The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Science Outreach

WiFi in the woods: new article on mobile technology and inquiry-based learning

For the past four years I’ve had the great pleasure of TAing a course run by Chris Buddle, called St. Lawrence Ecosystems. SLE is an undergraduate, field-based ecology class with a strong emphasis on experiential learning.

Last year, students were tasked with designing a research project – start to finish – that they could execute in the arboretum on our campus. They could pick any plant or animal they wished to study, had to come up with a research question, design their methods, pull off intensive data collection during three 4-hour outdoor lab periods, then analyze and present their data.

This project was quite novel, considering that, a) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience outdoor labs in their first year of university education (WHY???), b) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience real, self-directed research, and c) we were loaned a set of WiFi-enabled tablets to “test run” the use of mobile technology in an outdoor class setting.

Students were not required to use the tablets: they were simply presented as another tool.  As such, the tablets were adopted to various degrees by different research teams. For some, they were integral to the data collection process. Others used the internet access to check out online field guides to help them identify their study species. And some groups found they were more useful as a flat surface upon which they could write field notes on a good ol’ piece of paper.

As a component of this project, students were also required to reach out to, and connect with, different online audiences, including the general public as well as scientists, via Twitter and blog posts The tablets let them post some pretty interesting tweets spontaneously and on-the-spot while in the field and doing research. Some of them were surprised (and pleased!) to discover that other people “out there” were interested in what they had to say, and that these people were happy to offer feedback, advice and assistance when asked.

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year's cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year’s cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

One very cool development with this year’s group was that they (totally unprompted) started to tweet at their classmates in other groups, sharing relevant sightings and asking questions.  This kind of in-the-field communication and collaboration was really fantastic to see (example top left, above).

Another fantastic benefit of the tablet-enabled connectivity was that it let us instructors keep tabs on, and chat with, the students much more easily.  In the past, we’d spend most of the lab running around in this 245 hectare forest, trying to locate the research groups so we could check in on their progress. With the tablets we were a mere text message or a Skype conference away, and we could easily pinpoint their locations using shared GPS coordinates.

Anyways, I’m super-excited because the team I worked with on this project has just published an article about this tablet-trial-run in EDUCAUSE Review, an excellent periodical devoted to exploring the use of information technology in higher education.  You can read the article here: “Tablets in the forest: mobile technology for inquiry-based learning“.

sle screenshot

Screenshot of the SLE class blog

Also, if you haven’t already checked out the SLE students’ blog, “St. Lawrence Lowlands“, I highly recommend it </shameless plug>; it’s chock-full of really excellent natural history! This year’s cohort of SLE-ers are also writing blog posts about their study systems, and first of ten just went live this week, so please consider stopping by and leaving comments or questions.  And, our students are still tweeting up a storm: you can easily check out their great, information-rich posts by following the #ENVB222 hashtag!

Learning the importance of listening: sexism and harassment in science

No adorable caterpillar photographs today, I’m afraid. We’ve got more important things to discuss.

If you are involved in the online science community at all (and I assume you are, since you’re reading this), then you know that in the past couple of days some distressing stories have emerged regarding sexism and harassment.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then please take a moment to read this: Give Trouble to Others But Not Me.

And this: This Happened.

Even though I have no direct affiliations or associations with any of the people involved, other than occasional exchanges of tweets or blog links, the situations  and the many ensuing online discussions, blog posts, tweets and reports have left me reeling – and angry.

I’m fiercely proud of Monica and DN Lee for speaking out. Publicly talking about challenging or taboo personal experiences is a very difficult thing to do. They have taken huge professional risks, shared very personal information, and have opened themselves up for attack, criticism and blame. However, in taking these risks, they have also provided us all with an opportunity to have some incredibly difficult and uncomfortable but important conversations; conversations that ask us to check our own assumptions, actions and privileges. Most of us will not like some things we discover about ourselves.

What happened to these two women were not rare, isolated incidents. Sexual discrimination and harassment is a pervasive, systemic problem. Not just in the science community or the science journalism community but in the Community at large. We are all affected, whether we like it or not. It’s everybody’s business. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination happens, TO people we know, BY people we know. And yes, it even happens in the Ivory Tower. We’re not immune just because we’re “educated”. Ask around, and listen.

There was a time when I didn’t acknowledge or believe that sexism persists in academic settings: as an inexperienced 20-something student working in a biology department with a goodish number of female professors, I thought claims of unequal treatment or harassment were dubious at best, and feminazi-ish at worst. “Look at all the female profs,” I’d say.  “Sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior? Here? It’s never happened to me,” I’d say. “It can’t be as bad as that, if it’s never happened to me,” I’d say.

I’m a considerably more experienced 30-something now, and I’m embarrassed for my younger self. For whatever reason (I have my suspicions but that’s a whole other post), I am still fortunate enough to have avoided explicit harassment while in a scientific or academic setting. However, my 30-something self has learned how freaking important it is to listen to other people when they say this stuff is going on. Just because it hasn’t happened to me does not mean it isn’t happening. This sh_t happens all. The. Time. My own (incredibly unusual) experience does not negate or invalidate the experiences of countless women (guys, are you listening?).

I have so many thoughts in my head right now, about power and how it can be abused, about privilege, discrimination, inequality, and our explicit or implicit acceptance of really unforgivable actions, words, and assumptions. I think about the ways in which I have condoned or accepted these unforgivable things (explicitly or implicitly) in the past. I think about how these things have been acted out for such a long time that some people can hardly recognize or acknowledge them, or even shrug them off as part of the “normal” culture of science. I think about the type of work environment that creates for me and my female colleagues, how it affects our professional actions and choices, and how it affects our future. I despair that things won’t change.

I don’t know what to do with all these thoughts, so I’ll keep chewing on them. In the meantime, I recognize that things will never change if we don’t talk about them. This is not something to just “calm down” about and hope it blows over. I wanted to acknowledge the situation and say that I want to listen to, and hear, what others have to say, and to be part of the conversation.

Published! But not about my research…

Last week I received some very  exciting news: the first paper I worked on as a Ph.D. student has been published! It’s especially exciting because it has nothing to do with my research.

Whaaaa?

That’s right. The paper is not about my research. Well, not directly. But it does touch on something you all know me to be very passionate about: outreach and education.

It’s a book chapter entitled, “Insects in Education: creating tolerances for the world’s smallest citizens”, in a brand-spanking-new book called The Management of Insects in Recreation and Tourism.

(Pardon me for a moment…*ahem*…ZOMG I’M IN A BOOK!!!1!!…o.k., I’m good now.)

I was brought on board to this project late in 2010, after the editor, Harvey Lemelin, expressed interest in the work our research group was doing in northern Canada and the overarching theme of one of our research objectives: Northern Awareness, Education and Legacy. Since I spent a good chunk of my first field season doing outreach, education and training in a northern community, my advisor very generously suggested that I take the lead on the chapter.

Very simply, the book is a multidisciplinary look at the different ways that humans interact with insects. From the description:

[the book] challenges the notion that animals lacking anthropomorphic features hold little or no interest for humans. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the innovators, the educators, the dedicated researchers and activists who, through collaboration across fields ranging from entomology to sociology and anthropology, have brought insects from the recreational fringes to the forefront of many conservation and leisure initiatives.

Our part of this book involves some case studies based on my and my team members’ experiences and successes working in northern communities and we challenge other entomologists to embrace the idea:

… educational opportunities involving insects engage youth and provide a tangible link to more formal science training and inquiry, and provide benefits for students and researchers.  In additional to longer-term programs, informal or impromptu learning/teaching opportunities are abundant and require little effort from scientists to find and exploit them.  Such opportunities could be as simple and brief as a chat with a local who happens to stop and make an inquiry about the researcher’s work, or a quick display of sweep netting to curious children. These impromptu teaching/learning moments take little time or effort, yet can make a profound impression on the participants, and help foster strong and positive relationships within the community.  working in the north gain tremendous benefits from partnerships in local communities.  …

The time commitment and equipment to pursue local partnerships is minimal, but the impact can be profound.  We have experienced directly the benefits of using arthropods in an educational context in northern Canada, and our experiences suggest the opportunities are untapped. Given their abundance, diversity, importance in northern Canada, and ease and efficiency of sampling, arthropods are certainly one of the best “models” for pursuing further partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers.

As excited as I am about being a contributing factor to this project, it couldn’t have happened without the support and input of my co-authors Kristen Vinke, Donna Giberson and Chris Buddle. Thanks for everything, guys!

If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book, it’s going to be released in the U.S. in December, so you can place your order now and have one in time for Christmas! I can’t wait to read the other contributors’ work!

ETA: There is a 20% off discount being offered right now, so get it while the getting’s good! :D

A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium at the ESC meeting: “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.  

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from: syracuse.com

2. Half of Canadians have a social media profile: social media is an important part of the way we communicate and build communities. Academics, especially new faculty, are using social media as a work tool. 90% of academics in the US report using social media – this is nearly twice the average for all other fields of employment. Grad students not using social media in a professional capacity (perhaps especially those considering careers in academia) need to get with the program.

3. Social media can help you:

    • Improve your communication skills. You can practice using non-technical language that anyone, even non-specialists, can understand. Blogging and microblogging are great platforms for this, because your audience is the entire world (and most of them don’t understand your crazy jargon).
    • Get stuff. Like inaccessible journal articles (try the #Icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter), data (you can tap into citizen scientists from all over the world) and funding for projects (the #scifundchallenge on Rockethub.com is well worth a peek if you’ve never heard of crowd-funding).

My Twitter followers. How global is your professional network?

    • Network. Not just within your institution or field of expertise – you can develop a diverse international network of collaborators and colleagues. Being involved in social media allows to you tap into a community of scientists that WANT to engage with you. You will find mentors, friends, allies, and informants in places you never thought possible.
    • Get noticed. By your school, the media and other sciencey organizations. These people are looking for cool research and passionate scientists to feature on their web sites and in articles (which, by the way, can get thousands of readers). You can also use social media and networking sites to get the attention of other academics and boost the citation counts on your articles.

4. Important people – like future thesis advisors, future employers, and faculty search committees – will Google you. Seriously. They’ll do it to learn more about your professional and personal activities. If they can’t find you online, it looks suspicious. Grad students need to take the time to create and cultivate a professional online presence so that the right people can find them when it matters most.

This will not impress your future graduate advisor.

5. Although you want to be Google-able, don’t get caught doing dumb things online. What goes on the internet stays on the internet forever (screenshots can easily create permanent records of stuff you’d rather delete). First impressions are important, so be smart about what you put out there for the world to find.

Criticism is part of the job. Learn to deal with it professionally.

6. Sometimes people on the internet are jerks. You could fall victim to a creepy online stalker (yes, this happens to scientists sometimes), so keep your private, personal information private and personal. Same goes for that of your friends and family members.  Other people might not be creepy, but they might be critical of you and your research. Learn to stand up for your work and practice responding to criticisms in a professional way.

7. Developing a professional online presence takes time, and the upfront investment can be steep, but it’s well worth the effort. Schedule some time in your to-do list to engage with other members of the online science community, and start building your network.  You’ll be glad you did. I know it’s paid off big-time for me.

Again, if you’d like to hear more details, please check out the video.

I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but I’d love to hear about your own experiences (both positive and negative) with social media, either as a grad student or as someone in the workplace (scientists and non-scientists alike!)

Post hoc Moth Week: Day 1

Ok, I have to say this:

I feel like I kind of failed at Moth Week. :( It was not for lack of trying!

You’ll recall that I was going to revisit the same park at which I’d photographed all the lovely leps with which I left you in my last post. Well, I was there, but I had lousy luck. It rained a ton, and the slightly different forest type in which I was camping (predominantly spruce/pine rather than predominantly deciduous) made a big difference in the amount and type of understory growth and leaf litter, therefore drastically changing the moth fauna (or so it seemed). I tromped around in those woods for hours and barely stirred up half a dozen moths.

With only a small headlamp at my disposal (not to mention positively WICKED mosquitoes), I didn’t bother trying to draw them into my camp in the evenings.  I later tried collecting a few that had been attracted to the electric lights at buildings on the mainland, but I apparently need to learn some techniques for transporting live, active moths: they bashed all the scales off their wings before I could get photos of them. (The ruination of a beautiful Great Tiger Moth, Arctica caja, was a particularly devastating loss).

In desperation, I collected a bunch of neat-looking moths at my porch light yesterday night (that still counts, right???) and kept them safe in vials in my fridge until this morning, but again my inexperience with this group of insects proved to be my downfall: most of them up and flew away before I could get decent shots (how on EARTH does one get studio-style photographs of microleps??? I ask you: HOW???)

Anyways, I committed to doing moth-a-day posts this week, and I’ve managed to salvage enough photos to do just that – in fact, you’ll probably get two photos!

I will say that I’ve learned a few things about this mothing business, and I’m determined to get better at it before next year’s Moth Week. I’m hoping to find opportunities to hang out with more experienced moth’ers so I can learn the ropes first-hand…anyone know of anything or anyone in eastern Ontario?

So, for the first of this week’s post hoc Moth Week photos, I’ll start with the first two moths I encountered while camping*.

This a new one for me: the Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria. It took off when I disturbed its hiding place, and I froze, tracking it visually until it seemed to disappear beneath a clump of ferns. I stalked over, and scanned the area until I finally spotted it resting ON the fern.

Pale-winged Gray Moth (Iridopsis ephyraria) #6583. Photo taken with natural light.

The next is one I found quite often during my last trip. The Wavy-Lined Fan-Foot (Zanclognatha jacchusalis) is a “Litter Moth” (probably referring to the fact that they’re easily scared up out of leaf litter).

Wavy-Lined Fan-Foot (Zanclognatha jacchusalis) #8353. Photo taken using flash.

*Again, I welcome any and all ID corrections! I still have a lot to learn about these nocturnal beauties!

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