Tag Archives: Research

Genetics for Kids

test tubes

Over the past ten or twenty years, the news media has become saturated with stories about genetics.  But do you really understand how genes interact?  A new genetics simulation being developed at Ohio State can help.

The simulation begins with a series of cartoon faces from which the user can choose to populate the gene pool for the next generation.  (The term “parents” is used, but more than two can be selected.)  This process can be repeated several times to create successive generations of cartoon faces.

Over 50 “genes” are incorporated into the faces (affecting everything from the dimensions of the head and other features to how asymmetrical the face is and whether the eyes follow your mouse or not) and the genes of the “parents” interact to produce the subsequent generation.  You can also adjust the amount of mutation, which leads to a wider (or narrower) variety of offspring.

Another interesting feature is the ability to view genotypes.  This allows you to view a graph under each offspring representing which genes come from which parent.  You can also choose two faces and drag them to the Gene Exam Room to view to what degree each gene is represented in each face.  This also allows you to see the effect of each individual gene.  You can even increase or decrease the representation of each gene to see how it changes each face.

What can you (or your students) do with this simulation?  Imagine the faces are puppies and you want to develop a new breed that is cute (or whatever other trait you’re interested in.)  This simulation clearly demonstrates how breeders (of animals, plants, etc.) select for certain traits and refine them over generations.

Or imagine the choices you  make in the simulation are not choices, but represent the effects of the environment.  For example, say the Sun grows dim giving people with big eyes that can see in low light an advantage over people with small eyes.  This advantage results in a higher percentage of offspring surviving and a wider representation in the gene pool.  What effect would this have after several generations?

Think of how much richer students’ discussions of designer pets and natural disasters will be after they have “experienced” the process instead of just reading about it.  In addition to genetics, this simulation can also stimulate interest in probability (how likely are offspring to have certain characteristics), design (ideas behind evolutionary design were the impetus for the interface), as well as all of the social issues behind decisions we are now able to make regarding genetics.

In terms of ESL teaching, I think giving students something interesting to do and then having them talk or write about it is a great way to get them to practice English.  This genetics simulation is simple but interesting enough that it could generate lots of interesting ideas for students to talk about.

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Edupunk Eye-Tracking = DIY Research

One of my favorite presentations at the 2011 Ohio University CALL Conference was made by Jeff Kuhn who presented a small research study he’d done using the above eye-tracking device that he put together himself.

If you’re not familiar with eye-tracking, it’s a technology that records what an person is looking at and for how long.  In the example video below, which uses the technology to examine the use of a website, the path that the eyes take is represented by a line.  A circle represents each time the eye pauses, with larger circles indicating longer pauses.  This information can be viewed as a session map of all of the circles (0:45) and as a heat map of the areas of concentration (1:15).

This second video shows how this technology can be used in an academic context to study reading.  Notice how the reader’s eyes do not move smoothly and that the pauses occur for different lengths of time.

Jeff’s study examined the noticing of errors.  He tracked the eyes of four ESL students as they read passages with errors and found that they spent an extra 500 milliseconds on errors that they noticed.  (Some learners are not ready to notice some errors.  The participants in the study did not pause on those errors.)

The study was interesting, but the hardware Jeff built to do the study was completely captivating to me.  He started by removing the infrared filter from a web cam and mounting it to a bike helmet using a piece of scrap metal, some rubber bands and zip ties.  Then he made a couple of infrared LED arrays to shine infrared light towards the eyes being tracked.  As that light is reflected by the eyes, it is picked up by the webcam, and translated into data by the free, open-source Ogama Gaze Tracker.

So, instead of acquiring access to a specialized eye-tracking station costing thousands of dollars, Jeff has built a similar device for a little over a hundred bucks, most of which went to the infrared LED arrays.  With a handful of these devices deployed, almost anyone could gather a large volume of eye-tracking data quickly and cheaply.

Incidentally, if you are thinking that there are a few similarities between this project and the wii-based interactive whiteboard, a personal favorite, there are several: Both cut the price of hardware by a factor of at least ten and probably closer to one hundred, both use free open-source software, both use infrared LEDs (though this point is mostly a coincidence), both have ties to gaming (the interactive whiteboard is based on a Nintendo controller; eye-tracking software is being used and refined by gamers to select targets in first-person shooters), and both are excellent examples of the ethos of edupunk, which embraces a DIY approach to education.

Do you know of other interesting edupunk projects?  Leave a comment.

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Google Labs

beaker

If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Google Yourself

haystack

Can you find the needle? Google can.

This is going to sound a bit like one of those motivational books targeted at business managers, but I was struck by a couple of points in a recent article in Wired magazine on Google’s search algorithm (“How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web“).  It’s got me wondering how I can Google myself: not in the sense of searching for my phone number and website, but in the sense of approaching my work in the way that people at Google have approached theirs.

Many people know the story of Google’s original innovation in web search, namely ranking pages by the number of links to them.  But this article details many tweaks that have been made since the original 1997 version.  These tweaks include weighting links from experts, personalizing results, and universalizing the search across many media including blog and Twitter posts.

In addition to some of interesting linguistic challenges Google is presented with in its search queries (note the differences in meaning in each word in New York, New York Times, and New York Times Square, for example), Google is using the data it gathers in searches to tweak its algorithm and constantly make improvements.  If someone searches for dogs and then searches for puppies, the algorithm learns that these words have a similar meaning.  If these words are found along with leash, fetch, and train on enough pages, the algorithm learns from that association as well.  Even more impressive is that Google is working on making many of these improvements all at the same time without shutting down.  One of Google’s coders likens this to changing “the engines on a plane that is flying at 1,000 kilometers an hour, 30,000 feet above Earth.”

Granted, few of us have the technical expertise or vast resources of a corporation like Google.  But, and this is the business-book-like part I promised, what are we doing in our personal spheres of influence to assess and improve what we are doing?  Is there data we can gather about our students’ experience?  How can we manipulate that data and what might it reveal to us?  How are we acting on the information we find?

I was recently talking to a student about the perception that students’ time is better spent on preparing for standardized tests than classwork.  My explanation that the best way to improve test scores is to do the classwork often falls on deaf ears.  But the good news is, we have the data to determine if that’s true.   If I can pull those numbers together and present them to these students, will I change their minds?  Maybe not, but it’s worth a shot.

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The Marshmallow Experiment

marshmallows

Want one? If you wait, you can have two.

I recently tweeted about the Marshmallow Experiment after reading about it in the Toronto Star. Yesterday, I listened to the Radio Lab podcast that discusses the same experiment.

The gist of it is that children are given the choice of taking one marshmallow or waiting a few minutes and taking two.  At around 4 years of age, many people develop the ability to delay their gratification.  Not all, but many.

More interestingly, when researchers followed up with the children who had been tested years later, those that were able to delay their gratification were more successful on a number of measures ranging from SAT scores and GPAs to whether they were overweight.  Fortunately, these skills can be developed, so even if a four-year-old swipes the marshmallow at the first opportunity, she is not predetermined to be an obese dropout.

As a teacher, I’m thinking about how this skill translates to my classes.  I suspect that I can identify a few students in my class who are instant-swipers and some who are probably still waiting to take the second marshmallow in case they will be rewarded with a third marshmallow.  Some students cram for tests, while others forgo fun in favor of studying and reviewing.

I find it encouraging to learn that these skills can be honed, but I wonder if this is true for the adult students that I work with.  How can we help this message reach them?  How can we help them to apply this information to their academic and, eventually, professional careers?

Maybe I need to bring a bag of marshmallows to class.

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Vorbeo: Easy Web Polls

Vorbeo: free and simple online polls.

Vorbeo: free and simple online polls.

Another recent resource that came across the Twitter stream (thanks @NikPeachey!) is Vorbeo, a custom online poll generator.

The most amazing thing about this tool is how simple it is to use.  The question, answers, and even the text for your “vote” button are customizable.  But, the best part is that there is a live preview of your poll that changes as you customize your poll.  When you’re finished, copy and paste the code generated by Vorbeo into your moodle or other web space.  Easy!

Making a poll with Vorbeo.

Making a poll with Vorbeo.

Now, you can poll your students, students can poll each other, and students can even poll the general public, if they can put enough people in front of the poll.

As an edupunk who likes to tinker with code on occasion, I also appreciate that the code changes as the poll is customize.  This is a great way to learn what each line of the code does.  (Incidentally, if you’d like to learn more about HTML, CSS, XML, and other scripting languages, try w3schools.com which has many examples and tutorials with live previews.)

Update: As slickly as Vorbeo generates web polls, it appears that these polls are not compatible with WordPress blogs.  Perhaps this is because WordPress already has it’s own polling feature using different technology or because it strips out HTML forms for security reasons.  Either way, trying to post a Vorbeo poll to a WordPress blog will neuter it (see below).  My other comments still apply, but check that Vorbeo is compatible with your application before counting on it in the classroom.

Do you like online polls?

Yes, the more the merrier!
Yes, occasionally
No, not really
No, I never respond to them!

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Students Are Writing More

Our students are writing everywhere.

Our students are writing everywhere.

I recently came across an interesting article in Wired magazine about student writing: “The New Literacy” by Clive Thompson. The beginning posits that the new school year brings the usual fretting about how students’ writing is getting worse and worse. But Thompson then presents the most convincing counter argument I’ve seen yet.

Research conducted at Stanford University suggests that students (and people in general) are writing more than ever. All those text messages, Facebook updates, blog posts, and even classroom essays really add up. In fact, professor Andrea Lunsford is quoted as saying, “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” A generation ago, after leaving high school or college, how many people wrote more than a paragraph? Sure, there were some who were letter-writers, but we’re all emailers now.

The study also found that students are acutely aware of their audience and, in particular, adapting their writing to get their point across. Interestingly, students judge writing to be good if it has an effect on the world — if there is debate and interaction.  Essays are given less attention because the only audience for whom students are writing is the professor.

I don’t agree with all of the findings reported in the article (you may not either if you’ve ever received an email from a student that was startlingly informal — where is the audience awareness there?) but it does point us down an interesting path.

How much more attention do students pay to their assignments when their writing can be viewed by the whole class?  Or the whole world?  Collaborating on a blog or wiki for writing assignments makes this process relatively easy and straightforward.  What kind of feedback can they provide each other?  If the teacher adjusts her role to coach and helps guide this process, some feedback can be crowdsourced, giving students more responses.  Of course, student feedback would not be the same as teacher feedback, but both could be valuable.

Having students use new technology to share their writing is not a cutting edge idea, but this shift in perspective gives some insight into how blogs, wikis, and the like can increase production and, possibly, motivation.  Instead of lamenting students’ sloppy penmanship, maybe we should be embracing this revolution in writing and getting our students to write even more.

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