Rise in top grades boosts GCSE record

Rise in top grades boosts GCSE record – My son just returned with his GCSE results to a very proud Mum and Dad, and sister, with a clutch of excellent passes in his exams. Very pleased he got an excellent grade in chemistry, although he claims to hate "my" subject.

One thing I will say, is that despite the mathering of the O-level generation, these teenage trials are not easy, they're not dumbed down, and the effort the students have to put in to get the grades is just as much as we did for ours back in the day. Only difference seems to be they waste far less time writing up notes than we ever did! I'll spare his blushes and not list all 11 pass grades ;-)

As you can probably guess, we’re all very proud of the grades achieved. But, on a wider, more philosophical note: Shouldn’t they scrap exams altogether and have ongoing assessment and random intermittent trials of skills and knowledge, character, stamina, you know, like in the real world…

I’ve never understood how s(h)itting yourself in a room for three hours with a sheet of questions and a blank sheet of paper and a pen was meant to assess how good you’d be at any job or activity other than taking exams. More to the point, the timing of exams is the worst you can imagine. 16 years old and forced to ignore your hormones and happy genes to spend endless hours poring over textbooks and notes trying to prep for exams? What were they thinking?

Teaching changes environmental minds

There are many educational and ethical issues regarding the environment and environmentalism that are generally not addressed, especially when it comes to teaching non-science students. Independent environmental services professional and college professor Chyrisse P. Tabone, who is based in Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida has spent several years attempting to find a way to remedy this situation.

Sciencebase covered her work on teaching environmental science some time ago, now in this post we put a few questions to Professor Tabone about her follow-up paper in which she examines a new approach to teaching environmental issues and the responses of a group of students confronted with those problems.

What is the basis of your approach?

I have honed and perfected my non-traditional teaching instruction using “cognitive dissonance” as a motivator and educational tool for the last six years. Creating a purposeful use of dissonance in the classroom is probably the antithesis of traditional pedagogical instruction. However, I believe its cutting edge tactic melds perfectly with the “science/technology/science” approach to science education.

What is cognitive dissonance and how does it relate to issues that cause “upset”?

Cognitive dissonance was first described in “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger in 1956 after profiling and researching a UFO cult in the Midwest. Basically, it is the “emotional pang” or dissonance one feels when observing or experiencing something that goes against one’s moral or ethical grain. It is that nagging feeling or disgust one feels when hearing something that utterly collides with one’s upbringing or inner core values. One can react to such dissonance by either justifying the act or actively pursuing change to “make things right”. I have seen the “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” applied to research relating to criminology, marketing, and nursing but not in the field of education.

What first turned you on to cognitive dissonance as an approach to teaching environmental science?

As a little bit of history, I had the epiphany about using cognitive dissonance as an educational tool one day while opening a piece of mail from PETA. I was formerly a member and got tired of opening mail with photos of abused, caged, or tortured animals. I notice that a lot of groups (even Doctors Without Borders) use these photos to provoke cognitive dissonance so people react as follows: 1) write a cheque or 2) rationalize the situation in one’s head and do nothing. This is why my model is critical to research. It confirms the elements and supports what Festinger (Theory of Cognitive Dissonance) and Lerner’s (Belief in Just World) theories were trying to say!

Where did you test the theory?

The study was performed at a private suburban liberal arts college with a multicultural cross-section of traditional and non-traditional students. The students at the college are required to take a science course for their degree programs and environmental science is offered as this option. Most of the students enter the class with dread and disdain based on prior experience with science or earth science courses taken in high school. They ask “Why do I have to take this stinking science course? I am a [blank] major.” The challenge to an instructor is “How do I motivate non-science majors to like science, especially environmental science?” The ramification of this study exceeds the classroom and enters into mainstream society which is essentially a group of “non-science majors”!

What environmental issues were raised with the group and in what way?

The course consisted of lectures on traditional environmental science and public health topics (required content for the course) through the use of open discussions, films, and YouTube news clips interspersed throughout the four-hour weekly class. Since the tone of the class was often dissonant during serious discussions, humour (e.g. silly animal photos embedded in a serious lecture or moment, “redneck” recycling photos) was invoked to offer a pressure relief valve. The course is really a roller-coaster ride.

What examples of topics were discussed during the study?

We looked at the use of depleted uranium in Bosnia/Croatia, Afghanistan, and Iraq (the film “Poison Dust”). The CHEERS pesticide study in Jacksonville, Florida (about three hours from the college). A contaminated African-American neighbourhood in Brooksville, Florida (about 1 ½ hours north of the college). I gave the students a lot of personal anecdotes since I did pro bono work for the community. We studied the movie “Climate change – An Inconvenient Truth”, which was a real eye-opener for students that can get past having Al Gore as the narrator. Some have bought into the Fox News rhetoric. We investigated the case of a local man who got hassled for installing a plastic lawn, students get very emotional when discussing a grandfather thrown in jail for not wanting a brown lawn.

Were there any other topics?

We also discussed: the case of a local woman who owns a string of apartment complexes arrested for knowingly using unskilled labour (homeless) people to remove asbestos, a known carcinogen, from her buildings; the controversy of Teflon and PFOA, a Class B carcinogen, still being used in products without a warning label; the effects of radiation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki; white phosphorus weapons in Iraq; the bedbug epidemic, the BP oil spill; fracking (the movie “Gasland”); healthcare in the world (the movie “Sicko”).

With what did you task the students?

Students wrote Reaction Papers every week describing their emotions of “disgust” or “anger” with the topics we discussed. Qualitative data was acquired from the reaction papers and observations during classroom discussions. Keywords and themes were derived from the data. Overall, the students seemed to be more interested and moved by the “planted” experimental topics rather than the obligatory mundane science content which was required to meet course objectives.

What, then, does it take to interest students?

Real-world connections, personal relevance and societal relevance! A local story of groundwater contamination means more to a student than contaminated groundwater in a Third World Country. Students relate to facts affecting their personal life-home, family, and health. After doing the “cold memory test” at the end of the school term they recalled the topics which affected them as well as seeming to tie these “memories” to the required science content.

That’s a positive, but does the approach have a lasting effect?

I have bumped into former college students years later who told me “I loved your class. It was never boring. The discussions were great.” When I quizzed them asking, “O.K. What do you remember from the class?” They could actually recite a “laundry list” of topics we studied and discussed. It was very impressive and rewarding as an educator to experience this.

Other than improving understanding does the course affect the students’ daily lives?

During the course (and after) students have expressed sharing information with friends and family, particularly their children. They also get interested in conservation of water at home, recycling at home and even starting programs at work. Some get involved politically, join environmental groups and online networks. I have had students change their major or minor in environmental science after taking the course. I ran into a former interior design student who proudly told me she is designing “green” and incorporating environmental sustainability into her designs. I have seen former students at rallies and protests concerning political causes.

So, conventional approaches are failing, where this approach succeeds?

Traditional environmental science teaching of the “Amazon rainforest, extinction of panda bears or polar bears, and volcanic eruptions” kind do not motivate students to learn more about science. Not discussing current events or shying away from controversy is doing a disservice to the students. Discussing the “elephant in the room” or what educators deem as the “null curriculum” is even more critical today since science has become politically charged. It is important that students, especially non-science majors, have exposure to these topics in a safe, academic setting where they can be thoughtfully presented and discussed.

How do you define a controversy for use in education?

My research set out to define the elements of a controversy and allow the students to “react” to a slew of introduced environmental science and public health topics. Certain topics stood out as “controversial” because they had the key defining element-injustice. Topics concerning injustice, particularly in relation to intentional afflict/abuse, absence of freedom, ignorance, inequality, neglect, and greed stir people’s emotion and evoke degrees of cognitive dissonance. To awaken a student or non-science person, you must get their attention first. Using cognitive dissonance as an educational tool does this.

Does it work for all students?

Most students enjoyed the course and seemed to gain an interest except a minority of self-proclaimed politically conservative students. They reacted in classic Festinger cognitive dissonance fashion by clinging to their scientific misconceptions. These students became even more entrenched in their misconceptions by becoming argumentative at times and hostile in classroom discussions. As Festinger noted, it is much easier to justify a misconception or hang with like-minded people to support a flawed notion than to give up the notion.

Research Blogging IconTabone, C. (2011). Controversial issues in an environmental science course: how do students respond? Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IER.2011.041818

Red, red, red wine and more

Red wine photo by 雷竞技官网 
My four latest science news stories now live on SpectroscopyNOW, kicking off with an item about adulteration and red wine – Various approaches to statistical analysis of spectroscopic data can reveal whether red wine has been adulterated with anthocyanins to artificially improve, “correct”, its red colour.

We also have an item on how to use an inexpensive digital camera to test water samples rather than having to fork out for an atomic absorption spectrophotometer. Researchers in Spain are hoping that a standard digital camera is the perfect alternative to expensive and sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for some analytical applications. They have demonstrated how it can be used to determined potassium and magnesium concentrations and water hardness and validated the results against conventional AAS measurements.

In the world of parasites, spectroscopy can be very useful for revealing their weaknesses. NMR spectroscopy has provided researchers with insights into how parasitic organisms exploit nutrients provided by the host organism. The work could open up a new approach to finding unique drug targets and in the present study, specifically against the tropical parasite Leishmania.

Finally, a whole raft of analytical techniques have been used to work out how metal nanoaparticles form within aluminium alloys. The study could lead to approaches for making tuneable materials for engineering, construction and aeronautics based on nanotechnology.

Diluting homeopathic advertising

Diluting homeopathic advertising HT @SilvianaJ – The Advertising Standards Authority has ordered online homeopathy advertisers to stop making claims that their treatments work. [Because they don't!] The ASA’s remit was extended to regulating websites in March 2011, since when it says it has received more than 150 complaints about claims for the efficacy of homeopathy. While it carries out a “wider investigation” the ASA has told advertisers to delete content that “claims directly or indirectly that homeopathy and homeopathic products can diagnose/treat/help health conditions”.

Billions upon billions

Back in the day, we Brits had big billions. A billion was a million millions. Obviously, the “bi” doubling up the “illion” from million. What else would it be? Well…of course…the Americans wanted to talk bigger still and so made their billion a mere 1000 million. Back then, it was hard to be a millionaire (these days, you just go on TV), but becoming a billionaire was not unthinkable and there are more and more multi-1000-millionaires around these days. Given that financial institutions throw billions around like it’s nobody’s business and national debts amount to trillions (just millions of millions as opposed to millions of millions of millions) and there are hints that quadrillions will soon hit tabloid financial pages.

While musing on the true nature of and its reduced immensity I recalled the journal Nature finally bowing to its American authors and even those beyond the US who were increasingly equating the billion with the depreciated 1000-million. I asked Ruth Francis in the press office if she could dig out the announcement. It took her a couple of days and presumably no little door slamming and the clashing together of editorial heads, but eventually the pre-electronic archives of the journal turned up this little gem. I suspect it was written by the inimitable Henry Gee, but cannot be sure. It’s so brilliantly written, so snarky, yet polite. Nature Chemistry’s Stuart Cantrill just messaged me to suggest it may well have been penned by then Editor John Maddox…

In the issue of Nature dated 2nd July 1992, the journal stated: “…from now on, the English word “billion” will be understood as meaning 10^9 rather than 10^12. It is earnestly hoped that readers will not mistake this upheaval in editorial practice for the witless indulgence of innovation for its own sake. Rather it is a case where tradition [of close to 125 years] has been overwhelmed by others’ usage.”

Ruth affirmed Sciencebase that Nature, like The Economist, defines 1 billion = 1,000 million, 1 trillion = 1,000 billion. “We’re not aware of ever having to use quadrillion, but it would 1,000 trillion,” she told me. With debts mount around the world, that day will come. My late father-in-law who was otherwise financially rather estute was, I am certain, more concerned about the banking crisis and envious of the world’s billionaires by three orders of magnitude than he ought to have been.

As a British child watching Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos, I was awed to the tenth to the 12th degree to imagine those billions upon billions of stars actually being millions of billions upon billions…

Research Blogging IconAnon (1992). Billion bites the dust Nature, 358 (6381), 2-2 DOI: 10.1038/358002b0

Wi-Fi by LED light

Forget Fanny by Gaslight…an LED light went on for German physicist Harald Haas who suggests that we could utilise LED lightbulbs as an alternative route for connecting to the Internet without disrupting the use of those LEDs for simple illumination. You can dim the lights so that they no longer shine but the data transmission is uninterrupted. 10,000 times more bandwidth, infrastructure already in place. Energy savings. Smartphones usually have an LED flashlight function so they can be a transmitter too. Data through illumination! Of course, light doesn’t pass through walls so security is ensured. Applications are beyond imagination at the moment says Haas.


Moving pictures for motoring molecules

Researchers in Japan have used high-speed atomic force microscopy (AFM) to shoot an action movie of the biological molecular motor ATPase. ATPase, an enzyme embedded in cell membranes, produces the cellular fuel molecule ATP. the enzyme has two rotating components, but until now only X-ray crystallography and similar “still” imaging techniques had been used to visualise how it works. The microscopy work provides more evidence of how changes in conformation of the subunits of the enzyme generate the required rotation to produce ATP.

I covered this scientific discovery for the RSC magazine Chemistry World this week and quoted AFM expert Cindy Berrie of Kansas University. Having asked for her detailed opinion on the work, I thought Sciencebase readers would be interested to see what more she had to say about ATP and AFM.

“This work highlights the power of AFM for structural characterization of proteins, particularly dynamic proteins such as the F1 ATPase molecular motor,” she told me. “The question of how protein molecular motors such as the ATPase function and generate torque is a critically important one, which is still not well understood despite extensive biochemical analysis.” She pointed out that AFM provides a powerful tool to begin to study structure and dynamics in motors such as these and the Japanese work clearly indicates that it is possible to observe structural changes of the ATPase motor proteins using AFM. It has the distinct advantages of working in physiological conditions and without having to add a label to the protein, which might otherwise change the dynamic behaviour of the system.

However, Berrie told me that AFM does have limits in terms of the speed of frame capture and resolution that can be obtained. “In this case, the rotation rate observed for this [ATPase enzyme] ring appears to be slow enough to be captured with this technique. However, the rotation of the native enzyme is much faster, and would likely be much more difficult to observe using this imaging method,” she says. “The observation that conformational changes occur without the presence of the subunit in this ATPase system is interesting and will certainly prompt more investigations of the possibility of cooperativity in the ring itself. If confirmed, this would be nice evidence that the ring itself is involved in the asymmetric nucleotide binding.”

The study does not provide a definitive answer as to whether or not torque is generated in the F1-ATPase motor in this way, but it does provide invaluable new insights.

As to the advent of AFM as a powerful technique in molecular biology, Berrie is rather enthusiastic about its potential. “The relatively recent development of high-speed AFM has allowed dynamics of proteins to be monitored using this technique in addition to the structural information typically obtained from AFM,” she told me. “This technique has been previously used to capture time course of conformation and binding in protein systems including GroEL-GroES and others.” Berrie adds that, “The AFM technique used in this paper has been and will continue to be applied to a variety of protein systems and provides detailed structural data that are difficult to obtain using other techniques. These types of investigations will hopefully ultimately lead to a much better understanding of the mechanism by which these motor proteins function.”

“AFM has clearly gained popularity as a tool for investigation of protein structure and dynamics and with the advent of high speed imaging capabilities, the range dynamical processes which can be studied is increasing. AFM as a tool for imaging biological systems has only been employed for the past decade or so and has made significant advancements and contributions during this time,” Berrie says.

Research Blogging IconTakayuki Uchihashi, Ryota Iino, Toshio Ando, & Hiroyuki Noji (2011). High-Speed Atomic Force Microscopy Reveals Rotary Catalysis of Rotorless F1-ATPase Science, 333, 755-758

Chocoholism – good or bad for health?

Chocoholism – good or bad for health? – For chocoholics there are many fair warnings regarding cholesterol, fat etc., but many have devised their own justifications and there is a growing number of research studies pointing to supposed health benefits and even endowing cocoa beans, from which chocolate is derived, as being a “superfruit”. Strictly speaking, cocoa beans are the seeds from the fruit of Theobroma cacao rather than the fruit itself. Intriguingly, however, much of the research currently being touted by public relations companies, rather than academic scientists, has the financial support of well-known chocolate manufacturers behind it. To my mind, that does not bode well for impartiality, regardless of the integrity of the independent scientists involved.

I began the original article with the line “My name is David…and I am a chocoholic”, parodying the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra, as I did so it occurred to me that such flippancy regarding addiction is quite dangerous, and given that the news of the death of Amy Winehouse through drink and drugs problems led me to wax lyrical on our addiction to addiction. A blog post on that subject is scheduled for my August Pivot Points column on The Euroscientist here.

Can YouTube save us from climate change?

New media has rapidly become the mechanism by which information is spread quickly in many walks of life from alerting the public to local traffic incidents, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and celebrity deaths. The likes of Twitter and Facebook have become the first responders to almost every event the world over as well as creating the means by which to bring about political change through activist and rebel groups in the Middle East and elsewhere, for instance.

Tina Askanius of Lund University, Sweden and Julie Uldam of Richmond the American International University in London, explain that one area in which new media could become rather powerful is in activism against the causes of climate change. They explain that in protesting against climate change, online video, available via popular social sites such as YouTube, has become key to articulating the message that the underlying causes of climate change are systemic and political and to connect the solutions to addressing the issues of capitalist production and unfettered consumption of resources.

Writing in the International Journal of Electronic Governance, the researchers explain how the radical wing of the Global Justice Movement (GJM), for instance, utilised video activism to gets its message across during the 15th UN Climate Conference, COP15. The effort was, they suggest, reminiscent of successful alternative media activity that led to mobilisation of large-scale protests around previous World Trade Organization and G8 counter-summits. It also presaged the more recent rallying efforts of revolutionary citizens in nations of the Middle East, such as Egypy, Iran and Libya.

The team specifically focused on the activist network “Never Trust a Cop” (NTAC) , which tried to make use of YouTube to mobilise for protests during the COP15 summit. Their research suggests that the use of new media to help
activists provide rallying information and the call to action in contrast to widely held hopes for social media may play only a minor role in terms of mobilisation for political protests, but that they play an important role in motivating political engagement beyond large-scale protest events, partly through broadcast media’s take-up of spectacular posts in social media.

“One of our main points is that [the study] case (NTAC’s War on Capitalism video) in most ways failed as a mobilisation video – but that it nonetheless served an important role in putting climate change on the anti-capitalist agenda beyond the COP15 protests. One of the ways it did so was by generating critique from the anti-capitalist movement’s ‘enemies’ through traditional mass media coverage – something alternative social media often don’t generate,” Uldam told Sciencebase.

The advent of large-scale hacker networks, such as “Anonymous” and others, which use private, encrypted Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and the development of alternative social media sites not under the purview of corporate concerns such as Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, means that much activism is also occurring well below the internet radar of the authorities.

Historically, new media technologies have been greeted as ground-breaking tools for a revitalisation of the public sphere, the internet being no exception, the team asserts. But, while the grassroots and non-profit sector was previously relegated to the remote margins of the internet, online social media now offers activism the very real possibility of accessing mainstream public spheres. Given the distributed nature and robustness of any network and the generic lack of controlling hierarchy one might imagine that new life is now being breathed into the world of activism across many spheres, including climate change.

Research Blogging IconTina Askanius, & Julie Uldam (2011). Online social media for radical politics: climate change activism on YouTube Int. J. Electronic Governance, 4 (1/2), 69-84

John Cleese does chemistry

The Case of the Sulphuric Acid plant was an educational short movie from 1976 aimed at schools and has as its narrator, Monty Python cast member John Cleese, who also features in animated form thanks to the late, great Tony Hart (of Vision On, Take Hart fame). The movie clip was posted on Youtube by the Royal Society of Chemistry recently after a long-lost reel was tracked down by Eton College and with the permission of ccopyrihht holder Akzo Nobel with legal lubrication by Wendy Warr, apparently. As the title would suggest it tells the tale of a sulfuric acid plant (current IUPAC spelling has f not ph, by the way).

Yes, sadly, I am old enough to recall seeing this short movie in school some time in the 1970s (I would have still been in junior school when it was first released, so I suspect it was shown in high school in the late 1970s, just for the record).

This video was viewed 809 times 4th August 2011, 1740 by 10th September. 3415 as of 31st January 2012.