Friday 3 May 2013


At The Institute, things have been very quiet this week.  It's officially the last week of the teaching year and. although our HoD has been stalwartly insisting that no classes will be cancelled without his express clearance, many class just haven't happened.  It's like rag-week all over again when classes were officially carrying on as normal but the students were out getting wasted and/or pushing bedsteads along the roads for charity.  I had a last revision session with my 1st Year Human Physiologists, to nail the concept of homeostasis for the half dozen who thought they wanted it.

But it was a mad-busy morning with a free lunch because I volunteered to help judge the teenage entrants to SciFest in the Sunny South-East; teen-boffins from Donegal were reporting their results in Sligo IT.  Like the Student Enterprise Awards which The Institute hosted in March, it was great fun, and I wished I'd had more time to talk to ALL 57 entrants rather than the random pick of 7-8 which me an my co-judge Aoife were assigned.  She's a graduate student, and in that rich tradition, was doing it for the lunch.  I was once a graduate student (yer yer: before the first war), and have never been as hard-up financially or as stoked in every other way.  You never lose your nose for free food if you've trained by need rather than desire.

The quality of the presentations was 'mixed'.  The thing that gave me most hope for the future of Ireland as a technological nation (FITNa?) was the creativity.  Lots of good, weird, mad ideas out there, a couple of which were directly in my line of competence, so I think I was able to give good feedback and encouragement.  But the absence of any sensible statistics in the dozen or so projects I was able to get to was, shall we say, disturbing.  A subsidiary prizes was on offer for the best use of maths in science and that was a shoo-in because there was only one entry that could fit such a category.  Almost all of the other projects treated some sort of biological data.  Now here's the thing: biological data is noisy; any underlying trend is buffeted by genetic, meteorological,, temporal and plain accidental contingency.  With all these externals, the black and white of your hypothesis slumps into several shades of grey.  Real scientists get round this by beefing up their sample size and thinking of a sensible experimental design before turning one anecdote into the first datum.  The noise is still there, but its fluctuations look (and are!) less serious on an ocean of data than they are on a plateful.

Maybe the Leaving Cert Biology curriculum doesn't deal with variation?  I know, when my boy went through the LC mill 20 years ago, the first page of the text-book was all about the Nitrogen cycle but never thought to mention that although all cows urinate (aqueous solution of urea) some produce more N and some less.  That the measurement of such an item might, accordingly, need to be made a few times - on different cows, at different times of day, at different distances from the river . . .  But that same textbook shamefully relegated Evolution to the final chapter of the book AND made it 'optional for Pass Level'.

So what to do?  This year the kids were edutained by Scientific Sue for an hour after lunch and clearly had a lot of fun.  Maybe, next year, we could corral their teachers in a parallel session and share the rudiments of parametric/non-parametric, Student's T, Mann-Whitney U, Pearson R and Chi-Squared. I haven't written Statistics For Dummies but in the last job I did knuckle down and write 6 pages of notes called Statistics For Immunologists.  Mebbe that would be a start?

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