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Recent Workshop: Nurturing Quantitative Skills for the Physical Sciences through use of Scientific Models

unst_water_oilA few weeks back, I delivered a workshop at a conference focused on online learning. Unfortunately, abstracts were not made available via the event’s web site. In lieu of directing you elsewhere then, below is the abstract I submitted:

Nurturing Quantitative Skills for the Physical Sciences through use of Scientific Models

L. I. Lumb
Division of Natural Science, Faculty of Science, York University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

With numerous scientists asserting that we have entered into The Anthropocene, a ‘brand new’ Geologic Epoch that underscores human impact on planet Earth, there has arguably never been a more relevant time for literacy in the physical sciences. Complicating this, however, is the implied need for quantitative skills demanded of those who seek to have more than a superficial degree of literacy in matters relating to climate or global change. Grounded by direct, personal experience in teaching science to non-scientists at the undergraduate university level, and independently validated by academic research into Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) related programs and subjects, mastery of even the most-basic quantitative skills presents a well-established challenge in engaging learners at levels beyond the quantitatively superficial – a challenge that appears to be increasingly the case with the arriving cohort of undergraduates each Fall. In an effort to systematically develop and encourage proficiency in quantitative skills in data-rich courses in the physical sciences, a number of scientific models have been introduced by the author. Ranging from embarrassingly simple physical models using rice to investigate relative humidity in Earth’s atmosphere, to software-based models that employ spreadsheets to elucidate aspects of climate and global change, the use of scientific models presents intriguing challenges and opportunities for both instructors and students; needless to state, these challenges and opportunities can be significantly exacerbated in courses that are delivered online to numbers in excess of 100 students. After an introduction of scientific models as a pedagogical vehicle for nurturing quantitative skills, emphasis shifts to the sharing of real-world experiences with this approach in relatively large, online courses in physical sciences taught at the undergraduate level to non-majors (and therefore non-scientists). In ultimately working towards the primary example of a relatively simple, yet scientifically appropriate spreadsheet model for the Paris Climate Agreement, participants’ involvement will be scaffolded through use of other examples of models that have also been used in practice. Participants will also be encouraged to engage in a dialogue that compares and contrasts these models with more traditional approaches (e.g., formal essays). Finally, armed with some context for models as a pedagogical vehicle for quantitatively enhancing student engagement, participants will be guided through exercises that will allow them to develop their own models for their own teaching and learning requirements – whether their interests fall within or beyond scientifically oriented disciplines.

As you can see, I have a vested interest in nurturing quantitative skills, and models is one of the vehicles I make use of. If you share similar interests or better yet, if you have ideas as to what’s worked for you, please feel free to comment.


Current Events in the Classroom: Experiments on Mars-Like Clouds Stimulate the Learning Process

Everyone has an appreciation for humidity and clouds … However, when you seek to understand humidity and clouds from the scientific perspective, `things get technical‘ in a hurry! As someone who attempts to share science with non-scientists, it’s wonderful to be able to work current events into the (physical/virtual) classroom. Some recent experimental results, aimed at simulating Martian-style clouds, allow for a highly topical teachable moment.

For the details, please see below my recent post (via Moodle) to my Weather and Climate class at Toronto’s York University:


Now, if only I could have such a cloud chamber in the (virtual) classroom …

Pencasting During Lectures in Large Venues

In a recent post on pencasting as a way of teaching/learning weather and climate, I stated:

Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …

I followed through as advertized (above) earlier today.


My preliminary findings are as follows:

  • The visual aspects of the pencast are quite acceptable – This is true even in large lecture halls such as the 500-seat Price Family Cinema at York University (pictured above) in Toronto, Canada where I am currently teaching. I used landscape mode for today’s pencast, and zoomed it in a little. A slightly thicker pen option would be wonderful for such situations … as would different pen colours (the default is green).
  • The audio quality of the pencasts is very good to excellent – Although my Livescribe pen came with a headset/microphone, I don’t use it. I simply use the built-in microphone on the pen, and speak normally when I am developing pencasts. Of course, the audio capabilities of the lecture hall I teach in are most excellent for playback!
  • One-to-many live streaming of pencasts works well – I streamed live directly from myLivescibe today. I believe the application infrastructure is based largely on Adobe Flash and various Web services delivered by Web Objects. Regardless of the technical underpinnings, live streaming worked well. Of course, I could’ve developed a completely self-contained PDF file, downloaded this, and run the pencast locally using Adobe Reader.
  • Personal pencasting works well – I noticed that a number of students were streaming the pencast live for themselves during the lecture. In so doing, they could control interaction with the pencast.

Anecdotally, a few students mentioned that they appreciated the pencast during the break period – my class meets once per for a three-hour session.

Although I’ve yet to hear this feedback directly from the students, I believe I need to:

  • Decrease the duration of pencasts – Today’s lasts about 10 minutes
  • Employ a less-is-more approach/strategy – My pencasts are fairly involved when done …
  • Experiment with the right balance of speaking to penning (is that even a word!?) – Probably a less-is-more approach/strategy would work well here for both the penned and spoken word …

Finally, today’s pencast on the basics of atmospheric stability:

  • Previous approach – Project an illustration taken directly from the course’s text. This is a professionally produced, visually appealing, detailed, end-result, static diagram that I embedded in my presentation software (I use Google Docs for a number of reasons.) Using a laser pointer, my pedagogy called for a systematic deconstruction this diagram – hoping that the students would be engaged enough to actually follow me. Of course, in the captured versions of my lectures, the students don’t actually see where I’m directing the laser pointer. The students have access to the course text and my lecture slides. I have no idea if/how they attempt to ingest and learn from this approach.
  • Pencasting – As discussed elsewhere, the starting point is a blank slate. Using the pencasting technology, I sketch my own rendition of the illustration from the text. As I build up the details, I explain the concept of stability analyses. Because the sketch appears as I speak, the students have the potential to follow me quite closely – and if they miss anything, they can review the pencast after class at their own pace. The end result of a pencast is a sketch that doesn’t hold a candle to the professionally produced illustration provided in the text and my lecture notes. However, to evaluate the pencast as merely a final product, I believe, misses the point completely. Why? I believe the pencast is a far superior way to teach and to learn in situations such as this one. Why? I believe the pencast allows the teacher to focus on communication – communication that the learner can also choose to be highly receptive to, and engaged by.

I still regard myself as very much a neophyte in this arena. However, as the above final paragraphs indicate, pencasting is a disruptive innovation whose value in teaching/learning merits further investigation.

Teaching/Learning Weather and Climate via Pencasting

I first heard about it a few years ago, and thought it sounded interesting … and then, this past Summer, I did a little more research and decided to purchase a Livescribe 8 GB Echo(TM) Pro Pack. Over the Summer, I took notes with the pen from time-to-time and found it to be somewhat useful/interesting.

Just this week, however, I decided it was time to use the pen for the originally intended purpose: Making pencasts for the course I’m currently teaching in weather and climate at Toronto’s York University. Before I share some sample pencasts, please allow me to share my findings based on less than a week’s worth of `experience’:

  • Decent-quality pencasts can be produced with minimal effort – I figured out the basics (e.g., how to record my voice) in a few minutes, and started on my first pencast. Transferring the pencast from the pen to the desktop software to the Web (where it can be shared with my students) also requires minimal effort. “Decent quality” here refers to both the visual and audio elements. The fact that this is both a very natural (writing with a pen while speaking!) and speedy (efficient/effective) undertaking means that I am predisposed towards actually using the technology whenever it makes sense – more on that below. Net-net: This solution is teacher-friendly.
  • Pencasts compliment other instructional media – This is my current perspective … Pencasts compliment the textbook readings I assign, the lecture slides plus video/audio captures I provide, the Web sites we all share, the Moodle discussion forums we engage in, the Tweets I issue, etc. In the spirit of blended learning it is my hope that pencasts, in concert with these other instructional media, will allow my TAs and I to `reach’ most of the students in the course.
  • Pencasts allow the teacher to address both content and skills-oriented objectives – Up to this point, my pencasts have started from a blank page. This forces me to be focused, and systematically develop towards some desired content (e.g., conceptually introducing the phase diagram for H2O) and/or skills (e.g., how to calculate the slope of a line on a graph) oriented outcome. Because students can follow along, they have the opportunity to be fully engaged as the pencast progresses. Of course, what this also means is that this technology can be as effective in the first-year university level course I’m currently teaching, but also at the academic levels that precede (e.g., grade school, high school, etc.) and follow (senior undergraduate and graduate) this level.
  • Pencasts are learner-centric – In addition to be teacher-friendly, pencasts are learner-centric. Although a student could passively watch and listen to a pencast as it plays out in a linear, sequential fashion, the technology almost begs you to interact with it. As noted previously, this means a student can easily replay some aspect of the pencast that they missed. Even more interestingly, however, students can interact with pencasts in a random-access mode – a mode that would almost certainly be useful when they are attempting to apply the content/skills conveyed through the pencast to a tutorial or assignment they are working on, or a quiz or exam they are actively studying for. It is important to note that both the visual and audio elements of the pencast can be manipulated with impressive responsiveness to random-access input from the student.
  • I’m striving for authentic, not perfect pencasts – With a little more practice and some planning/scripting, I’d be willing to bet that I could produce an extremely polished pencast. Based on past experience teaching today’s first-year university students, I’m fairly convinced that this is something they couldn’t care less about. Let’s face it, my in-person lectures aren’t perfectly polished, and neither are my pencasts. Because I can easily go back to existing pencasts and add to them, I don’t need to fret too much about being perfect the first time. Too much time spent fussing here would diminish the natural and speedy aspects of the technology.

Findings aside, on to samples:

  • Calculating the lapse rate for Earth’s troposphere – This is a largely a skills-oriented example. It was my first pencast. I returned twice to the original pencast to make changes – once to correct a spelling mistake, and the second time to add in a bracket (“Run”) that I forgot. I communicated these changes to the students in the course via an updated link shared through a Moodle forum dedicated to pencasts. If you were to experience the updates, you’d almost be unaware of the lapse of time between the original pencast and the updates, as all of this is presented seamlessly as a single pencast to the students.
  • Introducing the pressure-temperature phase diagram for H2O – This is largely a content-oriented example. I got a little carried away in this one, and ended up packing in a little too much – the pencast is fairly long, and by the time I’m finished, the visual element is … a tad on the busy side. Experience gained.

Anecdotally, initial reaction from the students has been positive. Time will tell.

Next steps:

  • Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …
  • I have two sections of the NATS 1780 Weather and Climate course to teach this year. One section is taught the traditional way – almost 350 students in a large lecture theatre, 25-student tutorial groups, supported by Moodle, etc. In striking contrast to the approach taken in the meatspace section, is the second section where almost everything takes place online via Moodle. Although I have yet to support this hypothesis with any data, it is my belief that these pencasts are an excellent way to reach out to the students in the Internet-only section of the course. More on this over the fullness of time (i.e., the current academic session.)

Feel free to comment on this post or share your own experiences with pencasts.

Synthetic Life and Evolution of Earth’s Second Atmosphere

I have the pleasure of teaching the science of weather and climate to non-scientists again this Fall/Winter session at Toronto’s York University. In the Fall 2011 Term, time was spent discussing the origin and evolution of Earth’s atmosphere. What follows is a post I just shared with the class via Moodle (our LMS):
Photosynthesizing anaerobic lifeforms in Earth’s oceans were likely responsible for systematically enriching Earth’s atmosphere with respect to O2. Through chemical reactions in Earth’s atmosphere, O3 and the O3 layer were systematically derived from this same source of O2. The O3 layer’s ability to minimize the impact of harmful UV radiation, in tandem with the ascent of [O2] to current values of about 21% by volume, were and remain crucial to life as we experience it today.

In tracing the evolution of Earth’s second atmosphere from a composition based on volcanic outgassing to its present state, the role of life was absolutely critical.

On my drive home tonight after today’s lecture, I happened upon a broadcast regarding synthetic life on CBC Radio‘s Ideas. Based upon annotated excerpts from a Craig Venter lecture, this broadcast is well worth the listen in and of itself. And although I’m no life scientist, I can’t help but predict that Venter’s work will ultimately lead to refinements, if not a complete rewrite, of life’s role in the evolution of Earth’s second atmosphere.
If you have any thoughts on this prediction, please feel free to share them here via a comment.

Multi-Touch Computational Steering

About 1:35 into

Jeff Han impressively demonstrates a lava-lamp application on a multi-touch user interface.

Having spent considerable time in the past pondering the fluid dynamics (e.g., convection) of the Earth’s atmosphere and deep interior (i.e., mantle and core), Han’s demonstration immediately triggered a scientific use case: Is it possible to computationally steer scientific simulations via multi-touch user interfaces?

A quick search via Google returns almost 20,000 hits … In other words, I’m likely not the first to make this connection 😦

In my copious spare time, I plan to investigate further …

Also of note is how this connection was made: A friend sent me a link to an article on Apple’s anticipated tablet product. Since so much of the anticipation of the Apple offering relates to the user interface, it’s not surprising that reference was made to Jeff Han’s TED talk (the video above). Cool.

If you have any thoughts to share on multi-touch computational steering, please feel free to chime in.

One more thought … I would imagine that the gaming industry would be quite interested in such a capability – if it isn’t already!

On Knowledge-Based Representations for Actionable Data …

I bumped into a professional acquaintance last week. After describing briefly a presentation I was about to give, he offered to broker introductions to others who might have an interest in the work I’ve been doing. To initiate the introductions, I crafted a brief description of what I’ve been up to for the past 5 years in this area. I’ve also decided to share it here as follows: 

As always, [name deleted], I enjoyed our conversation at the recent AGU meeting in Toronto. Below, I’ve tried to provide some context for the work I’ve been doing in the area of knowledge representations over the past few years. I’m deeply interested in any introductions you might be able to broker with others at York who might have an interest in applications of the same.

Since 2004, I’ve been interested in expressive representations of data. My investigations started with a representation of geophysical data in the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Although this was successful, use of the approach underlined the importance of metadata (data about data) as an oversight. To address this oversight, a subsequent effort introduced a relationship-centric representation via the Resource Description Format (RDF). RDF, by the way, forms the underpinnings of the next-generation Web – variously known as the Semantic Web, Web 3.0, etc. In addition to taking care of issues around metadata, use of RDF paved the way for increasingly expressive representations of the same geophysical data. For example, to represent features in and of the geophysical data, an RDF-based scheme for annotation was introduced using XML Pointer Language (XPointer). Somewhere around this point in my research, I placed all of this into a framework.

A data-centric framework for knowledge representation.

A data-centric framework for knowledge representation.

 In addition to applying my Semantic Framework to use cases in Internet Protocol (IP) networking, I’ve continued to tease out increasingly expressive representations of data. Most recently, these representations have been articulated in RDFS – i.e., RDF Schema. And although I have not reached the final objective of an ontological representation in the Web Ontology Language (OWL), I am indeed progressing in this direction. (Whereas schemas capture the vocabulary of an application domain in geophysics or IT, for example, ontologies allow for knowledge-centric conceptualizations of the same.)  

From niche areas of geophysics to IP networking, the Semantic Framework is broadly applicable. As a workflow for systematically enhancing the expressivity of data, the Framework is based on open standards emerging largely from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Because there is significant interest in this next-generation Web from numerous parties and angles, implementation platforms allow for increasingly expressive representations of data today. In making data actionable, the ultimate value of the Semantic Framework is in providing a means for integrating data from seemingly incongruous disciplines. For example, such representations are actually responsible for providing new results – derived by querying the representation through a ‘semantified’ version of the Structured Query Language (SQL) known as SPARQL. 

I’ve spoken formally and informally about this research to audiences in the sciences, IT, and elsewhere. With York co-authors spanning academic and non-academic staff, I’ve also published four refereed journal papers on aspects of the Framework, and have an invited book chapter currently under review – interestingly, this chapter has been contributed to a book focusing on data management in the Semantic Web. Of course, I’d be pleased to share any of my publications and discuss aspects of this work with those finding it of interest.

With thanks in advance for any connections you’re able to facilitate, Ian. 

If anything comes of this, I’m sure I’ll write about it here – eventually!

In the meantime, feedback is welcome.