Monday, February 20, 2006

An attempt at communicating science to lay audience on a blog

Last night I wrote a long post on Circadiana about a new study linking Lithium, Circadian Clocks and Bipolar Disorder. I wrote that post while having fresh in my mind the recent discussions about the strategies that scientists can use to communicate their findings to the lay audience.

Thus, I tried to write that post, although it is about a paper that describes yet another little detail in the complexity of nitty-gritty details of the circadian clock, with lay audience in mind. This is what I tried to do, and you tell me if I succeeded or not, and if not, what I could have done better:

First, with the title and the first paragraph or two, I tried to hook the audience. People love diseases, so I put Bipolar Disorder right up front.

Then, I provided a little bit of historical background which also highlights some aspects of scientific method, specifically the differences in approach between the time when a new discipline just begins and later when the discipline is mature.

Next, I showed how two seemingly distant areas of research got connected to each other and briefly highlighted a couple of studies provoked by the realization of that connection.

Then, in order to be able to explain the new paper, I went all the way back to BIO101 and explained briefly how transcription and translation work. I covered only those aspects of it that are relevant to the main story, leaving much detail out. I tried to leave the specialized terminology out as well. Actually, those few terms that I used I tried to slyly slide in without drawing attention to the fact that those words are specialized scientific terms. First time I use a term, I use it in a colloquial manner (though correctly), and the second time I use it in a more conventional way, but with no fuss (and no italics or bold either). Do not scare people with language!

I then moved on to the description of the molecular mechanism of the mammalian circadian clock. Again, I only cover aspects of it that are essential for understanding the new research, leaving a lot of details out. I use the terminology I just explained in the preceeding paragraphs exactly in the way I used them there.

At the end of that portion of the post, I feel that the reader naturally comes to the correct question that needs to be asked (I am leading the reader there all along) and then show that the new paper addresses exactly that question. The paper itself is full of difficult detail. I omit all that and describe, in simplest possible terms, the main gist of the paper, and how it connects lithium to circadian clocks to Bipolar Disorder.

I placed a lot of pictures in the post that should help the reader visualize and understand what I am saying. I also provide links for people who want to learn more.

Let me know how YOU felt when reading that and if you think some aspects of the presentation can be improved and in what way.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Teaching Carnival - Science Edition

The sixth edition of the Teaching Carnival is up on Science And Politics.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Teaching Biology To Adults

I teach Biology at a community college, but not on the main campus. Instead, I teach at a satellite campus dedicated to adult education. Those are all accelerated courses, which means that classes meet for about three hours once a week, either in the evening or on Saturday, and the classes last five, eight or twelve weeks.

Biology lasts eight weeks, although I teach the Lab over four weeks, doubling the face-time each week - that way more gets done, students are happier, and if an experiment does not work out well, it is no big deal because it is not the only exercise of the day.

One of the problems that all of us on the satellite campus have to deal with is the requirement that our classes exactly mirror the classes taught on the main campus, using exactly the same syllabus. This means that material taught for a whole semester has to be completely covered in eight (or five or twelve) sittings.

We deal with it in creative ways, trying not to get our students' heads to explode, but it is not easy. Unfortunately, the main campus administration appears to be adamant about this, and the satellite campus administration appears to be too timid to even voice some protest, let alone do something about it.

The duration of the class is not the only problem. We also have a very different audience. While main campus has a number of majors, we offer only four, stuff like business and computers. Thus, my biology class, which is designed for biology majors, never has biology majors in it.

The age difference is another factor. My students are adults, with jobs and families, with life experience, with little money and even less time. Often they go to school because their employers ask them to do so (and pay for their tuition) if they want that promotion (or not to get laid-off). Main campus caters to the more traditional crowd of 20-year old kids whose only job is to go to school.

Another difference is in their educational background. My students got out of high school many years ago. If they had biology at all, they remember it as boring rote memorization of Krebs cycles, flower parts, human anatomy and classification of invertebrates, with no mention of evolution at all. They come to my classroom with fear. The current crop of high-school graduates has had much better science instruction and approaches biology with eager anticipation.

My main goal, something often thwarted by the requirements of the syllabus, is to show the students that biology is fun, that science is not a monolithic body of knowledge but a method and a process, that evolution is the only way to explain everything and anything in biology, and that the class is not as hard as they feared it would be.

As non-science majors they really do not need to know the details of the life cycles of ferns and mosses - the time taken up with that boring nitty-gritty detail would be better used in covering some Big Picture aspects of the course, for instance its relevance to daily life.

As I have written before, I like to use diseases as entry points into each lecture, as well as the glue that connects the disparate topics together (you will see how if you click on that link).

If I had the freedom to design my own course, I would start each topic with a discussion of an assigned article from the media, covering topics from AIDS to Mad Cow Disease, from Intelligent Design to environmental protection, from cloning to stem cell research, etc. This immediately makes the material relevant as these topics are hot and my students are quite likely to be interested in them.

This initial discussion would be a good way for me to gauge what misperceptions my students have. Then, I can lead the discussion in the direction I want it to go, that is, to the point where I say :"OK, now listen up, I will now explain in more detail the science underlying this topic". That would be the cue for them to sit back and pay attention, perhaps take notes, as I am about to lunge into a lecture on whatever the topic of the day is.

Actually, now that I think about it, that wouldn't be a bad method for teaching science majors either. What do you think?

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Are you teaching in college AND you are a blogger?

I will be hosting the sixth edition of the Teaching Carnival on Science And Politics (my 'home' blog) on February 15th, 2006. Unlike Carnival of Education which covers all aspects of teaching at all levels, this one is focused on Higher Ed.

As a lot of science bloggers read my blogs and a certain proportion of them teach at the University level, I hope to strengthen the science section of the carnival next month. Hopefully some of my neighbors, the North Carolina bloggers, will see this post and contribute their posts, too. Also, posts about higher ed from students' perspective are welcome. English-language posts only, please.

There are a couple of different ways to submit your entries. The easiest, most direct way is to e-mail me the Permalink at:
Coturnix1 AT aol DOT com.
You'll get a thank-you note and thus be sure that I have received it.

You can also try to submit via the submission form at, but I do not know who will receieve it and if it is guaranteed I will get it on time.

The best way to submit, the way favoured by the folks running this carnival, is to tag your posts with the teaching-carnival tag. If you do not know how to tag a post, you can go here for an explanation and the exact code.

I will, starting about tomorrow and ending about two hours before posting the carnival, search the tags, Technorati tags and Technorati search for posts written and tagged since the last edition went up on January 15th, 2006.

Also, feel free to recommend other bloggers' posts to me to the above e-mail address. You can check the previous editions of the Teaching Carnival in the archives on the sidebar of the carnival homepage.

I will move this post to the top every now and then as a reminder to all of you to write and submit a post dealing with college teaching!

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