The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

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!

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Grad school is hard: you’re not alone.

I’m back home and settled in after a wonderful ESC annual meeting. From photography, social media and teaching workshops, to stellar talks, to prizes won by friends and labmates – it was really a fantastic conference.  If you want to see some excellent photos of the event, Sean McCann posted a great roundup of some of the week’s highlights. One of the most memorable moments for me was actually during Sean’s great Student Showcase talk on wasp-specializing Caracaras, when he showed incredible video footage of these social birds all-out slamming into nests full of big, irate wasps as a means of knocking them down so they could be collected and eaten (!!!BOOM!!! It was awesome.)

I have to say, having been to larger meetings in the US, I really do prefer the smaller Canadian scene. It’s a good-sized and diverse yet close-knit group: I find it so much easier to catch up with colleagues and friends and also to meet new people and make new connections.  At ESA last year I found it very difficult to find anyone amidst the thousands of attendees, and it often felt like each school’s department was a bit of an “in-group” that was a little hard to penetrate.

Meeting and talking face-to-face with other scientists is, of course, one of the main draws of any conference. This year I found the experience particularly helpful and enlightening, not just from a science perspective, but also from a Doing Science perspective. Having had a [understatement] bit of a slump [/understatement] this past year with my work*, I had some great chats with a number of established researchers about their own challenges as grad students.

One conversation really stood out among many. This particular researcher does Very Sexy and Fascinating Science and has always conveyed a lot of passion for their work through their writing and talks. However, this person told me that by the end of their PhD they absolutely HATED their study taxon with a burning fiery hate and never wanted to see/work with another one again. It took two or three years before they were able to remember why it was that they were interested in the subject in the first place. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this – I couldn’t imagine this person ever being anything but enthralled with their science.

Yet, this was only one example of several stories I heard about how people struggled with their graduate studies: “Grad school is hard. It messes with your head. It almost killed me. You’re not alone.” was the refrain I heard over and over again. It was, frankly, incredibly reassuring to hear their stories and know that they still managed to establish successful research programs and careers despite their early-career challenges. It reminded me that even the best sometimes falter, even fail. Few among us are immune to feelings of inadequacy, doubt and occasionally despair about our work. 

Sometimes all this is just ... a bit overwhelming.

Sometimes all this is just … a bit overwhelming.

Joshua Drew recently shared a great presentation that addresses this very issue, and I’ve pulled out from it one quote that particularly blew me away:

But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.

Any guesses as to who said that?  It sounds like pretty much every grad student I’ve ever known**, at one point or another in their careers.

It was Charles Darwin writing to to Charles Lyell, one year after publishing On The Origin of Species (1861). Wat?  Yes.  Even the brightest and best among us have their bad days.

There’s hope for us all yet.

____________

* The good news is that, for whatever reason (change of season, change of scenery, change of activity, medical treatment finally kicking in, fear of God thesis committee, better coffee, some combination of the above – heck, who knows), I feel like I finally got my groove back. I’m productive and loving it, and it’s consistently been this way for a couple of months now. This is a really freaking welcome change of pace from what I’d been experiencing in the first half of the year.

** Seriously. Every time I’ve had a conversation with other grad students about impostor syndrome and/or their own work, some form of this sentiment invariably comes up at some point. It’s rampant. Also rampant are the effects this can have on student mental health. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have contacted me over the past few months to tell me their own stories – it’s incredible that we don’t hear about/talk about it more often. I sincerely thank those who DID talk about it with me – it really truly helped a great deal to hear your stories and to be reminded that I wasn’t flying solo on this crazy journey.

Close encounters at the ESC JAM photography workshop

This weekend marks the start of the 150th annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada! I arrived in Guelph, Ontario, late last night and have an awesome week of science, networking and catching up with colleagues ahead of me!  😀

The conference started off with a fantastic workshop: insect macrophotography with none other than Alex Wild! As a BugShot alumnus twice over,  I was mostly there as a helper bee, but I managed to find a few moments to sneak in a couple of shots of my own.

I mean, how could I resist this subject?
Black Widow Spider
She was a lovely, compliant, non-threatening subject;  it was really cool to get up close and personal with an animal that has such an ill-deserved bad reputation and see firsthand what they’re actually like.   It’s not my best photo ever, but I love the hourglass marking on her abdomen – this will be a useful image for instructional purposes at the very least 🙂

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.

Party hats on, please!

It’s my birthday!

I’m 34.

Thirty. Four.  (And still in school, lulz!)

This fun-loving fella is helping me celebrate by wearing his party hat today! 😀

Harris' Three-Spot (Harrisimemna trisignata)

Harris’ Three-Spot (Harrisimemna trisignata)

Seriously, is that not one wild outfit?

The Harris’ Three-Spot caterpillar is a crazy-looking critter.  What I first mistook for a discoloured leaf,  closer inspection revealed to be a caterpillar. Then I thought it was a diseased caterpillar, though, because its shape was all gnarly and twisted and it had a weird white band around the middle (which I mistook for a fuzzy fungus).

Not terrifically healthy-looking, amirite?

Not terrifically healthy-looking, amirite?

But then I poked it (I can’t help myself) and realized that it was NOT diseased; rather, it was quite healthy and also TREMENDOUSLY COOL (though possibly the ugliest caterpillar I’ve ever seen).  Yes, folks, we have another poop-mimic!

Not only is it a poop-mimic, but it is also a poop-mimic that carries around its own molted head capsules! What is this for? What does it do? Presumably it offers some kind of defense – a decoy, perhaps?  We don’t know, really. But we do know they can get a little carried away with this stunt at times.

OH! And also, when you poke it, it does a crazy twist-n-shout kind of wobbly smacking-thrashing that is something to behold.  Mine never cooperated when I had the camera rolling, but The Weird Bug Lady (over at Caterpillar Blog)  managed to catch one in the act.

I’m going to treat myself to a nice long walk in the bush today to see what other weird and wonderful bits of nature I can find 🙂

(Ok, maybe kind of neat-looking. In an ugly sort of way. :P)

Ok, maybe kind of neat-looking. In an ugly sort of way. 😛

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