Oceanography

May 212014
 

StudentsFeeling useless is something I know a fair bit about. Being a philosophy major, you could say I’m an expert in uselessness. But these times are tough. In the immortal words of Kent Brockman, “Joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors – useful people are starting to feel the pinch.” I’m going to ignore the absurdity in that sentence, but it’s really apt for now. The last week has been particularly hard on my students, following #budget2014. No doubt they feel personally insulted, aggrieved and bewildered, and as if society is rejecting them as a whole.

My students almost represent the entirety of the demographic that is under assault by our current politics: Under 30s, science students, Indigenous, mature age and single parents. But my students are fantastic people. If they weren’t, they’d be studying economics (apart from those who follow Steve Keen and the like); human resources (who have no other skill apart from liking feeling superior than everyone else); Accounting (but my students have a personality); Finance and commerce (parasites and sociopaths), or any other number of occupations that seem entitled to dictate what people do and how their value to society is measured.

All gross stereotypes aside, it is important for my students to know that they have valuable skills. These valuable skills are distinguished from those listed above. And just because the occupations ahead might tell them they have no worth to society – for employment or whatever, that they actually do have options about where to head in their future – that they are generating valuable knowledge and extremely worthwhile skills for society.

This semester, I’ve been teaching Oceanography, generally, to a group of Environmental Science students. Teaching at a small regional campus allows me to have my lectures and tutorials in a completely different format to what otherwise would be the case. And this session last Friday, I decided to do something different – aside from teaching them that a shelf is not just something that influences currents, but is also a quiet elf.

Other lecturers such as Lee Skallerup talk about the importance of caring for their students. I’ve written previously about the problems facing us as graduates after university. For mine, they are almost one and the same. I can’t care for my students without looking out for their futures, and what they require. But that doesn’t happen without knowing the drives behind my students, and my students being aware of them. This shaped my latest lecture and tute.

I was sure my students were sick of hearing that their lecturers and whatnot are negative about the budget and the government etc. So before we got started, I asked my students to get into groups of three, and discuss what brought them here – to this unit, to this course, and what about them fundamentally has led them to be doing what they are doing (none of this, it’s a mandatory unit and so on…).

I also asked them to discuss a skill that they have brought, that they can develop at university, which they can use once they leave university.

It was an interesting process. My students are really passionate about what they want, and about why they are doing what they are doing. I have students that want to change what they have done all their working lives, those that wont to make a better world for their kids. Those that want to teach science and environmental issues to students, those that love being outdoors.

What I did not expect was the blank that occurred when I asked the students how they could use their passions into the workforce. I suspect it’s the reverse in the case of the students I’ve lambasted above (no passions but an idea of how to use their skills in employment).

But the fact is, my students do have incredibly valuable skills and knowledge. Many are great with numbers. We need more mathematically inclined people in the workplace. And it really doesn’t matter how you get there. A really good friend of mine and a personal mentor as got into health research through developing skills in ecological statistics.

There are a lot of visual learners in my class. But being science students, I suspect they’re also data interested. I suggested that if this was so, to tailor their studies to GIS and the spatial sciences. You might not be working in an environmental field, but you will likely be working outdoors, with data and in a visual way.

Most of my students are people people. I suggested maybe that they consider teaching. If they’re outdoorsy types, consider youth work or support services. There are ways to use your passions like surfing to do something that is going to utilise your passions, as well as your knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired.

Just because you are doing a science, where people think you are useless, doesn’t mean you are.

We have a problem with valuing intellect and knowledge in Australia. I implored any of my students to look overseas. Go somewhere where you feel wanted, because places overseas do value your skills, your knowledge and your passions. If it wasn’t for personal circumstances, I would be heading overseas to live, myself.

It is important for my students to understand that the small minded society Australia has become, is not a reflection on themselves, or their skills. We shouldn’t be taking societal and employment advice from people who have been given a free tertiary education, only then to be taking a wage directly from the taxpayer. That’s cretinous.

We also shouldn’t be taking employment and education advice from people who measure their worth to society by the amount of tax that they pay/ or don’t pay. Because if we did, there would be no beans for the bean counters to count, no money for financiers to be parasitic of, no ideas for the idea quashers to quash, and no occupations where HR types would be able to feel more secure than.

May 082014
 

TurnitinTurnitin is the bane of many student’s and lecturer’s existence. But I am in the camp where Turnitin is one of the best advances in technology in academia since I became a University student. I am all for using technology to assist with writing. And used correctly, Turnitin is an extremely useful tool for improving the standard of written work. Turnitin is extremely useful as a teaching, correction and writing coaching tool. Primarily, Turnitin is a plagiarism detection tool and method for assigning marks and correcting work. However, it is most effective in its instruction and self correction abilities.

Turnitin does have its flaws which do irritate students and those marking – the classic being the assignment cover sheet reading as a plagiarised section. The similarity report (the overall “plagiarism” percentage) will also depend upon the order in which the assessment was submitted. Students submitting their work last will read higher in their similarity index as references and so on will be found as a false positive in colluding work between students.

What is more important than these overall numbers is the way in which these statistics appear within the student’s assignment. If a quote is not properly referenced, it will be picked up and highlighted by Turnitin. Incorrect paraphrasing will also be picked up by Turnitin. And it is this feature that highlights incorrectly paraphrased and quoted material, which is the best use of the Turnitin technology. It is the easiest and most effective way for improving a student’s writing standards.

Paraphrasing is a notoriously hard skill to teach and for students to master. Using Turnitin, it is the first thing I look for when assessing a student’s work. It is the easiest way for me to decide whether a student has fully grasped and understood the concepts and context at hand. How Turnitin highlights sentences within the document shows me whether or not a student is able to use their own voice in relation to the topic and questions at hand.

Turnitin makes it easy for a marker to identify consistent faults in paraphrasing, referencing and quoting work in the assignment. Once you have identified consistencies in the problems, it is simple to provide quick, effective feedback that is instructive to the student, and will have a lasting impact on their future submissions. The feedback is not vague or general – it is tangible. The student is able to see the highlighted portion, and the marker’s feedback in relation to it.

That is the instructional use and value of Turnitin. Students can also get value in learning to self correct work before the submit it. Turnitin is a great tool for students to use to check first drafts before submission. My advice to students is to submit their draft to Turnitin before the due date (Turnitin allows multiple submissions before the due date) to make basic error corrections, to check for referencing errors and to make sure paraphrasing mistakes have not been made. These will show up to students as they would for the markers, allowing the student to correct and change incorrectly paraphrased sentences.

The visual nature of the feedback given by Turnitin also assists students in understanding when they are relying too heavily on quotes, or on one particular source. If they are continually quoting from one author or source, the colours will show up in their work as similar. This is a great way of being able to evaluate one’s own work when submitting. You can quickly assess whether there is a good spread of references, or if you are relying for your argument on only one or few sources.

Turnitin has become so valuable for my students and my own marking that I’ve actually begun to use it to alter, edit and revise some of my own work. Not only is it useful for the student and lecturer/ marker, but I think it also provides potential value for the academic and author. Often when you are reading on one topic, referencing can become sloppy and paraphrasing problematic. Turnitin offers a way to deal with this before any unintended surprises through innocent mistakes. As technology improves and no doubt journals begin to use basic electronic scanning software to pick up mistakes, I think it is probably wise to use software and programmes like Turnitin to help analyse first drafts and pick up basic mistakes that might otherwise be missed.

As an experiment I decided to put a draft of the main chapter in my thesis through the Turnitin check (you can see this in the image for this article). Surprisingly, it did very well. I was actually expecting it to pick up my thesis somewhere on the internet, but it did not. It came out at 22% similar, a little high for my liking. However, this is largely due to it picking up a rather large reference list. Some 122 sources were identified, with five at 1% and the rest at <1%. And that is more important than the overall figure. Scanning the document reveals to me that the five sources at 1% are due to the same direct quotes being picked up in other assessments around the world. I am happy with this. There are no paraphrasing mistakes and no one source is standing out to me as overused.

Plagiarism prevention, marking and assessment organisation is really the backbone of the Turnitin software. But, it is actually most effective when used in conjunction with instructional and coaching assistance. The marker is able to focus on a student’s consistent errors in structure, referencing and paraphrasing mistakes. But the student also gets a visual representation and visual feedback that can be used in conjunction with assessment feedback, in order to self correct and improve writing into the future. I am convinced that software like Turnitin can also be effectively used for improving the standard and reduce the risk of potential problems for academics and researchers alike.

Mar 262014
 

Environmental PolicyEnvironmental policy development can be a mystery to many, but it is generally not that difficult to understand. Most environmental policy is developed based on the “extrinsic values” that we place on them. This is a materialist approach, based on human uses, as opposed to “intrinsic values” which are the value of the ecosystem in and of itself.

I’d argue that over the long term, they are actually one and the same. And that it is only over the short term where the immediate extraction and exploitation value are highest that it actually has any tangible meaning. Long term policy is not an area where economics covers itself in glory when it comes to the environment, but I guess that is another debate for another day.

Despite its philosophical failings, valuing human uses of an environment gives us a starting point to be able to develop environmental policy in the most pressing areas. To explain the rationale for environmental policy development, I’ll be using the ‘Securing Western Australia’s Marine Future’s’ report: ‘How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment’ as an example. Hopefully this will illustrate how environmental policy is developed, and the factors that go into making informed environmental policy decisions.

The Requirement for Environmental Policy

The marine environment is an ecosystem, in particular in Australia that is under pressure from multiple uses. These include fishing and boating, recreation activities like surfing and even on shore development for housing, pollution runoff and so on.

As such, human use reports and evaluations at least allow policy makers the option of prioritising the highest value human use above other uses. This does have its own problems however, and if the highest value human use is not sustainable, then it is not good policy.

Methods and Data Collection

Human use reports can assess whether the human activities are sustainable over the long term, what impact they are having and have had, and how use interacts with other activities. Typically, these reports synthesise a substantial amount of pre-existing data – qualitative and quantitative, scientific and social. The range of data used to form conclusions is why these reports and studies are useful for environmental policy formulation. The Marine Futures report collates a substantial amount of data from WA State Government departments to form the basis of many of its topics of investigation.

Through interviews with recreational and commercial fishers, as well as quantitative data from various departments it was concluded that changes in the South West fishery have occurred. These changes led the interviewees to conclude that the current use of the environment was unsustainable. It was only through the collection of both the qualitative and quantitative data that the conclusion that fishing in the South West and Southern zones was unsustainable.

Outcomes in Environmental Policy

The biggest advantage of human use reports for the formulation of environmental policy is that they often provide reasoning behind changes in the environment. In the Marine Futures report, the explanation of changes in technology, demographic changes and policy changes are able to be put together to form a coherent “story” as to why things are the way they are, and what needs to be done.

For environmental policy, a coherent narrative for why something is the case is important (as I have explained previously), when the public requires a full explanation of why something is being done, or is required to be done. If the public is not informed then misinformation is likely to run rife, and interest groups will dominate any policy discussion. But if the public is fully informed, and provided with the available data, it is much less likely to face opposition.

The Economics of Environmental Policy

Economic considerations are also able to be evaluated and this is where the highest value user can be given priority in a policy discussion. But it is also where the greatest rub and greatest debate lies. As I pointed out earlier, it largely depends on what time frame is being analysed. Over the long term, activities and users that are least extractive will produce the greatest economic benefit. But this disregards economic imperatives over the short term. It is another area where human use reports are valuable to try and make decisions which balance these factors. A prime example of policy decisions being out of kilter with human uses and sustainability in favour of a narrow economic and political interest is the shutting out of commercial fishers in the Perth region, without restrictions being applied on recreational fishers.

Education and Social Policy Recommendations

The report also makes clear why an education campaign for certain activities is needed for the sustainable use of the Western Australian environment. According to the report, recreational fishers who were new to fishing attributed environmental changes that were inconsistent with the views of long term users and the available science on these topics. When frictions are occurring in the use of the environment such as these, it is of maximum benefit to provide accurate information to inform this section of the public.

Promoting Environmental Policy

Some human uses and interactions with the environment can actually enhance human amenity, environmental productivity and value. This is the gold standard in environmental policy and protection, and should be the aim of policy makers when making decisions. One such example of this is the Busselton Jetty, where physical infrastructure – the jetty – provides habitat for the surrounding ecosystem (an artificial reef), but also provides a site for human recreation and education which would otherwise not be in place if it weren’t for human intervention.

So What?

As you can see, human use studies and reports provide the basis for developing environmental policy. By matching science with human use and the interaction between people and the environment, environmental policy can be enacted that is least harmful to the environment, or most beneficial to the community. In many parts of the country, Marine Parks have been set aside on the basis of human use studies. Without acknowledging the human uses of the environment, observations and community wishes are often excluded in the environmental policy development process. It is why any policy, such as those looking at pollution reduction, is much harder to justify and provide emphasis without human use studies. It is why one of the policy recommendations in my thesis was to conduct a human use study in the Darwin Harbour region.

If you have any thoughts on the development of environmental policy, or this brief explanation, feel free to let me know below. Point out any of the obvious problems inherent in this approach and I’ll take the time to look at examining these problems down the track.

Further Reading

Davies, A., Tonts, M., Pelusey, H., & Niedzwiadek, M. (2008). Securing Western Australia’s Marine Futures: How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment. Perth, Western Australia: University of Western Australia.

Mar 132014
 

Science of the Unseen / Creative Commons Public DomainOne of the many problems with new scientific endeavours is the inability of the general public to understand them. Much of what is now being discovered in the scientific field is beyond the ability for one single human to be able to perceive, to analyse or to comprehend. It is the science of the unseen. I previously wrote about the development of oceans and how so much is still to be explored. This post follows that up by looking at how and why we can comprehend science related to such huge endeavours.

The inability for people to be able to understand matters from their own perspective leads many to be sceptical, and often invokes incredulous responses that hark back to a previous time where science was pitted against religion. This can result in appeals to erroneous “facts” based on experiences which appear logical or rational but actually make no sense and are not true.

A classic example of this recently is our now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, battling with his own opinions, up against the weight of evidence of science in relation to human induced climate change. How could a “weightless”, “odourless“, “invisible”, unseen element be the source of so much trouble? After all, we can’t observe it. Not least from our cosy individual position in the universe.

It is only because of multiple observations, multiple experiments and the use of multiple senses that we can make such claims about the impact of carbon pollution. In that sense, our Prime Minister’s claim has absolutely no relevance to the point he was trying to make. Even if his “facts” were true, they are probably irrelevant to the impact of carbon pollution on climate change. But what they do point to is the natural human scepticism of things that are unseen.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the “debates” regarding Darwinian evolution. For anyone with some degree of scientific knowledge or contemporary understanding, they are painful to watch. Richard Dawkins in his book, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence For Evolution‘, proposes to invoke the mathematical terminology “theorem” to redress this problem – where evidence is overwhelming from a multitude of sources so that it is no longer a theory, but is as proven, or free from disproof, that this ever likely to occur. But once again, it is a scientific endeavour only understood from multiple generations of scientific observation and analysis. It is difficult for the layperson to understand the science without deferral to experts, or trust that multiple viewpoints are correct.

All of these issues came to mind when I began to look at plate tectonics for Oceanography. I hadn’t really thought these actually had any connection previously, but they definitely do.

Plate tectonics is the study of continental drift and other features related to the movement of continents. It is a relatively new area of study, and has been shrouded in much controversy, much like the sciences above that also aren’t immediately visible. However, plate tectonics, seismology and related fields don’t appear to have the same sceptical weight that those involved in climate science and evolutionary biology do.

Why is that? Earthquakes are pretty distinctive to experience, having felt a couple whilst living in Darwin. And I don’t think people doubt the existence of volcanoes. But we also don’t seem to have to debate the causes of these natural phenomena. Despite Earthquakes and Volcanoes and related observations once being attributed to angry gods and other mythologies, I don’t see people invoking these against the science behind and theories of plate tectonics.

One reason for this is the sensory experience of the results of continental drift. These are what Karl Popper would deem to be “inter-sensually” testable. It is not something climate science or evolutionary biology has immediately at its disposal. Plate tectonics has a fossil history, observable sensory experiences, astronomical observations and measurements and data first gathered by military and naval vessels.

It is the last point that really got me thinking. Do you think if the military came out and said that evolution is a fact, and that creationism is complete boloney, that it would make a difference? What about if the defence force said the same thing of anthropogenic global warming, that it was an undeniable fact? How much does this authoritative weight influence public opinion? What if the military-scientific complex and machine actually worked for the betterment of man and understanding, rather than in self interest? Because it is the self interest and competitive advantage that resulted in deep sea mapping that helped provide evidence for continental drift. How could it be used to address our most pressing environmental and scientific concerns?

I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions. All I know is that the way humans understand things is a complicated, often paradoxical process, influenced by social pressures and individual experience. The way politicians battle to interact with and communicate science further complicates matters and it doesn’t further human understanding.

I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.

 

Further Reading

Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution: Simon and Schuster.

Popper, K. (2002). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.

Mar 062014
 
Back Beach, Bunbury
Back Beach, Bunbury

So I’ve been tasked with teaching a unit in Oceanography this semester. It’s hard to not to feel that I’m out of my depth, so to speak. As someone versed mainly in water quality management, there is only so much I can bring to the table, personally. But then I realised it doesn’t particularly matter, because almost everyone else involved in this field is in the same boat.

Oceanography is perhaps one of the few remaining “descriptive” sciences which is a collection of other scientific areas, simply because we do not know enough about the topic itself – or because it is too huge an area of investigation to be compartmentalised. In this way, I guess it is much like “climate science” or “climatology” where multiple scientific endeavours have been thrust towards forming a coherent study in an area requiring research and investigation.

We really have only begun to break the surface in our knowledge of the oceans. It is truly in many ways one of our “last frontiers”. The oceans are alien to us, so much so that much of the understanding of oceans comes from our study of the universe.

The cry of many rings out that we should stop spending so much on such far flung ventures as research in astronomy. But it is this research and investigation and its ability to look back through time that has helped us unlock many of the secrets of the formation of the ocean and the history of planet Earth. It is the best example of seemingly obscure scientific endeavour having “real world” application. We have an idea of how our oceans might have formed because we can observe similar processes happening elsewhere in the universe. Medical imaging is being improved because of the advances in space and astronomy research.

Many of our waters, particularly off the coast of Australia are quite literally unchartered. But I didn’t realise exactly how extensive this area is until I read the brilliant book Northern Voyager’s: Australia’s Monsoon Coast, which is a fantastic historical work on the maritime history of Northern Australia.

It is why the oceans are so special – they hold such a significant place in the history and culture of many civilizations. It is why oceans are the nexus of myth and science and where photographers, historians, poets, photographers, film makers, artists, surfers, submariners and a whole host of scientists all have a role to play in the study, representation, understanding and protection of the oceans into the future.

It is also why I feel comfortable about talking about Oceanography and especially in my areas of expertise. There are some pressing issues facing the water quality of our oceans. The impact of changing water quality and in particular salinity levels and ocean currents is something I personally find fascinating. As is the market failure and subsequent lack of responsibility in addressing the great ocean garbage patches. Over the next few months, I look forward to bringing you a series of posts relating to these and other issues in our oceans.

Further Reading

Powell, A. (2010). Northern Voyagers: Australia’s Monsoon Coast in Maritime History. Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.