Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Science Fun - It's Electric!

Whether we are destined to become scientists or not, understanding the scientific process is crucial to our ever growing complex world.  Think about all of the articles that report scientific findings on food allergy alone - how do you separate the wheat from all the chaff in how science gets reported?  Understanding the process will go a long way in discerning claims that are truly supported by evidence versus the many over-sold or outright unsupported claims frequenting our online communities.

As an introductory-level college biology instructor, I'm seeing way too many students coming into my classroom lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method - i.e. how do scientists make the discoveries versus what is established scientific knowledge.  For too long, curriculum has focused on what I like to call "biology history" as opposed to "doing biology."  Yes, you need to know a good amount of the "history" to get to the bleeding edge, but the scientific process can and should be integrated all along the way.  There is hope that things are changing (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education:  A Call to Action).
“Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.”
-National Science Foundation, Science and Technology Indicators, 2008.
In other words, teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish. There is just too much new knowledge being generated for any human to keep up.  I strongly believe that an understanding of the scientific method begins many, many, MANY years before getting into undergraduate level science courses.  It begins in childhood.  I have to say, I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing in children's programming - in one of JR's favorite shows, The Dinosaur Train on PBS, one of the characters, Buddy, routinely shouts, "I have a hypothesis!"  As a result, JR routinely goes around the house shouting, "I have a hypothesis!"  (Hypothesis = educated guess to explain observation).  Sweet, beautiful music to this Mom's (and Dad's!) ears.  The seeds of scientific understanding are being planted.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer morning thoughts digging their way out

I find myself digging out from under a pile of the previous Spring term which ended last week.  Remnants of everything important - from tiny hand prints artfully crafted on special Mother's Day paper awaiting a more permanent framed display, to the last edition of Allergic Living, to stacks (and I mean STACKS!) of fascinating allergy/immunology papers awaiting meticulous consideration.

Crouching down on one knee with a small grin, I pump my fist and quietly exclaim, "Yes!  I made it.  I made it to summer."  It was a busy term, but worth it in every sense.  I have an appreciation of the microbial world that I did not have before, and suddenly pieces of complicated immunology literature that reference "bacterial things" like LPS and teichoic acid and how it relates to our immune system make perfect sense (at least more than it did). 

Our immune system is fine-tuned to recognize components of bacterial cell membranes/cell walls that we don't have in our cells (e.g. teichoic acid and lipopolysaccharide - LPS).  Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lipoteichoic_acid