Category Archives: undergraduate education

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.

Ideas about Student Motivation

I recently read this Idea Paper about “Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning” by Marilla D. Svinicki. It’s interesting to think about what motivates the students we teach. I think this paper summarizes nicely how to reach out to the majority of students:

  1. Prioritize Learning
  2. Expect Success
  3. Make Your Class a Safe Place
  4. Encourage Community
  5. Offer Choices
  6. Be a Role Model

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.

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.

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.

Learning Conference 2008

Today I stopped in at the 2008 UBC Learning Conference “Bring Goals to Fruition” Learning Goals Workshop, presented by members of the UBC Earth and Ocean Sciences Science Education Initiative.

Building effective learning goals is a corner stone for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the teaching / learning experiences for both you and your students.

Also at this workshop was Beth Simon, a Science and Teaching Learning Fellow with the CWSEI. I’ve interacted with her a lot via email and over the phone about science education initiatives happening over in Computer Science, so it was nice to finally meet her in person. As for the workshop itself, I participated in some brainstorming activities and discussion about learning goals. Nothing really that new, but it was a good opportunity for reflection. In particular, we reflected on the nature of learning goals and how they can be classified into different types: cognitive, skills, and attitude. I also thought it was good how the workshop highlighted the importance of having learning goals at different levels, for example generalized goals that relate to the whole course, as well as specific goals for each lecture. All in all, it was time well spent.

Faculty Programs from the ASM

The ASM Education Department offers professional development institutes that aim to improve science teaching. I first heard about these “Bioinformatics Institutes” for educators at the ASMCUE 2008 meeting. The official tag line for this conference for undergraduate educators was “Celebrating 15 years of Teaching Excellence,” however, the subtext that emerged for me was the sorry state of teaching bioinformatics at the university/college level. There are some bright spots, but across the board, educators are struggling with how to get bioinformatics into their curricula. Thus, the need for these workshops that offer just in time training for instructors.

The Summer Bioinformatics Institute, Enhancing the Undergraduate Curriculum through Bioinformatics, aims to meet the need for more undergraduate faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines to understand, interpret, and use molecular sequence information to solve problems. The program features the analysis of microbial genomes, molecular sequences, and structural data, providing a framework for developing classroom activities and research projects for undergraduate students.

Check out for more information.

Programs like this one offer great opportunities but have limited spots available. A complementary solution would be for a small groups of faculty to come together and develop portable training programs that deal with bioinformatics content as well as how to teach bioinformatics that could be offered locally at multiple institutions.

A common set of guiding principals about “What to teach?” could be very useful for this kind of “train the trainers” type of endeavor. I’ll be following the outcomes of this Workshop on Computational Education for Scientists with much interest as it deals with that very question.