Gie Us a Grant?

I’ve just submitted a little grant proposal! (Everyone go ‘woo!’)

One of the things I talked about in the grant proposal was my outreach activities. I like to think of my science as quite transparent. But I am definitely less good at talking about the grant writing part of science.

Why is this? Well firstly, grant writing involves asking for money, and that’s not a terribly pleasant activity for many of us. In addition, there are often privacy concerns. Funders might not want to disclose how much money they award versus how much they were asked for. Projects of a sensitive nature (which this one might be) also require careful thought before a science blogger starts talking about the 100 grand bid they just put in.

Still, most research funding comes from public money, so all parties have a responsibility to talk about finances, and how we spend that money responsibly.

For my part, this grant is asking for some of my time, some travel costs, and some research costs. Altogether, this amounts to less than £50,000. To me this is a small sum for a research project, and I’m interested to see if there’s any feedback on the costings, either from the grant, or from you guys.

Money in academia is a hot topic right now – so I want to do my part for making this more understandable. If this gets funded, and the funders agree, I’d love to do a full breakdown of how I came to that total. And then you guys would be able to judge for yourselves whether it was money well spent . . .

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The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity

 

Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.

Purity, Application and Function: The Real Problem in Science

 

Science is in crisis.

We’ve been hearing this from a wide range of fields, from students to professors, and perhaps most alarmingly, from two of the world’s largest democracies rejecting evidence based policy to elect anti-science policy makers. The culprit is claimed to be peer review, or badly understood statistics, scientists being too wrapped up in public engagement, scientists not doing enough public engagement, the terrible way we treat our science teachers, our devaluing of degrees . . .

I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.

Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.

I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.

My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.

Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.

Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.

During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.

We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project. 

This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?

In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?

In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.

Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?

It is not the parrot fish.

 

Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:

Introduction to Science

By the end of this year you will be able to:

  • Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
  • Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
  • Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
  • Describe a manipulative study
  • Describe an observation study

Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.

You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2).  You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.

Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.

Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.

degree_off
“Degree Off”, XKCD – CC Attribution, Non Commercial

MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here: