Tag Archives: study

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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Google Labs


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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Pronunciation 2.0

I don’t recall how I came across Rachel’s English but I was instantly impressed and have yet to explore its entire depth.

The first thing I found was the list of sounds represented by the phonetic alphabet.  There is also a sound chart that lists every sound a letter can represent.  Both of these have links to YouTube videos like the one above, which detail how to pronounce the sound.  I especially like the portion of the video that compares pictures of Rachel in profile as she pronounces the sounds with her teeth, tongue, and other relevant anatomical features drawn over top (for example, see the 3:50 mark in the above video.)  These photos are also available in the mouth positions section.  There are also other interesting exercises and a blog.

In addition to being a useful pronunciation resource, a lot of attention is paid to linking everything from various sections appropriately.  It doesn’t matter if you are looking through the sound chart or pictures of mouth positions; you can always link to the relevant YouTube video for a quick 5-10 minute tutorial on a given sound.

This is a useful site for students to work through on their own.  Perhaps more importantly it could be something teachers recommend to students to supplement classroom instruction.  If students are having trouble articulating a particular sound, email them a link to the video, then suggest they follow up with one of the exercises.  Working through some of these clear and informative tutorials might be just the extra help they need.


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Google Maps for New Student Orientation

After putting student-created videos on Google Maps I’ve been thinking about how a similar process could be used to provide an orientation to the institution and community for new international students.  Some of the teachers at Ohio University are already well on their way to creating such a map.

Videos of some of the popular destinations have been recorded, posted to YouTube, and embedded into the popup balloons on the map.  [Note: Not all of these features will work on the video I have embedded above.  Click on “view larger map” to see the fully-featured version.] Others include other useful information such as websites and phone numbers.  This was all teacher-created, but the opportunity exists to allow student contributions.

This is something we really need to pull together.  Know of a similar example?  Leave a comment.

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The Reverse of Homework

young woman doing homework on her bed

Is it time to take the "home" out of homework?

An idea I’ve been thinking about for a while recently came across my Twitter feed: The Reverse of Homework.  A little digging brought me to the original article (edit: no longer freely available) referenced in the tweet.  Essentially, the idea is to take the lecture portion of a class and put it online.  Class time can then be used for problems and activities that had been relegated to homework.  While not everything in an ESL context can be put online, there are some areas where this strategy can be used.

In my own intermittent attempts in grammar classes, I’ve run into some of the issues described in the article, most of which had to do with students’ adjustment from the traditional homework paradigm.  But the benefits included students being able to review the material as much or as little as they chose (which may also constitute an “issue”) and having much more class time to answer the most difficult, challenging and interesting questions which students often run into by themselves at home and then forget to ask the next day.

Another benefit is that this approach can accommodate multiple learning styles.  When I was in college, I had trouble doing the background reading for lectures, but found it easy to read the material after the lecture.  Similarly, in language classes, I would rather build my knowledge by attempting things and making mistakes because I have to find the reason for learning a particular structure or set of vocabulary before I am motivated to study it.  My teaching often reflects my own learning style, but I recognize that not everyone prefers to learn the way I do.  Reversing homework allows students to prepare for the activities by listening to the lecture in advance or to attempt the activities and then go back and use the lecture as a resource.

The biggest downside is that it can take a long time to develop and adapt lectures to an online format.  But, if they are developed in a modular way, components can be shared and reused, eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel each time a course is taught.  By combining original resources with preexisting resources, students may be given a wide variety of options which they can use to meet their goals and the goals of the course.

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