The classroom blog: This is how you do it, science style!

Last fall, whilst I was in London at the Natural History Museum, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a group of high school students who had travel all the way from the northeastern United States. They were totally engaging, and completely enthralled with the prospect of taking in the museum exhibits and learning some biodiversity science. They were, in a word, awesome!

Why the enthusiasm? Well, I suspect a lot of it had to do with the fact that they had to write pieces for their classroom blog. This (as in using blogs in a classroom setting) seems like a brilliant idea. And the science blog run by these students with their teacher, Miss Stacy Baker, is definitely one of the best out there. In many ways, the blog format offers students and teachers a great platform where they can broach topics, share ideas, practice their writing, and even interact with experts in the field. In particular, I love how there is this degree of "relevancy" in assignments structured this way. In other words, no longer is the student's homework something to be discarded and forgotten once graded - now the work is actually a piece of writing that exists in the public realm. In fact, the work that these students produce has lead to some pretty amazing opportunities (a good example being some of the students being selected to blog for Nature)

Best of all, as you can see from the video below, even the students think it's cool:

So how do you do this in your own classroom? Read the rest

Scientists pick apart list of nonsense has a great piece by Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia which is going to be incredibly useful for one of the classes I teach (Global Issues in the Arts and Sciences), and to be honest, I totally think it's also worth a look by anyone interested in climate change affairs. By focusing on a recent opinion piece published by Larry Bell at Forbes, it nicely broaches two areas: 1) it illustrates a few of the tactics that climate denialists use when they debate their case, and (2) it picks apart many of the most recent and most common "scientific" arguments used against the case for immediate policy action to mitigate climate change.

Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the "Gish gallop", named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks.

To me, the picking apart of the various assertions that Bell presents is the best part. Not only does it show how easy it is to form such careless arguments, but it also provides a highly readable science primer on some of the more recent research in climatology, all in an effort to inform on the current trends in cyclonic activity, ocean cooling, sea levels, polar snow fall, ice melting, etc. Read the rest

The Rap Guide to Evolution: Helping out with the music videos.

Now that classes have started, and I'm in the "teaching" zone again, it's always cool to check out folks who have come up with unconventional, and dare I say, innovative ways of talking science. One such example is Baba Brinkman, who does a great job of communicating the principles and various nuances of evolution using rap and hip-hop. In fact, there's a whole album's worth of material called "The Rap Guide to Evolution," which you can listen to for free or download/purchase if you so choose.

As well, the artist recently received an educational grant to create a series of videos for the songs, but has been seeking out some additional funding to really open up post-production possibilities (i.e. animations, access to footage, etc).

Quite a few biology and psychology teachers already use the rap songs in their classes to introduce evolutionary concepts to their students, and these videos will make an even more potent vehicle for communicating science in an entertaining manner.

The initial funding from the Wellcome Trust allows us to shoot live footage for each video with a professional film crew, edit it, and set up a website to distribute the videos.  This phase of the project will be completed by mid-December.  The additional funding from Crowdfunder will allow us to produce original animation and digital effects and license high-quality nature footage from the BBC, to make the vision of each video really come to life.

In any event, check out the songs, the video above and also the link below if you want to help out. Read the rest

How not to go crazy traveling with young children

One of the things you have to do when you're on sabbatical in a city like London, is make sure you take advantage of your travel opportunities. For my family, this equated to visiting a number of iconic European cities, a luxury that from Vancouver (where I'm usually based) would have been far too costly. Anyway, it's been clear to my wife and I that during these once-in-a-lifetime visits, our consciousness is very much overridden by one central question: "What will Ben and Hannah do?"

(Clockwise from left) Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy; Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France; near Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2010

Just so you know, Ben and Hannah are my children. You've might have seen them in this previous post, and like any parent, I love them dearly. Nevertheless, traveling with very young children is an interesting experience, as it is by turns wonderful, exhausting, memorable, frustrating, and (just to be clear) exhausting. You are, after all, interacting with a tourist that would most likely rank the playground or the cat that they saw by a tree, far above the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Also, if you're lucky enough to be staying somewhere where there is indoor swimming, then you can rest assured that you will hear of nothing else. Read the rest

Students doing right by making medicine accessible to the developing world.

In light of World AIDS Day, I'd thought I'd post a little bit about Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it's a student run non-profit that does brilliant things. Even though the video above is two years old, Mike Gretes does a lovely job highlighting some of what UAEM does, and there's also tons of information on their website:

Many important medicines and public health technologies are developed in academic laboratories. Their accessibility in poor nations is profoundly affected by the research, patenting and licensing decisions made by universities.

We are a group of university students who believe that our universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to improve global access to public health goods

This is important for a number of reasons. One example is that it recognizes that almost all therapeutics have their humble beginnings at some lab bench at some university. This isn't necessarily the finished product, but it is often the "eureka" moment that can start the path towards a medicine with real life benefits.

Because of this, that academic lab and its researchers, have this opportunity to lay down some ground rules when the discovery is ultimately marketed out to some company. For instance, they can dictate that licensing is different (amenable to generics) when circumstances compel the drug to be sold in markets that simply can't afford the usual prices set by pharmaceutical companies (think HIV medicine in developed versus developing countries). Unfortunately, this amazing opportunity is usually a missed opportunity: which is why UAEM members stay up nights thinking about ways, to advocate, educate, and guide universities to do the right thing. Read the rest

Star Wars posters by Tom Whalen

This poster and the two others below (after the jump) are things of beauty.

Best of all, if you think the trilogy posters are awesome, then you could easily spend a happy hour or so browsing through the rest of Tom's work at his website, as well as his deviantART page.

Read the rest

The Nagoya Protocol: the first step towards saving the endangered Unicorn?

If a Society for the Preservation of Unicorns1 were to put out commentary or a press release about important but largely unreported UN biodiversity meetings, I'd imagine it would go a little like this:

(Public domain image adapted from NOAA photo library. Slide available here).

Well, it's been a few days since the Nagoya COP102 conference has wrapped up, and by all accounts, people have deemed it relatively successful. That is, the conference that was meant to set some goals in the preservation of global biodiversity has (largely due to the admirable persistence of Japanese officials) managed to get government types to agree to a strategic plan with a number of environmentally friendly targets (nicknamed the 2020 Aichi Targets3 for those of you who like to keep track of such things).

Although the word "rainbow" did not make a single appearance in the text, the targets did nevertheless include obvious things like percentages of land and ocean to set aside for preservation (17% and 10%), and overarching statements that promised, "to at least halve and where feasible bring close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats including forests (by 2020)." Read the rest

The Candy Hierarchy

LATEST: The Candy Hierarchy has been updated for 2012.

With Halloween approaching, I thought it would be amusing to write a bit about candy, or more specifically, a system that aims to rank it. In this case, the rubric would be according to "emotional zeal" or something more jargony sounding like "joy induction." Anyway, this hierarchy is the work of a friend and colleague, Ben Cohen. Ben is an environmental historian over at the University of Virginia, but in a previous life, he and I use to write on a blog together. This partnership happened because of our backgrounds publishing science humour (see Ben's clip list here), so in some respects, this "Candy Hierarchy" is just another creative juncture.

However, since I'm loving how you can get immediate feedback from the Boing Boing community, I'm also thinking that we could use this opportunity to throw a little kickass "peer review" into the ranking. Kickass because: (1) I know some people are going to be deeply offended by the rankings; (2) the rankings were last updated in 2008, and are therefore long overdue for some revision; and (3) well, isn't peer review just kickass anyway? Oh yeah - the graphic is new (just made it today): hopefully if you play in the comments, some of us can use it one day as a slide for an interesting discussion on the scientific method - yes?

Anyway, read on... Read the rest

My virtual swag bag for biodiversity and Nagoya COP10 includes Zhu Zhu pets.

So this Nagoya COP10 conference is coming up in a week, and at these events what tends to happen is that all the delegates will receive a "swag bag' of sorts. Actually, the term "swag" is probably over selling it a bit, since what they actually receive is probably better described as a portfolio of resources. In other words, it's less about gadgets, gift cards, and bling, and more about documents and materials that will attempt to inform them on the various issues at stake.

Anyway, the teacher in me is also wanting to put together a virtual swag bag of biodiversity things to look at - especially for those who want to quickly get up to speed on the whole thing. Of course, you can read my "Star Wars" jargon infused primers on the conference itself (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and a sidebar; or here as a single post), but why not take a gander at a few other things available on the web.

You should start with the above panel discussion video. In my opinion, it is excellent - I'm going to get all of my students to check it out. Involving five experts who obviously care a great deal about biodiversity, it's a good and pragmatic overview of all the pertinent issues at stake. Admittedly, it's a little close to homework at times (especially the first few minutes where intros are made), but in terms of packing in a lot of great information, it's well worth a look. Read the rest

Do you know what this is? (Pretty sure it's not a Tribble)

Not much information about it, except that the furry stuff does appear to be hair. Current hypotheses involve something to do with a lion hairball that may have been blown about in the dusty savannah, therefore resulting in this poofy look. Other ideas posit an association with the Massai? Anyway, If you have any ideas of what this could be, it would be great to hear them. For now, it remains a mystery.

What you're seeing is one of the many samples that the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity gets day in day out. Essentially, this is a centre within the Natural History Museum that acts as an accessible expertise base for all things flora, fauna, and fossilized in the United Kingdom. Kind of like a place where the public can bring stuff in for identification, hang out with scientists, link up with other amateur naturalists, and even help out in a number of open air laboratory outreach projects (also known as OPAL).

I've highlighted the "hairball" because it is something that was brought in and even after an initial look is still quite mysterious. However, the vast majority of things that get sent or dropped off do get identified. Earlier, I had a chance to talk to the centre's resident entomologist, Beulah Garner, about some of the things that were particularly odd or interesting looking. See, if you can identify any of them (answers in bold supplied by Beulah): Read the rest

Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook

This is a continuation from this post about crowd sourcing humour writing. There were many great suggestions, some of which were almost complete pieces in themselves (especially this one from pencilbox and this one from J.K.). In the end, however, an editorial touch was used to streamline the many great comments into hopefully a pretty funny list. So without further ado, the Boing Boing community presents:

"Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook"

Newton's Laws Quantum Mechanics Phototonics (a.k.a. Glitter) Horn Topology Force Fields Thermodynamics (except for the 1st Law) Euclidean Vectors Rainbows Total Fucking Awesomeness Read the rest

Thanks for reading and "May the scientific method always be with you."


I had a great experience here at Boing Boing, and want to send on a big thanks to Mark, Cory, Xeni, David, Rob and the rest of the crew for letting me spend some quality time here. I'm also grateful to the many museum folks who let me chat with them, and so graciously showed me their projects. Kudos especially to Bob Bloomfield for the warm welcome and the many discussions on biodiversity advocacy. Hopefully, my posts didn't dilute the overall awesomeness here at Boing Boing, and at the every least, I hope a few more people are interested in Nagoya COP10. Also, it was fun to do my part to increase the Chewbacca quotient (even if only slightly) here at the site.

With that, I'd like to end with two last requests. Both related to biodiversity: one is kind of worthy, the other a little goofy. One requires folks of the artistic bent, the other maybe a more scientific approach. Read the rest

Nagoya COP10 Primer #4: with reference to Twitter

Continuing from:

Nagoya COP10 Primer #1: with references to Star Wars Nagoya COP10

Primer #2: with a reference to Kevin Bacon

Nagoya COP10 sidebar: UNFCCC YOU!

Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

So what should be done at Nagoya? This is the 20 million species plus question. And for all of the criticism that I've (and others) have proffered, we should appreciate that the task at hand is going to be quite the challenge. If nothing else, this is immediately clear from the often anthrocentric (humans rule the Earth and are just playing our role on the evolutionary front, so deal with it!) commentary left on biodiversity pieces throughout the internet.

There is a somewhat official Strategic Plan document out there, one that (with a remarkable lack of brevity) highlights 2020 goals and attempts to identify the process and partners to be involved. It's worth a look, although probably best absorbed by taking in the tables shown on page 19 on. It involves a list of some 20 different target statements. Some of which are short, bouncy, although still vague like a twitter tweet:

1. By 2020, everyone is aware of the value of biodiversity and what steps they can take to protect it.

Others are more to the point:

11. By 2020, At least 15% of land and sea areas, including the most critical terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, have been protected through effectively managed protected areas and/or other means, and integrated into the wider land- and seascape.

Read the rest

Art, nature, the history of science, and whoa, aren't these beautiful?

Plate 73 of the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China, 1774-1856. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Reeves was an English tea inspector, but also amassed a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings of plants and animals during his time in Canton.

A few weeks back, I had a great conversation with Judith Magee, Library Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum. From this conversation, as well as others (thanks Peronel, Martha, Bergit), it soon became clear that there were many individuals within the museum that had a passion for things pertaining to the humanities and the arts (see also this previous post).

In particular, the museum happens to house a vast collection of illustrations and paintings, many of which were originally produced as a way to scientifically document new species, new cultures, and other things observed during expeditions. However, it's also clear that apart from their historical value, these pieces of artwork also have immense aesthetic value. They. Are. Beautiful.

And speaking to Judith, you can literally feel the enthusiasm and affection for such pieces. Judith talked to me about writer/artists such as Alexander von Humboldt, John Bartram, as well as the wonderful drawings collected by John Reeves. Read the rest

Why natural history museum collections rock!

Photo: Tom Goskar. Used with permission.

So far, it's been a very interesting experience in the month and a bit into my sabbatical at London's Natural History Museum. First off, there was that element of giddiness: coming back to an iconic institution that takes me back to my time as a kid in awe of dinosaurs, blue whales and all the sparkly stuff in the mineral exhibits. Next came, a weird sort of pride - like as if being in the museum's great hall, looking up at the beautiful ceiling, and standing in between a Diplodoccus skeleton and a statue of Darwin, made me feel privileged to be a scientist. I felt as if I was in the best-club-ever: one that carried on the work of so many pioneers whose efforts are housed in this museum. But then a strange feeling of discomfort settled in. This was because the science that goes on here, by and large, is quite foreign to the medically genetic driven projects of my own background. In other words, the bench tops here do not always require pipettemans and overpriced electronics. However, after having had the privilege of meeting some lovely people at the museum and viewing a few of these collections, I've come to really appreciate the importance of biological curation.

1. The collections serve as the physical and open portal to specimens needed for biodiversity research. Read the rest

Chic apartments for London birds

Take a look at this art project entitled, "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven"

In the sought-after London boroughs of Chelsea and Islington, inner city birds often have to claim their nesting space quickly! However, birds that are open to changing their wild ways might be convinced to try out the innovative bird-housing concept developed by the artists at London Fieldworks. The "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven" opened recently as part of the Secret Garden Project by UP Projectsand hopes to develop into a haven of biodiversity and create a new public awareness of the ecological and cultural value of urban green spaces. (via Inhabitat)

These look very pretty, although I am curious as to how they fare when the tree moves or when it grows.

As an added layer of biodiversity speak, there's a bit of irony in the title of the project. Turns out the "Tree of Heaven" or Ailanthus altissima is actually a tree species of much botanical interest in London, and elsewhere in England generally. Essentially, a lot of folks are quite concerned that this ornamental turn invasive species is poised to rocket in numbers. It's one of the fastest growing trees around, it's allelopathic (meaning it produces a chemical that inhibits the growth or other plants), and its seed production capabilities are almost unmatched. In fact, the female tree is capable of producing upwards of 30,000 seeds per kilogram of tree! That would be akin to a small tree as heavy as me (at about 160 pounds), being able to produce 2.2 Read the rest

Chewbacca, Han Solo and R2D2 drawn as if part of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh

Illustrations by James Hance, used with permission.

I'm surprised I didn't catch this earlier, but James Hance has recently released a series of lovely images. Here, he re-imagines Han Solo as Christopher Robin, Chewbacca as Pooh Bear, R2D2 as Piglet, and even (this is cool) an AT-AT as Eeyore.

Definitely go to his Cartoon page to see the images in their full glory. Also this just in - James writes:

The first Wookiee the Chew book gets published today (September 1st) and will be available from either my website or comic stores in Jacksonville. My main hub is at Cafe 331, downtown Jacksonville. I'm there every Saturday with prints, paintings and books.

Link Read the rest

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