Tech-savvy generation

Thursday 12 May 2011 View all posts

I wonder how many teachers are taking on board the quantum shift that has occurred during the past fifteen or so years that has completely changed the way a whole generation communicates. Most of the students in an IB Diploma class cannot remember pre-Facebook/Twitter days. They have grown up in a digital world and are totally accustomed to instant communication and multi-communication (e.g. watching a video clip, listening to music and surfing the Internet simultaneously). When I worked in India a few decades ago I was basically reliant on the postal system for my inter-country communication. To be fair to the Indians the service was excellent – I once got a letter brought to me in the Himalayas one day’s journey away from a road that had been posted in the UK two days earlier! – but, it was hardly instant. Now using my i-phone I have the choice of whether to phone at relatively low cost or use VOI (Skype) linked through wifi for free to call a colleague easily and effortlessly anywhere in the world. There are clearly wonderful advantages, such as making links with schools, teachers and students in different continents let alone just different countries. This whole Chemistry InThinking website assumes that short video clips will be used regularly and links are made to a vast amount of virtual, instant information. Unfortunately there are downsides to this instant world of communication too.

This generation of students finds it much harder to concentrate on any one topic for more than a relatively short space of time. To capture their attention so that their mind does not wander for a whole hour is an immense challenge to a teacher – students are simply not wired in to this approach as it is alien to the whole way in which the rest of their life operates. When I observe a teacher with a laptop class (whether the class is made up of IB students or IB teachers in a workshop) it is noticeable how many are surfing the web or e-mailing at the same time as they are listening (or pretending to listen) to the teacher or workshop leader. Some teachers have banned the use of laptops and mobile phones in the class for this reason but surely a better solution is to embrace the technology. What we need to do is encourage students to be selective in their use. It can liberate us from the drudgery of providing all the factual information as the facts are all ‘out there’ anyway. We should be concentrating on helping them to understand the underlying concepts and use the technology to best advantage. In other words, we should be training them in how to use the facts discerningly and how to apply their knowledge to solve problems in unfamiliar situations.

A nice example of this can be found in the work being done on the importance of protein structures (covered in Topic B2 in the IB Human biochemistry option) by Professor James Hinton at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This is described in an article in Science Nation   which also includes the following video.

There are many programmes that show the 3-D structure of proteins using computer (laptop) screens in so-called 3-D. However they are still displayed on a 2-D screen so the 3-D is an illusion and students do not gain a true understanding. When I cover ‘Shapes of simple molecules and ions’ in Topics 4 and 14 I know that ‘3-D’ images on a laptop (which superficially look good as they rotate - see the video above) are not really that helpful. Students have a much better grasp of the structure and shape of simple molecules if they can physically make and handle real 3-D models using kits such as MOLYMOD®. What Hinton has done is make his virtual images genuinely 3-D using 3-D glasses1 so that students can ‘walk inside’ proteins and begin to grasp at first hand the importance of the three-dimensional structure to the way in which proteins function.

13-D glasses have been around since Victorian times so combining them with modern computer screen images is a nice example of an extension to the technology of earlier generations. They were used in WW11 to locate the site of German V1 and V2 rockets. By taking and aligning photographs scientists in Britain were able to see the landscape in 3-D which showed up where the sites were being built. This use of 3-D probably saved the lives of thousands of people.

Tags: technology, protein, structure, 3-D, modelling

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