Visualizing and teaching evolution through synteny

Embracing the rationalist and empirically-based perspective of science is not easy. Modern science generates disconcerting ideas that can be difficult to accept and often upsetting to philosophical or religious views of what gives meaning to existence [link]. In the context of evolutionary mechanisms within biology, the fact that variation is generated by random (stochastic) events, unpredictable at the level of the individual or within small populations, led to the rejection of Darwinian principles by many working scientists around the turn of the 20th century (see Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism + link).  Educational research studies, such as our own “Understanding randomness and its impact on student learning“, reinforce the fact that ideas involving stochastic processes are relevant to evolutionary, as well as cellular and molecular, biology and are inherently difficult for people to accept (see also: Why being human makes evolution hard to understand). Yet there is no escape from the science-based conclusion that stochastic events provide the raw material upon which evolutionary mechanisms act, as well as playing a key role in a wide range of molecular and cellular level processes, including the origin of various diseases, particularly cancer [Cancer is partly caused by bad luck](1).

All of which leaves the critical question, at least for educators, of how to best teach students about evolutionary mechanisms and outcomes. The problem becomes all the more urgent given the anti-science posturing of politicians and public “intellectuals”, on both the right and the left, together with various overt and covert attacks on the integrity of science education, such as a new Florida law that lets “anyone in Florida challenge what’s taught in schools”.

Just to be clear, we are not looking for students to simply “believe” in the role of evolutionary processes in generating the diversity of life on Earth, but rather that they develop an understanding of how such processes work and how they make a wide range of observations scientifically intelligible. Of course the end result, unless you are prepared to abandon science altogether, is that you will find yourself forced to seriously consider the implications of unescapable scientific conclusions, no matter how weird and disconcerting they may be.

There are a number of educational strategies, in part depending upon one’s disciplinary perspective, on how to approach teaching evolutionary processes. Here I consider just one, based on my background in cell and molecular biology.  Genomicus is a web tool that “enables users to navigate in genomes in several dimensions: linearly along chromosome axes, transversely across different species, and chronologically along evolutionary time.”  It is one of a number of recently developed web-based resources that make it possible to use the avalanche of DNA (gene and genomic) sequence data being generated by the scientific community. For example, the ExAC Browser enables one to examine genetic variation in over 60,000 unrelated people. Such tools supplement and extend a range of tools accessible through the U.S. National Library of Medicine / NIH / National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) web portal (PubMed).

In the biofundamentals© / coreBio course (with an evolving text available here), we originally used the observation that members of our subfamily of primates,  the Haplorhini or dry nose primates, are, unlike most mammals, dependent on the presence of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in their diet; without vitamin C we develop scurvy, a potentially lethal condition. While there may be positive reasons for vitamin C dependence, in biofundamentals© we present this observation in the context of small population size and a forgiving environment. A plausible scenario is that the ancestral population of the Haplorhini lost the L-gulonolactone oxidase (GULO) gene (see OMIM) needed for vitamin C synthesis. The remains of the GULO gene found in humans and other Haplorhini genomes is mutated and non-functional, resulting in our requirement for dietary vitamin C.

How, you might ask, can we be so sure? Because we can transfer a functional mouse GULO gene into human cells; the result is that vitamin C dependent human cells become vitamin C independent (see: Functional rescue of vitamin C synthesis deficiency in human cells). This is yet another experimental result, similar to the ability of bacteria to accurately decode a human insulin gene), that supports the explanatory power of an evolutionary perspective (2),


In an environment in which vitamin C is plentiful in a population’s diet, the mutational loss of the GULO gene would be benign, that is, not selected against. In a small population, the stochastic effects of genetic drift can lead to the loss of genetic variants that are not strongly selected for. More to the point, once a gene’s function has been lost due to mutation, it is unlikely, although not impossible, that a subsequent mutation will lead to the repair of the gene. Why? Because there are many more ways to break a molecular machine, such as the GULO enzyme, but only a few ways to repair it. As the ancestor of the Haplorhini diverged from the ancestor of the vitamin C independent Strepsirrhini (wet-nose) group of primates, an event estimated to have occurred around 65 million years ago, its ancestors had to deal with their dietary dependence on vitamin C either by remaining within their original (vitamin C-rich) environment or by adjusting their diet to include an adequate source of vitamin C.

At this point we can start to use Genomicus to examine the results of evolutionary processes (a YouTube video on using Genomicus)(3).  In Genomicus a gene is indicated  by a pointed box  ; for simplicity all genes are drawn as if they are the same size (they are not); different genes get different colors and the direction of the box indicates the direction of RNA synthesis, the first stage of gene expression. Each horizontal line in the diagram below represents a segment of a chromosome from a particular species, while the blue lines to the left represent phylogenic (evolutionary) relationships. If we search for the GULO gene in the mouse, we find it and we discover that its orthologs (closely related genes) can be found in a wide range of eukaryotes, that is, organisms whose cells have a nucleus (humans are eukaryotes).
We find a version of the GULO gene in single-celled eukaryotes, such as baker’s yeast, that appear to have diverged from other eukaryotes about ~1.500,000,000 years ago (1500 million years ago, abbreviated Mya).  Among the mammalian genomes sequenced to date, the genes surrounding the GULO gene are also (largely) the same, a situation known as synteny (mammals are estimated to have shared a common ancestor about 184 Mya). Since genes can move around in a genome without necessarily disrupting their normal function(s), a topic for another day, synteny between distinct organisms is assumed to reflect the organization of genes in their common ancestor. The synteny around the GULO gene, and the presence of a GULO gene in yeast and other distantly related organisms, suggests that the ability to synthesize vitamin C is a trait conserved from the earliest eukaryotic ancestors.

Now a careful examination of this map (↑) reveals the absence of humans (Homo sapiens) and other Haplorhini primates – Whoa!!! what gives?  The explanation is, it turns out, rather simple. Because of mutation, presumably in their common ancestor, there is no functional GULO gene in Haplorhini primates. But the Haplorhini are related to the rest of the mammals, aren’t they?  We can test this assumption (and circumvent the absence of a functional GULO gene) by exploiting synteny – we search for other genes present in the syntenic region (↓). What do we find? We find that this region, with the exception of GULO, is present and conserved in the Haplorhini: the systemic region around the GULO gene lies on human chromosome 8 (highlighted by the red box); the black box indicates the GULO region in the mouse. Similar syntenic regions are found in the homologous (evolutionarily-related) chromosomes of other Haplorhini primates.

The end result of our Genomicus exercise is a set of molecular level observations, unknown to those who built the original anatomy-based classification scheme, that support the evolutionary relationship between the Haplorhini and more broadly among mammals. Based on these observations, we can make a number of unambiguous and readily testable predictions. A newly discovered Haplorhini primate would be predicted to share the same syntenic region and to be missing a functional GULO gene, whereas a newly discovered Strepsirrhini primate (or any mammal that does not require dietary ascorbic acid) should have a functional GULO gene within this syntenic region.  Similarly, we can explain the genomic similarities between those primates closely related to humans, such as the gorilla, gibbon, orangutan, and chimpanzee, as well as to make testable predictions about the genomic organization of extinct relatives, such as Neanderthals and Denisovians, using DNA recovered from fossils [link].

It remains to be seen how best to use these tools in a classroom context and whether having students use such tools influences their working understanding, and more generally, their acceptance of evolutionary mechanisms. That said, this is an approach that enables students to explore real data and to develop  plausible and predictive explanations for a range of genomic discoveries, likely to be relevant both to understanding how humans came to be, and in answering pragmatic questions about the roles of specific mutations and genetic variations in behavior, anatomy, and disease susceptibility.

Some footnotes:

(1) Interested in a magnetic bumper image? visit: http://www.cafepress.com/bioliteracy

(2) An insight completely missing (unpredicted and unexplained) by any creationist / intelligent design approach to biology.

(3) Note, I have no connection that I know of with the Genomicus team, but I thank Tyler Square (soon to be at UC Berkeley) for bringing it to my attention.

Why Statistics Should Be A Mandatory Part of High School Education

Back in 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Britain ruled that the oral health manufacturing giant Colgate could not use its claim that “More than 80% Of Dentists recommend Colgate” or that its brand was “used and recommended by most dentists.” These bans were based on the finding that Colgate had used deceptive statistics to derive its numbers.

 

For instance, when reading the original claim, consumers would likely think that four out of five dentists had recommended Colgate over its competitors. Instead, ASA revealed that dentists in the study were allowed to recommend more than one brand. The numbers were less impressive than Colgate had made them sound.

 

The ASA explained that “The claim would be understood by readers to mean that 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate over and above other brands, and the remaining 20 per cent would recommend different brands. […] Because we understood that another competitor’s brand was recommended almost as much as the Colgate brand by the dentists surveyed, we concluded that the claim misleadingly implied 80 per cent of dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste in preference to all other brands.”

 

This sort of fact-fudging is concerning because numbers permeate our lives. Sports fans pore over statistics of their favorite teams and players. Consumers are bombarded with product information on billboards, TV, and the internet. Pundits and politicians rattle off figures to tell voters how better or worse things have gotten. People tune into the weather channel to see the chance of rain. Some data are truly informative, some are twisted to support a point, and others are outright fabricated. And yet, every day, we are inundated with a deluge of numbers we must continually process.

 

So how can we make sense of it all?

 

According to Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at Dartmouth College and bestselling author of Naked Economics, one of the best tools that we have to separate the wheat from the chaff is statistics, a system used to gather, organize, and interpret data. In short, statistics helps us to conceptualize information by allowing individuals to understand how data is collected and how it can be interpreted and communicated. Wheelan states, “Statistics is one of those things that people need to understand in order to be an informed citizen, especially the use and abuse of data.”

 

Given its importance, descriptive statistics ought to ascend from its status as an elective to the pantheon of required high school mathematics, next to the trinity of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Statistics is “also more intuitive and applied than other kinds of high school math courses (e.g. calculus or trig),” states Wheelan, “so it certainly strikes me as sensible to make basic statistics an integral part of any high school math curriculum.”

 

In doing so, students will be better prepared to make informed decisions as adults over a wide range of subjects. For instance, as consumers, students will learn to question and be skeptical of advertisement claims. As voters, they will be able to interpret basic socioeconomic data touted or slammed by candidates, understand how surveys and polls work, and be aware of how data can be skewed—intentionally or unintentionally—through bias.

 

By incorporating more knowledge of statistics into our everyday lives, we will be able to foster an educated citizenry, helping future generations to make sense of our increasingly data-deluged world.

 

What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

 

Check out my new guide aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

Reference:
K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

On overcoming writer’s block

The setting is your office. You’re bathed in the dull glow of your computer screen, staring at a blank page in Word, trying to write a paper.

Blink.

Blink.

The cursor is watching you, mocking you, laughing at your inability to get words out.

Blink.

Blink.

Your mind locks up as you wonder “what do I have to say?” The more you try to force out words, the harder it becomes, and eventually the frustration leads to you sitting there, at your desk with your head in your hands, wondering how you’ll ever finish.

Blink.

You then Google “how to overcome writers block” and end up on this post.

The official name for this is the "? block"
The official name for this is the “? block”

Writer’s block is a tough thing to deal with, but one we’ll all have to tackle at some point – either at the start of our training while we’re writing outlines and proposals, at the end when we’re writing up manuscripts and theses, or afterwards, as we’re working on papers and other documents. As science communicators, the toughest part is often figuring out exactly how to begin, and how to frame the core message that we want to get across – a process that can be incredibly frustrating. So the question becomes, how do you deal with it?

Now, I’m going to state the obvious here, but it’s a necessary point: The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Once you start though, it becomes infinitely easier to get content out onto the page. To help you kick start your writing process, I’m going to give you a few tips, and as always, I’d love to hear what you do to overcome writers block when it hits in the comments.

1) Isolate yourself. Remove all distractions – phone, coworkers, cats, get rid of it all. You want to be able to focus exclusively on writing. The fact is that if you have an easy out, you’re more likely to take it, i.e. “I’m stuck, I wonder if anything has changed on Facebook in the past 3 minutes? And this Buzzfeed article seems great, and look at what this cat is doing…” It’s tough to start writing, and removing distractions means you’ll struggle through those tough parts rather than put it off and do something else. You need to power through this part.

2) Talk it out. This one sounds strange, but is one of my favourites and has been hugely effective for me. Occasionally, I’ll close my office door, stand up, and pretend I’m giving a talk about whatever it is I’m writing about. Now only does this get you thinking about the topic at hand, but without the intimidation of the cursor and blank word document staring at you, it is easier to just get your ideas out. Be organic: stand up, pace back and forth, talk like you normally would, and don’t focus on the minutia of your project. Talk about the broad strokes and the flow of your arguments, and see if they helps you over the initial hurdle.

Alternative: Grab a coworker, go for coffee, and outline your paper/idea to them. Tell them their job is not to have a conversation with you – their job is to ask questions and prod you when you get stuck, and help you jump start your writing. Obviously, you owe them coffee/donut(s) for listening to you 🙂

TUPAC SHAKUR
Tupac Shakur released a song called “My Block” (click to listen)

3) Write an outline. For those who don’t like talking things out, this is an effective alternative. Sketch down the key points you want to make in each paragraph, and write as much information about each paragraph as you can without losing momentum. Even if you do talk it out, this is a good way to conceptualize your work. By the end, you should have something like this:

Paragraph 1: Open with a scene about writers block
Paragraph 2: Describe writers block, transition into list
Paragraph 3: Start outlining key points
etc

This is an engine block.
This is an engine block.

4) Start writing. Don’t think about grammar, phrasing, punctuation or language rules. Just get words out. Ignore word choices, ignore making things sound “professional.” Just get those ideas out and onto the page. At this point you want to have something out there to look at and critique, and hopefully, if you followed steps 1 through 3, you’ve got a few ideas up your sleeve now. Remember: the ideas don’t have to flow. You can write two distinct paragraphs, making two very different points, and that’s fine. You can go back later and fine tune things. Again, all you’re trying to do here is get something out onto the page that you can work with.

5) Do something else. Up until this point, I’ve talked about isolating yourself and focusing on writing. Here, I’m going to suggest leaving it, but with one caveat. Go and do something else that gets you moving, but not something that engages you entirely – something like cooking, cleaning, going for a run, lifting weights etc. Something that allows you to get yourself up, but without taking your full attention. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower, and turns out it’s because of the combination of 1) the release of dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted enough that your subconscious can engage and work on a problem, results in you being more creative (science here)

mutombofingerwag
Dikembe Mutumbo was famous for his ability to block

Before you know it, you’ve got an outline, some body text and a fleshed out idea of what you want to say, and that’s half the battle right there. After you’ve got a skeleton to work with, it becomes a lot easier to start writing, and begin building your arguments.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

This post originally appeared on MrEpidemiology.com

Strategies for Hearing Impaired Students, Educators, and Colleagues and The Bigger Picture

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

One of the biggest frustrations facing students with disability (or those with disability in general), I think, concerns our lack of familiarity within society as a whole with respect to the needs of individuals with disability. This isn’t taught in schools and some of us just simply are never exposed to the experiences that require us to educate ourselves about disabilities. Even worse, the general sentiment often seems that we may be afraid to even approach such individuals for fear of not knowing how to conduct ourselves or for fear of offending someone. The recommendations and suggestions below for communicating with hearing impaired individuals are by no means comprehensive, but they are a good place to start. Although they are written specifically with the educational system in mind, they are by no means circumscribed to a single context (I also encourage you to read Parts I and II before moving on).

Advice to Other Students and Colleagues
Remember that hearing impaired individuals need to see your lips. Always face them when you are speaking and ensure your lips are visible. Do not shout. Do not over enunciate. Be prepared to have to repeat yourself here and there. Remember that saying “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not important” can be considered rude or offensive; if it was important enough to say the first time, then it’s important enough to repeat. Not doing so may unintentionally make the individual feel left out or excluded. When possible, get the individual’s attention first; it’s the polite thing to do. In public, choose a place with adequate lighting and minimal background noise. In large groups, ask the individual where they would prefer to sit; I usually like to sit in the middle of a large table where possible so that I can see everyone. Please don’t ask us to turn up our hearing aids or suggest that we turn up the volume (reading Part I will help you understand why this may appear offensive). When going to the movies, be flexible to theatres and movies for which personalized closed captioning (e.g., CaptiView) is available (Atif Note: This information is often listed on their website). Most importantly, be curious and don’t hesitate to seek feedback on how you’re doing!

captiview
This is an example of CaptiView, which plugs into your cup holder, and provides subtitles (click link to learn more)

Advice to Hearing-Impaired Students
Accommodations are useful, but individual needs will vary. Some of these accommodations will be self-driven, such as sitting in the front of the classroom, or familiarization with the material beforehand where possible in order to facilitate comprehension. However, other accommodations require registration with campus disability services, and I do strongly recommend that individuals register as soon as possible to ensure that services can be supplied as soon as they are needed). Such accommodations might include note-takers, assistive listening devices (such as an FM system- the professor wears a microphone that transmits the sound directly to the student’s hearing aid, or transcriptions. I also recommend that students introduce themselves to the professors during the first week of class so that they know who you are, and be specific in telling them exactly what you need from them. It might help to write this down in a list or by email to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases. If you are shy, this medium can be helpful too, but remember that it is the responsibility of Disability Services to ensure that your needs are met.

The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid
The lady on the right is wearing an FM system and the one on the left is wearing “boots” on her hearing aid | Click link to go to Phonak website

One strategy I have used in the clinic is to mention my hearing impairment to clients as soon as I meet them. I let them know that I need to see their lips when they speak and that I may ask them to repeat themselves, and that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. I will then give them the opportunity to have questions, if needed. This is a good educational opportunity for others, and it also gets any confusion out of the way. Excerpts from this also lend themselves easily to other professional (and even colloquial) introductions.

Advice to Professors or Teaching Assistants of Hearing Impaired Students
Ensure that you are facing the student wherever possible. If you write on the board, minimize the amount of information that you speak while your back is to the class. Avoid walking around the room where the student cannot see you. Repeat questions spoken by other individuals in the class, especially in large classrooms. Ensure that you provide subtitles or transcriptions for all videos shown in the classroom (even if they are non-essential!). The student may ask you to wear an FM system, so you may need to wear a microphone or a small device around your neck. Online lectures or Skype calls will require additional support, likely through real-time transcription.

If you are a conference organizer, please consider providing an audiovisual projection of the speaker onto a large screen if you are using a big room. This is helpful to everyone, especially when you have various accents in the room!

Advice to Educators and Clinical supervisors
You will need to discuss with the student what kind of accommodations they need. However, you need to be aware that the student may not necessarily know what they need, or in my case, how much help they actually do need. Use a recorder to verify a client’s responses on an assessment. Importantly, remember that this may be a touchy issue for your student. He or she will appreciate sensitivity and compassion in your approach (as I certainly did).

The Burden of Advocacy, and the Bigger Picture
Everyone has different ways of dealing with their disability. But the good news is that people are generally receptive to feedback and input. In one example, my Master’s defense involved all four faculty members on my committee being as spread out in the large boardroom as could be, and I knew that this wasn’t going to work for me when I was faced with a similar situation for my oral comprehensive examination. This time, I asked all the faculty members and evaluators to sit closer so that I could read their lips, which was a seemingly terrifying thing to do since they were all there to evaluate me. Not only did this relieve a lot of the added intellectual challenges (and eye strain from trying to lip-read at a distance), in their feedback the evaluators actually expressed that they were impressed about my self-awareness. I still struggle with self-advocacy, however, such as when I ask the clinical department to keep the lights on during a PowerPoint presentation so I can see the speaker’s lips, but I’m getting better at it.

Nevertheless, advocacy is a social and moral issue. The unfortunate reality is that post-secondary education is generally not kind to individuals with disabilities. Such individuals often have to work harder than their peers to compensate for their added difficulties and achieve the same level of performance. As I have discussed, the process of obtaining accommodations may not be seamless, and challenges can act as both physical and psychological barriers to education. I hope that my experiences resonate and I hope that they will contribute to making post-secondary education more accessible to all.

But let’s be clear here: the problem is bigger than this; the challenges don’t stop once students leave the post-secondary institution and enter the workforce. I’ve been transparent in discussing the ways that my personal beliefs about my disability may have perpetuated my social and educational exclusion. However, I’ve begun to think more critically about the ways in which society shapes and reinforces implicit beliefs and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities. In turn, these promote an unspoken culture of shame and personal narratives of exclusion. Thus, the issue isn’t necessarily what is said about disabilities, but rather, what remains unsaid.

Generally speaking, individuals with disabilities have to speak up on their own behalf for accommodations and resources for integration. Consequently, this places the onus squarely on the shoulders of those who are most vulnerable. Social pressures and the desire for conformity often take precedence over individual needs, especially when individuals may have difficulty articulating them in the first place owing to shyness or fear of discrimination.

As educators and students, and as members of society in general, we will feel a diffused sense of responsibility. However, each of us needs to contribute our share to help fill in these gaps of silence. We must open ourselves to these difficult conversations about disability. We must negotiate an equitable place for disabled individuals within our society, and by extension, within the educational system.

Often, the amount of concern we have for an issue is directly proportional to the degree to which it affects us personally. However, I implore you to consider impact of the growing prevalence of age-related hearing loss in a society in which we are living longer than ever. Take a look at your parents or your grandparents, and you will see that this is an issue from which no one is immune.

I don’t know what the solution is, but every instance that we don’t speak up perpetuates the silence. Until disability awareness is taught in schools, until it becomes part of a wider discussion, then we must step up, one student, one individual at a time. For if we don’t, then who will?

About Rachel

mail.google
Rachel Wayne is a PhD student 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

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

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

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.

Minecrafting the Classroom

Minecraft Ancient World Eric Walker
Minecraft “Ancient City”. Image by Eric Walker.

I fell off my horse. I should have chosen more carefully — the magnificent dark brown and black horses were too wild, and kicked me off right away. The brown and white one seemed tame enough; I climbed into its back and we rode to the beach. I carried one block of cobblestone, a pane of glass, and a yellow flower. Upon arrival, I chose a spot. I was ready to start building my house.

It was a peaceful day, chosen out of a “peaceful” setting, in a randomly-generated world of the Minecraft game. Over 11 million gamers play Minecraft. Together they create worlds and overcome challenges.

 

Education gamification

Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal vouches for an exciting concept: the powerful motivations that drive us to play games should motivate us in off-game, real-world scenarios. For example, encouraging a community to recycle, or persuading more students to learn science. According to McGonigal, games have such a strong influence because they:

  • provoke curiosity, awe and wonder with fantastic scenarios and worlds
  • empower individuals to develop and contribute
  • strengthen the social fabric — players collaborate and join forces (for example, they build together or form teams to fight the enemy)
  • create meaning — players work towards an heroic challenge of epic proportions (e.g., slaying a dragon a saving a kingdom)

If only we experienced all those feelings every time we stepped into a classroom.

Some people believe using a game could help us get there. The use of games in science education is not new. Among a slew of examples is the initiative by game company Valve called “Teach with Portals” – leveraged on their game Portal 2. In a laboratory classroom, kids solve science challenges to activate portals and travel between worlds. Worlds may even have different physical properties. In one challenge, students have to fill a room with gas particles to equalize its pressure — a lesson in ideal gas law. A community of teachers is already creating their own “Teach with Portals” lessons and sharing them online. It was reported that 1.3 million users downloaded the education-based Portal game, and that was only three days after the launch.

Kids are not only playing science games, but they are using science to build their own games. The National STEM video game challenge was kick started by the White House and President Obama in 2010. It promotes STEM learning among middle and high school students by encouraging them to create their own video game. In this yearly competition, students hone their computer programming skills with the help of teachers and mentors. In 2013, 4000 kids submitted their homemade games.

Minecraft Tragedy of the Commons Dan Short
A Minecraft student player is ready to chop down a tree inside a “Tragedy of the Commons scenario. Image by Dan Short via source.

“If a lake is generated in a snow biome, it will freeze.” Using Minecraft for teaching science

Recently, Minecraft has joined the ranks of pro-education and pro-creativity tools. Its Lego-style, pixelated interface may look crude, but this block-building game gives players unlimited freedom to create. As evidence, Minecraft players show videos of their creations, which can be as fantastic as a replica of Star Trek Enterprise or a Beetlejuice rollercoaster. Besides creating, users can also collaborate and build worlds together.

In the article “teaching scientific concepts using a virtual world”, Dr. Dan Short lists ways to use Minecraft in the classroom. In a biology lesson, for example, Dr. Short asks that players build a human body: block-shaped cells connected by arteries, Fantastic Voyage-style. He focuses on ecology and environmental science, so many of his Minecraft lessons involve building a community with limited available resources. The following is a game version of classic example Hardin’s tragedy of the commons (where a population exhausts an area’s natural resources):

“I built a self-contained world map inside a dome containing only trees… In round 1 the students are told to collect as much wood from the forested area as possible. Being a ‘commons’ type area, the space is very quickly laid to waste, which illustrates Harding’s principle. In round 2, students are allowed to plant new trees and bound their harvest areas with fences, in which only they are allowed to farm. This leads to a more sustainable production of lumber.”

Perhaps this is the closest way kids can live science: by experiencing environmental destruction, safely, inside a game scenario like Minecraft.

Minecraft has its own wiki packed with ideas for the classroom. Some suggest few extra school uses for Minecraft, such as visiting famous buildings (e.g. the Coliseum), or boosting SAT scores. Minecraft Teacher Joel Levin created an entire world atop Minecraft packed with educational challenges: MinecraftEdu is embedded with puzzles and other activities for students. It is available for download, so schools can use it in their classrooms (other Minecraft worlds for teaching can be downloaded as well).

My Minecraft house has a view to the ocean and is decorated with flowers, but there’s no rooftop yet. I’ll keep in mind my local resources as I build one. Perhaps I’ll enlist other gamers and we come up with a sustainable version of the Enterprise.

Have you used a game to teach or learn science?