On the student side of the great divide (and some PBL thoughts)


White Rim Trail in Utah

I teach online a lot. In fact, I am teaching online now- a non majors general biology lab course. Students do some hands-on labs at home, and they also complete virtual lab experiments and simulations, watch videos, write lab reports, and post and comment on discussion boards. So being at the same time a student in the ONL191 course is quite interesting.

There are students who reach out a week before class starts with concerns or questions. There are those who never email or say anything on the live sessions. Some will write long and detailed emails. Others prefer to text (I have a google number for this). Once in a while there will be a student who wants to talk or have a face to face online meeting. Just yesterday I had an online meeting with a student who is on a Navy ship somewhere far away to clarify a technical issue. It was strange and at the same time touching to connect in spite of the distance.

So I am looking at myself now, starting the ONL191 course. How do I behave? I am eager and also a bit worried. It is ok now, but come April, I will be attending a conference and traveling. So I want to do as much as possible now that I still have some bandwidth. My main focus will be problem-based learning (PBL).

Although I did my doctoral studies in Linkoping University, I never practiced PBL. By the time I spoke enough Swedish to teach, my time was almost over. So one of the aspects that really interests me in the course is getting more acquainted with it. Here in the USA I have met PBL people- they tend to be more in medical and dental schools.

The ONL191 course has plenty of references listed, and I have downloaded a few of them already, but first thing I do is try to connect with existing knowledge. This is, in fact, the third step in Gagne’s 9 events of instruction: Stimulate previous knowledge.

Went into my Mendeley library folder of teaching articles, and searched for PBL. Few articles popped up, one of them a review I have used before, D’Avanzo’s article on changes in biology education since the publication of the groundbreaking Vision and Change report in 2011. The article gives a nice introductions to PBL, and the points to a network to coordinate the case study and PBL networks for biology. The website, however, seems quite inactive since 2012, so I do not know what happened there.

And this is it for tonight. More PBL reading coming tomorrow, this time more updated!


  • D’Avanzo, C. (2013). Post-vision and change: do we know how to change? CBE Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 373–82.
  • Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning (4th Ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

To be a good teacher


Off road instructor Ron Delgado and yours truly during graduation.

This past weekend I was very far from academia: dh and I attended an off-road driving clinic in the Anza-Borrego desert. Going on long road trips off the beaten track has been one of the best ways for us to disconnect and enjoy free time, or as it is called these days, “self-care.” My knowledge of driving off-road is rudimentary and experiential. After the workshop I feel much more comfortable with it, as now I understand the theory behind many decisions made on the road.

Just to clarify, off-roading is not what some (insert bad word here) did when they entered pristine areas of Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks and drove donuts on fragile ecosystems. Responsible off-roading means to use designed trails to drive to places not accessible on foot or “normal” vehicles, stay on those trails, follow a number of rules, being knowledgeable about vehicles and basic survival, and overall behave as adult human beings.

Funnily, during the workshop I could not leave my academic/scicomm hat completely behind- I was amazed and very impressed by the instructor (Ron Delgado) who led the 2-day workshop. Here is a list of some of the things he did, which are completely applicable for any scicomm/teaching experience:

  1. Setting the tone and expectations: as one of the few females in the group, I appreciated him saying up front that no macho attitudes would be allowed, and that one of his goals was for everybody to have fun. Through his words and actions, he created a community of mutual respect and trust.
  2. Use of visuals and simple analogies. There was a lecture in the beginning and then some on-the-ground demonstrations to explain basic concepts such as the “wheel cheat” and the importance of tire pressure. I have tried before to understand those, and found the explanations terribly boring and complicated. Doing it hands-on was night and day (active learning, anybody?)
  3. Use of visuals part 2. I am usually terrified on being sideways in a car. He had everybody driving up a hill so we were sideways, with a visual aid showing an incline of 28 degrees. Up to 30 degrees was safe. He told everybody to memorize how it looked like so we remember in the future that it was safe. Note: we had to.
  4. Scaffolding of the exercises. That is pretty obvious, but I appreciated when he showed at the end of day 1 the (steep) hill we were going to descend the next day. It added an element of choice. Everybody came back, but it was nice to know what to expect.
  5. Asking for feedback. At regular intervals, he asked for feedback- this is what you expected? How are we doing? Too much, too little? There were feedback forms at the end of day 1 to fill out (and at the end of day 2 also).
  6. Last but not least, encouragement and support. I did pretty well most of the time, but was terrified of the last hill. It took me a while to decide I would try it. Ron took some time to make it sure I was calm, and directed me (and all the others) via radio. He praised everybody who cleared the hill. In the higher education world, we are often told that “this” and “that” high tech gizmo/app/analytics will do the trick to identify the students falling behind, AI will send personalized messages, adaptive technologies will train students according to their needs and so on. But, at the end of the day, it takes a human connection between a teacher and a student to help that learning magic to happen.

I was happy and grateful to be reminded of the human side to learning. Thank you, Ron!

Recap 2: the NSF grant

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It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a lot of people working together to get a grant. The fact that three years after starting a project basically from scratch we were awarded a NSF grant is quite a feat by any standards.

This was not our first, of course. We had applied for a couple of private foundations and to the California Sea Grant. One very important lesson from the failed applications was to request a call (if possible) with the grant administrators to learn what went wrong. Often we had the “who dis” problem, grant agencies not knowing us, and were recommended to seek collaborations with more seasoned institutions. One time, when we wrote our first course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) grant, we were told that more details were needed regarding the mechanics of the education research part. That was a huge help for the NSF grant.

For a timeline of how we started and expanded, there is our experiment.com website, where we got some crowdfunding and have kept updates. A relevant milestone was the collaboration with Dr. Jeff Bowman at Scripps, thanks to a connection with Dr. Emelia DeForce.

My university has an excellent grant specialist, who was and is in charge of all the boring details including the official paperwork and the gory budget forms. But a grant starts and ends with the narrative, and that was a tour de force. Especially because we had basically only one week to write it!

It was helpful that both Rachel Simmons and I are night owls so we were writing into the wee hours, often at the same time using Dropbox and Word online. Once we had a working draft, excellent collaborators and a writing consultant smoothed out the wrinkles and ensured we stayed within the page limits. Finding an external evaluator willing to write an evaluation plan in three days was also epic (short version: networking is critical).

The rest of it is history- waiting months, hearing back, rushing to get IRB approvals and write revisions. And then the news.

We have been rolling now officially since October. Three groups of students have completed the experience, new reagents are accumulating in the lab, and there is a paid research student in the lab. A week ago I had the pleasure to visit University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where a group of grantees presented their project and compared notes in a STEM meeting. It was heartwarming to be with a group of educators who feel very strongly about widening access to STEM for all students, especially Hispanics.

Folkloric Dance performance by the UTRGV students in McAllen, TX

Recap 1: the paper(s)

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When I returned to blogging after 4 years, I had a small list of accomplishments/tasks that happened since 2015 I wanted to share. So here is the first in a series of (hopefully) short recaps of the past few years.

While my institution is mainly a teaching one, one is expected to do research and publish. Way back in 2015 I blogged about “number crunching.” That study, a retrospective study of an online course redesign was the beginning of a synergistic and fruitful collaboration with my colleague Dr. Rachel Simmons. It was published in the Journal of Research In Innovative Teaching, a semi-internal journal by my university. The peer review was surprisingly stringent, and it was a good exercise for what was yet to come.

Some time in 2015, the Dean of my school announced small internal grants for “teaching pairs” who wanted to try out novel teaching approaches. I teamed up with another colleague, Dr. Veronica Ardi, in “flipping” a majors general biology course. That project made it through the wringer of the ASM Biology Scholars Program, meaning it received plenty of amazing feedback, critiques, and recommendations while still happening (so there was time and room to improve it). The data were rich and very complex, but thanks to Rachel’s magical data fingers, they started to make sense.

Fast forward 2 years, and the results of that study were published in CBE Life Sciences Education. It was a long and winding road, with sections put in, removed, put again, and finally removed. And oh so many versions. It is known the grit and stubbornness required to be published…and we had it.

Now what I learned from that experience is…1) Collect your data considering the data format your numbers person is going to use. We started collecting data in a certain way, and with every iteration I had to copy/paste/transpose to make them the right format for the statistics program. It was painful, but it made me intimately connected to the raw data and soon I could spot errors right away, 2) Let sit the latest revision for several days before sending it away, so you get out of the tunnel vision stage, 3) Practice and perfect the art of being diplomatic in writing when people doubt your statistics or experimental design, and 4) Help the reviewers. And what I mean by that…make their job easier. Both to review the original paper and to read the revision. Not to mention minimizing noise such as typos and grammar issues, which can usually be done following #2 above.

So that is for today. I am trying to catch up before ONL191 gets full speed next week!

I am back!


This is the complete picture of my cover picture at ONL191. Me trying to get some air in Anza Borrego desert some time March 2018.

Well, it has been a while. Almost 4 years! Guess it has been busy. I am back because of the Open Networked Learning course: ONL191.

How do I know about it? When I visited Sweden last year, my friend Gizeh told me about it. Gizeh and I go way way back, to Cuba and our times at the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology in the late 90s. Funnily enough, after many years we have arrived to a similar place of interest: online learning, active learning, innovative STEM practices, use of media for teaching, social media. I am curious to explore the European side of the field, and I signed up for the course. First requirement, you need a blog! So I just connected this one to the course, and now am feverishly writing an update.

Last time I blogged (October 2015) I had just lost a sampling system in my ocean plastic set and was slightly deflated. In December I broke my ankle walking on a wide and mellow trail in the Mojave road, which set me back a couple of months, but then got back to action. Plastic research, education research, and some cool service activities.

Highlights of the past years include becoming a member of the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee (recently renamed Science Outreach & Communication) and as such getting more involved in outreach activities; a paper published in CBE Life Science Education about flipping a majors general biology course, and the best of it all, getting a NSF STEM education grant for the plastic project in collaboration with Jeff Bowman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The grant (from application to the first months in action) has a pretty steep learning curve. But we are finally doing what we wanted originally…have students participate in authentic and fun research as part of their coursework.

Last Saturday morning, a group of students visit SIO pier to learn about ocean research.

And this is it for now. I am really glad that ONL191 has pushed me back to blogging. Onward and onward!

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