Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How to be a scientist

These words came out of my mouth in class last Friday: "Use your imagination and have a little faith...that's what science is all about!"

My original intent was quite literal, and it was only upon hearing the words outloud as I spoke them that they sounded funny and ironic. So often, we use science to trump imagination and faith, but you really can't do science without imagination and faith! Science has hard facts, science has proof, science always tells the truth...but there would be no elegant experiments without imagination, and many a researcher has succeeded only because they had faith in their science when others didn't.

Medicine, too, benefits from imagination and faith. When confronted with a list of signs and symptoms, it often takes some imagination to figure out how they fit together. Medicine is not all miraculous cures and grateful patients, either, and a little faith that in the end, it does matter that one is a doctor, can make the daily grind more bearable.

Finally, education. What use are imagination and faith in education, especially education at the professional level? I often qualify my level of comprehension with the words, "I can imagine how X would interact with Y to produce effect Z." I mean that I am not confident X and Y do interact, but based on the knowledge I am confident in, effect Z would follow logically, if, indeed X and Y interact. Faith's role is in saying outloud what it is I imagine. I have faith in some prorportion of my knowledge on any given topic, I have faith that my logic is correct, I have faith that even if I am wrong next time, in the future I may be right, and, most importantly, I have faith that saying something that is wrong outloud is okay.

Many of my peers seem reluctant to hazard guesses when asked questions that probe the outermost extent of our current knowledge. I don't know if it's because they don't use their imaginations to arrive at a possible answer, or if they don't have faith that guessing wrong is okay. I'm sure in some cases, it's both.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hit with the Knowledge Train

Last week we started our course on immunology, bacteriology, mycology, virology, and parasitology. Here's a sampling:

Major histocompatibility complex, mannose-binding lectin, C3 convertase, cathelicidins, bactericidal permability increasing protein, clonal expansion, transmigration, extravasation, diapedesis, intracellular adhesion molecules, sialyl-Lewis moiety, polymorphonuclear cells, interleukin, interferon, NF-kappa-B, Toll-like receptors, Nod-like receptors, RIG-1 -like receptors, pentraxins, collectins, rationally attenuated pathogens, multivalent vaccines, variolation, anamnestic response.

Teichoic acid, peptidoglycan, lipopolysaccharide, Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, Haemophilus, Histophilus, progressive atrophic rhinitis, shipping fever, infectious coryza, Streptococcus, Rhodococcus, Bordetella, strangles.

Macroconidia, blastoconidia, basidiomycetes, Aspergillus, Cryptococcus, Blastomyces, Dermatophytoses.

Virion, capside, peplomer, serotype, Herpesvirus, Parvovirus, dimer duplex DNA, psuedorabies, malignant catarrhal fever of cattle, latency, patency, vertical transmission.

Culex anopheles, Lutzomyia, Leishmania, Bartonella bacilliformis, Stomaxys calcitrans, Haematobia irritans, Glossina morsitans, Melophagus, Hippobosca, Lipotena cervi, Wohlfahrtia vigil, Calliphora, Lucilia cuprina, Cochliomyia hominivorax, Gasterophilus, Cuterebra, Anoplura, Mallophagus, Linognathus, Siphonaptera, Felicola subrostratus, Heterodoxus spinager, Panstrongylus.

Don't forget Poisonous Plants: Zea, Avena, Saponaria, Quercus, Acer, Prunus, Malus, Veratrum, Equisetum, Podophyllum, Toxicodendron.

I think there may be flashcards in my future...

Learning styles

As I've mentioned before, physiology is a flowchart-heavy subject, which I love, because drawing a picture of something helps me remember it. That I prefer to think and learn visually has never been more apparent than in this course. When I sit down to read Duke's Physiology of Domestic Animals, my textbook of choice, I find my eyes jumping immediately to the diagrams and images whenever I turn the page. Interestingly, Duke's is has neither the prettiest nor the most figures and tables. There's not a single color image in the whole text, and rarely do the diagrams take up more than half a page. Boron & Boulpaep's Medical Physiology is chock full of full-color, full-page diagrams, but they are often so complex that they cannot stand alone; sometimes, the caption isn't even enough, and to get anything from the graphic, you have to jump back and forth between the text and the graphic it references. If you get lucky, the graphic is on the same page as its reference! The graphics in Duke's, rudimentary as they may be, are the embodiment of the old proverb, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

When we're going over a case in tutor group, my contributions to the conversation are often accompanied by gestures I don't even realize I'm making until I catch a glimpse of my groupmates' amused faces. I often cannot articulate an idea or a concept until I am at the whiteboard, drawing a picture of it. At the very least, my statements do not make any sense without the image in my head I'm using to make them. One of my other group members is as strong a verbal learner as I am visual–she was  answering a question I had asked, and her answer was well-phrased and articulate, and, as I said to her, I understood all of her words, but I just couldn't picture what she meant. I asked her to draw it and explain it again, and of course, it was plain as day. I like having both of us in the group, because with all the translating back and forth between pictures and words, I think it makes the whole group's experience that much richer.

Although I do believe my preferred learning style is visual, I've come to realize only recently (as in, less than 24 hours ago) that deep, global comprehension comes more from the translation between formats than from re-creating something in the same format. I need to read about a topic, transform what I've read into a flow chart, graph, or other diagram, and then write a narrative in my own words, explaining what I've drawn. Though I wish I had realized it sooner than the weekend before the final, I'm thrilled with my new understanding of myself and how I learn, and I can't wait to apply it from the very beginning of our next course.

Allow me to make a very clunky transition here to another educational concept: failure-based learning. The following excerpt is from an article in the New York Times Magazine titled "Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom."
The language of gamers is, when you begin to decipher it, the language of strivers. People who play video games speak enthusiastically about “leveling up” and are always shooting for the epic win. Getting to the end of even a supposedly simple video game can take 15 or more hours of play time, and it almost always involves failure — lots and lots of failure.
This concept is something that Will Wright, who is best known for designing the Sims game franchise and the 2008 evolution-related game Spore, refers to as “failure-based learning,” in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary. A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses. This in the end may be both more palatable and also more instructive to someone trying to learn. According to Ntiedo Etuk, the chief executive of Tabula Digita, which designs computer games that are now being used in roughly 1,200 schools around the country, children who persist in playing a game are demonstrating a valuable educational ideal. “They play for five minutes and they lose,” he says. “They play for 10 minutes and they lose. They’ll go back and do it a hundred times. They’ll fail until they win.” He adds: “Failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”
It is also, says James Paul Gee, antithetical to the governing reality of today’s public schools. “If you think about kids in school — especially in our testing regime — both the teacher and the student think that failure will lead to disaster,” he says. “That’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll never get to truly deep learning.” Gee and others in the games-and-learning field have suggested that someday, if we choose to channel our resources into developing more and better games for use in classrooms, the games themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as Gee says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”
Hmm. What a fascinating concept! Failure as "...brief, surmountable, often exciting, and therefore not scary..." It's absolutely true. I've played enough video games to know that the desire to try again is never stronger than immediately after failing. Is it the knowledge that the world in which the failure occurs is a virtual one? Is it that, even within the virtual world, there is no limit to the number of times you are "allowed" to fail before finally succeeding? Think about that–if, ultimately, you succeed, you make it to the end of level 1, say, the game does not come back and say, we're sorry, it took you eleventy-seven tries to finish the level, you are not good enough to keep going. It says, you did it! You get to go to level 2! 

I can think of ways to apply that concept  even outside a virtual world. In second grade, part of the math curriculum was the Mad Math Minute. Every Monday was the pre-test, whose score didn't count, and every Friday was the Real Mad Math Minute, whose score did count. We worked through addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with these Math Minutes. You couldn't go to the next level until you successfully completed the first one. Here's how I would change it: rather than having just one pre-test, have as many as the student needed. Allot 10, or even just 5 minutes every day for students to practice, one minute at a time. If they don't finish the level in one minute, they get to start over, but once that 5 minutes is up, they have to put the "game" down until the next day. While not my area of expertise, I can't imagine designing a computer program to those parameters would be beyond a freshman computer science major.

I love a good upheaval of the conventional wisdom!