The Bug Geek

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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!

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!)

What makes a “good” student?

This is something I’ve thought about often, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I found myself thinking about it again recently.  It’s this: what exactly does it mean to be a “good student”?

As an undergrad, we are told that “good student” (GS) = student with high grades. Therefore, to be considered a GS by my instructors, my school, granting/funding agencies, and potential future grad school advisors, I must achieve a certain level of scholastic excellence (say, > 80%) based on grades.

Yes, I know, things like extracurricular activities and hands-on experience can help a bit in some instances, but grades are either exclusively (Dean’s lists) or mostly (some scholarships, possibly future advisors) considered to be the main indicator of GS-ness. As much as I wracked my brain to think of instances where this metric would not be the primary consideration in a practical/applied context at the undergrad level, I couldn’t think of one.

As a graduate student, many of us have little to no course work. There are, therefore, very often few or no grades. There are exams (comprehensives, defenses) and tasks (proposals, reports, oral presentations, publications) that are accomplished along the way which we either pass or  fail, often with no formal recognition of having done so. GS’s at the graduate level are usually judged by whether or not they complete these tasks, but also on accompanying qualitative characteristics including: time management, productivity, interest, communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, multitasking, leadership/management, research abilities and contributions, etc.  These things are not graded, but are emphasized when the student’s success is being evaluated by advisors, funding agencies, and employers.

All of this makes me wonder a few things:

1. Why is there such a HUGE gap between how we judge – not just judge but TRAIN – students at the undergrad level, and those at the graduate level?

2. Why does it seem like the default assumption tends to be that one’s being a GS at the undergrad level is a reliable determinate of future GS-ness at the graduate level?

3.  How many intelligent, hard-working, keen students fall through the cracks because they are “bad” at school in the traditional, structured/formal sense; i.e., they are not so great at exams or memorization, but are able to demonstrate a good grasp of the material in less structured settings. Put another way, how many students are lost because their individual learning styles are not compatible with traditional institutional styles of instruction, when they might actually have the potential to be really, really great researchers?

4. On what criteria do people (I’m thinking grad student advisors) primarily base their decisions in terms of who to take on as students in their lab? If funding (which is obviously linked to grades, at least at the M.Sc. level) was not an issue, what kind of student would you choose to work with – the one with the 4.0 GPA or the one who was able to demonstrate more practical (i.e., grad-student-like) abilities, attributes and interests?

This is a fairly personal subject for me, since, as you know, I have been told that I was “not good” at science. Based on grades alone, this assessment could be considered correct. I was also not a very strong student during the first few years of my undergrad, which should have been an additional indicator that I was not a GS.

For some reason, I wouldn’t take the hint (yeah, I’m stubborn like that).

What I know about myself now is that the way I work and learn best is not very compatible with the traditional teaching methods used in post-secondary institutions (talking head at the front of the class, scores of memorization, big exam/paper that tests everything, the end). I am, however, (close your eyes, I’m about to toot my own horn) intelligent, hard-working, creative, persistent, and excited about learning – and I know that, someday, I’ll be a good scientist, even if I was not a GS.

As a teacher, I often see students who remind me of myself, and I worry that we’ll lose them.

So, what do you think makes a good student? Your thoughts?

Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from http://www.electroncafe.wordpress.com)

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.

_______________________________

Shanahan, M., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

Note to self: things aren’t always as they seem.

I was reminded today not to make hasty judgements about people, and to have a little more faith in myself.

I taught today (MUCH better, very fun … Stella’s got her groove back).  One student sat at the front-and-centre bench, working alone  and diligently on the assigned tasks.  He asked frequent, detailed questions.  They were thorough, thoughtful questions, but I interpreted his curt and affectless demeanour as dismissive and irritated – with me?  With my replies?   I wasn’t sure which it was, but I became increasingly unnerved with each exchange, and in short order I was convinced he thought I was a complete moron.

Imagine my surprise, then, when he lingered after class to talk to me.  Not about the lab content, but about the fact that he was a brand-new undergrad and was frustrated by his efforts to express himself eloquently in a language that was not his mother tongue.  He wanted to tell me about his academic interests, and find out what opportunities there were for undergrads to do field work: “real” science.  He asked my about my Master’s research.  He wanted to know about the types of employment he might be able to pursue, how to get research funding, and how to develop helpful relationships with professors.   

These are not questions you ask of someone you think is a moron. 

His terse speech was actually a reflection of his struggle to communicate the way he wanted to (not that I had thought for a moment that he was having difficulty, he was very well-spoken). 

Long story short, I allowed my own insecurities to cloud my perception of one of my students; a young man who turned out to be very self-aware, intelligent and keen.  And who most certainly did not think I was a moron.

This was an important lesson.  I’m glad it was taught to me this early in the process.

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