Saturday, December 4, 2010

the L word


If I could meet any person, dead or alive, real or fiction, I think one of my top choices would be Steve Irwin. I'd want to meet him out in the bush, maybe in Australia, maybe help him re-locate a croc. Afterwards, we might talk about conservation and peace and wilderness. Or, more accurately, he'd talk, and I'd just nod vigorously in agreement while reveling in his radiance.

Steve Irwin is famously known for his larger-than-life television series Crocodile Hunter. It's a misnomer because the show isn't about hunting crocodiles. What actually happens on the show is: Steve goes into the bush; he meets wildlife; we, in turn, meet wildlife. Steve's excitement is contagious, his animal senses obvious, and his huge heart very genuine. When asked why he decided to create a TV show, he said he wanted to bring these wild animals into people's living rooms. He wanted people to get to know these wild animals, one-on-one, face-to-face. If people get to know them, they will start to care about them. If they care about them, they will start to love them. And "people save what they love".

(We can discuss the connotations of the word "save" as it relates to the environment, but that is for another post.)

An activist and self-described "Wildlife Warrior", Steve believed wholeheartedly in the fight for nature. But rather than handing out moral prescriptions about the changes humans need to make, he strove simply to breed compassion for wildlife, believing that this is key to positive action. Steve travelled to all corners of the earth with a camera crew, meeting animals, falling in love with them, ultimately wanting us to do the same. His motive was to inspire people to act out of love.

Love. This word doesn't get used a lot by scientists and ecologists. When it appears in a science context, it is usually being dissected into its chemical components. Detected by electrodes and measured with machines, this is a very different sort of love than Steve's.

Nor does it get used a lot by environmental ethicists. When it appears in an environmental ethics context, it is usually being denied. Like scientists, ethicists and philosophers use reason and logic to work through a problem and draw conclusions. Love, being soft and subjective, would taint a convincing philosophical argument. So mainstream environmental ethicists (such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paul Taylor) are careful to present themselves as unattached, objective philosophers. Adamantly, they are not animal lovers, but rational beings, using sound, unbiased logic to moralize about the proper treatment of nature.

There is a sense that activists are allowed to be overt in their emotional attachment to nature, but academics aren't. It is moving and inspirational when Steve Irwin announces his love for nature and invites us to love with him; it is naive and almost laughable when academics do it. There is a sense that love confounds intelligence, so the likes of Peter Singer steer clear of love professionally. Ecologists, too.

Arne Naess

But, environmental philosopher Arne Naess speaks up for love. He draws on Kant's contrast of "moral acts" and "beautiful acts". A moral act is something we do because moral law dictates that it is the right thing. A beautiful act is something we do that is congruent with moral law, but mostly we do it because we want to. Put simply, both are right acts, but a moral act is done out of duty, while a beautiful act is done out of love. Arne Naess further explains:

If we do what is right because of positive inclination, then, according to Kant, we perform a beautiful act. My point is that in environmental affairs we should primarily try to influence people toward beautiful acts by finding ways to work on their inclinations rather than their morals. Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public the false impression that they are primarily asked to sacrifice, to show more responsibility, more concern, and better morals. As I see it we need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes.

Arne Naess wants people to treat nature better because they want to, and not because they are obliged to. When we do things out of obligation, there is an attached sentiment of guilt and anxiety. When we do things out of love, there is beauty. Mainstream environmental ethics appeals to people's sense of duty, and Arne Naess questions the sustainability of this tactic. Duty on its own is not enough. People need to experience the thing that they are being dutiful towards, to feel love and joy for it.

Mainstream environmental ethics has made much headway in rationalising the ethical treatment of nature, and this work is necessary. But if we are to follow Arne Naess' advice, then perhaps we need to relax the tradition that emotion negates the credibility of an academic. If academics want to take part in creating an environmentally ethical world of beautiful acts, then we have to make our love for nature more obvious. We have to take it out of the closet and share it with the world.

While it may be true that love befuddles logic, love is also one of the greatest motivators of personal change. Furthermore, as my professor Bob Jickling writes, "Love is not soft, it is honest." Love needn't detract from credibility, and in fact, credibility grows with the honesty in admitting love. It seems to me that ecologists and environmental philosophers do share an immense love of nature. It seems to me that we all have a little Steve Irwin inside of us. Maybe it is time to let ourselves let that shine.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Another inspirational video

This video touches all my buttons: teaching, education, collaboration, comics, story telling, science, humor.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let's talk ... microbes

Amanda and Marina created a module to introduce Grade 1 kids to microbes for the program Let's talk science. They picked a very challenging subject to introduce something we cannot see to 6 year-olds. However, they pulled it off very successfully using pictures, glow-in-the-dark powder and black lights, and a couple of microscope. I joined them for the final presentation (in my son's class), and these are the pictures I took.



Next time, volcanos?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Latest summary of Churchill Research

I recently gave a presentation at the University of Toronto - Mississauga, and that was the perfect opportunity to summarize the research results from our lab in Churchill of the last couple of years. Below you can see the slides of that presentation.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Empty Cups


Very occasionally, I will brave North American culture and go see a movie on a ridiculously big screen with a ridiculously big bag of popcorn. Last December, a friend convinced me to not only go see Avatar on the big screen, but to watch it in 3-D with her. I was blown away. Though I find the current 3-D craze to be, well, crazy, I have to admit that it brought a certain enchantment to the fantasy planet Pandora. The Pandoran world teems with all the weird and wonderful biota that make for an ecologist's paradise: giant plants that spiral and luminesce, majestic birds soaring and battling in the sky, delicate spores pulsing through the air like tiny jellyfish.

But special effects aside, the movie is first and foremost an insightful commentary on the danger and devastation of human arrogance. Writer and director James Cameron tells the classic and still-very-relevant tale of white man exploiting Native land for gold. A love story is central (of course), and it is the budding romance between American Jake Sully and Pandoran Neytiri that sparks complication and hope.

I won't spoil the movie, but what I want to focus on here is one of Jake's first encounters with the Native Pandoran people. (He was assigned to befriend them and learn their ways with the ultimate goal of pushing them off a desired tract of land.) Jake acquires the attention of Mo'at, the clan's matriarch. She is initially angry, demanding that he go away, expressing her frustration at how his people just don't understand. But Jake persists, imploring that she teach him and that maybe she can make him understand. I found the next bit of dialogue extremely telling:

Mo'at: It is hard to fill a cup that is already full.

Jake: My cup is empty. Trust me. Just ask Dr. Augustine. I'm no scientist.

Two points of interest emerge for me. The first is that scientists know. Jake makes it clear that scientists' cups may be full, but he doesn't fall under that camp (he is actually an ex-Marine). To be fair, a good scientist knows that they actually know very little. A good scientist knows that what they know today can be disproved tomorrow, and that uncertainty underlies the entire discipline. So I think there is a noteworthy disconnect between the public perception and the actual practice of science. But, that said, I think there is some truth to the stereotype, too. There is no denying that science is strictly rooted in the rational acquirement of knowledge. Scientists know what they are looking for (objective knowledge), and they know how to find it (through hypothetico-deductive reasoning). Their cups are definitely full in this sense.

This leads to the second point of interest: knowing can exclude possibilities. When one enters the world knowing what they are looking for and how to find it, they will not find anything else. When a scientist approaches the world as a scientist only, they will see scientific possibilities only. When "white man" enters Native land knowing what he wants--its riches, he will miss much of what's there--its richness.

To take another spin on this theme, we can turn to an environmental ethics paper by environmental philosophers Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston. They explore the relationship between what we know (epistemology) and how we act (ethics). They propose an "ethics-based epistemology" as an alternative to our traditional "epistemology-based ethics". This is a mouthful, but as my classmate Andy put it so succinctly, it boils down to the chicken-or-egg riddle about what comes first:


In the traditional view, epistemology comes first: what we know about something determines how we act towards it. For example, we know that some animals can feel pain, so we decide upon this fact that we should treat them ethically.

In the alternative view, ethics come first: how we act towards something determines what we find out about it. In other words, we first act ethically, extending moral consideration and courtesy to even those that we know little about, and it is through this unconditional acceptance that we are allowed to really know the subject. So even if we cannot prove that snails feel pain, or that ecosystems exhibit stability, integrity, and beauty, or that wilderness matters intrinsically, we can show care and compassion for them anyway. We do not necessarily need to know all the facts before we can act in a caring manner. And, perhaps it is by caring first that knowledge and truth are revealed. By simply spending time and sharing space with other subjects, exercising mindfulness but resting our full minds, we invite unbridled discovery.

Essentially, the alternative view calls us to enter with empty cups. It calls us to let go of our need to know, to free ourselves of agendas, to quiet our preconceptions and open ourselves to surprise. Like the character Mo'at, Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston question our fixation with evidence, fact, and objectivity. They suggest emptying our cups so that other possibilities are free to flow in.


The alternative view has some implications for science and ecology. My thinking on this is still in-progress (and probably will continue to be for a long time), and I pose the following questions in the spirit of re-imagining ecology through open dialogue:

- When an ecologist conducts their research with a set agenda--to acquire objective, scientific knowledge--what possibilities are being excluded?

- Like the "white man" who enters wanting riches, is the ecologist, wanting objective knowledge, overlooking richness? (And by richness I of course mean something very different from "species richness".) Even if the scientist has the best of intentions in seeking objective knowledge, might he or she be (unknowingly) fueling arrogance and ignorance by fixating on one way of knowing?

- Of course, it is the ecologist's job to provide impartial knowledge. But this does not necessarily have to exclude other kinds of understandings that he or she may bear witness to. What if these other ways of knowing were embraced by the academic community, and offered a more central place in ecology than their current peripheral status?

- What if ecologists were encouraged to tell about scientific findings as well as other, more personal findings, whatever that may be? What if we openly raise the status of personal findings, embracing all the contradictions and mystery that may tag along? Might that contribute more truthfully and fruitfully (albeit more messily) to our on-going vital task of deciding how to value the environment?

- What if we, as an academic discipline, validated field work not just as a place to collect samples (i.e. the field is an object--"our study site"), but also as a place that you can form a relationship with (i.e. the field is a subject)? Like a relationship with any other subject, it takes time and a certain leap of faith before one can truly appreciate the other's depth, complexities, and value. Like any other loving relationship, sometimes the lover knows things that others do not. What if we took seriously the things that an ecologist knows about nature through love?

- It seems that many ecologists do feel an emotional connection with nature and value their time in the field for non-scientific reasons. But it is always the science that gets the professional stamp of approval, never the love or joy. Does it have to be this way? Might we be losing richness by always shelving love and joy in order to display objectivity?

- Ecologists and conservation biologists are valued in society for the impartial knowledge that they can contribute. They take part in environmental decision-making processes by providing the objective results of their research. However, it is often the case that the scientist cannot produce certain pieces of information, for a variety of reasons (lack of time, logistical problems, unforeseen circumstances, etc.). What if we implemented the alternative "ethics first" view, and chose the more caring and compassionate option despite not having all the facts?

- Ecologists are scientists, but are we just scientists? Might we benefit from trying to understand the world through other lenses besides the scientific one?

- If ecologists (and academics in general) more frequently approached the world with empty (or at least emptier) cups, I wonder what possibilities might flow in.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What can science learn from Google?

That is the finishing sentence from this article. The author tries to argue that theory and the scientific method is getting obsolete in this day and age, using Google as a role model:
But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. [...] There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: "Correlation is enough." We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.
But what is the biggest problem about patterns? You will always find them, and nobody knows this better than Google. The irony of this article is that Google stands for everything that he claims is wrong with "conventional" science. Google test every new feature they implement, e.g. new gmail interface item (see contributions in the discussion by leggett.org, responsible for the new design), or this user interface design . This is not always completely successful (think Google Wave, duh), but based on some articles about how Google works, the scientific method is embedded in the core of their business model. This article, for instance, explains their overall strategy to improve their search algorithm:

At any moment, dozens of these changes are going through a well-oiled testing process. Google employs hundreds of people around the world to sit at their home computer and judge results for various queries, marking whether the tweaks return better or worse results than before. But Google also has a larger army of testers — its billions of users, virtually all of whom are unwittingly participating in its constant quality experiments. Every time engineers want to test a tweak, they run the new algorithm on a tiny percentage of random users, letting the rest of the site’s searchers serve as a massive control group. There are so many changes to measure that Google has discarded the traditional scientific nostrum that only one experiment should be conducted at a time. “On most Google queries, you’re actually in multiple control or experimental groups simultaneously,” says search quality engineer Patrick Riley. Then he corrects himself. “Essentially,” he says, “all the queries are involved in some test.” In other words, just about every time you search on Google, you’re a lab rat.

Google's strategy is probably the most successful implementation of the scientific method that does not involve technology at its core.

And what about the example that the author uses from biology?

The best practical example of this is the shotgun gene sequencing by J. Craig Venter. Enabled by high-speed sequencers and supercomputers that statistically analyze the data they produce, Venter went from sequencing individual organisms to sequencing entire ecosystems. In 2003, he started sequencing much of the ocean, retracing the voyage of Captain Cook. And in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms. If the words "discover a new species" call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn't know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn't even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.
So what can biology learn from Google in this instance? First, that identifying these "unique sequences" as potential species is based on a hypothesis, because there probably are a staggering amount of unique sequences in each genome. Second, that these new species are nothing but a hypothesis that has to be tested. Sadly enough (or lucky enough, depending on your point of view), we biologists do not have 91 million searches per day at our disposal to test these hypotheses, but still have to get in our boat and get wet.

So should science learn the scientific method from Google? It turns out that for some science writers/scientists, the answer is "yes".

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reduce + Simplify + Deepen + collaboration



Creating a concept map as a teaching/learning tool is all about what Chris Orwig refers to when he describes the poetics of pictures: it is not only about reducing and simplifying, but also (especially) about deepening (or synthesis in teaching terms). It is this last part that makes it very difficult, and rewarding. And to make this deepening work, it is all about dialogue and collaboration, which is why I believe that class room interactions are crucial in this day and age of moving more and more to digital interactions.

As an illustration, below are some pictures of the students in my class working on a problem ("Why did the development of late summer anoxic conditions in the hypolimnion of the central basin of Lake Erie frustrate attempts to reduce nutrient loading to the lake?").

This is the stage: Thursday class 8:30 am, during midterms. Only 1/3 of the students show up, which I anticipated by discussing that question since it is not a crucial part of the course. I have a starting concept map for the students, that has already taken care of the reduction and simplification part of a concept map (all the basic concepts are identified and extracted from the text book), the exercise for this class is to deepen the concept map by identifying and synthesizing the information to provide a complete answer to the question. I subdivide the class in 4 groups, and the students start by reading the question, initial concept map, text book. Of course half of the students are going over the notes for their various midterms they have that day, but there is some initial discussion going on. After 15 minutes, I ask the students to start writing their solution concept maps on whiteboards scattered throughout the class. Each group singles one person for this task, and they start the concept map.


And then the magic happens: They start disagreeing, the second person comes up, erases part of the concept map, and starts her version, a third person does the same, the students start to look up from their midterm textbooks and pay attention, provide suggestions, more discussions, and before you know it...

... every single student is looking at the whiteboard, discussing, and thinking. 


My defining moment as a teacher (too bad I had to wait 5 years for this moment), and here are the pictures as proof. Afterwards, we used the different versions to explain the relative merits of the different solutions, and how these concept maps now can be used to identify fundamental solutions (or the lack thereof) for this eutrophication problem. I tried a similar approach later with the full class, and low and behold, worked again.







As a side note, you can see from the pictures that the concept map itself is deceptively simple: maybe 27 concepts in total, all fairly basic ones. It is the arrangement of them that showed a deeper and complete understanding of the problem, and as a class they needed 80 minutes to get to that point. The two main difficulties for this problem were 1) identifying the major hierarchy, and 2) 2 cross links between the two branches of the hierarchy. I could have just shown them the final concept map, and they would have learned nothing.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

And the discussion continues...

... on Amanda's blog: What do we do with all that science?

Ecofeminism: not just tree-hugging and hairy legs

In March 2009, the Women's Studies undergraduate program (among others) was cut at Guelph. I wasn't involved in the issue myself, but knew a few people who rallied against this decision. They cited it as ironic evidence that feminism is far from being a finished movement. At the time, I only saw a superficial link between the Women's Studies program cut and feminism; I didn't know what feminism really was.

Now that I am reading ecofeminist literature and gaining an understanding of this environmental philosophy, I am also beginning to really appreciate the feminist philosophy. Both ecofeminism and feminism have far broader impacts than the labels will have you perceive. In fact, they both have significant impacts for ecology and science.

The terms "ecofeminism" and "feminism" tend to put people off. There is a connotation of radical outburst and civil disobedience, reserved for the very passionate and very outraged. While these may be the most visible parts of the movement, at the heart of it is simply a powerful argument about value dualities.

The story begins with two familiar dualities: Male/Female, and Reason/Emotion. The dualities are commonly viewed in parallel, with men being typically associated with reason and thinking, and women with emotion and feeling.

There is nothing inherently wrong with noticing differences and contrasting two things that are different. The problem emerges when we start to value one more than the other. One is seen as superior, the other inferior. It becomes acceptable for one to dominate, control, and use the other. The problem emerges when we start treating the two as oppositional rather than complementary.

This happened to the Reason/Emotion duality, beginning with the advent of Western philosophy and carrying on (largely unnoticed) today. Western philosophy sees reason as the epitome of human existence. Reason is a sophisticated, high-order capacity, keeping us grounded from the whims of "animal" instinct and "mere" emotion. Without reason, we would be no better than our amoral (and inferior) counterparts on Earth--that is, animals. The ability to reason is essentially what defines us as humans.

Ecofeminist Val Plumwood questions this definition:

What is taken to be authentically and characteristically human, defining of the human, as well as the ideal for which humans should strive is not to be found in what is shared with the natural and animal (e.g., the body, sexuality, reproduction, emotionality, the senses, agency) but in what is thought to separate and distinguish them--especially reason and its offshoots. Hence humanity is defined not as part of nature (perhaps a special part) but as separate from and in oposition to it. Thus the relation of humans to nature is treated as an oppositional and value dualism.

Why do we emphasize the traits that distinguish us from animals, but ignore those that we share with animals? Besides being thinking creatures, are we not also bodily creatures and feeling creatures? It is this conception of human, stressing our reason, our separateness from other animals, that breeds another parallel divide: Human/Nature.

These three dualities (Reason/Emotion, Male/Female, and Human/Nature) are inextricably linked. And ecofeminists assert that Western society's obsession with reason has created the twin domination of women and nature. Obsession with reason has led us to highly value the "masculine" properties of thinking, distance, and abstraction, while degrading the "feminine" properties of feeling, affection, and experience. This oppressive framework results in the pervasive and subliminal message: nature and women cannot reason (at least not as well as men), therefore it is okay to dominate them.

This makes it okay for men to continually earn higher salaries than women. This makes it okay for humans to continually support animal abuse with every purchase of factory farmed meat. (I don't mean to fault anyone for what they earn or what they eat; social constructs have allowed for certain habits and conveniences, certain ethics.)

More invisibly, this makes it okay for, say, an ecology professor (probably male, teaching a class of probably mostly females) to heavily embed critical thinking into his curriculum, without any effort to nurture his students' emotional connection with nature. This makes it okay for, say, an ecologist to publish a paper on riparian buffers and water quality, without addressing (either publicly or privately) the instrumentalisation of forest and trees into "riparian buffers" and water and lake into "water quality".

Why do ecology students rarely get to go outside? Why are they only asked what they think about some ecosystem, community, or population, never what they feel for a particular place or subject? Why do ecologists study "natural resources" and not nature? (As if nature is only worth what it can provide for us.) Or "wildlife management" and not wildlife? (As if wildlife is ours to control, needing rules imposed on them when they show signs of disobedience.) These are real-world examples of our reason-dominated view, representing the widely accepted (even celebrated) norm in ecology.

Male-biased views entrench our education system, perhaps most blatantly in university science departments. Caring and love are cast aside. Professors, with the best of intentions, teach us that these are "merely" emotions, unreliable and untrustworthy. A good student will channel these passions into something productive and respectable--something rational.

It is not the ecofeminist or feminist's intention to reduce the prestige of reason in Western society. Rather, they question why this must come at the expense of the prestige of emotion. Reason is undebatably an important and powerful defense against myth, superstition, and propaganda. It allows us to evaluate, reveal, and construct. The "voice of reason" lets us look past individual desires to a more objective stance. Reason can serve as a friendly invitation to explore divergent views.

But emotion has much value, too. Ecofeminists and feminists validate the role of care, compassion, empathy, and inclusivity in our ethics and in our lives. These emotions are undebatably important and powerful antidotes for insensitivity, callousness, and apathy. Emotion, too, allows us to evaluate, reveal, and construct. Heartfelt emotions like sympathy and love carry us back from abstract theory to personal experience. Like reason, emotion can serve as a friendly invitation to explore divergent views.

To be human is to both think and feel. Thinking and feeling are different and complementary modes of knowing. They keep each other in check: thinking pulls us back from irrationality; feeling pulls us back from blind rationality. Western philosophy presents thinking and feeling as at war, with thinking being the favoured winner. Ecofeminism and feminism reject this oppositional value duality. Thinking and feeling feed each other. The complementarity of emotion and reason is our best toolkit for understanding the world and deciding how we ought to live.

The paradox of ecology is that it recognizes the importance of nature and the strain that humans impose on nature. Yet it insists on operating under a reason-dominated framework (i.e. science and the hypothetico-deductive method) that subliminally and continually oppresses nature. To truly value nature (and women), we must first seriously re-consider the oppositional value dualities that have led to this oppression. Borrowing a symbol from Buddhist philosophy, this shift must take place:


Caring and love should not be cast aside. They should be encouraged. I believe this encouragement can and should take place in an ecology classroom, right alongside encouraging critical thought and hypothetico-deductive reasoning. (Perhaps the traditional reason-dominated and male-biased classroom is a fundamental barrier against attracting and keeping women in science...but that is another posting altogether.)

Returning to the issue of the Women's Studies program at Guelph, it is ironic indeed that a program giving voice to the value of emotion was single-handedly silenced by a reason-dominated institution. At the time, I was hard at work completing my Master of Science degree, writing about "riparian buffers" and "water quality" within the impenetrable walls of the new Science Complex. I had no idea that I, too, was fueling the twin domination of women and nature. I found the loss of Women's Studies unfortunate, but was largely oblivious to its heavy social implications.

Reading ecofeminist philosophy has really opened my eyes. Ecofeminism is only superficially about stopping animal cruelty and championing for women's rights. It digs far deeper, revealing the oppositional value dualities that underscore our societal prejudices. This story does not only apply to women and nature, but virtually to every group that has faced discrimination (Aboriginal communities, disabled persons, LGBT, etc.). Ecofeminism sheds light on the shared history and shared challenges of many social and environmental problems.

For me, I am astonished to learn the tight links between social and environmental problems. I am also astonished to learn how much I did not learn in my years of science education. Thus, I am ever more convinced that we need stronger commitment to interdisciplinary education and research. Disconcertingly...guess what other undergraduate program was cut at Guelph in March 2009? Arts and Science.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A remedy for inaccessible science?

One of the most common complaints about the world of science is it's inaccessibility to the everyday person. Carl Zimmer has put together an "Index of Banned Words". Words that should be vanquished from the vocabulary of scientists everywhere. The list includes the taboos "elucidate", "predation", "mechanism", and (gasp!) "community ecology".

Reading through the list has made me realize how incredibly predictable my choice of words has become when writing in my science courses.

What is it that makes scientists so scared to write in everyday language? Does that fact that only a tiny percentage of the general population understand our writing make us feel like we belong to an exclusive club? Are we scared that we will lose our street cred among fellow scientists if our writing is not "abstract" enough? But then again, since when is our target audience the general public? In a recent post, Ingrid made some great points about the changing role of scientists, and our need to communicate with non-scientists. Ecologists need to start talking more effectively with non-scientists about environmental issues. The days of writing exclusively for our peers are over, and writing in a way that is coherent to the layperson may be a great first step to bridging the divide. After all, if we expect non-scientists to get on board with what we have to say, shouldn't they at least have an idea of what we are saying?

How do we strike a balance between writing accessibly and maintaining the technical aspects that are required for communicating abstract ideas and the scientific method? No one has taught me how to do that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eelgrass communities - An update

I recently gave a brief project update to the gang. Here are the nuts and bolts of my undergrad thesis (I’ll try to stay brief):

-Eelgrass meadows are important. They provide habitat for dozens of fish and invertebrate species, stabilize sediment, and cycle carbon and nutrients. Meadows are found in shallow coastal waters on the East and West coasts of North America. Seagrass meadows are globally threatened.

-The community dynamics of eelgrass meadows in temperate zones are largely not understood. In tropical zones, there is evidence that seagrass is often the victim of coastal eutrophication.

-Gulf Islands National Park Reserve consists of several islands off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The park was established in 2003 and has been collecting data on fish and invertebrate communities in eelgrass meadows in the park. Data is collected as part of the park’s ecological integrity monitoring initiative. Parks Canada has a mandate to ensure that the ecological integrity of park lands is maintained.

Here is a bit of footage from field sampling:

video

So what could be influencing community dynamics?

-Proximity to Fraser River estuary as well as cool nutrient rich summer upwelling which results in a temperature and salinity gradient across sites as well as summer eutrophic conditions.

-Recent El Niño/La Niña oscillations may be influencing community dynamics.

-Using published fish and invertebrate diet data, a food web will be constructed. I will then explore site differences in community structure and then attempt to determine if community dynamics as consumer or producer driven. Analysis will be done in R using RDA analysis.

At this point in the semester my “who eats who” section of the project is complete (graphical representation coming soon) and am currently beginning “real” data analysis—mostly fiddling in R, trying to determine how the community composition of the various sample site sites differ.

An interpretation of regression:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How much for that polar bear?

"The federal government wants to put a price tag on polar bears," begins this recent Globe and Mail article. It goes on to explain that Environment Canada wants to determine the socio-economic value of the iconic arctic species. This includes things like the bear's consumptive value, cultural value, scientific value, educational value, aesthetic value, existence value, and so on. How much does each "additional unit of polar bear" or each "additional hectare of habitat" bring to the nation?

Presumably, EC wants to include the polar bear in the economic analysis of climate warming. For example, ice melt in the North will open waterways and allow oil drilling (money in), but it will deplete polar bear populations (possibly money out).

Here's a revolutionary thought: polar bears (and the Arctic in general) aren't just valuable in terms of what they are worth to us. They are valuable in and of themselves. This is the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value, concepts central to the field of environmental ethics.

In this 2006 Nature article, McCauley critiques the growing trend of nature commodification. He asserts that ecologists and conservation biologists have "sold out on nature". Under the concept of ecosystem services, we have put dollar values on wildlife and wilderness in order to validate their existence to a market-based society. This has indeed given nature some wins, but not in the long-term and not honestly. Furthermore, it relegates nature to a position of instrumentalized subordination.

McCauley is clear about his beliefs: "Nature has an intrinsic value that makes it priceless, and this is reason enough to protect it." I tend to side with McCauley on this point, but I recognize that probably not all ecologists do, and probably not even all environmentalists do, and certainly not everyone does. The subject of nature's value is irrelevant for some, highly emotional for others, and is loaded with assumptions that require serious questioning.

Maybe polar bears are just worth their weight in meat. Maybe they are priceless. Maybe we should talk about it. Maybe the conversation should not be limited to environmental philosophers, but be open to everyone--including ecologists, even if it means taking off our scientist hats and revealing our moral selves.

Why do ecologists' views matter on such a value-laden issue? Isn't the job of ecologists to provide disinterested, impartial knowledge? Isn't it someone else's job to figure out what's right and wrong?

My three-part response (which I hope to develop over the next semesters):

1) Ecologists experience their study subjects or systems intimately. Their research usually includes field work, during which they spend time with nature, observe it, sometimes manipulate it. This process of studying nature facilitates the creation and strengthening of a relationship between the ecologist and the environment. I believe this relationship lets ecologists see, feel, and know things about nature that most other people do not have a chance to. Not just scientific things, but more abstract things that are learned from experiencing the natural world in a specific place and time. I believe this relationship bestows upon ecologists an additional responsibility (on top of their responsibilities as objective scientists) to actively think about and reveal assumptions that currently underlie society's moral attitude towards nature.

2) The public actually respects and will listen to scientists' opinions on environmental issues. Scientists hold a considerable degree of authority and are often sought for answers and solutions. Sometimes they are pushed beyond their sphere of expertise, for example, when they are asked to provide an answer to a moral question--what should we do? As my professor Tom Nudds would warn, "Science takes part, it doesn't take sides," and by taking sides, the scientist compromises him or herself as an objective figure.

Correct as it may be that science should not side with a particular outcome, I feel this is not a satisfactory response. It is not right for scientists to take sides and push personal agendas or opinions. But nor is it right for us to wash our hands of the moral issues at stake. I believe the stakes are too high for us to hide behind the veil of scientific impartiality.

The public wants to know what we ought to do; they are listening. Rather than become frustrated by their misunderstanding of science's epistemological boundaries, I believe this is a call for ecologists to expand their horizons, communicate the distinction between science questions and "ought" questions, then engage in a conversation about the moral issues, assumptions, and values at play. This is a critical invitation to participate in the process of ethical inquiry. By doing so, we grow as educators, learners, and as a society.

3) My hunch is that ecologists have strong feelings about nature's value but currently lack the academic language and space to frame their environmental empathy. Over the years, ecologists have worked hard to move away from the sentimentality of natural history to the empiricism of a "hard science". We assert that we are rational, not emotional. Quantitative, not qualitative. Ecologists, not environmentalists. We want to be taken seriously as scientists and in doing so, have divorced ourselves from the caring and compassion for nature that have led us to choose ecology as a vocation in the first place.

I would bet that ecologists do have feelings for nature, and these feelings matter a lot when it comes to the pressing environmental issues of our time. I believe we need to validate them and talk about them responsibly and openly, and that this is one important avenue towards environmental and social wellbeing. I believe there is a way to discuss nature’s value intelligently, without compromising our objectivity as scientists, but also without compromising our selves as humans who care for the "more-than-human" world.

Part of the solution lies in embracing ecology’s proximity to ethical issues. Rather than limit ecology to value-free science, we need to broaden ecology and borrow rhetoric and insights from fields that articulate moral, value-laden concepts. We need to create the academic space and support for ecologists to discuss those parts of their work that dip into non-science territory. I believe this would be a more fruitful endeavour than restricting our thinking to the value-free realm.


And of course, this is the perfect excuse to post Churchill polar bear pictures. Photo credit goes to Tim Bartley:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are our kids ready for neoliberal education? Absolutely!

Teaching a course is a lot of fun. The difficult part is to convert all these highbrow ideas to a group of 22-year old "kids" at 8:30 am in the morning. I really like the concept of serendipity (or is this just a justification for being glued to Google Reader and my new RSS feeds), but I stumbled across this blog post at the beginning of the semester: Are our kids ready for this? by Will Richardson from Weblogg-ed.

And here this is serendipity squared: it talks about the same issue, but from a different perspective (how critical thinking-ish): A neoliberal education. From Wired.

It is of course not really serendipity, since they all cater to the start of the new semester, and all educators are exploring these ideas, but still, it is fun to put these ideas together and to have somebody else clarify explicitly what I implemented in my course (implicitly?).

So these are now my official goals for the semester:

  • Negotiated, emergent, rhizomatic knowledge creation:
    • Create 2 lab protocols together with the students
    • Create an impressive wikipedia entry with the students on the predicted effects of the Gulf Oil Spill on the aquatic ecosystem 
  • Create a networked, decentralized, and participatory system to accomplish this knowledge creation
    • At the end of the semester, my presence will not be necessary to run the class effectively
    • The only source of chaos in class is the creative process, not the system
I have of course also objectives for my students:
  • Official course objectives (will be graded)
    • Learn about Biology of Polluted Waters
    • Improve critical thinking skills through the use of concept mapping
  • Bonus objectives (which I will evaluate with anecdotal evidence)
    • independent, goal-driven
    • willing to engage with people and ideas
I will dabble in and adapt if necessary the different courses listed in the neoliberal education to accomplish most of them:
  • Statistical literacy (the why's behind every statistical analysis)
  • Post-state diplomacy (successfully negotiating group work)
  • Remix culture (all the knowledge we create in this course are remixes)
  • Applied cognition (I love this kind of stuff)
  • Writing for new forms (can we still call collaborative editing for "the internet" new?)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Theoretical ecologists

Have you ever felt insecure, inferior, stupid, when talking to a theoretical ecologist? Here is your fall back position:

Physicists: "If you need some help with the math, let me know, but that should be enough to get you started! Huh? No, I don't need to read your thesis, I can imagine roughly what it says."

Just replace "physicist" with "theoretical ecologist", and "liberal-arts majors" with yourself, and you regain the upper hand again in any discussion ;-)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Scaling up

In our lab, we focus mainly on metacommunity dynamics, or how the interactions between dispersal and local environmental processes influence communities in the landscape. Since we are interested in communities in the landscape, we automatically deal with the issue of "scale". This is one of those very diffuse concepts in ecology, with as many definitions as scientists (temporal, spatial, conceptual, grain, ...).

This recent article by Spivak et al. in Freshwater Biology tackles a problem experimentally that is not often studied in ecology: how applicable are the results of small-scale experiments for empirical (and by default large-scale) systems? This debate is normally fun to have with a beer, because it quickly becomes philosophical and driven more by personal believes then hard data. The novelty of this article (and also the boring part, in a way), is that it removes this debate from the beer to peer review, at least for freshwater eutrophication questions. My main confusion with this article is: "why did they publish it in Freshwater Biology?" Don't get me wrong, Freshwater Biology is a very good journal, but after skimming the article, I got the feeling that they were shooting for Ecology or Ecology Letters. So I will have to read it in more detail to see what the potential problems are with their design, data, interpretation.

The main conclusion from the article is that the size of experimental unit has little influence on the experimental response (the difference between the open and closed symbols is the same in all mesocosm volumes):

I predict that this article will soon show up on the most-cited list of Freshwater Biology (which makes it so much more unexpected for me that they could not publish in a higher-ranking journal.

In our research, we solve the scale problem related to scaling up experimental results to empirical systems by .... choosing an empirical system that has the same scale as our experimental units! That is why rockpools ... rock (pun intended), and why we will use this article to justify our research to real limnologists.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Making group work bearable

As an undergraduate, I always dreaded group work. Being an introvert, I always preferred to do things on my own, especially when I didn't know my group members. The first phase of group work is the worst (in my opinion)--getting to know each other and revealing our egos. Who are these people? Do you like them? Can you work with them? Do you connect, or exist on completely different planes?

I went to a workshop last summer where they demonstrated a wonderful little teaching tool to make group work not only bearable, but also personally rewarding (click and zoom in to read):

The idea is that you gets your students to form their groups in class. When they are sitting in their groups, you give them this one-pager and ask them to each identify one Constructive Group Behaviour that they know themselves to exhibit. The students then share their responses within their groups. Immediately, each individual knows one of their personal strengths, one of the ways they can contribute to the group.

You then do the same for the Destructive Group Behaviours. With this category, you tell the students that their fellow group members can (nicely) call them out on their "bad" behaviours, when and if they start displaying them. In this way, every student feels more accountable about their words and actions. They have self-identified one interpersonal skill that they can work on, and everyone else in the group is there to help them with it. In return, they help their fellow group members with theirs.

In my experience, this activity creates a "safe space". The students drink in the supportive environment and use it for academic as well as personal learning. Almost magically, the introverts talk more and the extraverts talk less...and the group work becomes more like teamwork.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The power of graphics

Intelligent persons have written wonderful books about creating good graphs. Today, I received two graphs in my Google Reader, and they make such powerful/funny statements that I had to show them, especially since they are visually so comparable.

In the funny category:

In the powerful category (click here for the original article with more powerful visuals):

It's very unlikely that anything in my research career will produce anything that funny, or could influence the voting behaviour of a whole nation, but we can only try.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Confessions of a grad student

Are you intrigued by these snippets?
I like stats
I dislike learning R 
results may be meaningless
Tedious? Yes. Accurate? Yes 

Then go over to Amanda's latest blog post

Monday, September 6, 2010

BBQ potluck

It is that time of the year again, the evenings are getting shorter and colder, the get-back-to-school ads are  being replaced with Halloween ads, Guelph seems to girding itself for the onslaught of 17.000 partying students with campaigns, more police patrols, warnings, new by-laws, field work is winding down and everybody is slowly adjusting to the realities of life. To celebrate this past summer, and introduce all the new lab members to each other, we had our first unofficial lab meeting at my place. Sadly enough, it was raining so we could not fully use the new deck, but we did bbq. Another tradition is that I never get done with the preparations, so everybody has to help getting my contribution to the potluck ready. I had the great idea of making pizzas on the bbq, so here are:

Ingrid, Quinn, and Amanda preparing the pizza dough

Master bbq chef Kyle 

Amanda and her special calzone


Ingrid and Marina topping up
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Scientists measure...

... all kinds of things. See Amanda's latest post from Churchill.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bike Lessons


I am Ingrid, a returning member of the Cottenie lab. This is my first post, and it comes at one of those in-between times in my life. I am in between finishing a two-month bike tour and starting a three- (or four, or more...?) year PhD. It's been an interesting process, returning from the tour and re-integrating back into society.

First, a little about the tour. It was one of the best and most challenging things I have ever done. Almost two months after my return, I am still reflecting on all that I learned during this time.

It was organized by a group called The Otesha Project. It wasn't your regular bike tour, but a "cycling and performing tour dedicated to youth empowerment and environmental sustainability through storytelling". We put on a play in different towns and schools throughout Ontario, about the global impact of our everyday choices. More than a bike tour, we were a mobile community that aimed to educate youth, promote critical thinking, and question assumptions.



Here are some things I had never done before the two months:
  • I had never been on a bike tour.
  • I had never acted on stage (discounting guest lectures?)
  • I had never biked 100+km in a day, never biked with a trailer, never biked with such a sore and spent body.
  • I had never biked with such high high's and low low's. Bike touring brings with it great freedom and elation, but also at times complete and utter despair.
  • I had never slept in such an eclectic mix of places: in farmers' fields, church basements, next to a haybale, under hula hoops in a school gym, in strangers' backyards, next to a Playskool kitchen...
  • I had never been labelled a "hippie".
  • I had never met 18 other people on one day and then built a community and family with them by the next week.



I was exposed to a lot of new things, many of which I am still digesting. And as I sit pondering my past and looming adventures, it dawns on me that doing a PhD and going on an Otesha tour are not so different:
  • Like my Otesha experience, my PhD will centre on educating youth, promoting critical thinking, and questioning assumptions.
  • Like on tour, I will need endurance to make it through all the checkpoints. Some legs of the journey will be enjoyable and I will feel like I am flying, but others will test my strength and I will feel like I have been hauling a trailer for 100+km.
  • Like on tour, I will be living my passion!
  • I may or may not find myself sleeping beside Playskool kitchens...
  • I don't know if I'll be labelled a "hippie", but I'm quite sure I will be labelled an "academic". Interestingly, the two share (in my opinion) a reluctance to part with ideals and a naive refusal to join the real world.
  • Like my Otesha family, I hope to meet a community of like-minded people who I can connect with and draw on for ideas and support.
Living on your bike for two months will teach you some important lessons. These I want to carry with me through life and through the next PhD years:

1. There will be hills.
There will be hills, you will have to work to get to the top, and it will be hard. When you get there you might be faced with yet another hill, this one steeper. But the saving grace is that you can always look to your bike buddy to divide the pain, if not the work.

2. Every spoke plays its part.
What I've learned about wheels and spokes is that a wheel really needs all of its spokes to work. If one spoke is slack, the strength of the wheel is compromised. If one is overly tense, it is taking on too much and will eventually break. So I ask myself how I can be the best spoke I can be...

3. Once in a while, remember how big the universe is.
There's nothing like cycling through Ontario's rolling hills, cornfield after cornfield, to remind you how small you are and how big the universe is. And there's nothing like wrapping your mind around the size of the universe that will inspire an appreciation for mystery. And there's nothing like realizing you are in the middle of a grand mystery to dispel the small problems of the everyday. So it doesn't matter if mosquitoes are taking over your tent or unread papers your desk. I do what I do for those moments of indescribable connection to the earth.


So with brain refreshed, heart refilled, and pedalling legs strong, I look forward to my PhD.

The most important piece of advice?

Here is a great post, over on ProfHacker, about advice to new grad students: An open letter to new graduate students, by Brian Croxall. While I agree with most of these topics with varying degrees, they did not include the most important piece of advise, probably because it is so obvious: ask questions. Our role as advisors is to advise, but we can only do this if we get questions. Come in my office, send me an email, skype, whatever. And if I do not answer, which will happen, as some will attest to quite vocally, resend the email.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Field work is winding down in Churchill

Mid august, and it is starting to feel like summer is indeed slowly winding down.

Amanda is also feeling signs of Fall in Churchill, and Brittany has just put an update about her first field season up there.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Critical thinking: different perspectives

When we were preparing the grading rubric to assess critical thinking (which is more complicated than you might think), Marianne Staempfli found this very useful resource: The Critical Thinking Community. While the website itself is quaintly old-fashioned, it has a lot of useful information. For instance, a definition:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
Based on that and other partly overlapping definitions, they also provide a critical thinking grid. This grid provides descriptions for several objectives related to purpose, problem, information, concepts, assumptions, interpretations, implications, and perspectives. When Marianne and I converted this grid into a more logical structure, the most "contentious" issue was whether to include a category related to point of view or perspective into the grading grid. In the end, we decided that this indeed was something we would evaluate in our teaching, and kept it in the final version of our critical thinking grid. I could give you my rambling reasons, or you could just watch this short video of a presentation by Derek Sivers from my favourite source of examples:  TED .



Different perspectives are an important component of critical thinking, because by explicitly acknowledging them, you
  • increase the amount of information you have on a topic, and thus also potential solutions
  • reduce your inherent subjectivity when studying a topic
  • increase the clarity of your study because you address other points of view explicitly in your explanations

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A metacommuntiy or a self-organized system?

It is always interesting to read how scientists read, understand, and interpret articles in very different way. You can encounter this most often for your own results when you present at a conference or seminar, and you get questions that throw you in a hoop, and track the articles that refer to one of your publications (admit it, you do it too): often the first response is "how could they interpret my text/data/interpretation in that context?". The 3 most obvious causes for this confusion in understanding are either related to the reader, the writer, or implicit differences between the reader and writer. 
  • the reader often lacks the time to understand something (e.g., when you are presenting something in 12 minutes)
  • the writer often lacks clarity in his/her explanation (e.g. when you present something or in referencing an article out of context)
  • or implicit differences in background, expertise, and even personality between readers and writer


While we are all seasoned writers that provide clear, explicit, well-crafted texts to our audience (or so we hope at least, right?), we often assume it is either problem 1: readers/reviewers/audience need to read it more carefully. We are less often exposed to the third type of cause, implicit differences between scientists, or the inherent subjectivity to science, if you will.

After reading the primer by O.J. Schmitz to an very interesting article by Pringle et al., both in PLoS Biology, I was again made aware of the importance of subjectivity in reading articles. The function of the primer is to provide a bigger context to an article such that it becomes more accessible to a bigger audience.  In his primer, Schmitz argues that there are two views on spatial dynamics in empirical systems: an intuitive and well-studied meta-system (or meta-community) view, and a self-organized system view that received less attention because it is a more abstract construct.

While you could argue at nauseam which is the most abstract theory, and whether self-emergent systems are uniquely characterized by positive interactions within a patch and negative feedback between patches, I interpreted the original article quite differently from Schmitz. I agree that the establishment of termite mounts is potentially an example of a self-organized system, but this is not the focus of the article. The focus of the article is what consequences these termite mounts have on the ecosystem. And at this point, the more natural theoretical framework is a metacommunity framework. Once the termite mounts are established, they become similar to lakes in a landscape, with very distinct environmental conditions within the mounts versus the savannah matrix. These differences in environmental conditions, together with dispersal dynamics, result in specific arthropod, plant, and arboreal predator communities. And this is exactly the metacommunity, or meta-ecosystem, approach.

So based on my interpretation, this article is not so much about self-organized systems as it provides a nice example of species sorting dynamics in a metacommunity expressed at multiple trophic levels. But am I maybe biased because I think that ecology is actually metacommunity ecology?

Monday, July 19, 2010

A preview

A preview of things to come in the subarctic.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The scientific method: from intuition to data and back

This is an article in the Globe and Mail that struck a cord with me, "Ten years that shook, rattled, rolled and helped repair the world" by Doug Saunders. If you do not have the time to read the full article, you can click on this shortened version with most of the salient points summarized in a concept map structure (make sure to click on it to see the bigger version so that you can actually read the text ;-):


This article provides a very nice example of the 10th Cottenie Commandment: Thou Shalt Listen to thy Intuition, but Follow the Data. Intuition is a very powerful (human?) tool. We all know this (all my better ideas arrive to me magically on my bike ride home), and research actually shows this (see the articles references by;Ap Dijksterhuis, e.g, his 2006 Science article). We seem to be hardwired to find solutions to problems, even (and sometimes especially) without thinking about them. However, we should always check whether our intuition is correct, with new data, in whatever form it comes: observations, models, experiments, etc. The scientific method is nothing else than a formalization of this process: the hypothesis and prediction are a formal representation of your intuition on what causes a certain problem or question, and all the tests are formal ways to obtain new data. I think this explains partly the power of the scientific method as a way of explaining phenomena: it is actually a very natural way to approach a problem.

The article by Doug Saunders implicitly uses this method, by starting the article and each subsection with the intuitive notion of the common consensus on how the world would progress, and it follows this by the actual data 10 years later. The very short version of his analysis: if you look at socio-economical benchmarks, the world improved substantially in the last 10 years. Surprisingly, I also think that the main point that D. Saunders failed to cover, and it is a huge one, is the deteriorating environment in the last 10 years. I think that all the indicators would show a decline in the environment (anybody has any references for this statement?).

So the main question for the next 10 years is whether these socio-political improvements are going to be sustainable. Very hard to predict. What is your intuition?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Concept maps: THE tool for learners?

Learning (be it as a scientist, a teacher, a student, or any combination of the above, this will be the topic of another blog) is a difficult process, as any scientist, teacher, or student will tell you. However, sometimes you get struck by lightening, by an experience that makes you wonder, "How did I ever function without this?". 3 years ago, I was introduced to concept mapping by Steve Crawford, but I am not exactly sure how we got on this subject. Probably one of those serendipitous moments in life, instigated by being on the same floor and bumping into each other (location, location, location). Steve even has a whole room set up to use concept mapping for his research (yes, I am only a little bit jealous).

I used it for the first, haphazardly I have to admit, in Fall 2008 for Biology of Polluted Waters. I did give students to choice between either creating concepts using pen and paper, or computer software, and they only had to use it for the semester-long assignment. This was a mixed success, because I forgot rule number 1 when teaching: start small, and practice. I added more information on concept mapping in Winter 2009 for Community Ecology, but only really committed in the Summer and Fall of 2009, with providing guidelines on how to use and construct concept maps, specific exercises, grading rubrics (bad ones, updated them since), moving focus away from writing to concept maps, including them in all part of the learning experience.

It is such an important tool that I also force all my grad students (and I try this with all my collaborators as well), to construct a concept map before sending me any written text. If they do send me a written text first, I often have to quickly create a concept map before I can read the text again, and I send them the concept map first before rewriting the text. That is why concept mapping earns a separate commandment in The Cottenie Commandments.

So I do think they are an important tool for learners. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but I want to point out 2.

  • Firstly, it is a very intuitive way of presenting and working with information. The example I use in one of my classes is this diagram by Richard Scarry (I got this idea from the book "Advanced Presentations by Design, from Andrew Abela", highly recommended):



  • Second, it provides a very efficient way of taking information and working with it to come up with the intuitive presentation. One of the best examples to illustrate this transformation of complexity to a structured, logical, intuitive representation of information is by somebody who makes his living doing this (and I can use another TED talk again). Why do I like this example so much: almost everybody has a credit card, but hardly anybody reads the agreement (at least I do not) because of the complexity of the language and the document. But reading the one pager that has all the necessary information, waw. 


As you can see, these 2 examples are not your regular examples of concept maps. Why did I take these two examples? Because they also illustrate that concept maps and concept mapping should never be the goal or the objective, which is ultimately about information presentation. I am convinced, though, that they were an important tool, either explicitly or implicitly, in creating these two presentations. Do I have proof of this? No, but we are working on a study that will test the potential relationship between concept mapping and critical thinking.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Grade inflation excess

Where did it go wrong with our university system? One possible reason is the increasing importance of "grades" in the mind of a student, instructor, granting agency, employer, for the easy quantification it provides of a student's learning. This is problematic on so many different levels. Maybe the most important level is that education/teaching/learning is not about "to distinguish the wheat from the chaff",  but actually about learning. At Guelph, our guiding principle for teaching and learning is "learner-centredness", actually a very useful guidance for developing a course (too bad students do not read this, and it is impossible to find on the UoG website). 
The NYT now has a very informative, and scary, article on the obvious excesses this leads to: Unapologetic, ridiculous, retroactive (!) grade inflation that will accomplish nothing except appeasing students (and parents). The one  advantage of this craziness? Summative grades will become useless, and by default we would switch to a pass/fail system without grades (or a pass system, since everybody will get an A :-). The article mentions that modified pass/fail systems are already implemented in Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and UC Berkeley. Sure, they can get away with this because they are Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and UC Berkeley, but maybe because of these grade inflation pressures we will all switch to formative assessment in a pass/fail system (we can only dream). And this means that we as teachers will have to step up our game as well, because this will have huge, but positive, implications on how and what we teach.