Archive for: February, 2011

Friday Sprog Blogging: choosing sides.

Feb 25 2011 Published by under Kids and science

The Free-Ride offspring have been hunkered down with their school work (not to mention wondering whether their soccer practices this week will be called off due to ... snow?), but they took the time to dash off some drawings to suggest where the parts of their minds devoted to science are lately.

The younger Free-Ride offspring followed radio reports of Watson and its wild success on Jeopardy.

Bender versus Watson

Regular readers may recall that the younger Free-Ride offspring is a fan of Bender. Naturally, therefore, the younger Free-Ride offspring would like to see Bender face off against Watson. Verily, the younger Free-Ride offspring would like to see Bender crush Watson in a battle of artificial intellects.

We are still searching for the Jeopardy category where this is likely to happen. Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, the elder Free-Ride offspring contemplates the science fair, and imagines more active participation from the proposed animal subject:

Snowflake versus the Internets

In the picture, Snowflake is reading what some yahoo has apparently written on the internet: "... Which proves that bunnies could never understand the importance of science."

Snowflake's response (which I can only imagine was preceded by a snort): "My big fluffy bunny butt."

(It would appear that Snowflake is clutching an Eppendorf tube in her left forepaw.)

If it does snow here this weekend, we'll check back in to share the apocalypse with you.

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Tuesday headdesk.

Did you ever go to your class and give what feels like a really good lecture on the reading (because the students look engaged, and they're asking really good questions about both the specifics and the big picture) ...

And, it feels like it's connecting in a really effective way to issues discussed in the last class meeting (simultaneously reinforcing some of those points and challenging them) ...

And, you didn't even really have to dip into your list of half a dozen current situations that raise similar kinds of questions, because the students are all over it and have raised half a dozen such current situations of their own ...

Only to discover
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Friday Sprog Blogging: science fair experimental design.

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Critters, Kids and science, Methodology

The elder Free-Ride offspring is thinking about a project studying the behavior of Snowflake Free-Ride, the rabbit in residence at Casa Free-Ride. While finding interesting questions to ask about the bunny is pretty easy, working out reasonable ways to get data that might help answer those questions is somewhat harder:

Elder offspring: I want to see whether Snowflake finds food with her eyes or her nose.

Dr. Free-Ride: What are your thoughts on how to do that?

Elder offspring: Well, we need a room ...

Dr. Free-Ride: ... OK. Tell me more.

Elder offspring: We need a room with a fan up at the top.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why do we need a fan up at the top?

Elder offspring: To blow away the smells.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. So you're looking for some mechanism to mask smells and see if she can still find the food.

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess I'm not totally convinced a fan is the best way to mask a smell. Also, I worry that it might freak her out.

Elder offspring: Oh.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, your hypothesis is that she's either finding the food by smell or by sight. So how would you tell if sight is what she's using?

Elder offspring: We start the fan and put the food there and if she can find it ... We may also need to use a clothespin, like in those cartoons --

Dr. Free-Ride: We're totally not putting a clothespin on the rabbit's nose, smart aleck!

Elder offspring: (snickering) I know.

Dr. Free-Ride: Let's back up a little bit. We're talking about two possible ways you think the rabbit could locate food -- one is by vision, one is by smell. Masking smell means we have to figure out a way to get the volatile stuff that the nose detects away from her. But my own hunch is that masking sight might be easier. Do you have any thoughts on how to mask --

Elder offspring: Blindfolds.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh, no. You'll have to be more clever, since you can't blindfold the bunny.

Elder offspring: Put her in a dark room.

Dr. Free-Ride: I don't know how good her night vision is. (Or how good your night vision is if you're in the dark room trying to observe her.)

Elder offspring: If we hear munching ...

Dr. Free-Ride: Isn't she always munching on something?

Elder offspring: We'd use a food where the munching sounds like crunching.

Dr. Free-Ride: Aside from utter darkness, can you think of any other way to mask visual contact with the food?

Elder offspring: What if we surround a carrot by things that are visually distracting?

Dr. Free-Ride: Does that really test whether she's using vision to find the carrot, or whether she can pick it out visually amongst a bunch of visually distracting things? Maybe you need to think about whether there's some way to disguise it looking like a carrot, but it would still be there for her to smell.

Elder offspring: How about we put it behind a curtain or something?

Dr. Free-Ride: Ah, a barrier that keeps her from seeing it. Then, with the carrot out of sight but in smelling range, you'd see if she reacted like, "Where's the carrot. GIMME THE CARROT!"

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, that seems like a key part of your experimental design: how exactly are you going to mask the carrot's visibility but not its smell?

Elder offspring: Invisibility cloak!

Dr. Free-Ride: You don't get to use things that don't exist in your science fair project. Unless you can successfully invent them, in which case -- if you can successfully invent an invisibility cloak, I submit to you that that would probably be a more impressive science fair project than this information on rabbit behavior that you obtain using the invisibility cloak.

Elder offspring: Yeah, OK.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, is it going to be a problem that you have exactly one rabbit to study?

Elder offspring: Nah.

Dr. Free-Ride: What's that going to do to the conclusions you can draw.

Elder offspring: I probably can't say that all rabbits are like this based on the behavior of this one rabbit. But, she's a pretty typical rabbit.

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you know she's pretty typical?

Elder offspring: Because, she's a breed [New Zealand white] that's raised for lab use, and they want typical animals for lab use.

Dr. Free-Ride: Which means you would be surprised if she were very weird, as rabbits go?

Elder offspring: Yes.

Dr. Free-Ride: Of course, she's been living with you for almost a year now. That might be enough to make a rabbit weird.

Elder offspring: Hey!

Dr. Free-Ride: I'm just saying. So, back to your experimental design, since Snowflake is a smart rabbit -- she learns stuff -- what if you make a curtain or some other barrier and she starts associating it with carrots?

Elder offspring: Maybe sometimes we could just put a rock behind it instead of a carrot.

Dr. Free-Ride: Good call -- something that isn't edible and doesn't smell like a treat.

7 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: comfort food.

We had to fetch the younger Free-Ride offspring from school yesterday midday on account of an unscheduled bout of vomiting.* Because, you know, the microbes and immune systems tend not to take account of things like our work schedules. ("Or whether we have a science test," the younger Free-Ride offspring chimes in.)

Anyway, since experience has established me as the puke-parent** in the Free-Ride household (the one upon whom a child will vomit in instances where someone is vomited upon), I now have something of a procedure when I get home with a pukey kid. We cover the head of the bed, the pillow, and the floor area adjacent to the child's bed with towels (since, in case of puke, it's easier to remove and replace a towel or two than to strip the whole bed and change the sheets). We provide a nice big aluminum bowl next to the bed ... just in case.

And we don't even think about putting food into that tummy until the tummy shows no signs of erupting.

But then, what to put in the tummy -- what counts as a "gentle" food for a kid recovering from a stomach bug -- is a source of some controversy at Casa Free-Ride.

In the household in which I grew up, flat ginger ale and saltines were the canonical first foods after an upchuck. If they stayed down, maybe 24 hours later you'd get to try some baked custard, the eventually "real" food.

Sadly, we hardly ever have ginger ale in the house, and the Free-Ride offspring have declared saltines strange and disgusting. What this means is that I don't have a well-established safe food with which to test tummy stability.

Indeed, as I was laying down towels, right before I was going to make a batch of baked custard, the younger Free-Ride offspring mentioned that a teacher at the after school program had said that eggs (an ingredient of baked custard) are not a good food for your tummy after vomiting.

This suggests to us that what people consider as the right kind of food to give a kid who's been throwing up must be pretty strongly shaped by what kind of food they were given as kids trying to get better from crummy tummies. Also, it suggests that there is no clear unified theory of the optimal macronutrient composition for these foods -- at least not one upon which a clear majority of grown-ups taking care of these kids agree.

My strategy, drawn from my childhood, has been: fluids with a little flavor (because water tastes funny when you're sick), then carbohydrates with negligible fiber (the dreaded saltines), then some not-too-wobbly protein, and none of it very far from a flavor range it would be fair to describe as "bland". Probably a banana somewhere in there, too.

But, see, now the younger Free-Ride offspring and I are wondering if this strategy is bunkum.***

So, because the younger Free-Ride offspring tells me that a PubMed search would not be a relaxing way to spend a sick day, we're appealing to those more likely to have an actual evidence base here (Pal? Pascale? Other medical/nutrition types?) to tell us whether there is any informed-by-science consensus on what a kid ought to be fed (and in what sequence) once the puking subsides.

* No, we don't have scheduled vomiting. It's just that these stomach bugs hardly ever happen on a day when we had nothing else to do.

** The companion role to "puke-parent" is "poop-parent". My better-half assumed that role, but hasn't gotten any action in it since the sprogs were in diapers.

*** My current favorite alternate theory on why to eat bland foods in the wake of a stomach-bug: You don't want to eat foods with more interesting flavors and textures, especially foods you really like, and then throw them up (if you've tested the tummy too soon) lest you develop a long-lasting aversion to those foods. It took me maybe a decade to get over my aversion to spaghetti and other long pastas served with tomato-based sauces ... because of a stomach flu when I was about 11. On the other hand, if you develop an aversion to saltines, it doesn't really impact your quality of life in quite the same way.

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Morning grouse.

Feb 03 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Dislike stamp

My "To do by 9:00 AM" list today:

  1. Nag students who received add codes to actually use them to add the course.
  2. Nag students who haven't logged in to the online course to do so, stat! (Or, if they plan to drop the course, to do that ASAP.)
  3. Figure out the lag time between official university enrollment in the course that is online and the "rebuild" enrollment updates are supposed to trigger in the online course shell that lets enrolled students access the online course.
  4. Email 28 students who want add codes to tell them that at this moment I don't have space for them.

It's a good thing the actual teaching is fun, because this other stuff is manifestly not fun.

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Opportunities for you to help level the playing field.

At the San Francisco Bay Area She's Geeky conference this past weekend, I had the opportunity to chat with an awesome woman from the Level Playing Field Institute about some of the initiatives that organization is undertaking to understand bias in various work and educational environments and to do something about it.

One of these is an anonymous survey of IT engineers and managers, and employees in tech start-ups. The description of the survey notes:

This anonymous survey explores the experiences and perceptions of employees within the Information Technology industry. ... This survey is part of a research study entitled Understanding Bias and Fairness in IT Environments.

The survey runs through tomorrow (February 3, 2011), but if you complete it, you will receive a $10 Amazon giftcard and be entered to win a 32GB iPad. So if you have some experiences of IT from the inside, why not click over and take the survey?

Even if you're not in IT, there are other initiatives they're doing that may be of interest to you. For example, they run SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy, reaching out to high-achieving, low income high school students of color in the Bay Area:

Our goal is to help SMASH students be admitted to top-tier colleges and universities where they can continue their STEM studies.

SMASH scholars spend five weeks each summer in UC Berkeley or Stanford dorms while they are immersed in rigorous classes. They also receive year-round support to stay on track for academic success.

If you know a student who might benefit from this program, the application deadline is February 21, 2011. Here's the FAQ, and the link for students to apply.

The SMASH program is also looking for instructors for these summer classes, with openings posted for instructors of algebra, pre-calculus, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, and technical writing. If this sounds like you (or someone else you know who might be looking for a summer job), check out the job descriptions. Applications for SMASH instructor positions are all due February 15, 2011.

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The great start of the semester add code scramble!

Feb 02 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Yes, I'm resurfacing again! To the readers who sent emails asking if I'm OK and/or conveying that they miss my blogging and hope this semester is not kicking my butt like last semester, many thanks.

At my fair university, classes started a week ago today. This means in the intervening week, I have received approximately a bazillion email messages requesting an "add code," the numerical sequence with which a student not currently enrolled in one of my courses might officially enroll. To be fair, half a bazillion of those email messages actually arrived before the official start of the term last Wednesday. As well, a quarter bazillion such requests have also been made in person, whether in the first two class meetings of the section of the course that meets in three dimensions (as opposed to online) or in my prof cave office.

It's hard for it not to turn your head when everyone seems to want what you've got, but I know this popularity will not last. (In week 6, they're not going to write, or call, or come to office hours -- they never do.) Worse, I'm just not in a position to give all these desperate students what they want.
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