The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Teaching

This caterpillar is so ridiculous that it got me to pick up my camera (and a short tale about teaching)

O hai.

It’s been a while, no? Yes, yes it has.

I’ve had an interesting summer. I spent most of it at home, puttering and finding small projects to do in between bouts of “real” work. I discovered some new interests (Namely canning. As in putting food in glass jars. Don’t judge.) I did a lot of introspection. I started to feel better than I was feeling at the time of my last post.

I did not, however, partake in many of my usual pastimes: blogging, mucking around conversing with cool people on Twitter, or taking pictures.

That’s right, my camera sat unused for the entire summer. I was spending a lot of time outdoors but just wasn’t seeing my surroundings through the same “lens”, so to speak, that I used to. Walks were taken to accomplish the goal of exercising myself and the dogs. Yard work was done efficiently without my usual distractedness or frequent breaks to dash indoors to fetch my photography equipment upon sighting an interesting critter. I just didn’t seem to notice much of what was going on around me.

Then, this week, I found myself back on campus for the start of the new fall term. This meant, of course, a new batch of undergrads and a new session of the field-based ecology course for which I’m a TA.

During the first lab period, we took a walk in the woods. A simple thing. Something I’ve done frequently this summer.

Something happened on this walk, though. Two things, actually.

Thing 1: This absolutely incredible caterpillar basically fell out of the sky and landed on the professor’s binoculars:

Spiny Oak Slug

A Spiny Oak Slug. I’d never seen one before. It is ridiculous. Its chemically-defended spines make your skin tingle in a burny kind of way when you touch it. (Yes, I touched it deliberately to find out how it felt.) It is basically transparent – you can see its guts right through the flesh of its underside, and the colourful markings ripple behind what looks like clear jelly. People on Twitter yesterday said it looks like a cake, or a parade float. Facebook friends declared it a “pea pod on acid” or a siege engine. I’m inclined to agree with all of them.

It is SUCH a ridiculous animal (seriously, look at that thing) that I felt, for the first time in months, compelled to take a picture of an insect. So I took it home and had a little portrait session. I was worried that maybe I’d forgotten how to use my equipment, but a little mucking around and I was back on track pretty quickly.

Spiny Oak Slug

(There are a few more images on Flickr, if you’re interested.)

Thing 2: The presence of students shifted something in my brain. Instead of just being in the woods, I started to see the woods and its inhabitants through the eyes of the students, for whom everything seemed wonderful and interesting and “oh,wow…cool”. I remembered, for the first time in months, that…well, that yeah: the woods and its inhabitants ARE really freaking cool. I started LOOKING, and SEEING, and FINDING things, and wanted to share them with other people. For the first time in months.

The next day I took my dogs for their usual walk down an old gravel road that’s lined on either side with woodlots, scrubby hedgerows and old fields. I noticed how intensely yellow the goldenrod looked in the warm light of the early morning sun. I stopped to watch a doe and her twin fawns saunter across the road. I saw a butterfly I’d been trying to find for the past couple of years and stopped to watch it lay an egg. I found more ridiculous caterpillars, and felt compelled to bring them home to take their photos.

As the dogs and I walked, I felt a familiar stirring in my chest for the first time in months. A little flutter. It was the warm, connected and awestruck feeling I usually get when I spend time outdoors, because nature is just so freaking cool and wonderful.

And here I am, for the first time in months, wanting to share these experiences with you. And I have more that I want to share later.

So…”hi”. I’m not going to make any huge commitments, but I think I might stick around here for a little while 🙂

Advertisements

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! 😀

A challenge: can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?

(No, I’m not talking about my manuscript this week. I am busy drinking beer and forgetting about it for a few days. So there.)

Meanwhile, I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications,  it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.

I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application.  Ever.

It meant providing enough background information, context, and content to be meaningful and descriptive, while avoiding the usual trappings of unintelligible jargon we scientists so adore.  Concise and jargon-free writing should be old hat for anyone who’s ever applied for any kind of science funding… but c’mon, admit it: you STILL use all kinds of acronyms, technical terminology (and, yes, jargon) when you apply for those things, DON’T you?  You also type single space, tweak your margins, write ridiculously long paragraphs (or don’t break the text into paragraphs at all, choosing instead to use bold and italic and underlined font to designate the start of new sections), and use the smallest font you can get away with. Amirite?

Don’t lie. You know you do.

Bottom line: you just can’t get away with that stuff when you’re talking to kids. Their eyes will glaze over and you’ll lose them in five seconds flat. (Note: this will also happen at conferences, committee meetings and grad seminars. With grownups.)

Anyways, I made multiple versions of this little half-pager, and sought the opinions of several primary school  teachers to see if it was clear, kid-friendly, and interesting. I think I have something useable, but I’m going to let it rattle around in my brain for a while (i.e., drink beer and forget about it) before making a commitment and submitting a final version.

So, here’s my challenge to you: describe your research in  250 words or less with an audience of ten-year-olds in mind.

It think this is actually a pretty useful exercise, as it has broader implications for anyone doing any kind of science outreach or public speaking. Whether you’re taking to kids or to non-specialist adults, jargon and lengthy, complex explanations simply won’t cut it. Instead, clear, plain language are required, and years of work have to be drilled down to a few critical points.  Adding youthful attention spans to the mix means you also need to find a way to grab the audience’s attention and help them make relevant links to their own experiences. (Actually, you should try to do this for grownup audiences too. Most ten-year-olds probably have a longer attention span than I do.)

Can you manage it? Feel free to submit your attempt if you want. Even if you don’t, I do encourage you to give this a shot – you might be surprised at how difficult it can be!

________________________

An unrelated aside: I am apologizing in advance for being lame and not posting as regularly as usual for the next few weeks. I will do my best to stay on schedule  (especially since I’m finally getting some field photo ops!), but I’m working on a very Exciting New Online Initiative, and it’s taking up a very large chunk of my “internet” time.  This ENOI will be live and fully operational by the end of May at the absolute latest – hopefully sooner. When my partner in crime and I are finished working out the kinks, you’ll be hearing all about it (probably won’t hear the end of it, actually) – it will likely be of interest to many of you!

________________________

Alright, alright. Since so many of you are playing along (YAY!) I should probably share mine. This is a slightly abbreviated version of my draft text (I get a whole half page, which is a little more than 250 words) – but now that I’ve written this shorter version, I think I actually like it better…

If I told you that I have an amazing science job working way up north in the Arctic, I bet you’d think I was studying huge polar bears. Actually, I’m there to study smaller animals that can survive the terrible cold and love the warmer summers: insects! In June, I pack my equipment and fly to different places in the Arctic. At the end of an exciting summer of exploring and trapping insects, I bring my bugs back south to my lab, and use books, microscopes and other tools to learn about them.

You might wonder why I study tiny bugs instead of big bears. For one thing, there are millions of insects, and they come in many wonderful colours, shapes, and sizes. Insects also have many jobs: they help plants grow, they are food for many birds and mammals, and some act as the Earth’s clean-up crew, eating things like dead leaves and even poop! Insects are very important.

You also might wonder why I go all the way to the chilly Arctic to trap insects, when there are so many right here in our own backyards. Well, insects can live almost anywhere, including important places that are very wet (like rivers), very hot (like deserts) or very cold (like in the Arctic). Did you know that insects can tell us if these places are healthy and happy? It’s true! When the environment changes too much, sometimes the insects move away or stop doing their jobs: this is a sign that the environment is not healthy, and that we need to watch it very closely. Some people are worried that the Arctic is not healthy because the planet is warming up. By learning about the insects there – who they are and what jobs they do – I will help figure out if this special part of Canada is healthy, and I will be better able to guess how the Arctic might look in the future.

 

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?

Does teaching matter?

Some of you may recall that I have been the teaching assistant for an introductory zoology lab for the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year (cut the number of lab sessions in half), I took the initiative to make some pretty significant changes in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

Since the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating, I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this would be red-tape-or-pecking-order-ly acceptable, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

I’m well aware of the importance of publications as the “currency” of academia, and their role as indicators of one’s research activities. I get it. I have a half-dozen manuscripts lined up (in my head, anyways), and want to get them all at least in press/under review before I have to start worrying about securing post-doc funding.

But.

I also thought that being an academic had something to do with teaching. Like, that maybe 1/3 of your time would be devoted to preparing, delivering, and developing instructive materials for students (the other 2/3 to research and administrative duties). And, in my happy little bubble of wonderfulness that is the way I imagine academia to be, I thought that GOOD teaching would be valued by the university that hired me.  My line of reasoning therefore was this: demonstrate solid teaching experience on your CV and this would be considered an important and good thing during the hiring process – all other things being equal (publications, awards, etc.), a strong teaching portfolio could move your CV to the top of the pile.

Apparently I was wrong: it doesn’t matter.

Am I THAT off base? Is it only in my dreams and imagination that there are universities/colleges that place equal (or at least close to equal) emphasis on strong research abilities AND strong teaching abilities? Surely such places exist?

Teaching is important to me; it is something I enjoy and take pride in being good at. I take seminars or workshops when they’re available; I read things; I observe good instructors/lecturers when I can find them and do my best to pick up some of their good habits; I ask questions of those I respect; I ask my students what they want and what works for them.  I honestly believed that these efforts would not just be personally rewarding (which they are), but that there would also be a professional payoff.

Someone, please tell me it matters.

______________________________

***This same person happens to be someone who is on my list of “really good teachers”

______________________________

Edited to add:

Relevant blog posts from elsewhere, just to add to the discussion:

Female Science Professor

Crooked Timber

%d bloggers like this: