Friday, October 2, 2015


Over the years humans have developed ways of relating that is chemically based on hormones of love, compassion, gumption, and trust. Oxytocin has been identified as the chemical produced in response to the feeling of safety and protection one get when living in a community where the leader is satisfying their needs.
In the classroom we have a similar situation when learning something that is challenging. The leader, in this case the teacher, has to make sure that students are aware of the value, the 'worth' of their education. Teaching science is specially challenging due to the complex nature of its language, not only math is involved but particular nomenclature and vocabulary that comes from an intricate historical evolution.

In his book 'Leaders Eat Last' Simon Sinek explores the importance of understanding the relationship between how one feel in some environment (like work) based on the behavior of the leaders of that environment. Underlying this behaviors are chemicals (Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin) generated by our body. For a short version of his book have a look at his presentation in Youtube

So why am I thinking about this in relationship to my teaching?

It seems clear to me that when students come to class are in search among other things of a leader. The teacher as a coach has to be dependable and more important has to be a leader. A leader that has gain the trust of their students.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Ideas for The New Academic Year

Over summer I had the opportunity to read a lot about teaching in general and in particular about higher ed. The two main areas in pedagogy that made an impact on my thinking are: constructivism and individualism.

The first one, constructionism (constructivism), refers to the idea de we learn building on top of other ideas. As more complex phenomena is understood based on the relationships that it has with simpler experiences.

The second one, individualism, is based on the idea that we all are different and thus have our own ways of learning new concepts. This last area has to be viewed within the context of the similarities that we have just because we are humans and our brains basic functions are the same. The subtle differences then come not from the basic functions but from how this basic functions relate.

The problem is that these relationships are non-linear and in our organizations we have a lot of linearity like the way we design courses in the 100, 200, and higher levels. One may assume that the 100 level is for nomenclature development, while the 200 level allow for the solution of problems that require quantification. Higher levels will introduce the synthesis and analysis beyond quantification but including it.

As I am teaching General Chemistry at the 200 level and Organic Chemistry at the 300 level, I can put into practice these ideas and as I move along I will write about it giving specific examples.

Do you have any examples of these ideas.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Continuously Changing Learning Objectives

Teaching science is challenging for a lot of reasons one of which is that learning objectives are shifting with changes in our scientific and technologic reality. Take for instance the development of robots. Robots have been in the mind of futurologist, technologist, and industrialists since the beginning of the industrial revolution (maybe before) mainly to replace humans doing unpleasant tasks.

Reading Diane Ackerman's book The Human Age I am exploring the idea of the possibility of self aware robots.

Image form Amazon
This exploration made me think about the problem of teaching a subject like chemistry that is being transformed by the use of "artificial" intelligence. Computer models that can replicate chemical reactions and gather data that is retrofitted to the algorithm so through many fast iterations a final reactant can be identified as the best. For an example of a computational drug design look at this youtube video 

In this video you can see as the molecule is modified to fit in the dock the enthalpy of the hydrogen bond which is a measure of fitness is calculated and displayed.

Of course these experiments can't be done by someone without basic knowledge of bonding, atomic and molecular orbitals, molecular structures, and thermodynamics. But all of these concepts are there in cyberspace and constitute 'knowledge' that is universally shared. The main problem is that now there is no way we can teach everything that is available in any branch of science, like it was the case a century ago. The issue, for me, becomes how to structure a systematic process where students will learn basic concepts that include how to get the necessary information from the internet. The cloud becomes the hub where students transit for the interconnection of ideas and tests. Hypothesis are explored in this new environment where collaboration becomes the norm and communication (including of course the proper language) the most powerful tool.

So, the question becomes: how much time should be invested in learning and developing searching and communicating skills?


Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is there in the vocabulary

     One may wonder why is having a broad vocabulary important in science? How would understanding the meaning of a word helps grasp the concept referenced by the word? Is the understanding of the meaning of a term necessary to solve problems where the term is invoked?

     These are not trivial questions, but it appears that they are, based on the fact that we use a lot of terminology which meaning depends only in the context where the terminology is used. For example let's think about the word "attraction". Take a moment and think about the word. Then you realize that in order for you to thing about the word attraction you have to construct a sentence like: two bodies experience gravitational attraction due to their mass. Or, two bodies feel romantic attraction due to their psychological compatibility.

     Are these two examples of attraction similar? I dare to say, no! They are very different with respect to the way that the ideas of force and feelings have completely different mechanisms thus the solutions to the problems presented in each case will have very different results and conclusions. Let's expand this argument for the sake of clarity. In the case of gravitational attraction one knows that the force is proportional to the mass of the bodies involved. Therefore one can write a formula that simply states this attraction as a function of mass like this: Force of attraction between to bodies at some distance is proportional to the product of the masses of the bodies. F(at some distance) ~ m1*m2  or F~m1m2; where m1 and m2 are the masses of the bodies. The next step is to remove the proportionality symbol ~ through experimentation and change the proportionality to an equality like the following where the distance factor is introduced: F = k (m1m2/r2. The r2 indicates that the force decreases with the square of the distance r.

Now let's try to do the same with the romantic attraction. What factors would we use for the 'psychological' feeling that these two bodies experience, can we talk about these feelings like forces?
Or the metaphor will completely get out of hand? The opposite was the case when in the seventeen century Isaac Newton suggested that two bodies 'attracted' each other through gravitational forces. 

The French much given to romanticism were completely opposed to Newtons ideas for many years because they could not come to terms (pun intended) with the idea that inert bodies like rocky planets could have feelings and 'attraction" was before Newton used in the sense of the later example. Now of course we have blurred the line between the metaphorical meaning and the 'literal' when we use the term force to indicate desire, need, or even thought.

So what is there in the vocabulary? Why do we have to teach a bunch of terms in science classes?

How can the lack of understanding of the terminology involved in a particular discipline hinders the understanding of difficult concepts?

The answer to these question surely will lead to better pedagogy of science teaching and learning.

Do you have a term that is you favorite?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Anthropocene

Geologist have named geologic epochs using many names like "Holocene (recent)" in the Quaternary era less than 1.6 million years. For more information about geologic eras and the time scale you can click here. But it is time to name the present epoch based on the influence that we have as humans in the geologic record, so geologists from the distant future say a few million years from now will refer to. The Anthropocene is a good name, I have just read it in Diane Ackerman's book "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us." To read a NYT review of the book click here.
The name has been proposed at least from the 1969's and it is supposed to imply that humans are in fact changing the characteristics of our globe in the same way that other conditions, mainly physical, characterized the other periods of geologic history. Like carbon (coming from living organisms deposited in strata) giving the name "carboniferous" (360 to 286 MA) period in the Paleozoic era. By the way this was for some geographic areas where the oil extracted now was formed.

What has this to do with teaching science?

For one it shows that vocabulary is important and nomenclature gives information about the subject. But most important is to see how everything is related and the historical-sociological-economical aspects of learning have to be taken into account when preparing a lesson plan. For the example above the use of MA (mega annum) for millions of years as a unit of time measurement is a good example of developing a vocabulary as we learn about the science in question. This developing of vocabulary has to be based first on previous knowledge and second on the time that it takes to practice using such a new concept. This need for having enough time becomes a critical element when dealing with class preparation. Apart from class preparation but related to it is the student's preparation. This is why is necessary to have clear and consistent sequence in the science curriculum. When students struggle with difficult concepts mainly because they don't have the basic vocabulary it is necessary for the teacher to slow down giving time for students to develop it. But at the same time the paradox arises when "time' is constrained to a syllabus giving a set content.

With today's diversifying student body this elements will have to be revisited and new structures, synchronous and asynchronous have to be developed.

My question for today is: Do we have time for this transition?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Joy of Learning -OK Google: What is an Arrhenius acid?

This past Friday (3/20/15) I started my G-Chem class by getting out my cellphone and asking it: What is an Arrhenius acid? ....The phone replied: "According to an Arrhenius acid is a substance that when added to water ..." and continued with the whole definition including the definition of that of a base. So I asked my students: Am I here to tell you what an Arrhenius acid is? They moved their heads in the negative! Then I replied: "you are right I am here to tell you why you want and need to know about Arrhenius acids and bases and to help you make a connection between acid base chemistry with your whole life. This is one underlying principle of 'liberal arts' education. To see the context and to understand the relationships and connections of particular concepts within and without the topic on study.

Today's technology allows us to have instantaneous access to information, so information should not be the outcome of a lecture. It has been said that information is not knowledge, so class time should not be use to transmit information, it should be used to develop knowledge and to develop the skills necessary for oneself to create relevant knowledge. The teaching professor is there to guide inquiry and to set limits of time during the exercise of exploration. Learning science is complicated, I guess as learning anything that has many facets, but one can always try to stop the fragmentation of ideas through a holistic approach. Meaning that on can not separate individual steps of the solution of a problem with the overall context of the question being addressed. One can look at the solution of the problem as a simplified model or metaphor but one has to be conscientious of the fact that things are more complicated than that. Any particular and individualized solution of a problem has to be framed within a context and other consequences like secondary effects have to be at least noted, if not explored. This makes teaching science a difficult but enjoyable task, as challenges like puzzles are inherently attractive to the inquisitive mind. This is one important role of the science teacher: make challenging concepts appear like games in the journey that life is.

In my previous post, I mentioned the importance of 'joy' in learning, even to the point of saying: "If you are not having fun,... you are not learning!"
 It seems simplistic in the light of many that believe that things that matter have to be hard to learn, difficult to understand, and that should take a long time to comprehend. I agree but have some reservations about the attitude that one must have while going through the process of learning. And I am including the activities of teaching as part of the learning process. The teacher must be having fun as s/he teaches or s/he will not be able to have and create the energy to deliver a well intended lesson. It might be said that this happens all the time with everything we do in our lives, that no one person that is successful has been doing the things that leaded to the success with an attitude contrary to his/her joy and satisfaction. A recent blog at "Class Teaching" use a perfect metaphor with playing a computer game called Manic Miner. In this post Shaun Allison @shaun_allison takes a step by step approach to make a parallel between playing a game with several levels of difficulty and learning. It sure is a great pedagogical insight.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

If You Are Not Having Fun You Are Not Learning

Once in a while I remind my students about the joy of learning. Remembering this is very important when you are having a hard time learning new ideas. Ideas that are complex and difficult by their own nature and by the fact that it's not easy to contextualize them with our daily lives.
I have used the poem by Wang Ken "Song of Joy" as an inspiration to encourage my students to enjoy learning. I stress and emphasize this so much in my classes that in fact I call homework "Homejoy!"
  • Pleasure is the state of being Brought about by what you Learn.
  • Learning is the process of Entering into the experience of this Kind of pleasure.
  • No pleasure, no learning.
  • No learning, no pleasure.
(Wang Ken, Song of Joy.)

Many books and articles have been written around this idea, one in particular is "The Power of Mindful Learning" by Ellen J. Langer. (For more link here.)
And recently a new edition of "Experiential Learning" by David A. Kolb. (link here to read more.)

Of course we must not forget the seriousness of learning and the fact that it can be hard to do, but keeping in mind that successful endeavors require more than just the material means to accomplish, we have to remind ourselves that attitude is critical for success.

Did you see the Seattle Seahawks game against the Green Bay's Packers? 

A good example of how attitude -having fun- produces good results!