Science Wednesday

Time for science in the time of pandemic

Of the challenges that face us during this pandemic, balancing a full time job with young children at home has to be right up there on the difficult list. Listening to my friends and colleagues, bravely managing that tight-rope act, I looked for something I could do to help.  I remembered an idea that arose out of frustration over the thin science in our sons’ elementary curriculum – Science Wednesday.  We did small scale science projects at home on Wednesdays, after school.  Little experiments and kitchen sink inquiries designed to spark my sons’ interest and get them thinking about the natural world around them. I dug through an old hard drive and, miraculously found the ideas and notes for it, recorded way back.

The Zoom session

With the help of my friend, Beth Wilbur, we put together a rough plan. We’d invite the children of our friends, colleagues, and family to join us, once a week (on Wednesday mornings) for a live Zoom session.  During that time, we’d review their results from the previous week and introduce the next activity to come. We’d begin with the experiments I’d used in the past, since I knew they were do-able and didn’t require fancy tools. As a test, Beth and I ran the experiments ourselves, taking notes on potential problems and photos to document our results. We came up with a template for a “Grown-up Guide” (for the parents), which included a list of required items, an outline of the plan, and a few guidance photos for each experiment.

Once we were confident we had two, easy-to-reproduce experiments, we started outreach. Very quickly, our “class” size numbered over ten – enough to get started. It was gratifying to hear the parents’ response to the idea – a bit of excitement, mixed in with a large portion of relief.

The group consisted of ages ranging from 5 to 13. Quite the spread and quite the challenge. After the first two sessions (“Water Transport in Celery” and “The Naked Egg”), it became clear that, if we aimed for the 8-10 year olds, the older kids would figure out their own extensions and adaptations, while the younger kids were happy to come along for the ride.

Two weeks into things, with 20 kids signed up, I decided to reach out to my biology-teacher friends. After all, they could do a much better job than I ever could and they’d have even more creative ideas. My request came right at the time most of them were trying to figure out how to teach their own classes online, so I kept the ask to just one session and I’d manage all the technology, handouts, and communication. Biology educators are the most generous souls and this was no exception. Soon we had a group of some of the best high school, AP, and college biology teachers in the country thinking about at-home experiments the kids could try. Here’s our star-studded line-up:

  • Nancy Monson, Opposable Thumbs (How your hand works)
  • Eric J. Simon, Amazing Red Cabbage Juice (pH)
  • Peggy O’Neill Skinner, Seed Germination (A closer look at beans)
  • Diane Sweeney, The Blubber Glove (Hot or Not?)
  • Brad Williamson, Marine Microfossils (from Iowa!)
  • Carol Williamson, Pollinators in Your Backyard
  • Alyssa Wood, Penny Dirt (Copper oxide and malachite)

The kids were terrific and their results impressive. With each experiment, they caught onto the question and came up with their own answers, often extending their effort to include artful drawings, short video clips of their observations, and added investigations into something new that occurred to them. For example, a few of the kids planted the seedlings they sprouted on damp paper towels and then proceeded to watch them grow over weeks. They brought new tools to the table – digital thermometers, ziplock bags, flashlights, new ways to label, and methods to align a small magnifying glass to their iPhones in order to get a better look at the microfossils. Click on the photo gallery below to see these young scientists at work!



Eric J. Simon

The educators were pretty darned creative too.  Not only did they devise fabulous inquiry ideas, but they experimented themselves and found refinements or adaptations that saved time-pressed parents from extra trips to the grocery store. Their educator superpowers were on prime display and each week I’d be impressed all over again by a new innovation or a creative way to inspire enthusiasm from a Zoom window.  Carol Williamson encouraged the kids to hold up their pollinator grid to the camera if they had something they wanted to share. Peggy Skinner suggested taping their seed germination bags to the wall, at eye-level, so that they could easily

Alyssa Wood

check in on progress each day. Eric Simon drew acid-base analogies that brought home the concept of pH. Brad Williamson tickled their imagination by showing the original site of the marine microfossils samples we sent to them by mail – in Iowa!  Alyssa Wood brought home the concept of penny dirt (aka copper oxide) and brilliant blue malachite by showing photos of the statue of liberty and wearing a lady

Peggy O’Neill Skinner

liberty head dress during the Zoom session. Nancy Monson upped their investment in the question of opposable thumbs by showing delightful photos of chimpanzees, pandas, and possums. Carol Williamson urged the kids to explore gardens, playgrounds and nearby parks looking for pollinators and then document what they found.

We decided to end the sessions with the arrival of summer – always better to leave them wanting more, right? A few good lesson emerged from all of this:

  • Keep the live sessions short and punchy (attention spans and enough Zoom already…)
  • It was helpful to begin each session the same way, with a familiar patter, and a map with red stars to indicate where in the world the students lived (Luca lives in Sweden!)
  • Activities with an end-product seem to foster creative flourishes (those models of the human hand!)
  • It’s helpful to have a few experiments that continue, beyond a week (e.g. germinating seeds) to give the students headroom for more exploration
  • Even though the plan here was to give parents a break, most of the parents stayed nearby during the Zoom sessions and got involved in the investigations themselves, which only added richness
  • Flexibility was key – you can’t get your hands on dried beans? No problem, try pumpkin or sunflower seeds!  No white vinegar in the house? Cider vinegar will work!
  • It took kids awhile to warm up to speaking in the Zoom sessions, but by the end, they all wanted to share and many of them brought other, related items to show to the teachers and to each other

And can I just say again how fabulously creative these teachers are?  I’ve had the good fortune to work with biology educators for my entire professional career and they never cease to amaze me.

Thanks, everyone.  That was fun.

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Filed under Interesting Science, Reflections on Teaching

New Ways of Seeing

Peeling back the layers on something very old and rendering a very large virtual object in the middle of your living room might, at first, feel like activities without much in common. However, two new online tools designed for those activities do share an important theme: a new way of seeing. They both provide the opportunity to see familiar objects in a whole new way.

The New York Times took a dive into augmented reality last month with a crafted immersive experience of the Statue of Liberty’s torch. In advance of a scheduled move for Lady Liberty’s original lamp from the place it now resides, inside the statue’s pedestal, to a nearby museum, the NYT graphics group took nearly 700 images of the structure, from all angles, in order to make the torch available to us all in augmented reality.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 6.41.03 PMHere’s how it works. First download the NYT app to your smart phone, then use the QR code in this article to launch the images through your phone’s camera, and voila!

In the photo below you can see Lady Liberty’s torch, rendered in my kitchen. There’s something magical about seeing this huge and oh-so-familiar structure manifest in your own house!  Although you’re viewing it through your phone’s camera, you can walk around it, tilt it up, get up close, stand on a chair and look down on it, or scale it to its actual size (16 feet tall and 12 feet across!) and watch it break through your ceiling.


The second online tool comes to us from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Their new website Inside Bruegal allows you to examine Pieter Bruegal (the elder) paintings much as a conservator or an art historian would do.

Here’s how this one works. Once on the Inside Bruegal site, select the painting that interests you, choose the image type (infrared?  x-ray?  macro?) and the site will display  side-by-side images – say for instance, the macro view juxtaposed with the x-ray view. The zoom and move functions track in parallel so that you can skate around your chosen painting in both views, examining details closely.

What you’ll find on close inspection is quite interesting. Take for instance the missing sick and elderly in the painting, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (painted in 1559), or the two fishes painted in place of a christian cross on a deeper layer – variations revealed in the infrared view.  In essence, you excavate to discover older layers of paint beneath the surface – a sort of electronic pentimento. You can trace the painting’s history and follow the artistic decisions made as Bruegel created his work, or perhaps, decisions made long after the painting was finished?

Infrared imagery reveals Bruegel’s original painting “Massacre of the Innocents” as a far more harsh depiction of the slaughter of children and the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition with brutal depictions of dead children. Apparently later viewers must have considered the original painting’s violence as too much and, at some point in history (art conservators estimate in the 17th or 18th century), someone replaced all the images of dead children with images of farm animals — and that’s how the painting stands today.

Here is the Bruegel painting, The Tower of Babel” (painted in 1563), macro image and infrared, full of small variations and revisions.

Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 10.52.47 AM

In this close-up of one of the foreground characters in the painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” (painted in 1564) you can clearly see a tool or a weapon (a rope?) tucked into the man’s jacket that is not there in the underlying layer exposed in the infrared image. When was that added – and by whom?

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 8.23.43 AM

So much to see and so many different ways of seeing.



Filed under Uncategorized

What Makes Terry Gross So Darned Good?

Terry Gross. Photo from WHYY, Philadelphia.

Terry Gross. Photo from WHYY, Philadelphia.

No doubt you’re familiar with the NPR podcast series, Fresh Air.  Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, has been on the radio with the show since 1975. From rock stars to politicians, artists to economists, the roster of the Fresh-Air-interviewed is long and impressive.

I’ve been a loyal fan for years. While I listen to other podcasts too, Fresh Air is always tops on my list. That’s mostly because the show is just so darned good. In fact, I would say that Terry Gross’s skills as an interviewer have informed my expectations of all the other podcasts and interview-style shows I listen to. When I check out a new podcast, I ask myself, does it measure up to Terry Gross and Fresh Air?

So what makes TG so good at her job?  After giving this consideration, I’ve come up with six features of her work that continue to impress me. Six aspirations for producers of interview-style podcasts or, for that matter, anyone who interviews people for a living, to consider.


Terry Gross…

  1. …does her homework.  She is always well prepared. She’s read the book, seen the movie, researched the interviewee’s background. That homework pays off in her well-informed, carefully-worded questions that take the interview efficiently to the heart of the matter.
  2. …doesn’t just ask questions, she comments and builds on answers. Listen to this segment from her interview with Lin Manuel Miranda where her insight into an earlier answer of his (about compartmentalizing his behavior between home and school as a child) leads him in a new direction to talk about the way he knit together his culture through the theater.  [Audio]
  3. …is respectful. Even when it’s clear she doesn’t personally agree with the interviewee, she maintains her professionalism. For example, in this clip from her December 7th interview with Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, Kelly explains the “reset” she was able to achieve with Donald Trump after months of abusive and terrifying death threats, tweets, and phone calls from Trump supporters. TG remains respectful and even-handed throughout this interview, even though she and Megyn Kelly hold strongly different opinions on journalism and politics. Note too the way that TG pushes for a more fulsome explanation of this “reset”, quietly insisting on the fact that it doesn’t take away the horrible things that were said. [Audio]
  4. …never makes it about her.  All too often we hear interviewers who drift into telling their own story. They might, generously, be attempting to make the show more conversational, but an interview is not a conversation. It’s an interview. Stick to your candidate’s story.
  5. …pushes past superficial.  If her interviewee provides a simplistic answer, Terry Gross doesn’t let it stand there. She (politely) asks a further question or asks for an example. Often, that next question is precisely the one I’d like to ask. It’s her way of extending the interviewee’s reach, leading them to a richer explanation. Listen to this segment of her interview with Kenneth Lonergan, the director of the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan talks about the fact that, as a playwright, you have to get used to the fact that your audience might not always find your words as funny as you think they are. What does he mean by that?  [Audio]
  6. ..builds anticipation. Often in her interviews TG will lay the ground work for something you’d like to know or hear – and then she serves it up to you. One of my favorite examples of this came in her recent interview with Michael Pollan, about his new book, How to Change Your Mind, an investigation into the use of LSD and psilocybin to treat mental health conditions. In the interview, Pollan recounts his own, first-person experience with hallucinogenic compounds (a ‘reluctant psychonaut’, as he puts it), making particular note of a Bach unaccompanied cello suite (No.2 in D minor) playing during his trip and what an impact it had. As you listen to the interview unfold, you – of course – want to hear that cello suite. Needless to say, she delivers. And just so you can hear it too, here is Yo Yo Ma, playing the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor.


Filed under Podcasting

Bone Love

Until recently, I didn’t give much thought to my forearm. And I’m guessing that you haven’t either. Consider it with me for a moment. Take a minute to appreciate the engineering marvel that is your arm.

Roll up your sleeve and extend your right arm out straight in front of you, with the palm of your hand facing in, your elbow  tucked to your side. Now run your left forefinger up the length of your forearm from wrist to your elbow. That is the radius bone –flared at the thumb-end and  shaped like the head of a nail at the elbow end. That’s one bone, but there are actually two in there.

Now, keeping your arm out in the same position, run your left fingers along the bottom side of your arm from the wrist to the elbow. That is the ulna – bone #2.  Your ability to grasp, rotate, pronate, turn, deliver all comes from the intricate interactions between these two slender osteo companions living in your forearm. Encircle your right wrist, with the fingers of your left hand and then turn your right arm to the left and right and you’ll see what I mean. The ulna is actually a fixed bone but the radius capers over and around it, twirling, like Ginger Rogers around a steadfast Fred Astaire, working together in a well-choreographed tango that allows you to do everything from turning a screwdriver, to opening a jar, to picking up an infant.

Yes, that arm of yours is an engineering marvel. Except when it’s not. When broken, your bones must be held perfectly still in order for bone-building cells to do their work and lay down new bone. Spongey, like tofu (I was told), at first then gradually, over weeks, to something harder and more stable. Like wet cement, it must be allowed to stiffen overtime, undisturbed. That’s where the cast comes in. It is only when you have a harder-than-steel fiberglass cast on your forearm that you fully realize how magical the movements of your ulna and radius are. Without their intricate gliding and swooning, your arm and hand become a robotic cudgel, capable of only the most primitive moves. Pushing, blocking, and just laying there. You have no grasping power. You can’t squeeze, pinch, or turn.  Not only that, but your two hands can’t work in concert together.

You’d be amazed by the number of quotidian tasks that require the sophisticated enterprise of two functional arms working, ahem, hand-in-hand. Zipping your pants, tying your shoes, driving, buttoning, cutting vegetables, and basically any form of multitasking – period

I have growing superstitions over the pending removal of this cast. Once they cut this sheath off my arm, what will happen? Will the quivering lump of bone, sinew, and skin be able to return to all of those crazy functions? Will my ulna and radius resume they’re well-rehearsed choreography and glide over each other in rhythm? Will the reconstituted bone hold up to the rigors of my daily life? Will I be able to lift boxes, type, carry grocery bags, turn the steering wheel hand-over-hand, support a downward-facing dog?

And what if I fall again? Will that delicate patch of bone hold my weight? Has the word gone out to the other 205 bones  – she’s breakable!




Filed under Reflections

W.I.P. Photos

Do you know about Work-In-Progress (WIP) photos? This is, apparently, a widespread phenomenon in the art world. The idea is to capture images of your progress, as you work, and share the photos with other artists. What a simple idea – loaded with insights about how we learn.

In June of this year I started work on the largest mosaic I’d ever attempted. My plan was to work a big field of one-color background in order to gain proficiency on a particular cutting and laying technique. Other mosaic artists I knew encouraged me to share my “WIP photos” and so I decided to give it a try. At first it seemed like a small thing – take a few snaps while you work, upload and share. But I quickly realized, there’s more to it than that.

In order to take photos as you work, you must make a conscious decision about when to stop and document. What are the appropriate/best inflection points? What are those – when does a plan detour, what are the guidepost moments, what are the best places to reveal decision-making? I soon realized that stopping to take the photo means that I pause the work, stand back from it, take a breather and – ultimately – notice something that would have gone unnoticed without the interruption.

There are useful lessons in framing the shot. What should I include? Tools, supplies, fixatives, measurement devices? Should I clean up the workspace before the shot or is there something useful in the messiness?  It’s helpful to take a few shots at a distance, to gain perspective and maybe see a part of the room, then take a few close-up to reveal details.

When the project is complete, you discover that the WIP photos tell a story. From planning, to inception, through execution – as I flip through those photos, the decisions and trade-offs I made along the way are available to me – and to others.


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Filed under Reflections on Teaching

Production Notes: Insight Into Building an Effective Online Course

What all goes into online course construction?  How much work is it and what skills do you need?  What are the best tools for the job?  And what makes for effective online learning? The following video segments take a stab at answering these questions.

My colleague Natasha Collette and I decided to video record a conversation between us about the making of the online course Making Science and Engineering Pictures (MITx 0.111x).  The two of us worked together, with our friend and colleague, Felice Frankel (the course’s instructor), in 2015.  I’ve blogged about the course earlier – documenting the tools we used, the student voices, and the live event we staged, but these recorded conversations between us will provide behind-the-scenes insight into the course’s construction.

Video 1:  Natasha’s Background

Video 2:  Developing Effective Online Learning

Video 3:  Thoughts on Workflow and Process

Video 4;  Production Tools

Video 5: What are Motion Graphics?

Video 6:  The Importance of Telling a Story

Video 7:  Our Lessons Learned

Video 8:  The Value of the Team

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What My Stepmother Has Taught Me About Learning

MGTP2Yup, my 75-year old stepmother.

In my work with teachers and learners of all stripes, I read extensively, listen carefully to experts, and experiment with methods to most effectively coach the smart use of computer technology, social media, and online interaction in learning.  My goal is to arrive at useful principles that inform teaching and learning. But lately, I’ve realized that some of the my best material comes out of paying attention to my stepmother’s experience with her iPad.

To back up, she started three years ago with a desktop PC. That was a complete and utter failure. Not intuitive, unreliable, subject to mysterious update requirements and outages, and tethered to a room she rarely occupied. But everything changed when she got her iPad.  Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her:

Power of Portable. The fact that she could access the tablet where ever she was – in the kitchen (for a recipe), in bed (to read the headline news), in the living room (to look up the name of that movie on television), in the car (for directions).  Lesson: The value of computing power when and where you need it.

Consider All Tool Options.  The red magnetic case I purchased for her came with a stylus. I would have never purchased a stylus for her (because I don’t use one with my iPad), but it turned out the stylus was a breakthrough. A germ thing?  A connection to a familiar tool (pen)?  The pressure or size of her fingers not working reliably?  Maybe all three, but the stylus turned out to be key.  Lesson: Avoid the mistake of assuming everyone shares your preferences.

What You Call Things Matters.  Unfortunately the basic architecture of the internet and her computing device are complete mysteries to my stepmother – and, quite honestly, she really doesn’t want to know.  For the most part, that’s ok. But occasionally her lack of understanding trips her up. For example, comprehending the difference between connecting to the internet via a nearby wireless source versus cellular data; the concept of storing documents/photos/videos online; or the mystery of “cookies”.  When she stumbles on these gaps, I’ve found it’s best to construct an analogy that has nothing to do with computing. A similar situation carved from her other interests in life. And in the conversation, completely avoid the use of acronyms and techie terms. Lesson: Meet the learner where they are.

The Fluster Factor.  When things go wrong for my stepmother and her tablet (and they do, oh lordy, they do), I’ve discovered that it’s unwise to intervene immediately. By the time she calls me, she’s been at it for awhile, trying to figure it out on her own. She’s flustered. Upset, frustrated, and ready to chuck the whole thing in the garbage. My strategy has been to suggest she put it away and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. Give her a chance to recover her composure and get some distance from it. Once we do go at it again (typically over the phone), it helps for me to have my iPad in front of me and walk through the situation right along with her. That way I can attempt to translate the diagnostic information she’s providing.  It was only when I had my iPad in hand that I could correctly connect her lament that “Google won’t come up” to the fact that the icon for her browser had disappeared from the task bar. Lesson: Best to solve problems with cool heads and calm psyches.

Reflection and Pride. Over time I’ve learned to remind my stepmother of what she’s mastered. When a new problem crops up or there’s a new function she wants to learn, I start by reminding her of the path she’s been on and asking her for insight on her achievement . “Remember when you started with the iPad and you were nervous about using the camera?  Those photos you took of your grandson’s soccer game last week were quite good – how did you take that action shot?” When she reflects on her success, she inevitably comes up with some insight that would have never occurred to me (for instance, it was important to her picture-taking to completely remove the iPad cover to lighten it and find a way to steady her hands). I’ve noticed that she likes to bring the iPad (with its bright red cover) with her to events – in part to take photos, but also to let people know that she has one  – and uses it. She takes tremendous pride in mastering this piece of 21st century equipment (as well she should) and wearing her accomplishments like a badge of honor is deeply rewarding for her. Lesson:  Attagirls and reflection on successes deepens satisfaction and leads to insights.

Personal Motivation.  I repeatedly made the mistake of introducing a new app to her because I thought she’d like it. I finally figured out (doh) the importance of leading with the need and then introducing the app as the solution. My stepmother wanted to talk with her friend in the U.K.  Perfect vehicle for introducing Skype.  Her desire to communicate with her friend carried her through the difficulty of learning a new application and persevering to figure things out. She doesn’t think in terms of VoIP or of Skype, she thinks in terms of the blue button that allows her to talk with Sue. Lesson:  A learner will persist longer and with more diligence if they are motivated by what is important to them.

So, there you have it. I’m grateful for the chance to learn right along with her.


Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Teaching with Technology

Meet Homo naledi

Homo naledi skull replica.

Homo naledi skull replica.

Sixty biologists in a New Orleans hotel conference room with a paleoanthropologist, a replica of an early hominin skull, and a revised story of our human ancestry?  Does it get any better than that?

John Hawks at BLC 13

John Hawks at BLC 13

Last week, Dr. John Hawks (University of Wisconsin-Madison) gave the keynote address at the 13th annual Biology Leadership Conference in New Orleans, LA. Hawks is part of the team that, in 2013, discovered the bones of a previously unidentified hominin species in a South African cave. The name of the new species, Homo naledi, refers to the Rising Star cave where the bones were found (“naledi” means “star” in the local Sethoso language).

Among his other academic qualifications, Hawks is a mighty good storyteller. He held us spellbound with the Rising Star story… It started in 2013 with two local cavers who, under the guidance of Lee Berger (from the University of Witwatersrand and the principal investigator on the Rising Star project), were systematically exploring caves in an area know as the “Cradle of Humankind“, a UNESCO World heritage site about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Deep underground, they found a narrow opening (7.5 inches wide) that led to the chamber where the bones were found. They snapped a few pictures, took them to Berger, who immediately recognized the importance of the find when he could see a skull and a mandible that were clearly hominin.

We know that living apes, chimpanzees and humans are close relatives to each other, with nearly identical genomes, but we humans are even more closely related to Australopithecus and other extinct human ancestors. Researchers know that the evolutionary lineage leading to humans diverged from the other apes somewhere around 6 or 7 million years ago. The species in that diverged group are collectively referred to as hominins, a group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors.

The path to the chamber. (source: National Geographic)

The path to the chamber. (source: National Geographic)

Looking at that photo of a clearly hominin specimen and listening to the cavers’ description of where they found it, Lee was faced with the difficult question of how to get in there and, even more of a challenge, how to get the bones out? Getting to the spot requires a 150-foot initial descent, a “superman crawl” through a 10″ high tunnel (so named because you have to navigate it with one arm up in order to squeeze through), then a steep climb up a stone wall (called the Dragon’s Back), followed by a descent through a 7.5 inch wide, 40 foot-long vertical chute into the chamber – and all done in the absence of natural light, without a safety harness (there’s no room!).

Underground astronauts (National Geographic photo)

Underground astronauts (source: National Geographic)

Berger knew that he would need a very special team to pull this off. So, in October 2013, he posted a request on Facebook, calling for experienced paleontologist/archeologists with caving experience who were not claustrophobic, who could drop everything and come to South Africa for a few months, and who were small enough to fit through a 7.5 inch tunnel. Quite the list of specific job requirements! He received 57 applicants – all qualified – and from there, he picked six. The so-called “underground astronauts” pictured here. All women. All experienced professionals. And all able to wriggle their way through that narrow chute.

On the strength of their find, the scientists reached out to the National Geographic Society and the expedition was on. By November, a 60-person camp was set up and running by the Rising Star Cave.

Photo by Elen Feuerriegel.

Photo by Elen Feuerriegel.

And down they went. What is it like to work inside this cave? Hawks described cramped and claustrophobic conditions, razor-sharp rocks, dust, darkness, and a tangled mass of cables and cords with which the team has wired the site. Have a look at this National Geographic video to get a feel for getting into the chamber. The careful removal of 100’s of bones must be done while documenting their found-placement, all the while gingerly maneuvering so as not to disturb the site. The expedition’s National Geographic blog site gives a feeling for the work with stories aplenty recounting their day-to-day challenges and showcasing the teams impressive problem solving. I’m particularly fond of this award-winning photo, taken by Elen Feuerriegel (one of the astronauts) showing the scanning set up inside the cave. Before excavating, each area is carefully scanned to create a 3D-rendered image for reference. In this photo, Lindsay Eaves monitors the scanner on a laptop, while precariously perched in a fissure while her colleague, Becca Peixotto, operates the scanner, off-camera to the right.

Over the course of the first 20 days the astronauts pulled up 1200 specimens from 15 individual skeletons – painstakingly, carefully, piece by piece.  To put this into perspective, finding one complete skeleton of a previously unidentified hominin would be miraculous; to find 15 is simply unheard of. Before the Rising Star expedition, the only early hominins we had were Lucy (40% of an Australopithicus skeleton), Turkana boy and one skeleton of Australopithicus sediba (also found by Lee Berger) – that was it. The skeletal record of human ancestry. With this first find (and they’re still digging) they have one complete skeleton (except for two small bones) and multiple copies of most all of the bones. They have 107 foot elements, 190 teeth, 150 wrist and hand elements, skulls, mandibles, limb bones.  What’s more, they appear to have remains from a variety of individuals – male, female, toddlers, adolescents, and older individuals (old = 35 years).

So what have they learned about the specimens so far?  From the remains the scientists can estimate that an adult H.naledi was about four and a half feet tall, roughly 80 – 110 lbs in weight. There are aspects of H. naledi that are very human-like. For instance, they have human-sized teeth, human-proportioned limbs and arched feet (making it possible to be a good long distance walker), and human-like wrist anatomy. But they also have many important ape-like qualities like curved fingers for grasping, shoulders built for overhead reach and climbing, a flared pelvis, and most notably very small skulls (an H. naledi brain would be one-third the size of a modern human brain) with a forward-sloping face.

Homo naledi rendering. (source: National Geographic)

Artist’s rendering of Homo naledi (source: National Geographic)

Who is this creature? Could these fossil remains actually be a variety of species whose bones were jumbled up together in the same cave? The team quickly dismissed that idea since the various copies of any single bone were all the same. These specimens all have what Hawks refers to as a ‘mosaic of features’ from Australopithicus and Homid. In the same way that A. sediba (Berger’s earlier find) does. But here’s the thing – both naledi and sediba are mosaics, but they are different mosaics. Each has a different combination of australopith-like traits and human-like traits.

Where does H. naledi fall in the phylogeny? Is this an early human ancestor? Or could this be the last of a more primitive creature who was living among more modern humans? Maybe there is more diversity to the homo family tree than scientists thought?  Maybe there are other fossils out there, with still other variations, that would even further complicate our family tree?

What makes this puzzle even more challenging is they have not yet been able to date the H.naledi remains. Are they 3 million years old or 30,000 years old? Typically paleoanthropologists position their finds in time by dating the surrounding rock or by dating faunal remains found with the specimens. In this case, there are no other faunal remains and the bones were found lying on the sediment surface, not embedded in rock. Not only that, the sediment can’t be dated because all the sediment in the cave came from the cave – there are no markers. Hawks explained that they might be able to obtain age estimations from dental enamel. They’ve also earmarked some of the bones for destruction in order to perform radiocarbon dating on them. Within a few months, Hawks says, they will have that data.

The Rising Star team has been extremely open with their findings. Scientists from all over the world have been invited to examine the fossils, their first article was published in the open access journal eLife, and the 3D printing files for 96 fossil specimens are openly shared on Morphosource, allowing anyone with access to a 3D printer to create their own H. Naledi fossil. The October issue of the National Geographic magazine is a great place to read the whole story and delight in the images.

Hawks closed his wonderful talk with a question for us to consider…what interpretation can we make of the placement of these bones?  Why were they all together like this, without any other faunal remains, far beneath the earth’s surface, in a single cave chamber? Hawks assured us that they were not washed there by water. There are no marks on the bones that would indicate they were dragged there by an animal to be eaten. There is no debris in the cave that might suggest the creatures were living there. There are no other remains from other creatures. Could this be a burial chamber? Maybe living H. naledi took their dead to the cave’s opening and dropped them in? Was there a ritual involved, which would imply a culture and social behavior not typically associated with such a small-sized brain?

Clearly much remains to be discovered in the Rising Star cave. More bones to be found, timelines to be established, and meaning to be made. It was that very spirit of discovery and “not-knowingness” that struck me the most in Dr. Hawk’s talk. I lost track of how many times he said “We just don’t know…” during the 90 minutes he spent with us and what could be more inspiring than that?  Even more exciting, it appears that we don’t even know what we thought we knew.


Filed under Interesting Science

An Online Course in Person

Al Filreis and ModPo students at The Center for the Book gathering.

Al Filreis and ModPo students at The Center for the Book gathering.

Something unusual was going on at The Center for Book in San Francisco yesterday. In a museum devoted to the fine art of print book making, a group of 60 people, who’d never met before, gathered over their common interest in an online course.

IMG_4561Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (better known as “ModPo”) is an introductory poetry course, taught online by Dr. Al Filreis. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Filreis is Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House at University of Pennsylvania. In 2012 he introduced the ModPo course, through Coursera, and 42,000 students showed up. Since then, he and his graduate students have offered the course every year, refining and adjusting the ways they knit together that many students, spread all over the globe.

Meet-ups like yesterday offer a perfect peek into the tools and methods they leverage to create the feeling of an intimate and personal learning experience with 42,000 people.

[I took the course in 2012 and blogged about it here and here]

Invitations prior to the event went out via Twitter (@ModPotPenn), Facebook and email (once you’ve enrolled in the course, you are a member of the ModPo community). There were about 60 people in attendance, with Al and his crew who video-recorded our meet-up (for later use in the ModPo 2016 course).  Before they started taping, he invited each person there (all 60 of us) to share our name and connection to the course.

What a range – high schoolers, high school teachers, physicists, office workers, software engineers, and retirees. There were two mother-daughter pairs and one dapper, older gent who came with his daughter. The daughter, Kate, took the course last year and “brought her father along, as she knew he would be interested.” When she introduced her Dad and I nearly fell off my chair – it was David Perlman. David Perlman of science journalism fame! For those of you who don’t know him, Perlman is a lauded science reporter for the SF Chronicle.  He is now 94 years old and is still reporting.  Turns out, before he took on the science beat, he covered the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957.

ModPo students.

But back to the gathering. In advance of the event, Filreis had sent us all links to two poems – Joanne Kyger’s When I used to focus on the worries and Larry Eigner’s Bookshelf.  We proceeded to do a “close read” of them both.  This is a method that Filreis and his graduate students employ throughout the online course, delivered via video recorded sessions and, on occasion, live webcasts from the Kelly Writers House. He kicks it off with a little background on the poet and then reads the poem aloud. Then he assigns lines, words, or inflection points to particular people. Although I’ve watched this process many times, when taking the course myself, I was quite taken with the way it played out in this setting. Afterall, there were 60 of us and we aren’t graduate students!  Here’s how it goes… “Becky, I’m going to ask you to talk about the first two lines in just a minute and then, after that, Carolyn, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in the third line, then we’ll circle over to Jack and see what he thinks of the way that stanza holds together.  Ok, Becky – tell me what you think.”  By doing it this way, Filreis controls the way it plays out. He also gives each person invited to share a few minutes to prepare, to think about it.  

Here’s a snippet, recorded on my iPhone, to give you a feel for his approach.


Filreis clearly has a map to the poem, his own interpretation, in his head, and he nudges us through it. Line by line, word by word. When you are sharing your ideas, he’ll pull it out of you. “What about that phrase?  And who does that remind you of? What does that line “there’s a different slant” make you think of?” He’ll often say something like, “that’s a really interesting interpretation – tell me more about that.” Turns out, he confessed to us, he learned this method of teaching from therapy. And once he said that, it all fell into place for me – of course. These ModPo sessions do feel amazingly similar a therapy session.  

But it’s not as though there is just one interpretation he’s attempting to press us all into. There were competing ideas, not everyone agreed – discussion ensued, just as it should be.

It’s quite impressive to see how well this worked. Here we were, a big group of amateurs (some he knew, many he didn’t), and we moved our way through those two poems in the most satisfying manner. I had read them in advance, and liked them both, but I left the session with new insight and respect for both poets. Not one interpretation of them, but shades of meaning, insights into possibilities, and so much respect for the power of word choice, spacing, rhythm, and the nature of the poems.


By the end of the session, we’d all offered our thoughts, shared ideas, and there was this frisson of enthusiasm, excitement, zest for the poems (and the poets) we’d just read.  Something that could have never been achieved solo (at least for me).

These close reading sessions work very well in the online course but I definitely had a richer appreciation for the process after seeing it in action  face-to-face. When I enroll in ModPo ’16, I’ll have a much deeper understanding and connection to this pedagogical approach.

It’s also clear that the course development team have really learned to leverage the platform and an array of tools to provide a well functioning sandbox for community.  Community and connection feel alive and well in ModPo.  And the rich tapestry of the ModPo membership only serves to deepen that feeling of connection. In attendance at the meet-up was a young woman from China who happened to be on vacation in San Francisco, got the word about the event, and showed up. Could that same strength of connection arise from a course in biochemistry or law?  I hope so, but there’s no denying that poetry offers a unique doorway to the exploration of the individual, relationships, values, and the connections between us.

Taking a moment here to recognize and revel in the myriad methods this course presses into service. Print and digital, synchronous and asynchronous, in person and virtual, listening and speaking, contemplating and sharing. That’s a key lesson we’re learning in this world of online education isn’t it? Hybrid works. The best of each approach, use the right tool for the job, no one right answer, blend your methods and make a custom concoction to fit the unique challenges and concepts of your material.

And only connect.

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Our MOOC Toolbox

tools_croppedThis post is about tools. As we planned, produced, and then delivered our online course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures, we put an impressive collection of tools through their paces. A MOOC, afterall, is a hurly burly place and you need a robust arsenal to keep track, keep up, and stay sane. Here’s a peek into our toolbox:


VoiceThread: This one heads the list. It’s our online tool of choice for students to share their work. Thanks to a generous commitment from VT, all students enrolled in this course have a premium VT account with unlimited uploads and the ability to download their VTs as videos. The VoiceThread environment sits outside of the edX platform but communicates directly with it through a series of carefully-crafted LTI links. When students are ready to post their work, they click on the specially created links in the course and they are taken directly to their VT account in a new window. Slick, smooth, and seamless. The good folks at VT partnered with us on the design of this hand off. They developed simple VT tutorials, they problem-solved on the best way to design our assignments, they worked with us to customize a grouping system that automatically sorts students into small VT groups (we started with 30 per group, but later upped it to 60 in order to insure adequate peer review), and they’ve helped troubleshoot the inevitable problems that crop up. I’ve long been a VoiceThread fan but I’ve really come to appreciate the richness of the tool after hours and hours spent listening/watching our student-produced VTs. The ability to narrate your work in a variety of formats (text, audio, video) is a huge boon in a course populated by citizens of the world. Not only that, but our students regularly make use of the video cam narration to demonstrate their photographic set up, adding another layer of information to their posts. The drawing tool (multi colors) helps students point out specifics in their images (the direction of light, outlines of shadows, problematic glitches on which they need advice). Students can archive their work, via video export, and thus capture their best thinking. It’s not perfect, of course. Tops on my list for future VT features – the ability to listen to comments at 2x speed, automatic import of file names when images are uploaded, and better course/group management tools (to identify students, to cross reference, and re-arrange).

edX screen shot.

edX screen shot.

edX: No tools list would be complete without an examination of the platform on which the course is delivered. I confess to a love-hate relationship with edX. On the plus side, edX’s Studio environment was very easy to work with when we built the course (changes/updates are easily made, rudimentary HTML knowledge required); it enrolls, authenticates, and manages the flow of over 8,000 students with ease (narry a problem), and it’s got a clean, uncluttered look. On the negative side, the Discussion Forum is seriously clunky; the aggregated user statistics do not render the student-by-student perspective promised by computer-assisted course management; and the one-size fits all platform structure means that each course must fit into the same box – one that rarely (if ever) suits the course’s design or visual requirements. Think step-sisters cramming their large feet into the too-small Cinderella slippers.

google_docs_logo_and_iconGoogle Docs: Yup, I’m a complete google docs lover. Our course development team has an online, shared filing system with nearly 100 documents. Diagrams, spreadsheets, and simple docs are shared, commented upon, and always at your fingertips. The course TAs use spreadsheets to track our responsibilities, the trends we observe, and the problems we need to solve. We used a simple cumulative document during beta testing, giving differential access to various beta testers. Our weekly meeting notes are logged in a google doc. And my personal favorite, which I keep open at all times, is a master doc with key links, passwords, and access codes – one stop shopping. My wishlist here? Finding things is not always easy (not all of us on the team are fans) and I worry about loosing important bits and pieces or what happens when google servers are down (which did happen once, briefly, during the course).

skypeSkype: Our meetings are all conducted on Skype. There are usually five of us online together (the instructor plus four TAs). We typically don’t use the video cam but we regularly share our screens. Most recently, we talked through a number of student VT submissions together. I played the student’s work on my screen, sharing with the others, while Felice explained her observations and guided us as to the most appropriate feedback to provide. Problems here? Bet you can guess. Dropped connections, poor sound quality, and the occasional complete bork.

emailEmail: Between the five of us on the course team, our partners at VoiceThread, and our compatriots at MITx, we keep up a steady patter of email. A typical day for me means sending upwards of 50 course-related emails. Often it’s a real-time conversation with emails flying back and forth. I also archive emails that serve as summaries on major course decisions or a “paper trail” on progress. Old school, but pretty darned reliable. Everyone in the class also received updates from VoiceThread, via email, when new comments or posts had been made.


DropBox: We use this tool for exchanging (large) video files and archiving key course documents.

Pages: Felice Frankel, the course instructor, used Pages to create storyboards for the tutorial videos.

After Effects: Natasha Collette, our videographer, used this editing software to create the course’s video tutorials. Motion graphics with still images, transitions, titling, special effects, illustration insertion – the results are stunning, very high production value.

Camera Software: We each have a different story here, depending on the camera in use but what a difference it makes to be able to view your photos, as you take them, on your laptop screen and instantly upload for analysis and tweaking.

Photo Editing Software: I don’t have Photoshop, the tool of choice for serious photographers, but have made good use of the free, online photo editor Pixlr.

Padlet: We’ve come to identify various students by the object or device they are photographing – thus we have “strawberry guy” and “the fruit fly gal”. With so many VoiceThreads to keep track of, I take cover screen shots of those VTs I want to remember or bring to the attention of others. I organize all the screen shots on Padlet and twiddle around with them to make various groupings – my week 3 favorites, the community TAs comments, or VTs to discuss with Felice.

A typical collection displayed in Padlet.

A typical collection displayed in Padlet.

WordPress: You’re here. Say no more.

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Filed under MIT0.111x