Friday, November 25, 2016

Some Advice on Teaching Group Assignments.

Working in groups, and leadership in particular, are always in the top two skills that employers are looking for. To help my students get that experience requires making group assignments. Recently, I feel like I have finally figured out how to do this right. Here is what works for me and my students.

1) Explain to the students why group work is important and unavoidable. I point out that if you run into someone in dark alley it is much less scary if you have five of your biggest and best friends with you. In life, numbers matter. A working group will ALWAYS beat an individual and there are some tasks only groups are capable of accomplishing. They will be working in groups for the rest of their lives so they need to learn how to do it. From a teaching perspective this means one of the worse mistakes one can make is to turn an individual assignment into a group assignment. The task must genuinely need to be done by a group. 

2) Teach your students how to work in a group. Many teachers seem to think they can just turn students loose on a group project and they will magically figure out how to make it work. The number one lesson of group work is what we evolutionary biologists call division of labor. That means people doing different tasks, ideally with each person doing the task that they are best at. The point is for the group to be better than the sum of the parts. You have to explain that they need to meet, pick a leader, set ground rules and expectations, get to know each other’s talents and abilities, and most importantly figure out how to allocate tasks so that each task is done by the best person for that task. With debate teams for example, I tell them to allocate the most argumentative and forceful personality to cross examination and the clever but shy people to library work and prepping arguments, and the arty types to make the slides. Competitive team debates may be the best type of assignment to teach group behavior because it unifies groups to be challenged by outsiders and provides a great example of how important working together is because going it alone against a team would be futile.

3) Rationally design the groups for maximum diversity. Never, ever, ever, ever (can I emphasize this anymore?) let students self-sort or you will end up with a superstar group and many struggling groups that are total disasters. On top of this they will inevitably end up racially segregated. I use every bit of knowledge I can glean ahead of time including consultation with TA’s to construct groups. We first separate the top performing students to date to designate each group. Next, we allocate diverse talents and types to make groups that should be as functional as possible. Sometimes we have to resort to random allocations but that is still better than letting the students pick their own groups. Finally, we allocate the problem students, essentially handicapping the groups as evenly as possible. This measure will save a tremendous amount of time and energy later once you learn how to do this. It also means putting off group projects as late in the semester as possible to get to know the students.  If the students balk at not being able to pick their groups and partners, I remind them that they cannot chose their coworkers or families so just get on with it. Never let them argue their way into being grouped with their first choices. In fact, I deliberately avoid pairings that students ask for ahead of time. We also have to avoid problematic combinations. There will be racists, misogynists and other people who for whatever reason should not be paired with other races or sexes or individuals who they have bad histories with. 

4) No opting out! I have sat kids down on presentation day when they showed up with slides in hand the night before expecting to just add them to whatever the group did without interacting with their group. Tell them this upfront from the beginning that there is no opting out of working with their group. You need to make it crystal clear that going it alone is not an option. There are two ways to do this. First, as said before, make the assignment too big for one person to do. Second, assess how the individual preforms in a group with peer review of group members. I always make it clear from the beginning that their group members will be solicited to comment on each individual’s contribution and that no one will be allowed to do the assignment alone, period.

5) Keep an eye on the groups and respond to problems immediately. After the project is done is not the time to discover that Robert was AWOL the whole time. Usually about a third of the way along a group assignment I email or ask the class how it is going and if they are satisfied with everyone’s participation. If they are not question the task allocation then talk to the offending member. Don’t jump to conclusions here. Nontraditional students can have family obligations that 18 year olds have no concept of. The only option for the worse type of slacker may be giving them a zero and freeing the group of having to deal with them. Next talk to the one who complained because turning on group member is poor group work behavior. Groups need to have each other’s backs. The proper response for dealing with a poor group member is to help them so that they can contribute as much as possible, and to cover for their weakness so the group does not suffer. Turning on the weak link only serves to bring the whole group down with them. Tell your students this after you ask for the member feedback the first time.  I have also had occasion to move a group member because of irresolvable differences. Again this is always fluid and dependent on specific student interactions. The rule is that there is no rule except to make an effort to keep on top of group problems.

6) I grade them as a group. They need to know that it is all for one and one for all like in real life. This can be hard for the over achiever students who gravitate to the leader role. I point out that getting the best out of others is part of the assignment and if they failed at that then their grade should reflect it. If someone thinks one student pulled down the group ask why they did not support and help that student. Why didn’t they allocate or reallocate the workload more appropriately? This is the whole point of the exercise and what defines good teamwork and good leadership, hence their grade needs to reflect that.

I hope this helps as I have found following these guidelines to yield very good results with happy students and high levels of accomplishment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When should a moderator call out lies in a formal debate?

The recent controversy in the news about whether or not debate moderators should point out lies struck a nerve with me after my classroom debates last semester. I have been doing organized and competitive team debates at the end of my third year Genetics and my third year Biology of Aging classes. These debates are on controversial social topics and have proven very popular. I would have to count it as one of my most effective assignments as it does seem to get students thinking and fired up like very few other activities. The team element also has proven an excellent way to teach group work by emphasizing the need to divide the labor based on individual student strengths. The problem I ran into head on last year was a very charismatic and persuasive student who cleverly argued a falsehood from a very weak internet source. The student is clearly a very talented debater so I want to be clear that I am not criticizing him at all. In fact it was a great performance on his part in that he could take such a weak piece of evidence and convince the room that it was true. Kudos to him for pulling it off! The problem is how to handle this in a teaching situation where the need to teach the truth may conflict with it being the other team’s responsibility to shoot down and point out the weaknesses in the argument.

This same issue is raising its head in the presidential debates where journalists whose job should be informing the public on the facts are being picked to moderate debates which need to be fair competitions. This puts the journalist moderators in a very similar type of conflict of interest. Should they be fair and not be expected to do the other side’s work for them or should they stick to their moral duty as journalists? The solution in this case is simple, we need to stop asking journalists to mediate these debates and instead ask retired judges or some other neutral party schooled in debating. It should also be explicitly stated in the rules that it is never the moderator’s role to identify the facts or misrepresentations.

In the class situation above I simply could not let the falsehood go so I did tell the class about the one off experiment, the online shenanigans and that the point was wrong, but only after the debate was over and the outcome decided. I also asked the class to consider the rhetorical techniques that our super debater skillfully employed to persuade them. Unfortunately I was still taken to task by one student in the end of semester surveys for “calling out” the star debater to the class. I don't know what else I could have done. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cesspool of Online Plagiarism

While running a plagiarism check I entered two sentences into Google resulting in what appears to be a dozen cases of cut and past plagiarism. I can not even discern where the original came from. The first two from major universities are identical throughout and I would assume from a Nature Publishing press release with Nature's permission. Is it plagiarism to use material this way implying it is from the posting institution without citation if the original author says it is okay? To me, that seems to be exactly the definition of plagiarism, taking credit for someone else's work. At least Sciencedaily says "based on" at the bottom and implies that that means copied from.

It is very difficult to teach undergrads to not plagiarize with such bad examples out there. The reuse of the material by the two universities with permission is probably legal in the real world and neither are likely to go after Sciencedaily for republishing it, but this would be classified and prosecuted as plagiarism if a student did it because of the implied authorship.

Science writers of all types really need to be better attributing their sources. And Kudos to for putting it in quotes as it should be. As for others who copied . . .

To see for yourself, copy and paste into Google: “While a child’s genes are inherited directly from their parents, how these genes are expressed is controlled through ‘epigenetic’ modifications to the DNA. One such modification involves tagging gene regions with chemical compounds called methyl groups and results in silencing the genes. The addition of these compounds requires key nutrients including folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, choline and methionine.”

The above screen shots were taken December 10, 2014.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Safety and the Law

There was a time whenever I had to deal with anything labeled Health and Safety at work that I would want to jump up and down and scream at the complete irrationality of it all. It took a single epiphany to make me understand how to cope with this frustrating topic even though I still want to scream a bit. The key insight was that occupational health and safety is actually the combination of two unrelated topics, preventing accidents and preventing lawsuits.

I used to naively believe these two were somehow related since you can’t have a lawsuit without something bad happening. That is certainly true, but there are two other truths that breakdown the correlation of lawsuit prevention and safety, 1) accidents will happen no matter what (the shit happens principle) and 2) what prevents lawsuits (documentation, blind unthinking adherence to “safety” procedures, ticking off paperwork and overly general safety training) usually does not prevent accidents but can actually create more dangerous ways of working.

Separating the law aspect from the safety aspect of lab work can really help to understand how to make a better and safer workplace. First and foremost, if we ignore the legal for a minute, safety always comes down to how well each worker is trained in good habits and how well they understand what they are doing and what the real risks are. That means, knowing that big bottles of common acids, bases and organics are much more dangerous than minute amounts of potential mutagens and radioactivity, it means knowing what to do when you inevitably spill something, it means knowing that anything sealed and frozen or under pressure could explode in your face.  Most importantly, in science it means understanding what you are doing, what your lab mates are doing, and having a true realistic assessment of the risks with your SPECIFIC experiments.

On the other hand time wasting chemical safety classes on transport and disposal regulations that no one but safety officers need can cause workers to focus on the wrong issues and miss-evaluate their true risks. In my opinion, some rules for handling and concentrating mildly dangerous chemicals can actually increase the risk of spills making for a more unsafe work environment. A classic example was a class that suggested handling small containers of the radio-isotope P32 with forceps. This is insane as it greatly increases the probability of dropping the container when there is as negligible risk from the small amount of radioactivity that this procedure was being recommended for. Such measures come from the nuclear industry where much larger amounts of radioactivity are being handled. We frequently encounter the same over-kill rules with hazardous material rules written for handling large drums of chemicals instead of small vials containing minute amounts of material.  Another example is risking burns and wasting time and money autoclaving material that could be safely thrown in the trash at home.  I will go so far as to say that in decades of working at university labs I have never had a single safety training course worth the time spent in it with one exception: an outdoor first aid class for a field course. This was useful because of the real life role playing exercises focusing on real life scenarios. I should say that is not the fault of university administrators, but of federal and state regulators with the hopeless mandate to come up with uniform safety procedures and policies that can be applied across all types of organizations.

Real lab safety training only comes from your direct supervisors’ and lab coworkers’ one-on-one instruction in the lab. The most important and indispensable piece of safety equipment in the lab is your brain. Unfortunately human brains are very bad at assessing risk and will always focus on risks within their own experience. This is good for the individual worker in their own lab, if they have the good sense to stay vigilant and to develop good habits (the fading of attention to risk is the biggest safety problem).  However, this also means that someone else’s outside opinion from another field (“safety officers”) will always be less correct than your own, or a peer’s assessment. You are responsible for your own safety and those around you, and as a principle investigator you have to make sure that that one-on-one training is done and done well. But remember that accidents will always happen even if you do the right practical training and work correctly.  Without the paperwork, the useless required training courses, and following the legally required procedures to cover yourself, you will be the one with legal liability no matter how poorly or well you train your people.

This is a very important point, the really annoying and time wasting safety procedures are almost always about the law and not real life safety, but that does not mean they can be ignored. There is no use arguing with these rules and training requirements over whether they actually improve safety or not because that is not their function. Their function is to shift liability. The fact is that we PIs are personally responsible and can be held financially and criminally liable for accidents in our labs. If someone in your lab gets hurt and files a lawsuit, what do you think you university’s first move will be, 1) to provide you with legal help or 2) cover their own backsides?  All of that paper work and mandatory “safety training” is basically our way of dodging legal exposure. Remember that the same thing that works for our administrators is also our only legal strategy so we must make sure our workers and students are ticking the boxes too or else.

The trick to real occupational health and safety is to first figure out the legal requirements, then work to come up with practices complying with the rules and regulations while minimizing the negative effects these have on safety and productivity. The most dangerous trap is to believe that just because your organization is ticking all of the legal boxes your organization has actually done anything to improve safety. In my experience, blind box ticking degrades safety both directly by misapplying rules and practices, and indirectly by creating a general anti-safety attitude due the sheer stupidity and inane paper work that such rules generate. To improve safety the answer is not about thinking up clever rules or procedures, but motivating direct supervisors and lab workers towards a safe work culture and environment. Why not require each PI to put together his or her own lab safety training session once a year and peer review that training plan with the department? Even though this would be infinitely more effective, it cannot work because each lab will leave something different out and as soon as an accident happens that falls outside the training the lawyers will be called in and demand some sort of uniform watered down cookie cutter coverage. It is like playing whack a-mole with a new rule for each odd rare accident until the common sense stuff is lost in the noise.  It seems the best we can do practically is to remind each other to only do that in the hood, or to put on your eye protection, or to not leave that out on the bench, or show everyone the correct way to poor and carry corrosives and so on.  Only this sort of mentorship through habitually demonstrating good behavior will lower the frequency of accidents. What horrifies me is the real possibility that one can be free of liability by making sure their workers have checked the right legal boxes, without actually being sure they know how to work safely. Imagine the uproar if such box ticking avoidance of responsibility was applied to preventing sexual assault on campus. Oh, for HAVEN’s sake did I really accidentally mention that!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dealing with Unmotivated Students

Recently I have run into that classic paradox in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian shouts to the crowd to “Think for yourselves” and the crowd responds in unison “Think for ourselves”. There is a much more subtle and difficult to handle side of this paradox with student motivation in college. How much responsibility is the teacher's for “motivating” students to do the various learning activities?
Here is the problem, no matter what class I have ever taught, there are always a few students who will do the absolute minimum, and that only when I go to great lengths to make them do it. These students only work and study under direct or indirect coercion. The knee jerk way we deal with this problem is to over assess and cook up novel ways to require attendance and outside preparation. Classic examples of this approach are over assessment with too many assignments, too many exams, passing mandatory quizzes before lab sessions, and mandatory attendance. 

There are reasons to question this approach of using assessment or other forms of coercion to make the students do what we want them to do. Besides the obvious dilution of assessment as a teaching tool, it denies the student the opportunity to learn self discipline. That second point really hit home recently when I had one of these errant students show up in my office at the end of the semester concerned about his grade. He stated that it was my fault that he was not attending lectures because I had not imposed a penalty on attendance to make sure he showed up. He was basically saying that I had to force my will on him in place of his own will to make him attend class.  As a teacher, we can make students do almost anything with the whip and threat of grades and peer pressure, but are we doing them any favors if we teach them that all they have to do to succeed in life is to respond to threats made by others? The difference between trained unthinking employees and independent educated leaders and entrepreneurs is the ability to self-regulate behavior and to act on one’s own free will.

I think there are two ways to approach this problem. The first are the classic methods I mentioned above to force students to do exercises and attend class with threats and grades in the hope that they will eventually see the benefit and begin to modify their behavior. Clever and directed graded exercises are the standard tool of education. Even this tool however, must be moderated to avoid removing the need for student self-discipline and self-motivation. I really believe that the best teachers will leave room for students who are not disciplined and unmotivated to fail. This is hard, because a failing student can be seen as failure as a teacher.  It can feel like passively watching a drowning person flail in the water, but there are many times it is of more long term benefit to the student to let them go under. Unfortunately there are some students who will only benefit from failing because only by honestly asking themselves why they failed will they be able to move forward. I do feel for their personal pain, but this pain and crisis is sometimes the only way a student can grow up and find themselves. For some in your class this may be the first in a long of failures before the student grows up.  If they decide to stay in the subject area, then only by facing the pain of failing can they learn that they have to put in the effort even for those aspects of the class that are not directly graded. I will go so far as to say, any teacher who is not failing some students is not doing the job well. This is one of the aspects of teaching that makes assessing teachers so difficult; student performance will always be a bell curve with some super stars and some super failures. Part of the job of a university teacher is to produce both ends of the curve because that is what does students at both ends the most good. The only possible way to assess teaching is to look at the level and depth of the material being effectively covered, and paradoxically, not the overall satisfaction of the students. Hence, one of the absurdities of applying a business model to higher education is that some student customers are paying to be failed even though that is the last thing they think they are paying for.

The second and the highest approach that I use to motivate students is to make the subject interesting and appealing. This side of teaching is sometimes overlooked and only shows up in the comments from the top students at the end of year course evaluations. No one can teach a topic well if they find it boring. If it is a chore and uninteresting to the teacher then only the best students will have any chance of discovering the beauty of the subject. Teaching is part seduction where the beauty and elegance of the subject must be presented in its best light to spark the interest of the students. This is the highest motivation that we see with the top students in the class, and what made us go into academia in the first place. It is also the reason why over emphasis on teaching over academic scholarly activity and  research is not good for undergraduate education.  Do not under estimate this force of love of being engaged in the subject, as it is what we all are aiming to inspire in the class room. So remember to “look on the bright side of life!” and not just the bludgeon of assessment to motivate your students.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Public Student Blogging

I will be handing over my section of Communicating Biology (Bio 380 at SUNY Plattsburgh) to a newbie next semester and so would like to take some time to lay out what I think is the best assignment/learning activity that I experimented with over the last year and a half: setting up and writing public blogs on biology.

The basic structure of the assignment is to 1) set up a blog, then 2) make a series of regular entries where each entry must consist of at least one well written paragraph in some area of biology. The paragraph requirement is to prevent micro-blogging or just posting short blurbs and images. I settled on six entries of one per week with the possibility of the student redoing and editing each for additional points.

The first big question is do you do it in public or in private, the second is how to maximize the benefits and lower the risk when you realize that having the students post publically is the best way to go. There are several reasons that public blogs are the better option. First, and most importantly the level of writing will dramatically improve as peer pressure and pride will motivate students to do a much better job. There is nothing like knowing your friends, family and general public are going to be reading your work to make you pay a bit more attention to spelling and grammar. The resulting difference from a class assigned piece of work and a blog can be like night and day. Second, it gives students a more prominent web presence (if they chose, more on anonymity later). This sampler of their interests, writing ability, thought process and personality also can stand as evidence to future employers of a student’s genuine interests and willingness to go the extra distance.  

The first part of the assignment is to set up a blog site. I point the students to Google Blogger and Wordpress. The common set up problem is the confusion between Google Plus, Google’s version of Facebook, and Blogger which is the blogging site. They have to have a Google Plus account in order to set up Blogger and some students think they will be posting on Google Plus which is not the case here. The more serious issue is accidently revealing private information due not understanding the settings (i.e. cell phone number, yes it happened!). It is imperative that the instructor look at the sites as soon as they are active to make sure that the student has not revealed anything they might not be comfortable with. I always give them the option of being anonymous (see the safety lecture a bit a later) so that they can control their own web presence. Some chose this, most use their real names and even post head shots as profile pictures. At this stage I look for the simple set up without gadgets and just want the link to their sites.

For the second part, I point them to news sites and encourage them to do current stories with the benefit of their own insights and to add something to the story. At first they have to be encouraged to add hyperlinks and images. I also start asking them and showing them how to add gadgets. As far as the writing style, they need reminding to use primary sources and to write in good journalistic style with the main point up front. Most of the students seem to get the style after four postings but I go six to give them a chance to really get into it.

As part of the introduction to the assignment, I always give the students a safety lecture covering what I consider the main risks; 1) saying something inflammatory that hurts or destroys their career, 2) committing slander, 3) copyright infringement, and 4) violating hate speech laws and other speech regulations around the world 5) Generally revealing too much about themselves. I consider this as important as a laboratory health and safety lecture because the ramifications can be life altering in the worse case. This lecture is especially important because I have found that our students are completely ignorant of hate speech restrictions in Europe, the backward slander laws in the UK (reversal of burden of proof), and that they have to be very careful criticizing agricultural products in the US and any products made by companies with lawyers. So far I have had to remind students about copyright images (repeatedly . . .), had one case of plagiarism the student would not take down, and one case where the student may have put herself at risk of a lawsuit by parroting criticism of a pharmaceutical drug a bit too directly without supporting evidence. We have yet to get any takedown notices nor threatening letters from lawyers, but it is the world wide web so one has to be careful of international sensibilities and laws especially if one expects to travel abroad at some point in their life.

The good and bad surprises

The greatest surprise has been how willing most students are to exceed the minimum assigned paragraph. All of you teachers out there think about how many times you have assigned a minimum of one paragraph and routinely get back more than one from your students? The authenticity and choice seem to make a huge difference here.

Another surprise is how the freedom of topic choice can bring out student interests. Students tend to find a focus (fisheries, endangered species, tropical stories, human disease etc.) and in many cases students find their unique voices.  This control and creative expression is priceless and I believe a strong authentic motivator for student learning.

A less than optimal surprise is how hard it is to get students to respect copyright laws. I fear that the battle over copyright images or any other material online has been lost as this generation simply believes in their hearts that if it is online it is free and morally okay to use for any purpose. I tell them that whether they personally believe it is right or wrong, at this time they still need to adhere to the law and that the best option is to use their own images and media whenever possible.

Another problem that appeared was how prevalent plagiarism and bad reporting is in the blogopshere. As I checked up on student work I found cases where they copied someone who copied someone else, who copied someone else to the point that I could not figure out who the original author was! The standard of good journalism of checking primary sources for any story really needs to be emphasized. It should be noted that plagiarism has to be closely monitored because it is committed in full view of the world. I have to ask students to take plagiarized work down after copying it myself for the inevitable disciplinary proceedings.

There is a real problem with the very few students who still do not care. Some will do minimal work and and end up with juvenile encyclopedic entries or worse. Even pride does not seem to matter to some of these students. I have to ask myself it is my responsibility to prevent these students from embarrassing themselves. The assignment does seem to have a positive effect on most of these problem students and I have seen some lost causes turn it around when faced with having to write publicly.

The missing problem has been trolls. I was bracing myself to having to deal with abusive, sexist, racist and/or threatening comments. Thankfully, those have not materialized but when or if they do I am hoping that our students are internet savvy enough to not let these people get to them. If it ever does become a problem, I may start asking students to dis-allow comments from the beginning.

Finally, I think it is important to emphasize to the students that they are now contributing and giving back to the world the benefits of their biology education to date. The main question I ask the students when grading these is what have you added to the story? This is their chance to make an impact on the world and express their own opinions and thought on current issues in their favorite area of biology. Now if just one of them would keep it up after the class ends (please Bioissexy we all want you to keep on posting!).

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A change of name

I have decided that the title of my blog was fine when I was mostly talking about the trials and tribulations of being a biologist expat. Now that I feel like I have come home, It is time to scrap that name for my web alias.Yes, this is not the America I left and yes it has changed for the worse in my opinion (too right wing, the Patriot Act etc.) but I no longer feel like I don't belong. This past election cycle my wife and I decided an election with our two votes. As long as that can happen there is still hope that we can turn it around.

The topics discussed here will be unchanged though less about cultural differences. I am cooking up several teaching postings and am planning on doing some reviews and generally trying to be useful.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Road Trip!

I finally took a day off on Friday and we decided to make a run north of the border for the day. Like most of our trips we picked one thing then went from there. The Dale Chihuly art glass exhibit is in Montreal and that became our goal. This was the first out of the country trip since returning and it ended up going pretty much like most of the other trips to foreign lands. The border crossing is always a bit anxious even when you know your legal and have the correct documents. There is always the little scripted game the border agents play with you asking you where you’re going where you're from while cleverly probing you for details in a disarming manner. Even when you’re perfectly honest there is always something stressful about knowing that if you answer the questions wrong they will park you somewhere for special attention. The first thing I noticed when we did cross the border was the odd traffic laws. The speed limit suddenly became 100 and from what I saw it must be illegal to signal before changing lanes in Quebec. Montreal is much bigger than I thought it would be and we did what we always do when visiting a city with non-english signs; we promptly got lost. I have said this before, if you can’t stand getting lost don’t travel to foreign countries. Anyway, we quickly re-oriented and found a place to park near the museum and immediately sought out a cafe to calm down.
We found a cafĂ© where my first effort in French completely failed. The accent also had Karen completely stumped. We knew we would not get away with septante,  huitante and nonante, but who would have guessed that pain au chocolat is a chocolatine in Canadian French? When I did break down and describe it english, it was good enough that I could have been in Europe! I had forgotten how intellectually stimulating being immersed in signs and people using a foreign language. There is something about constantly working at understanding and translating that keeps your brain more awake.

This one needs to be outside.
The exhibit was magnificent and we took A LOT of pictures (see Karen’s set at, my 3D’s, are and will be on my Tumblr site at The museum is free but the special exhibit costs $20. It was totally worth it. We ended standing in line for about 20 minutes. After the exhibit we went to lunch and then went back to to see the regular exhibits. For lunch we wandered down the cheap restaurant street (Bishop) completely by accident. We decided on a funky looking Mexican place that turned out to be vegetarian (Burritoville) after walkng past a bunch very greasy looking options. 

Really good vegi food!!!
We had the best sweet potato tacos I have ever had! It was very good, inexpensive and I would highly recommend it. After lunch we walked around the block to get back to the museum and found the expensive Euro-outdoor style restaurants like you see in Switzerland and France. Maybe next time we will try one of those if we are feeling homesick for Europe. We went backing in and saw the free exhibits which were also interesting and good. The drive back went better without getting lost. The view going over the Champlain Bridge is amazing and we saw even more amazing driving again. We were a bit worried about the wait going back into the US but we only sat around for about twenty minutes. Overall it was a great day and we are planning to hit the botanical garden next time around.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hudson Rocks!

Backside of Hudson Hall
I may not be in the Geology Department but I did notice their messing around with our landscaping. The boulders behind Hudson Hall are actually quite interesting and not so common. The ones that first caught my attention are three massive black boulders near the back entrance.

A magnetic smile with magnets.
Garnets in Granite
When I looked closer I had a hunch so I went up to my office, pulled some magnets off of my magnetic white board (came with the new office) and they stuck to the rocks! These are obviously HUGE pieces of magnetite.  Another very cool set is a local specialility that I have seen in the wild at Point Au Roche. They are granite boulders with garnet inclusions. These garnets are not gem quality but have been mined in the area for use in sand paper (why sandpaper is orange).  The other big rocks look sedimentary and boring to my eye, but I am sure our geologists did not pick them without a reason. Nice job Geology! Now if I can just figure out a way to introduce some ants . . . 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Stop Assigning Lab Reports!!!

The lab reports in most science classes are probably the most destructive exercises in all of science education. It seems like a good idea to get the students writing, but it is never good to make them practice doing things wrong, and the common lab report is almost always full of assigned wrongs.

It has been my experience that students are always confused when they move between disciplines and between professors about what is expected on lab reports.  Citation formats, what to include, what to leave out all change with discipline and the specific class. The problem is that each discipline and each professor has their own format emphasizing specific learning objectives (LO). The seemingly logical and irresistible temptation is to assign a report style perfectly tailored to the exercises specific LO’s. For example, if a lab requires a Bradford protein assay, do the students include details on how the procedure is done, the data table and the graph showing the standard curve or do they just report the protein concentration in the context of the experiment? Pedagogically, if one is teaching Bradford assays, one might be tempted to make the students include all of that in the results. However, this teaches students to put material in the results that is never in a real journal article. If you need to check student proficiency of these specifics then why not ask the student to put this in a supplemental section at the end of the report so that the student knows that this is supplemental and never core to writing up their science?

The result of these sorts of mistakes is that when the student moves on, the next teacher has to re-educate students on the next class’s lab report style. Worse still, is that we all get stuck making graduate students unlearn lab report writing before they can move onto proper manuscript writing. 

Why don’t we all agree to always have our science students use a journal manuscript format for all lab reports? Why not ask students to write their reports as manuscripts for submission to a relevant journal that we have pre-selected. I am now giving students a specific journal format to follow and pointing them to the instruction to authors section for direction when I assign a lab manuscript. These formats are all on line and freely available. By looking at model papers in these journals for guidance, they will find examples of what to include and what not to include in a general and universal way. If I want them to include something that is not routinely included I tell them to put it into a supplemental section so that they know it is extra.  Students will also see that there are different citation formats for different journals and that they need to adhere to the one for that journal.  If physicists send students to physics journals, chemists to chemistry journals, ecologists to ecology journals then the approach would be consistent across disciplines and students would understand why differing citation and other formats are being assigned in different labs.

The one rule I have found with this style of lab reports is to have a ZERO tolerance for breaking format. The only effective way I have ever made the majority of students reference properly is to return reports with ill formatted or bad references with zero credit and telling them to redo it and resubmit. The same policy is the probably the only way to teach the method format. The inevitable protest will be “but it is just the references!” or “a zero for not abbreviating authors names!!?”.  If you do not take it seriously and give allocate a small portion of a grade for formatting, then the students will not take it seriously either.  The answer to these protests is that any professional editor will make you do it again, so get used to it. Following a publication format is what one has to do to publish anything anywhere. In other words, make it authentic. The practical advice for this kind of assignment is that the policy absolutely requires that manuscripts be submitted with enough time for resubmissions remaining at the end of the semester (at least two weeks for first submission date prior to end of term).

By writing in real publication style, the students will see that there are different formats and understand that these formats must be adhered to in the real world. Most importantly, Writing up lab experiments would become authentic practice and not create bad habits that we have to unteach them later.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Take credit for your student’s success? then take the blame for the failures.

Nothing makes me question someone’s teaching ability more than when they brag the achievements of one of their past top performing students, and then launch into a rant about how the bottom of the class is wasting everyone’s time because these students are lazy, unintelligent and/or unmotivated. We all have superstars in class and they will always perform well. All one has to do to get the superstars onside is to flatter them a bit while offering some sort of helpful advice. These students can do wonders for your teaching reputation as they are invariably the most outspoken and articulate and therefore most likely to tell everyone how wonderful you are. Hence, catering to the elite end of the class is probably the easiest and surest way to advance your teaching reputation. However, it does not make you a good or even passable teacher. The top 10% always takes care of itself, it is how you deal with the other 90% that separates the great from the descent teachers.
If you want to have my respect for your teaching then ask or tell me how you deal with your worse student. What techniques and methods do you use with the ones who are struggling? What ideas or approaches are you considering to improve their performance and yours? I have some ideas, like emphasizing what is beautiful about the subject and always trying to emphasize and bring out what is the most astonishing and amazing aspect of whatever topic I cover. I m convinced that only by kindling a genuine interest can one hope to motivate the bored students.  In addition, I have found that treating even the worse students like responsible and reasonable adults who are not stupid, but perhaps misguided, or who might have problems outside of class can help as well. Remember that no matter how much a person screws up, doesn’t attend class, or misses assignments, no one wants to be a failure. The question you have to ask the student is why are they behaving that way and what can they do to change that behavior?  So what do you do with your problem students?
The bottom line is that you should not take credit for your students’ successes unless you are also willing to take the blame for their failures. The real measure of your teaching ability is how much better ALL your students’ are with your help, than they would have been without it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Our Tech Savy, But Network Illiterate Students

This past semester I had a blast teaching Communicating Biology (Bio 380) at my new university in Plattsburgh. Since this is a third year class the focus was more on post-graduation skills than on university survival like the tutorials I used to teach in Southampton. Hence, there was also an emphasis on writing cover letters, working on CV’s and on different forms of presentations students might find themselves asked to do in the real world. Two very important aspects of this are dealing with the media and managing their web presence. For the media assignment, I had the students set up and video an interview with each other including much of what I learned from a valuable career development workshop seminar giving by the Royal Society on interacting with the media a few years back. To my great surprise the students needed hardly any equipment (most did interviews on their own webcams) and did very creative jobs with editing and producing their programs, albeit with enough copyright infringements that most could not be posted online. What amazed me was that I only had a couple who asked to borrow webcams and that all of them managed to put together videos with very little instruction or school provision of equipment and software.

On the other hand, I was taken aback at the apparent lack of thought most students have given to their web presence. They all must think about it with their Facebook sites, but very few can make the leap to how this can work for and against them in the grown up world. I must admit that I am equally dismayed at how little thought most of my peers give to their web presence as well. As competitive as academia, any edge helps; and the internet is one of the best ways to gain that edge. So after enlightening my students about how to tame Facebook, use Linkedin and the importance of taking control of their online presence, I also assigned them to make their own websites by modifying freely available templates with HTML and to write blogs which are online (link). I was worried that assigning basic HTML programming using a text editor was a bit like teaching how to use a slide rule in an age with computers, but they did well and seemed to appreciate actually seeing how this thing called the internet works. Interestingly they came up with websites that were more professional looking than most of our faculty members off campus sites. The blogs are kind of a mixed bag as you can see, but several of them found a voice and they actually were communicating biology, which I what the course was about. What will be telling will be to see how many of them keep it up.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Twice as much education for double the price?

One of the most striking differences in the American and British university systems is the amount of class time required for a bachelor degree. The US semester is 50% longer and the undergraduate degree program is one year longer (3 years in Britain, 4 years in the US). For those who have problems with math, this means American undergraduates are in class exactly twice as long as the British counter parts. Of course, The British students only take classes in their major, whereas the American system includes breadth with liberal arts requirements. The two questions that I have to ask are 1) Do American students get twice the education as the British and 2) do the British spend half as much money per student as the Americans for a Bachelor’s degree?  I realize that I am biased, but my guess would be yes to the first and no to the second. In the case of double the time, American students get a much broader experience, more opportunity to change direction as the students mature. We American instructors get the added freedom and luxury of time with the longer semesters allowing more time for teaching innovation and time for flexibility in dealing with difficult topics. The flip side of this can be a lack of focused effort from the students. This extra time and extra choice leads some to flounder whereas the focused more intense rationed system of the British system encourages never straying from the path.  I have no idea about the second question about relative cost between the two countries.  If anyone can point me to any hard numbers on these issues please do.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My First Trilobites!!

It looks like I moved from the Jurassic Coast to the Silurian Shore. Here are pictures of my first trilobite fossil finds. Growing up in Oregon, I am used to tripping over fossils all over the place with the exception of the big basaltic lava flows around the Columbia River Gorge. The rocks around Lake Champlain are very different. They are some of the oldest in North America with some dating from the mid Cambrian and most not more recent than around 450 million years old. This means there are very few fossils compared to Oregon, even in what is obviously ocean floor layered sediment. To my eyes the layers of grey rocks look like they are missing something. The Cambrian must have been a very lonely time or composed of some very squishy critters that did not fossilize. Last weekend however we were checking out Point Au Roche and I came across these two impressions along the lake that can only be trilobites. I had never found trilobite fossils before so I am probably more excited than I should be. Theese are not spectacular specimens but they are my first (also added a Scarlet Tanager to my life list on the trail back). Trilobites were fascinating animals that went from being very common and diverse sea creatures to completely extinct. They had some of the fundamental segmentation patterns associated with modern arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, millipedes etc) and the first compound eyes. If The Doctor ever offered me a ride in his blue box I think a trilobite collecting trip would be close to the top of my list of things to do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Our Third Foreign Country (part three)

In an earlier post I talked about the honeymoon period one gets when moving to a new country. Well, the love in with Plattsburgh has begun!!! Here is my list of things I love about this place:

1) It is stunningly beautiful. The lake, river and country side is amazing. There are lots of outdoor activities and you can be in the middle of nowhere with a short drive out of town.

2) The people still have the small town friendliness and openness about them.

3) Humongous parking spaces, wide roads and the town is small enough that traffic is never bad.
4) The University is right on the Saranac River and river trail.

5) It's summer! Even this heat wave has been a huge relief compared to the weather we left behind.

6) They speak American English. Awesome!

7) The Koffee Kat coffee shop. I had the most AWESOME raspberry coffee milkshake ever.

8) Good Mexican food (at Pepper's Restaurant)

9) The wildlife, we have already seen a woodchuck (ground hog) behind the hotel and a beaver during a test drive while car shopping. A giant raccoon scared Karen nearly to death when we went for a walk a few mornings ago. Never know what is going to pop up next.

10) We are near our old friends Ken and Sara, Ken barbeques like a pro and his homemade beer number 17 is so good it would sell well in a British pub.

11) The birds, I have seen Cardinals, Blue Jays, Ospreys, Gold Finches and many other old favorites. I even have two new ones for my life list, the Common Grackle (the iridescent blue head is amazing in the right light) and Eastern Blue Bird. I can't wait to hit the major birding sites in the area!

12) Riding the ferry across Lake Champlain.

13) There is a mall and nice grocery stores with an awesome range of choices.

14) Cheap gas. Americans don't appreciate that anything under $8 a gallon is a steal where we were living.

15) Common sense seems to rule at the university. Very little bureaucracy at work compared to Britain and a senior management that so far is more interested in the practicalities of making things work than with appearances.

16) Lot's of free parking downtown.

17) I might actually be able to practice my French giving lost Canadians directions to the Wallmart.

18) They don't drive too fast here like they do in Britain. 

19) Poptarts on sale 2 boxes for $4.

20) In Southampton the Ford Focus was everywhere, in Plattsburgh it's the Ford Mustang. I think that pretty much says it all.

Note that I decided to skip part 2 because whining about cell phone companies, cable companies and the DMV is predictable and boring.