Airmanship & Learning: Musings Before ONL192

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“After jump” picture in Mesa Verde National Park, Arizona

When I started the ONL191 journey in February, I posted a picture of me jumping in the Anza-Borrego desert (California) as the image for my blog posting. Jumping pictures have become a requirement of my travel pictures since a few years back, and I thought about posting another, but instead this one is “after jump.” You can still observe the scenery: this is Mesa Verde National Park in Arizona, where ancient Pueblo Indians established cliff dwellings in crevices of the canyons. This was part of a recent vacation road trip that allowed me to happily ignore emails and news headlines.

After two weeks of camping, returning to civilization was both rewarding (hot showers! soft beds!) and depressing (meetings! conferences! writing a syllabus!). Being now a co-facilitator for ONL192 is a nice counterbalance to the onslaught of routine coming my way. It has become my modus operandi to pile up as much work as possible in the fall, when shorter days and longer nights make it easier to be in front of the computer, and leave springtime for conferences and traveling.

Reading interesting articles was part of my catching-up with civilization, and a deep analysis of the two recent Boeing 737-Max tragedies was one that made me think about education. In fact, I had a great conversation with two faculty colleagues about how it related to our struggles of assessing student learning, particularly critical thinking. Please note that I understand the issue is very complicated, and there are a lot of social-economical-technological factors in play. My and my colleagues’ reflection was around expert and novice knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, and how to promote it in students. And one of the things we discussed was the importance of process versus result.

Since ONL191 I have become more sensitive to the process of learning and decision making. The weekly meetings around the PBL topic brought multiple perspectives, some of which had not even occurred to me. It was humbling and exciting at the same time. A group of us at my university are currently involved in developing a grant proposal to address equity in STEM education, and I brought in some ONL tools, including the brainstorming document and the color codes. The tools are helpful, although I sometimes wish for more of “what” and less of “how” at this stage.

The author of the above article refers to “airmanship” as a visceral sense of navigation and a deep understanding of the forces governing flying an airplane. This knowledge, of course, is not magical- it comes from experience, both in normal and abnormal situations. Much has been written about the difference between novice and expert knowledge, and how to promote the transition from one to the other. And part of it is to transmit the need to learn the process and not only try to remember/guess the right answer.

So as I head into ONL192, I intend to explore even more the “science of the process,” the deliberative group work to tease aside complex situations, looking at it from multiple perspectives, over several iterations of thought and discussions. As a participant, I could observe the quiet work of facilitators, indeed, facilitating the process. As a co-facilitator now, I am eager to see the other side. But I do “trust the process.”

It is Saturday afternoon here in California, and I know this posting was a bit of this and a bit of that (no references!), but I hope my readers will forgive me. Still in transition to the real world!

A nice view of the mountains near Silverton, Colorado.

Few takes from the other side of a search committee

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So many colors…which one to choose?

A while ago I had the service chore of being part of a couple of search committees. After many years of being on the applicant side of the equation and reading about the process from experts, I would like to share some of the insights I gained about the first round. This is about science positions at a primarily teaching institution with a majority of non-traditional students.

  1. Please follow instructions. If we are asking for X documents and they are not provided, that application is immediately discarded (with rare exceptions, see points 5&6).
  2. in teaching institutions, “proof of teaching effectiveness” means student evaluations and/or peer observations. Being chosen for a “best instructor” or similar award, or getting a grant for innovative teaching practices is obviously great.
  3. Yes, we read your teaching philosophy carefully . What most of us are looking for is thoughtfulness (are you REALLY thinking about your teaching) and how knowledgeable you are about innovative teaching practices.
  4. Having experience with online teaching is a bonus.
  5. Doing your homework about the institution you apply to is a huge bonus. One applicant was brought back from the discard pile (due to not providing student evaluations) because of a sentence in the cover letter that clearly indicated the person had read more than just the start page on our website. The Mission statement of the institution is a great place for clues.
  6. Yes, we read your cover letter. Very carefully, in fact. This is the place where we look for the “why” of your application, especially if you have an established position. If for some reason you were unable to provide something we asked for, this is the place to explain why.
  7. Be authentic but try not to sound naive. This is particularly important for younger applicants, for whom “being too green” is a real possibility, and you do not want to compound it by sounding silly.
  8. Sometimes you are absolutely wonderful, but not what we are looking for. Nothing personal: it may be that your expertise already exists in the department, or does not fit to our specific needs.
  9. Sometimes you are really wonderful, but too new and unexperienced. For those from a research background, consider teaching a course or two on your own at a community college or similar. Being a TA and supervising other grad students is nice, but may not be enough. Especially when competing with folks who have been teaching for quite a while.
  10. Related to #9, can you handle diversity? Are you aware that your students may be older than you? Or that you will have war veterans in class? In many teaching institutions, the norm is having a huge variety of students, both academically, culturally, demographically, etc. If you have not had that experience, at least we want to know that you are aware of it.
  11. Different aspects will appeal to different members of the committee. Nothing to do about it. That’s why it is a committee.
  12. Because of #11, the more we learn about you the better. At the beginning stage, the committee is looking for ways to narrow down the field for phone interviews. One piece of information may move your application to the next step. It may have to do with a side project that connects with a new budding initiative. Or some skill or expertise we really need. It is better to err on the side of too much information.
  13. Putting your name on the upper right corner of each page of your application or having it in big bold letters at the front of your package makes life easier.

As a final thought- after being on the other side, I felt much better for the many unsuccessful applications in my past. Really, the only times we got personal were with applicants who were not paying attention to instructions or clearly did not qualify. Not being chosen for a phone interview simply means that one was not considered to be the right fit for the particular institution. And probably that is a good thing for both parties.

Update: I just realized that I did not say anything about research. And indeed, research was not a critical aspect in this phase. We noticed when applicants wrote something really weak or something completely unrealistic in a teaching institution. However, if the teaching qualities are good, research expectations and possibilities can be still discussed over the phone.

Number crunching is exhausting but oh so good


The power of numbers

As I am plowing ahead with the analysis of a course design change in a general biology course, things changed for the best when a colleague who loves numbers agreed to help me out with the statistics.

Statistics is a beast I know slightly, but not enough to be confident in my analysis. To have somebody with the knowledge work the numbers is priceless.

Over the past few days I learned two things:

  • Have a biostatistician buddy. They will make all the difference between despondence and hopefulness. Not to mention saving time. If I get a not significant result, there is always the little voice in the back of my head that thinks I might have just done the wrong analysis.
  • Get numbers and use them. The data table gathered (all IRB approved and anonymized) of the time period studied has 1738 students! Meaning, grades and demographics of 1738 human beings that took that course.
    • For one, it is staggering to see the reality behind the numbers. For example, the age range went from 19 to 69! This is a GE course. I feel immensely proud of the 69 old female who took this course. These are the famous “non-traditional” students we hear so much about.
    • Numbers have powers. Right now I am in the middle of writing an application to a competitive residency program. Do not know what to expect, but am applying because a) it would be great, and b) the application process itself is a learning experience.  In one of the essays where I have to describe my projects and plans I am using those numbers, including demographic data to show the potential.

The bottom line is, if you are faculty who is interested in education research and wants to apply for grants, collaborations, etc., you will be asked for numbers (enrollment,demographics). Have them collected ahead and use them to your favor. Right now, showing that your teaching serve non-traditional students, minorities, females, and veterans will be in your favor.

Update: I will be writing a separate post about the importance of IRB approvals for education research, but this is something I learned the hard way- you NEED IRB approval for any human subject research, and that includes student surveys and especially collection of demographic data.

Once I am done with the applications and posters…

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Barral allGEP AAAS poster draft

The state of my AAAS poster, January 24 6.27 AM.

I cannot wait to be done with the three essays, three posters, and one merit letter. They are all due during the first two weeks of February, and as a good procrastinator, I have left them all to the last minute (and because I had a bunch of other deadlines before). In fact, things are better than usual! I already started working on one essay, two posters, and the letter.

And, things are better also because the only one that requires creativity is the merit letter. And by creativity I mean, in the literature sense. A merit letter has to be in a beautifully written and convincing prose. Obviously, content is essential, but presentation matters. In a way, beauty reflects content, I believe Hegel said, and in this case it reflects craftsmanship, attention to detail, and also how important this particular item is for us. While I don’t consider myself a good writer, over my lifetimeI I have created some decent pieces of writing. The exosome review I published in a relatively obscure journal ten years ago is still being downloaded, and it is one I am very proud of. It took forever to get started, but once I came to the first sentence (it was sitting in silence looking at one of San Diego’s canyons), all went quickly. For the merit letter, I already have the thread that will string together my accomplishments, so the “only” thing that I need is to sit down and write it.

The other essays are not really literary essays- I just need to show that I have the background and experience to be successful for that particular training program. As I mentioned in one of my previous postings, my administration has been asking for monthly lists of activities, providing us with an effective and detailed log of scholarly and outreach achievements.

Posters are a different beast. Two of them are student posters, but I started them so the students can putz around with the results. For mine, the challenge is to adapt a number of very scientifically oriented verbiage to AAAS’s (I expect) more general audience. My poster is about the Genomics Education Partnership, of which I have blogged extensively. The structure and modus operandi of GEP allows sharing of presentations so we are not really starting from scratch, but I would like to lighten up the informative load to make the poster stand out and make it more attractive. Here is a problem, though…I do not want to look too “flashy.” So I am struggling with the background. I really like the one I have now, but I may need to step back and change it to a more conservative color. I tried putting Drosophila flies as a background, but that was too busy. Dear Readers, what do you think? I am open to suggestions. Of course, my coauthors will have the last say, but it would be nice to have feedback.

Now, I started saying “once I am done.” Yes. There is an exciting completely new research project I am involved with now, that has to do with microbes, plastic, and the ocean. I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

But I need to be done with three essays, three posters, and one merit letter first…

Becoming “real” in an online course

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Screenshot 2015-01-14 07.18.17

Screenshot from one of my weekly videos for an online microbiology course, shot during Halloween. It was a hit!

Things have changed quite a bit in the online teaching world, and I am not referring to the teaching side only.

Students have changed too. They are expecting much more than before in terms of online content and interactions. And not only young students- even adult learners are much more tech savvy. If they are used to multiple media and devices, and abundant online interactions, they expect the same in online courses. And while quality of content is essential in any course, online included, student engagement and interest (which increases motivation) is greatly helped by increasing interactions.

A very important aspect of getting students engaged is instructor presence. Years ago, instructors were expected to post a weekly announcement and be active on the discussion boards. More recently, the norm is that instructors maintain steady communication with students, including reminders and email discussions. While not responding emails at night is a mental sanity policy for the overwhelmed instructor, truth is, online students are online for a reason, and most often it is at night when they have the time to study. Responding quickly to emails or communications in general usually provides high marks for the instructor. Which, in these days of instructor evaluations being scrutinized, is important.

But what I have noticed lately is that students are starting to ask for “real life” presence, and praising if the instructor shares pictures, posts videos, or holds synchronous video sessions. One of the online adjuncts I mentor, a prolific email writer and communicator, received a comment of “it would have been nice to see what she looks like.” The comment was in the context of her being perceived as distant, holding students at arms’ length. I just started a course my usual way, posting a picture of myself as part of the introduction, and uploading a short video welcoming them to the course. For the first time, most of the students uploaded pictures of themselves in the Introductions, and I received praise from a student specifically for being present and building community.

I have taken a few MOOCs at Coursera, and I understand where students are coming from. Most lectures have the professor talking into camera, either in a studio or recorded in the room. There are always video presentations in the beginning, and more and more, real-time Q&A sessions. Well-done online courses, with plenty of room for community building and an instructor who is perceived as “present” are becoming the desired norm, not the exception.

In any case, there are many articles and pages dedicated to the different tools and resources to use for livening up your online course. Here comes a short list of what I do, and how I do it.

  • A couple of years ago I invested in a professional picture of myself, which goes to my official intro or syllabus pages. Nothing new there, but I really support the professional picture part. It is worth the cost.
  • I also have a few personal pictures that are deemed appropriate to share in the course. Good choices include pictures reflecting pets or hobbies, as they invite connection with most students. They will also show the instructor’s “human” side.
  • Welcome videos are highly recommended. I use a very simple Logitech webcam, and have learned how to place a floor lamp by my side so I am not talking from a dark blur. How to record it is much depending on your computer and expertise. I make it easy on myself- on my Mac I use Photobooth to record the video, and then upload it to Youtube. One can record directly to Youtube, and there are many other programs, but Photobooth has been quick and easy.
  • While many students shrug at live chat sessions, others expect it. Many students do not take the time to clarify questions via email, but wait for the opportunity to ask in person. I have gone a long way from dreading the ClassLivePro (now Bb Elluminate/Collaborate- I lost track of the name) sessions to making them an opportunity to interact with students and hopefully engage them. There is an amazing range of options of what can be done in those sessions, and I am still learning. For now, it is mainly uploaded powerpoint slides with quiz questions in-between, and webtour of internet pages. But I have my webcam on. It has taken me a few years to become comfortable with seeing my face onscreen, but it is doable. If the course does not include Live chat opportunities, there are other options: Google hangouts, Skype chats, Zoom, and many others.
  • One last detail- being yourself is fine on video, within certain limits of course. One is time- 2 minutes and change is a great length, more than 5 is a no-no. I have to write down what I want to say otherwise I ramble on. Occasional humor is ok (see the Halloween picture), and also to be attuned to the time of the year, such as wishing happy holidays at the end of December. I record my videos fresh every time, so I can refer to specifics from the course, making it real time feedback.

Dear Reader, please share your experience with making yourself more real through online courses. As mentioned, this is my little list of what I do, but there are many different ways to make it happen. Thank you!

Academic skills- a moving target

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This blog post is related to my previous reflection on “getting things done” and prioritizing. It refers to my experience in a primarily teaching private comprehensive university.

Skyping with middle schools about genetics. Very cool experience- also a bit of stretch on my abilities.

Skyping with middle school kids about genetics. Very cool experience- also a bit of stretch on my abilities.

As I look back and reflect on the many things that I had to learn just to keep afloat, a predominant group of my students come to mind.

Since I started teaching in the US in 2005, a large proportion of my students have been pre-nursing students. Over the years, I have talked to many of them about their plans and goals, and kept track of their journeys either personally or through social networking.

I feel for many of them. Expectations for nursing have shifted dramatically over the past years, from the Gold Rush of the nursing shortage in California to the recent reports of hiring bottlenecks and the sad plight of many new grads. Along the way, requirements and pre-requisites changed, making the goal a moving target. Whatever was an extra skill last year may have become required this year, and students had to adapt and scramble along the way.

It is expected, of course, especially in very technical fields, that the skills that were competitive before quickly become obsolete, and people has to keep acquiring new skills and competencies just to keep up. But it seems to me that the skill set required for a science educator has broadened considerably in just a few years.

Consider online teaching. The first time I taught an online course was in 2007, without really knowing how to teach online. Over the next years I learned quite a bit, and currently consider myself knowledgeable. During this time, being familiar with online platforms has transitioned from being slightly suspicious to something useful, and these days it is almost required.

What about education of science per se? It feels like a revolution has taken place in just a few years in how science is supposed to be taught. It is great and exciting and empowering…but it takes a while to learn about learning theories and assessment modalities. And Bloom’s taxonomy.

To boot add all the outreach and marketing skills. In my previous posting I referred to exciting side projects that fizzled- most of those were outreach projects, trying to establish partnerships and collaborations. Outreach takes time, effort, and skills. Oh and personality. As an introvert, reaching out to strangers drains me mentally and emotionally.  But even writing emails and coordinating conference calls take time and effort.

Now to the bright side. Personally, I have always been more the “Jack of all trades” kind, so most of the time I like learning new things. And looking back, it have been mainly those leaps of faith and new adventures that guided me to the next door opening, the next mentor, the next opportunity.

There is a lot lately out there about the alt-ac careers, the many “soft skills” that academics need to learn to succeed in other areas. But even in academia, there is a lot of pressure to acquire new skills besides the traditional research/writing knowledge. And it is a fine balance. Although my position is mainly a teaching position, I do lab research and hope to go back to publish hard science some time soon. How much more I gain in my teaching practice by learning a new approach if it eats into my precious time to run certain experiments? How much I gain by trying to network for a collaboration if it will affect my class prep time?

I do not do New Year’s resolutions…but some time last December I decided to really focus on a few priorities (research and publishing on the top) and try to 1) avoid the siren song of new and cool ideas, and 2) say “NO” more often. On the last day of a mostly nice holiday break (not counting a really bad bout of the flu) I am bracing myself for the return of insanity starting tomorrow. But I hope to stand firm. I will try, at least!

Frequent Players Of Video Games “See The World Differently”

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Frequent Players Of Video Games “See The World Differently”

This is interesting. I have been thinking for a while about engaging students who are gamers and get their feedback and ideas about online course design. On the other hand, this is obviously heavily tilted toward visual learners. Still, interesting 🙂

DIY Practicum

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Glomerulus in the kidney.

The first time it was awkward. “Are we making the questions?” The students were not really sure what was the point of them creating the questions for a mock-practicum in the anatomy and physiology course. They got there eventually- and along the way they learned also about questions and questions- how hard it was to answer questions about minutia, and how important the wording of the questions were. I assigned them topics, so each student was responsible for their set of questions. They loosened up eventually, snapped pictures of the slides and the dissected sheep brain, laughed at how hard some of their own questions were, and if they paid attention, they did good at the real final. For the second time, they were ready and I heard some say “cool!” This time it was more sophisticated- they had hearts and kidneys and open fetal pigs, and they had to set up the microscopes with slides, and devise questions to go with them. The group moved around, they were checking their books, talking to each other, and sometimes even asking me questions. They may not know it, but I have such an admiration for this small group of women mastering not only the content of biology, but also its dynamics and its inner beauty. 

After less than one hour, we had the practice stations set up. Dissected specimens had pins attached and labeled, slides were taped to microscopes, and each student had developed a set of questions for their assigned topic. Some went overboard, others made simpler questions, but they were all engaged, comparing notes, discussing the results, communicating. Thinking. Creating. 

Yes, it is hard sometimes to be an educator. But there is this moment, when a student’s unfocused gaze suddenly sparks, and he or she says, OH, I got it now…and one can almost hear the wheels turning in their brains and the synapses firing. And THAT is priceless.

I have found that there are many occasions in the classroom when one can flip the instruction and empower students. The logistics is simple, just chunk the material or the task, and give it to individuals or small groups. Give them time to think and discuss. Be there for hints and clarification. Provide ample positive feedback. They may be suspicious in the beginning, but eventually they will embrace it. And at the end, this is the time when they come to life during class. They even forget that I am there.

And that is the sweetest thing of all!

Plants, zombies, and science

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no comments…

I recently returned from a 2 week trip to Cuba, mainly dedicated to visit family. Brought back loads of pictures and many impressions and ideas. I was disconnected from the internet world for the duration, except three brief checks of my email and two status updates on Facebook.  As both DH and myself are news junkies, I expected serious withdrawal symptoms, but we adapted quickly to a blissful state of ignorance about issues such as the fiscal cliff. I have not been as relaxed in a long time.

Back to the real world, I conducted a phone conversation about joining the bioinformatics research program I mentioned in my previous entry. The conversation, one day after my arrival, stretched the abilities of my brain cells to almost a breaking point, but I am happy to report that I am on the list for their next workshop. Sluggishly, my mind has started to remember all the great insights I had during the ASCB conference. And emails from colleagues sharing articles and insights about science education are nudging the process along.

Enter Plants versus zombies (PvZ).

During my Gamification MOOC experience, we were directed to explore Plants versus zombies as a well-designed game with elements guaranteeing success (levels of increasing complexity, enough challenge to keep it interesting but not so hard to provoke frustration and defeat, funky badges etc). I scoffed at the idea of actually trying the game- I looked at the screenshots, read the lecture notes, and moved forward.

Then came the trip and the tablet. I decided not to bring along the Apple of my eyes, my sleek MacBook Pro, and invested in an Asus Nexus 7 tablet to cover the basics (I love it, btw). I loaded it with ebooks and music, and as I had a 14 year old nephew to meet, I asked my son to put some games on it. That’s how PvZ made it into my life.

During the first leg of the travel, my son showed me how to play the game. Within hours, I was hooked. During the coming days, I, previously so condescending of the million of Angry Bird addicts of the world, spent hours strategizing about the kind of mushroom or pea shooter to choose.  And in-between, I could see why this game was used in the gamification course as an example of a well-designed game.

My nephew already had it on his cell phone, by the way.

Back to my world of science education, I keep asking myself: how to make science courses, in particular those introductory biology courses that most instructors fear, in such a way that students would find as absorbing and challenging as a game like PvZ? Is it possible to make it so interesting but without trivializing it completely?

If anybody knows the answer, please let me know.

I got a boss to fight. Be back soon…

ASCB 2012: perspective from the education side part 1


A poster imitating the Hinger Games at ASCB2012

I was reading The hunger games during the conference, so this poster made me chuckle.

I confess this is my first American Society of Cell Biology meeting, and very probably the last also. It was not my kind of meeting even when I was involved with Cell Biology research: it was just too broad, too “basic;” and more specialized meetings were preferred- cancer, immunology, etc.
My plan this year was to aim at an education conference or a science conference with a strong educational angle (ASM CUE comes to my mind)- am still hoping for it! But it just happened that one of my collaborators at Carnegie-Mellon University’s OLI project,  Anya Goodman, was presenting there, and she proposed a poster about our preliminary data. Thanks to her diligence the abstract was submitted in time, and got accepted. The meeting being in San Francisco, I was able (and happy) to attend.
As anybody attending a research conference knows, a lot of prep work and planning helps getting things done. My goals were to learn about any major cell biology paradigm changes but mainly to connect with other educators involved in science and particularly biology education. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole education string.
Another aspect that surprised me was the openness to non-scientists. The keynote address was open to the general public (upon registration), and the speakers: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Apple and Genentech chairman Arthur Levinson tailored their talks to appeal to both scientists and non-scientists, a difficult feat in which the former was more successful. Chu combined overarching visions with witty humor, explanations of scientific findings with inspirational advice, and achieved a general feeling of elation of having somebody so accomplished and smart in our Administration. I just discovered his talk has been uploaded to youtube.
On the other hand, Levinson’s talk went deeper and was more technical; and while his presentation was exciting to those in the cancer field, it sounded a bit too promotional of their new product. Which is understandable. But maybe not the most appropriate for a keynote speech.
There was a whole corner dedicated to educational resources, of which I snapped up many (and they are still in my to-be-sorted pile), but what was encouraging was the number of books, pamphlets, and talks dedicated to grad students and postdocs who may be considering education as a career path. That this included mainly teaching institutions (even community colleges) is in indication of the reality check of scientific organizations.  In fact, I was very pleased to see at any of the education-related events many students, not only professors.

In the next part (parts?) I will address some of the most memorable talks/presentations I attended.

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