Blog Archives

Guardian and Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize

If you’re in the UK, have a go at this science writing prize from the Wellcome Trust and the Guardian. The winners will have their work printed in the ‘Guardian’ or the ‘Observer’, receive a £1000 cash prize and benefit from a science writing workshop at the ‘Guardian’.

One category is for non-professionals and undergraduate students – that includes you, super-smart IB Biologists. The closing date is 20th May, so it’s perhaps not the best idea for students in their exams!

For the full introduction, go to the competition page. There is also a good piece, as well as some tips, on the Guardian.

Some resources that might help:

Scitable’s Scientific Communication Library

Peter Clarks’ Quick 50 Writing Tips

The science of scientific writing” from American Scientist


Extreme Biology & The Rap Guide to Evolution

Double the fun – I came across this short TED Talk (some strong language) via Extreme Biology, a great collaborative high-school Biology blog.

Extreme Biology is maintained by Ms Baker, a teacher from the ‘North-East US’ and her Biology classes. Her students take the lead, blogging about AP Biology, Science in the news, podcasting, interviewing scientists and even taking part in the Science Online 2011 conference. Wow. They do such a good job, I’ve featured their blog as one of the RSS feeds at the base of this page, so we can keep up with their work.

Recently, in honour of Darwin Day 2o11, they posted this TED videoThe Rap Guide to Evolution, exploring evolutionary psychology, by Baba Brinkman:


Evolution of resistant Staphylococcus aureus

This is a lovely SlideShare presentation, if you’ll excuse the anthropomorphism of the bacterium!

Group 4 Project 2011: “Our Choice, Our Future”



Based on “High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them,” by Jean-Francois Rischard. This is the theme of the 2011 EARCOS Global Issues Network Conference, and we will be sending two teams to represent the school at JIS in April. For these teams, the G4 Project will serve as preparation for their student-led workshops at the conference.

For all of us, it will be an interesting trans-disciplinary experience in real-world problem-solving using Science.

Let’s get working!


The Group 4 Project is a central part of the Group 4 Experimental Sciences. It is a chance to come together as scientists and think about how science can address pressing current issues. Thinking from an interdisciplinary point of view, students research and investigate the latest science and its potential impacts on the world.

The aim of the Group 4 Project is “To encourage an understanding of the relationships between scientific disciplines and the overarching nature of the scientific method” (IB Biology Subject Guide, 2007)

To be successful in tackling current global problems and challenges, we must think from a truly trans-disciplinary point of view: within and beyond the sciences. We must consider the involvement of all stakeholders and make decisions based on reliable and authentic evidence. The role of the scientist is becoming increasingly important in policy decision making and communication to the public – and this is what we aim to model in our approach to the Group 4 Project.


It is also a great opportunity to develop international mindedness and the following aims of the experimental sciences:

Aim 7: “Develop and apply the students’ ICT skills in the study of science”

Aim 8: “Raise awareness of the moral, social, ethical, economical and environmental implications of using science and technology”

And, of course, it makes up 10 hours of your 4PSOW – which is essential for your Sciences course – and is the only opportunity to be assessed for the fourth internal assessment criterion, Personal Skills:



-This project is designed to be evidence-based and to demonstrate the level of your research skills. You must be able to support all information presented with sources. Access to databases will really help you.

Less is more when it comes to text. Graphics and datasets should form the basis of your presentation, with the factual exposition delivered in the oral presentation. Think about what kind of displays most engage you as the viewer.

Collaboration is key. For this reason, you will all need to understand and be able to present all aspects of the project. Plan together, share ideas and set targets for your work over two days. In the action phase, come together as a group regularly to share your work with your group, evaluate your progress and set further targets.

– Read up on current science, economical and environmental news beforehand. Think about the theme, choose a good topic and run with it.


Past themes: (click here for resources)

Each year, we choose a theme which allows for authentic trans-disciplinary links across the sciences and, as far as possible, Economics.

“How can Science help re-build a stable and sustainable economy?”

“How can Science aid progress towards the UN’s Millenium Development Goals?”

“How can Science help combat environmental damage?”

TOK: “Just a Theory?”

Here’s a good clip from Friends where Ross (a paleontologist) is defending the scientific evidence for evolution against Phoebe.

Grade 11 Students, the Evolution Core content is here: 5.4 Evolution (Core)

Now do some research: what is the linguistic distinction between theory and fact? How can different meanings of the word theory lead to confusion in non-scientists?

When you watch the clip, think about the use of language: from a scientific point of view, what is the difference between a fact and a theory?

Here is the definition of a scientific fact:

“any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted”

In contrast, here’s the definition of a theory from the Science Dictionary:

“A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. Most theories that are accepted by scientists have been repeatedly tested by experiments and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.See Note at hypothesis.”

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Look at these resources that outline why evolution is considered both a fact (that it happens, and its evidence) and a theory (the processes by which it happens):

Evolution: Fact & Theory, from ActionBioscience

Evolution as Fact and Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould

Evolution as Fact and Theory from Wikipedia

Fact or Theory? by John Pratt

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So now we’ve cleared up the issue of fact vs theory, we can move on. Think about how the scientific method works. If you need to, look at these resources:

Science as Falsification, by Karl Popper

Falsifiability (testability), via Wikipedia

Why is the the theory of evolution scientific?

Why was Ross right, from a scientist’s point of view, when he said “just a teeny-tiny bit,” at the end of the video clip?

What about the following theories – why do people have no trouble accepting that they are true based on scientific evidence, that they are empirical theories?

Gravity – Special Theory of Relativity – Plate Tectonics – Cell Theory

Why, then, are alternative creation theories considered unscientific?

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Evolution is one of those hot topics that seems to sit right in the space where science and religion don’t get along. It doesn’t need to. Science is about understanding the world we live in through reason, evidence and observation. Religion is an entirely different area of knowledge based on entirely different ways of knowing (emotion).

So can you believe in God and accept that evolution is true? Of course you can. And many religious leaders agree (here are more statements).

To finish off, here is Sir David Attenborough talking about the fact of evolution and how scientific progress is made through empiricism and falsification, and also how we as humans have abused our supposed position of ‘dominion’ to massively detrimental consequences:

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Extension: hunt out The Genius of Darwin on YouTube for more evidence and explanation. Here is a clip from the first episode:

It is one of the simplest ideas anyone ever had

Find out more about the term Occam’s Razor. How does it apply to the scientific method and reasoning as a way of knowing?

Snake Oil? Cool infographic on health supplements

One of my favourite blogs is Information Is Beautiful, and here is a lovely example of how a large dataset can be turned into something visual and easily interpreted: The Scientific Evidence for Popular Health Supplements.

What does it represent?

– size of bubbles represents Google search popularity

– height of bubbles represents strength of scientific evidence for its efficacy in the specific health use

By making use of the systematic reviews of double-blind clinical studies, IIB have made sure that we are looking only at reliable, scientifically sound data. You can even see the data here.

I am looking forward to seeing David McCandless’ TED Talk in the upcoming TED Global 2010 at Oxford. Of course, I’ll be watching on the web. Check out more of their infographics here.

The First Synthetic Lifeform

Here is Craig Venter announcing the successful self-replication of a cell with an entirely synthetic genome:

This is one of the biggest news stories of the year, and time will tell what its implications are. It has been extensively covered in the media, and will surely be a part of school ethics discussions for years to come.The full Science paper is online here.

Search for news stories and resources to help you answer these questions:

1. In what ways is this the first synthetic organism?

2. What were the success criteria for this organism?

3. What failsafes were put in place should the bacterium become widespread?

4. What are some of the potential applications of this new technology?

5. What are some of the ethical implications of synthetic biology? Identify stakeholders in the debate and outline their point of view.

XKCD Webcomic

If you need to switch off for a while during your study…

XKCD Webcomic - Science and Maths fun

There’s plenty more where that came from, so don’t waste too much time there.

The Story of Bottled Water

This is a nice clip. Next time you reach for a bottle of “...the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world*,” think about the Story of Bottled Water. With Earth Day coming up, it’s a good opportunity to think of the impacts of the little decisions we make on daily basis. Do you need to buy all those bottles of water? In many countries, tap water is as good or better in terms of cleanliness, and even in places like Indonesia, dispensers are everywhere.

How could we significantly reduce the use of plastic bottles in our school?

The story of stuff is a fledgling YouTube channel with a decent purpose – to educate people about the way our motivation for ‘stuff’ becomes a global problem, and how we can take steps to solve the problems.

Maybe it’s time to follow in the footsteps of this Australian town.

*Nice greenwashing there, Nestle.

IB students can think about the links between science and economics in this story, including manufactured demand, pseudoscientific claims and making profits from portraying a product as being more ‘green’ than it really is. Greenwashing is a growing problem, and it takes real critical thinking skills to be able to deduce greenwashing claims  from genuine information. Check out this SlideShare presentation for more information:

Wade Davis – “The Plants Talk To Us” (TOK)

[Note: I wrote this in 2010 after seeing Wade Davis speak, and was reminded of it as I wrote Curriculum as a Compass?. I still love these stories – the ayahuasca one blows my mind. Stephen.]


I saw Wade Davis speak at the 2008 IB Regional conference, and he was brilliant. He gave an extended version of this talk from TED, and the focus on disappearing languages and cultures was brilliant. He really ventured into TOK, especially with the different ways of knowing demonstrated by various cultures.wayfinders_cover_1024x1024

There is a great example in the talk below of an amazonian shaman who makes a powerful psychoactive preparation of Ayahuasca, from a vine. Tryptamines are the active component and are similar to tryptophan (our famous amino acid/ end product inhibition exampleanimation). They act as neurotransmitters and include serotonin, which regulates mood. It is broken down by enzymes bound to the plasma membrane of cells in the digestive tract called monoamine oxidase (MAO), so can’t be taken orally. The amazing thing is the shaman uses a preparation from another plant that inhibits this enzyme, so that the potion can be ingested and is effective. This is amazing knowledge, gleaned from a totally alternative scientific method to the one we are used to, and demonstrates an advanced naturalistic intelligence.

When he asked how they knew this and were able to combine these two extracts from the thousands available, they answered “The plants talk to us.”


Discussion and questions:

1. In what ways can this specific example link the elements of the IB Biology course together?

Think about cells, membranes, amino acids, neurotransmitters, innate vs learned behaviour, reward pathways, evolution, enzymes and inhibition, genetics and the universality of the genetic code, ecology and conservation.

2. Think about the statement “other people, with their differences, can also be right” (from the IBO’s mission statement). To what extent is the ancient knowledge of indigenous cultures an example of this? What further questions does this inspire?

3. To what extent are these ways of knowing demonstrated in the contrast between modern scientific understanding of the effects of the active ingredients and the ancient wisdom of the shaman: sense perception, reason and emotion.

4. Discuss the impacts of disappearing cultures on scientific knowledge and understanding. How could modern science & technology be used to help preserve cultures and wisdom?

If you liked this, find out more about becoming an ethnobotanist!


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