I once researched Komodo Dragon behavior for the Smithsonian, but I realized my calling was in creating future scientists instead of becoming a niche researcher. That was eleven years ago, and quotes like Zyaira’s above are the reason I have never looked back.

I teach at a private boarding school in Philadelphia, but one unlike any you have ever heard of: all the students are there on scholarship and they must come from a single or no parent, low-income background.

Now that we have been introduced, let’s get back to what’s important, Zyaira.

Zyaira was a student of mine. I have known her since the 6th grade, taught her biology in the 10th grade, and she rounded out her science career with my Evolutionary and Comparative Anatomy course in the 12th grade. She was a member of the Creating Scientists in 140 Characters class and it was through Twitter that she found the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic to learn wildlife photography. She applied to the program, got accepted, and based on her financial need had the trip entirely paid for by National Geographic.

I want to let this sink in. A girl who grew up in one of the more dangerous and resource-deprived areas of Philadelphia at the age of 19 traveled to the Galapagos with National Geographic….for free.

zyequator

Zyaira (on left) representing National Geographic at the Equator.

I was dying to sit down with Zyaira to talk about her trip and look at her pictures. She is a  quiet and soft-spoken individual by nature, so I bribed her with lunch and tea for her story and photos. Naturally my first question was animal-related.

John: “What was the first animal you saw when you got the Galapagos?”

Zyaira: “A blue-footed booby”.

I lost it with excitement. I could not believe a student of mine who has seen me perform a perfect blue-footed booby courtship dance in class actually got to see one in the wild.

Settle down John….

John: “Ok, tell me what your favorite animal experience was while there.”

Zyaira: “I was paddle-boarding and a seal came up and splashed me.”

Interview pauses while my brain forms a mental image of this quiet student paddle boarding around the Galapagos playing with seals.

I watched Zyaira tell me her story. This introvert barely spoke in biology classes and not much more as a senior. Her standard classroom presence was tightly seated in her desk, observing the class through glances rarely speaking. Unlike now. Now, her dialogue and body language seemed different. They weren’t the same as I remembered.

John: “Did you ever think…in your time growing up in Philadelphia that you would be paddle boarding, interacting with a seal, near the equator of the earth?”

Zyaira: “No, it was always one of those things that you think about, that you hope… that you say ‘oh man that would be amazing to do one day but you never think that you would actually do it’.”

I continued the interview…. but something was happening.

Remember, Zyaira grew up in a low-income neighborhood with high levels of crime, so much so that playing outside was not a viable option. Escape and experience came in the form of movies and books, not through vacations or traveling. Zyaira had never left the country, never been on a plane, and was never that far from the people she knew and loved. Yet here she was telling me about her interactions with animals – the same animals that Charles Darwin had interactions with – the same experiences I have only had through movies and books.

And it hit me: confidence.

The Galapagos trip wasn’t just a good experience for Zyaira, it was something much bigger. It was part of creating the knowledge that she belongs anywhere in the world, even photographing with National Geographic.

If you are reading this then you care about the education of our future adults, you probably have a role in their development, and you probably helped clear the path for Zyaira to get from the inner city of Philadelphia to a paddle board off the shores of the Galapagos Islands.

Each of us, whether we are teachers or scientists, need to do more than just fill students with content. We need to fill them with confidence, we need to encourage them to set their goals high and then give them the means to reach those goals. I learned very quickly as a teacher that the seemingly most insignificant things like a smile or a“Great job!” end up being a valuable brick in the student’s foundation as a confident and successful individual.

 

Zyaira with National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall.

Zyaira with National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall.

PS: There is so much more amazing content to this story.  I am  trying to gauge interest if people would like to see a  4-6 minute video interview with  Zyaira about this material. Feel free to leave a comment below or let me know via twitter @PaleoRomano

 

Category: Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Heading to #SciWri13!

ScienceWriters 2013! A quick update for all our readers – Cristina and I (Atif) will be in beautiful Gainesville, Florida this week for the National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writers annual conference! I will be speaking on a panel on Saturday November 2nd titled “Take a lesson from the universe: Expand” in the Dogwood room at 11am. I’m excited to be speaking on this panel, along with some of my favourite science communicators in Alan Boyle, Joe Hanson, Matt Shipman and Kirsten “Dr Kiki” Sanford. Thanks also to Clinton Colmenares for organizing this wonderful opportunity and what promises to be an excellent discussion. A description of the session from the program:

Scientists know science. And they’re good at getting science news. Know who’s not? Non-scientists. Yet non-scientists outnumber scientists, and their attitudes, believes, intellects (or not) and their votes help determine science policies, from funding for stem cells to what’s taught in school. The near-extinction of science reporters at local news outlets has created a gap in a steady stream of legitimate, dependable science news. Yet today there are more ways than ever to reach the general public. This session is about expanding your audience beyond the science in crowd. We’ll talk with two young scientists who are passionate about finding new ways to reach new audiences and we’ll explore ideas for how PIOs, freelancers, staff reporters and even scientists themselves can take a lesson from the universe and expand.

If you see either of us around, be sure to say hi! We’ll be at most of the events, and would love to meet you!

This was published simultaneously on Mr Epidemiology

Category: Open science, Public understanding of science, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monstrous Verminous Bug – 7 reasons why we hate bugs

Part I: 7 reasons why we hate bugs

Kafka metamorphosis James Legros

Metamorphosis. Art by James Legros

 

I was in the shower (…) when, out of nowhere, a three inch water bug dropped from the bathroom ceiling and landed at my feet. I admit it: I screamed. Wouldn’t you? (…) And then there we were, the water bug and I, trapped and defenseless and covered in soapsuds (…) One of us was very calm. One of us… began to carefully groom her antennae.” Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia

Even before that day when Gregor Samsa woke up as a monstrous, verminous bug, people have disliked bugs.

The bug hatred can be deleterious for science and for the way the public perceives science. Studies have quantified how people (adults and children) are repulsed by arthropods and do not grasp the invertebrate’s impact in agriculture and our economy. In Part I of our series we’ll try to get to the bottom of the issue before we move on to a plan (on Part II) for how to encourage the public to appreciate bugs. So let’s consider “bugs” arthropods and break down the hatred in a Buzzfeed-type list:

1. Disgust. People are disgusted by bugs, and some argue that this behavior evolved to help us stay away from toxic, poisonous substances. One study mentions that “ugly, slimy, erratic moving animals, including many invertebrates, provoked withdrawal responses among vertebrate neonates, despite no overt or obvious threat.” Arguably, that behavior could help humans stay away from bugs that carry…

Cronenberg's "The Fly" shows the repulsive nature of the human-fly. (Poster by 20th Century Fox)

Cronenberg’s “The Fly” shows the repulsive nature of the human-fly. (Poster by 20th Century Fox)

2. …disease. Many bugs are vector for infectious, potentially fatal diseases. Mosquitoes transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, lice cause typhus, and fleas were responsible for the plague.

3. Dirt. Many bugs are associated with dirt, when it turns out they found the perfect niche to feed from leftovers or remains. Cockroaches evolved eating crumbs in human houses, and maggots act in decomposition.

4. Bite or sting. Some bugs cause harm to humans in the form of toxic or allergic reaction. Spiders specifically get a bad rep for biting and stinging humans, when in fact that is not true. Arachnologist Chris Buddle has written extensively on this topic, going so far to say “If you want to reduce risk, it’s far more dangerous to get in a car than be bitten by a spider.” Rick Vetter debunks spider bites: “every month in California more people are diagnosed as having brown recluse bites than the total number of brown recluse spiders EVER collected in the state.”

5. Culture. However, people might have never been exposed to harmful bugs and yet are still afraid or dislike them. They are trained to do so. This reaction is almost Jungian, already part of collective unconsciousness, even though kids are not innately afraid and even act curious towards bugs. Different cultures even view different bugs differently, such as delicacies or even pets. Still on the topic of spiders, Rick Vetter reiterates reasons of bug hatred on our list:

 “unfortunately, humans have a low tolerance for spiders in their homes, either because spiders are symbols of danger, unkemptness or arachnophobia. Folks want spiders out of their homes because of fear and/or repulsion. The assumed risk of spiders in one’s home is much greater than the actual risk they pose and home owners probably do more harm to themselves by using large amounts of pesticides inside a home to kill spiders than any harm the spiders could actually do to them. (…) phobia is based on people’s willingness to believe the worst about a situation and the sensationalistic news media (…)”

6. Multiplicity. The high number of bugs (50,000 bees or 500,000 ants in one colony, or the fact that there are more than one million species of beetle) intimidates human imagination. According to psychologist James Hillman, it “threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence… Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being.. [and] indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

District 9

Aliens in the film “District 9” are depicted as very bug-like, to keep humans from identifying with them. By Sony Pictures, via.

 7. The Unknown. I saved for last the most abstract of the items in this list. We don’t identify with bugs. Hillman mentions that “for most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien”. Kellert suggests most people associates many bugs with metaphors of madness (perhaps Kafka started it and Cronenberg perpetuated it). Finally, Insectopedia author Hugh Raffles describes:

 ”We simply cannot find ourselves in these creatures. The more we look, the less we know. They are not like us.  They do not respond to acts of love, mercy or remorse.  It is worse than indifference. It is a deep, dead space without reciprocity, recognition or redemption.”

So fear and disgust are definitely there. How do we get kids are more exposed to bugs so they don’t hate them, and become more accepting adults? Stay tuned for Part II of this bug series, when we’ll show several clever initiatives to encourage the public to appreciate bugs.

District 9 sign

“District 9″ by Sony Pictures, via.

References

  1. Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness?PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579
  2. KELLERT, S. R. (1993), Values and Perceptions of Invertebrates. Conservation Biology, 7: 845–855. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1993.740845.x
Category: Public understanding of science, Science communication, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Guest Post: Science Education through Science Fiction

One of our favorite guest contributors, John Romano is back to Sci-Ed! This week he tells us another story from his classroom, where he teaches science to high school kids.

I sometimes wonder why my students don’t get as excited about science as I do. I mean who doesn’t get all worked up by the process of base pairs becoming proteins? I know, I know,  I am preaching to the choir. But I am always looking for ways to get my students excited about science, so this time I used a science fiction movie in my genetics classroom.

I am 35 years old and there is not a day that goes by where I don’t secretly fantasize about the ability to regenerate body parts combined with an adamantium fused skeleton with retractable claws at my disposal. In fact I was told when being knocked out for a medical procedure that I grabbed the IV in my arm and yelled “I will not be part of your Weapon X project!”

I have a very vivid imagination.

Like most scientists I reveled at an early age in science fiction, from comic books to movies, the fictional world of science fueled my drive for science reality. I would love to say that my early hunger for science was fed by the need to make the world a better place, but I would be lying. No, my middle school years were fueled by something much greater. The dream of riding a triceratops to school….preferably to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.

I was a mere 12 years old when Jurassic Park was first published. I was 13 when I finally read it, and I was 15 when it appeared on the big screen. Genetics was not mainstream and DNA was not quite yet a household term. But my parents knew of it, and they were not even scientists, my mom an insurance agent and my dad a heavy equipment operator, had about as much interest in DNA as I did in mortgage rates. They knew of it because I couldn’t shut up about cloning and the methods that will one day allow me to ride “Tank” (the name I bequeathed upon my yet cloned triceratops transport) to work. I was realistic, I knew I would be well out of school before this dream was a reality.

Science Fiction Meets Classroom Reality

The topic of using sci-fistorytelling, and fiction for teaching science was brought up before by Sci-Ed contributor Atif Kukaswadia; and Sci-Ed’s Cristina Russo mentioned using Jurassic Park in her classroom. My first foray into teaching science through science fiction came 10 years ago. I discovered that when teaching genetics and human applications the material was slightly interesting at best to a 15-17 year old. Curing and predicting disease meant very little to an age group that does not fear cancer, alzheimers, or cystic fibrosis. While the X-Men were cool they drifted too far into the waters of pure fiction.

Then I remembered the single greatest genetic engineering movie of all time.

Gattaca.

Gattaca  was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, and starred Jude Law, Ethan Hawk, and Uma Thurman. The film was held in high esteem by critics but received little response from the public.  It explored a futuristic world where genetically engineered humans overlapped with those born of chance, or  “faith births” as they were called. A society where your double helix determined your career and success, where they have “…discrimination down to a science.”

(Pardon the cheesy mid-nineties narration, it is not indicative of the movie.)

In my high school biology class I would ask my students their opinions on genetic engineering. I would get a few strong responses from the students who always give strong responses to questions, but couldn’t quite get a good argument going. Remember this was in the early to mid 2000’s, genetic engineering was still a relatively new term to the average person.

I would give the students impassioned speeches about how in their lifetime choices will be made about the ethics of engineering better humans, how they will be the ones to decide on humanity’s fate as a species.

It raised very few eyebrows.

Then I would show them Gattaca, and a class seemingly indifferent to the ethics of genetic engineering became polarized into a class at odds. Those for it and those against it. Debates developed and through these debates research into the subject matter. Students having seen a possible future through a fictitious movie became motivated to learn the details. The biggest response was to the question “Would you engineer your child if you could?” The class was very polarized, on one extreme you had students who believed you should be able to engineer with freedom, others only for health, and a few believed there should be no engineering at all.

Every year for the last decade I show Gattaca to my classes. I have roughly seen it 40 times. It is a beautiful movie that is arguably a decade before its time. What makes this movie relevant to the students is that every year I watch the movie I notice more and more of it coming true. The ability to predict genetic diseases is giving way to the ability to eradicate genetic diseases. The ability to tell who someone is by their double helix, although basic, is here. Even my wife and I have purchased 23andMe kits to decipher our genetic origins.

Through the power of social media I am still in contact with students who I have taught in the last decade, often times I get a post or message about how the students saw a news report, advertisement, or medical story that took them right back to the movie Gattaca. That because we watched this movie they already had a foundation of knowledge into the science that was being discussed and could make a sound judgement on how they felt about it.

This might be one the strongest responses I have seen. I sort of have mixed emotions about this because most of my students make fun of how excited I get about photosynthesis, but this proves the strength of the film on the long term memory.

We forget, those of us who have an innate love of science, that not all people want to cannonball into the deep end of the science pool.  Some people want to wade through the shallow end just enough to cool off, not completely immerse themselves in it. Movies and books like Jurassic Park and Gattaca are just the hook that can get people to want to swim further out and explore deeper into a life of science.

The trick is, never save anything from the swim back.

Category: Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Sabremetrics and Math: How sports can teach statistics

Statistics.

Math.

Mental arithmatic.

Do those words scare you? If they do, you’re in good company. Mathematical anxiety is a well studied phenomenon that manifests for a number of different reasons. It’s an issue I’ve talked about before at length, and something that frustrates me no end. In my opinion though, one of the biggest culprits behind this is how math alienates people. Lets try an example:

If the average of three distinct positive integers is 22, what is the largest possible value of these three integers?
A: 64
B: 63
C: 33
D: 42
E: 48

Too easy? How about this one:

The average of the integers 24, 6, 12, x and y is 11. What is the value of the sum x + y?

A: 11
B: 17
C: 13
D: 15

I do statistics regularly, and I find these tricky. Not because the underlying math is hard, or that they’re fundamentally “difficult,” but because you have to read the question 3 or 4 times just to figure out what they’re asking. This is exacerbated at higher levels, where you need to first understand the problem, and then understand the math.*

Last week, my colleague Cristina Russo discussed how sports can be used to teach biology. Today I’m going to discuss a personal example, and how I use sports to explain statistics.

One of my main objectives as a statistics instructor is to take “fear” out of the equation (math joke!), and make my students comfortable with the underlying mathematical concepts. I’m not looking for everyone to become a statistician, but I do want them to be able to understand statistics in everyday life. Once they have mastered the underlying concepts, we can then apply them to new and novel situations. Given most of my students are athletically minded or have a basic understanding of sports, this is a logical and reasonable place to start.

Hi, I'm Chris Neil and I'll be your instructor today

The mean number of teeth in adults is 32. The mean number of teeth among hockey players is considerably less | Chris Neil picture source: NHLPA

First, a little backstory. The world of sports has undergone a major shift in the past 20 years. While in the 50s and 60s it was a much smaller enterprise, now it is a multi-million dollar business, where player performance is vitally important. When every dollar counts, you use every tool at your disposal to maximise your assets – including recording everything you can (documented in the book and film Moneyball). Shots, goals, assists, batting averages, yards gained, completions, you name it, there are stats available. But it’s not just owners, management and staff who use this information – armchair fans are now using this information to help them draft the best fantasy team possible – as there is a large amount of money to be won by competing in these leagues. As a result, a lot of data is freely available online.

Let me illustrate this with an example. One of the first concepts people learn about is the difference between mean vs median vs mode.

To reiterate: the mean is the average value, the median is the middle value (which is useful if your data are very skewed), and the mode is the most common value. Typically, this is accompanied by an example of birth weight, or something somewhat relateable. However, it’s hard to understand why there is a difference between these numbers as they are typically the same, as much of the “example” data we use is almost all normally distributed, or is skewed because of some other, usually more convoluted, reason. But not so in the case of sports.

Note: All examples use data on all players from the 2010-2011 NHL season. They were taken from Hockey-Reference, which has a great list of stats on the NHL going all the way back to 1917 (!).

Lets start with age and look at the mean, median and modal values. The mean is 26.6, the median is 26.0 and the mode is 26. Which basically tells us that the mean age of players in the NHL is 26.6, the “middle value” for age is 26, and the most common age is 26. Graphically, it looks like this:

The ages of players in the 2010-11 NHL Season | Data from Hockey-Reference

The ages of players in the 2010-11 NHL Season | Source: Hockey-Reference

Those are all very similar, which makes it difficult to see the difference between the values. However, all students have an intuitive understanding of age – they see most players are 20 to 30 years old, and there are very few who continue to play into their late 30s (except Teemu Selanne, who is actually Benjamin Button).

This changes when we look at another important statistic in hockey – goals. In this case, the mean is 7.5, the median is 4.0 and the mode is 0. This is interesting, as it tells us the “average” number of goals scored in the NHL is 7.5, the median, or “middle value” is 4.0, but the most common value is 0, i.e. a large number of people in the NHL didn’t score any goals. The data are highly skewed, and, more importantly, students can understand why, so they can dedicate their energy in understanding what that skew “means” in statistical terms.

The distribution of goals scored in the 2010-11 NHL season | Source: Hockey-reference

The distribution of goals scored in the 2010-11 NHL season | Source: Hockey-reference

Here, the concept of “skew” is very clear, and you can see that the most common number of goals scored in the NHL is 0, i.e. many players didn’t score any goals at all! This is considerably easier to understand than an example on blood pressure, birth weights, or mileage on cars, and takes the intimidation factor out of statistics.

This is one example of how sports can be used to highlight a statistical concept that I find students struggle with. However, here’s where the real power of sports stats comes in handy: You can scale this up to cover advanced concepts. You want to compare means between groups, (i.e. t-tests)? You can calculate the mean number of goals scored by forwards and defencemen and compare them (forwards score more goals). Need to do a chi-square test? Look at the number of forwards and defencemen on each team and if different teams have different numbers (they don’t). Need to talk about regression? Why not model goals scored and how much time on ice you get to see if more time results in more goals. The possibilities keep going from there.**

The thing I like the most about this is how accessible this makes things. Take away the intimidating part of math, and all of a sudden it’s not nearly as scary. You can change sports to pretty much anything else – baseball, football (association or gridiron),  or even other widely available databases – movie revenue by genre, number of albums sold by pop artists, voter turnout in recent elections, whatever connects with your students. Once you’ve made the example relatable and have removed the “fear” part of the statistics equation, math can suddenly become much more interesting and engaging to students. And once they’re engaged, learning will become that much easier.

=====

*I should point out: I’m not against difficult problems, as comprehension is an important skill to develop in order to apply statistics to new and novel situations. But lets leave that for another day, and not start there. The way we teach statistics and math now is like asking a toddler to do cartwheels on a balance beam above a lake of hungry alligators before they can walk.

**If you would like me to provide webinars/slideshares on statistical concepts in future posts, let me know in the comments.

Category: Higher Ed, Open science, Public understanding of science, Science teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments