Category Archives: education

What? So What? Now What?

The title of this blog post presents a framework for reflective teaching practice that I would like to play around with in this blog post.

I have just participated in the three day Course Design Intensive workshop offered through the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UBC. My role was both as a participant and as a future facilitator. I took notes about both the workshop facilitation and the course design principles. I brought my First Year Seminars in Science (SCIE113) DACUM (aka. our course goals, skills, and objectives) and reflected on the strengths of our course design and the changes we have made in our re-design efforts.

So What?
I found the workshop valuable on several levels. I connected with like-minded teaching colleagues, and enjoyed the opportunity to hear about and provide input on a wide-variety of teaching scenarios. I’ve identified new teaching tools and lots of literature that I’d like to follow-up with. This was a chance for me to evaluate my own interest and suitability to act as a facilitator for future offerings of the workshop – which I see as a great opportunity. This course helped me to set aside valuable time (in my extremely time sensitive schedule this term) to reflect on the SCIE113 DACUM. I have concluded that the changes we have made in implementation and assessments from the pilot to the scaled up version of the course are still aligned with our course goals and learning objectives. I wonder if grouping the learning objectives into three units instead of six units would better help students (and Instructors) connect the in-class writing assignments to the course content. However, my visual views of the course materials (mind maps/visual syllabus) still identify at least 5 distinct units (see picture below).

Now What?
I will draw the visual syllabus picture – that I came up with today – on the first class of SCIE113. This picture will offer a valuable view of how the course content connects together and will highlight the course goals to students. If I start with the “you” part of the picture, I can also start with a comments about my classrooms as 1) safe places, 2) the importance of trying, and making mistakes, and 3) hard work. I also like how the voice, piece of writing, and the hand highlight the role that students can play in science – and how their voice is important.

I have a list of books that I would like to add to my library.
Dee Fink ISBN 0-7879-6055-1 ** I already reference this book. I should buy it.
Brookfield/Preskill Effective Use of Discussion ISBN 0-7879-4458-0
Brookfield -Teaching Critical Thinking ISBN 978-0-470-88934-3
Weimer Learner Centered Teaching ISBN 0-7879-5646-5
Graphic Syllabus ISBN 978-0-470-88934-3

I also need to set aside some time to read this literature. In fact, I think it would be useful to do some deliberate reflection around several topics 1) Balancing my workload, 2) Things that worked well this past term in SCIE113 (This past term of SCIE113 was very close to my description of my ideal teaching experience. What did this look like? Why did this happen? & What did I do that supported this experience? 3) Highest Priority for changes in SCIE113 (at a personal level and at a program level) 4) SOTL research ideas/action items/follow-up stemming out of SCIE113.

Lastly, I will follow up with the CDI team about participating in future offerings as a facilitator.

How Scientists Think?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about, “How Scientists Think?”  I’m excited to be working on an innovative curricula project here at UBC centered around science as a way of knowing.

…more about this later…

To this end, I just read this article, “How Scientists Think in the Real World: Implications for Science Education” by Kevin Dunbar.

According to the article, scientists are particularly stimulated by unexpected results, love making analogies, and work best in groups.  I’d say, “That’s about right!”

In thinking about how my teaching strategies align with these values, I came up with a short list of ideas.  Encourage group work, practice using analogies, explicitly encourage the use of analogy by students, and ready students for the unexpected.

Taking UBC MIX under my wing

I just finished writing a TLEF grant to support the UBC MIX project. I’m pretty excited about the potential of this project.

UBC MIX is a project that creates new learning experiences for UBC students by developing cross-discipline and cross-faculty partnerships between courses already taught at UBC. UBC MIX brings together faculty members interested in making small adjustments to their class curriculum that can MIX, or bring together, students from two different courses. Examples of innovative teaching partnerships include joint lectures, electronic discussions between the classes, joint field trips, and mixed-class group projects. The idea behind UBC MIX is to compliment the curriculum of both classes by exploring links between subjects, exposing the students to new ideas, and encouraging students to explore their own subject areas from a different point of view. By facilitating connections, developing resources, and supporting MIX activities, the UBC MIX project aims to offer UBC undergraduate students access to unique opportunities for exploring interdisciplinary connections in their education.

Being a scientist in Nigeria

This summer I traveled to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to participate in the West African Biotechnology Workshops as an invited instructor. Here is an update that I wrote during my stay.

Being a scientist in Nigeria means being very resourceful in finding solutions to barriers… the power goes out 2-4x per day or some days does not come on at all. Scientists here are very practiced at being practical & creative at the same time, a recipe for good science. Only one day did I start to think that the barriers were too big… but then the attitude of the students brought me back around. They work very very hard and are very excited about what they are learning. There are ~20 graduate students, medical doctors, and technicians taking our course. The people that I have met here in Nigeria is what I have enjoyed most. They are full of hope that their country will become one of the top 20 countries in the world. (The goverment has a plan called the 20:20 vision – that hopes to use education, science and technology to raise the profile of Nigeria by 2020). It has been interesting to talk to these young graduate students, to get their own views on the corrupt government and the political problems in the North, and the wars in the Delta (the oil rich region of the country). It is a country with many problems. For example, Nigeria’s children account for 18% of the global under-5 mortality rate. The UN has identified Nigeria as one African country that, if it were to improve and aim to meet the Millienium Development Goals, could make the most impact.

A Good Idea

Here’s an interesting idea, let’s design what we teach around the question, “What do Scientists Do?

I was originally exposed to this simple, but amazingly “outside-the-box” idea, by Ellen Aho, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. I met Ellen at the ASMCUE 2008 conference where she presented, “The student-led conference style symposia as a technique for developing oral presentation skills in a moderately sized Microbiology course.” Ellen posed the question, “What do scientists do?” and then made the point that our teaching activities should be related to these activities. An interesting idea… The program that she teaches in at Concordia College is designed with this paradigm in mind (i.e., this won’t be the first time students have seen it). In addition to the in-class conference idea, other classes in her program have writing assignments, peer review, posters, etc. etc.

In keeping with my last post, of take what works and put it to work, Ellen’s idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time as a possibility for new content for MICB405. As part of this course, students carry out a self-directed research project (in groups of 4 students). The MICB405 group research project already contains a proposal submission, a final report, and a presentation of results at an in-class poster session. By treating these groups of students like graduate students embarking on their own research projects, and then preparing to attend their first conference with results, we hope to give students an authentic research experience. Thus far, the research component of MICB405 has worked well, but we thought that we could improve it by expanding on this idea of “what do scientists really do…”

Early in the semester, in collaboration with my co-instructor M. Murphy, we talked about ways into which we could inject new energy into the research project component of MICB405. Our real goal was to raise the overall quality of research projects by increasing student engagement and providing more opportunities for feedback (both peer and instructor).

dsc00022For the 2008 offering of MICB405, we added several new in-class activities to this component of the course. 6 lectures in total were dedicated to the group research project. Students were asked to: 1) submit a proposal, 2) carry out a peer review of submitted proposals**, 3) attend a feedback session on their proposal with the instructor, 4) submit a progress report**, 5) participate in an in-class discussion of critical evaluation of research results from their progress reports**, 6) prepare a poster for two-day in-class conference, 7) peer evaluate posters presented in-class and 8 ) prepare a final report. Peer evaluation and self-evaluation of individuals from student groups was also carried out.

**2,4,5 are new activities for 2008, and the in-class time dedicated to this project was increased from 4hr (in 2007) to 9hrs (in 2008). Highlights of these new lecture time included in-class peer review activities as well as lecture content explaining the peer review process in science. Michael talked about his experiences participating in CIHR review panels, and students responded very well to this new content.

More formally, here are the new learning objectives that Murphy and I introduced alongside these new research project based activities for the 2008 offering of MICB405:

Section 5: Research methods and critical assessment.
38.    You will be able to define a biological hypothesis that can be tested by bioinformatics methods.
39.    You will be able to critically evaluate a bioinformatics tool based on the assessment features available.
40.    You will be able to critically assess the degree to which the bioinformatics method supports a biological hypothesis
41.    You will be able to describe the methods, results and conclusions of a bioinformatics research project in a written report and as a poster presentation.

Anecdotally, these new activities achieved our goal of raising the overall quality of research carried out by students. During the poster session, I noticed that the average depth of research achieved by each group was higher as compared to last year, especially at the bottom end. I think that increased opportunities for feedback and more in-class dedicated time were responsible for this shift. I did carry out an in-class survey with respect to the research project components, so next up is analysis of those evaluations.

Observe What Works, Put it to Work!

One of the easiest things to do to improve as an educator is to watch others and take what you can to use in your own classrooms.

Recently, we hosted a professional development conference for BC high school teachers called, “It’s Your Experiment!” The workshop was part of our two day conference and aimed to develop new curricula based lesson plans for use in the classroom.  This was a chance for teachers to work with each other to generate teaching materials, link these teaching items to the BC high school IRPs and generally be creative.  We collaborated with Connie Cirkony, previously from the Engaging Science program at Science World – now with the BC ministry of education to facilitate the workshop.  Connie has lots of experience at facilitating workshops for teachers, and as an educator myself, I was interested in the process as much as I was interested in the outcomes.  Here’s a couple tricks of the “workshop facilitation” trade that Connie used that were good teaching tools.

The activity that we used to wrap up the workshop was to generate an action plan.  With this task, we gave teachers 1) a chance to think about it, 2) a chance

action-plan-cardto write it down, and 3) a chance to share their action plan with other teachers in the group.  With each step in this activity the likelihood of actually completing the items on your list goes up.  Think about it, write it down, and tell someone… a real recipe for success!  Here’s an example of another implementation of this activity (from another conference that I participated in recently), a card provided to participants so that they can collect their ideas from the day.  Another great idea that we can use for our future teacher workshops/conferences.

The activities that we started off the day with included A) a reflection + B) a brainstorming session.  Both activities are real staples of an effective workshop.  With the brainstorming activity, we asked teachers to brainstorm ideas for lesson plans.  Which subjects did they have troubles teaching?  Which subjects would they like help with?  Which items did they really need a good lesson plan for?  We asked each teacher to write 5 ideas down, each item on a different colored recipe card.  Next, we turned this brainstorming activity into an organizing exercise by asking teachers to group the items together.  The final stage of the activity was to link these ideas to the BC curricula – as supplied by the list of PLO (prescribed learning outcomes) that the ministry of education published.   In the end, this exercise provided a good metacognition activity that captured ideas plus offered a chance for reflection.


Teachers Brainstorming and Organizing Ideas

Another reflection activity that Connie introduced, and I plan on using often with teachers, was what I’ll call the “Take your Hat off” activity.  In this activity, Connie invited the teachers “to take their workshop participants hats off and put on their teacher hats.”  With this invitation, she was asking the teachers to reflect on the logistics and design of the workshop as educators.  Use the model of the workshop as a model for what works in the classroom.  Observe what works, and put it to work. I’ve since used this “take your hat off” activity with a group of teachers with success.  I invited the group of teachers to “take your teacher hats off, put on your students hats.”  An invitation to reflect on what running this activity would be like in their classrooms, and how it would be received by their students.  It worked great too, because as soon as I asked the teachers to “put on your student hat” he started to goof off like a 14year old.  We had a lot of fun with that!  In addition to a setting a good tone, it worked as a perfect icebreaker activity.

Performing in Large Classroom Settings

I recently attended this talk by Robert Gateman.

Many of us know Robert Gateman as the flamboyant, somewhat bizarre, yet somehow appealing ECON 101 prof we had, or wish we had, in first-year. But how much do we really know about the most talked about UBC instructor on  Click here for the full Ubyssey Gateman interview

I attended because I was interested in seeing Dr. Gateman in action.  He’s the most popular prof at UBC on  What does he do that appeals to students?  His appeal is real at UBC.  400 students came out on a Monday night to hear an extra-curricular talk … that’s really quite amazing!  The energy in the room was excited.  Some students didn’t even know what he was going to be talking about, they just knew that this was supposed to be good.  And Gateman delivered.  He had some serious crowd control going and managed to use the group energy to capture the attention of the students.  For example, he started his lecture with his apparently typical, “Every body UP!” stretching routine to loud music.  I say apparently typical – because many students seemed to be expecting the routine.  Students were happy to shed typical routines, get up out of their seats, and do something different, together.  Watching Gateman deliver his lecture, I picked up on a few things that he does to capture the attention of his audiences in these large classroom settings.

  • know your audience, build on what they know already, relate your teaching materials to what they can do
  • connect personally, maintain eye contact as you move around, talk to individuals
  • use theatrics, even props, his lecture wasn’t particulary polished — but you did feel like you were watching an actor in a play
  • move around, never stay at the bottom of a big lecture hall
  • have a simple message that keeps coming up the whole way through
  • use humor, for example offbeat humor can make the message stick — i.e. tie it in a knot vs. global population control

Who knows?  I may find myself dropping in to see an Econ101 lecture to see if Dr. Gateman is as offbeat in a typical classroom.  I bet he is… and I can see why getting “something different” appeals to undergraduate students.  Thanks, Dr. Gateman, for the real life example of how it is possible to use these large classroom settings to capture the energy of large groups and connect with students.

7 Things You Should Know About

In response to my last post about the digital disconnect, I would like to point to these resources from the Educause Learning Initiative. Each of these “7 Things You Should Know About…” articles points out the main features of the emerging technology and gives an example scenario about how you can use these tools that students use in real life in your classroom.

7 Things You Should Know About…pieces provide quick, no-jargon overviews of emerging technologies and related practices that have demonstrated or may demonstrate positive learning impacts. Any time you need to explain a new learning technology or practice quickly and clearly, look for a 7 Things You Should Know About… brief from ELI.

Here are some direct links to a couple of my favorite articles from this series:
7 Things You Should Know About Flickr
7 Things You Should Know About Twitter
7 Things You Should Know About Ning
7 Things You Should Know About FaceBook
7 Things You Should Know About FaceBook II

The Digital Disconnect

You’ve got your popcorn. You’ve found a seat. The rustling of cell phones coming out of pockets begins. If you miss this opportunity, you’ll be faced with burning glares. “Turn off your cell phone or die!” It’s become part of our culture to “power down” at the movies. But even that norm is shifting. Most young people I know switch their phones to silent and continue to text each other as the movie plays. When Monday rolls around should we really be asking our students to “power down” before going to school?

Young students today are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

The theme for this year’s e-Strategy Townhall conference at UBC is “Here and Virtually There – UBC and the Digital Generation.” I believe that incorporating technology into educational initiatives goes beyond engagement for students. This means that the students role is shifting to participating in and even producing their own educational experience. The role of educator is also shifting. Educators must become facilitators for learning – willing to learn on the fly – and coach students on how to navigate through their own educational experience using technology.

The ideas presented during a panel about the “digital disconnect” and the role of educators as coaches particularly resonated with me. The panel was a featured session at the e-Strategy Townhall entitled, “Network Learning – Seeing Through the Clouds”. This e-Stategy mini-conference is hard to describe. It’s a group of educators, IT professionals, interested tech-savy folk at the University who come together to talk about how to better incorporate technology into the educational experience. I’ve presented to this audience before about bioinformatics resources available to researchers and educators.

Today’s panel included a video conference with Julie Evans – CEO of Project Tomorrow from Irvine California responsible for the Speak-up Survey that carrys out focus groups with grade school kids. She made the point that students “power down” for going to school. School life is not at all like the technology rich like that they live at home. She also made the point that students are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

Another virtual panelist was Peter Arthur – Director, Centre for Teaching & Learning, UBC Okanagon. He countered with the comments that, “Students are not all ready.” He worries that for students currently in undergraduate communities, information literacy is still coming. Back to Julie’s data from the grade school age kids. Her findings indicate that the most desired technology is a laptop that students can take home.

For me, it’s all about how we can making learning relevant. An interesting discussion about how to “open up” to these ideas ensued. We need to let students explore, support skill development, and provide support for students putting content online (example, wikipedia articles). Gaming, simulations, animations all can be used to develop problem solving skills. Mechanisms for celebrating and disseminating student successes and the knowledge bases they create needs to be supported.

Some of the comments that resonated with me the most were regarding the Coach-Teacher relationship. In the university environment we must begin to embrace this new role for teachers, as coaches, facilitators, and mentors. This means that as educators we need to be on top of the latest technology and feel comfortable with learning things as we go. David Wiley, Director, Centre for Open & Sustainable Learning, Utah State University made the point that students have become “free agent learners” going outside their normal learning environments to find information.

To participate in this new cooperative style learning process, we must be willing to push our own boundaries and become coaches to these free agents. I’ve always believe that coaching is a big part of the educational experience but with the pervasiveness of technology this role is becoming even more important. Accepting this challenge offers an exciting way forward for me as an educator.


The SPIRE postdoctoral fellowship program is “an innovative approach to advance science careers by balancing research, teaching and service.”

SPIRE’s Mission:

To provide multi-dimensional professional development for science researchers and educators to succeed in academic careers, to bring engaging teaching methods into the classroom, and to increase diversity in science professions.

It sounds like a great program. Unfortunately, I was reading the fineprint and you’ve got to be a US citizen to apply. I wonder if there’s a Canadian equivalent?