Saturday, July 24, 2021

Keeping Online Teaching Techniques For In-Person Classes

Fall semester 2021 is looming, and many schools are going back to in-person, face-to-face classes, at least here in the US. The pandemic that caused us to teach remotely has forced many of us to hone our skills as instructors and adapt them to the online environment. I mentioned earlier how I decided to enroll myself in an online program to get certified by my institution as a qualified online instructor. I had no intention of wanting to be an online instructor, but I wanted to take these courses because I needed to learn the important skills and methodology of being an online instructor because, whether I like it or not, and whether I want to or not, I was going to be delivering my lessons online. And I did, for the next 3 semesters (including summer).

The thing is, my training as an online instructor may actually have improved my overall skill as an instructor, even for an in-person setting. There are many important lessons that I learned from that training program, and I fully intend to use many of them when I go back to in-person teaching. What brought this article about was a discussion I had with a few of my colleagues on whether we will use any of what we learned from the online training courses when we go back on-site. All of us unanimously said yes.

So here, I want to outline a few of the things that I had used in my online/remote classes that I will continue to use in my in-person classes.

  1. Remote office hours. God yes! I no longer see the need to have specific office hours at a specific location. Oh, I am still going to publish one office hour on-site, but the other office hour will be via Zoom that students can drop in remotely. Not only that, I'm going to make it very flexible for students to make an appointment to see me via Zoom at almost any time of the day if I'm available. Students are no longer restricted to seeing me only when they are on campus.
  2. More extensive use of the Learning Management System (LMS). Before the shutdown, I have been using the LMS to record grades, to post announcements and the course syllabus, to upload my lecture notes, and for the students to submit their lab documents, etc. However, now, I will make even more use of the LMS after what I have learned from online courses. I will continue to use the discussion feature, although not as extensively as I did for the online classes. I find that students who are either shy or do not actively participate in person, often make more use of the discussion feature in their participation with the class. This discussion feature could be an extension of the labs, where students get to give their opinion on the experience of a particular experiment, or what they expected or didn't expect.
  3. Related to the LMS, I will keep the design and layout of the LMS page based on what I've learned from online courses. This was the biggest cosmetic and design change that I have adopted. Having weekly module that contains EVERYTHING that a student needs to do and finish that week makes so much more sense now. The surveys that I had done seem to indicate that this is highly successful and that students were able to navigate the LMS and find everything that they need easily.
  4. Before the pandemic shutdown, I was running a flipped classroom, so I was already making use of online lessons, videos, etc. I was also using clickers for the polls and a form of peer-instruction during my lesson. I adopted this for my online lessons. So this won't change when I go back to in-person classes. However, it think that I want to add a lot more video lessons that students can use as additional resources for when they are out of class. It just means that even when they are not in class, they will be able to review the lessons of that week via other means and other sources. 
  5. One of the most important aspect of online courses is student engagements. It is crucial because this is one of the most difficult thing to accomplish in online classes, and yet, it has been shown to be an effective means to convey the lesson and get a student interested in it. This is not that big of a deal for in-person classes because, well, the students are there and you can engage them with via many things in class. However, I want to formalize this engagement even when it is easier to do during in-person classes. Before the pandemic, I was already running what I would call "Studio Physics" classes, where the students have frequent discussion when other students, and even perform the demonstration of certain physics phenomenon themselves as part of the lesson. I want to increase this even more. While I had used web applications such as the ones from PhET, I want to use more of these so that they become on-going "projects" for them to investigate outside of class hours. During the past year and a half, I found a lot more websites having many different physics online simulations, "labs", and other applications that had used in my online courses. I found many of them that would be very useful to assign to students even in an in-person class. Again, a lot of this could be part of their discussion task where they discuss and report what they learned or discovered while using these web apps.
  6. Clearer, more extensive and detailed feedback. In an online course, student and teacher often do not interact either live, or often, and feedback often does not come fast and quick, unlike in-person interaction. So feedback on something, especially on an assigned and graded task, must be as clear and complete as possible that first time. This includes the tone of the feedback where we were told be mindful of how the feedback might be perceived by the student. While this may not be as crucial in an in-person environment, I still intend to make full use of the feedback feature on the LMS to give a detailed assessment on a student's work. I think that having it in writing makes it more concrete and gives the student a clear and more permanent evaluation, especially if it involves something done online such as the discussion forum.

I'm glad that I got the training that I needed to be an online instructor, even when I have very little desire to be an online instructor. The skills and technique that I learned were valuable, and in some ways, I hope it made me a better teacher both during this remote-learning phases, and when I go back to in-person instruction. We shall see if this is the reality for in-person instruction soon enough.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

10 Scientfic Evidence In Support Of Airborne Transmission of SAR-CoV-2 Virus

The ridiculous battle during the pandemic on wearing masks, social distancing, and other restrictions reveals the lack of understanding among many in the general public on how science works, on what is considered as valid scientific evidence, and how our knowledge progresses as more and more evidence and data accumulates. I continue to be amazed at the reasons why some people still resist wearing proper face masks. I can understand if they find it uncomfortable (who does?) and that it is inconvenient (who thinks otherwise?). However, if the reason given is that masks doesn't do anything or isn't effective in reducing the chances of the virus being spread, then I want evidence to back that up.

This is where the public lack the understanding of (i) the nature of valid, scientific evidence, versus simply something you read on Facebook, news websites, or even from talking heads on TV, (ii) where to find such evidence or what should you pay more serious attention to versus those other sources that I mentioned. Here, I want to contrast the type of information that is contained in a scientific paper versus what you find in news article or many public online websites.

(1) When you read something in the news on a typical mass media source, you are told the content, but very seldom are you given proper, exact citation. At best, the type of citation that would be mentioned would be something to the effect that this was published in such-and-such journal or book, etc. Worse still, often times the sources are not even cited, so many of these things are stated as if they are facts, and facts that many of us are unable to verify on our own, if we wish to.

In contrast, scientific publications require exact citation. If you say that this result is in agreement or support by recent discoveries, you must give bibliographical references to those sources, i.e. name of author/s, name of journal where it was published, what page/volume number, date it was published, etc. These details are crucial in someone else verifying the sources of the claim. This is what is often missing in many general public articles, and unfortunately, this is often the source of Fake News, because exact evidence and sources to back the claims are either bogus, unreported, or unrevealed, which prevented anyone from double-checking their validity.

(2) News report and online articles often ignore contradicting evidence. When someone claims that he/she got sick after receiving a vaccine shot, why doesn't he/she consider why a lot of other people didn't get sick? Of if receiving a vaccine shot makes one "magnetic", how come other people aren't? This can also be applied to a lot of "news" programs that reports on certain occurrences that was due to something, but ignore other instances where those occurrences do not happen.

In scientific papers, this is a no-no. In fact, as a referee for several physics journals, I often will check if the authors are ignoring contradicting experimental evidence, or other papers that may be in the opposite to what the authors observed or claiming. These contradictions MUST BE ADDRESSED, i.e. they are not swept under the carpet or just ignored. And they must be addressed in terms of scientific reason, not simply by claiming that the contradicting results were made by Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Jews, liberals, conservatives, etc. Look at how many so-called discussions or reports attached labels as a means to dismiss something. Such flimsy tactics do not wash in scientific papers.

(3) General public articles and news lacks details and clarity. I read a news article last year where a family decided to go to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, and when they got home, they tested positive for COVID-19 and immediately blamed their presence at the theme park for being infected. The news article didn't mentioned any other details about their trip. It did not say if they took a plane, didn't not say how long they stayed, whether they only went to the Disney theme park or did they also went elsewhere, and if they drove there, did they stop anywhere along the way, etc. There was a huge amount of information here that was missing even for a casual reader to be able to clearly analyze the validity of what the family was claiming.

If this claim is to be analyzed scientifically, then an epidemiologist would need to do really detailed tracing of every activity that the family did. Casual and speculative connection between A and B are usually insufficient to draw up valid conclusions.

In a scientific publication, every detailed of a calculation, every detail of the experiment, and every detail of how the analysis was done, must be clearly revealed. Often times, the experimental setup and equipment may had already been published elsewhere, and those will be cited as a reference. Similarly with the calculation and analysis. These details allow for an independent investigator to not only double-check what was done, but also to duplicate the experiment if necessary to see if the results are reproducible, which is a pillar of all scientific experiments (and why the Fleishmann and Pons cold fusion claim failed).

(4) Scientific papers are permanently recorded. They are not like Twitter feed that can be deleted, or news article that may be difficult to find anymore, or Facebook postings that have disappeared. This allows for future citations by other papers, and allows for continuing evaluations, advancements, refinements, rebuttals, contradictions, etc. There is a clear paper trail of who said what and when, which means that it is hard to deny or lie about something, or claim that someone didn't say that or didn't do that.

The whole point in all of this is not to force you to read scientific papers. It is ridiculous to insist that because many of them are not easy to read and are written for other experts. Rather, it is to distinguish on the nature of the evidence, and that if something is backed by proper scientific sources, then the evidence has a greater degree of validity and support than something that someone just rattled off on a TV talk show or on some Facebook post. It is unfortunate that many people, especially politicians, give equal credence to someone testifying that their bodies became magnetized without bothering to invite an expert to debunk such silliness. It seems that whole topics in physics, biology, and physiology were ignored to give air to this craziness.

It is the inability to evaluate the validity of the so-called evidence is one of the fundamental reasons why we are in the state that we are in today.

"But ZapperZ, the topic is about the scientific evidence for airborne transmission of the COVID virus.  Where is it?", you asked.

Good question. I guess this is the long, circuital route to point you to this Lancet article that contains the evidence, and the references to the scientific papers, that support the claim. Compare the types of research that were done, the analysis that were performed, and how the conclusions were drawn, and compare that with the types of "evidence" presented in the popular media and TV news programs.

Have fun reading!


Thursday, July 01, 2021

Using Science To Teach Students In The Art Of Falsifying An Idea

The climate of fake news and anti-science during the last few years have given me the impetus to be more conscious and deliberate in alerting my students on how we analyze something, on making rational judgement based on evidence, and how we come to such-and-such conclusions. To me, the issue of believing in fake news and accepting something based on flaky evidence does deeper than what it seems. It boils down to the inability to systematically and analytically evaluate the validity of something. This inability is really a serious issue and could be the root cause of what we are seeing today.

This type of skill is exactly what we use and practice all the time in science. So when I get a group of students, especially if they are non-science students who are taking the course only to fulfill their science credits, then I can't waste the opportunity to instill in them this invaluable technique and methodology that are often used in science.

Using the period where the pandemic forced us to teach remotely, I made extensive use (and still do) of the discussion forum. This is one form of student engagements that many online training courses have deemed to be essential in making sure that students feel connected and engaged with not only the subject matter, but also with other students. This medium gave me the opportunity to get the students to think things through and to present logical and rational arguments.

One of the topic that I presented was to require them to critically address a belief about the cause of the Earth's four seasons. We were going over the reason why we (at about latitude 41 degrees North) experience seasons. I presented a topic whereby someone claims that since the Earth orbits the Sun in a slight elliptical orbit, the seasons are caused by the varying distances between the Earth and the Sun, meaning that when the Sun is closest to the Earth, we have summer, and when the Sun is farthest from the Earth, we have winter.

The task was for the students to come up with typical and common everyday observations and/or knowledge to show why this idea is wrong. In other words, find a very direct and convincing way to falsify the argument.

I thought this was a straight-forward assignment and discussion topic. Unfortunately, I was quite surprised that almost 3/4 of the students didn't fulfill the briefs. What they did instead was to give the explanation for the cause of the seasons, which is the tilt of the Earth's spin as it goes around the Sun. While this is the correct explanation, it does not falsify the original argument. I tried to tell the students that what they did was to present to this person an alternative explanation on why the seasons happen, but they haven't shown evidence why the original premise was wrong! They have not falsified the first idea.

When we do that in an argument/discussion, the person who holds that idea can easily say "All you have done is showed another possible explanation. You haven't proven to me why my idea is wrong. So why should I change my mind?"

Providing an alternative explanation, even if it is the correct one, is distinctively different than falsifying an idea. In falsifying an idea, you do not need to actually have an alternative, correct explanation. In this case, you really don't need to know that the Earth's tilt is the cause of the seasons on Earth. All you need is to examine the original claim, and find evidence that contradicts that claim. In this case, what you can do is assume that it is true, that the seasons are caused by Earth's varying distances from the Sun. If that is true, then the entire Earth would have the same season at the same time of the year, because the entire Earth is at the same distance away from the Sun. Yet, it is common knowledge that Australia, New Zealand, South America and Antartica are in their deep winter freeze while we in the Northern Hemisphere are basking in our summer heat. This observation is clearly contradictory to the original claim, which means that this is a falsification of that idea. It carries no other "baggage", i.e. it doesn't promote an alternative explanation on the cause of Earth's seasons.

It found it challenging trying to convey this message to the students. They learned about the Earth's tilt and the cause of the seasons, and when they were given this topic, they immediately jumped on providing the explanation that they just learned (and understood) without thinking about how to actually address the topic of the discussion and knowing the difference between falsifying an argument versus providing an alternative explanation.

Sadly, the same situation happened again later in that semester when I brought another scenario for them to address: the claim that the phases of the moon are due to Earth's shadow of the light from the Sun. Once again, they were asked to falsify the claim, and once again, more than half of the students provided an alternative explanation on the cause of Moon phases rather than falsifying the idea.

In teaching science courses to non-science majors, I've grown more skeptical about the public's ability to analyze something. What I have observed regarding the "controversy" surrounding vaccines, the wearing of face masks, and even climate change, reinforced my skepticism about someone 's ability to either think things through, or even know what a valid evidence is. My post on the nurse who claimed that the COVID vaccine makes her becoming magnetized is one such example. Something that should have been easily checked and verified by a high-school physics student now somehow is gaining traction. That claim can be easily falsified (and have been), even by people without much scientific training and without knowing any alternative explanation on why certain objects might stick to one's body.

It requires skills to look at an idea, analyze it thoroughly, and rationally argue on its validity or its fault. It also requires skills to know what are valid evidence and what are not. Often times people confuse opinions and conclusions with facts/evidence. Talking heads on TV often spew out opinions that a lot of people mistaken for facts. In a science class, it is more important than ever that instructors make a deliberate effort to show the process of how a scientific idea becomes accepted, what kind of evidence would be considered to be scientific (why do we have to measure the forces at various extensions when just one is sufficient to find the value of the spring constant in Hooke's law experiment?), and how to challenge an idea and show that it may not be correct.

A science education is now more important than ever, not just for the scientific content, but also for the skills that come with it.