What’s Going On in Science, September 2014

Why student evaluations of teaching are worthless

“The paper compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to another measure of teacher quality: how those students performed in a subsequent course. In other words, if I have Dr. Muccio in Microeconomics I, what’s my grade next year in Macroeconomics II?
Here’s what he found. The better the professors were, as measured by their students’ grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students.”


“This class should start an hour later in the morning. Also, the
teacher shouldn’t wear sandals.”

This NPR article summarizes a new study that tackles a problem that teachers in academia would love to talk your ear off about: teaching evaluations are horribly broken. If you get high scores from students in teaching evaluations, are you a good teacher? Maybe, but probably not. I’ve noticed the phenomenon of teaching evaluations (like product reviews on Amazon) consisting of only the most extreme opinions resulting in teachers who just don’t care about the feedback.



Wildlife is culture, and culture deserves your tax money

“I mostly write about wildlife. So here is how it typically happens for me: A study comes out indicating that species x, y and z are in imminent danger of extinction, or that some major bioregion of the planet is being sucked down into the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care, even as they are racing to catch the 7:10 train, or wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s (or last month’s) rent.”


This lovely New York Times Opinion eloquently states why biologists constantly have a lingering pressure to justify their research in terms of benefits to humans. 




Understanding genetics for the future of medicine

“Various efforts are underway to interpret mutations and compile them in publicly available databases; one of the latest is an online registry to which patients can upload their own data. Eventually, they will be able to see how many other people have the same mutation, and how many get cancer.”


Genetic testing is becoming a more and more prominent aspect of individualized medicine. Unfortunately, the pace at which genetic tests are increasingly used is racing ahead of the general understanding of genetic tests and how to interpret them. Until better education about traits, alleles, and heritability can permeate into the public, doctors will continue to be limited by their ability to educate their own patients.








Salamanders: forest vacuum cleaners

“On an average day, a salamander eats 20 ants of all sizes, two fly or beetle larvae, one adult beetle and half of an insect called the springtail. And in doing so, they collectively affect the entire course of life in the forest — and perhaps far beyond.”


This article is from back in April of this year, but I can’t leave a nice salamander study out in the cold on this blog. You may not see them, but in most woodlands in North America, there are salamanders that make big differences in how ecosystems manage nutrients. While they make look cute and cuddly, salamanders are ultra-efficient, insect-seeking torpedoes:

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