Weeks 2 and 3: Making Science & Engineering Pictures

Week 2:  Camera Basics

Week 2: Camera Basics

The second and third weeks of our course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures (MITx0.111), are the most challenging. It’s here where the students dig into the inner workings of their cameras and grapple with the relationships between aperture, exposure, lighting, and depth of field.

Video tutorials for weeks 2 and 3 show and tell the basics while interactive tools give learners the opportunity to twiddle and work through what-if scenarios.

Zoom in on the same object taken at four different aperture settings.

Zoom in on the same object taken at four different aperture settings.

Course interactive to show changes in depth of field with changes in f stop.

Course interactive to show changes in depth of field with changes in f stop.

With the basic concepts in hand, the next step is to try it yourself. In the week 2 assignment you put your camera on a tripod and photograph your chosen object or device at a series of f stops while keeping all other parameters constant. This means setting your camera in aperture-priority mode and “stopping down” your lens from (for example) f/4, to f/8/, to f/11, to f/22 – and even down to f/32 if your camera includes that option. By fixing the camera in place (with the tripod), and keeping all other variables constant, you can easily see the differences in your images. At the larger apertures (smaller f-stop numbers) the nearer elements of your object appear in sharp focus while those at a distance from the camera remain fuzzy. But as you tighten the camera’s aperture (larger f-stop number), more and more of your image comes into focus. As photographers put it, you have a greater depth of field. As a topper to the assignment, we asked the students to remove their camera from the tripod and take one last picture, at their smallest aperture, with the camera in hand.

Students submitted their week 2 image collections on VoiceThread and then narrated their production. It was wonderful watching and listening to them as the penny dropped. “Now I get the relationship between the aperture and the exposure.” “I like this picture, taken at f/22, because I can see all the details of the circuit board at the front and at the back.” “Wow, I can’t believe how out of focus that is – I guess I really do need to use a tripod.”

Wonderfully creative, many of our students played with the assignment and experimented beyond the boundaries. One student set up his VoiceThread as a mystery by setting his object in front of a backdrop and challenging his peers to figure out the backdrop as it slowly came into focus over the course of the image series. Others submitted multiple aperture-priority series with different lighting options. Still others decided to expand their chosen objects to challenge themselves further and figure out the best way to capture odd shapes or dimensional irregularities.

The week 3 assignment asked students to photograph their object or device with a number of different lighting scenarios. Daylight, augmented with a secondary light source, and to experiment with unusual source of light. As with the week 2 assignment, we asked students to hold the other imaging variables steady in order to fully grasp the impact of altering light.

Students experimented with flashlights, LED key chains, desk lamps, candles, light boxes, headlamps, and – my personal favorite – the light radiating from a computer screen. For the students who’ve stayed with the same object or device they selected in week 1, it’s a pleasure to see how different the same object can look, depending on how the image is taken. Photographing the same device also allows us to witness the students development over time as we see the quality of their images improve.

I am quite taken with the playful and experimental nature of their approaches. A Drosophila geneticist marvels over the different appearance of her fruit flies in a blue light. A materials scientist figures out a way to change the background color by projecting colored light onto a white paper background. Many students attempt bouncing light with foam core or white poster board. One students marvels over the subtle changes in daylight over the span of the hour she spent shooting her images near a sun-filled window.

Our edX platform statistics tell us how many students view each of our course videos everyday, but it’s far more revealing to hear the language of the video tutorials pop up in the students’ narration of their own work (diffuse, bounce, negative spaces, horizon…) and to notice Felice’s suggested strategies appear in their work (a curved paper background, pairing objects, attention paid to the camera’s angle). Evidence of their learning appearing like footprints on a beach.

Assessment in this course happens all along the way. It’s a continual part of the learning. And our students are acquiring knowledge in multiple venues – from the course’s video tutorials, from the sample assignments, from the work of their peers, from the comments of their peers, and – most importantly – from their own experiments.

We Teaching Assistants (TAs) divide up the VT groups between us and attempt to provide timely feedback, while the images they’ve taken are fresh in their minds. Most students get VT comments from at least one TA and two or three peers. The quality of the comments vary, but the ones I’m the most grateful to hear are those that ask an informed question, make an intriguing observation, or refer the student to another VoiceThread that might shed some light on a problematic issue.

I can tell that our students are transferring their knowledge from one week to the next, building on what they’ve learned and applying what they see in the work of others. They are engaged in complex work, they have flexibility with regard to when and how they do the work, they engage with each other, and there is a real sense of mastery coming through.


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Student Voices in MITx0.111x

0.111x VoiceThread environment

0.111x VoiceThread environment

Flatbed scanner

Flatbed scanner

Our online course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures, has just wrapped up week 1 and we are rolling into week 2 (of 6 weeks total). Week 1 marks the first photographic assignment: choose a small object (3-10 cm) and create an image of your object using a flatbed scanner. It’s a great way to begin a course like this, designed to encourage creative thinking about visual representations, because most people don’t think of a scanner as a photographic device. We encouraged the students to experiment with different backgrounds, different resolutions, or with the scanner cover on/off.

And the students did not disappoint. Examples of their creativity start with the amazingly eclectic range of objects selected – clothespins, currency, dismembered iPods and chargers, moss, flowers, agate, shells, soil samples, watch parts, cut fruit, beads, pine cones, fishing lures, flashing headlamps – you name it!  Since many of our students are scientists or engineers, they are photographing the devices used in their research – microfluidic devices, electrode holders, circuit boards, magnets, silica gel, and experimental set ups. Their backgrounds were also quite clever – cleaning cloths, woven mats, paper, felt, lab tape, box tops, marble, and even chem wipes. The images are terrific – as rich and varied as the students enrolled in the course.

We opted to use VoiceThread as our image-sharing environment. Students link out to VT from the edX platform and are automatically and randomly sorted into small groups of 30. There they create a VT by uploading their images and commenting on them (in text, voice, or using their videocam). VoiceThread includes a drawing tools feature that allows you to sketch on the image, while commenting, to point out particularly interesting features.

Here’s a short video showcasing our students’ creativity:

The assignment includes the charge to comment on the VTs of others in your group, guided by a rubric provided in the assignment.  When it works well, each student receives a few comments that might include questions or requests for clarifications (“what’s the resolution?”, ” how did you get that shadow effect?”). On the whole, the students’ comments have exceeded our expectations, going well beyond simple praise to asking questions (“was it worth scanning at such a high DPI?”), making suggestions (“what if you tried taking the image with two of them, side by side?”), and pointing out opportunities for further exploration.

I really enjoy listening to the students’ narration of their work. The many accents (our course includes students from 133 countries around the world) and the technical language they use, revealing their professional and academic backgrounds. I’m struck by the clever ways they use the technology to amplify their posts. For example, one student recorded his narration using his videocam, holding the photographed device in his hand, and demonstrated for us (in a macro sense) how he oriented the device on the scanner bed.

Of course there are technical issues (aren’t there always?) – students sorted into multiple groups, not remembering to comment, failing to name their VT in a way to make it easy to find. But, on the whole, it’s really working remarkably well. To date we have over 100 VTs in our class group – each one a rich and meaningful exploration of their images.


Filed under MIT0.111x

Making Pictures Together

Images by Felice Frankel

Images by Felice Frankel

We are launched. Making Science and Engineering Pictures, an MITx MOOC, is now officially underway. What a contrast to consider the differences between memories of “first day of class” versus what we’re experiencing with this online course. Trudging my way to school with new Pee Chee folders and three ring binders, sharpened pencils, and a pristine lunchbox versus our course team, hunched over our laptops, connected via Skype at 9:00 AM EDT, watching as the first “introduce yourself” posts streamed in.

On day one (June 15, 2015), the course enrollment stood at 6,441 students. Naturally, we know that number will dwindle – it’s a low bar to register for an edX course, all you need is an email address. If the final number of actively participating students dwindles to 500, I’ll be happy. That’s 450 more than we could have reasonably managed in a face-to-face course. 450 more people who will, if we’ve done it right, learn how to make more effective and compelling images of their work.

0.111x is an online digital photography course, conceived of and taught by Felice Frankel. Felice is talented science photographer who, over the years, has carved out an intriguing niche – working closely with scientists and engineers to help them see their work in a new way. Felice examines the products and objects of a scientists’ work and asks thoughtful, yet naïve, questions (Is that element really necessary? What’s the most important point that you need to convey? Why is this gray? I am confused by this, can you tell me what’s going on here?) and then assembles their petri dishes, batteries, sensors, microreactors, and fuel cells in innovative, clever ways. The results are often novel, wholly original, and always interesting.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.03.26 PM


In this course, Felice has attempted to capture the way she works; the themes and truths behind her approach to visualizing science. She imparts her acquired wisdom in a series of conceptual videos, spanning six week of topics (flatbed scanners, camera basics, lighting, mobile devices/video, presenting your work, and a final week of case study examination). Weekly assignments, designed so that the student photographers discover the week’s principles for themselves, complement the instructional videos.

Starting in week 1, students will upload their photographs to an online visual collaboration platform called VoiceThread (VT). As students log into VT, from the edX course environment, they will be automatically sorted into groups of 30 (I can’t help but think of the sorting hat in Harry Potter). There, in these small online groups, our students will post, share, discuss, and critique their images. This course is a purpose-driven, as opposed to a content-driven, learning environment. What they learn will come as a side effect of their actions, the images they create and discuss with each other and with us. Our instructional material [here’s a sample instructional video from the course on how to use a flatbed scanner to create images of 3D objects] is all designed to support the students’ efforts to master the photographer’s tools (light, aperture, shutter speed, background, and pattern), to create their best possible images to explain what they do.

The students come from 130 countries.

The students come from 130 countries.

And what do they do? Who are these 6, 441 students? Judging by those who’ve so far logged into the discussion forum they are physicists, filmmakers, graduate students, park rangers, molecular biologists, amateur photographers, science communicators, shutterbugs, high and middle school teachers, artists, and neuroscientists. They are from Spain, Brazil, India, Uruguay, Ireland, Canada, Ecuador, Austria, Norway, Italy, China, Scotland, Germany, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and all over the U.S. Among their reasons for taking the course…. They want to improve the photos they take for their students, for their research group, for themselves, or for the general public. One thing that’s interesting about reading the intended learning goals of a group of MOOC students is that everyone is here because they want to be here. This is not a requirement for anyone – they are pursuing something that interests them, something that they want to learn. Students in this course will document what they’ve learned with the images they create and the VoiceThread conversations they conduct around those images. By sharing and critiquing the images they produce (shared objects of reflection), we will all learn as much from our failures as we do from successes. We’ve provided sample VTs and rubrics to guide their work, but ultimately, the students will devise their own quality standards for evaluating their work and the work of their peers. Part of our mission is to encourage the creation and adoption of critical standards.

We all know that the best, most effective learning comes when students pursue something that interests them, create their own objects of learning, and are supported by peers who are engaged along with them. We like to think that’s what we’ve created with 0.111x. Let’s find out.

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“This is a…global tel-link, prepaid call from…Adnan Syed…an inmate at… a Maryland correctional facility.  This call will be monitored and recorded…”  

That’s the opener for the new NPR podcast program, Serial.  One story, told week by week. The series follows a single story, a murder and its aftermath, over an entire season, spooling out the details, piece by piece, in hour-long audio segments.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Here’s the basic plot.  In 1999, the body of a young woman named Hae Min Lee was found strangled and buried in a shallow Baltimore grave.  Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the murder, convicted, and sentenced to life plus 30 years for the crime.  He has currently served 14 years of his sentence, claiming, as he has from the start, that he is innocent of the crime.

If you haven’t yet listened to Serial.  Do.  This is good stuff.  Excellent, thoughtful, long-form journalism and a fascinating glimpse at what well crafted audio programming can accomplish. First off, Sarah Koenig (an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter and am experienced producer from This American Life), at the helm of this podcast series, is incredibly gifted. She is a solid journalist, a really good interviewer, and a wonderful storyteller. I’ve grown quite fond of her Terri-Gross type interviewing style – compassionate, well spoken, and ever curious about each detail.

Sarah Koenig, Serial's producer.

Sarah Koenig, Serial’s producer.

Under Koenig’s leadership, the show’s creators do so many things right here – the use of music to build tension and weave connective tissue between episodes, Koenig’s conspiratorial (just you an’ me) voice, the story pace, and the well-placed use of actual recordings (phone conversations, tapes from the two trials, sound effects).

I really like the way that Koenig figures out the story along with you. Nothing is sewn up and tidy, she hands out the evidence, the discoveries, the phone logs, the interviews as she makes her way through them.  It’s like you’re on a slow drip, experiencing the story right along with her.  Often, as I’m listening, I find myself shouting to my iPhone, “But why didn’t Adnan’s lawyer show that evidence in the trial?!”  And sure enough, like she heard me, Koenig will chase that question down.  She’s relentless, pouring through evidence, teasing out the truth, talking with everyone remotely connected with the case (which, remember, happened 14 years ago), and expressing her skepticism, her confusion, her fears as she goes.  You ride along with her.

The obvious main draw of the serialized story is the ultimate question – is Adnan guilty?  Did he do it?  Is this guy wrongly convicted and sitting in prison, unjustly, for 13 years?  And what of Jay (the prosecution’s chief witness) – is he a liar? Who do we believe?  While the whodunnit nature of the show keeps you hooked, it’s also a fascinating procedural vantage point into journalism.  How exactly does it work?  What do journalists do, what do detectives do when they investigate a crime?  And if all of that isn’t interesting enough for you, consider the intriguing challenge of telling this story in an audio-only format (with no visuals).  Pretty tall order when you have to track timelines, maps, calendars.

But it’s not just the characters in this true life story that have me gripped, it’s the human elements, put on display so effectively.  The people in the story are oh so painfully flawed. They have unreliable memories. They rationalize and tell lies at every turn. They are completely unreliable narrators. How could so many aspects of the story be so confused? What Koenig teases out, time and time again, is that we don’t remember much that would be useful in a criminal trial from an average day. The day that Hae’s life was taken was, in fact, for most of the people in this story, just an incredibly average, oh-so normal day. Because of that, they really can’t remember – did you leave school at 2:15 or 2:30?  Did you go to the Best Buy before or after track practice?  What time did you place that phone call?

The podcast is extremely successful (1.5 million listeners, and counting). It has its own website (complete with original documents, photos, links), there’s a Reddit thread to follow, reviews in many major papers, and Slate magazine has spawned a podcast (a spoiler special) about the podcast itself (how meta). Recognizing how many people were listening to Serial, hashing it over, debating it, and questioning it Slate decided to bring those follow-on conversations to the air. They post their own interpretive podcast after each Serial episode.  It’s a perfect combination to first listen to an episode of Serial, then follow it with the companion Slate spoiler special.  It’s like seeing a controversial movie and then sitting down with Siskel and Ebert to hash it over.

I’m up to Episode 6 of Serial now.  Four more to go.  And they’ve announced they will do a second season – a new story presumably.  I can’t wait.

Additional stuff found online since:

Photos of the kids, the high school, maps of the area from the Huffington Post

Stephen Colbert’s interview with producer, Sarah Koenig.

Sarah Koenig interviewed on Fresh Air by Teri Gross.

Funny or Die parody of the last episode.

SNL’s paraody of Serial.


Filed under Reflections

Our Gender Bias

genderbiasWhen I first read the NYT headline, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” in the Sunday Review this weekend, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe an ironic goad to draw the reader in? But no. The authors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci (both researchers at Boston University and Cornell, respectively) were completely serious.  They’ve just published a paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape, with their colleagues, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That paper, summarized in the NYT op-ed piece, claims that there is no sexism in the science academy and that the under-representation of women in math-intensive science fields are “rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields, and future research should focus on these barriers rather than mis-directing attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”  The authors claim that it is all about personal choices that young girls make, opting for life sciences or other fields. In their published paper, they discuss the reasons why females make these choices and talk about the “perception” among new female PhDs and post docs that tenure track positions are not compatible with family formation.  The main thrust of the NYT piece is to say to these women – good news! science departments are great places to be as a woman and the whole gender-bias thing is over.

I did a double take. And then I quickly flipped back to the paper’s front page because, yes, in fact there was a front page article about sexism at Yale. Right there. In the same newspaper. A sexual harassment case that’s been unfolding at Yale Medical School for the last five years. Cardiology Chief, Michael Simons, made unwanted advances to a student Annarita Di Lorenzo (18 years his junior) that went on for years, undermining her career as well as her then-boyfriend’s.  Despite formal filings with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Simons is still there and, though he admits that he made “an error in judgement by pursuing a junior colleague”, he claims that he has never abused his position of authority or leadership. Riiiight. Academic science departments are a great place to be as a woman. I’ve got to think that the NYT editors had a frisson of delight over the juxtaposition of these two articles. But I take little comfort from the fact that the Williams/Ceci article is an opinion piece and the Simons story is hard, cold fact. Gender inequality and bias are alive and well.

Shall we take a look at a few gems from the world of gender bias research?

Science Faculty Subtle Gender Bias Favors Male Students

Blind Orchestra Auditions Better for Women

Gender Bias in JAMA’s Peer Review Process

Bibliometrics:  Global Gender Disparities in Science

or, one of my personal favorites, Female Hurricanes are Deadlier Than Male Hurricanes.

One of the leaders in this area is the MIT researcher, Nancy Hopkins. From 1995-97, Dr. Hopkins chaired a committee at MIT that studied inequalities experienced by women science and math faculty as a result of unconscious gender bias. The summary report from that committee – known as the Report on Women Faculty in Science at MIT – is credited with launching a national re-examination of equity for women scientists.

In January 2005, at an NBER meeting in Cambridge, MA on the topic of how to address the under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Dr. Hopkins rather famously walked out in protest during a talk given by then-Harvard University President, Larry Summers. In his address, Summers proposed that one reason for the very small number of high achieving women in science and engineering fields might be their lesser “intrinsic aptitude” for these subjects, relative to men. Subsequent news articles and reports about Summer’s speech set off a national discussion on gender discrimination, which ultimately was one factor leading to Summers’ resignation as the President of Harvard. Have we already forgotten the Larry Summers story?

Have a listen to Dr. Hopkins’ 2014 BU commencement address. Wendy Williams, were you there in the audience that day?

The sad fact is that gender bias is sneaky.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious (like Simons at Yale or Summers at Harvard) but often it’s hidden and sneaks up on us. Thoughts and impulses that are so deeply rooted they are outside our awareness – and often our control. Doubt your own gender bias?  Try taking the gender bias test at Project Implicit (Mazahran Banaji’s, Harvard University, amazing work).

Since Sunday, thoughtful science bloggers have taken deeper dives into the original paper by Ceci et al. and shared their analyses. This by Jonathan Eisen (UC Davis) (along with his nicely done Storify piece) and this by Emily Willingham who takes a close look at the data provided in the published article, reaching very different conclusions. Then there’s this, from Slate, published this morning. I’ve got to say, I’m looking forward with relish, to see what Letters to the Editor the NYT will publish as follow-ons.

It’s also interesting to note that Ceci et al only examined data with regard to women in math-intensive academic fields. By far and away more women (and men) who major in science enter jobs in industry, where gender bias rages with intensity and larger numbers – salary inequities, promotional dead-ends, sexual harassment, and an alarming paucity of women in leadership positions.

I can’t resist concluding this post with a pair of viral videos that add zest to the story and an important reminder that sexual harassment is all about power and control. The first, produced by Hollaback, shows excerpts from video recorded of a young woman, walking around the streets of New York City for 10 hours:

The second, from Funny or Die, a send-up of the first, with a man doing the same.  Click on the photo to travel to the video.

From Funny or Die.  Click to see the video.

From Funny or Die. Click to see the video.


Filed under Reflections

Where Do You Read?

Reading. Flickr Alui0000

Reading. photo from Flickr Alui0000

Where do you read most often?  Is it online?  Is it curled up with a paperback book?  Is it sitting at table, highlighter in hand, with a large and heavy tome laid out in front of you, or is it with your arms extended and newsprint held aloft? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where and how we read. How does that impact our comprehension? What methods do we use to help us focus and retain what we read? What can we do to become better, deeper readers?  And what innovations do our new tools make possible that are not possible with the printed page?

It was MaryAnne Wolfe and her amazing book, Proust and the Squid, that really got me thinking about reading online versus reading on a printed page. A recent New Yorker blog post, by Maria Konikova, provides a very nice summary of Wolfe’s work.  In it she quotes Wolfe as she muses about the past and future of reading:

“Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

My conversations with educators and other education stake-holders frequently puts me in touch with people who are very concerned about the impact of too much time staring at screens, by the perceived demise of books, and by the apparent lack of reading focus seen in children raised on screens and e-readers.

But what scientific evidence do we have about the impact of the medium (printed page vs. screen) on our reading?  Turns out, there’s quite a bit. But the questions are by no means settled. Prior to 1992, most studies concluded that people read slower, less comprehensively, and with less retention on screens than on paper. But starting in the early 90’s reading studies have produced more inconsistent results.  Part of the challenge comes in what questions are asked, what is measured, and what confounding factors are taken into account. For example, are we primarily concerned with reading speed? comprehension? fatigue? accuracy? motivation? More over, what methods are used to assess those factors – eye movements?  manipulation?  navigation? reading strategies? assessments?

The terrain of a printed book.

The terrain of a printed book.

There certainly is a navigational dimension to reading. Wolfe points out that we are not born with the wiring to read. Our brains must learn to read, to process letters as physical objects. In many ways, you can think of reading a book as navigating a physical landscape. We create mental maps of the books we read – how far am I from the beginning, how distant the end? The two pages of a printed book are spread before me, like two large rooms to explore top to bottom, left to right. And the physical turning of the pages- swoosh- feels like proceeding along a path, marking my progress with a rhythm as I proceed.  There are far fewer of these physical landmarks with screen text. It’s a bit like spelunking in a cave – where am I, in relationship to the whole story? And how can I find my way back to this spot, right here? It is more difficult to see one passage in the context of the whole. I often remember events in a narrative by their physical location on the page – that crucial passage about the murder weapon was in the lower left hand corner, in the earlier chapters….One of the researchers in this area, Anne Mangen, Stavenger University in Norway, supports this point in her research about the physicality of reading. She’s found in her studies that while Kindle and print readers score similarly on most measures, the Kindle readers score comparatively worse than print readers on plot reconstruction – that is placing events from the story in the correct order. Mangen suggests that the haptic feel of a Kindle or a tablet does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of what we read as does a print book.

And what about distraction?  Some researchers point to the hard-to avoid lure of a new tab, a link, or worse – a flickering advertisement off to the side.  Certainly, when reading online there are many, many opportunities to wander – some might say explore?  Regardless of how you think of it, once you depart you have leapt away from the initial task of reading.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

A NYT graphic story on a reef in the South China Sea.

Having said all of that, there are some remarkably interesting experiments with online reading that deserve exploration and consideration. For example…the graphic articles pioneered by the New York Times that marry video, stunning images, and text [this one about an avalanche at Tunnel Creek or this one on speed skating at the Olympics].  In these beautiful online reading experiences you are in the driver’s seat with videos launching just as you arrive, photos coming into full brightness as you arrive, fading as you flick or scroll away. Or how about the literature map that helps a reader make connections between authors and their works, or Robin Sloan’s tap essay for the iPhone, or this instructional offering on the dangers of fracking, or the gobsmacking Scale of the Universe?  And then there are annotation tools, like Diigo, Kaziena, and A.nnotate, and Evernote, that facilitate note taking, curating, and collaborative reading online. Researchers like Chih-Meng Chen are finding improved reading performance in children with collaborative annotation environments.

Another facet to consider here is the skills needed to read in these different environments. We are all very well-trained in how to read printed pages.  Pages numbers, tables of contents, the glossary and index nestled at the back – these are all familiar devices for us. What’s more, printed works are quite standard. The skills acquired when we are 5 or 6 years old serve us well as we move from early readers, to young adult, to the classics. We know what to do when presented with a print book.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

Variations on e-reader navigation.

By contrast, reading on the screen varies with the device.  How to size it, how to advance the page (a mouse, a track pad, a next button, a scroll bar) – a range of interfaces and systems to master. The innovative tool sets that various electronic reading devices have devised to mimic the manual manipulation of a book (highlighting, turning down a page, etc) vary widely as well. Each time you work with a new tablet or read using a different interface, you must learn how to use the tool d’jour. Perhaps we are so stuck in our print approach that this all feels mystifying to us, but it would not to someone who learned to read with these tools? Does this suggests a new way of approaching reading education? A new set of skills? If early readers learn to read with the tools, approaches, and navigational methods of reading on the screen will it be as comfortable for them as the printed page is for us now?

What do you think?  And how do you read most often?  I’ve been taking an informal poll among friends and family but would like to cast my net wider.  Take a moment, would you, to answer seven brief questions in this online survey about how you read? I’ll post the results gathered so you can see what comes of it.

With all this noodling, it feels natural to come to the conclusion that we need both. Print books to give us physical representations to collect, explore, and savor along with screen reading and its many promising adventures. But I don’t know. You tell me. You can take the survey right here or travel to it.




“Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world!”  – Voltaire


Filed under Learning

A Closer Look at a Caffeine Story

Coffea canephora.

Coffea canephora. Bali – Indonesia – July 2007 – Guy Sabattier

Like many people around the world, I begin my every morning with a rather large cup of coffee. Caffeine – found in coffee, tea, mate, and chocolate – is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. So it was with great interest that I greeted the news, published in Science on Thursday last week, that an international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of the coffee plant, Coffea canephora.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Getting inside the coffee plant’s genome provides a biochemical view into the mechanism for creating caffeine (start with xanthosine, shave a bit off here, add a bit there and – voila – caffeine).  But here’s the really interesting part – the coffee plant and the cacao plant produce caffeine in different ways. In other words, the biochemical pathway for producing this important molecule evolved more than once. Different evolutionary paths to the same end point. Biologists call this phenomenon convergent evolution. The independent evolution of similar features in different lineages (think wings in birds and bats, the camera eye in vertebrates and octopuses, the ability to glide in flying squirrels and sugar gliders). When this happens, it’s a good indication that the evolved adaptation is pretty useful. And, indeed, caffeine is a very useful molecule for these plants – it helps to ward off enemies, to attract pollinators (and keep them coming back for more), makes the soil immediately surrounding the plant inhospitable to competing plants, and it deters leaf-eating pests. For the rest of us, it provides that much-needed kick-in-the-pants each morning.

As excited as I was about this story, I was quite taken with the way different news groups elected to cover it:

Here’s the New York Times article:

New York Times.

Here’s the Washington Post article:

Washington Post.

Washington Post.

And here is Fox News coverage:

Fox News.

Fox News.

The thrust of the WaPo and Fox coverage is on the “mutation”, the possibilities for manipulation, and the slightly shadow-ey (the “quirk”) scariness of what might come next – genetically modified coffee??

It’s startling to see how few of the primary news channels covered what was most interesting about this finding. Namely, the intensely interesting evolution story and the way genomic tools help scientists solve problems and understand the mechanisms of life.  Only Carl Zimmer, that noteworthy NYT Science journalist, included a clear and helpful description of the evolution element in his story. Sidebar: note the illustration choices in the three articles – the cup of coffee, the barista’s product. The New York Times at least shows the coffee beans but not a one of them show the actual plant, let alone the plant in its environment.  How we report the news – the headline, the image, the story – these are all vital ingredients that help shape public perception and our attitudes toward science.




Filed under Interesting Science