Figure 1: Active learning improves student performance and engagement. But why do passive lectures still dominate? Photo by Dmitry Ratushny.
For decades, active learning has been proposed as a solution to prevalent issues in science education, including student engagement and performance. Unlike in traditional passive lectures – where an instructor lectures at students who may or may not be engaged – students in active learning contexts are invited to participate in activities such as group asssignments, in-class worksheets, and discussions. In short, in active learning classrooms, students become active participants in the learning process. The evidence for active learning is strong; a 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies on active learning found that students performed, on average, 6% better on exams and were 1.5 times less likely to fail than students in passive lectures.
Despite the wealth of research reporting benefits due to active learning, a recent survey of American colleges found that the majority of STEM college instructors still rely on passive teaching methods. Though one can propose a variety of potential reasons why students and faculty are so resistant to active learning, researchers at Harvard devised an experiment to tackle the question.
The researchers randomly assigned students to either an active learning or passive lecture and then tested students to see (1) how much students actually learned and (2) how much students believe they learned from each teaching context. The researchers found that, in terms of actual learning, students performed better if they were exposed to an active learning setting than a passive setting. However, what was surprising was that despite learning more, students in the active learning setting believed they learned less effectively than those in the passive setting.
Figure 2: Students performed better on tests of learning if they were in an active learning setting (left, shaded), but consistently felt like they learned less effectively compared to a passive setting (right).
One concern with implementing active learning at higher levels of education is that students who have only been exposed to passive learning contexts will struggle to navigate the shift from passive to active. The results from the Harvard study may indicate evidence for that struggle, as students may simply prefer passive contexts due to students’ familiarity with them. Therefore, the researchers propose the following recommendations for faculty: (1) prepare your students early in the semester for active instruction, and (2) clearly describe the benefits of active instruction to your students.
The researchers also suggest that their findings may suggest a reason why faculty have been resistant to change. As noted earlier, faculty are resistant to active learning, and the researchers suggest this may be due in part to students believing that active instruction is less helpful than passive instruction, and then directly articulating these beliefs to faculty on teaching evaluations. If students are consistently dismissing active learning methods over passive methods, it’s unsurprising why faculty would consistently choose one over the other. However, some faculty may be resistant to active learning simply due to their own entrenched beliefs and/or attitudes towards teaching.
As research on active learning continues, one thing is clear: active learning works, and it works better than passive learning. However, in order to get both students and faculty to fully buy-in to active learning, students not only need to know what active learning is – they also need to know why it is beneficial to their learning.
(1) Deslauriers, L.; McCarty, L. S.; Miller, K.; Callaghan, K.; Kestin, G. Measuring Actual Learning versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2019.
(2) Freeman, S.; Eddy, S. L.; McDonough, M.; Smith, M. K.; Okoroafor, N.; Jordt, H.; Wenderoth, M. P. Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 2014, 111 (23), 8410–8415.
(3) Stains, M.; Harshman, J.; Barker, M. K.; Chasteen, S. V; Cole, R.; DeChenne-Peters, S. E.; Eagan, M. K.; Esson, J. M.; Knight, J. K.; Laski, F. A.; et al. Anatomy of STEM Teaching in North American Universities. Science (80-. ). 2018, 359 (6383), 1468–1470.
By: Jacky Deng
Jacky Deng is from Surrey, British Columbia and is currently a graduate student at the University of Ottawa. Jacky received an honours degree in Chemistry from the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus (UBCO). During his time at UBCO, Jacky wrote for the university’s student newspaper The Phoenix as its Arts Editor, and eventually oversaw management of the newspaper as its Coordinating Editor. Despite not having pursued a degree or formal career in journalism, Jacky has accumulated a strong science communication portfolio consisting of both journalistic writing and video production. He is passionate about science education, as well as how data can inform decisions related to social issues, environmental issues, and, most importantly, sports. He is currently reading Pablo Escobar: My Father by Juan Pablo Escobar.
Photo: Doctor with a Stethoscope by Online Marketing on Unsplash
With a warming planet, comes a growing list of health concerns for people around the world. Time and again, scientific studies have linked climate change to increased risks of various health problems such as Lyme disease and asthma. However, information about these risks and how to protect ourselves against them is often hard to find.
That's where a new online initiative developed by the Ontario Public Health Association comes into play. The initiative called # MakeitBetter seeks to inform the public and health care workers about the risks associated with global warming and offers tips on how to protect ourselves against these health problems.
"Climate change is one of the most critical threats to human health," Pegeen Walsh, Executive Director at OPHA, said in a press release. "As health professionals, we all have a responsibility to kids and their parents to raise awareness of these risks and give people the tools and information they need to protect their families."
OPHA is a non-profit organization that provides guidance regarding public health concerns in Ontario. Their online initiative focuses on three health problems connected to climate change, including Lyme disease, asthma, and heat-related illnesses. The risk of these three health problems has increased dramatically in the past few years.
Warmer temperatures have contributed to a rise in the number of ticks carrying Lyme disease, increasing the likelihood of contracting this illness. This is evident in Ontario as the number of people with Lyme disease in the province has risen dramatically in the past decade. According to the MakeitBetter website, in 2009, there were only around 30 cases of Lyme disease per year compared to over 300 cases in 2015. Lyme disease is an inflammatory condition that causes symptoms such as a rash and fever. It's dangerous when left untreated and can result in neurological and cardiac disorders.
Climate change is also leading to warmer days. June 2019 was the hottest on record in 140 years. Extreme heat increases the risk of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses, especially in vulnerable populations such as children. Warmer weather also increases the risk of air pollution from forest fires and pollen, which leads to a higher chance of asthma attacks, according to OPHA.
The MakeitBetter online campaign provides more details about each health issue mentioned above, driving home the seriousness of climate change and offering people solutions to help mitigate growing health risks. The initiative also asks members of the public to take a pledge to protect children in the province from climate related health risks by staying informed, sharing knowledge, and supporting initiatives that fight against climate change. There are currently over 200 people who have signed the online pledge.
At a time when global warming is a bigger threat than ever before, staying informed about how to protect ourselves is important for maintaining our health . Hopefully, this new initiative will help provide people with the information needed to stay healthy in a changing climate.
By: Nicole Babb
Nicole Babb is an aspiring journalist from St. John’s, Newfoundland. She recently graduated from Carleton University with a combined honours degree in journalism and psychology. During her time at Carleton, Nicole wrote articles for the university’s student newspaper and completed a health reporting course which sparked her interest in science journalism and communication. She is passionate about writing and photography, and she also enjoys learning about new scientific research.
Growing up near the ocean, she has always been curious about marine life and she is especially interested in research and reporting concerning the ocean, climate change, and endangered species. In her spare time, Nicole enjoys reading, canoeing, playing basketball and hiking. She also loves animals and spending time with her dog. Nicole is currently residing in Ottawa and she is looking forward to working as a volunteer for Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
Climate change has once again become a news topic in Canada, but not for a scientific discovery or jarring event. This time it is political. Elections Canada, our country’s federal agency for conducting elections, has deemed advertising for climate change as a potentially political act. Not stating scientific fact, but a partisan arguing point.
According to Elections Canada this is because Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, a fringe far-right wing populist party, is skeptical climate change is real.
It is not the first instance of Canadian scientist facing political challenges. Scientists working in Canada have had obstacles to their research dating back to the Harper government.
A few months ago, a report stated that Canadian science toward climate is being underfunded, and scientists are leaving Canada as a result.
These challenges toward the scientific community come at a critical point. A recent study pointed out that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
This spring, Ottawa had a flood that broke records it set all the way in…2017.
British Columbia experienced some of its worst forest fire seasons two years in a row, in 2017 and 2018.
In the Yukon, the town of Old Crow declared a climate state of emergency earlier this year.
But with the Elections Canada decision, the scientific community is speaking out this time. More than 350 scientists have signed an open letter to Elections Canada, voicing their concern over this ruling. Climate change is a fact, and the scientists signing this document want it to be treated as such.
By: David Lochead
After growing up in Ottawa and living in Halifax for my early-twenties I have come to back to Canada’s capital to take my Master of Journalism at Carleton University.
While writing is what I am experienced at, I have always enjoyed science. There are endless studies or articles based on it that make me go ‘whoa, that’s cool’.
But what drives me to be a part of SWCC is this subject’s importance. Whether it is getting a better understanding of climate change or the technology we adapt, science is involved.
Before taking my Master’s degree, I graduated from Dalhousie with Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Development.
Outside of work, I love spending time outdoors, whether through sport or activity.
"Forager bees," who gather pollen away from the colony, are believed more vulnerable to pesticides. Photo: Serena Magagnoli.
It's brand name is "Sivanto" (flupyradifurone). It's designed to kill a wide range of insects which eat food crops like soybeans. Bayer plans to register it in many jurisdictions around the world.
After conducting various field studies, Bayer has concluded, "Sivanto
displays a very promising safety profile." The company concedes, it works in ways similar to the neonicotinoids (a group of insecticides which has become notorious for its likely role in pollinator decline). Nevertheless, the company believes, Sivanto “can be considered safe to most beneficial insects, specifically pollinators."
A ground sprayer applies pesticides in Manitoba. A PinP photo.
But a team of scientists at the University of California, San Diego, is not so sure. In recent research, the team gave a range of Sivanto doses to the bees, including those they encounter in the field. By itself, the chemical did not appear to be harmful. But, when combined with the fungicide propiconazole (brand name "Banner Maxx"), widely-used by farmers, the harm was "greatly amplified." The bees either sickened or died, apparently because the fungicide weakened their ability to shake off the toxicity.
It's not uncommon for pollinators to be subjected to a dizzying array of pesticides all at once, while foraging in the fields. Through a process called "synergism," they can suffer harm they would not, if exposed to just a single one.
The spokesperson for the team, Dr. Simone Tosi, tells PinP, she does not believe that regulations in the US require manufacturers to test for synergistic effects when they apply to have their products approved. But neither does she think that such regulations prohibit such testing.
In a news release, her team says, "We believe this work is a step toward a better understanding of the risks that pesticides could pose to bees and the environment. Our results highlight the importance of assessing the effects pesticides have on the behaviour of animals, and demonstrate that synergism, seasonality and bee age are key factors that subtly change pesticide toxicity." They call for further studies to better assess the risks to pollinators.
But at least some of those other studies have already been done. And they come up with similarly negative conclusions. A team from three German universities has found that flupyradifurone binds to the brain receptors of honeybees, harming their motor skills.
Meanwhile, Bayer's marketing plans for its new product are nothing short of ambitious. It promises to "develop, register and sell" Sivanto in many places across the world, including the US, Europe, Asia, Ghana and Brazil. While Canada isn't mentioned, specifically, there seems little doubt it will end up here, too.
The German-based multinational says it wants to see its product "in all major climatic zones allowing agriculture."
Last April, I e-mailed the federal Minister of Agriculture, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency, Manitoba's Minister of Health, Kelvin Goertzen and Manitoba’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture to ask them about this new research and whether Sivanto will be registered in Canada. Apart from automated responses, I have received no reply.
By: Larry Powell
Larry is an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. He’s a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He’s authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society and the World Health Organization. He’s prepared to supply interested publications with important stories about the latest findings in the field of the Earth Sciences. He publishes www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), “where science gets respect.”
In response to recent mass shootings, first-person shooter games like Call of Duty have been said to contribute to a “culture of violence” in the US.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - Multiplayer trailer, YouTube.
August 3 and 4, 2019 were days marred by a familiar tragedy in the United States. In El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, 25 lives became victims of mass shootings, with many more being wounded.
As if something like this had happened before, headlines from all sides of the national gun debate (re)surfaced within minutes of the attacks: “The world thinks America’s gun laws are crazy – and they’re right” (The Washington Post); “Gun Owners of America: Guns save lives every day” (USA TODAY); “A new approach to guns in America” (Vox).
However, President Donald Trump, in his official statement regarding the attacks, chose to shift the focus away from guns and the gun debate. In addition to white supremacy and mental illness, Trump called for a curbing of the “gruesome and grisly video games” that contribute to a “culture of violence” in the US. To Trump, a culture where violent video games are easily accessible inherently breeds youth intent on shooting up their local schools, churches, and shopping centres.
National condemnation of violent video games is by no means novel: in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School in 1999, parents of victims filed lawsuits against video game manufacturers due to knowledge that the shooters were fans of first-person shooter video games, like Doom. Similar outbursts against the video game industry emerged following the Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Orlando shootings.
But as these shootings continue to happen, so too has research investigating the video game/aggression relationship.
In June 2019, Harvard researchers Maya Mathur and Tyler VanderWeele published a meta-analysis of the video game/aggression literature. A meta-analysis can be loosely defined as “research about research”. These types of analyses are valuable as they aim to interpret evidence from individual studies – each with their own findings and limitations — through a holistic perspective in an effort to identify general trends across all the research. In this case, Mathur and VanderWeele looked at studies related to the video game/aggression relationship to determine what the field was finding as a whole.
From their analysis, Mathur and VanderWeele concluded that video games likely do increase aggressive reactions in users, but that the effects are small. That is, violent video games can make people a little more aggressive depending on the circumstances, but not enough to be a significant contributor to extremely violent behavior, like mass shootings.
It should be noted that by opting to shine the spotlight on video games, President Trump did not just choose to ignore data and conclusions presented by researchers like Mathur and VanderWeele; he also chose to ignore the substantial amount of data on America’s controversial gun culture:
Of course, correlations must be made cautiously; guns and the American gun culture may not cause mass shootings. But to argue that violent video games deserve more or even equal blame than firearms would be to discount scientific evidence of the simple truth: they just aren’t.
Mathur, M.B.; VanderWeele, T.J. Finding common ground in meta-analysis “wars” of violent video games. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(4), 705-708.
Jacky Deng is a graduate student from Surrey, British Columbia currently attending the University of Ottawa. Jacky received an honours degree in Chemistry from the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus (UBCO). During his time at UBCO, Jacky wrote for the university’s student newspaper The Phoenix as its Arts Editor, and eventually oversaw management of the newspaper as its Coordinating Editor. Despite not having pursued a degree or formal career in journalism, Jacky has accumulated a strong science communication portfolio consisting of both journalistic writing and video production. He is passionate about science education, as well as how data can inform decisions related to social issues, environmental issues, and, most importantly, sports. He is currently reading Pablo Escobar: My Father by Juan Pablo Escobar.
Researchers uncover strikingly similar ways in which Indigenous peoples use the twinkling of stars to predict weather and seasonal changes.
The Milky Way and (at right) two Magellanic Clouds shine in the southern hemisphere above Cerro Paranal in Chile's Atacama Desert. Credit: ESO / Y. Beletsky.
Indigenous cultures on opposite sides of the world, with vastly different geographies and climates, interpret and use changes in starlight for marking seasons and weather forecasting in remarkably similar ways, according to researchers from Australia and Alaska.
Studies of Indigenous astronomical knowledge describe the pivotal role the properties of stars, such as colour, brightness and positions relative to the horizon, play in the lives of Indigenous communities, but little has been written about the role of stellar scintillation (twinkling).
Atmospheric turbulence, caused by changes in wind speed and direction, alter the refractive index of light, producing rapid changes in the brightness of the star, making it appear to twinkle: the greater the turbulence, the more pronounced the twinkling. Changes in air density, humidity and temperature also cause stars to change colour or appear hazy. Water in the atmosphere absorbs the green and red components of light more than blue - the predominance of blue over red and orange stars signifies increased moisture levels.
“I came across a reference to Melanesians using scintillation for predicting wind movements, but it was just a passing comment,” explains Dr Duane Hamacher, a Senior Research Fellow from the Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “So I interviewed elders from the Meriam Mer community in the eastern Torres Strait where they described how they ‘read’ scintillations.”
Buoyed by this new information, Hamacher investigated further, and a fortuitous conversation at an Oceanic Cultural Astronomy conference in Hawaii with Chris Cannon, who studies the astronomical knowledge of the Northern Dene of Canada and Alaska, led to their collaboration.
“I first became interested in the Northern Dene while teaching astronomy to students in rural Alaska,” says Cannon, a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, United States. “A literature review showed not only a lack of published
information on the astronomy of the Northern Dene, but a misconception that their knowledge of the night sky was poorly developed.”
Together, they discovered both cultural groups have a similar understanding of how scintillation correlates with atmospheric conditions. A surprising result, given that the Torres Strait Islanders are sea-farers from the tropics with distinct wet and dry seasons, while the Northern Dene are from the interior of the arctic and sub-arctic, where half the year is dark and the other half is light.
To the Torres Strait Islanders, “reading” the stars informs them about winds, coming storms, hot weather, and the arrival of the strong northwest trade winds, heralding the wet season, called Kuki in the Merriam Mer language, from January to April.
“There are signs that the seasons change. We see it in trees and gardens, but mainly in the stars,” says Alo Tapim. Tapim is a Meriam elder from Murray Island and a participant in Hamacher’s research. “When the stars twinkle, it means the winds are picking up and fishermen capitalize on that, meaning they will have a good day at sea.”
For the Northern Dene this knowledge also facilitates weather forecasting, with the Ahtna and the Yellowknives Dene using brightly twinkling stars to forecast strong winds - vital information when hunting with sled dogs and skidoo.
The paper provides one of the few detailed ethnographic studies of Indigenous astronomy and - as global language diversity declines - is crucial to safeguarding Indigenous knowledge before it is lost forever.
“There are around 300 Aboriginal language groups in Australia and thousands of Indigenous communities world-wide, we want to expand our research to other Indigenous cultures to see how this knowledge is used in different locations and climates,” says Hamacher.
For further reading, please see Williams' October 2015 article in Australasian Science, "Aboriginal Astronomy & the Natural World." To view the article, you can subscribe to the magazine or purchase a yearly pass online.
By: Carl A. Williams
As a freelance science and technology writer, I combine my passion for science with a love of writing with storytelling that takes the reader on a journey of scientific exploration, discovery, and advancement. I write on a broad range of science topics, from climate change and astronomy to quantum computing and smart materials. And have published articles for Springer Nature, The Royal Institution of Australia, the Australian National Data Services, Australasian Science, Popular Science, and others. I previously worked as a climate change consultant, working with the public and private sectors in the UK, India, America, China, Europe, and Australasia. For a selection of my published writings, check out my website at https://gluons2galaxies.com.
Historically, Nepal has largely depended on agriculture to sustain themselves. Farmers, with livestock and a multitude of crops, could be found in each region - from the Himalayas to the hills to the Terai plains. Nepali people would cultivate just enough on the land to live from, to sustain their families. They would wait for Monsoon season to harvest rice, the largest staple food across the country, constituting approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s total calorie intake.
Nagarkot Hills. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
What was harvested was eaten. What was left over was given to the animals. Anything that was thrown away, they received from earth. The trash, in plainer terms, was organic. This habit of throwing away leftovers back onto earth carried on throughout the decades, despite the introduction of plastics, paper and metals. Not maliciously. Just without fully understanding the consequences.
Until three years ago, Mr. Basnet, the CEO of The Explore Nepal Ltd. organized a 15 kg clean-up of the Bagmati River, which flows through the Kathmandu Valley (KV) and separates two of the valley’s biggest cities: Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Every Saturday morning, volunteers would gather along the holy river to pick up garbage. Over and over again, dozens of volunteers would show up to do the tedious, cumbersome job. But to no avail.
Bagmati River in Kathmandu. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Mr. Basnet realized reducing 15 kg of waste would change nothing. The amount of trash flowing downriver would be just as much and even increasing alongside the massive influx of people moving into the city. He said a mindset change is needed from the ground up. This is why he started a campaign in 1977 to remove the heaviest polluting vehicles from urban roads. For a while, he seemed to gain some headway. But cars get old quickly and they use a lot of cheap diesel.
Today, The Explore Nepal Ltd., one of many green initiatives in the KV, has many functions. Their main objective is achieving sustainable agricultural practices by going organic. If it were up to Mr. Basnet, he would turn the whole country organic overnight. Unfortunately, he says it's not that simple. Most farms across the country started using pesticides when they were introduced and going back now would be extremely difficult. The risk is lost harvests, failed crops and, ultimately, food insecurity, and perhaps even starvation.
Imagine a normal day in the KV. Motorcycles zooming by, barely scraping your body. Buses exuding thick grey fumes that make you feel as though you are smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. Thirty honks or more a minute, an accident prevention technique used by every driver on two, three or four wheels I’ve come across. Mothers traversing big roads with babies in their arms and no stripes painted white to cross on.
Escaping the noise in the middle of city sounds like a feat. But actually, it’s possible. At less than one kilometre from Thamel, you can find one of Mr. Basnet’s inventions - Kantipur Temple House. As I walked into the hotel, an abrupt calm fell over me as I admired the Indigenous Newari architecture and intricate wood and stone carvings the building was built with to support local communities.
Kantipur Temple House. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The hotel is solar-paneled and has no TVs, bathtubs, AC or central heating to avoid consuming too much energy. There are electric fans for when it’s warm and electric blankets for when it’s cold. They don’t condone plastic bags and they don’t provide plastic water bottles. All the food consumed by guests comes from organic farms, including one Mr. Basnet owns called Organic Farm House Kapan.
His mantra has become offering “tourism that doesn’t cost the earth.”
Raj, a 31-year-old mountain guide, agrees. Having dedicated his life to a greener Nepal, Raj began an initiative known as ‘Let’s Clean Up Nepal,’ where he organizes events targeted at raising awareness on the issue to both locals and tourists. His hope is to climb mountains that are not filthy and garbage-ridden and walk through cities where the air is breathable and fresh.
But, like Mr. Basnet, Raj says, maximizing the number of volunteers, who clean up the streets is not the solution. Instead, a national mindset change is needed, which makes Nepali people throw garbage where garbage belongs - in trash bins.
A courtyard in Lalitpur. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The biggest irony I found upon arriving in Nepal was the number of people who follow Buddhism or Hinduism, two religions that encourage their followers to take care of the environment. Why then, I asked myself, was there so much trash everywhere?
I’m not a fan of pieces with personal reflections, but I’ve learned an important lesson I want to share. Raj told me that many Nepali people blame the government for roads that haven’t been constructed since the 2015 earthquakes, the lack of a recycling system, public toilets, affordable healthcare, rising costs, increasing air pollution, burning plastics, and I can go on. But, he told me, if we want change, we need to start with ourselves.
Raj divides his trash between plastics, glass, metals, and paper. He talks to fellow mountain guides and tourists about green living. He cleans up the mountains he treks through with tourists, knowing the result won’t be less trash. His hope is that when people watch him clean trash when it isn’t his primary job, they will at least think twice about throwing it anywhere they’d like. It’s his way of spreading awareness about how individuals can make small changes and become aware of what polluting the environment means.
In a world where travel has become affordable to many more people than it used to, it’s important that we think about ethical travel. What is the cost of travel on the environment? How much water are we consuming to “relax”? Are we packing in what we pack out when go trekking? How do we balance environmental consciousness with a country’s dependency on a thriving tourism industry?
The tourism industry contributes to the pollution that exists in Nepal today, as it does in many other countries. It is my responsibility, at the very least, to think about these questions and to pollute the least amount possible as a foreigner, who is merely passing through.
By: Astara van der Jagt
Astara van der Jagt’s career spans half a decade on four continents. Equipped with a degree in journalism and political science, she has done research on the power of social media in Kenya, worked as an au pair in Italy, and learned about the ethical reporting of marginalized communities in Northern Canada. Earlier this year, she moved to Nepal to produce a communications strategy focused on empowering the rural poor for Sana Kisan Bikas Bank Ltd., an agricultural development bank based out of Kathmandu.
From a young age, Astara was exposed to gender-based violence, extreme poverty and water scarcity. Although she has found ways to turn her own pain into power, she still has so much to offer those who do not have the passports, opportunities and support systems she does. This is why she has committed her life to finding methods to overcome these global problems through grassroots action, helping one individual at a time, all while spreading awareness through her photography, videography, and storytelling.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware that direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing has been enjoying a surge in popularity. Thanks to the relative affordability of DTC genetic tests, and the survival of a few powerful DTC genetic testing companies through the crucible that was the early-2000s market of DTC genetic tests, the rates of those taking such tests to uncover health or ancestral genetic information has continued to rise, resulting in about 15,000,000 people in the AncestryDNA database alone in April 2019. Alongside that rise in test-takers has been a rise in media coverage. Read More
Above is an excerpt from Part 1 where I round-up four collaborations that have received ink and clearly equate genes to culture by emphasizing and effectively sitting in the past to honour it in some way. Below, in Part 2, I share two collaborations that have received less ink and provide a spin on the typical collaborations that call back to the roots of the DTC genetic testing industry itself.
Ancestry + GustoTV
In November 2018 the show DNA Dinners premiered on Canadian television channel Gusto. Hosted by Tyrone Edwards this show’s basic premise is that guests of the show sign up to take an AncestryDNA test and then the guest is guided by a chef in learning about important and iconic ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques from the cultures suggested by their rest results. Each episode concludes with the creation of a recipe that takes elements from two cultures suggested by their AncestryDNA test results. That recipe is then fed to the guest and loved ones they invite.
While I have unfortunately been unable to view the show myself, the publications put out elsewhere make clear that the point is to connect the guests with their genetic ancestry through the medium of food. While food preferences can be impacted by genes, the cultural component is overwhelmingly significant and makes the connection to genetic ancestry one that occurs, in this show, through culture.
It also returns to the roots of the DTC genetic testing industry, calling back to some of the earliest public consumptions of DTC genetic testing, when such testing was done behind-the-scenes of a television show with the results later revealed live to the test-taker. However, it is also doing something the other collaborations are not focusing on. It is combining the cultures suggested by the AncestryDNA test to create a meal that represents multiple components of the test-taker’s ancestral cultural background, not in isolation from each other, but in collaboration and with the guidance from a chef from one of those cultures. That collaboration appears to be the point. While DNA Dinners is stepping on a well-trod path, they have spun it by adding food and emphasizing the occurrence of blended cultures.
A sample of the author's family's genealogical research, of which DNA has been one tool of many. Credit: Megan Berry
Currently, the most unique collaboration I’ve become aware of is the one between the oldest surviving DTC genetic testing company African Ancestry and independent bookstore MahoganyBooks that culminates in book lists divided by the rough focus of Country, Culture, or Consciousness. For some context, both companies cater to an African American audience. African Ancestry focuses on providing matrilineal and patrilineal genetic testing for individuals in the African diaspora—specifically those in America—with the goal of connecting those individuals to their genetic ancestral origins. MahoganyBooks focuses on providing books “written for, by, or about people of the African Diaspora.”
Besides its focus on a specific population rather than All The Populations, this collaboration is also unique in that the conflation of genes with culture is not nearly as prominent as it is in the above collaborations. The African Ancestry Get Rooted Book List does equate genes with culture—the language of “roots” and the division of book lists by country, culture, and consciousness makes that equation clear—but I see this equation as less egregious than it is for the other collaborations because it focuses explicitly on a specific population that is linked not by genetics (which vary) but by experience (as African Americans). An experience, I should note, that I do not share because I am a white Canadian.
The descriptions of the book lists also do some heavy lifting to make the experience the focus rather than the genetic ancestry, and its assumed associated culture. The Culture book list refers to “mov[ing] the culture forward,” an effort emphasized by the Consciousness book list referring to the “past inform[ing] the future” and “expand[ing] your perspective.” Even the Country book list says “you’ve found a connection to your country of ancestry. Explore the place and the people,” phrasing which emphasizes the connection as well as the present time and the living people there (see here). Rather than emphasizing exploring the historical experiences of your genetic ancestors and their likely culture, the present and the future are the important parts. How the people who are living in the place your genetic ancestors came from live currently, what they are like currently, what that place is like currently is the focus. It’s current and forward-thinking. Rather than looking to the past for understanding the past (and if you’re lucky, the present), the collaboration emphasizes using the past for guidance in understanding and advancing the future.
It’s a shift the other collaborations barely touch, and in not acknowledging the future of the people taking the tests and trying to engage with their ancestry through those tests, it seems to me that the collaborations are the poorer for it.
There you have it, a round-up of some of the most prominent and a couple less prominent collaborations orbiting the equation of “genetics = culture” with varying levels of devotion. People want to connect with their ancestries and open the black box of their family histories, yet the complexity of genetics and our conceptions of self and family make this a much more fraught endeavor than perhaps initially assumed. It demands an interdisciplinary collaboration knowledgeable about genetics, selfhood, and family, and able to communicate that knowledge to ensure the worrisome paths these collaborations tend to walk down have strategically placed signposts to make clear what is fact, what is not, and what is unknown.
By: Megan Berry
When not working for a Calgary non-profit, Megan N. Berry is playing DnD, watching Let’s Plays, and writing and researching whatever catches her interest (the history of eugenics, 1950’s Tupperware parties, metal music in the 1980’s, etc.). She previously earned her MA in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University and York University after researching how DTC genetic ancestry test-takers reacted to and revealed their results on YouTube videos for audience consumption. She previously earned a Bachelor of Communications from Mount Royal University, writing on sustainability metaphors.
Once a frozen tundra, solid ice in the Arctic more than twice the size of France size of has melted into sloshing water during the last 40 years. And with that melt, factors of climate change have proceeded. Ocean sea levels have risen and created more volatile weather patterns worldwide, as we have seen with record-breaking heatwaves this summer. Coastal land is being eliminated. But financially, this ice loss creates an untapped business opportunity.
Southern entrance to Auyuittuq National Park. Credit: Angsar Walk
Almost one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered petroleum reserves lie in the Arctic, according to the research last done by the United States Geological Survey in 2008. Vast mineral resources are also there to be discovered, the Geological Survey of Norway told The Associated Press.
The Canadian government is openly interested in the Arctic resources, as are other countries attached to the Arctic, such as Russia and the United States. Countries not attached that are world powers, such as China, are also interested.
As for companies, there are several Canadian mining companies active in or near the Arctic, including Baffinland Iron Mines and Dominion Diamond Mines.
But with this interest in extracting resources in the Arctic, comes concern about climate change. It is due to melting ice that more natural resources are available. So the question worth asking is: will increased resource extraction in the Arctic make climate change worse?
According to Stephan Schott, a professor at Carleton University who specializes in natural resource development and alternative energy, the answer is nuanced.
“It depends on what is being extracted,” Schott said.
According to him, we depend on natural resources to construct renewable energy. Mining iron and copper gives us the metal to construct wind turbines, amongst other alternative energy sources.
“That connection is not being made,” Schott said in reference to how mining helps create renewable energy.
As a researcher at ArcticNet —an organization that brings together scientific researchers and members of the Inuit community to study climate change— Schott says that mining in Canada is strictly monitored by the Canadian government, making it less prone to create environmental damage.
Oil, however, is a different subject. Spills risk destroying Arctic ecosystems and habitat, and the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic for oil drilling will make any type of cleanup delayed.
The difficulty to access oil in the Arctic in comparison to other regions has led oil corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil to not pursue drilling.
But Schott, who does not endorse Arctic oil drilling, says that oil companies will come back if demand returns.
The Government of Canada, who describe the Arctic as “one of the Earth’s last frontiers for natural resource development”, are still working on a response regarding the climate change risks to resource extraction in the Arctic at the time of this article’s publication.
The general public are afraid of my research organism. It’s hard for me to blame them, since I study a stinging fire ant. I often watch for the moment when dread fills the face of my audiences.
While some people don’t want to hear about my research at all, others are quite keen to talk about the most gruesome parts of it. How badly do the stings hurt? How often do you get stung? Is it dangerous? Could they kill someone?
Myrmica rubra, the invasive European Fire Ant. Photo by Tom Murray.
The pattern continues when I am conducting general insect outreach. When I interact with interested non-experts, lately they only want to talk about the singular giant hornet recently caught in West Vancouver.
Original tweet by Valerie Walsh (@ValeriaWalsh)
While the (one) hornet is certainly interesting, there are probably more important insect issues in Vancouver, like the Japanese beetle. The Japanese beetle is an extremely important invasive species, and several have been found in Vancouver. Regardless, I am repeatedly discussing the same topics: honey bees dying, stinging insects, and of course, that (ONE) giant hornet. Further evidence of the pattern is apparent in the “Read More” sections of this giant hornet article.
Unfortunately, fear gets attention, and the public are definitely afraid of insects and arthropods. Fear of spiders is significantly more common than fear of other arthropods, however, arachnophobes commonly also fear bees, beetles, and butterflies or moths (Gerdes 2009). So why are humans afraid of creepy crawlies? Several possibly explanations exist:
This is an intuitive explanation for biologists. It basically states that some arthropods were dangerous to our ancestors, so we evolved fear (Seligman 1971). Most insects and spiders are not actually a threat to human health (Foelix 1996). Even so, there is an asymmetry to the costs and benefits of fear- there is no harm in avoiding a harmless insect, but there is harm in approaching a dangerous one (Haselton & Buss, 2006).
The disgust hypothesis suggests that the fear of spiders is transmitted culturally because they were historically associated with disease and infection (Davey 1994). Moths, beetles, flies, and cockroaches commonly infest stored food, but the disgust hypothesis was formed around arachnophobia specifically. It is possibly that a fear of spiders has remained culturally common and acceptable, leading to a cultural transmission of fear that defies logic (Gerdes 2009, Wenegrat 2001).
Rapid, uncontrollable movements commonly produce fear (Bennett- Levy & Marteau, 1984; Schneirla, 1965). Unpredictability is associated with fear of many "creepy" animals including spiders, snakes, cockroaches and rats (Armfield 2007). This hypothesis can be applied to some arthropods for which fear is highly illogical, such as moths.
How does fear affect science communication? I asked other scientists studying “scary” organisms their thoughts on fear in sci-comm:
Andreas Fischer is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, studying spiders:
“I do not think that spiders and teaching about spiders would be that interesting if they were regarded in a similar manner as e.g. crabs… It is the perfect icebreaker in any public outreach setting to start off with spider fear, then educate how they are actually misunderstood and then flip to the more fascinating aspect of these animals.”
(More on arachnophobia by Andreas)
Taylor Brophy (@taylor_brophy) is a recent MSc graduate from the University of Alberta, who studied slugs:
“…the disgust of slugs seems to help us get our message out. It draws support and aid pretty well as people want these pests gone. Moving forward I’m uncertain on whether our results and conclusions will fall on such interested ears”
Angela Chuang (@arachnonaut) is a PhD student at the University of Tennessee studying spider behavior:
“Everyone wants to share their crazy spider stories or express their feelings about spiders… from an optics point-of-view, I suspect many have a hard time justifying their fear of spiders to a tiny female biologist who is telling them how harmless most spiders are.”
Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) is a marine conservation biologist and science writer who studies sharks and other cartilaginous fishes. He has a large twitter following, and tries to change the conversation surrounding fear:
“…sarcastic mockery helps diffuse it. I post fearmongering news articles with rephrased titles like “fish seen in water” or “shark eats fish without bothering anyone””
Overall, a pattern among scientists studying “creepy” organisms emerged: it may be easier to gain public attention, but it can be difficult to communicate details.
Whatever approach you take, it is apparent that much of human fear is due to ignorance or false information. It may be the solution to fear in science communication is just… more science communication.
If scientists can take a moment to understand why the public is fearful of their research, they may have more success in educating them, and helping them overcome those fears. This may mean adding an element of patience to your science communication, even when faced with this classic entomologist scenario:
Tweet by Dr. Miles Zhang (@ymilesz)
By: Danielle Hoefelle (She/They)
I am a student in the Masters of Pest Management program at Simon Fraser University. I study the foraging and communication of an invasive pest, the European Fire Ant. My science interests include ecology, entomology, animal behavior, and animal/human interaction. My personal interests include biking, drag, feminism, weird art, and cats.
I am currently an outreach facilitator for SFU’s Science in Action, where I create and run programs for children of all ages to learn about insects. I am fascinated about the communication of science to non-experts. I am extremely curious about pseudoscience and misinformation, and how people come to believe in it. I think a lot about how to make science and scientists more approachable.
I am a queer woman in science, something which I have made a point of highlighting in my communication and outreach work. I feel strongly about making science a place where everyone feels welcome, and I think representation is an important part of that.
Armfield, J. M. (2007). Understanding animal fears: A comparison of the cognitive vulnerability and harm-looming models. BMC Psychiatry, 7, 68.
Davey, G. C. L. (1994). The “disgusting” spider: The role of disease and illness in the perpetuation of fear of spiders. Society & Animals, 2, 17−25.
Foelix, R. F. (1996). Metabolism. In R. F. Foelix (Ed.), Biology ofspiders (pp. 38−67). New York: Oxford University Press, Georg Thieme Verlag.
Gerdes, A. B. M., Uhl, G., & Alpers, G. W. (2009). Spiders are special: fear and disgust evoked by pictures of arthropods. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(1), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.005
Seligman, M. E. P. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior Therapy, 2, 307−320.
Wenegrat, B. (2001). Theatre of disorder: Patients, doctors, and the construction ofillness. New York: Oxford University Press.
P.O. Box 75 Station A