Monday, February 25, 2013

The Tower of Babel

"The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune... the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower's failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages... Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life."

Whose heaven, she wonders?
We do need to take time to understand each others' perspectives. As scientists we need to understand public opinons and make our science more accessible to them! Or, as this study on public understanding of our nanotechnology revolution laments- the gap, between scientific community and public that uses this science, will keep on growing.

Our Tower of Babel:

Our civilization is undergoing technological revolutions. One of the very well studied revolution - the industrial revolution gave us, among many other things- lots of wicked problems. Our solutions of today become problems for tomorrow. 
Given this grim situation, public reaction and (mis-)understanding of science have served as both a huge impetus and rate limiting step in advancement of science. In most of the cases we can trace back the poor communication on behalf of scientists and very effective communication on behalf of pseudo-scientists as the cause behind public misunderstanding of science. (More on scientific blogging here.)

Few examples where lack of effective communication between scientists and public are leading to undesirable consequences: 

a) Genetically Modified (GM) Foods- There are few incidences of GM foods that are indeed harmful for health and or environment. And, these few lone incidences have led to such a huge scare for GM foods that even the GM foods that are healthy and economically + ecologically feasible and could have done wonders for humanity were removed from market. Some countries went as far as to even ban any kind of GM foods and seeds. 

b) Anti-biotic Resistance (ABR):  Here, science has failed to create enough scare. Create scare!? Wow! That is quite an evil intention! But we do need it! Given the rate at which we continue using antibiotic laden soaps, cleaners, creams, some of which might very well be cancer-causing, is alarming! We need people to stop using Triclosan laden soaps etc. We need to stop overusing antibiotics
c) Stem Cell Research: Millions of lives can still be saved and many more can be made better if we encourage stem cell research. As scientists we have failed to convey how stem cell research can actually be not anti-life. 

Our current challenge is to communicate scientific advancements with everyone effectively and avoid the failure of our civilization's attempts in making tower of babel for reaching heaven.
This should start from our schools. We should learn to be better teachers. Here is a wonderful example:

Personal Challenge:

Learning from the resources for our PFP class (thanks!) I am inspired to take up this personal challenge-
I will blog about research in our lab in as simple and creative way as possible and request my colleagues, (who are expert in our field)  to read it and rate it on scientific accuracy. Now here is the tricky part- I will meanwhile encourage my colleagues and friends from other fields (including my colleagues in the PFP and GEDI classes) to read it too and rate it on how interesting it was and how much they believe that they understood.
It is an exercise that might just 'change my life' as Dr. G put it in our GEDI guest lecture class. Wait for it, dear readers, my second blog on my research is coming!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bringing Trust in Classrooms

On Freedom and discipline:
Wow! It is student vs. teachers now! State legislatures want to protect student's ideologies. Teachers may want to question it.

But, is the teacher still a 'teach'er if she is not adding to  students' perspective or intellect or is not encouraging an environment conducive to arguments and contests on different theories?!
(I think that such a teacher is reduced to a speaker, who just speaks without contributing.)

The choice of adopting an ideology is the individual's right, but it is teacher's duty to help contesting different ideologies. Informed decisions, anyone?

Then there is 'pettifogging' over what constitutes as appropriate teaching and topics for a class. This debate automatically calms down, in my head, when the teacher decides that the sole purpose of her teaching is to have efficiently taught her subject of expertise to her students. This sole purpose of efficient teaching is bound to take up so many resources that the teacher will hardly have any resources left for conducting irrelevant discussions in the class.

The risk that the teacher might misuse her position in the class, for example we have the teacher in Brevard Community College, who imposed her political inclination on her students, automatically vanishes as every working moment for the teacher is spent in helping her students do their best in the class!

Drawing the Lines:
Ideally (in my head) the teacher would facilitate both the learning and un-learning of every one in the classroom. Learning and un-learning require challenging our current understanding. Of course, there is no growth without change in dimensions and morphology of our perspectives.

It would be ideal to have a middle ground where the teacher is not 'indoctrinating' because everyone in the class room has a mind- open to challenge, bare for discussion, and ready to be hurt - in the process of learning. And, this includes the teacher's mind.
This way the teacher will not be guilty of imposing her philosophy (because she also contested her own ideology) and at the same time would have challenged the students to step outside their boxes and appreciate diversity

Hand in hand- Trust, openness, and enquiry: 
A wonderful blog discussing the merits of educating students abroad 'Becoming a Student in your own Classroom'  gave me my new fav catchline- "become a student in your own classroom".

Learning, that brings along with it changes in perspective, knowledge, and /or belief system, is a very sensitive process. It is remarkably inconvenient and is seldom painless. As such for a successful teacher-student relationship, there must be trust that encourages everyone in the classroom to be open to being hurt in the process of learning and un-learning.

(Here is an example of experiences that can lead to dramatic breaking down of such trust.)

Ideally, teacher would trust herself and her intentions enough to welcome criticism and encourage students to question everything. Students would return the trust by being open to critiquing whatever they have already learnt and welcoming new learnings.

Young student learning to write 
Effective learning will not be possible without both students and teachers understanding their freedom to participate in discussions in an academic setting and be heard.  So, although debatable (+ I hope we will discuss this in PFP class today), it will be helpful to assure teachers that they can express their personal opinions and thereafter initiate meaningful discussions.
From Statement on Graduate Students handout- 'Moreover, because of their advanced education, graduate students should be encouraged by their professors to exercise their freedom of “discussion, inquiry, and expression.'

Shouldn't this be true, for everyone, in any classroom?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Once Upon a Time ...

... there was resistance to change.

Circa 8000 BC

Location: Somewhere in Egypt

Modern historians estimate that Bes often 
ran about 300 miles at stretch. On the 
way he would find food, water, mates, 
and friends! However, they note that his 
type (hunter-gatherers ) eventually gave 
up their ways for the more 'advanced' life 
of agriculture based nomadic humans. 

Bes was confused. The news had reached him. Others were changing- they were forcing seeds to grow in one place. And then they never went anywhere else, apart from occasional half-a-day long hunting trips. Just half-a-day of running and sneaking! It must be comfortable and easy!

But Bes could not understand it. Staying in one place for any length of time perplexed him.
So wedded he was to the wind that hustled in his ears when he would run around for days, hunting and gathering! Each day he reached a new place and after few days the landscape would have change completely!

He did not want to lose this human touch of his existence! 

Though the early man thought of the life of farming 
based nomads as secure and easy, yet to modern 
humans it is an unimaginable, absolutely inhuman, 
punishment and torture.

Circa 1778 AD
Location: Somewhere near East Lothian, Scotland

Ceard had had no work for weeks! His impoverished frame belies both his strength and anger.  The threshing season used to be the season of work! But as it turned out - the son of Meikle had invented some design that did all the threshing. His lord did not need him and others like him, anymore. Fortunately Ceard had also heard about a huge house in East Lothian, where they needed people from farms, to work till they turned black. They were getting paid there!

Ceard was utterly perplexed. He soon got used to the demanding labour required in that huge house of work. But, what shocked him was this- thousands of people living so close to each other and working together in the same house! He missed 'his space'.

He did not want to lose that human part of his existence!
As it turned out later, conditions of workers deteriorated rapidly and Ceard had
no option except to  accept it and numb the pain of leaving vast beautiful farms
behind. Historians remark that industrialization was indeed a turning point for
modern human society.

Circa 2013 AD
Location: TORG 1060, Virginia Tech

Adult humans were hustled together as students in a hall and were learning from the engaging Dr. S. F. on how the expectations of students and society from its teachers was changing. Technology was rapidly evolving their day to day life. Gagi, like many other students, was just introduced to platforms like blogging, gaming, online networking and was perplexed. 

It was not the writing part and the time that these online activities took that perplexed her. She could not understand how and why the virtual world had gained so much importance. Her colleagues were reporting news of families texting each other on dinner tables. It offended her senses that young child-lings were handed I-pads and other tablets at such a tender age. 
Whatever happened to the real human interaction!
She held dear to the belief that the university system will not collapse under this fast expanding virtual world. Students will always need the face to face human interaction with both peers and their teachers. She knew that MOOCs could only do so much! Engineering needs labs after all! She refused to believe that one day we will stop having human to human interaction. If we did stop interacting, she was sure, we would head towards insanity!

And, she did not want to lose that sane, human touch of her existence!

Circa 2032 AD
Location:, Burkina Faso

"Thanks Dr. S. for having me in this GEDI class! 
Hi all!
I am Rachid at I am graduate student in Micro-fluidic Devices Engineering at Virginia Tech. 
Favorite music: tchk tchk sound of my laptop keyboard - lol! I am not into music really!

Some interesting things about me that you would not know otherwise: 
I have two fun-facts that I want to share-
One: I am geographically located in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. 
Two: Along with my research in medical applications of micro-fluidic devices, I am also getting hands-on training on remote Thoracoscopic pulmonary surgeries. The funny thing is that though we may never meet in person, someday I might remotely operate on some of you or someone close to you!"

As she heard this, Jameena at, who was geographically located in India, flinched. 
(Some sections in India were still lagging behind in the new era of computerized medical services.)

Whatever happened to a real surgeon, who she could meet before her throat was cut open?

It was not the collective wisdom of the entire medical research in the current computerized medical system or the computer operating skills of Rachid that she doubted! She knew that a surgery team of humans was million times more likely to make an error than the completely automatic and  intelligent medical system. 

It is just that, in the event of facing a knife, she was banking at the possibility of a real human interaction!

She did not want to lose that human touch of her existence~

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Scientific Blogging

I write this blog in response to some wonderful points brought up in Brandon Peoples' blog here.

It is heartening for me to see so many people blog over their discomfort or doubts over blogging in the GEDI and PFP series:
a) I am not the only one who is not so comfortable. Yay!
b) (This is my favorite interpretation- ) we all are stepping out of our comfort zones. We all want to be better teachers and persons. And as M. Scott Peck would say million times - when we extend our actions for other's spiritual growth, it is love. It fires my hope that our students will be loved and believed-in by their teachers! What else can I ask for?

Now coming to the issue of scientific blogging. It is slightly more complicated. Science is a wonderful tool. It is powerful and beautiful! And, with great power and beauty come great responsibility and lust. 
The inappropriate use of scientific journalism is the leading cause of expensive urine (pardon me) in our waste water drains and profits of our supplement and detox industry. It hurts me to even think of the MMR scare!
Scientific journalism is a scary thought! Blogging-scientists is a scary proposition!

Here is to the good, bad, and ugly of scientific blogging:

The Good:

a) Disseminating our understanding of phenomenon is our utmost responsibility as scientist. Science is a collective endeavor, it feeds on collective efforts and criticism. It will be quite a shame if we under-estimate the value of public understanding of science.

So, dear scientists and engineers- go ahead and talk with all your passion about the wonderful world of garbled equations and greek notations!

b) Better understanding of science will empower public to tell bad science from appropriate science. This is exactly what Ben Goldacre has dedicated his work to. (Salute to his never-ending trust in capacity of general public to understand nuances of scientific rigor!)

The Bad:

On another note- here is my discomfort over using blogs to disseminate science. It is so easy to misuse scientific studies and present them in biased light. Most on-the-news science stories are living example of scientific journalism gone eerie (usually for exploiting public perception of science as a black box where magic happens. Pop a pill and you will be great. Drink kool aid and ... )

So, much to the budding entrepreneurs, health and wellness experts, who so easily misuse and mix thorough scientific research with 'research done on internet'! (I love wikipedia- no offense!)

The bad of social blogging on science is this- misuse of these platforms to extend ones financial or social gains. This is so rampant in our society currently that I am scared of blogging about my work and my 'field of expertise' - what ever that means.

The Ugly: 

Things can get really ugly really soon.
As an environmental engineer I find myself torn. The onus of sharing my understanding with rest of human society is on me. But, this the onus comes with the risk of my narration (and not good-enough writing skills) leading to mis or incomplete-interpretation and bad science practices.
For example - here is to the recent scare of antibiotic resistance gene in purple pipes. It was an important piece of information, which was good to acknowledge and share with public. But, the needless economic after-effect and public scare were sad consequences of poor scientific journalism by our news and blogging agencies.

It is a fine line that we need to tread as scientists and engineers, and I imagine that would be an art. And there is no learning in art without decades of practice.
So, despite my reservations, I have to face the probability of probably practicing bad-science (despite my good intentions) and start blogging about my work and my understanding of it.

Teacher, are you ready?

"When the student is ready the teacher appears." 

And, so goes an Indian saying.  Or did we get it all wrong?
In this paradigm the absence of a formal educator is not an acceptable excuse. When one is ready to learn, learning is found, and the teacher appears. The onus is on students, and the role of teacher is clearly undefined.

( In a teacher-deprived society I admit it helped me navigate through education system of our rural pocket in India. )

But, now the tables have turned! I am trying to fit into the shoes of a teacher. And, man! It IS a difficult pair of heels to wear! There are so many inconvenient questions to ask- Will I be able to become a good teacher? Would it be the glassy stare or the precious awe that I will see on faces of my students?

Worse still, what if I continue lying to myself and believing that I am a good teacher as I turn blind to the glassy stares?

Eventually students will lose their innate desire to be 'ready' to learn because there are no 'teachers'.

Once upon a time ...

Remember the tale of those legendary people (-whose stuff is made of legends- and) who got their first email address when they reached a university. I am one of them.

I am taking the risk/liberty/whatever - of giving out this tmi on our blog to make a point. And, that point is this- for a very long time I stuck in my comfort zone, still aiming to 'teach' as I refused to acknowledge that the lives of my future-students is tremendously different from the life that I had. Inertia is so convenient (and this is the point) and I am guilty of it.

Now, this GEDI and PFP change is forcing me to shake-off all the notions I have held golden about education system.

Here is an existential crisis-  For am I still a 'teacher' when my students are not learning anything from me? The very identity of a teacher is a function of effective transfer of skills to the students. So when my students fail to learn, it is me who fails to teach. And, I am reduced to a 'zombie' lecturer- who speaks when no one is listening! Wow! Teaching is difficult!

All my hopes for my bewildered self stem from what Dr. Gardner Campbell said in our GEDI class-
" When you are confused, you learn. "

I am confused and it is time when the teacher-wannabe learnt about her students!

For when the teacher is ready, students appear!