ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 3

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painting showing an eye

Eye from one of San Francisco’s Balmy Alley murals in the Mission district. 

Still reporting from the session called “Integrated Research and Teaching and Its Benefits to Faculty and Students.” One of the talks that energized me was “The Genomics Education Partnership: An undergraduate team research experience. ” Presented by Mike Wolyniak,  who started with a cheerful comment about how his school does not have the resources of Princeton or Stanford, it shows the possibilites of collaborative research using bioinformatics. Spearheaded by the Biology Dept and Genome Center of Washington University in St. Louis, GEP enables students from a vast array of schools including big name universities, state schools, small liberal colleges, and community colleges to collaborate on large annotation projects. At a course scale, the project enables students to get acquainted with bioinformatics tools and analysis; but taken together it weaves a huge amount of data together, which are in fact publishable. The GEP website is absolutely amazing with all its resources and documents, a goldmine to anybody wishing to learn more about bioinformatics, and open to interested faculty who wish to join the project. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity and hope to be able to participate next year. Great timing, as I have been eager to learn more of bioinformatics.

Later that afternoon I went to the Exhibit Hall to help setting up the poster. Poster-boards stood between the rows of exhibitors, and the section dedicated to education happened to be just by some of the major microscopy companies- in fact some of the most sophisticated varieties, as we had a couple of EM companies and customizable high-end microscopes on one side, and at the end a huge mobile expo of Beckton-Dickinson’s flow cytometers. As a former microscopy person, I was all ooh and aah over some of the toys exhibited. As an educator I could not help but be saddened by how little of this is known by students. I approached some of the big boys (those who do make microscopes for classrooms) and asked about anything for education, but they shook their heads- for this conference they brought only their high end stuff.

So it was such a contrast when I saw two posters, placed coincidentally side by side, of two ways to bring microscopes to every classroom or even to every student. The poster titled: From lab to classroom: Science  with mobile phone microscopes was also featured in an article in the Conference Pressbook. It made me smile as I have seen (and encouraged) my students taking pictures through the microscope using their cell phones- a possible feat, although requiring some adjustments. This innovation, on the other hand, makes the cellphone an actual little microscope.

The poster besides it presented the epitome of elegance and simplicity – especially in contrast to the neighboring behemoths. Manu Prakash’s Foldscope is (quoting from a TED blog): “a completely functional microscope built completely by folding paper. It offers 3 optical stages, illluminating, mask holding, and it works with the standard stains and slides so it’s universal.” The Prakash lab website does not provide much information, and he stated that he did not want the poster to be photographed, as he was still in process of having the results published. I did see the Foldscope, and like everybody else, I was blown away. It is, indeed, a paper microscope, foldable, with a slot for the slide. It can also be used open, with external light, so the image gets projected on a white surface. Moving it closer or further to the surface changes the magnification. It can be adapted also for fluorescence microscopy as judged by the poster pictures. Diagnosis of diseases (mainly those caused by parasites) and education seem to be the main potential uses of this admirable invention.

I thanked Dr. Prakash for working on this kind of innovations. I love the research statements on his lab website at Stanford, especially the one dedicated to Frugal Science.

I feel encouraged by these kind of innovations, technologies that bring knowledge and possibilities within reach of every individual. I hope that within a short time, kids in the Third World will not be only hacking tablets, but also observing bugs and plants under small portable microscopes.

ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 2

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a picture showing an abacus

An abacus- as relevant to today’s math as some of the classical genetics experiments to bioinformatics

My itinerary of the ASCB conference was guided by the Education string, which spread across Sunday and Monday. There were talks and symposia for K-12, undergrad, and graduate education. The main poster session was on Monday.

By the way- the website for the Meeting is extremely well organized, with links to abstracts, program pages, videos, and other goodies.

Among the most memorable talks from an undergrad perspective was David Botstein’s “Integrated introductory science curriculum for undergraduates at Princeton.”  He started with the observation that education of biologists have become less quantitative over the past years (decades?), and many biologists lack the math and computer science background very much needed for current biological research. (The importance of physics was a recurring theme in the meeting, illustrated by the variety of high level microscopy techniques).  To address that, Princeton developed an Integrated science curriculum. Basically, it covers a variety of fundamental topics in biology, math, physics, chemistry, and computer science; which should provide undergrads with a solid foundation to embark on any scientific discipline. One of the golden nuggets I took from his talk was the “Just in time principle,” meaning only teach what is needed at the moment to avoid student confusion. He did mention how difficult was to develop the curriculum to make it so streamlined. The other was the importance to teach only “fundamental,” not “traditional” topics, and as example mentioned some of the classic molecular biology experiments from the 1950s.  And one that really hit home was the comment ‘it is crazy to teach statistics without computers.” In fact, I have taught some statistics without computers- but quickly incorporated programs as it felt, in fact, that it did not make sense to show students how statistics is done in the real world.

Now I want to make it clear that he did not deem useless to teach the history of science experiments in general, but in the case of this particular compressed curriculum.

Another beauty of this curriculum is that computer programming is taught from day 1, including Java and Mathlab. These are very useful tools, and students feel empowered; not to mention that those tools help them to find internships or even jobs.

The next presentation was from Stanford, “Beyond the cookbook: a rigorous, research-based lab course for all.” The Bio44 lab course by Tim Stearns and his team used p53 as an attractive target for student research: to identify mutant alleles of p53 in tumors and figure out what is wrong with them. The presentation started with their goal: to offer a lab course with real experiments, leading edge tools, and modern technology. The techniques used were quite impressive for a student lab: from bioinformatics to western blots including GFP tagging. And the student evaluations made the audience chuckle- some students expressed their frustration at the amount of troubleshooting and repetition that had to be done for success- something scientists are very familiar with.

A common theme of both presentations was the amount of resources and funding needed for such programs and courses. Throughout the education string of the conference it was evident that without generous funding by (among others) the Howard Hughes Institute, NSF, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, many educational innovations could not have happened.

However, there are options open to less privileged institutions….coming in part 3.

ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 1


A poster imitating the Hinger Games at ASCB2012

I was reading The hunger games during the conference, so this poster made me chuckle.

I confess this is my first American Society of Cell Biology meeting, and very probably the last also. It was not my kind of meeting even when I was involved with Cell Biology research: it was just too broad, too “basic;” and more specialized meetings were preferred- cancer, immunology, etc.
My plan this year was to aim at an education conference or a science conference with a strong educational angle (ASM CUE comes to my mind)- am still hoping for it! But it just happened that one of my collaborators at Carnegie-Mellon University’s OLI project,  Anya Goodman, was presenting there, and she proposed a poster about our preliminary data. Thanks to her diligence the abstract was submitted in time, and got accepted. The meeting being in San Francisco, I was able (and happy) to attend.
As anybody attending a research conference knows, a lot of prep work and planning helps getting things done. My goals were to learn about any major cell biology paradigm changes but mainly to connect with other educators involved in science and particularly biology education. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole education string.
Another aspect that surprised me was the openness to non-scientists. The keynote address was open to the general public (upon registration), and the speakers: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Apple and Genentech chairman Arthur Levinson tailored their talks to appeal to both scientists and non-scientists, a difficult feat in which the former was more successful. Chu combined overarching visions with witty humor, explanations of scientific findings with inspirational advice, and achieved a general feeling of elation of having somebody so accomplished and smart in our Administration. I just discovered his talk has been uploaded to youtube.
On the other hand, Levinson’s talk went deeper and was more technical; and while his presentation was exciting to those in the cancer field, it sounded a bit too promotional of their new product. Which is understandable. But maybe not the most appropriate for a keynote speech.
There was a whole corner dedicated to educational resources, of which I snapped up many (and they are still in my to-be-sorted pile), but what was encouraging was the number of books, pamphlets, and talks dedicated to grad students and postdocs who may be considering education as a career path. That this included mainly teaching institutions (even community colleges) is in indication of the reality check of scientific organizations.  In fact, I was very pleased to see at any of the education-related events many students, not only professors.

In the next part (parts?) I will address some of the most memorable talks/presentations I attended.

MOOCs and the vertical LP player

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Vertical turntable.

I started writing this post back in October- after experiencing my first MOOC. They have been discussed all over the place now- from the NYT to the Chronicle of Higher Education and everything in-between.  By the way, those links are only examples: search and you will find. Lots. About. MOOCs.

As I started reading about the topic, a distant memory came back to me: my first visit to Sweden in the late 80s. Wide-eyed and young in my first visit to a Western country, I tried to absorb as much as I could of all the new and exciting things around me. At one of the collaborator’s home, his son (in his early 20s or younger) showed us, Third world visitors, two novelties: a small Macintosh computer where he was playing some rudimentary game, and a vertical LP player. Of those two objects, one moved forward and the other never made it. Looking back to that memory, I recall how I was much more interested in the playfulness of the first than the supposed exquisiteness of the other. Which is surprising as at that time I was much more into music and stereos than computers (personal computers did not arrive to Cuba until some years later).

Somehow this reminds me of the current MOOC madness. And no, I don’t think they are an example of a vertical LP player- I actually think MOOCs are here to stay.

If you have not heard or read about Massive Open Online Courses, well probably your best bet is to google it up. It is not my intention here to do a review of the current MOOC situation…but to comment on some of the controversies and disputes around it.

I have a good opinion about MOOCs because my first was exceptionally good. My opinion “exceptionally goo” is based in my view as an online instructor. I spend a lot of time trying to make my online courses easy to navigate, clear, fair, not too hard but not too easy, connected to real time, responsive, novel…you name it. So taking an online course that was all that and more- the professionally made and perfectly chunked lectures with doodles and little questions interrupting the text to keep our attention; the quizzes that one could not answer by word-searching or googling, the assignments that addressed real life applications with crispy grading rubrics.

Okay, n=1 is not a basis for a scientific opinion. But the truth is, I gained valuable knowledge…for free, in a rather efficient way. Not only that- the course was surrounded by a variety of forums, from a Facebook group to a LinkedIn group, connections occurring in real time between people located in different continents. If I wanted, I could have joined a bunch of meetups close to my geographical locations. It was an energizing experience.

Let’s step back for a second. A lot of people in that course were from developing countries. As somebody coming from a developing country, I know about the power of knowledge. Those online students were empowered, and their energy shone through their postings.

Going back to my original analogy of the vertical turntable versus the primitive videogame on the Mac- did I know? Could I feel the difference in destinies? I did not, I could not. But the game on the Mac, silly as it seemed, it was fun to watch. The vertical turntable was, in a way, boring. Exquisite, refined, but boring.

MOOCs are fun.

Just sayin’.

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