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Posts Tagged ‘biology’

Jessica Lahey wrote an interesting piece last spring about encouraging teenagers to read. She shares her experience in getting her sons to pick up reading again, a voluntary activity that can sometimes flag as reading for academics and extracurricular commitments swell through middle and high school. She has a number of great suggestions, including “seeding” her son’s room with “literary bait” gathered from the non-YA section of the bookstore. Getting kids to follow their own interests (and to make choices on their own) can play a big part in instilling a lifelong love of reading. While her article was largely related to what kids read in their free time, much of what she wrote resonated with me as a classroom teacher who also wants his students to read.

I didn’t see Jessica’s article until just this week when she Tweeted Encouraging Teens to Read Nonfiction (With Cunning, Guile, & a Bit of Luck),” along with a link and a photo of a stack of books. (The books totally caught my eye, and I’m putting the ones I haven’t read on my ever-growing list to check out.)

So here’s why it resonated with me: This year I decided to pilot a non-fiction book project with my ninth grade biology class, and I’m excited about how it went. Students chose books from a long list of titles, and they each read a different book. It was my goal to engage their interest in a wide range of topics related to biology, including medicine, DNA and genetics, sports, natural history, zoology, evolution, endangered species, food and nutrition, the brain, music, and conservation. And really, I also wanted to expose them to good non-fiction writing and to see if they’d liked it. I didn’t make it optional, but I did give them choice and a good deal of time.

Here’s what they read:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot)
  • Spillover (Quammen)
  • A Primate’s Memoir (Sapolsky)
  • Inside of a Dog (Horowitz)
  • Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Sapolsky)
  • The Wolverine Way (Chadwick)
  • The Violinist’s Thumb (Kean)
  • The Sports Gene (Epstein)
  • The Making of the Fittest (Carroll)
  • Devil’s Teeth (Casey)
  • Monster of God (Quammen)
  • Song of the Dodo (Quammen)
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan)
  • Incognito (Eagleman)
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons (Kean)
  • My Stroke of Insight (Bolte-Taylor)
  • Your Brain on Music (Levitin)
  • The World Without Us (Weisman)

Some books they didn’t pick that I think would still be good choices: A Sting in the Tale (Goulson), The Botany of Desire (Pollan), Four Fish (Greenberg), Cod (Kurlansky), On the Origin of Species (Darwin), Song for the Blue Ocean (Safina), On the Wing (Tennant), The Sixth Extinction (Kolbert), What to Eat (Nestle), Musicophilia (Sacks), Silent Spring (Carson), The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck). Let me know in the COMMENTS section if you have suggestions for other books you think might work. I’d love to have a longer list for students to choose from in September.

One of the challenges of adding this on top of any course is that our students are already plenty busy. They’re reading The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, etc. in English, plus history homework and papers, Spanish projects, math, and also my own assignments for Biology, reading both current articles and textbook chapters. So I spread this project out over the first two trimesters. I didn’t want them to have to cram to finish their books as they were prepping for final exams, for example. I kept the assignments simple, but I found that I did need to assign them something. They weren’t about to just read them on their own. Assignment 1 was a 50-pages-in tell me about the book, plus a quick explanation of the author’s goal/thesis, and a notable quote (this was in a round table format, explained to the rest of the class). Assignment 2 was a middle-of-the-book written explanation of a longer excerpt, a what-I’ve-learned-so-far about this topic check-in. And finally, Assignment 3 was a larger book review; a summary, notable excerpt, and a conclusion on whether they thought I should keep the book in the hopper for next year’s class.

My takeaways: the students generally liked this project, and were interested in what they found in the books. They weren’t terribly excited that I plopped this on top of their plates, but their topics did work their way into class discussions throughout the year (The Sports Gene, The Violinist’s Thumb, The Making of the Fittest, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came up on multiple occasions when their readers were happy to chime in with something they had just read related to the class topic).

Favorite outcome by far: my students are now working through the human body systems by working backwards from diseases, and Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight” has made its way from the girl who read it for the book project to the girl that’s researching stroke. She says, “Oh, ___, you should read the first section of my book. It explains everything you need to know. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” And she did.

 

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I just found this video/tutorial series from bozemanbiology as I was looking for a visual way to introduce cells, other than looking at the diagrams in the book (or using CellsAlive, which I also find incredibly useful). So we watched this video today in class with both my biology sections. Now, Andersen FLIES through this stuff, faster than kids can take notes on, but I think his explanations are really clear (and students can always watch the video again. That could be useful for them after they’ve learned more about organelles, as a way to tie it all together for review). I also love the podcast style and how he uses graphics and “smart pen” notes on the screen. It’s like listening to and watching Alton Brown explain animal cell structures. I’d like to make some of these tutorials myself, or have the kids make them to show what they know for assessments.

Paul Andersen is a high school biology teacher in Bozeman, MT, and he’s got a few hundred videos on his YouTube channel, most on topics on biology, but some in physics, chemistry, and scientific method. It’s like Khan Academy with more visual aids.

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Image: W. W. Norton & Company

So, there IS a new David Quammen book! This one deals with the crossover of infectious disease into humans; a fascinating, terrifying, and all-too-common process called zoonosis. Diseases such as bubonic plague, swine flu, HIV, and Ebola fall into this category. It’s important to note that transmission by an organism doesn’t make a disease zoonotic; rather, zoonoses involve a “jump” of a species-specific pathogen to a new species (in this case humans). Swine flu is a good example. Normally, we don’t catch the flu that pigs catch — the virus is great at infecting pig cells, not ours. But when that influenza virus mutates (which it does often), some of those mutated versions may be able to infect us (note: some of those mutations might also be harmless to us; some mutations will render the virus ineffective entirely — but we don’t hear about those versions. This is natural selection, of course.). This situation can be especially problematic because that recently mutated virus, in addition to being “new” to the world, is also totally “new” to our immune systems (advantage: virus). Throw in the fact that we’re putting ourselves in contact with more and more potential “new” pathogens all over the world (travel, exploration, destruction of rain forests, etc.) and we end up with a lot more potential diseases to combat. My seventh graders do a project on infectious diseases after studying bacteria and viruses, and the subject of this book ties in nicely with that project. So, in addition to new books this fall from Chabon, Helprin, McEwan, Ruhlman, and Kean, now I’m looking forward to finding some time to read Quammen’s “Spillover.”

Here’s the trailer for the book from the publisher, W. W. Norton:

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I’m tempted to lean towards the overblown and pronounce something like, “Everyone should read this book.” But I realize that not everyone is going to read it, and that’s okay. It’s non-fiction, pretty dense and scientific, and it’s hugely interesting. Maybe you’re not into that. It’s brilliantly presented, by the way. Parts are thick, with a multitude of hormone and receptor names, other sections with references to neurological and psychological research that spreads over the last century, and parts could be construed as depressing (not in the clinical sense of the word), but only if you stop halfway through the book, because there’s hope at the end (more on that later). Sapolsky’s writing is engaging, detailed, at times humorous, and it’s accessible, despite the depth and complexity of the subject matter.

I do feel like all kinds of people should read this book: if you are a teacher (and not just if you teach science); if you have kids of your own; if you’re married; if you work; if you’re curious about how the brain works; if you’re curious about stress; if you have stress; or if you really want to know what stress does to your body at the chemical and biological level… the list goes on.

I didn’t know about Robert Sapolsky until just recently, when I read that his Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology course at Stamford was available to watch online for free (thanks to OpenCulture: Biology That Makes Us Tick 3-28-11). I’m curious about his other books, A Primate’s Memoir, and The Trouble With Testosterone, because I really enjoy his writing style, (and I teach biology, so I happen to be interested in those topics). I also find him to be a fascinating lecturer. And once you watch the intro to Behavior Bio linked above (or watch the lecture on stress and depression below), you can absolutely hear his voice come through his writing. I imagine that when you write a book about a topic in your field (and revise it twice) that it becomes pretty familiar material. Whether it’s explaining the subject in front of a class or presenting his ideas in writing, he lays the case out clearly and persuasively (down to the same examples and phrases). The lecture below pretty much summarizes chapter 14 on stress and depression, which is staggering:

It’s incredible how far-reaching are the effects of stress and its attendant chemicals. They can save your life if you happen to be running from an actual lion (like the zebra of the title), but the case of humans is a bit more complicated because we tend to overthink things; the same chemical stress-response can get your hormones and body all worked up if you’re just anxious about running from a lion (or running from some metaphorical lion in your actual life). Elevated levels of glucocorticoids (a major focus of the book) can wreak havoc on your heart, blood vessels, reproductive and immune systems, sleep patterns, and general well-being. Elevated levels of stress hormones have been shown to have the same effect on your body that years of aging has. Oh, and they can also shrink your hippocampus and screw up your memory. Great.

But there’s hope.

The last section of the book is on dealing with stress. It’s possible. People actually do it, effectively even. And with the goal of “aging well” — not letting stress beat you down — Sapolsky presents some suggestions. Some of this stuff is unavoidable, due to the circumstances (genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic) that a person is born into — we don’t have much control over those things, and they are major influences (or potential risk factors, frankly). But under the heading of “control what you can control” he presents coping strategies that include exercise, maintenance and growth of positive social relationships (which do make a difference), meditation, religion, social support networks, and the importance of maintaining perspective. It doesn’t really end with fluff, and I hope I haven’t made it sound like that. It’s not a self-help book. Throughout the book Sapolsky presents clinical research, case studies, and work with rats and baboons that illustrate in remarkable detail how our brains and hormones (and those of all mammals, really) work. I feel that understanding the ways that the body deals with changes in the outside world (stressful things) can help influence the way we approach them. It might be tough to tell a “type A” personality to keep an even keel, but it turns out that it’s one of the more important things you can do.

You should totally read this book.

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A colleague (and fellow football coach) alerted me to this story today, and it’s worth watching if you coach youth sports, or if you have children that are involved in contact sports.

Hard Hits, Hard Numbers is a segment by Stone Phillips that covers a study done by researchers from Virginia Tech on impact and the brain in youth tackle football. It follows one team of 7-8 year olds over the course of an entire season, looking at impact data from hits in practice and games by fitting several players’ helmets with accelerometers (which measure force and direction of impact). Although this study deals with hits to the head in football, the research would apply by extension to any contact sport played with a helmet, such as hockey or lacrosse.

Stone Phillips on PBSNewsHour: Pint-sized Football Players Take Big-League Hits

The full article from the study was published last month in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

It’s something we should continue to think about as coaches as we work to ensure safety for the children that we work with in youth sports.

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A Mitosis Mystery Solved: How Chromosomes Align Perfectly in a Dividing Cell. via Science Daily.

Should You Drink Bottled Water (and other questions for Charles Fishman), by Dan Pink.

‘Mountain Lion’ Spotted at UConn Health Center More Likely a Bobcat, via New Canaan Patch.

Rising Ocean Acidity Worst for Caribbean and Pacific, via ENN.com.

World’s Biggest Offshore Windfarm Officially Connected to the Grid, via ENN.com.

We Can See You” Display Deters Bee-botherers, via Nature News Blog.

and

Biology Labs for Valentine’s Day! from Science Stuff blog.

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In addition to the Virtual Urchin simulation, I’m interested in a few more that were mentioned in Technology in the Secondary Science Classroom (Bell, Gess-Newsome, Luft). And as we understand that online and computer simulations don’t replace first-hand experiences, they do represent great supplemental material.

I teach a seventh grade class that includes Life Science and Environmental Science components, and a 9th grade Biology class. I’ll talk more about supplemental materials for my 7th graders with online data sets (post forthcoming). But there are quite a few that I’m looking forward to exploring more with my biology students.

The pbs.org You Try It pages contain the relevant content areas: Atom Builder, Human Evolution, and DNA Workshop.

I’ve found Cells Alive very unseful in the past when discussing (and illustrating) cell organelles, cell cycle, mitosis, and meiosis. The interactive portion of the website, including the animations and schematic diagrams, are clear and helpful to students.

For other topics in biology, I might consider trying ExploreLearning.com, although this is a commercial website, and I’d have to balance the benefits of its simulations with the cost of subscribing. It does look like they have a ton online. Here are the selected topics in Heredity and Genetics that they offer. I might consider trying the 30-day trial during that unit to get a feel for it. Does anyone have experience with this site that they can share?

Lasty, the Cell Biology Animations at www.johnkyrk.com look incredibly detailed. I plan on using those.

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