The Novitiate’s Odyssey

Episode Five - Part II: Mental forays into education, microscopy related safety and a challenge.

by G. Joseph Wilhelm, Florida Keys, USA


( Editor's note: Previous episodes - part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. part 5 - I. )


Education is the most important and integral element, aspect and concept in the physical, scientific, technological, moral, ethical, artistic and philosophical advancement of the human race and civilization. As such I have a strong conviction its support, preservation, application, promotion, improvement and placement first and above all other endeavors, should be the world prime directive of our species.

Did I leave anything out?

(Please remember these are my “musings” as Mr. Walker has previously described my belletristic offerings and as difficult as it is for me to fathom why the entirety of the masses are not always in replete agreement with my presuppositions I must concede to the possible corporeal eventuality of this circumstance. Therefore, I must paraphrase my entire existence with “I may be wrong, but it seems to me…”)

Knowledge, being the substance of education, could arguably be included in the first paragraph. But however useful it may be to the individual possessing it, it is useless to society in general without the means to effectively promulgate and pass it on. While the first paragraph is a laudable premise it is unfortunately not the applied focus of our current educational policies. Micscape Magazine fulfills the spirit of the first paragraph statement, even more so now that it is being archived. So it is here that I wish to address a perceived area of education that could be vastly improved with the reader inserting the above paraphrase wherever deemed appropriate.

I am proud to be an Instructor as mentioned in Episode one, and while we could argue the semantics and connotative level of importance to titles such as Teacher, Professor, Schoolmaster, Tutor, Educator etc., we all essentially serve the same purpose to individuals that have varying degrees of age and pre-education. The terms may be somewhat interchangeable but I prefer “Educator” as the appellation to encompass all of the above. The primary prerequisite to being an Educator is to possess knowledge and there are established requirements for all levels and positions of Educators, which is good, but it is here that our system stumbles. My education has been the focus of numerous Educators with proprietorship of vast and impressive amounts of erudition but, quite frankly, could not teach a hungry dog to eat. Comprehension came after a good deal, sometimes excessive, amount of mental gymnastics on my part that could have been eliminated by delivering the material in a different manner. Being given possession of a mathematical formula is knowledge, but quite separate from understanding its application. The cogency of transferring knowledge from one person to another is how quickly and how well the recipient grasps an understanding of its application. This should be the measure of a good Educator. (Insert paraphrase) In our educational system there is simply not enough emphasis and training applied to teaching the teacher how to teach.

The US Navy has taken a long hard look at this very problem because their experiences has revealed inadequate training not only results in poor performance; it has the very real possibility of being fatal to the individual. As a Navy designated civilian instructor teaching Navy safety programs, they have taken extensive measures to ensure my capabilities are to par with their standards. This was accomplished through the “Instructional Delivery Continuum” (IDC). This program is in two parts, the IDC Apprentice, an extensive instructional docket which teaches you how to become an instructor, how to teach a course as it were. The second Part is the IDC Journeyman, even more demanding than the first, which teaches the proper delivery of the Apprentice course, how to “teach the teacher” so to speak and thus the “Continuum” concept. Having satisfactorily completed both courses the Commanding officer of Atlantic Targets and Marine Operations Detachment Key West (ATMO Det KW) has designated me a Journeyman Instructor. No degree required.

The neat thing about The IDC program is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the course material being delivered. It is applicable for any subject from home economics to physics, from philosophy to weapons training. Below is a partial list of teaching aspects presented in the IDC:

The student-teacher interface

How to assess a class as a whole and read an individuals profile from their mannerisms, body language and speech patterns. This gives a starting point to decide what challenges they will pose, if they are in class voluntarily or to meet a job related requirement and which teaching techniques to apply. The proper techniques for dealing with disruptive students or other distractions, sleeping, tardiness etc. How to coax correct answers from less than enthusiastic pupils, how to foster participation and assessment of comprehension.

Class safety, physical and environmental considerations

Proper lighting, temperature, humidity and their physiological and psychological effects. Determining the timing and duration of class breaks. An individuals health considerations. Location of exits, fire extinguishers. Outdoor instruction. Who in the class knows CPR. The four teaching “time zones” and their effects. 1. Early morning just after (tired/hangover) arriving to work. 2. Late morning just before (hungry) lunch. 3. Early afternoon just after (I want to take a nap) lunch. 4. Late afternoon just before (I am eager to get out of here) happy hour.

Instructional delivery

The timing and pace of the presentation. Instructor physical presence, proper posture, body language, hand gestures, proper technique for walking among the students during presentations. Vocal inflections, phrase structure, maintaining class command, maintaining attentiveness and respect. Using comprehension tools such as choosing suitable associative analogies. The art of the question (Proper timing, structure and delivery of group or individual questions). Use and techniques for instructional aides, video, power point, physical demonstrations with mock ups or actual hardware. Weaving the student-teacher interface components and their use seamlessly into the presentation. How to develop your own instructional style. Presentation/improvement of pre-written courses.

Course material organization and testing

Course developmental theory. Writing a course from scratch, identifying course goals and information sources, order of presentation logic, sectional division of material. Identifying the merits and inadequacies of exams, tests, quizzes and student proficiency demonstrations both written and oral plus their proper composition. Proper technique to administer the above. Identifying and analyzing patterns in student response to improve comprehension.

The philosophy of teaching and self-assessment of ones own capabilities were the closing topics.

A considerable depth of study was attended to each of the above incomplete sentences. This is by no means all of the subjects covered, just what I can remember off the top of my cranium.

The final task for graduation was to write a course from scratch on a randomly selected subject (mine was forklift operator training) and deliver that course to select panel of Journeyman Instructors already qualified to teach it, and use as many of the learned techniques as possible. One week to research, prepare, and rehearse. This was after passing all the class tests and it was considered a Proficiency Demonstration (PD). The panel would review the performance and give a positive/negative recommendation to your Commanding Officer for designation as an Apprentice or Journeyman Instructor. No grade, just pass or fail. If the recommendation was negative a complete retake of the course was required before another PD.

So you see, the Navy considers there to be a little more to being an instructor than just knowing the material. (Insert paraphrase) while there is commercially available course instruction to the above, the ones I have seen are not nearly as comprehensive and are not as widely required in industry or the educational system as would seem beneficial.

A final note:

As passionate as I am about education I was absolutely thrilled to hear the (Is it the British Library?) Micscape articles are being archived. It is an admirable accomplishment worthy of esteem. My congratulatory regards to Mol Smith, David Walker and all the Micscape family and contributors who made it possible.

There, end of my lexiphanicism. Opinions and debate on the aforementioned are like… totally welcome.

Some Common Sense Safety

Being the safety instructor for all manner of topics i.e. hearing and sight conservation, heat stress related illness, explosives, electrical hazards etc., I believe the two most related to microscopy are Respiratory protection and Hazardous Materials Management and Use.

I have read articles on using alternatives to some of the substances that are regarded as toxic for making slides, fixing, staining, cleaning diatoms and so forth. However, it seems the “toxic” materials usually yield better results for whatever it is you are trying to do. So really, how far must we go to protect ourselves? Do we have to eradicate any possible contact with these poisons? Let me pose a few more questions to add some perspective.

Can you drive a car safely? Yes. Can you eliminate the associated hazard/risk of accident or injury? No. You cannot eliminate risk from an associated hazard. You can only mitigate it to a point where the risk is acceptable. The same goes for working with hazardous substances. We take risks with our lives everyday, driving is my favorite example, it can kill you. We mitigate the risk by driving responsibly, obeying the laws (following instructions) wearing seatbelts. We lower the risk to a point where the benefits of driving outweigh the risk and it now becomes an acceptable risk. We handle hazardous/toxic substances in our homes all the time with no concern. Everyone knows the devastating effects chlorine bleach can have when gotten into the eyes but when was the last time you donned chemical splash proof goggles when pouring a cup of Clorox into the washer?

What is a toxic/poison substance? That’s easy…everything. To quote Paracelsus (Theophastus von Hohenheim), the Renaissance father of toxicology:

All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Dose = concentration x exposure and, as is taught in hazardous materials handling courses; substances considered toxic are harmless in small doses, and conversely an ordinarily harmless substance can be deadly if over-consumed. Indeed, drink too much water too fast and you will die, and not from drowning. (Nasty stuff, water.) Now drink a small amount of phosphoric acid occasionally i.e. Coca Cola and you are OK. Add another toxin to the phosphoric acid, say, alcohol i.e. rum and take occasionally and you are still OK. Too much and you suffer internal organ failure and brain damage which leads to watching Oprah Winfrey and Benny Hill reruns.

It is for this reason that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its National Institute (NIOSH) have developed exposure limits for a major portion of the compounds, solutions, and elements that constitute the chemical makeup of products available today. They are usually stated in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) for atmospheric content. The actual ppm in the atmosphere cannot be measured in real time. An air sample needs to be taken and sent to a lab for analysis. The exposure limits are usually a Time Weighted Average (TWA) for exposure over an 8-hour workday, 40 hours per week. For most of the over the counter substances the main concern is the aromatic hydrocarbons/volatile organic compounds (VOC) given off in the form of a vapor from glues, adhesives, thinners, solvents, paints etc. For normal home use, as intended by the manufacturer, the exposure to the toxic elements is usually quite low. Unless engaged in intentional abuse such as concentrated “sniffing” or “huffing” of these substances, there are normally no ill effects.

HOWEVER…Do not attempt to outsmart your common sense!!!

If you find yourself working with a hazardous/toxic/poison substance at home (you don’t have to look too far, ammonia, insecticides, drain cleaners, oven cleaners, are some of the more obvious), or, if in the pursuit of microscopy you use any of the witches brew of reagents etc., here are some common sense tips.

First. Get a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the product you are using. The manufacturer will provide you with one, the store like ACE hardware will print one out for you or you can usually find it here at the National MSDS Repository. Then, google “How to read an MSDS sheet”. Take some time to read and understand the MSDSs. They have a wealth of information, ingredients, exposure limits, first aid measures etc.

Second. Ventilation is your friend. The desired method is to get a non-oscillating fan facing away from you with the source of the vapor between you and the fan. This will gently draw fresh air from behind you and direct the vapors away from you. The fan can be directed towards an open window or into ducting. My set up is a 14” box fan with a cardboard funnel taped directly to the face and necked down to 3” clothes dryer vent hose and out a small opening in the window to keep the heating/cooling in the room. Quite effective actually. Sucks away vapors without rustling papers and having things blown about.

Third. Wear an air-purifying respirator. (see Fig 1 & 1a)This is probably the most prudent and beneficial investment in your own health an individual can make. A half face negative pressure respirator like the one pictured with organic vapor cartridges and particle filters is about $30. They can be bought at hardware stores and home improvement centers. I use one on a regular basis when fogging or spraying insecticides, varnishing, painting, woodworking, sanding, vacuuming and even barbecuing (which does not give a warm and fuzzy to those I am cooking for, but I really don’t care). Read and follow the directions.

Respirator complete Organic vapor cartridge unscrewed and particle.

Filter removed.

Add the proper gloves, neoprene, rubber, latex and goggles if there is a splash hazard and you can be as safe as you want to be working with “toxic” materials. Just know your enemy and what defensive measures to employ and the risk involved can be at an acceptable level.

The Challenge

Living in the only true tropical paradise in the contiguous 48 has its rewards but there is a noticeable cultural and intellectual void.

The available labor pool here in the Keys, from which my company must employ, and to whom I am charged with educating for the benefit of their own health and well being, are shall we say, not the “best and brightest” our nation has to offer. They seemingly have migrated here because wherever it is they are from, they are “wanted” or “unwanted”. Their concept of mass transit is a pontoon party boat. They think a “Closed, gone fishin” sign in their banks window and showing up late on their first day of hire and asking for a raise is perfectly acceptable. A small portion of this collective also runs the distinct risk of extinction if someone ever hides their food stamps under their work clothes. Fortunately we are spared from inadvertently hiring the professional criminal element because they already have gainful employment in public office.

When about to teach a safety class I first check the city and county law enforcement web sites so I have a reasonable expectation of who will attend. Once assembled and using my highly tuned IDC techniques I quickly ascertain the student body temperament of rather having root canal surgery than be subject to another instructional session. I have to resort to instructional techniques eerily similar to dangling a carrot in front of the donkey to achieve the desired result. It’s like teaching fourth graders who lack the guile and deviousness I normally associate with nine year olds. Such is my life.

(I am getting close to making my point, but not quite, please bear with me.)

We recently had a modest gathering of my wife’s friends and property management clientele (About 60 or so including 8 children. If it were my friends only Chauncey and his Cajun friend Thaddius would show up). On a whim I set up the Spencer stereoscope in our entertainment area with a single 3x objective and 10x eyepieces and securely fastened it to a small table with illumination. I sprayed a black card with photomat adhesive upon which I unceremoniously stuck a small yellow biting fly on its butt end with the head facing the lens. A small sign next to a coffee can inviting the general public to view the miniature flesh-eating monster for a nickel completed the display. I had to chide the adults to place five cents in the can while the children dutifully honored the request. Well, all but one, a particularly abrasive urchin attired in a crimson tee shirt emblazoned with a black pitchfork and the apt words “Daddy’s little demon”. He kept trying to steal the fly. I was able to convince him there was several of these blood-sucking flies the size of my Doberman living in the thick jungle surrounding the estate and they were attracted to the color red. I showed him the two inch long Keys Cicada I had caught earlier (Diceroprocta biconia) and said, “See, here’s one of their babies.” He spent the rest of the evening getting therapeutic reassurance from his parents while they pointed to me as an example of a bad person.

The reaction from those who viewed the fly varied from fascination to a grimace accompanied by “Yuck!” with the latter being predominant. There was one young lady, a nine year old who kept returning and staring for quite some time though the scope. She started asking me questions. She had learned about cells in her school science class and wanted to know how big they were. I told her the ones I have been in are about 8’ by 10’ with one bunk. Without hesitation she replied, “ No I mean the science ones.” I said give me twenty minutes and I will have an answer. I could have given her an answer of bacteria single cells are bout 200 nanometers and blood cells are about 6 to 8 micrometers but this would have meant nothing to her. I did some quick research and calculations and presented the following in an attempt to give her some perspective and application.

My props/analogies were a 12-inch ruler with 1/16 in divisions and a straight pin like they hide in new shirts. (Someone please correct me if in the following I have omitted some optical ray trace exponential algorithm et al or am generally showing my a** if my math and generalizations are wrong.)

We measured the head of the pin and it was real close to 1/16” or .0625 Now, at 25,400 micrometers to the inch, the pinhead was 1587.5 micrometers across. If a red blood cell is 8 micrometers, I told her we could fit 198 of them side by side across the top of the pin. She squinted real hard at the top of the pin trying to imagine the 198 little dots. Since there are 192 of the 1/16 in. divisions on the ruler, I said (these are approximations now) if we magnify the pin head 200 times it would appear as big in diameter as the ruler is long and the blood cells would look to be (approx.) 1/16 in. in diameter and we could fit one in each of the divisions on the ruler. She was now looking back and forth between the pinhead and the ruler and getting a concept of the actual size of a blood cell. Then I said if we magnify it 800 times the pin would look to be 4 ft in diameter and each cell would appear ¼ in. across. Now she also had a concept of magnification and with what appeared to be a smile of comprehension, she promptly went off to tell her brother she was smarter than him. She came back several more times to show others the pin and ruler. A minor learning success? I think so.

If I had the same sort of tutoring when I was nine, microscopy would have been a much more enjoyable and enduring interest. No formulas, diagrams, or theory. Just information reduced to its most basic concepts and presented in an analogous form so simple and apparent an eight year old can understand. (In the Navy they are called “Executive summaries.”) That is the challenge.

As an archived resource I propose Micscape create a “ten and under” category and challenge the contributors to author an article on some aspect of microscopy using references an age group this age group would be familiar with. A storefront display window to explain reflection, beam splitting depending on what angle you are looking at it etc. Be creative and simple. I would really like to hear your thoughts on this.

I promise I will never write anything this serious again. Time for some distilled molasses and phosphoric acid. Caviling rhetoric accepted by me Joseph Wilhelm.

Cheers, Joseph

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