Field of Science

Course Corrections

I've been teaching a course for the last 15+ years. I love this course because I conceived it and brought it to fruition. Since its inception, it has been modified a lot, primarily through interactions with the students who take the course. Initially it was a 'lecture' course, but from its inception it involved plenty of reading the scientific literature, discussion of said readings, and writing. 

One of the first major changes to the course was to make it writing intensive. In practice this did not change the course significantly, but did add an overt writing instruction component that was there but less explicit. It was about this time that I was much more active in writing to a general audience and actively engaged in science communication. These are still critically important to me, but my communication to a general audience have moved to the periphery as other commitments and responsibilities have taken over much more of my time. Regardless, my direct involvement in science communication impacted the changes occurring concomitant with the change to making the course writing intensive.

Adaptation - Education in Action

From here

While every year the course changes due to which scientific papers we use and to student interests/involvement, the fundamental structure has remained intact. This summer I am making some relatively significant changes to the course, at least in how it is delivered. The course is structured around a weekly schedule, where Monday is a didactic lecture in the organism we are discussing and relevant background related to the papers we are reading. Wednesday involves short student presentations on two primary research papers the entire class reads (the students address five specific questions related to the paper, but do not present the entire paper). Friday is a discussion related to specific aspects of the organism, papers from Wednesday, and student input from online responses.These discussion are completely open and are hard to prepare for as the discussions can go in many different directions. Regardless, the following Monday we move on to a different organism and set of papers.

Based on student feedback, I am making some significant changes. First, I am changing the M/W.F schedule to  a F/M/W schedule. Because students are reading two primary research papers for presentation/discussion, they have asked for the extra time the weekend provides to read and digest the material, as opposed to the Monday to Wednesday turn around time. This makes a lot of sense to me, so I am making this change for next semester, although it requires me to make some substantial changes to the course schedule. Second, students overwhelmingly indicate that the discussions occurring on Wednesday post-paper presentation and Friday facilitated their learning and engagement with the material. However they also noted it was difficult to see the link among organisms and topics. To be fair, there is no obvious link between these organisms/topics, other than all eukaryotes living today descended from a universal ancestral population. However, this is important and while I highlight similarities between what we were discussing in week 1 versus week 4, it occurs in passing during lecture or the discussions. So to more directly show the linkage, however disparate among organisms/topics, I am developing weekly worksheets for students to fill out asking questions like how does paper X discussed this week relate to topic Y from two weeks ago. Instead of trying to convince students of how analyses in one area can inform a distinct area, I am going to ask them to do that work in a directed way. In some cases there may be no clear links, but these higher level thinking exercises can be extremely informative to the students during discussion, but also to me (the instructor) to observe student perspectives/understanding. Third, I am developing at least one new type of writing assignment or at least making it overt that a writing assignment is distinct in style/approach than other assignments. Currently, students submit four essays that fall under the umbrella of 'essay exam'. Although these essays are completely distinct (one involves assessing a specific scientific paper, another a compare-contrast essay addressing a biological question in two distinct organisms), it appears (based on student feedback) that the distinction is not apparent. This coming semester, I am going to grade several distinct writing assignments that are completely other words do not fall under an umbrella of 'essay exams'. We already have another writing assignment, a blog post, that students do not report the same concerns with the 'essay exam' assignments even though grade associated with the blog post is slightly more than the individual 'essay exams'.

Basically, I want to facilitate student learning and embracement of, at least, some of the writing assignments. Why do I want do to this? There is much literature noting that writing facilitates learning (this is my personal experience as well).I'm not sure much more is needed to justify these approaches. However, science communication is sorely needed in society, especially societies where a significant population is more than willing to embrace non-scientific modes of thinking to justify policy decisions.

Will these changes improve student learning? I think so, but will need to make the adjustments and see how it works. The good things are these changes built on a solid foundation and are easy to alter if they do not appear to be working.

Kicking Off a New Semester

It seems like yesterday I was knee deep in determining final grades, but Wednesday I am back in the   thick of it. Luckily, my teaching is much less in the spring, two classes that meet once a week. One is a three hours lecture/lab on the Biology of Beer and the other is a writing instruction course for students writing up their research. Since I have done both a number of times, the time commitment is not onerous (I've already paid the up front costs). Of course things can always be improved so there is always some time investment improving the course(s) and keeping things fresh, but this is nothing compared to doing it for the first time.

In the fall, I am 98% working on teaching, 10% on research, 5%grant writing, 10% manuscript preparation, and like 20% on admin things. Basically the fall sucks. So now that teaching is more like a hard 10%, how do I  maximize productivity on the research? I have a manuscript to revise, so that gets top priority, but also have two manuscripts that are basically done research-wise, so they are strong seconds....BUT grants need to be written, BUT papers need to be out there to support the grants. My life is Ouroboros, but with less rebirth.

Ouroboros tat from here

The Cold North Shore; What If Its Not Cold?

Lake Superior

Back from an official, albeit short, vacation. The only work related thing I did was check to see how things were going in the lab via an email. Have a paper review to complete and could have worked on it there (didn't). Lots of emails to reply to, they didn't go anywhere and I can deal with them tomorrow. Almost always when I take time off, I end up working at some level (revising a manuscript, working on a grant, etc). This is not a good thing. This time I did it right.

Spent almost an entire day, it was overcast, reading and went on a short walk to stretch my legs. Finished the vast majority of Stephen King's Holly, an Xmas present (I have since completed it). It was a great way to reset from the busy end of the fall semester that moved directly into holiday events, which while nice are also taxing. Felt more relaxed than I had in a long time. The following day was spent exploring the city of Grand Marais, bought a new book (support local booksellers), and enjoyed a beer at Voyager brewery

Very little animal life in evidence up there, a few crows and that was about it. Did see a deer on the drive up. You might think this is not surprising, because we are deep in winter, but usually there is plenty of evidence of animal activity especially via tracks in the snow. Can identify squirrels, rabbits, deer, mice, etc pretty easily. However, this year there is still essentially no snow on the ground and the temps have been well above normal. Walking the dog in a sweatshirt, outdoor slippers, and a hat! Usually its a heavy winter coat, boots, mittens, and boots for the dog. This led to a thought, does the increased temperature affect the hibernation patterns of animals like bears, which do wake up occasionally? I realize there are other cues that control hibernation, otherwise animals would come out of hibernation when we have an almost yearly late January warm up, which is followed by another month long drop in temps in February. Animals that wake up too early, may not be able to find food. Many plants do this as well. When to germinate? When to start budding new leaves? Much of this is controlled primarily by day light length (but temperature plays a role too). This is good, because if temperature was primarily in charge, an early warm spell could be disasterous. But what about hibernating animals? They are not out in the open so day length shouldn't be much of a factor. Guess I'll spend some time on google later today.

New Beginnings and Resolutions

Its been too long letting this site sit in limbo, maybe purgatory. I have a couple of goals this year and one thing I think will help accomplish them is to write about things I enjoy and/or want to write about more frequently. So I am planning to put something here, usually (hopefully) science related three times a week. This particular post is not science related, but damnit, I'm counting it.

Obviously the fact this is coinciding with the New Year brings up the idea of New Year's resolutions. I like the idea of New Year's resolutions, but why decide to start something on a particular date, such as January 1? I think it is pretty well agreed upon that these date-specific resolutions tend to die untimely deaths usually before the end of February, which is ironic since its the shortest month. For me, using this date as opposed to October 15th, is that this is a good transition time. I am done with my teaching heavy semester, which is why I didn't attempt to start this October 15th, because I knew it was unlikely to be successful. Also the holidays are done, so there was essentially chaos for two weeks and now it's time to establish a new routine for the upcoming semester. Writing, for fun, is one way I can ease back into a routine.

Things I'm looking forward to this upcoming semester:
  • Being able to attend more seminars in person. In the fall, basically the big ones for me occur either when I'm teaching or end about five minutes before I need to start teaching. I love the option of attending online, so I can listen and see the slides but can leave early without being disruptive.
  • Reading more science. Time limitations in the fall kept me focused on those papers to help with teaching, manuscript prep, and a grant submission. Now I'll have more time to read things that just look interesting (another resolution is to read a paper a day unrelated to my research interests, which I'm starting after my vacation which starts soonish).
  • Read more for fun. I never stop reading but have much less time for it in the fall, usually just before bed. Now I have more time to read for enjoyment. I already started that but will emphasize it in my vacation and continue on....probably until next fall semester.
  • Time to brew! I have a bourbon barrel porter aging in a bourbon barrel (an Xmas gift) right now, but that's it. :(
So some science things I'm thinking about and have been for quite awhile. Why does sexual reproduction exist? What control species barriers? How do endosymbionts become plastids/mitochondria? What should my next science tat be (I already have this one figure out, just need to get it.)?

Ok, I have accomplished day 1 of writing for my personal benefit. No need to go on and on and on and on.