Developmental Biology 4181: Week 1

I’m teaching a course in developmental biology this term, and as part of the coursework, I’m making students blog. The idea is to force them to ferret out instances of development in popular culture, in their personal experience, and/or in their reading—I’m not asking for treatises, but simply short articles that let me know their eyes are open. This year I’m also encouraging outsiders to take a look at and comment on what they’re saying, so every week I’ll be posting a round-up of links to the developmental biology blog…and here they are:

Feel free to comment on any of them if the mood strikes you, but I am going to be particularly protective of my students, so I insist on only constructive comments. I will ruthlessly delete anything abusive or irrelevant or otherwise distracting.

One other thing we’re doing in the class is working through Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and before each discussion I ask the students to write up short summaries of the reading. Tomorrow, we’re going over chapter 1 and 2, and there are six different summaries up on the site right now:

E, and
F (no, those are most definitely not the grades!). I’ll usually have these things linked up a little earlier before the class, but I gave the students extra slack this time since it was a holiday week. Comments and questions there are also appreciated—if there’s something you think the students ought to bring up in the discussion, let ’em know!


  1. Squeaky says

    I got into the blogs no problem. What a great idea! I already have students send me weekly journal writes, but this might be something they find more enjoyable! Perhaps next semester!

  2. says

    Weird. I have no problem, but some do. The students have reported some browser conflicts I have to track down, so maybe that’s it…

  3. Markus says

    IE works.
    Mozilla doesn’t.

    Might have something to do on default file setting for the directory shared, since the links are only targeted towards directories…Or, the pages use some IE specific programming.

  4. says

    Links’re OK for me — Safari on OSX, FWIW; and Safari as a notoriously cantankerous browser. (I use Firefox for work on The Indigestible).

    On a meta level, some of the students posted discussions on the links they were blogging; others really did more of a pointer to an item without a lot of discussion on the subject.

    Particularly when getting into genetic esoterica, discussions are preferable, FWIW. It makes the material more accessible (digestible, heh), and there’s nothing wrong with seeing a given author’s interpretation of a subject, both professionally and specifically in re social repercussions.

  5. emptypockets says

    if you’re having trouble opening the links in mozilla (as I was) try deleting the “development.” from the front of the domain name… step-by-step:

    right-click/ctrl-click on the link and select “copy link location”
    new window
    paste link into address bar
    change “…” to “…”

    good to go

  6. Scott Hatfield says


    What a wonderful idea you’ve got here, using blogs to post student responses to text.

    Will you be covering the Kirschner and Gehart book “The Plausibility of Life” and, if so, will you have students comparing/contrasting it with Carroll’s book? I’m on the the next-to-the-last chapter of the Carroll book and (frankly) wish I was in your class, myself.


  7. says

    Doing some browser debugging, it appears that the problem is that whenever a browser explicitly says that it accepts documents of type “text/html”, then the server says that the file isn’t there. Now, Mozilla says this, IE doesn’t say so explicitly.

    Mozilla sends:
    Accept: text/xml,application/xml,application/xhtml+xml,text/html;q=0.9,text/plain;q=0.8,image/png,*/*;q=0.5

    IE sends:
    Accept: image/gif, image/x-xbitmap, image/jpeg, image/pjpeg, application/x-shockwave-flash, application/, application/, application/msword, */*

    I’ve experimented and narrowed it down, and can confirm that this Accept line gets you shown the “not found” page:

    Accept: text/html, */*

    Whereas including the entire Mozilla “Accept” header, minus the text/html bit, gets you the proper page.

    This is clearly a bug in the server code – PZ, what blog software are you using?

  8. says

    Further confirming this, in Mozilla if you type “about:config” into the address bar, then “accept” into the “Filter” box, then change the setting network.http.accept.default so that it doesn’t have “text/html” in it anymore (I just deleted the “x” in “text”), then Mozilla works just fine on the given links.

    I’d like to repeat that this is some sort of bug in the server code: it’s looking for browsers that explicitly say that they can handle html and rejecting them.

  9. says

    I’m pretty sure I’ve fixed the problem. I had an invalid path set in some code deep in the guts of the software that was sending browsers off to an invalid file…and some browsers were recovering by going to the second-best option, which did exist.

  10. says

    Nope, that wasn’t it.

    I’ll also note that my testing doesn’t support that type of hypothesis at all. What I’m seeing (looking at the network traces) is that the first request from IE is answered with th proper html text of the article, whereas the first request from Mozilla is being answered with a “go look at the notfound page” redirect message.

  11. says

    What a neat idea, PZ. I’d like them to post more than they have in their entries. Most have the pattern of “Hey look, this is cool. This is what’s at the Link.”

    I’d love to see them interpret what they’re linking to and incorporate their opinion or insight about it into their posts. A few did that, but I’d love to see them do what blogging does best – giving us their 2 cents on what they find interesting out there.

  12. says

    Give ’em time. If you want to make a suggestion in the comments, go ahead.

    Daniel, it is the problem, I’m pretty sure. Basically, there were conflicting messages: I had one deep path statement that said the base index was “index”, no TLA, and a mapping in the .htaccess file to say that this was an html/php file. But I didn’t have an “index” — I had an “index.php”. I’ve corrected the path to go to the right place, and also fixed this entry so the urls go to index.php, not index. If you’re testing by trying to go to a url with a “/index/” in it, that won’t work, ever.

  13. Mayonaise says

    I see this as a waste of time. Professors and experts, perhaps, can use blogging to spread the love. Students who will have a hard time remebering Kingdom names come test time, need to be doing something else.

  14. says

    Okay, I had been following links from the top site and had to refresh the page. It all appears to work now.

    I’m still curious to know how exactly that bit of .htaccess interacted to create the observed effect. I’d also clarify the explanation to say that all browsers were requesting the wrong file, but that the server was inclined to trust some browsers less when they said they wanted /index/, and fall back to the file that was there. But that’s quibbling at this point.

  15. Edmund says

    Is it fair to require students to post to a worldwide audience? Does this take privacy into full consideration? A permanent, publicly accessible record will exist of everything they put in those blogs. All their misunderstandings, regrettable opinions, factual errors, logical fallacies, and other foolishness will be archived somewhere on the web for what will likely be a very long time!

    Of course some students enjoy sites like myspace, often without considering the privacy implications. Some of these people undoubtedly enjoy the wide audience. Still, many others are rightly concerned about privacy on the internet, and would like to leave as few footprints behind as possible.

  16. says

    Still, many others are rightly concerned about privacy on the internet, and would like to leave as few footprints behind as possible.

    Note that all of the students are posting under pseudonyms, and that only PZ knows the map between the pseudonym and the student’s real name. For a class like this, that seems a reasonable compromise.

    For a class that might need to post on more sensitive topics, you might have to have a more elaborate setup – I once was asked when I worked for my undergraduate school’s sysadmin to set up a conference board that could be restricted to students in the class and allow students to post anonymous replies to (non-anonymous) main topics. We decided at the time that it would take too long to implement (VMS notes wasn’t made for easy anonymous posting), and the professor dropped the request, but it could be that that sort of need still exists.

  17. says

    Yes, I urged students to use pseudonyms. Nobody but me is going to know who is who, and I’m not giving hints.

    Also, it is my opinion that we ought to be training students to be public intellectuals — one of the obligations of learning is that you be willing to communicate your ideas to others. Why train people to think, only to have them hide their thoughts away?

    It’s also good for them to learn that exposing their ideas to public criticism won’t kill them.

  18. xebecs says

    IETab is a nice Firefox plugin that allows you to switch a Firefox tab to use the IE renderer. This let’s you switch to IE on the fly if the standard Firefox renderer is having a hard time with a page. I just discovered it the other day, but I’ve already found it useful several times.

  19. rjb says

    Ah, I see you have an article by Sir John Gurdon posted. I have to relay a personal note. I saw him speak at a conference a couple years back, and I had serious “hair envy”. The guy has a great head of hair… long straight white hair that just scream “academic intellectual”. I wanna be like that when I grow up!! OK, I’m almost 40, but I’m looking forward to going all-white up top to see if I can recreate the hairstyle.

    Oh, and it was a really good talk, too.

  20. Mike says

    Mayo said,

    Students who will have a hard time remebering Kingdom names come test time, need to be doing something else.

    Students who have a hard time remembering Kingdom names shouldn’t be in a 400[0] level class. (For those outside the US/not familiar with class numbering in US Unis, 100 levels are intro/Freshman classes, 400 senior level(although most people take a few before senior year).)

  21. Squeaky says

    My experience is that when students have to write about what they are learning, they actually reflect on it more and are more likely to apply the info to what’s really going on in the world. Not everyone does–some just do the minimum requirement (some not even), but I have had several students who treat the assignment very thoughtfully and really get something out of it. And just doing that helps them in the class overall, as they actually begin to get ENGAGED in the class and in the world around them. It is so NOT a waste of time for those that use it the way it is intended (it IS a waste of time for those that don’t put much thought into it, but by and large, they don’t try to do well on anything in the class anyway).

  22. says

    Exactly. I have my students write summaries of the assigned reading before our discussions, so I know they’ve done it. One bonus to having them put it on the web is that they can also see what other students wrote, which I’m hoping will also add to the discussions.

  23. says

    Here at SFU in Vancouver, administration has implemented a “writing intensive” course requirement for graduation. I’m TAing 3rd-year Genetic Analysis, which has been made writing intensive.

    I think these blogs are a great idea, and fit nicely with the “writing as a learning tool” concepts that SFU is trying to work with.

    My experience is that when students have to write about what they are learning, they actually reflect on it more and are more likely to apply the info to what’s really going on in the world.

    Exactly the underlying point, yes. We’ve got the students doing a variety of short- and medium-length writing assignments through the semester, some for no marks or just for completion marks, on the assumption that writing something down helps one to learn that something.

    If you don’t mind, Dr. PZ, I’m going to recommend the Writing Intensive Learning Centre people here take a look at this student-blog project of yours.

  24. Squeaky says

    PZ–another reason I like your blog idea is that they are getting feedback about something they are writing and ideas they are reflecting on. It’s just cool. It’s got to make them think “hey, someone thinks something I said is worth commenting on!”

  25. says

    Hello Keith,

    It’s in addition to basic English requirements. SFU is trying to both “broaden” and “deepen” the learning required to graduate, with what I think is a mix of successes and failures. The writing-intensive thing is being phased in starting this fall (ie, right now for new 1st-year students), with a requirement that you can’t graduate without a certain number of “W” courses on your transcript.

    The genetics course I’m TA-ing is a 3rd year Biology course, typically taken by a pretty even split of Biochemistry majors and Biology majors, with many from each discipline intending to go into Medicine (SFU has no med school, so students typically apply to med school at the University of British Columbia [UBC]). So none of my students actually require these W courses for their degrees – but BISC 302 is only offered as a W course, no longer as a regular course. This doesn’t seem to have impacted enrollment – the course is basically full. Yesterday was the first lecture.

    The theory behind this program is pretty interesting – the basic idea is that we teach the students better writing skills, and as a result they gain both a more valuable degree and they learn the material more effectively because by writing something you are more likely to remember it.

    That’s the theory; the practice is probably too early to evaluate – this writing intensive thing only got started last spring with a few trial courses in a few departments.

    I’m going to use the W designation of the course as an excuse to give (at least) one lecture this semester, which will look good on my CV (I hope), and gives me a chance to RANT at the students about the dumb mistakes and silly misconceptions they have. Today I was writing my lecture about Scientific Literature (many students seem unaware that scientific journals exist, or how they’re different from lay-audience magazines).

    You wouldn’t believe how many different ways students can come up with to mangle a Literature Cited section on a lab report.

    Sooner or later I’ll get around to posting my detailed thoughts on this whole thing on my blog; so far I’ve just got a few musings buried in the archives.

    Thanks again for putting this out there, PZ, I think your students will gain from this.

  26. says

    3rd year bio/biochem students not aware of scientific journals??? Yikes.

    Sounds like an interesting requirement to phase in, like CMU’s computer literacy requirement. I was just curious, not knowing much about SFU, despite my two years at UBC.

    I guess this is off topic, so I’ll drop it here on site …