Earth in Progress

Climate scientists on site, investigating lake sediments at Lake Hämelsee for clues of climate change. This is a product of the Earth in Progress project, a cooperation between various disciplines involved in responding effectively to climate events. I’ve had the privilege of providing English communication skills courses to some members of the project.
The film makers ask the scientists about their motivation, making their work a bit more more accessible to the general public.
INTIMATE: http://cost-es0907.geoenvi.org/
PROGRESS: http://www.earth-in-progress.de

The Exploratorium and the Science of Sailing

Before becoming an English skills trainer, I worked on exhibitions presenting cultural history. My teaching and translating work since has made me curious about science. This summer we visited the wonderful Exploratorium in San Fransisco and saw the interactive exhibit they set up for the America’s Cup. That has fired my imagination and whetted my appetite. I’d love to get back into the field of exhibitions.

Here Exploratorium co-director Paul Doherty explains an exhibit showing what makes a boat sail faster than the wind.

The GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg (Anti)-Princess Machine

I support GoldieBlox www.goldieblox.com, a toy startup dedicated to introducing girls to engineering through a combination of building toys and stories. That is, I bought 3 or 4 boxes of their first product from the USA on blind faith. The combination of hands-on building with hard and soft materials, abstract building materials and concrete characters,  and a storybook in relatively simple English, is really nice for 4-8 year-olds, whether or not they’ve been born into playing in English.  I do think the storybook is a bit dim, I’m afraid, but the concept and the toy itself is fine. So I have these boxes of the GoldieBlox Spinning Machine sitting around my flat, waiting for my favorite little girls to pick them up. GoldieBlox has produced a followup toy, as well.

The GoldieBlox venture is more idea than toy, at this point. CEO Debbie Sterling is using social media to create a community to empower girls.”In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

This advertisement was created by GoldieBlox to enter into a contest for broadcasting rights at the Superbowl. The Rube Goldberg machine employs mechanical components that come with the toy set, and just a few more doodads you might find around the house. Unfortunately, it was not built by the girls acting here, who are however power-users and testers of the toy. The ad is intended to inspire others.

PS: The video has gone viral. 2,796,595 hits in 2 days.

PPS: GoldieBlox is sueing the Beastie Boys. Oh, no.

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.

The Love Competition

A wonderful experiment, set up as a competition: Six people subject themselves to a brainscan while they think of someone they love. As they concentrate fully, the dopamine, the serotonin and the oxytosin wash through their brain, showing up in the scan. This is not only a beautiful study on kinds of love, it’s also a stunning reaffirmation of the power of thought to steer feelings. The two winners are wonderful.

The Love Competition from Brent Hoff on Vimeo.

Helmut, for 20 years.

Thanks to Willow for the link

Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
http://www.macmillandictionary.com/
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

Corpora:
COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
(USA)
http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:
Wordle
http://www.wordle.net/
Tagxedo
http://www.tagxedo.com/

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
http://graphwords.com/http://www.just-the-word.com/
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

Lextutor
A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
http://conc.lextutor.ca/concord_writer/index.pl?lingo=English/
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/bnl/
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
http://books.google.com/ngrams/
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

Netspeak
http://www.netspeak.org/
5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, http://cs.joensuu.fi/swan/. The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.

Learning to listen to scientific lectures

One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.

The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.

The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:

Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.

The TED Talks http://www.ted.com/talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.

Video Lectures http://videolectures.net/ is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.

In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees,  President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”:  In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”,  he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.

For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.

Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.