Monthly Archives: December 2013

On being concise

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
– Mark Twain

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Food for Thought

This is the third in a series of posts about some of my favorite sessions at NABT’s 2013 conference in Atlanta, GA.

Project NEURON, which pairs graduate students in teaching with neuroscience researchers and high school teachers to develop curricula, gave a presentation called Food for Thought. They focused on having students draw conceptual models to highlight what they do and don’t understand. This session focused on the body’s glucose usage and the endocrine system.

They like to organize students into small groups with mini-whiteboards made from shower board (you can get it at hardware stores in large sheets for cheap; they’ll cut it up for you if you say you’re a teacher). Students draw models of a “glunculus” showing disproportionate glucose usage by the body. After some more instruction, the instructor shows a short video of someone jumping out of the way of a moving car. Students discuss what caused his reaction – nervous or endocrine? Then they draw a model of how epinephrine works in the body and do a short powerpoint quiz to identify pictures of people who are and aren’t under the influence of epinephrine (pictures include dilated vs. constricted pupils, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, graphs of glucose usage, etc.). As participants in the session, we got to act as students and do some of these activities, which was a lot of fun.

The curriculum unit, as well as others, are available here: https://neuron.illinois.edu/curriculum-units (you have to create a free login, but it’s definitely worth it).

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Paul Andersen’s NABT talk, Lessons of a Half Life

This is my second post in a series about my favorite sessions at the 2013 NABT conference in Atlanta, GA. You can read the first, about Dr. Rita Colwell’s keynote, here.

Paul Andersen, best known for his extensive series of Bozeman Biology youtube videos, spoke on the lessons he’s learned during his teaching career. Before his talk began, a long line of biology teacher fangirls lined up to get his picture, and people  excitedly tweeted their images. It was hilarious.

Mr. Andersen compared our classrooms to the Red Queen hypothesis: we are constantly learning new things to try in our classrooms, and we have to keep running just to stay in the same place. He started teaching high school at a tiny college in Montana where he taught a wide variety of science classes, plus coach track and direct the band. As a coach, Mr. Andersen collected data from the newspapers on runners in Montana and published their races and times on a website, which got very popular with track runners in Montana. This taught him that people are always waiting for you to share. He gets many questions about how he makes his videos, and he has a standard response he sends out with detailed instructions. In his response, he always asks people to share their videos with him after they try it. Very few share their videos back with him. He compares the red record button to taking the red pill in The Matrix. It’s scary. The first time he ever made a video, his students told him it was really boring. He added techno music in the background in an attempt to appeal to younger generations, which only made it worse. However, he kept making videos and soliciting student feedback and soon learned what makes for a good video.

Mr. Andersen tried to get involved in helping teachers to add technology into their classrooms. Many teachers said they were interested, but they didn’t ever do anything about it. He got so frustrated that he decided to do the opposite of what he normally did. He quit asking teachers to change, and held secret meetings about technology and education in the library. Gradually, the group of participants grew and became great friends. He learned that professional development doesn’t work top down, it has to be bottom up.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Andersen changed his classroom into a video game and gave a TED talk about it. He was concerned that one of the major points of failure in classrooms is that everyone has to work at the same rate. He put everyone at different levels, gave them iPads, and they had to progress through the levels. He said that if you want to make huge, transformative changes in your classroom, you have to go all in – kind of like jumping into a freezing lake when you’re camping. If you try to get in a little at a time, you’ll chicken out. The video game change was very rewarding, but took a lot of work. He commented that the people who are famous for talking about flipped classrooms are all consultants who don’t teach anymore. It’s really hard to manage a classroom that is so decentralized, especially when not all of the students are internally motivated.

His class is now what he calls a blended learning cycle. During the video game experiment, his students had lots of resources, but didn’t know where to go or what to do. You have to make the path for them and tell them where to go. He starts each small unit with a question and a short investigation activity. Then students watch a video, do some reading, and have a review session. During review sessions, students have notecards with foundational terms and processes on the front. Once a small group gets the basics down, they come to the front and Mr. Andersen quizzes them on those concepts. Then he reviews the more complicated parts with them. The back of each notecard has reminders of his basic teaching progression for that particular topic to help him in reviewing with the students. At the end of the review session he gives the students a secret word they can enter into the computer to get points for their participation. He avoids grading except for exams and a few lab reports (something I’d love to be able to implement!).

I enjoyed this talk because I’ve encountered many of the same problems in my teaching. How do I help students when they are all learning at different paces? How can I reduce lecture time while still giving students the content they need to learn? How do I motivate students to practice all the concepts they need without getting bogged down in grading? I enjoyed hearing Mr. Andersen’s perspective on some of these problems.

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Dr. Rita Colwell’s NABT keynote

I went to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Professional Development Conference in Atlanta, GA this year and it was great! My husband tagged along and explored the city on the MARTA train while I went to the conference, and we stayed an extra night so that we could see the botanical gardens and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. I’m finally getting around to blogging about some of my favorite sessions, so this will be the first in a series of posts.

Rita R. Colwell, Ph.D., was one of the keynote speakers. Dr. Colwell is a professor and a former director of NSF, and her talk focused on the biology and ecology of Vibrio cholerae and how we can predict outbreaks of cholera. Apparently Vibrio cholerae and other Vibrio species are often symbiotic with copepods, and can be endemic to estuarine areas where these copepods live regardless of whether they are causing human infections. Traditionally, people have thought of Bangladesh as the native range of V. cholerae, but it probably occurs elsewhere, and they have found similar Vibrio species off the coast of Iceland and in deep sea areas near the U.S. gulf coast.

The copepods eat zooplankton, which are dependent on phytoplankton, which bloom when temperatures are warm. Based on this information as well as some other factors, Dr. Colwell and colleagues built a model predicting that cholera outbreaks would be most likely when events such as large festivals put a strain on sewer systems following periods of warm weather. Graphs showed that the model matched actual outbreaks quite well. It’s now even possible to use satellite data to predict outbreaks because the color of the ocean changes during phytoplankton blooms.

The recent outbreak of cholera in Haiti coincided with the highest temperatures in 60 years. In addition, the earthquake stirred up soil that led to the rivers in Haiti having a slightly basic pH, and in the lab, a pH of 8 is used to isolate V. cholerae from other species.

Dr. Colwell’s talk was extensive, and included data about the genetics of cholera, how genes that cause virulence in human disease are actually beneficial to copepods, high frequencies of multiple pathogens in cholera patients, reducing cholera incidence by filtering water through sari cloth in India, etc. I am definitely going to have to look up some of her papers.

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