What I taught today: FINAL EXAM TIME!

I’m in Arizona, on my way to Orange County, but that doesn’t stop me: I’ve given my students a take home final exam. I wouldn’t want them to be bored over finals week, you know.

1. In the last lecture, I tried to give you a little context, and explained that a dynamic picture of biology would include evolution, ecology, and development, all subdisciplines that deal with change over time. You’re all upper level students; explain to me how developmental biology fits into the perspective on biology that your experience here at UMM has given you so far. Are there pieces you wish our curriculum emphasized more? Why?

2. We’ve spent most of the semester talking about animals — as it currently stands, evo-devo has an unfortunately limited emphasis on metazoans, with an occasional nod to higher plants. Explore a little deeper. What would an evo-devo of fungi, or bacteria, or protists talk about? Is the toolkit we’ve been talking about truly universal? Give me a brief precis of the developmental principles for any other kingdom.

3. Imagine that after you graduate, you find yourself in an unexpected job: you’re working in university press office or as a science journalist. You have to explain scientific research to the public every day. What general principles would guide you? These should be ideas about ethics, effective communication, psychology, etc. in addition to purely scientific concerns. Tell me what standards you’d have to become a great reporter of science.

There. That should make them think.


  1. Ken Kohl says

    Hmm. Your Final Exam doesn’t resemble, at all, the Exam in the previous post. Funny that…

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Tell me what standards you’d have to become a great reporter of science.

    – Read your talking points email every day and quote it often.
    – Remember that this is a nation of Christians, by Christians, and for Christians.
    – Remember that fairness in the distributing of assets is no virtue.
    – Remember that cheating during the accumulation of assets is no vice.

    Oh, wait. Those are the standards to become a great Fox news reporter.
    Never mind.

  3. Ulysses says

    You didn’t cover #3 in any of the lectures or in the readings. That’s not fair. Instead, I’m going to write an essay entitled “Our Friend the Tapeworm”. And you better give me an A or I’m going to mark you down on Rate My Professor.

  4. onychophora says

    I find myself hoping that someone will talk about growth and cell specialization in algae. Pfisteria? Pfabulous! Acetabularia? Amazing! Fucus? Fun!

  5. poxyhowzes says

    As someone who sorta did question 3 after my last final exam more than half a century ago, I really think you should base the grades at least partially (50%?) on what your students think of each others’ answers. Probably not something that is practicable.


  6. Azuma Hazuki says

    Number 3 from me would probably be depressing as hell, as I’d need to preface it with something along the lines of “assuming an ideal reporting environment, which these days is on a par with the physicists’ assumption of the proverbial spherical cow…”

    There really isn’t any place for science journalism as we knew it anymore. Everything’s sensationalized and dumbed down all to shit :(

  7. anchor says

    Thank you, PZ, for that last question – it is as important as any other strictly science-oriented issue: accurately communicating science to the public in an inclusive and engaging way is crucial.

  8. gregoryhilliard says

    Geez, in Arizona and you didn’t even stop by and say hi. How come you’re not flying?

  9. Ichthyic says

    What general principles would guide you?

    I can relate what I would to see in a science journalist, given the miserable time I have had with the ones assigned to me when I used to do shark research.

    -accuracy ALWAYS strive to be as accurate and precise in your presentation as possible as a science journalist. If you have a question, don’t guess what the answer might be and figure it’s good enough… go back and ASK your interviewee. Flowery language is great, except when you use it to make something sound like what it isn’t. BE SURE OF WHAT YOU ARE SAYING.

    -if you don’t really understand the subject you are reporting on, do at least a bit of background research first, BEFORE you do an interview for publication. Nothing worse than wasting someone’s time in an interview because you haven’t the slightest clue what you are reporting on, and the interviewee feels the need to have to waste time giving you a basic education before you can even get started. Scientists are usually pretty fucking busy (hey, aren’t we all) and it’s up to you to be prepared before you go to an interview.

    -never put words in someone’s mouth! If you think it’s what they intended, but they didn’t actually SAY it, chances are YOU’RE WRONG. go back and ask.

    -Vet your article back to your interviewee before submitting for final publication; they may have something else to add, or a correction to make that they weren’t even aware of when you first interviewed them.

    -finally… assume YOU’RE WRONG. go back and ask.

    ….go back and ask.

  10. Ichthyic says

    oh i suppose you should also understand who your target audience is of course, but hell, that should be second knowledge for anyone trying to write anything.

  11. Rich Woods says

    The first rule when writing for a non-specialist audience is to write as if for an intelligent 12-year old. If you can get a person to walk away thinking, for example, ‘Wow, I now know what mitosis is and how it works’, you’re on the right track. If you can also enthuse them into choosing to do a bit more reading on the subject themselves, you’re doing very well indeed.

    I wonder if any of PZ’s students are here, cribbing these hints and tips?

  12. lpetrich says

    Question #2 I find interesting. I think that a good part of it would be how one defines “development”. Growth into a differentiated multicellular organism? Alteration of a cell? (like making a spore) Production of cell features?

    Differentiated multicellularity evolved several times, with varying amounts of complexity.

    Animal-like multicellularity evolved only once, for whatever odd reason. One can imagine animals descended from animal-like one-celled organisms like ciliates or amoebas or apicomplexans or excavates, but that has not happened. Some quirk of choanoflagellates? Some improbable step? Pre-emption?

    Instead, all the rest are plantlike or funguslike. Curiously, slime-mold-like organisms have evolved several times, in Amoebozoa (familiar slime molds like Dictyostelium discoideum), in Opisthokonta (Fonticula alba), in Stramenopiles (Sorodiplophrys stercorea), Alveolata (Sorogena stoianovitchae), Rhizaria (Guttulinopsis vulgaris), Excavata (Acrasidae), even in prokaryotes (Myxobacteria like Myxococcus xanthus).