Monthly Archives: March 2014

Do you believe in magic? – How not to do flipped classroom

Eric Mazurs peer instruction is very interesting and the article describing it’s use is inspiring. I found another article “Don’t lecture me: Rethinking how college students learn” describing his style of teaching by Emily Hanford. The article itself mirrored the others written on the topic and my attention was drawn to the comments section. One comment especially caught my attention.

A student opened up about his experiences on a physics class taught using only peer instruction. His experience was extremely negative as the class lacked structure and the TA did not even point the students to a correct direction during supplemental class, even if it was clearly needed. The answers to this post were basically telling the student to suck it up, work harder, and questioned his motivations.

This could be a case of resistance to learner centered model, but the student’s response hinted, that he had tried to talk to the professor and the university to have some sort of a balance. This alone could be a sign of commitment to the class. He was trying to make it better. The teacher has responsibility here to listen to the student and alleviate their anxieties. In case of one student, an open conversation is a good way to start. If multiple students in the class struggle severely despite the effort they put in, the teacher has a bigger problem.

To me this comment about peer instruction showed how the approach can go terribly wrong. Student could not make sense of the bigger picture or even the assigned. Even if this was just one students experience, I would be worried. The lack of any posts or responses from any professor or university on this matter leaves their side defenseless, so I cannot for a full understanding of the situation.

If any of the new or re-emerging pedagogical techniques are used like magic, they will not work. Just making students learn from each other will not work. The teacher needs to be invested in the students and their learning. This is the case with Dr. Mazur. He assesses students before starting the peer instruction and listens in on the conversations. When communicating about these “new” pedagogical techniques, we need to underline the increased involvement of the teacher. If this stuff was magic, universities and teachers would be no longer needed.

Allergic to philosophy

What do I think when I hear the word philosophy? Old bearded men dressed in sheets. Long classes with reading materials from the 50’s. Vague ideas sprouted by teachers. Overly important high school students showing repeating what someone else said ages ago. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word as follows:

1 “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc. ”

2 “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

3 “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live”

The first two definitions are vague to me. They even have etc. at the end. But the third definition is more encouraging. This is the definition I can connect to teaching. Figuring out what my ideas about teaching really are in a concise way will be challenging.

I don’t have enough teaching experience to actually have tried different approaches and styles. The advice offered by Gabriella Montell in her article in Chronicle of Higher Education (2003) is extremely helpful. The concrete questions really opened my mind to thinking about my teaching philosophy.

Dr. Karen Kelsky’s blog post on the common mistakes made in writing a teaching philosophy really hit home for me. The failure in linking research to teaching is something I can see myself running into. When I first read the assignment in the syllabus, this did not occur to me as a potential problem. To avoid this, I will have to think about my general work ethic, research interests, and the strategies I use in developing new ideas. They should all have a common thread and somehow connect in a statement.

The approach of Dr. Kelsky and Montell to humbleness in writing a teaching philosophy differ. Montell encourages to “adopt a tone of humility” while Kelsky warns about too humble statements. I get that writing this sort of document is a balancing act of correct tone, humility and grandiose ideas. But this makes me worried, that I might not hit that balance and come off as pompous know-it-all or a shy little mouse with no desire to advance in my career.


I do science – not social interactions

The media likes to show scientists sometimes as the stereotypical socially incompetent dweebs. In my case that stereotype is based on real life. To keep this even a little bit professional, I will mention no names (partially, because I hope anyone involved in these scenarios does not remember) and try to describe the scenarios with scientific detachment.

This “study” consists of one test subject (N=1) and any data is anecdotal. The study subject has limited social skills. This allows us to observe a socially underdeveloped phenotype in several interactions across time and in different cultures. During the data collection period between 2004 and 2011 there was a significant shift in the test subjects level of self perceived confidence. This results in shift of the data quality towards the end of the time period. The data points are recorded when test subject detects self-stupidity and/or unintended hilarity from surrounding individuals. The data are divided to three categories: 1) interactions with the opposite sex, 2) linguistic mishaps, and 3) workplace related interactions. These categories produced the most significant data points and provide a representative sample of the test subjects social interactions.

Stupidity2004to2011Category 1 data points are concentrated to the beginning of collection period. An example of mild case of embarrassment can occur due to lack of planning. The subject was engaged in a verbal interaction with a representative of the opposite sex. The need to leave the interaction increased and the classic phrase “Oh, look at the time! I have to go” was employed. Unfortunately the necessary prop, wrist watch, was not present.

Lack of foresight can also affect promising conversations. While deep hate towards accordion music is a topic close to test subjects heart, the enthusiastic description of it has to be reserved for select audiences. As a first conversation with the opposite sex the risk of the object to love harmonica is unknown. The risk reached 100% in a club, when conversing unknowingly with a harmonica enthusiast with 10 years of playing the damn instrument.

The situation could be alleviated by inserting a filter between brain and mouth. This could also alleviate the more subtle mishaps including over sharing. In an example situation the subject requested the use of a chap stick from a love interest. The inquiry “is it okay if it has already been used?” should not have been answered with “I have never cared that much about hygiene”.

 Category 2 data, linguistic mishaps, is sparse due to data collection being biased. Loss of minor events is inevitable when the subject is unaware of any mistakes made. Dealing with English grammar and finding correct words on the spot requires skill and attention span unfamiliar to the subject. Replacing a word with another of similar meaning would be fine, if the meaning and spirit of the communication is retained. Practical applications of this are tricky. Substituting vasectomy with castration even in casual conversation is frowned upon.

Category 3 data concentrates to time period between 2009 and 2011. The collection of data is on going and offers opportunities for future analysis. Work place architecture can give false sense of security from social interactions. It should be kept in mind that after the fast elevator’s doors open you need a good explanation as to why you were holding your arm up like a superman. The chance that someone is waiting for the elevator can approach 100% between 6am and 6pm.  Another obstacle for solitary existence in workplace includes shared office space. One has to navigate a minefield of social niceties and be careful of verbal output. When a new co-worker asks if your hobbies include riding, do not answer “What? Do you mean with a horse?”. The mental pictures projected to surrounding audience will be highly inappropriate.

In conclusion, the quality of self reported stupidity changes in time. Severity of cases varies considerably even within categories. More data is constantly collected and increased number of test subjects could provide a more representative picture of social in-adeptness. Highly controlled human studies are not possible at the level I would like to conduct them. Apparently use of human subjects in long term confinement from birth is frowned upon.


Open access to disease and other research – PLoS Pathogens

The appearance of open access journals is something I personally applaud. Having current research available for everyone with internet connection and understanding of English language, seems fair as some of the research is supported by tax money. This was also pointed out in Richard Van Noorden’s article “The true cost of science publishing” in Nature (2013) (1). To my mind it highlights, that my research is accountable to the general public instead of just my peers. Paying for my research to be distributed widely instead of to only the ones with access to high impact scholarly papers seems like a responsible thing to do.

PLoS is perhaps the most widely known open-access journal family with a good reputation. It concentrates on biological and life sciences. It has a very appealing web interface and is indexed in all the major archives we use in biological research to find articles like PubMed, MEDLINE, Web of Science, and Scopus.

PLoS stands for US Public Library of Science. The online journals of PLoS family include PLoS ONE, PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Currents, PLoS Genetics, PLoS Pathogens, and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. I will concentrate on the PLoS Pathogens for now to illustrate the PLoS family of journals. PLoS is a non-profit organization. In 2001 it announced to start publishing electronic open-access journals, after an attempt to persuade other publishers to release their journals for the public for free after a delay (2-6 months post first publication of the issue) (2). The goal of PLoS is to provide the public access to research, not depending on financial resources. PLoS Pathogens has been published as a separate journal since 2005, as evident from the journal’s archives.

Scope of PLoS Pathogens include research on bacteria, fungi, parasites, prion, and virus related diseases which impact medical, and agricultural fields, and economies everywhere. The study of this microbial world gives insights into basic functions of cells and organisms, expanding basic science knowledge. Due to the impact of pathogens in everyday life, I find it appropriate that this publication is open-access. A separate issue arises to enhance the general public’s understanding of these scientific texts. Should we have a separate abstract to the public outlining the results? Or should scientific community present their information more aggressively in other mediums like blogs, tweets, and forums?

Notice the easy access tabs to metrics and comments, and subject areas tags.

PLoS Pathogens, like all PLoS journals, adhere to Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY). This means that authors still own their research, but anyone can copy, modify, reuse and reprint the articles as long as the researchers are cited. You don’t have to ask for publishers or authors permission. This seems fair compared to the publisher obtaining the rights to the work. Taylor however in his article in Scripted- A Journal of Law, Technology and Society, calls for a balance between the copyright practices (3). He points out, that the copyright is mostly on the side of the author. His point of view also includes the academic publishing done in book form, which to me is a whole different animal compared to publishing in research journals.

PLoS Pathogens has the impact factor of 8.14. Compared to non-open-access journals with long history and high prestige like Nature Immunology’s 26.2, or Cell Host and Microbe’s 12.6, it seems a bit low. When comparing to other open access journals like BMC Immunology’s 2.61 it is rather good.  However impact factor is not the best statistic to evaluate a journal. To me the width of the scope a journal presents affects my appreciation of the journal. Ones that take in articles from varied fields of research tend to select articles that have the  WOW-factor. Journals specializing to a topic seem to take in articles, that don’t necessarily have the WOW-factor, but are important in bridging the research to that future WOW! moment.

Part of Jorge Cham's PhD comic about rivalry between Nature and Science magazines.

Part of Jorge Cham’s PhD comic about rivalry between Nature and Science magazines.

The following quote from Van Noorden (1) shows the opposition from subscription journal publishers.

“The costs of research publishing can be much lower than people think,” agrees Peter Binfield, co-founder of one of the newest open-access journals, PeerJ, and formerly a publisher at PLoS. But publishers of subscription journals insist that such views are misguided — born of a failure to appreciate the value they add to the papers they publish, and to the research community as a whole. They say that their commercial operations are in fact quite efficient, so that if a switch to open-access publishing led scientists to drive down fees by choosing cheaper journals, it would undermine important values such as editorial quality.

Maybe I don’t know enough about the publishing industry, but to me the extra value gained from editorial quality is not clear. The open-access journals, like PLoS Pathogens, use peer-review and have very nice e-publication formats. The publishing in them is less expensive too, and the research can be seen by more people than the subscription based publications. Does anyone know exactly what the editorial quality refers to? I would really like to know what extra value I would get compared to open-access.


1. Van Noorden, R. 2013. Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature 495:426-9.

2. Vicki Brower, 2001. Public library of science shifts gears. EMBO reports. Nov 15, 2001; 2(11): 972–973.

3. K Taylor, “Copyright and research: an academic publisher’s perspective”, (2007) 4:2 SCRIPTed 233 < >

Thinking in pictures

To most efficiently use information in designing experiments and learning concepts I need to draw it out. Paper is the best, but I can deal with PowerPoint if given enough time. Without the visuals I cannot comprehend large concepts and their connections to other topics and systems. By drawing out the experimental design I ensure no details are missed.

I keep my brain between pages and hope those pages never burn in a tragic accident. I find pen and paper to  be still faster than typing on computer and more controlled than a touch pad. Also there is the fear that I manage to pour water on my laptop (again) and will have to open up the whole machine against manufacturers recommendations (again…).

This visualization allows me to appreciate the artistic side of science and the true beauty of details in functions and structures of cells. By just looking at ready made pictures I easily lose the intricate detail, which I am forced to draw out in my own notes. After drawing the coastline of Turkey, I appreciate the geography and understand it on a deeper level than by looking at the maps. After detailing the process of protein synthesis in a cell on paper, painstakingly drawing the different nooks of ribosomes, I can find the multiple spots where mutations and deformities in this machinery can cause problems.

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (

In some cases technology can help in finding the details and enhance the learning process. In the field of crystallography, proteins are pictured in extreme detail down to an atom. The level of accuracy when making predictions from these models is far greater than from any of my drawings. On the other hand the structures are not readily available in case of power outages, crashing computers, and when internet connection is not possible.

I would say there is a time and place for writing things on paper instead of relying on computers. Especially when brainstorming for new ideas, I have found paper superior to a screen. But the tools to start up this process we need to use the help of search engines, databases, visualization programs and calculations. We need to be the centaurs Clive Thompson describes in his book “Smarter than you think”. The digital technology available to us should be our extension in a way that helps us reach new heights. Problems arise when we lose focus and allow the technology to lead and make decisions for us.


Finnish higher education system

The Finnish higher education is divided to two branches. The actual universities offer Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs in all fields. Universities of applied sciences offer more practical studies and only Bachelor’s degrees in specified fields like nursing, engineering, arts like dance, and media production.

Flow chart of the Finnish school system. No tuition required at any step.

Flow chart of the Finnish school system. No tuition required at any step.

Students who opted out of high school and went to vocational school can apply to both as long as they meet the requirements. Usually they go to the applied sciences institution first and then apply to university. High school is a faster track to university, but students also go to the applied sciences institutes from there. I really appreciate the flexibility of the system. You are never shut out from higher education.

Students apply directly to the department, to a certain major. Your school grades are taken into account as well as the matriculation exam (high school students), and the main requirement is the entrance exam specific to the major. Each entrance exam can be based on one or more books and contains application of the learned material to answer problems. For applied sciences, entrance exam is based on high school courses, but some fields like nursing might require psychological testing as well as group interaction tests.

Universities in Finland. Modified from

Universities in Finland. Modified from

There are no core courses required in the university. Only compulsory non-major classes are language classes (English and Swedish). All the general knowledge classes are taken at high school level. Minors can be used to widen one’s education. For example marketing, biology, chemistry, and microbiology are popular minors for biochemistry major. In retrospect, maybe having some sort of common core could have been beneficial and allowed introduction to more varied minor choices. Students have the freedom to not show up in most classes as long as they acquire the information on their own, return any homework required, and pass the exams. This is expected to change as teaching methods are developed to more student centered.

All higher education in Finland is tuition free at the moment. Administrative fees (includes student health care and dental fee) are low, around 90 euros ($125) per year in my old university. For citizens of Finland there is an automatic stipend to cover living expenses and support for renting an apartment as we have no dorms. Most students avoid loans like they are the plaque. The meals on campus have student discount pricing and consist of quite healthy home cooked style fare (side salad, bread, warm main, milk or water). Students take care of buying their books when needed, but libraries commonly carry enough books for most students to use during the semester. I bought around 6 books during undergrad.

Student housing ( and student life at University of Oulu

Student housing ( and student life at University of Oulu

Recently we have started several master’s programs completely taught in English. For example at the University of Oulu master’s degrees offered in English are from Business and economic, Education, Engineering and architecture, Health sciences, and Natural sciences. These have attracted students from Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The higher education system is flexible in Finland and students financed well by the government. It is not a perfect system by any means and faces many of the same problems as other higher education systems in Europe and US. Keeping the higher education available for all qualified students is still a priority and is seen as a way to enhance equality. As Finland is a small country with limited natural resources, our economy depends on highly skilled people.

Some of us rather deal with bacteria than people

There is no love lost between science and politics in my experience. The general population overall seems to have a level of distrust for both. The nature of politics showing as people pleasing, backstabbing, and a bit dirty to younger generations, has possibly deterred individuals interest in politics. Some of us rather deal with bacteria than people.


Luke Jerram with glass E. coli (

How ever this can lead to serious problems in decision making in politics and isolation of science from society. Luckily there are scientific advisers at many levels of governing. An enlightening article in Nature by Peter Gluckman, the scientific adviser of New Zealand’s prime minister, paints a positive picture of this position. His comment on the advisers role in policy making underlines that we can’t just barge in to politics:

The role of the science adviser is often less about providing direct technical expertise than it is about nudging attitudes and practices to enhance both the demand for and the supply of evidence for public policy.

The preparation of policies is not about bringing up great science and implementing policies only driven by raw science. The society has other parameters, that need to be taken into account like economy, traditions, and social structure. Scientists need to be aware of these parameters as much as policy makers need to understand science.


HIV in glass by Luke Jerram (

Cutting edge science can be extremely difficult to grasp. Nature News has put out a helpful list of tips for evaluating scientific claims for non-scientists. It has twenty core principles of evaluating scientific data explained. There is also a 20 point tip list for scientists to understand the making of policies in the Guardian written in response to the Nature’s list. Putting these lists to use in policymakers and scientists interactions could make a positive impact on the whole process and bring the two groups together. Not to mention increase the trust of public for both politics and science.



Do I need to know this for life?

In “Understanding by Design” by Wiggins and McTighe there was a nice quote from Jerome Bruner:

For any subject taught in primary school, we might ask [is it] worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person better adult.

I have asked and have peers ask about relevance of topics in multiple classes during my whole education. And I don’t mean if it is important for the exam. Even in primary school students were questioning the need of religious studies, history, and physical education. And we did hear variations of “because I told you so” and uninformative “you will need this when you are an adult”. To a child adulthood seems so very far away. Defining the goals of each class and activity should have been obvious and I don’t know why teachers still fed us those generic answers.

The backwards planning of syllabus really painted a clear picture of how syllabus an classes should be designed to serve a defined purpose. We also need to communicate the importance of each task and class to students, no matter their age or level of expertise. And I don’t mean telling them they will need it to get along with everyone in the world. That could be too broad for students to relate to.

For example the history of my home country, Finland, is a weak spot in my knowledge. I asked why this was important and got a simple “you will need to know about your history, and be able to tell about it to others”. As a 12-year-old that had no connection to my life. It did not feel like my history in the first place with all the politicians and policies. And I could not comprehend, that anyone else would be interested in those things about my country.

Which motivational problems could be solved simply answering the “why?” questions students have in a way that will inspire them? I don’t think it will solve everything or even majority of the problems. But it might be needed to get all the other good changes to really make an impact.

Student organizations in Finland – the system of guilds

As part of positive psychology on campuses Frank Shushok Jr. and Eileen Hulme bring up positive organizations for students to belong to. According to their paper “What’s right with you: Helping students find and use their personal strengths” in About Campus, they describe these organizations as communities where students can use their strengths and feel empowered.

In higher education in USA this can be clubs connected to hobbies, sororities and fraternities, service groups for the community, or special interest clubs like the Dairy Club. Some of these communities require application or being chosen to be part of it. What if you are not accepted as part of the group? What if the application and initiation processes are too daunting for some people to even try?

In Finland this is solved by having “guilds” based on your major. And you are automatically accepted to the guild as you get your acceptance letter to the university to study the major. These are student run communities designed to serve the students. For example during my undergraduate days the biochemistry “guild” arranged parties for undergraduates, master’s students, PhD students and post graduates together. We got to know basically everyone in the department and could get peer support for every single class we had from the older students. Sports events were very casual. You did not even need to know the rules to come and play football, floorball, volleyball, or anything else.

This kind of environment offered a safe space for discussions on the topic of our major –biochemistry- as well as general thoughts about higher education and even politics surrounding it. The community would lend a helping hand also outside of academic life readily. It is not uncommon to have the guild help with moving for example.

What would be a better way to build an active community than the all-inclusive relaxed guild? One drawback of this system however is the exclusion of other majors. Some parties were arranged with other guilds and friends from other guilds are always welcome to join in on the activities, but it was rare for people with no personal ties to the guild to join in with sports or other activities.

I would be interested to know, if these kinds of systems work or could work in the US. Or is the exclusive nature of clubs an advantage in the higher education generally, and in building up your CV?