Tag: teaching

DoctorAl Digest 6

Quite a bit of excitement for me this week as I participated in my first radio interview with the local CBC station on challenges faced by women in science. I posted on my preparation for the interview here . The link to the interview with myself, Anne Wilson, and the researcher who was the driving force for the display, Eden Hennessey is here.

A very informative and interesting article on the phenomenon of “plant blindness” from the guardian. Despite the fact that I’m a plant biologist, I’m as guilty of having this disease as the next person.

A cool gallery of contenders for the Agar Art contest being run by the American Society for Microbiology. Some of the images are quite stunning!

Stephen Heard has a neat post up on his blog about “The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets. Perhaps as teachers this is worth thinking about?

Flexibility in Course Selection During Undergraduate Degrees

I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology from 1994 to 1998. One of the things that I really appreciated about my degree program at the time was the number of electives that I was able to take during the course of the degree. In this post I’m defining electives as courses that you take that are outside of your department and likely outside of your faculty. Our first year curriculum was very structured, but after we declared a major in second year there was space for electives during the rest of the degree. I had mistakenly assumed that this was the norm, but talking with colleagues in a faculty meeting last week revealed many different experiences with the number of electives taken in their degrees.

During my undergrad I took elective courses in Archaeology, Classics (Greek and Roman Civilization), English, and Ethics alongside my courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math. I viewed the courses that I took through the Faculty of Arts as a welcome break from the school of thought in the Faculty of Science. I was able to look at the world through different lenses and I think that this was valuable. I think that this experience has made me a better researcher and teacher and has given me a broader appreciation of what a university as a whole has to offer students.

My perception is that the academic curriculum of our students is becoming more streamlined and constrained in the name of efficiency of completing the degree within the required time frame. I’ve come to the recent realization that I don’t believe that this is a good thing and that some exposure to other ideologies and ways of teaching and learning is a positive thing.

How much academic freedom did you have during your undergraduate degree? Do you remember a particular non-Science class with fondness?

Classroom use of Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter since December 2012 and am still learning how to use this platform in a useful way. After attending the Western Conference on Science Education in July, I’ve been thinking about how I might be able to integrate Twitter into my courses. In the past few weeks I’ve been investigating how other professors use Twitter as either a teaching tool, or how they build it into class assignments and course credit. I’ve listed a few uses that I’m mulling over below.

1) Several professors run a Twitter back channel during their lectures. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions in real time and is especially great for shy students who may not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. One example of a person who did this fairly early is Monica Rankin.

2) A Twitter feed can be used to remind students of upcoming tests and assignments. Our internal course management system already does this, but using Twitter is another quick and easy way to issue class updates.

3) Collaborative event watching. One professor teaching film studies had students live Tweet as they watched the movie Blade Runner.

4) Creating a course hashtag and asking students to post links to news stories relevant to course material.

There are many other great uses suggested for bringing Twitter into the classroom. Two sites that summarize ideas can be found here and here.

I probably won’t do anything too wild this upcoming term, but perhaps I’ll ask the students in one of my courses to dip their toes into Twitter.

Feel free to share any comments, ideas, and success stories in the comments.

The Disabled Scientist: Thriving in Academia with a Hearing Impairment

hearing aids

By writing this post I am outing myself as a disabled scientist. This will likely come as surprise to many of my colleagues and trainees as I haven’t disclosed my disability to many people at work. I have a hidden disability and as such have had the luxury of letting people know about my disability or not sharing this information. This ability to be selective in my disclosure choices is not one that persons with visible disabilities have. I have also not had to live with my disability for very long. I was diagnosed with my hearing impairment in February 2012 and have therefore only been aware of it for about 4 years. I am choosing to share my story now in order to show other early career scientists that it is possible to survive and thrive with a disability in academia. It can also serve as a reminder to everyone that disabilities can develop at every life stage and quite unexpectedly.

I first suspected that something was wrong with my hearing in the Fall of 2011. I was having consistent difficulty hearing my husband, especially if he was speaking to me around a corner or with his face turned away from me. At first we joked about my selective spousal hearing, but as time went on it became more apparent that something wasn’t right. My husband would often talk about everyday sounds (e.g. barking dogs, machine noises, thunder and rain) and how annoying they were, but I wasn’t hearing the same things that he was. I was also finding that I would have to ask students to repeat points that they were making in class because I would miss some things the first time around. In February 2012 I booked an appointment with my doctor who recommended that I see an audiologist for a hearing test.

Getting a hearing test done is a pretty surreal experience. You go into a sound proof booth, wear headphones and sensors and listen to tones and spoken words in order to assess the range of frequencies and syllables that you can hear. There were parts of the exam that were eerily silent and that signalled to me that there was something definitely wrong with my hearing. I have an impairment in the low frequency range which is very uncommon. Most people exhibit a loss of high frequencies and this typically happens as people age. As such, I’m a pretty unusual client for the clinic given that I have atypical hearing loss and I’m younger than most clients by several decades. The clinic was able to program some loaner hearing aids for me to try out the same afternoon as my exam as a first step towards treating my disability.

The first afternoon with hearing aids was pretty shocking. It was only at that point that I realized what I had been missing due to my disability and that the problem had probably been going on for quite some time. When I turned on my van to drive home, I heard a really strange sound. It turned out to be the seat belt warning bell and it sounded completely different than before. Dinner that night with my family turned out to be very challenging. The settings on the aids weren’t quite right and everyone sounded like they were screaming. It was pretty clear by that first evening that the hearing aids were extremely helpful and necessary.

Having a disability is financially challenging. The best hearing aids for my situation cost $5,000 (they are pictured beside this post). The government covered $1,000 of this cost and my employer’s health plan paid for $500. That left us on the hook for $3,500 which was a huge dent in our budget that year. I felt a bit guilty for needing the hearing aids, which was ridiculous. The other on-going cost is hearing aid batteries. I wear my units for 16 hours per day and need to replace the batteries every 5-7 days. It’s made me realize the true cost of assistive devices and the inadequate coverage by government and employer healthcare plans. After a request from me our union attempted to negotiate for better coverage in our last round of collective bargaining but was unsuccessful.

My disability largely presents challenges in the teaching and service realms of my job. I have difficulty hearing voices in the low frequency range, so “low-talkers”, male students, and quiet speakers of both sexes can have voices that are challenging for me to make out. This sometimes makes discussions and question/answer sessions in class difficult. I’ve gotten comfortable with asking students to repeat themselves or speak up when I need it. I may go so far this year to disclose my disability to my students and to ask for their assistance by requesting that they speak loudly and clearly for everyone in the classroom. I have also experienced some difficulties in faculty meetings, especially with some of my “low-talker” colleagues or friends who have learned English as a second or third language. At conferences, presentations in large rooms without microphones can be difficult and social events at the pub are my own personal version of Hell. Thus far I haven’t asked for any accessibility accommodations at work, but I have asked conference organizers to make sure that speakers use microphones and to think about background noise levels at social events. This summer I had a heating vent leak in the ceiling of my office that was making a hissing noise. Amplified by my hearing aids, the sound was distracting and irritating until fixed.

Assistance on campus is a bit confusing. Accessibility services are mostly focused on students and our equity office recently underwent restructuring. This has meant that knowing where to go for information and help is not always obvious. With the recent passing and implementation of the most recent version of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act lots of positive change is happening on campus and in the community. I will admit to being woefully ignorant of accessibility issues prior to becoming disabled. I am still struggling to integrate my identity as a person with a disability with my other identities of being a scientist, female, mother, and partner. These multiple identities are really interesting and I’m still navigating the landscape.

Thus far I only disclosed my disability to two people at work. One is a friend and the other was a colleague that I was co-teaching with who I felt should know how my disability might impact my performance in the classroom. This blog post essentially lets the cat out of the bag with respect to my socially savvy colleagues. The timing of the post is not co-incidental; I waited until I had tenure before writing and publishing it. I fully expect that my colleagues will be supportive and understanding, but the fear associated with the stigma that still surround many disabilities certainly factored into my decision to delay disclosing my condition.

If we are fortunate to live long lives, all of us will have to stare disability in the face. My disability has made me a stronger and more compassionate person. I’m a bit chagrined that it took becoming disabled to recognize the struggles and everyday realities faced by many people around the world. If you are looking for a way to make a positive impact, there are some great resources on universal course design that you can implement in your syllabi, classrooms, and assignments. Accessibility accommodations don’t just help those with disabilities; they help everyone.

Western Conference on Science Education 2015

Last week I attended the Western Conference in Science Education in London, Ontario. My goal in attending was to pick up some ideas for new things to try in my classroom and get some tips on possible assignments to try in the future. I also presented on my experiment in my graduate course last fall on using blogging as an assessment tool for learning .

Below is a list in random order of ideas that I’ll be ruminating on in the next few weeks before teaching again in fall term:

1) Have your 1st assignment early. It gives students a chance to see how you write questions and to prepare for future assignments.

2) If you use in-class quizzes, let the students teach each other for a few minutes before you evaluate them. This allows peer learning to take place in the classroom.

3) Lists of learning tasks and learning outcomes are important. This is definitely an area where I can improve.

4) Start a teaching mentoring community for faculty so that we can discuss strategies, successes, and challenges and learn from each other.

5) Get over the need to feel that every minute of every lecture has to be perfect.

6) I usually have students evaluate my teaching using a paper survey that I hand out in class. Other teachers found that allowing the students to use 15 or 20 second audio or video clips to deliver feedback led to more authentic responses.

7) Investigate the PeerWise platform.

8) It’s important to teach our science students how to communicate science to non-specialists and to tailor their communications to their audience.

9) I attended a great workshop that discussed strategies for teachers to maintain their well-being during our busy teaching semesters. Lots of valuable tips that I hope to implement!

10) Think hard about my classroom policy on electronic devices and their use. Tanya Noel and Tamara Kelly gave a neat presentation on “Does the digital have to divide us?”

Mental Health First Aid

Many of us in academia have taken first aid or CPR training. The first time that I had to learn some of these techniques was during swimming lessons as a child. I later took an intensive first aid course during my undergraduate degree. I’ve thankfully only had to use this training twice; both times involved successfully using the Heimlich maneuver to prevent someone from choking. I would therefore like to think that I would help someone out if I knew that they were in some kind of medical distress (e.g. having a heart attack, hit by a car, broken limb, etc.) You’ll notice that the examples that I’ve given here are physical ailments that have obvious symptoms. I’ve recently had to ask myself the hard question of whether I know what to do and would be willing to provide assistance to someone having a mental health crisis. Prior to last week, I would have been ill equipped to do so and probably would have hoped that some other bystander would step up to the plate and render aid. The easier choice in the moment is to turn a blind eye to mental illness perhaps out of fear, stigma, or ignorance, but I will argue that we have as much responsibility to render aid to someone experiencing a psychotic episode as we do someone who has suffered a concussion.

Last week I participated in a two day workshop on Mental Health First Aid offered by trained volunteers at my university. The program was put together by the Mental Health Commission of Canada . I would strongly encourage faculty colleagues to take part in this workshop or a similar one if offered on your campus. Many mental illnesses have an age of onset that overlaps with the ages of many of our traditional students. You may be in a position to recognize mental health problems experienced by your students and be able to provide assistance. The goal of this program is not to make you responsible for diagnosing mental illness, but to educate you so that you can provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The course also goes a long way towards combating the stigma that still accompanies mental illness. Mental health problems are common, but many suffer in silence due to a lack of knowledge about supports available and fear that they will be ridiculed or discriminated against due to their health condition. Mental health problems include substance-related disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; chances are that many of your colleagues, friends, and family have or will have a mental health problem. According to the Canadian statistics, one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year, while one person in three will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The economic costs from lost productivity and medical leaves are huge, but it is the personal costs to the person with the illness that is the real tragedy here. Contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one. People with mental illness are often ostracized, belittled, disbelieved, judged, or told that “it’s all in your head” or to “snap out of it”! These are real medical conditions; imagine telling someone with cancer that their disease would go away if only they “stopped being so lazy”. We have a long way to go in educating ourselves and fighting against ignorance.

I feel fortunate to work for an institution that recognizes the value of training its members to offer assistance to those experiencing mental illness. I hope that I will never have cause to use my training from last week, but that is an unrealistic wish and I recognize it as such. I look forward to the day when the stigma around mental illness is eradicated and the needed social supports are accessible and readily available. Until that day comes I will stand ready to offer assistance to those who need and want it and to dispel the myths that abound about mental illness. It is my wish that you will do the same.

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

One of the more challenging aspects of my first year as a tenure-track faculty member was teaching a university level course for the first time. I had previously served as a teaching assistant in several labs and had done a few guest lectures prior to starting my faculty job, but I had never prepared, designed, and delivered a full semester course before. It was a terrifying prospect!

Since that time I’ve learned a lot from the experience of teaching multiple classes, but I’m always on the look-out for resources that could improve my teaching effectiveness and enjoyment of interacting with my students. I just finished reading the 14th edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips .

The book is divided into several major parts: Getting Started, Basic Skills for Facilitating Student Learning, Understanding Students, Adding to Your Repertoire of Skills and Strategies for Facilitating Active Learning, Skills for Use in Other Teaching Situations, Teaching for Higher-Level Goals, and Lifelong Learning as a Teacher. I liked this book because it does talk a bit about theory, but also offers tangible examples and exercises that you can try in your course preparation, in the classroom, during testing and evaluation, and in the future. This book offers a fairly robust coverage of most of the challenges that I’ve run into as a university teacher and suggests ways that these issues can be avoided in the first place and realistic solutions that can be applied when necessary. It’s very practical and has led me to think quite a bit about the structure of my courses and the assignments that I’ve been using to evaluate student learning. I’ve picked up several ideas that I might implement moving forward and found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading the book.

I think that it would be a great resource for new teachers in a university setting and is also a worthwhile read for experienced teachers. A bit of thinking and planning before launching a course is time well spent and this book is full of multiple gems of advice and knowledge for university teachers.

The 10 minute in-class essay

When I was a student I hated writing tests and examinations with the intensity of a thousand flaming suns. Now that I get to set the curriculum, I actively look for alternative assignments to tests and exams that I can use in my classes. One assignment that I’ve had a lot of success with is the 10 minute in-class essay. It’s quick to administer, flexible, and doesn’t take a lot of time to mark.

At the beginning of the semester I tell my students that I will be offering 7 opportunities to write an in-class essay during the course and that they should make sure that they always bring a few sheets of paper and a pen with them to class. I ask that my students complete 5 of the in-class essays. Each essay is worth 2% and the total towards their final grade is therefore 10%. The dates of the in-class essays are not disclosed to the students, but at the beginning of the semester I work out which dates I’m going to be offering the essay opportunities and try to spread them out over the semester. This is where the flexibility comes in. Since I only require 5 essays to be completed, a student could miss 2 opportunities completely (due to illness or other life events) or could do poorly on a few and still earn a good mark on this assignment category. A student could complete all 7 and I will then calculate their mark based on the best 5 essays. The assignment also encourages students to come to class because they don’t know when I’ll offer an in-class essay and it forces students to keep up with the material because the essays are based on the content of that class or the class before. The students like the flexibility of the assignment and the fact that each one is low stakes, so it doesn’t cause a lot of stress. It also provides me a quick way to check in with my students to see if an important concept is not being taught or learned effectively.

Prior to a class in which I’m going to do an in-class essay I put together a slide that contains the question that I would like the students to answer. I try to make this question as open ended as possible and ideally it could have several correct answers depending on how the students are interacting with the course content. In class we do our normal activities and lecture and I use 15 minutes of our in-class time to run the assignment. It takes the students a few minutes to get their paper and pen out and to put away their notes and laptops. I put the question up on the screen and give them 10 minutes to write a few paragraphs in order to answer the question. I circulate around the room to address any issues and then collect the essays. Depending on my schedule I run the in-class essays at the beginning of class (this very effectively discourages tardiness), the middle of class, or at the end of class. In the next class period I take 5 minutes to explain several of the possible answers and to clarify concepts if I saw that common mistakes were being made.

So what does one of these questions look like? As an example, in my Endosymbiotic Theory course we do a section on the origin of mitochondria. The prevailing hypothesis is that mitochondria were once free living bacteria until they invaded or were ingested by another cell. We talk in class about the various lines of scientific evidence that support this particular hypothesis. My in-class essay for this section of the course is the following:

 Antibiotics in medicine that are used to treat infections in people are very effective in disrupting metabolism, cell walls, membranes, transcription and/or translation in bacteria. Given the hypothesis that mitochondria are derived from bacteria, explain why antibiotics are not toxic to humans.

An answer that would earn the full 2% might talk about how mitochondria possess an outer membrane derived from the host organism and an inner membrane derived from the bacterium. They might suggest that the antibiotics have no effect on the outer membrane or cannot penetrate it and therefore the mitochondria are impervious to the drug’s mode of action.

An answer that would earn 1% would talk vaguely about membranes, but wouldn’t clearly explain the rationale behind the answer.

An answer that would earn 0% would be one where the student puts seemingly random facts down on the page that don’t form a cohesive answer to the question.

There are alternative answers to this question that do not involve membranes (e.g. gene transfer to the nucleus, loss of drug targets over evolutionary time, etc.) and if the student is able to make a compelling and convincing argument to answer the question I am flexible in the answers that I accept.

I find the 10 minute in-class essay to be a great evaluation tool and an effective way of assessing what my students are taking away from my classroom. I am often impressed by the answers that my students provide which reveal their creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Active Learning Exercises for Teaching: Photosynthesis

I teach a 3rd year Plant Physiology course and a 4th year Environmental Stress Biology of Plants course. In both of these courses I go into quite a bit of detail about photosynthesis. This is material that my students have been exposed to in previous undergraduate courses, but in the context of these two courses my aim is to show students why the process of photosynthesis can be a double edged sword. I think that most people assume that plants love any level of light and that the more light that plants have access to the better. We often talk about photosynthesis as a steady-state pathway when in reality plants are constantly acclimating to their light environment likely on the timescale of milliseconds. I use an active learning exercise in my classroom in order to teach my students that photosynthesis is a dynamic process fraught with dangers for plants.
For this exercise I bring in a bag of soft plastic balls. These were left over from a ball play-set that my son had when he was younger (think the ball pits that you can find at IKEA or that used to be present at indoor play areas). I also bring in a large metal bucket. I ask for 6 volunteers from the audience to participate in the activity. Each student represents a complex/mobile carrier involved in the photosynthetic electron transport chain (e.g. photosystem II, plastoquinol, etc.) and the last student in the row is the enzyme ferredoxin-NADP+-reductase. The balls are used to represent electrons. The first student’s job is to accept the balls that I pass to them and then pass them to the next student. The other students in the chain in turn accept the balls and pass them along the chain. The last student in the chain aims to deposit the balls in the metal bucket. The bucket represents the ability of the plant to use the electrons to produce NADPH and ATP and to fix carbon.
The first time through the exercise I put balls into the chain at a very low rate. This shows the students that sometimes plants can have difficulty generating energy and fixing carbon if light is limiting. This would be similar to severe shading effects for example. I then put the balls into the chain at a reasonable rate. This represents a “steady-state” for photosynthesis where the process is running efficiently. For the last part of the activity I put the balls into the chain at an extremely high rate; as quickly as I can pass the balls to the first student in the chain. Inevitably the balls get dropped frequently at various parts of the chain and many of the balls do not make it into the bucket, or the bucket overflows. I use this to demonstrate over-reduction of the electron transport chain and to explain the generation of reactive oxygen species during photosynthesis.
Based on previous course evaluations, the students enjoy this exercise and claim that it helps them to remember key aspects of the photosynthetic electron transport chain. I’ve found it to be an engaging and effect way to teach about photosynthesis in my classroom.

Flipboard: Finding current science news stories for use in your classroom

In the courses that I teach I’m always on the look-out for current news stories that are directly related to course content. One source that I’ve found to be a great source for these particular stories is the app Flipboard. They have a science section which is a great source for stories being covered by the popular media. Below are a collection of stories aggregated by the app within the past 24 hours.

If you teach a virology course, spending some time talking about the recent discovery of vials containing smallpox in Maryland  would be directly applicable to the course content and will likely grab the attention of your students.

Talking about plant dispersal in your botany course? EarthSky has written a great summary of an article about how migrating Arctic shorebirds are spreading mosses and liverworts  to new areas of North and South America. The plants may hitch a ride in the feathers of the birds.

Really into amphibians and conservation biology? Check out this Associated Press article on the hellbender; a giant salamander that is rapidly declining in population in the United States.

If invertebrates are more your thing, you’ll be amazed to watch the video of a purple siphonophore in this article from the Huffington Post.

I do a section in my Endosymbiosis class where I talk about all kinds of amazing and gross parasites. Talking about how a targeted eradication effort has almost wiped out the guinea worm in Africa  would be a neat way to talk about how public health efforts are changing our ecosystems and the natural world around us.

I’ve just given biological examples above, but the app collects stories related to many areas of science and engineering that could be used to bring your course content to life.

Feel free to share other news story resources that you use for course material or for general interest in the comments below.