Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


22 July , 2014

I’m still recovering from the weekend. I know that many others are as well, certainly anyone who made it past the reunion proper, and the closing of the speakeasy bar, and the continuation into a couple of the hotel rooms. The room I ended up in reportedly had 25 people — fitting for a 25th reunion, I think. We were part of a group who had spent three years of high school together, and who had then gone on to amass degrees a-plenty from a very impressive list of schools. But, we all hung out into the way wee hours of the morning and talked. Talked about our kids, our plans, our lives. Reminisced about old stories, some of which only one or a few could recall, some of which only one or a few ever had any prior knowledge of.

A spouse in the room who also happens to be a colleague (same field, different school, but in a consortium with the school I am at) asked me how many in our class went into academia. I don’t know the number offhand, but a quick Facebook question turned up at least 10% of the class fitting that description, and I know we’re leaving people out. I suspect that’s higher than the usual high school class.

A word that was used to describe the group attending the reunion by one who knows us well (and has known us since the first fateful day nearly 28 years ago) was “unpretentious.” I like it.

While “what do you do?” was a common question at the reunion, it was not a loaded question. The answer was not judged, as far as I can tell. I talked to surgeons and professors and stay-at-home moms and all sorts of others, it was all good.

And to think, some 28 years ago, we saw ourselves on the pages of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and countless other local Illinois papers — the best and the brightest, they said. Here’s part of the mission — of a high school!

...igniting and nurturing creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition

part of the mission statement

But today — this weekend, at least — gathered together to celebrate 25 years that we were not all together in the same building on the same campus — we were ourselves, and we were not merely the sum of our degrees or of our titles. I’d like to think that it extends beyond this weekend. While yes, I have invoked my degree in certain circumstances, I generally feel uncomfortable doing so. (I am made uncomfortable when my CV gets scrutinized in China, and much made of where my degrees were earned — which has happened much more than I would like.)

Perhaps it’s age-related. But I think it’s more than that. As a group, we have been good at learning things. And I think that many of us have learned how to be comfortable with who we are as individuals. And if you’re comfortable with yourself, you’re less likely to have to rely on that title or that degree to prop yourself up.

That’s enough philosophy and psychology from a tired ecologist.


Great expectations

3 June , 2012

I spent my morning at the 24th commencement of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, at the lovely Paramount Theatre in downtown Aurora, Illinois. I was invited as a member of the charter class, the class that had the very first commencement, in June 1989. I received the invitation as a member of the IMSA Alumni Association Cabinet — with this being the 25th year of IMSA, there was an attempt to get representatives from every one of the 24 graduating classes.

IMSA is a pretty special place. They draw students from the entire state of Illinois, and put them together for three years. What happens there is a lot of academics, a lot of challenges, a lot of opportunities, and a lot of interactions. There’s something about belonging to a place like that… there’s a connection between anyone who is or was there, kind of like the elite colleges, but perhaps even more so, since this takes place during the last three high school years.

Graduation at IMSA is full of lofty ideas. There are high expectations. With a principal who is succumbing to ALS, perhaps someone in this year’s class will be inspired to find a cure, or at least a treatment that allows people to survive in meaningful ways for longer beyond the diagnosis than most currently get. There are alums who have succeeded in nearly any aspect of life that you can think of. And there are alums who have found success in raising a family. One of the speakers today, a young man named Kyle Glasper, spoke of a dream in which he was sitting in the audience 25 years from now, watching as his daughter walked across the stage. I’m not sure that he knew that a few rows out, there sat Melvin Bacani, class of 1990, and his daughter, who will likely walk across that stage next May, as a member of the class of 2013. And I thought of my eight year old son, who will already talk about wanting to go to IMSA, and who is on track as of second grade, as much as such things can be measured in one so young. And I noticed two (or was it three?) sets of twins in this year’s class, and wondered about my three-and-a-half year old identical boys, who seem to be taking after their big brother.

Nobel laureate and IMSA founder Leon Lederman is officially retiring this year. I remember 23 years ago, when he addressed our class (as he had several times previously, but his first time as a Nobel laureate) and told us to move to Paris and fall in love with two people at the same time. I think we were advised to have lunch there with a Zen Buddhist, as well. He didn’t speak today, but he was in the audience. And I think I inadvertently followed the advice to fall in love with two people at the same time, too. Haven’t been to Paris yet, though I have done Berlin, Amsterdam, and Zurich. And if I haven’t had lunch with a zen buddhist, I’m pretty sure i have some as friends now… I also remember attending a lecture he gave at UIUC when I was an undergraduate. A number of us (IMSA alums) hung around to say hi before the talk began, and he either told us then that he would be on his toes knowing we were in the audience, or he might have actually said something to that effect at the beginning of his talk… (yes, this sort of thing is part of what it is, being an IMSA alum…)

Herr Dr. Stark is also retiring this year. He was there when I started. I never took German, but remember being taken to dinner by he and Sra. Lopez with Liz Doyle as a thank you for work service we had been doing. As I recall, we went to Fuddruckers…

Principal Eric McClaren was the commencement speaker this year, but he was unable to attend the commencement. (He was going to attend the reception afterwards on campus.) A video was put together using bits and pieces of other of his speeches and pictures of him at various events. The editing was superb. The sound was originally not functioning, which may have added some needed levity to the situation. It was absolutely wonderful to hear his voice again…

After graduation, I did not go to the reception, but went home to change so I could see part of my oldest’s first baseball game of the summer. He’s not much of an athlete, but he does enjoy team sports, so he plays in the rec league. I only saw one at-bat — he did not hit the ball, but he did a good job of not swinging at the many balls lobbed his way. He and his dad are spending the night at Waterfall Glen with the scout troop, so I haven’t heard how the rest of the game went.

I spent the rest of the day with my twins. Interesting transition — from a lofty graduation, to being with the very here-and-now preschoolers… But, I do have mommy’s boys, all three of them, so it was a good day, all in all.

eTexts and Changing the Classroom

27 February , 2012

I just found this in my Facebook feed:

Five Best Practices for the Flipped Classroom

Ok, I’ll be honest. I get very nervous when I hear education reformists and politicians tout how “incredible” the flipped classroom model, or how it will “solve” many of the problems of education. It doesn’t solve anything. It is a great first step in reframing the role of the teacher in the classroom. It fosters the “guide on the side” mentality and role, rather than that of the “sage of the stage.” It helps move a classroom culture towards student construction of knowledge rather than the teacher having to tell the knowledge to students. Even Salman Khan says that the teacher is now “liberated to communicate with [their students].”

We were talking about this in our discussion today: how do we get students to use their strengths to help them to become effective learners? Well, if you can spend time in class working with students individually, or at least in smaller groups — instead of one big lecture — you can start getting there.

So, how does this relate to eBooks? Well, I moved to an eBook in Ecology at least two years ago. It’s a unique eBook — it’s not a PDF, it’s actually software, with embedded questions, interactive models, and more. (Link: SimUText Ecology, by Simbiotic Software.)

My class isn’t in a computer lab (at 40+, it wouldn’t fit). The software won’t run on an iPad, and I can’t exactly require the students to bring laptops. So, they have to do the work in the text outside of class. In fact, the assignments are due 3-4 hours before class starts. This gives me time to look over the answers, and adjust what I do in class accordingly.

So, what do I do in class? Well, today I did lecture. We’re covering Competition, which involves mathematical models that are more complex than most of my biology or health science majors have seen (and they’re mostly seniors). They didn’t begin those for homework today — they went over basic concepts of competition, and the models are part of Wednesday’s homework. But, after 5 or so years of teaching this, I know that they understand the book better if I’ve walked them through it in class beforehand. The interactive models in this text make it far superior to a static text — I actually told them a few things to try when they work through the unit in the next two days. (Some of the results appear to be counterintuitive when one doesn’t fully understand the model.)

In class next time, I’ll review if needed, or if requested, and then they’ll get a problem set. I like this one: it’s built using data from a lab I’ve used a few times in the associated ecology lab. So the students get real data, and get into building the equations. (Here’s the lab: Exploring the Lotka-Volterra Competition Model… ) The students work in small groups, and I can walk around the room and help them work through it. Even with 42, in groups of 3-4, I can visit with every group, and make sure that everyone is staying on task.

wasps (No wasps are used in the problem set. And when they were in the lab, these wasps are smaller than the fruit flies from genetics lab…)

I’ve flipped the classroom. I don’t lecture every day. I can see where students are — and will give them a homework assignment to take home next time to practice yet more. (And the problem set will be fully worked out and shared on D2L later in the week.)

This is possibly the unit that used to cause the most trouble for my students, and it’s now the one that is most predetermined long before I get here. But, more students seem to be understanding the concepts now. Not all — some will skip the homework, or the pre-class work, or class — and those are the ones I can’t help much. Yes, if they come to office hours, I’ll help, but we know they won’t…

New beginnings, 2012 edition

23 January , 2012

It’s a new semester. The coordinators of our New Media Seminar met today to plan out the coming spring edition of the seminar. If you were in last semester, you have an invite (whether we’ve sent it yet or not!) for this semester. We’re hoping to have a few additional seats, so if you’ve been following along and would like to join in, please contact me, or another one of the organizers asap!

We’ll be moving to a format of one public forum, one open discussion, and two readings each month. The public forum will meet on the first Monday of the month, with the first scheduled for 6 Feb.

Wilson and I spent 10 days in/near Havana, Cuba over the break. What an amazing trip! We were part of a 12-person faculty study tour. While much of the planning for the trip didn’t pan out, the city is an entrancing mix of beauty and ruins. I’ll add a few pics to this post later — my picture hard drive isn’t attached at the moment. (I acted as a sort of unofficial photographer and took over 2500 pictures there!)

Tiles from a wall at the Hotel Sevilla (Habana)

Tiles from a wall at the Hotel Sevilla (Habana)

A view from the restaurant in our hotel.

A view from the restaurant in our hotel.

A picture of two buildings (one tower) from Habana, Cuba.

A picture from the bus ride to our hotel on the first day.

One of my classes this semester is an ACCA course at the Morton Arboretum. We’ll only meet one evening a week until the semester gets going, so I’ve decided to add some online content to keep things interesting. I’ll have a class blog and ask students to participate during the week. (When it warms up, we’ll have Saturday morning labs.) I enjoy this class; the Arboretum is nearby, but I rarely have to go there. This class is a fun excuse to visit far more often!


30 November , 2011
...igniting and nurturing creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition


I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate with much of my schooling, but perhaps especially high school. The statement above is an iPad-taken, slightly blurry picture from the walls of the school — this is a portion of the mission statement. ignite and nurture creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition...

I’m not sure when the mission statement was written, I certainly don’t recall it from my days on campus, but I’m now a member of the alumni board cabinet, and have had reason to visit a few times recently, which gave me a chance to snap the picture.

The beginning of the Learning Webs piece had me thinking back on this place and the goals it has. It is a school — in fact, it’s a (public) residential school for 10-12th graders. But they do experiment with improving education in creative ways — both in their own classrooms, and in outreach programs throughout the state. They’ve been incredibly successful, with sought after afterschool programs and summer camps, and some incredible alumni, including two candidates for public office in this state in the next election cycle.

I’ve toyed with the concept of unschooling/homeschooling for my oldest child. But I have to admit that it’s a daunting idea for working parent — I know people who do it successfully, but I’m not yet convinced that it would be better than the local public school.

And I can’t say that I would advocate the vast unschooling proposed by this author. And I don’t think my concern is addressed at all in this essay. I happened to have a discussion over dinner about creationism and evolution — we’re in the process of searching for three new members of our department, and being a biologist, this is a common topic during interviews. (For the record, the Catholic church has no conflict with evolution.) Indeed,

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (T. Dobzhansky)

so it’s important as a biologist to know that we’re not limited in our teaching of evolution. It’s incredibly disturbing to see what’s happening across the country, with school districts and states trying to impose “intelligent design” into science classrooms. Get rid of the classrooms, and parents and others would be able to spread this largely unchallenged… As this particular candidate found during a class visit to a creation museum, the ideas of the proponents of these “alternative theories” do not hold up to critical thinking evaluation. (The presenters arranged by the museum did a better job of convincing the students of the presenters’ own folly than the instructor felt he did.)

But where is critical thinking in this plan to move learning out of the classroom and into the world?

Well, I think I have enough here to assure a slew of spam hits…

The school with the mission statement above? The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). They’re celebrating their 25th year this year, and I’ll date myself by admitting that I was there when they first opened the doors…

And one last note… why I don’t try to keep up a blog full-time… The past few weeks have been a blur of trying to meet with 100 advisees about the coming semester, and catch up with this semester’s courses, and my two seminar’s readings, and… yeah, this fell by the wayside for a few weeks.

An interactive etext

26 October , 2011

For last week’s New Media discussion, we all read Personal Dynamic Media by Kay and Goldberg. That paper was written in 1977, back when I was in the primary grades… It’s remarkable to read, because so many of the envisioned technologies from this time and earlier are only now beginning to really come to fruition. They were thinking of ways for computers to be used in education — to give immediate feedback and help students to think more creatively about subjects at hand.

But today’s ebooks and etexts largely ignore this path. For the most part, many are simply an electronic rendering of the same printed material in the traditional textbook. it’s frustrating, really, since there is so much promise in digital text: hyperlinks, pictures, control over colors, sizes, zoom… There are fun kids’ ebooks, especially for such devices as the iPad or iPhone. (With a seven year old and two three years olds, I have quite a few…) But I’ve seen less for adults, and even less for academic use.

Picture of ebook on iPad next to print textbook (same title)

The iPad is a bit smaller than the text...

However, I have been using an interactive etext in my upper-level ecology course for over two years now. SimBiotic Software produces something they call SimUText Ecology. They have now eleven chapters that cover the range of a typical ecology text, as well as a selection of simulated labs that could be used as well. There is text, but there are also embedded questions (with immediate feedback), pictures, graphs, and most useful: simulations.

Screen shot of SimUText Ecology

A sample page with a simulation on the right side of the screen.

Pedagogically, this is what an etext should be. The student reads a bit, plays with the model or a scenario for a bit, then answers a question to see if they learned what they were supposed to. Get it wrong? Find out right away, and go back to fix it in your mind. Get it right? Good — keep going!

At this point, it runs as software (so not on mobile devices without Flash), and is sold either directly to students or through the bookstore. The price is comparable to print, even a bit lower. And the student gets to keep the software. (It gets outdated, like print, but does not “expire” like most etexts.) Want more info? Check out their website.


12 October , 2011
Heliconius erato


The butterfly above is Heliconius erato. The picture was taken (by me) in the research space of Larry Gilbert at the Breckinridge Field Station, a part of the University of Texas at Austin.

I like this picture and am using it in this post for much the same reason: Focus. Without the narrow depth of field that I’ve used in this picture, this would be a very busy scene. There are plants and flowers in the background that you can’t really see here due to the level of blur. Some are far away, others are close, but the butterfly and the leaf that its on are really all you can see.

I’ve been struggling with focus for the past week. I’m really enjoying the NMFS reading this week: Computer Lib/Dream Machines by Ted Nelson (1974). I have not been reading with a highlighter in hand (it’s just not something I’ve ever had the habit of doing), but for once, I wish I had — there’s a lot here that I need to go back and re-read, savor, consider, and contemplate. The idea of a computer as a tool for education — and one that could be used to improve education — is still under discussion today. I was struck by his metaphor of dog food kibble as bits of information we feed to kids in schools. I was particularly struck by this line (page 317): “I think that when the real media of the future arrive, the smallest child will know it right away (and perhaps first). That, indeed, should and will be the criterion. When you can’t tear a teeny kid away from the computer screen, we’ll have gotten there.” By that definition, the iOS devices are it. My three year old twins are growing up with this technology (with occasional access to an iPad and iPod Touches), and they intuitively know how to use it, and are very upset when it is taken away (which is part of why the access is very occasional, indeed).

I’ve spent time this week thinking, for other reasons, of the benefits of getting out in, and paying attention to, nature. This means stepping away from the computer, even the laptop. I think that carrying a camera (even a digital one) is allowed, though — hence the opportunity to take a picture like the one above. There’s growing evidence that many of our mental ills of the modern world (ADHD and perhaps also such as anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia) may be exacerbated by the way we’ve filled our lives with indoor and manicured outdoor activities. We don’t often — as kids or as adults — simply go out into the forest or prairie to play, look, observe, attend… And we may be paying a price for that.

I know that I feel better, and can often get more done afterwards, if I take a break and get outdoors. Not just to walk around the campus, but get out to a natural area (on campus or elsewhere) and lose myself in the nature around me. But I don’t do it as often as I should.

So, can we use technology to get back into nature? I have iOS field guides. Some are wonderful. Others leave something to be desired. So yes, I’ve pulled out a device other than a camera in the field. But sometimes it feels like the technology requires more effort, and more time. I was feeling a lot of irony earlier this week, while trying to put together a presentation on the concept of why we need nature, trying to grade an ecology exam — both skipping around the idea of nature, but keeping me from getting out to enjoy it.

And so, the struggle to focus continues…

Engelbart mind dump

5 October , 2011

Some stream of consciousness blogging tonight…

I’m having a hard time reading these “historic” new media papers without thinking on the context on campus recently. Most faculty, and certainly most who wanted them, received an iPad over the summer. While I’ve been using one for over a year, I went from being the sole user in nearly every meeting I went to, to being one of a rather large crowd.

So, with all of these ideas for storing and retrieving information, I keep thinking of just how much information is on my iPad/iPod, and how much more is so easily accessible whenever I’m in the range of a free wi-fi signal. That said, I’m not sure that our ability to process and interpret all of the information is keeping pace with the availability and easy access of ever more information.

Another connection: This essay had me thinking of the productivity method known as GTD, or Getting Things Done (David Allen, Amazon link, one of many sites with more info here: 43 folders). In this system, you effectively devote one page (or card) to each project in your life. You attach to each project the next task (in a very doable, defined way), and you may also attach a context (eg, where it might happen). This seemed to be related to the idea between Engelbart’s cards — where each card has one idea, though it includes any references and connections as well. (As a side note, I aspire to GTD, but by this point in the semester, the only system that really works for me is triage…)

The other aspect that struck me was his discussion of structuring (pg 103, 1st full paragraph):

We usually string Statement B after Statement A, with Statements C, D, E, F, and so on following in that order…

One of my usually courses is a writing intensive senior ecology lab course. One week in lab (just happened to be last week) is devoted to looking at a scientific paper not for the science, but for the structure and the ways information such as statistics are presented effectively. One of the things I point out to them is the futility of trying to put together what is effectively a scientific manuscript by starting at the title and working their way through to the end. One easy way to make that point is to ask them what the abstract is. Of course, they know it’s a summary of the paper as a whole. It’s then easy to point out to them the difficulty in summarizing things that don’t yet exist. To be fair, Engelbart does go on to say that often more complex structures are more useful, and he’s not really talking about anything that ends up in a manuscript. But the tendency to try to start with A, and then work your way through to Z is a strong one.

Edited to add: After posting this, I remembered that I forgot to mention that GTD is all about augmentation. The whole philosophy is that by getting project management out of your head and onto paper (or into a computer or your iPad or wherever else — there’s a whole industry of apps and applications for GTD users), you free your mind up to do the creative work. It’s also supposed to help get rid of clutter, and anyone who has seen my office knows that that would be a good thing.

Monarchs: rough year

28 September , 2011

I subscribe to a Monarch Watch newsletter, and the news this week isn’t very good. This was a fairly low year for monarch butterflies, in terms of the population size. It wouldn’t be that bad, except that on their way to Mexico, they have to pass through the drought-stricken areas of Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. No water means no flowers, which means that the monarchs won’t be able to “tank up” on their way to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. This puts them at greater risk to not make it through the winter… and the Monarch Watch author, Chip Taylor, said:

My expectation is that that the overwintering numbers will be the lowest ever (previous low 1.92 hectares) and that the arriving butterflies will be in relatively poor shape with low fat reserves.

Full link to his blog with more details:

I was wondering what the numbers were like this year. I didn’t see any in my yard this year — we have nectaring plants and milkweeds, so we had lots of visitors like this one (and then caterpillars) last year.

As he states:

Keep your fingers crossed that there are no winter storms in MX that could make matters worse.


24 September , 2011

It’s been one of those weeks. Daytrip to a place 3 hours away on Monday (so 6h of solo driving), events every night except Friday, oh, and a family birthday this weekend. (Or, rather, birthdays, being as it’s the twins’.)

I felt bad about missing a seminar today, until realizing that I’d already been to one seminar each on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week. And I was wondering why my to-do-now list was looking a bit long…

Next week looks calmer on the calendar. It’s the calm before the storm, as the following week is back to back-to-back-to-back evening commitments plus exams to write and then grade.

We read As We May Think by Vannevar Bush for BenNMFSf11 this week. I led the discussion, starting off with a bit of a biography of the man. In reading the essay, I imagined this Bush to be somewhat of a futurist — it reminded me of things I’d read in a senior elective in high school, a class on Futurism taught by the late, great Bernie Hollister. I think I was way off base, though — Bush was a scientist turned administrator, and was a key figure in WWII and the development of the Manhattan Project (and what was to eventually become the National Science Foundation). In doing web research to find out more, I saw how often he was credited with the ideas that became the world wide web, though as I was reading it, I was thinking about how the iPad (really iPads) I’ve been carrying around for the past 15 months are really a portable form of the memex he designed, at least in many of the ways I use it.

I’m intrigued by the idea that gathering all of the information makes it accessible. I can’t remember where I saw it (perhaps in my Twitter feed? Or another blog?), but there are more papers being published nowadays in nearly every field than one person can possibly read in a lifetime. Even given databases and citation webs… it’s so hard to stay on top of it all now. How do we manage the volume of information that’s now available to us?

OK, I need to move on through the to-do list. Next week’s readings are on there somewhere, as are catching up on reading all the other blogs…