In memory of Fred Bail

Fred Bail, my PhD advisor at the University of Hawaii, loved to walk on the beach near his home in Waimanalo, Hawaii. He called the ocean and nearby Koolau Mountains his “church.” On January 17 (2019), while on his daily walk, Fred collapsed and died. He was a big Bostonian, with a wide grin and twinkling blue eyes. I was stunned to learn of his passing. Fred was only 74 and much too full of life to be gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fred and wanted to share the memory from 2006, when I attending the Hawaii Educational Research Association conference. Fred and I were guests at the home of Mike and Chris Kirk-Kuwaye on the windward side of Oahu. We had had a lovely dinner with lots of laughing. (Typical for time spent with Fred). The conversation turned towards philosophy (also typical for Fred) and Fred said:

“What if enlightenment isn’t some place you ‘get to’? What if enlightenment is actually a series of pings?”

He went on to explain what he meant. Pings were these brief, pure moments, when you realized the perfection of what was. They were like a soap bubble. Fleeting. Momentary. Impossible to grasp.

And I remember when Fred mentioned this, thinking about the previous day, and recalling a clerk in a restaurant who gave me a heartfelt smile along with my order. PING! Yes, that definitely was a ping. A stranger projecting a namaste-kind-of-love to another stranger. Perhaps Fred was right and that enlightenment is a series of these pings.

I surely hope when Fred was walking in his “church” on January 17, that the last thing he felt was “PING.”

View of Conceptual Change Through a Concept Map

Conceptual change is complex. This is probably the only relational statement about conceptual change that everyone interested in the field will agree upon. While recognizing other people’s thinking exist, from this point on in individuals have preferences they prefer to explain how conceptual occurs and guide their thinking about how to best attain conceptual change. The concept map provides a way of illustrating the various possibilities; however, even a concept map is skewed by the maker’s preferences for what should be illustrated and the relationships identified. Personally, I like cleaner illustrations, so many relationship lines are not connected on this concept map for that reason, although I recognize, and understand, that many additional relationships could be drawn. This map is a representation of conceptual change to demonstrate my referencing in thinking about conceptual change and is arranged in a somewhat logical form that coincides with how I think.

The concept map I have constructed can be parsed in three ways. First, on the top and right side of conceptual change are simple statement relationships about conceptual change situating some aspect of what contributes its existence or how handle. Beyond being complex, conceptual change is trying to change misconceptions to accept conceptual understandings all while being influenced by prior knowledge and the strategies learners use to develop knowledge. One relationship of importance to me in this section is about conceptual change being comprised of two components. There is a concept and a conception. I believe there are some interesting conversations to be had over concepts (i.e. force) and the conceptions (explanation of force) as to what needs to change. By this I am asking what constitutes conceptual understanding since a learner may be able to use a concept appropriately to solve a problem, but unable to contextually describe what it is they have done. Is this a concept problem or a conceptualization problem? And does it matter?

The second area emphasized in this concept map is the existence of several theories that have been developed relative to addressing conceptual change. Each of these theories has some research that backs up its claim to being appropriate to addressing conceptual change. Given the evidence of some support that each of these theories can play a successful role in designing activities to address conceptual change, I wonder if there isn’t a larger grand theory that encompasses both the theoretical knowledge-in-pieces vs. knowledge-in-theory component with the affective domain and sociocultural components. Regardless, these theories act as guides driving the research into conceptual change today.

The final part of the concept map identifies that research on conceptual change is significant, despite its limitations. As mentioned earlier, numerous successful interventions to develop conceptual understanding have been developed using the various theoretical perspectives. In the end, there are some unanswered questions regarding the transferability, durability, and timing associated with the development of new conceptual understanding. The most significant, in my opinion, is the timing factor. Many studies seem to rely on simply demonstrating a new conceptual understanding post an intervention experience and claiming conceptual change has occurred. I question that timing as “true” conceptual change. To me, a time discrepancy between intervention and testing (and possibly multiple testing times –such as 6 months or year later) is necessary to demonstrate “true” conceptual change. I do not want to minimize the accomplishment of the intervention, but “true” conceptual change would be resistant to decay over time. Whereas I suspect the conceptualization that was accepted as evidence of conceptual change post-intervention assessment for many individuals has decayed to a conceptualization that would not register as complete conceptual understanding now. Harkening back to earlier, the question then becomes whether the learner’s ability to use the concept, describe the concept, or both has decayed.

This concept map is a construct of how I organize my thinking around conceptual change and I hope provides a means for someone else to look at conceptual change in a unique light.

Research Briefs Podcast

Research Briefs Podcasts highlight researchers who are expanding the boundaries of Engineering Education Research by creating new frameworks, new theories and new methods.

Ruth Streveler is the creator and host of Research Briefs Podcasts and she is responsible for selecting guests and determining interview questions.

Research Briefs is produced by T.J. Wharry. Theme music was composed by Patrick Vogt. And the audio is transcribed by Rick Martin.

You can listen to Episodes by going to iTunes

Aligning educational research with neuroscience

When Galileo first turned his telescope to the night sky in the early 1600’s he was able to truly observe how celestial objects moved. And he realized that existing theories about the heavens did not align with what he saw.

We now live in times when the mechanisms of learning can be observed in the brain. Will the emerging findings of neuroscience research force us to adjust our theories about how learning works? Will we have to adapt the methods we use to research learning?

I have been teaching a new course called Neuroscience and Engineering Education Research that explores these questions. I will post some of my thoughts about the alignment of educational and research science research here. And I have invited students in the course to post as well.

Staying positive and moving forward

Current events have left many of us stunned and disbelieving and terribly concerned about the future. I have seen people weep and shake with fear. It is often difficult to keep my own fear, sadness, and anger at bay.

I keep asking myself these questions:
How can I stay on course during these rough times?
How can I help protect people who feel threatened?
What can I be doing to turn things around?

This post is meant to help myself – and others – answer these questions for ourselves.

I will begin with what I think is a startlingly empowering bit of knowledge from neuroscience and end with links to a variety of other resources that might be of interest.

Using our brain to help us stay positive  Continue reading

Do we live in a sriracha world?

Why are so many processed foods now flavored with sriracha? Why is suddenly everything fire engine spicy? I’ve been wondering this for quite some time.

It dawned on me that maybe the answer is that sriracha is compensating for the tastelessness of the processed food. And now that we are hooked on the “kick” of the spice we need more and more to break through to our taste buds. So fast food chains create new burgers with sriracha and ghost peppers and pepper jack cheese.

Do we also see a sriracha effect when it comes to our emotions? Anger is the sriracha of emotion. Anger will burn our heart like sriracha burns mouth.

And just as restaurants might be using sriracha to make tasteless food have some kind of flavor, might people be using anger to break through our collective emotional numbness?  Is that why we see so much anger everywhere – in movies, blogs, reality shows? Do those creating these “entertainment products” know they need to add some anger to spice things up? And just as food is getting spicier and spicier do people need to say and do more and more outrageous things to get our attention?

And if this analogy holds, why do we fall for it? Why do we lap up the anger and ask for more? Is it that we don’t feel much at all – so we need that punch of anger to feel alive?

How can we counteract all this negativity? The esteemed Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron talks about this in her audio class “Don’t Bite the Hook.”  Here’s a quote:

[The 8th century Indian Buddhist monk] Shantideva says a lot about our mindset. The mindset of friend and foe. Like and dislike. For me and against me. And how that very mechanism of buying so tightly into this notion of the good people and the bad people—the ones that I like and the ones I don’t like—and how we get so invested in this and how this is “the kindling” or “the fuel” for anger and aggression to escalate.

As Pema (and Shantideva) point out, we all have the opportunity, at each moment, to either add to the “kindling” for anger, or de-escalate the aggression. This is something to contemplate – especially in the current political climate. We can add to the toxicity, or help diminish it by spreading light to those around us.


“Biggest Losers” can’t win the battle with their bodies

A researcher has studied the participants on the reality TV show the Biggest Losers. The study results document the fight our bodies put up when we lose weight. The participants experienced a double-whammy. Not only is their metabolic rate much lower than it should be, but their low levels of the gut hormone leptin mean they are constantly ravenous. So in order to maintain their weight loss, they not must eat very little while being constantly driven by their hunger. It is not surprising that this is a battle they almost always lose. And for many of the participants this means they have gained back the weight they have lost.

An article in today’s New York Times not only discusses the study results, but it also portrays the personal side of this battle. Study participants share their humiliation and despair over their bodies. One talks about wanting to step in front of a bus. Another says he feels like he has been given “a life sentence.”

But there is some hope for the very obese. On May 1, 2012, I underwent life-saving bariatric surgery. Like many before me, this surgery has shaken up the my Body Mass Index (BMI) set point and I have been able to reach and maintain a healthy weight without my body fighting back. At the moment, it seems that this drastic step is one of the few avenues that works. Researchers, like Dr. Lee M. Kaplan at Massachusetts General Hospital are investigating why this surgery works.  It seems reasonable to hope that in the future less invasive options will be found. But at present, the Weight Center at Mass General offers a model of what treatment for obesity should be.

Here is a video clip that reiterates the results of the Biggest Loser study and speaks with some of the participants. The devastating conclusion of the study – the more you lose weight the slower your metabolism will be and the hungrier you will be. You can’t watch this clip without having compassion for how hard these folks fight the battle with their bodies.

If you are a person who “struggles with their weight” please be kind to yourself. It’s not all your fault.

And if you are a person who is dangerously heavy, please don’t beat yourself for not being able to lose weight “on your own.” Get the help you need.

Your body is a SYSTEM – conceptual change theory meets your health!

Famed conceptual change researcher, Michelene Chi has proposed that we tend to think of systems as if they acted in a linear cause-and-effect way. And this gets us into conceptual trouble, because systems don’t act in this simple way. Rather than one thing causing the next thing, causing the next thing, systems work through the simultaneous action of all the pieces interacting with each other at the same time. Chi calls the cause-and-effect thinking “sequential” and the systems thinking “emergent”.  When we think about systems as if they were sequential, misconceptions can arise.

First, a familiar example and then I’ll move to how this applies to our health. In the world of misconception research this sequential thinking translates as someone seeing a drop of dye diffusing in a cup of water and explaining what happened as dye molecules wanting to go to areas of lesser concentration.  At a molecular level, what is actually happening is that all the molecules are bouncing around and this random juggling results in, on average, the dye and water molecules mixing so that it seems the dye is spreading out.

So, you may ask, how does this related to health? Your body is a system – a very complex system composed of zillions of biochemical reactions, and the a myriad of impact of mechanical forces on our joints and skeleton. Our body is also host to untold numbers of microorganisms at live on and in our bodies. For example, the organisms in your gut – called your gut microbiome – has a huge effect on how you digest your food (or don’t). Using a zoological example – termites can’t really “eat wood” – the organisms in their gut eat the wood. Without them, termites would starve.

When we think about our health, we often only concentrate on two parts of the system – what we put into our bodies as food [and we obsess about one small characteristic of that food, namely how many calories it has] and how we ‘burn off’ those calories through something we call exercise.  So when we want to change our health we focus on food and exercise and think that is the whole story. But researchers are discovering many other aspects of our health that are at play – for example, the amount of stress in our lives and the amount and type of sleep we get can have a significant impact on our health. And the make up and functioning of our microbiome is also crucial in how we process food. For example,  jet lag has been shown to result in weight gain because the time change upsets the processing cycle of our microbiome.

The functioning of our microbiome is just one of the parts of our health system that we can’t directly control. But there are many others: brain-gut connections, brain wiring for food preferences and even food addictions to name a few.

What’s the harm of having this too-simple view of our health? Why does this misconception matter? Well it matters for two reasons. First, by focusing only on food and exercise we may well be ignoring a huge part of the system. Many of us are far too stressed and get much too little sleep and our health suffers – and for some of us the excess pounds accumulate – even if we are diligent (perhaps even fanatical) about our food and exercise. When we think about our health, we need to think about more of the system.

The second reason this misconception matters is that there are parts, important, even crucial parts, of the system we can’t directly control. And yet we think that all that matters is the food we put in our mouths and the ways we move our bodies through exercise. We think we have direct control. And so if something goes awry we beat ourselves up. What is wrong with me?! we shout to ourselves. This shouting gets louder if we put on weight and it becomes a scream if we put on – to our minds – a lot of weight. Now the shout becomes: “what the &#@* is wrong with me!” And we start doing crazy things with food – and sometimes with exercise – to get ourselves under control. And sometimes it works for – a while. And then the system called our body takes over again.

The punchline of this all is two-fold – (1) think of your body as system and (2) forgive yourself. Take the action you can take, and don’t endlessly beat yourself for the things you can’t control.

A new paradigm about health and “weight control”

I want to talk about a new paradigm for “weight control” – one that goes beyond the common belief that the process of arriving at and then maintaining a particular weight is a simple equation of “eat less” and “exercise more.” We know from experience that this equation is too simple. We’ve all known people who eat and eat and stay rail thin. We also know people who say: “I just look at chocolate and it goes straight to my hips.” And those of us who have struggled with our weight find that weight we lose seems to bounce right back. Why is maintaining a particular weight so hard for so many of us?

The punch line of this post is that there are biological mechanisms that intervene and have a huge impact on the “eat less and exercise more” equation. And although our actions do have some impact on these biological mechanisms they are largely out of our direct control. Our body has a body mass index (BMI) set point and our body will defend this set point. So if we lose weight, our body will throw everything it can at us to get back to that weight.

So why am I writing about weight control on a blog about the brain? It turns out our brain has several roles to play. The role that I’d like to talk about today is a part of the brain called the insula or insular cortex. This is the part of the brain that monitors our bodies and let’s us know how we are feeling. So the insula is a key component in the feedback loop that prompts us to take action when we need to. Have you been sitting at your laptop so long you don’t realize you need to go to the bathroom? Have you have strained your neck and eyes by staring at your screen too long? Have you been popping snacks in your mouth while writing? When we reflect, many of us recognize that we have been acting mindlessly. We haven’t been paying attention to our bodies. We haven’t let the insula do its job.

A way to strength our connection to our bodies is through an exercise called a body scan. This is a meditation technique that allows you to relax and feel your body. This is usually done in a systematic way, starting by feeling one part of your body and then working your way around your body. A quick internet search will turn up guided body scan meditations in a variety of lengths beginning with a 3-minute body scan. Try one and see how you like it! The brain is flexible and brain areas that are used will grow. So regularly practicing the body scan meditation can strengthen the insula. With a strong insula, your brain will allow you  to feel what is going on in your body.