Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


How do you get an entire room full of students to pay attention to everything you say? Apparently, you should drop your papers and say, "Dammit!" The media acknowledges a direct correlation between the use of foul language and approval. Should I use a lot of curse words in my lectures? Is that the way to keep them interested? I consider swearing to be unprofessional, and I try not to do it, which is hard because I always do it. I have a problem with bad language. As a professor I have to curb the urge to yell, "Son of a bitch!" at my contaminated bacterial cultures the same way I try not to say, "What the Hell are you doing?" to my 6 year old nephew. I feel that it's important for me to set an example, to be a leader, a role model.

After I dropped my papers and used a swear, a student said, "You're the coolest teacher I have, Dr. B, seriously." Because I swore? I mean, I am pretty awesome, and you're in for an amazing lecture once I pick all this shit stuff back up, but should you really like me because I swore? That's a silly reason to bestow "coolness" on someone. And yet, I watch educators scrape and grovel for student approval all the time. It's true that if students are paying attention they are going to learn more. But should we make asses fools of ourselves in the name of learning? I don't really need an 18 year old kid to think I'm cool, but I do need him to pay attention.

So, what the fuck would you do? Can you be popular and professional? I'd like to think so. I don't want them to say, "Dr. B is so awesome; she swears!" I'd rather they say, "Dr. B is awesome; we discussed natural selection and she showed us the coolest videos from the Galapagos!"

I've had professors who tried to be "cool" and it was embarrassing. I appreciated a professor who was smart, knowledgeable about the subject, and comfortable enough in their own skin to own their passions. If you think chemistry is dorky, you probably shouldn't stand up in front of 300 students and try to convince them chemistry isn't dorky. I love biology. I love ecology. I love agriculture. I could talk about them all damn day. I sit in my office trying to find ways to engage students, but I'm not going to humiliate myself (or lower my standards) to get a classroom of 18 year old kids to like me. Unfortunately, whether or not your students like you seems to be a big deal.

Sites like Rate My Professor allow students to give scores based on "easiness" or "hotness" instead of quality education parameters. Is this the way we pick our professors? I can't remember choosing science over art because I thought my bio prof was hotter than my art prof. In my case it was true, but that's not why I switched. What people don't appreciate is that educators get up in front of a classroom every single day, sometimes several times a day, and put themselves out there. It's only natural that we would seek approval from our audience. But seeking approval should not take precedent over facilitating the material.

It's intimidating enough to lecture to a large group of people. If I have to worry about which ones like me, I'm in trouble. If they like me, they might learn more, right? I disagree. Many students who fail my course take it over again with me, because they like me and don't want a different professor. Their affection for me had no bearing on their grade or their performance. So why seek their approval? Who is the better professor, the one who is more popular or the one who is more effective? If my students adore me but can't pass the post-test, then what does it matter how many chili peppers I have on Rate My Professor?

I have one chili pepper. That's fine. I'm also apparently helpful and clear, but hard. I can't really disagree with that. One review is a pretty small sample size, though. Without any data to back it up, I feel that today was a fantastic day. My students were really engaged in the lecture material and we had a grand time in lab. I'll take that over "Dammit!" any day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Educations Costs and Student "Brokeness"

At a recent departmental meeting, a math professor mentioned that several of his students would not be able to buy the graphing calculator usually required for Algebra and/or Calculus. He said they were too poor. Our department chair countered with his own observation that they all have smart phones and fancy shoes, and therefore should be able to buy a graphing calculator.

I agreed loudly, "Yeah," because I tend to be a bit unsympathetic.

The other professor got a bit agitated (not really, he's not an aggressive guy, but he was trying to make a point) and explained that many of his students are really, honest to goodness poor, and they can't afford anything. Another professor corroborated with her own account of purchasing online access for students who don't have credit cards. She is reimbursed in cash. This started a moderate debate (it was mostly a discussion, we're not a debate crowd) about the cost of education and the slow turnaround time of the financial aid packages.

Education costs money. So I guess the sticking point would be, "Is education a privilege or a right?" I tend to think it's a privilege, and therefore it's the student's responsibility to get the materials. But if you believe that all people have a right to a college education, our financial aid strategy may need a complete overhaul. The current financial aid packages are insufficient to provide everyone with everything that they need when they need it. Is it unfair to ask a biology student to purchase access to a website? Is requiring a calculator for math going too far? Where do you draw the line?

The conversation (as I said, all my colleagues are incredibly polite and kind and therefore would never actually yell or argue) got me to thinking about WHY I feel the way I do about college being a privilege. It's probably because I am not a child of privilege, and every penny I scraped together was used to buy books and calculators and lab materials. Many sacrifices were made in the name of my education, sacrifices that would not be necessary if college were a fundamental right.

My father was unemployed for all of the nineties and for some of the decades on either side. My mother is a teacher's aide. My younger brother was still at home when I left for college, and my parents took in a friend of his who was homeless at the time. So, it was a 1:1 exchange of mouths to feed. We had a house, and we had food, so I wasn't going to squabble over tuition or books. I paid my own way through college - I chose the college that gave me the most financial aid. It happened to be a small private college in Michigan that I could never have afforded otherwise. I took a full load and had up to 4 jobs per semester. I didn't have a car. I didn't have an apartment. There was one year when I didn't even have a winter coat. But I had my damn calculator.

What I fail to appreciate, I suppose, is that my family was supportive. They couldn't give me money, but they were behind me, 100%. There are four college degrees in my family, and I have three of them. I didn't have to pay for daycare or take care of an ailing grandmother. I didn't have a husband or a mortgage payment. I lived on campus to reduce costs, but if I'd had children I wouldn't have been eligible for student housing. My situation, while pathetic at times, was my own. And I need to start realizing that these students have their own real problems, too. And many of them are trying, really really hard.

Is education a right, or a privilege?

ETA: I just discovered that The Chronicle of Higher Education is debating this very same thing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Can We Test That?

At the end of the semester my students must demonstrate their ability to think critically and use the scientific method by testing a hypothesis and presenting the results. It's not rocket science. The projects are simple, but must be based on valid observations and testable hypotheses. Usually, the students knock this assignment out of the park. I've been extremely pleased with their presentations and rarely hand out a bad grade.

This is significant because (apparently) I love to give out bad grades.

Many of these students are not science majors, so I hope that by taking my class they learn enough about science to navigate the natural world around them. I want them to process information critically and to think before they form an opinion.  They come to us with some strange beliefs anyway - "I didn't come from no damn monkey!" - and so I spend a lot of time encouraging discussion and clearing up confusion.

Major points of confusion:
  • evolution
  • natural selection
  • gene regulation
  • cancer
  • theory
  • global warming
  • cloning
  • antibiotics
  • hypothesis
The recent rash of mass bird deaths has generated buzz within the community because of the "apocolyptic nature" of the events. Historically, mass animal deaths are not really uncommon, from wildebeest to honeybees, populations can be affected by numerous variables, both natural and anthropogenic. The most famous incident resulted in mass species extinction and may have been caused by an asteroid. People always seem to forget about that one when talking about birds falling from the sky and toads exploding and whatnot. Many valid hypotheses abound regarding the recent rash of birds falling from the sky, fish floating to the surface, and crabs washing ashore. An example of an untestable hypothesis would be, "Apocalypse."

I'd like to blame the humanities for devaluing the word hypothesis, but I don't think that's exactly fair. They could blame me for making up words and ignoring grammar. Indeed, I carelessly wield a vocabulary as dangerous as a butcher's meat cleaver. But in science, a hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable. A theory is a hypothesis for which there are several lines of hard evidence. Unfortunately, people throw around the words "hypothesis" and "theory" to describe guesses and tenuous connections. A man on a commercial flight to Australia once told me, "I don't believe in global warming. It's just a theory." I pointed out the window to the ocean below us, "Theoretical physics gave man the ability to fly. How's that working out for you?"

How do we reconcile these definitions?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

State Standards and Student Apathy

My Fall 2010 Biology students were possibly the poorest students I've ever encountered. They didn't do anything. They didn't participate in class or study or even complain about their grades. It was the epitome of apathy. I did everything I could think of to help them: practice quizzes, chapter prep questions, classroom activities for kinesthetic learners, movies... and that's not counting the hours and hours I sit in my office waiting for them to come by for help. I posted video lectures and privately tutored them and did my very very best to facilitate the information. They didn't get it. I was baffled. I even asked them for suggestions, but of course they had none.

I started to wonder if there was something wrong with them. Our unique institutional status means that our students tend to skew toward the lower end on the spectrum of academic abilities, and that's fine. We're specialists, and we've adjusted our teaching styles accordingly. But the more I talked to students about their experiences, the more I started to wonder if the system was setting them up for failure. Many were taught science by coaches or part-time teachers, and while I have no way to evaluate the qualifications of any of these individuals, I do know that the students I get in my biology class haven't retained even the simplest biological concepts. Why not? I hypothesized that expectations are low and that there are no consequences for poor performance. 

According to the Georgia of Department of Education, there are state standards for grades 9-12, assessed by an end-of-course test (EOCT), and I was able to download a copy of the exam given in 2004. The test seems reasonable. Assuming the standards haven't' changed drastically, any student who took biology in high school should have seen the material presented in BIOL 1107 before enrolling in my class. Furthermore, 66% of Georgia students who took the exam met or exceeded these standards. This means that they are being held to a reasonable set of expectations. Apparently I have the 34% of students who did NOT meet the standard. Fantastic.

From the Georgia Department of Education website, "Improved teaching and learning are the main focus of Georgia’s education system. The EOCT align with the Georgia curriculum standards and include assessment of specific content knowledge and skills. The assessments provide diagnostic information to help students identify strengths and areas of need in learning, therefore improving performance in all high school courses and on other assessments, such as the GHSGT. The EOCT also provide data to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom instruction at the school and system levels." I've included the Spring 2010 assessment results below.

Sixty-six (66%) percent of Georgia’s students met or exceeded the standard for Biology. When comparing the Spring 2010 scores to the Spring 2009 scores, the percent of students meeting or exceeding the standard increased by two (2) percentage points in Biology. The percent of students achieving the exceeds standard performance level in Biology increased by one (1) percentage point between Spring 2009 and Spring 2010. Since the inception of the Biology EOCT as a GPS-based test, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard has increased by seven (7) percentage points from Spring 2006 to Spring 2010. The 2009 – 2010 Strategic Plan target for the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard on the Biology EOCT was 66%. This target was met.

So, perhaps there are no consequences for poor performance, and this could explain my surprisingly low success rates in Freshman Bio? I know many students are pushed forward regardless of academic prowess, and that school districts are under immense fiscal pressure to prevent students from being held back, sometimes at the expense of the student's learning. But according to the Dept. of Ed., there are consequences for failing the EOCT. "The EOCT is administered upon completion of one of the above courses. Beginning with the 2004-2005 school year, a student’s EOCT score is averaged in as 15% of the final course grade. The student must have a final course grade of 70 or above to pass the course and earn credit toward graduation. When the student repeats a course to earn credit for graduation, he/she would participate in the EOCT at the end of the repeated course. EOCT scores will not be “banked”. The EOCT is also one criterion for a student to receive a variance for the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT)."

Hypothesis rejected.

So what now?