The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: education

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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Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.”  When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology.  Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.

Result: MIND BLOWN. TOTAL BRAIN-CRUSH.

Then I watched both of her TED talks.  Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach. *swoon*  In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

My advisor asked me to live-tweet the event, something I’d never done before, and I gave it a try. From those tweets, I created my first Storify (an application that compiles social media soundbites). You can read my Storify summary of Dr. Nadkarni’s talk here: http://storify.com/GeekInQuestion/nalini-nadkarni-talk-at-mcgill-university 

Some of the last few points she made were among the most poignant for me:

She was definitely preaching to the choir, in my case.  The Q & A period allowed me ask something that’s been on my mind. It was similar, actually, to a question I recently asked about teaching.

I stood at the microphone (a little nervously), and said something like: “I’m a grad student. One thing I’m passionate about is science outreach with both specialist and non-specialist audiences. However, we grad students repeatedly get told that the only important currency of academia is our publications, and that science outreach is not a good use of our time. Clearly, you’re someone who thinks it’s important. What do you say to this idea that it’s not valid or important work, and how do you find the time?”

Her answer, I thought, was both honest and encouraging. It also very much reflected a general philosophy that threaded through her discussions of her work and her outreach activities.  The philosophy seems to be: “There are systems that have been in place for a long time. These systems are not likely to be changed any time soon. There is little point in trying to change a system if you want to advance you own ideals or goals: you’d probably be wasting your time. Rather, find ways to work both with and outside the system, and create your own opportunities.”

Basically, she said this: If you’re interested in working in academia, then you need to work within that well-established (and unlikely-to-be-changed) system and generate the required currency. Do your research, and do your publications. As a grad student, your outreach contributions may not be recognized or valued.  You may not be able to do the kind of outreach you’d like, either because of the time or resources required. But go ahead and do the outreach stuff anyways, in whatever capacity you’re able.  Later on in your career, when you have access to the resources and as long as you’re working for an institution that accommodates it, you can expand the outreach component of your work in bigger and more meaningful ways.

What I heard was, “Play the game and pay your dues BUT don’t be afraid to also work outside the system in the meantime: in the long run it will pay off“.

I think an additional underlying message was: If doing outreach is a reflection of your values as a scientist – if it’s important to you and personally satisfying – then there’s no reason not to do it just because “the system” says it doesn’t matter.

March to the beat of your own drummer, in other words.

What do you all think?

Giving back by speaking out

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part.

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

Well, that’s actually not really the point. The point is that one of our jobs as researchers and leaders in our chosen fields is to bring new and interesting information about our work to the general public.  I think we are often guilty of forgetting who it is that we’re doing research for: Mr. & Ms. J. Q. Public.

We grad students are doing lots of amazing research, but it often doesn’t make it past the pages of the latest issue of X Journal. It’s read, of course, by our academic peers, but what about everyone else? Don’t they also deserve to know about our research, and how it affects them personally? We find our  own work super-interesting (hopefully) – wouldn’t we want other people outside our field to be excited by it too? Let’s also not forget that most of us, in one way or another, are conducting publicly-funded research; the public deserves to hear what their tax dollars are doing.

I think we all have a duty to take these kinds of opportunities for outreach or education with the general public whenever possible – to share our work (and our enthusiasm for it) with others.

If you must have less altruistic motivations for doing this kind of thing, here you go:

  • sometimes you get paid (Or fed. Or offered beer. Or all three.)
  • you can practice your communication skills
    • public speaking (this talk was the first lecture-length presentation I’d ever delivered – and it went well!)
    • PowerPoint slide-making
    • NOT USING JARGON (completely impractical when speaking to a non-specialist audience, or to children!)
  • you might meet someone that could end up being a collaborator or supporter ($) of your work
  • it can be fun!

Personally, I really look forward to these kinds of opportunities. It’s refreshing to speak to more diverse audiences than the usual conference-goers. Working with kids can be especially rewarding – they have such enthusiasm and a wonderful sense of adventure, and they really provide the perfect audience for doing hands-on or outdoor workshops!  I have another general interest talk lined up at a garden club this spring to address the matter of a certain pesty red beetle – should be fun! I see this blog (and Facebook, Twitter etc.) as being a natural online extension of these activities.

Some kids in Nunavut, checking out my specimens, and ones they caught outside themselves - public outreach CAN be fun and games!

What do you all think?

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