Monday, December 1, 2008

Asleep at the desk: Undergrad education gets a boost

By Tim De Chant

While Ferris Bueller famously skipped economics (and many other classes) in his eponymous movie, many of us have endured similar torture in our science classes.

Undergraduate courses at large universities are often prone to such dry, lecture-driven debacles. Institutional realities are often at fault: The real teaching in introductory biology classes—500 strong but 200 in attendance—does not take place in the lecture hall, but rather in smaller sections and labs taught by graduate students. Yet these teaching assistants are seldom properly prepared. Undergraduates suffer as a result, turning into parrots adept at recitation but inept at critical thinking.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of many poster children for teaching woes at large universities. With nearly 30,000 undergraduates, introductory classes can be staggeringly large, a situation that does little to facilitate valuable student-instructor interaction. Hoping to chip away at the problem, four professors at Wisconsin started the Teaching Fellows Program in 2003 to prepare graduate students for their teaching appointments in the sciences. The program, though small, has been successful enough to warrant publication in the Friday edition of the journal Science.

Need proof?

For years, experts have encouraged universities to provide teaching assistants with pedagogy courses. But for nearly as many years, universities have been hesitant to either provide or require such preparation. Perhaps, the papers’ authors seem to suggest, universities are unwilling to pony up the cash to fund the courses until their efficacy is proven.

The four Wisconsin professors placed the Teaching Fellows Program under the microscope, examining 44 of the 63 fellows who have participated in the program. The papers’ authors poured over the curricula, videos, teaching statements, and educational materials that the participants developed as a part of the course. Their findings give hope to high school seniors dreading the collegiate transition.

Fellows in the program developed more engaging, interactive curricula. Over two-thirds of the units involved what the authors call “active learning”–small group discussions, case study analysis, and so on. And even more heartening, 76% of the units were geared toward scientific discovery. Come test time, recitation just wouldn’t cut it.

Yet college-level science education is not out of the woods. Since the Teaching Fellows Program began five years ago, the 63 participants have only taught 1,900 undergraduates. Thousands more remain tethered to the old system. And while fellows’ curricula stressed involvement in the scientific process, none included accommodations for disabled students.

The largest hurdle for undergraduate science education, though, may still lie at the administrative level. Experts have pushed for required pedagogy courses, but little headway has been made. While the paper does not point fingers, I think that as long as funds for improving teaching remains tight, undergraduate education at large universities may lag accordingly.

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Students lie, cheat, steal, but say they're good

By DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer

NEW YORK – In the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.

Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today's young people are less honest than previous generations, but several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners.

"The competition is greater, the pressures on kids have increased dramatically," said Mel Riddle of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "They have opportunities their predecessors didn't have (to cheat). The temptation is greater."

The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured.

Michael Josephson, the institute's founder and president, said he was most dismayed by the findings about theft. The survey found that 35 percent of boys and 26 percent of girls — 30 percent overall — acknowledged stealing from a store within the past year. One-fifth said they stole something from a friend; 23 percent said they stole something from a parent or other relative.

"What is the social cost of that — not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?" Josephson remarked in an interview. "In a society drenched with cynicism, young people can look at it and say 'Why shouldn't we? Everyone else does it.'"

Other findings from the survey:

_Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey.

_Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.

_Forty-two percent said they sometimes lie to save money — 49 percent of the boys and 36 percent of the girls.

Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

Nijmie Dzurinko, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, said the findings were not at all reflective of the inner-city students she works with as an advocate for better curriculum and school funding.

"A lot of people like to blame society's problems on young people, without recognizing that young people aren't making the decisions about what's happening in society," said Dzurinko, 32. "They're very easy to scapegoat."

Peter Anderson, principal of Andover High School in Andover, Mass., said he and his colleagues had detected very little cheating on tests or Internet-based plagiarism. He has, however, noticed an uptick in students sharing homework in unauthorized ways.

"This generation is leading incredibly busy lives — involved in athletics, clubs, so many with part-time jobs, and — for seniors — an incredibly demanding and anxiety-producing college search," he offered as an explanation.

Riddle, who for four decades was a high school teacher and principal in northern Virginia, agreed that more pressure could lead to more cheating, yet spoke in defense of today's students.

"I would take these students over other generations," he said. "I found them to be more responsive, more rewarding to work with, more appreciative of support that adults give them.

"We have to create situations where it's easy for kids to do the right things," he added. "We need to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer."

On Long Island, an alliance of school superintendents and college presidents recently embarked on a campaign to draw attention to academic integrity problems and to crack down on plagiarism and cheating.

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country School District and a leader of the campaign, said parents and school officials need to be more diligent — for example, emphasizing to students the distinctions between original and borrowed work.

"You can reinforce the character trait of integrity," she said. "We overload kids these days, and they look for ways to survive. ... It's a flaw in our system that whatever we are doing as educators allows this to continue."

Josephson contended that most Americans are too blase about ethical shortcomings among young people and in society at large.

"Adults are not taking this very seriously," he said. "The schools are not doing even the most moderate thing. ... They don't want to know. There's a pervasive apathy."

Josephson also addressed the argument that today's youth are no less honest than their predecessors.

"In the end, the question is not whether things are worse, but whether they are bad enough to mobilize concern and concerted action," he said.

"What we need to learn from these survey results is that our moral infrastructure is unsound and in serious need of repair. This is not a time to lament and whine but to take thoughtful, positive actions."

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Outbreak: could a million-killing superbug really happen?

The cast of BBC's sci-fi drama Survivors

The sudden outbreak of a lethal virus that spreads quickly, killing millions, is a nightmare scenario that haunts many of us - especially those who have been watching BBC One's apocalyptic new drama Survivors.

Viruses have indeed wiped out 90 per cent of a human population. We've seen that in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 with Ebola, an unspeakably nasty affliction caused by a haemorrhagic fever virus that has one of the highest case fatality rates of any human disease. It's one of a family of viruses that you definitely don't want to have, which also includes those responsible for Lassa fever and Marburg fever. But this event did take place in a very isolated area in a small population, with almost no access to medical help.

The lethality of these viruses limits their spread. People become so ill so quickly that they cannot travel far before dying. Ah yes, you say, (if you are the scriptwriter of Survivors), but what if someone boarded an aircraft immediately after infection but before symptoms appeared. Couldn't they spread it halfway across the world and kill 90 per cent of the population that way? No. Sorry to be a Survivors killjoy, but these viruses are pretty much stopped in their tracks by effective isolation and infection-control measures.

On the other hand, a candidate for a really good apocalypse virus is one that can be transmitted by droplet infection in the air, is infectious before a person has any symptoms and is not so lethal that people who have it can't spread it about by travelling. Something like flu, for instance. Pandemic flu is perfect.So would - could - pandemic flu wipe out 90 per cent of the population?

Categorically not, and for a number of reasons. One is logistics. You can't infect everyone at the same time, which means that we would have warning of potential infection and could prepare against it.

Avian flu poses a threat

The most likely (but by no means the only) pandemic flu candidate is H5N1, which causes avian flu in birds, such as chickens and ducks. At present, although human beings can be infected with avian flu and it has a high death rate (about 60 per cent), it is not spread from human being to human being. If it was, we would, thanks to the surveillance systems that the World Health Organisation has in place, know about it quickly, know where it was and could take counter measures. For instance, government might order mass vaccination with a pre-pandemic flu strain. This wouldn't be as effective as a vaccine specific to the particular strain, and would not necessarily prevent infection, but it is highly likely to prevent deaths.

But back to that scary old 60 per cent death rate with avian flu. Jonathan Van Tamm, Professor of Health Prevention at Nottingham University, did the numbers for me. “What this figure means is that 60 per cent of people who get ill with symptoms die, not 60 per cent of the population. It's a big difference.” To understand how many in a population might die from a new virus, you need to know the clinical attack rate, that is the proportion of the population that becomes ill with symptoms. Not everyone will be exposed to it and not all of those exposed are likely to develop symptoms and become sick.

If the clinical attack rate of a pandemic flu virus were, for example, 33 per cent (and not everyone would get it all at once of course, like in Survivors) and there was a case fatality rate of 60 per cent, 20 per cent of the population would die over the period of the pandemic, but this is unlikely.

As Professor Van Tamm says: “History tells us that, so far, we have never encountered a pandemic flu virus with a clinical fatality rate greater than 2.5 per cent (in 1918 it was 2.5 per cent; in 1957 and in 1968 it was less than 0.5 per cent). It's still an awful lot of people (280,000 in 1918) but nothing like the Survivors scenario.

A good plot line, and one that has been exploited in Survivors, is how panic and lack of preparation by government contributed to death rates. But here is the good news. As far as pandemic flu is concerned, which our Government regards as the No 1 threat facing the UK, Britain is among the best, if not the best, prepared countries in the world.

Lest you think this is hype, I took part in the G8 pandemic flu exercise in 2006, a simulation of a worldwide flu crisis in which all of the G8 nations took part. It was immediately apparent that this was the case. Most countries are woefully ill-prepared compared with us. If you want to check out the extensive and detailed plans for pandemic preparedness, they are on the Department of Health's website.

These plans have already been tested, in an exercise in January last year called Winter Willow. Lasting several days, it involved more than 5,000 people. It assumed an attack rate (those developing symptoms) of 30 per cent of the population. There were a number of lessons learnt, such as the need for clearer and more consistent advice on the use of antiviral drugs, face masks and the stocking of home supplies.

But there are other reasons why a flu pandemic is unlikely to mirror the Survivors outbreak. For instance, typically viruses do not retain their lethality. They are modified, with the passage through humans becoming more transmissible but less lethal with time.

Fit young men died within 24 hours

But perhaps the most potent reason is that we are not clones. Our immune systems are not all configured the same, our response to illness is highly variable, even when infected with the same virus. Typically, the old, sick and young would die, but even this isn't always the case. In the 1918 pandemic, fit young men died within 24 hours of infection, not from the virus but as a consequence of the “cytokine storm” unleashed by their healthy immune systems, which go into overdrive and attack the body while fighting the virus.

We are long overdue a flu pandemic. Expert opinion as to when it will happen varies between two and five years. It is certain that 90 per cent of us will not die. It is also certain that a flu pandemic would cause serious disruption to the economy, so, please, will everyone avoid hugging ducks in Asia - at least until we're done with this economic crisis.


Face mask Wear only if you are in a frontline service caring for people who are sick.

Tamiflu In the case of avian flu, you could take Tamiflu to prevent infection, but you would have to take it for months, if not years, as successive flu waves swept the country.

Hygiene Use tissues and flush them away to avoid them infecting others. If you're out and about, wash your hands frequently as the virus is spread mainly by contact with surfaces touched by sufferers.

Stockpile food and water Only for the few days when you're too ill to go to the shops.



Would you have the strength and resilience to cope in a post-apocalyptic world; one without supermarkets, running water and John Lewis? To find out what makes some people flounder and others flourish, the author Laurence Gonzales interviewed survivors of life-and-death situations.

His bestselling book Deep Survival:Who Lives, Who Dies and Why lists the characteristics that define a survivor. Although he gleaned this information from disaster situations, he says that it can apply to all kinds of crises.

Keep calm According to Gonzales, those who survive a disaster display two key traits. First, they don't panic. Secondly, they don't pretend that everything is going to be all right. It's not, and they realise that they have to take action to get themselves out of danger.

Get angry Everyone gets scared, but people who escape from burning buildings or sinking ships turn that fear into anger. This turns an immobilising emotion into a motivating one.

And organise According to his research, survivors quickly organise, make plans and institute discipline. Steve Callahan, a sailor who drifted alone on a 5ft raft for 76 days, said that he had the voice of a captain in his head, telling him to maintain water rations and keep panic at bay.

Never give up hope Survivors celebrate even the smallest successes, says Gonzales. And to stave off feelings of despair, they maintain a sense of humour and laugh at the stupidity of a scenario.

Stay decisive Survivors never dither. They make decisions but don't take stupid risks. Also, instead of looking at the big picture, which is likely to overwhelm and prompt despair, they take the situation minute by minute, hour by hour.

Believe in yourself Gonzales claims that those who survive report an unwavering belief that they will make it out of a situation. Lose hope and you're already defeated. But don't wait around for rescue. Survivors believe that everything they need to make it out of the situation is at their disposal.

Do whatever is necessary Those who survive, such as the lone hiker who had to cut off his arm to free himself from underneath a rock, keep their eyes on the goal and don't let anything else stand in the way.

Think of others The final secret of survival? Don't put yourself first. According to Gonzales, those who live through dangerous situations don't focus on surviving for personal reasons, but instead focus on surviving for the sake of friends and family back home.

And contrary to the scenes from the BBC One series, Survivors, where people kill each other for food and water, studies suggest that people are much more co-operative in disasters than we might think. Researchers at the University of Sussex looked at emergency situations by examining individual responses to various disasters, ranging from sinking ships to the London bombings of July 7, 2005.

They found that in each incident the common theme was the communal spirit between strangers. The researchers report that when a disaster happens, it causes a shared bond among those experiencing it as they become united against adversity.This causes them to act collectively, transcending their own personality differences.

“People move from being lonely individuals to a collective self; they feel part of something bigger and even take risks for complete strangers,” the researchers say.

According to this school of thought, it therefore becomes irrelevant if you are a narcissist or an extrovert, your behaviour is swayed by the adverse incident so that you become a group sharing a common goal, a group that thinks as a team.


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Super Foods for Men and Women

By Maureen Callahan

The Guys

One in five women have a history of painful urinary tract infections. "I had three in one year," says Patty Buxton*, a Colorado middle-school teacher. Reading that cranberry juice may help prevent these infections, Buxton went on a regimen a year ago, and since then she's been infection-free. She thinks cranberry juice did the trick.

Cranberry juice isn't the only food that offers protection from specific illnesses. Here's a list of disease-fighting foods for men and women.

Foods for Men

Super Foods for Men and Women
Just two to three oysters deliver a full day's supply of zinc, a mineral critical for normal functioning of the male reproductive system.
1. Tomato Sauce. Men who eat a lot of tomatoes, tomato sauce, or pizza smothered with the stuff may be giving themselves a hedge against prostate cancer. So say researchers at Harvard, who studied the eating habits of more than 47,000 male health professionals. They found that men who ate tomato sauce two to four times per week had a 35 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer than men who ate none. A carotenoid called lycopene, which tomatoes contain in abundance, appeared to be responsible. But scientists were puzzled: tomato juice didn't seem to have a protective effect. Other research showed why. For best absorption, lycopene should be cooked with some kind of fat. So pizza may be just what the doctor ordered.

2. Oysters. Myth has it that oysters are the food of love. Science may agree. Just two to three oysters deliver a full day's supply of zinc, a mineral critical for normal functioning of the male reproductive system. Scientists are divided over reports that sperm counts have declined over the last 50 years and that environmental factors are to blame. Nutritional deficiencies do seem to be the cause of certain cases of low testosterone. Getting adequate zinc is sometimes the answer (11 mg per day is recommended for men; more than 40 mg can pose risks). In one trial, 22 men with low testosterone levels and sperm counts were given zinc every day for 45 to 50 days. Testosterone levels and sperm counts rose.

3. Broccoli. A recent Harvard study finds that cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, may protect against bladder cancer. It's one of the most common cancers in this country, and affects two to three times as many men as women. Scientists analyzed the diets of nearly 50,000 men and discovered that those who ate five servings or more per week of cruciferous veggies were half as likely to develop bladder cancer over a ten-year period as men who rarely ate them. And broccoli and cabbage were singled out as the most protective foods.

4. Peanut Butter. If you want a healthy heart, spread your morning toast with peanut butter. Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women, but men fall victim at an earlier age. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University compared the cholesterol-lowering effect of the American Heart Association's Step II Diet with a higher-fat diet based on peanuts. The AHA plan included more carbohydrates. The peanut regimen was 36 percent fat. After 24 days both diets lowered "bad" LDL cholesterol. But the peanut plan also caused a drop in blood fats called triglycerides and did not decrease HDL, the "good" cholesterol. The AHA diet raised levels of triglycerides and lowered levels of HDL.

"Peanut butter is a little higher in fat," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., the lead author of the Penn State study. "But it's the type that's good for you -- monounsaturated fat." Researchers have predicted that the peanut diet could reduce heart-disease risk even more than could the AHA diet. Just don't go nutty plastering on the tasty spread, since it is high in calories.

5. Watermelon. Until the age of 55, more men suffer from high blood pressure than do women. Research suggests that foods rich in potassium can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. The evidence is so convincing that the Food and Drug Administration recently allowed food labels to bear a health claim about the connection between potassium-rich foods and blood pressure. "There isn't a dietary requirement for potassium," says Kathleen Cappellano, nutrition-information manager at Tufts University in Boston. "But a good goal is about 2000 milligrams or more a day." Watermelon, a rich source of this mineral, has more potassium -- 664 mg -- in one large slice than the amount found in a banana or a cup of orange juice. So cut yourself another slice and enjoy the taste of summer.

The Girls

Foods for Women

1. Papaya. This tropical fruit packs about twice the vitamin C of an orange. Add it to your arsenal against gallbladder disease, which afflicts twice as many women as men.

After analyzing the blood of over 13,000 people, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, found that women who had lower levels of vitamin C were more likely to have gallbladder illnesses. One medium papaya (about ten ounces), with its 188 mg of vitamin C and a mere 119 calories, is a refreshing source of the vitamin. The once exotic fruit now can be found in most supermarkets.

2. Flaxseed. Bakers use this nutty-flavored seed mainly to add flavor and fiber. But scientists see the tiny reddish-brown seed, rich in estrogenlike compounds called lignans, as a potential weapon against breast cancer. An exciting report at last year's San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium showed that adding flaxseed to the diet of women with breast cancer effectively slowed tumor growth. You can flavor your muffins with flaxseed, but the easiest way to get the beneficial lignans is to sprinkle a few tablespoons of ground flaxseed on your morning cereal. Look for the seeds in health food stores or in supermarkets on the flour aisle. They're easy to grind in a blender or coffee grinder. But get seeds -- there are no lignans in the oil.

3. Tofu. Foods high in soy protein can lower cholesterol and may minimize menopausal hot flashes and strengthen bone. Isoflavones, plant chemicals in soybeans that have a structure similar to estrogen, may be the reason. Though animal studies form the bulk of the evidence, a human study found that 90 mg of isoflavones was beneficial to bone (specifically the spine). And two other studies suggest that 50 to 76 mg of isoflavones a day may offer some relief from hot flashes. A half-cup of tofu contains about 25 to 35 mg of isoflavones.

4. Buffalo Meat. Due largely to menstruation, women tend to be anemic more than men. And low iron levels in blood can cause severe fatigue. To get a good dose of iron, try bison. Bison, or buffalo, meat is lean and has what diet-conscious women want -- lots of iron and less fat than most cuts of beef. "The iron content is about 3 milligrams in a 3 1/2-ounce uncooked portion," says Marty Marchello, Ph.D., at North Dakota State University. "That portion contains less than 3 grams of fat." Buffalo meat can help boost energy and lower weight. And you don't have to have a home on the range to get some bison anymore. You can pick it up at many supermarkets across the United States, or through mail order or on the Internet.

5. Collard Greens. This humble vegetable may help fight osteoporosis, which afflicts many women late in life. In addition to getting adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, some studies suggest that vitamin K may have a bone-protective effect as well. Based on data from one of the largest studies of women, the Nurses' Health Study, researchers discovered that women who ate enough vitamin K-rich foods (at least 109 micrograms of the vitamin daily) were 30 percent less likely to suffer a hip fracture during ten years of follow-up than women who ate less. Researchers point out that dark-green leafy vegetables -- Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli -- are all good sources of the vitamin. But collard greens, with about 375 micrograms per half-cup, are among the best.

There you have it: five great foods for women and for men that can keep both of you well fed and healthy too.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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