Brouhaha in CA

Deirdre Sholto-Douglas finch at MCS.COM
Mon Feb 9 13:18:52 EST 1998

In bionet.women-in-bio Warren Gallin <wgallin at> wrote:
: In Article <6bislu$sk1$1 at>, finch at MCS.COM (Deirdre
: Sholto-Douglas) wrote:
: >One of my all-time favourite test questions is "Is the pH of DNA acidic
: >or basic?" i

: Actually, it's QUESTIONS like that that make me cringe.  pH refers to the
: proton concentration of a [usually] aqueous solution.  So the pH of a
: solution of DNA can by anywhere, depending on how it was made.  The students
: who really know waht is going on would have a real problem deciding what to
: answer for this one.

In this level of Bio, the first term, things which have the word
*acid* in the name are considered to be acidic.  If I had asked
"Is the pH of sulphuric acid acidic or basic?" would you honestly
wibble about and say "It depends?"  

Our initial course is *not* a weed-out, it's a basic overview
of biological terms (Such as "theory", "fact" and "method"), a
chance to introduce them to safe lab technique and a swift journey
through taxonomy/evolution/cellular organelles.  It is, by anyone's
standards, a low-level survey course...suitable for non-majors.

:   On the other hand, if they don't have an idea about the pKa of DNA, that
: would bother me.

This isn't a 300 level course filled with juniors and's
the very first of the 100 level courses and it's filled with 125
kids whose high school backgrounds vary by extremes I don't even want
to consider.  This is the course that they attend on their *very
first day* as college students...this is the course that tries very
desparately to get them all on the same page so when they *do* (if
they do) go on to Micro, Genetics, Cell, Molecular and what have 
you, they have a common foundation upon which to build.

It's very easy to sit in a faculty or TA position and bemoan the
lack of knowledge in these kids.  Frankly, that's something which
irks me no end because as some point in time during their life
*every* faculty member was as ignorant. I can't even count how
many times I've heard instructors whinging about being "stuck 
with the freshmen again."  

Of course, this works fine for me because candidly, I prefer the
freshmen, with all their stumbling, butter-fingered ways and I 
find the upperclassmen to be somewhat jaded.  I'd rather take a 
concept to its simplest form so that someone who's never even 
heard the term before now has a glimmer what it means.  There's
something extremely rewarding about suddenly seeing the Light
Go On.  Does this mean they known everything there is to know?
Good lord, no.  This means they learn some things are acidic,
some are alkaline and there's a scale to measure it.

I sputter about writing skills because I know that every last one
of the little darlings has had high school English (or something
similar), but I don't fault their lack of science knowledge because
rectifying the lack is *exactly* why they're here.  These kids, for
the most part, aren't stupid...they're innocent.  To yammer at them
about pKa before they even understand that pH refers to acids/bases
would be akin to dropping them in the deep end of the pool without
water wings.

My job is to make unfamiliar terms familiar, to foster curiosity
and to teach them to pay attention to the details. (Such as the "A"
in "DNA" stands for "acid".)  I'm not out to impress or scare them
off.  When they run into terms in their other classes like "pH/pOH",
"lipid bilayer" and "heterozygote", I want them to say "Hey, I
remember *that*!" and hit the ground running.

If the choice is making the material seem important versus making
it seem accessible, I choose the latter.

| Deirdre Sholto-Douglas      | e-mail:  finch at       |
|                             |                                      |
  *******  The only acceptable substitute for intelligence  *******
                            is silence.

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