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.