Genetics Part 3: Canon versus Relevancy

Every discipline has canonical knowledge and skills. They’re the stories and examples experts love to hate because, while they’re often canonical for a reason, they quickly lose context and rarely tell the whole story.

The best definition I can give of “canon” comes from fanfiction. (And of course, I’ll use Harry Potter as my example.) All fanfiction is divided into two categories; canon and Alternate Universe (AU). Canon fanfiction is anything that takes all the published books to be true, while AU fics write stories answering questions like, “What would happen if Harry had grown up with Sirius Black instead of the Dursleys?”

Note that canon, especially in the Harry Potter world, is a hotly debated topic. The most extreme of canon purists only count the seven books. Other writers will include things JKR’s said in interviews or published in other places (her website Pottermore, the Hogwarts textbooks she wrote, and at one point she wrote a few Daily Prophet newsletters). Now that The Cursed Child has been released, it’s created even more controversy. Some writers, who have been writing canon for years, have defined the “Sensible Universe,” where they can classify their writing as canon without having to update tiny details they made up as JKR gives us more information.

And I haven’t even mentioned the movies. I will just quickly state that, in my opinion, the movies are not canon. In fact, they’re the most expensive and widely consumed fanfiction ever. But, as with everything else, this is debated throughout the fandom.

For a somewhat more science-y example, I can tell you that they Watson and Crick story, which usually today includes Rosalind Franklin, is canon in the molecular biology world. It was a huge turning point in science and our understanding of all of molecular biology. If you go one level farther into canon, you’ll hear of Griffith, Avery and MacLeod, and Chargaff, all of whom made important discoveries about DNA. Hopefully, you’ll also hear of the beautiful, elegant, and delightfully simple Hershey-Chase experiment. It’s my favorite molecular biology experiment ever! (Yes, I’m that nerdy. I have a favorite experiment.)

But those people don’t tell the entire story of how the structure of DNA was discovered. It doesn’t tell the story of the wrong answers (Linus Pauling, you genius chemist, I’m looking at you…) and the false starts and politics of racing to find the answer. Everyone knew whoever finally got a good model for the structure of DNA would be famous forever. And James Watson and Francis Crick will be.

There are issues with canon. There are historical perspectives that need to be considered; Rosalind Franklin’s contribution wasn’t considered for a long time because she was a woman. Other stories are incomplete or missing because the people didn’t fit the mold of a scientist; there are often equity issues woven into canon stories.

And often canon stories aren’t super relevant to my students. My favorite ecological experiment is the one where Robert Payne used a crowbar to pry starfish off rocks and chucked them back into the ocean, demonstrating top-down population control and providing support for the Green World Hypothesis. But this story relies on marine ecosystems. Hi, I’m from Colorado! We’re one of the most landlocked states in the US!

If you’d asked me before spring break what I thought about canon stories, I would admit to you that I get some joy out of learning them and telling them. But I would write you something a lot like what I just wrote you. Canon can become a box that excludes other stories and people who can’t relate.

Then I started tutoring my friend Craig in genetics. He’s taking an introductory biology class at the University of Colorado Denver. I never took this kind of course (thanks, AP credits) and I never attended the Denver campus. In some ways, it’s tricky to help him because I know more science than he probably needs to, and I have to figure out what he needs to know. Craig could definitely learn everything I could possibly teach him and more, but time is limited, after all. What examples is he likely to see on the exam? How did his professor explain that one concept?

But fancy this: all the examples and stories I learned in high school, which are in turn the examples and stories I fall back on when I teach my kids, are the same examples and stories Craig learned in his class. Sure, there might be some slight variation; in order to teach incomplete dominance, his teacher used blue and white flowers instead of red and white. But in general, it was all the same. It was awesome! It meant that Craig and I felt like we were talking about the same thing, and like we had common ground to start from. In the same way that canon can exclude, people who know the canon are very much included in that discipline. Canon can be a unifying principle among a group of people.

And it was really cool that I could predict with a high degree of accuracy what he needed to know, how his definitions were worded, and which stories his professor had told.

I certainly don’t put this down to my excellent knowledge of biology content and/or teaching. I think this is a great example of the power of canon. And it raises some really interesting questions. How do certain stories spread through a culture? How do we make canon accessible to anyone?

Your homework: What canon is inherent to your discipline? What stories are left out? How does a shared canon strengthen a community, and how does it exclude outsiders?

Hej då,



Genetics Part 2: Creating Notation to Fit Concepts

Welcome back to learning about genetics with me! In my last post, I told a story about how I learned about the difference and interconnectedness of conceptual, notational, and procedural knowledge. In that story, I explained how one student’s struggles last year with the procedures inherent in Punnett squares led her class to a new procedure that was, for them, more deeply grounded in conceptual understanding. This year, my students taught me even more about the confusion that can arise between conceptual understanding and notation.

I’m using a new textbook this year, one that relies a lot more on students reading and applying and a lot less on me talking and giving examples. I was really quite terrified of how this was going to when we talked about sex-linked traits. Students saw one example of the notation in the book and then had to go on to solve inheritance problems. Practice is important, and I was not convinced they were going to get enough practice. However, this lesson fell on days when I was gone (on Thursday, I was out during biology for an IEP meeting and on Friday I was at the Knowles spring meeting in Philly) so I just went with what was in the book.

(1) I’m back in teaching mode: humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two of them follow the patterns we’ve already talked about. The last pair is the sex chromosomes. Females are XX, and males are XY. Females can only pass on an X chromosome; it’s all they have. That means the 50/50 probability of having a boy or a girl lies with the father; he can pass on an X, creating a daughter, or a Y, creating a son. This becomes somewhat ironic when thinking about how Henry VIII blamed his wives for a lack of a male heir…but there you are.

(2) But there are other genes on the X chromosome beyond just those that create different sexes. Color blindness is one example. Almost everyone learns the story of the Russian Imperial family, and how Tsarina Alexandria, originally an English princess, carried a recessive blood disease called hemophilia and passed it on to her only son and heir Alexei, leading to an obsession with healing him and arguably contributing to the Russian Revolution. See, I’ve linked history and genetics twice in one blog post! So talking about sex-linked traits is very important.

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.04.11 AM

(3) Ok, you’re looking at this Punnett square and thinking one of three things. Option A: Oh no, not another one! Oh yes, my friends, another one! Option B: I thought you didn’t like Punnett squares! I don’t like Punnett squares lacking conceptual understanding. I’m assuming you’re all brilliant and have the concepts nailed. And they really are handy tools for predicting combinations. Option C: This one looks really different.

(4) Ah, yes. It does. But it’s not! If you look at just the H’s, which represent you can see that the woman (on the left, XX) is heterozygous for this hemophilia gene. That means she’s carrying it, but she’s not affected by it (recessive, remember?) And you can see that the man is not affected by the trait because he has a dominant allele (big H) on his X chromosome. Do you see the similarities now?

(5) The interesting thing about sex-linked traits is that males are proportionally affected much more than females. In this particular case, boys have a 50% chance of having hemophilia. Girls, on the other hand, have a 0% chance of having hemophilia. Note that this is the cross for Tsarina Alexandria and Tsar Nikolai, which explains why none of their four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia) had issues with hemophilia, while their sone Alexei did.

(Ok, now go back to paragraphs 1-5 and see if you can find the conceptual versus notational things I taught!)

Back to the story of my students’ learning; we’d left them with a sub trying to learn sex-linked traits. After I returned, I reviewed them quickly, taught them about how incredibly complex human inheritance is, and gave them a quiz and a project as their assessments.

It was grading these projects, and watching students complete them, that led me to think again about how conceptual and notational thinking play with and against each other. The project was to choose a genetic disorder from a list of five and write a brochure that could go in a genetics counseling office about it. Two of the disorders were sex-linked, so students who chose them (and a lot chose hemophilia because it was the example in the book) gave me insight into how well they learned about sex-linked traits.

What fascinated me was that students were using different notation than was in the book, but their thinking was conceptually correct. Rather than using the superscript letters like in the Punnett square above, they were color-coding the X’s:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.30.54 AM

or using apostrophes to mark affected X chromosomes:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 8.31.50 AM

(note that the mother is on the top rather than the side in this case).

Now, I pulled all these images for examples from the internet, so it’s entirely possible my kids got it from there. But I think, in part, what I saw happening was my kids creating new notation to fit their conceptual understanding. They knew there were “good X’s” and “bad X’s” and they created a way to tell them apart. I gave them full credit no matter what notation they used.

Do they really understand that the Factor VIII gene, which causes hemophilia, is a short DNA sequence along the whole chromosome and there are thousands of other genes on this chromosome too? I can’t actually tell from this particular question.

(As a side note, assessment design to really show student thinking is HARD!)

But this opens up all sorts of interesting teaching questions. Do I teach kids a notation? Can I ask them to come up with their own? How would I scaffold that process? What’s the value of their own notation versus the standard notation they’ll see as they pursue science? How do I make connections between the two?

Your homework: Have you ever created notation or shorthand for something? Have you ever been annoyed or confused by someone else’s notation or shorthand? What’s the value of notation or shorthand and when does it fall short (hehe)?

Hej då,


Genetics Part 1: How Punnett Squares Constrain Your Thinking

(1) During two weeks before spring break, I taught my kids genetics. You probably remember learning a little bit of something about genetics in school; we inherit our traits from both our parents and there’s some probability involved in which traits we get. You probably remember that some traits are called “dominant” and some are called “recessive.” You might even remember this:

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(2) That, my friends-turned-students, is a Punnett square. This one is a classic. It’s where we’ve crossed two heterozygous parents to predict what alleles their offspring will have.

(3) Now, there was a lot of vocabulary in that last sentence. So let me pause for a moment. When we’re considering the inheritance of a particular gene, we get one version of the gene from Mom and one version of the gene from Dad. This is true for humans and cats and bugs and pea plants. Each version of the gene is called an allele. In 99% of your cells, you have two alleles for every gene. (The other 1% are your sex cells, either sperm or eggs, depending on your biology.)

(4) We can define a person depending on which alleles they have. If they have two of the same allele, we call them homozygous (homo- means same). If they have two different alleles, we call them heterozygous (hetero- means different). These same roots show up in the words homosexual and heterosexual if that helps you remember them.

(5) So in that Punnet square above, I said both the parents were heterozygous for the “R” gene (whatever protein that might code for). In classic notation, we show that by using a capital R and a lowercase r. Also in this notation, we typically use the capital letter to notate a “dominant” trait and a lowercase letter to notate a “recessive” trait. To use our notation for someone who is homozygous dominant, we would write “RR.”

(6) (I could rant for quite a time about how the ideas of “dominant” and “recessive” are constructs that don’t really reflect our newer molecular understanding of gene expression. For now, just remember that in a heterozygote, the dominant trait “overpowers” the recessive trait and all you see is the dominant trait. It’s a usable construct for our purposes and this blog post is already way too long.)

(7) In order to fill out a Punnett square, you write one parent’s alleles across the top and one parent’s alleles down the left side. It doesn’t matter which parent goes where. Then you drag the top parent’s alleles down into each box. Last, you drag the left parent’s alleles across into each box. You should end up with two letters in each box.

(8) Now, most human traits are incredibly complicated in terms of their expression, so geneticists often use plants (or fruit flies) to talk about simpler patterns. So if I give a concrete example to the Punnett square above, I could say that we’re talking about red and white flowers, and that red is dominant to white. In that case, both of the parent flowers would be red. If we look at their offspring, each box represents a 25% chance that particular combination of alleles will be produced. So in terms of the genes, there is a 25% chance of getting an offspring with RR, a 50% chance of getting an offspring with Rr, and a 25% chance of getting an offspring with rr. This means a 75% chance of getting red flowers (remember both RR and Rr make red flowers) and a 25% chance of getting white flowers (you have to be rr to get white flowers).

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 7.31.58 AM

(9) Ok, this image used purple instead of red and P’s instead of R’s. But it’s the same heterozygote crossed with a heterozygote cross. Can you see how they’re the same concept?

Alright, I’m finally going to acknowledge that I did something truly bizarre with the format of this post. I numbered the first nine paragraphs. I know this has been bugging some of you the whole time! Here’s why. I just taught you a little bit of something about genetics, and now I want to explain how I did it and why genetics gets really complicated really fast. Being able to reference the paragraphs will make that much easier.

There are different kinds of information involved in teaching genetics. First, I gave you some conceptual underpinnings in paragraph three, when I talk about what an allele is and where we get them from. Paragraph four is also conceptual. In that paragraph, I’m telling you that it not only matters which alleles we have, but the combination of them is also important.

Concepts are super important. But we have to have a way to communicate them. So in paragraph five, I gave you a bunch of notation. This notation is really handy so we don’t have to write out huge DNA sequences to see the difference between alleles. In fact, this notation is older than our ability to sequence DNA! But one thing that’s really tricky for students is to keep concepts and notation linked. I hear students talking about big R’s and little r’s and I know they understand the notation, but I don’t necessarily know that they understand what those letters represent.

But that’s not all! In paragraph 7, I gave you procedural knowledge. I gave you steps to fill out a Punnett square. And this is typically what my students remember the best. They LOVE  to fill out Punnett squares. They remember the steps, they can get it right, and it makes them feel confident. It also drives me absolutely nuts because most of those students have NO IDEA what a Punnett Square actually represents. They’ve completely lost the conceptual underpinnings.

Last year I had a student who was on the autism spectrum; I’ll call her Anna. For whatever reason, she could not stand Punnett squares. She’d built herself a sizable mental wall over them in middle school, and just the sight of one on the board could send her straight to tears. At first, I was completely bamboozled. Anna needed to be able to do Punnett squares! She needed to understand inheritance patterns!

A key moment of learning for me was realizing this: those two things are not the same thing, and only the second statement is true. Anna’s tablemates came up with an alternate format for creating all possible combinations of alleles from parents.

Anna had great success using this alternate format, and her tablemates told me (and their answers to a couple of key test questions told me) they really understood genetics a lot better. They had to rely on a conceptual understanding of alleles and inheritance to create a new format for combinations. They taught it to the whole class, and the whole class grew from the experience.

I’d like to point out quickly that it was my students who came up with the new format. I think I’d created a classroom culture that allowed this to happen; asking questions and trying stuff out was normal, and student ideas and collaborative learning were valued. But if it had been just me, Anna would’ve been stuck in the Punnett square cycle of despair forever.

This was my first window into separating my own thinking about genetics from a conceptual, notational, and procedural standpoint, and it was hugely informative. I saw kids getting so good at a procedure that they lost the concepts. This year I taught all my classes how to NOT use Punnett squares, much to their consternation!

But my students weren’t done teaching me things yet. This year gave me even further insight into this tangle of information that is genetics. That’s for a Part 2, coming on Wednesday!

Your homework: Can you think of an example of concepts and notation that is specific to another discipline? Do people (or you) place more importance on one than the other?

Hej då,


We Humans are Capable of Greatness


Surprise! I am not Jamie. My name is Jonathan. Jamie and I have been hanging out a lot lately and she asked if I would be willing to write a guest post on her blog tonight. After a small amount of thought, I accepted. After all, I too enjoy writing, though I’m not quite as brave about it as she is. Jamie is generally the only reader of my random musings and it’s exciting and somewhat eerie to write for a wider audience.

A quick aside about me: I like adventure. I like to think. I like to build things. I like to read and play outside and sometimes I ski off cliffs at high speed. As The Doctor might say, “I am, and always will be, the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes, and the dreamer of improbable dreams.” I pay the bills with engineering, but that’s more of a side note.

I have a story to tell, so read on if I have made you curious.

Before I tell my story, watch this video. It’s only three minutes long, and it’s worth it.

The narrator of this video is a man named Carl Sagan, who was reading a passage from his book Pale Blue Dot. This book, and the video, have meant a lot to me throughout my adult life. In it, Carl walks through the history of human spaceflight and speculates on what the future could be, where we could go as a species, and what it might look like. It’s the ultimate thought experiment.

I love this video. Partially I love it because of the soothing piano background music, but mostly because of the theme. We humans are capable of greatness. The future can be amazing. Look back at where we have come from, and think about where we could go. From Democritus and Aristotle to the masters of the Renaissance to Newton, Leibnitz, Einstein, Born, Bernoulli, Kepler, Hubble, Chandrasekar, Thorne, and so many others, we have had amazing ideas that have changed the way we approach everything. Through science and thought and a massive amount of failure we have rewritten what we know about the universe a thousand times over, and we will probably do so a thousand times more.

And I think all of us have that desire, deep inside, to look over the horizon at what might be there. The desire to learn, the desire to discover. It’s part of what makes us human.

I have always been fascinated by space. I don’t think it’s the mechanics of the vacuum, or the long distances, or the math. It’s the sense of adventure that comes from looking over the precipice into the unknown. Everywhere you look is new. It’s exciting.

The era in which Carl Sagan published “Pale Blue Dot” and filmed “Cosmos” was a fascinating time of discovery. Voyagers 1 & 2 had been launched on their reconnaissance of the solar system, tasked with visiting and imaging moons and planets we had never seen before. I can’t imagine the excitement of being in the control room the first time a black and white image of Europa was printed off, freshly transmitted from deep space. I can only imagine how the scientists must have felt pouring over the images, knowing they were looking at something no human had ever seen before, trying to discover the meaning behind the cracked surface of the distant moon.

Saturn has a moon named Titan, on which the surface temperature is at the triple point of methane. What is the triple point you ask? Earth is at the triple point for water. All three phases (liquid, solid, and gas) can be found on the surface. It rains liquid water from gaseous clouds which sublime from solid ice. The same thing happens on Titan, but on Titan, it literally rains hydrocarbons from clouds of hydrocarbons into seas of hydrocarbons. NASA even has an idea for an experimental boat probe which would ply the waters (hydrocarbons?) of this alien world. Could there be life there? Who knows; the average surface temperature is a chilly -179C.

One of the most exciting recent additions to astronomy has been the search for exoplanets, or planets circling around other stars. There have long been suspicions that other stars harbored planets of their own. After all, why not? If our average G class star had a ring of rocky and not so rocky Klingons why shouldn’t other stars as well? But even when I was born, we didn’t have actual proof of exoplanets. Recent missions like the Kepler space telescope have shown that not only are there other planets, there are massive amounts of them. We even have a picture of one! (Though admittedly the image is terribly poor resolution…) Look for this to improve in future missions, such as the James Webb or some intriguing concepts of telescopes with solar shades. Is there life there? We don’t have the data to tell yet.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am fascinated by the search for life on other planets. Boffins call it xenobiology. It really comes down to the age-old human question why are we here? If I’m here, on this planet, is there someone else on another planet? When I look into the night sky is someone else looking back? The seeming lack of evidence for this is known as the “Fermi Paradox,” after Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?” While the question may not have a ton of practical significance, I can’t think of a more fascinating problem.

I think the other thing I really like about this passage is that we humans are capable of greatness. It takes work. It takes effort. Greatness doesn’t just come to those who are sitting around. Newton didn’t write his Principia Mathematica while staring at the clouds. Hubble didn’t make the graph that changed everything we thought we knew about the universe on a hunch. (Though arguably Neils Bohr might have.) And while I am not nearly smart enough to belong in such a group of people, I can work hard to make my contribution as well.

Pale Blue Dot was named because of a thought experiment of Sagan’s. As Voyager 1 traveled ever deeper into space, the controllers turned the spacecraft around on Feb 1, 1990, for a set of pictures, a family portrait of our solar system. In this portrait can be seen Mercury, and Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And very small, very distant, the Earth hangs in a beam of light, a pale blue dot against the darkness. As he says in the book, it is the repository of all our potential, the only home we’ve ever known. It’s an amazing feeling, to look at that image and know that everyone you know, everyone who has ever lived has spent their lives on that little dot.

I’m not a teacher so I won’t give you homework. Instead, I’ll give you a suggestion. Go outside tonight. Find somewhere dark and quiet and look up at the sky. Imagine the immensity of infinity, the distance between you and the next star. It makes me feel small. But it also leaves me awestruck, that we get to be a part of such an amazing machine.

So go get lost in the stars for a bit. You’ll be happy you did.

Finding Music

Well it’s a magical fifth Monday and I’m writing to you today about something that technically belongs in the old-lady-hobbit category, but in actuality spans a lot of my life. And that is music.

I’ve recently had an infusion of music into my life. Jonathan plays the bass guitar and the guitar, and he loves sitting around in the evenings learning new songs. He likes the feeling of getting better at something (and he likes rebuilding the guitars). Often when we both are home in the evenings, we’ll set up a Google Hangout and I’ll do school work and he’ll  play for a while. Watching him has made me miss playing my own instruments: the flute and the piano.

I started playing piano in fourth grade, taking lessons with Mrs. Wilderman. She taught English with Mom and lived behind the high school. On Monday afternoons I’d ride the bus to the high school and Mrs. Wilderman would take me home with her. We’d play for an hour and then I’d walk back to the high school. In the beginning, I drew a keyboard and taped it to my desk to practice. Soon after that, my parents got me a keyboard for Christmas. For the most part, I practiced frantically on Sunday afternoons and did my music theory homework on the bus on Monday, but I enjoyed playing.

In high school, I took lessons from Mary Martin Stockdale. My frantic day-before practice sessions continued, but I fell more and more in love with playing. I was incredibly lucky that my grandpa gave my family a real piano, and it changed the way I played. It feels so different! One of my friends also played with Mary, and we swapped pieces of music and practiced at each others’ houses. I dabbled a bit with writing music, which I also really enjoyed. And when I graduated from high school, I sadly left my piano behind.

I started playing the flute in fifth grade and played through middle school. I loved playing in a group and only having to read one note at a time! But mostly I loved playing in a group. It was an entirely different feeling to be woven into the tapestry of sound, rather than creating the whole thing myself. In high school, being in band conflicted with being on skier schedule, but I still got my flute out every once in a while.

I carried my flute with me to college, but it wasn’t until grad school that I started putting it in my backpack and playing from the top of a rock up in Chautauqua. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t play very much at all. I played my piano when I went home and pulled my flute out once or twice a year, but that was about it. It was during this time that I gave my keyboard to my Granny, who had also loved to play.

This changed last week; Granny decided to move to California and move in with Uncle Curt, and she gave my keyboard back to me. That’s a whole other lot of emotions and stories; I’m glad she’s going somewhere she’ll be happy and cared for, and sad she’s going farther away. I loved having her close by for so many years.

But now my keyboard is sitting next to my bed, begging to be played again.

It drives me nuts; the middle E key doesn’t have touch volume control anymore, and the keyboard is partial. I run out of keys on both the low end and the high end fairly regularly. My keyboard was perfect for me to learn on, but I outgrew it in some ways.

Even so, I’ve been messing around with some songs I like on Spotify and playing by ear again; the Peaceful Piano playlist has some really simple things I can practice with. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing again.

My fingers don’t have the dexterity and the strength they used to; I miss all kinds of chords that were second nature to me.  But I can tell that I’m listening to music differently now, even just after a week. It gives me something to do for ten minutes between getting home and getting started on grading. And it makes me really, really happy. It’s like a different method of communicating, one that doesn’t require words. And as much as I love words, sometimes they get in the way of emotions.

Your homework: What is your favorite thing about music? How do you choose to interact with music?

Hej då,


Oceanography Class

As part of my adventure in moving to Utah, one of the things I’ve been doing is working on getting my Utah teaching license. Education is a state power, so every state licenses differently. And oh boy, do they do it differently.

In Colorado, I hold a secondary science teaching license. This means, according to the state of Colorado, that I am qualified to teach any science class from grade 7 to grade 12. Colorado had a series of requirements I needed in order to get this license; I needed to have a bachelor’s in a science, six credits plus a lab class in the other two core sciences (since my bachelor’s was in biology, the other two core sciences for me were chemistry and physics), an earth science class, an astronomy class, and a certain number of credits. I needed a passing score on the general science Praxis exam, and a certain number of education credits along with student teaching.

Utah, on the other hand, licenses by discipline. When I receive a secondary science license, I must also apply for endorsements for each type of science. For example, I am working on getting my biology, chemistry, environmental, and earth science endorsements. Utah has a list of college classes required for each endorsement, and each endorsement also requires its own specific Praxis test. Amusingly, the only endorsement I actually had all the classes for was chemistry! Because my major was in molecular biology, I was missing several crucial “big bio” classes.

In order to remedy all of these missing pieces, I’ve been diving into AP bio study sessions with Mom to prepare for the biology Praxis (she was highly successful in preparing me!) and taking several online courses. The first of these courses was Oceanography.

To be totally honest, it’s been awesome to go back to being a student again! There’s something very satisfying about having a reading assignment (this week was FIVE chapters, which was a bit much…) and a three page paper to write. I will admit to having the same problem with word limits that I’ve always had – I write three to four times more than I have space for and then have to cut things out.

And I’ve been learning interesting things! My favorite so far has been learning about global wind patterns; I now know what the trade winds are and why they go the direction they do, and why sailors warn against westerlies. These winds drive many of the ocean currents; I can now explain why Uppsala, Sweden has a climate similar to Colorado (but wetter) even though it’s so much farther north. (It’s because the Gulf Stream moves masses of warm air that direction.) And I’ve learned that if you ever need to explain why air or water is moving in a circular or spiraling motion on a global scale, or just explain why anything isn’t behaving as linearly as you thought, the answer is the Coriolis effect.

If you think about the Earth, the most solar radiation happens at the equator. That means that air gets warm and rises. Then it pushes out towards the poles, drops a lot of precipitation, and falls back down as cool dry air. If you look at the Earth, you can see the hot wet equator is bounded on either side by deserts; the deserts are where the cold dry air falls back down.

However, the Earth is spinning. This is the basis of the Coriolis effect. Imagine if you launched a rocket from Quito, Ecuador (at the equator). Even if you launched it straight north, the Earth would spin underneath it while it was flying. The rocket would land northwest of Quito. There’s all sorts of math you can do to figure out exactly how far west, but I haven’t gotten that in-depth.

The Coriolis effect means that the warm air rising from the equator falls back down to the west of where it started, either northwest or southwest. These are the trade winds. The next convection cell away from the equator, either north or south, blows to the east (these are the westerlies!). And now when I read novels, I actually know what these things mean!

(The lead image explains it nicely, too, if you like images better than words.)

I still have oceanography homework due today, so I’ll leave this one here and give you your homework! What’s the best new thing you’ve learned lately? You can define “best” however you like.

Actually, a post script. The first new thing I learned this year was “awkward salmon.” Remember awkward turtle? You put your hands on top of each other and circled your thumbs in awkward situations when no one knew what to say. It was an awkward turtle because it only had two legs. This spawned all sorts of awkward animals and plants…all the way to awkward palm tree. But when my brother put his hand between my arm and my rib cage and flapped it back and forth, that was a new one to me. That’s awkward salmon. Cheers, Jeff, for teaching me that on our New Year’s hike.

Hej då!


Knowledge: Breadth versus Depth

This week I get to spend a little bit of time in Utah with Jonathan. He’s finishing up working, and I’m taking care of all that pesky work that builds up until breaks – writing letters of recommendation, reflections for classes I took through the district. Last night we went to dinner with several of his coworkers.

Jonathan works for a company called Orbital ATK. They make rockets for both NASA (they made the boosters for the space shuttles) and the Department of Defense. In particular, Jonathan’s group tests rocket motors that are old, or in extreme temperatures or other conditions, to see the range of conditions the motor can go through and still be a viable motor. That being said, yes, I am literally dating a rocket scientist.

Jonathan’s colleagues are equally intelligent. I sat across from an engineer named Lee, and our conversation ranged from molecular genetics regulation mechanisms to ecosystem principles of population regulation – then he pulled out a pen and started writing first order codependent differential equations (I only half-understand what that means) on a napkin to model ecosystem interactions – to phase changes of social movements to classical music to economics to quantum physics to data analysis and experimental design. At one point he started teaching himself organic chemistry because he wanted to learn it!

In college I knew a lot of people who were incredibly brilliant. But one of my biggest frustrations with my major, in particular, was how specialized the knowledge became. I didn’t want to know everything there was to know about the seven proteins in a p-body that can regulate mRNA translation. I wanted to know about how the story of the p-body was connected to the other science stories I had learned. I wanted to know how biology informed mathematical modeling and how that informed music and dance and how those things reflected political reform.

(Yes, actually, dance can absolutely reflect political reform. For example, ballet before the French Revolution was very different than afterwards. It was primarily a male dance, for one, and the courtiers who performed it wore heels and corsets. After the French Revolution, more women began to dance and the fascination with classics fashion, which introduced flat sandals and toga-like attire, allowed the jumps and bending of the torso that we know of ballet today. Pointe shoes didn’t show up until even later. So there’s your random history lesson!)

Jonathan is similar to Lee in a lot of ways – he loves to be informed about a wide range of subjects. He can speak fluently about physics and engineering, of course, but also about geology and economics and Japanese culture. He knows classic fantasy and science fiction and loves history of all sorts. Though Jonathan and Lee both work in an extremely specialized setting, they themselves seek knowledge outside of that. They epitomize the idea of the “Renaissance man” (OR WOMAN) who was knowledge in many fields and uses that to make leaps to new ideas or knowledge.

All day today, I’ve been pondering (for not the first time) the value of a broad education versus the value of a deep education. When I think about what I teach in my classroom, I feel like I’m rushing through topics and I don’t give students the depth to make the content meaningful. This can lead to students feeling like they’re memorizing a lot of facts with no connection. However, you already know that as a student in my molecular biology major, I found much of the information too specialized to be useful. It lacked the connections to other information that made it interesting.

And that, I think, is the key. It’s not about fighting the battle between breadth versus depth. It’s about finding the meaning and the connected-ness of the information.

Take, for example, one of my favorite moments of learning in my biochemistry class. We were talking about the differences in structure between DNA and RNA. Both are made up of four nucleotides (ATCG for DNA, and AUCG for RNA) that have a similar structure. Every nucleotide has a phosphate, a ribose sugar, and a nitrogenous base (which is the part that determines if it’s A, U, C, G, or T). In DNA, the sugar is slightly different than in the RNA. It’s actually in the name; DNA stands for deoxyribose nucleic acid, while RNA stands for ribose nucleic acid. The sugar in DNA has one less oxygen atom (thus the “deoxy” than the ribose in RNA.

Turns out that extra oxygen in RNA takes up enough space and creates enough intermolecular forces that RNA doesn’t like to form (isn’t as energetically stable in) the classic helix structure we know of DNA. Since DNA is lacking that oxygen, there’s no interference between the turns of the helix and it’s easy for DNA to make that shape. That’s why RNA never looks like DNA! How cool is that?!

Well, unless you’re a total nerd about DNA and RNA like I am, it’s not that cool. RNA nucleotides have one more oxygen than DNA nucleotides. Whee.

I care about this fact because I can connect it to what I already know about DNA and RNA. That fact has meaning to me. It deepens my understanding. But for my students, this likely feels like too much depth into details they really don’t care about.

The value of breadth is that it allows cross-pollination of ideas. Lee could model ecosystems with differential equations, or model social uprisings with the same math that describes ice melting. But the value of depth is the understanding of details that make the story richer and more meaningful in specific settings. Both have their place. But without the story to make the meaning and the connections, both can feel tasteless and boring.

My homework for you: Do you prefer lots of details or the big-picture view? How do you move between these two mindsets?

Hej då,