Friday, November 1, 2013

Hypothesis in hyperspace


So I had a hypothesis. Actually an onion of a hypothesis with many layers to it. The core of the hypothesis was that we all have different styles of learning, visualizing, and interpreting. A truism that's almost trite. But not trite enough that we should forget about it when we teach, or when we design a learning environment. 

A layer out from that I hypothesized that students probably didn't understand a well-accepted scientific model: the fluid mosaic model of the phospholipid bilayer membrane. Irrelevant? Maybe. Except all living things have membrane systems. And teaching about membranes is central to biology. And membranes have been illustrated, modeled, and "visualized" in a million contexts including in our last lecture this week. 

My final hypothesis: that building a 3-D model of a membrane would be a hard task for my students. I couldn't do it myself, the first ten times I tried. 

I set my students to work first, by asking them to read one of my posts called "Permeability: just for cell membranes?" In that post I discuss lots of concepts of permeability, way beyond biology. I asked students to respond and if you go to that post you can see how they did. Pretty amazing actually. 

Next I asked students to connect the two concepts of permeability and evolution. A steep task but one that they lit nicely to. 

The major task of the day was for students to build a model of a membrane using Zometools, a wonderful toy I've been itching to introduce. 

Here are my findings. Students were intent upon depicting phospholipids. They did so quite literally, modeling the phosphate head and the hydrocarbon tails. Many wanted to depict both the saturated hydrocarbon tail and the unsaturated one. Some even wanted to include the glycerol that glues the two together. 


A moment of liberating fresh air came when I told my students they could look at the big picture and go abstract. They could represent the bilayer any way they wanted. Here they divided into two approaches: those who went 3-D and those who used the Zometools like colored lines flat on the lab bench surface. 


The next challenge was depicting the embedded proteins. We haven't studied proteins yet so it's no surprise many of the proteins depicted were just a single line. But it's worth it to mention I asked students to google images of membranes and refer to them, so anyone could have seen that the proteins have dimensional and not just linear qualities. 


Many students showed the proteins embedded horizontally, swimming between the two layers of phosphipids. This in spite of the fact that they were working off of lecture notes they had drawn as well as google images. 

Those students who depicted proteins arranged vertically did not show the proteins reaching past the phosphate heads, a biologically important feature. And the groups who did almost everything "right" were limited by the fact that their models presented a facies (just like I showed them in lecture!), just a slice of the cake, and not a whole sheet cake of membrane. 

An aha moment came when one student wore his Halloween sombrero to class. I suggested, what if we put two sombreros together and called the head part a protein?

Then I learned. Instruct the 2-D students to go 3-D. Instruct the protein people to orient their proteins vertically, to extend them beyond the structure of the bilayer, and bulk up the proteins. To those students who made a wonderful "slice" model I suggested: make three more of these, arrange them like four walls of a house, and build a protein up through the middle. 

Here are some of the results. I'm very happy with them! Next week we're building enzymes in lab to illustrate the lock and key active site. I'll ask these intrepid and intelligent students to make their proteins ten times the size of the substrate...about the size of a person. I have a feeling they'll impress me again. 






Thursday, October 3, 2013

Focus on Form

I had a delightful day in lab yesterday as my students struggled with finding, defining, and communicating about form. My doctoral work at Harvard and subsequent research focused on lichen form, so I thought I would give them a taste of one of my professional articles. The article was chock full of scanning electron micrographs, some of which I'm including in this post.


A theme of our course this semester has been looking beneath the surface. I'm trying to engage students in thinking about how to interpret the abstract messages that nature (and the world in general) send us. How do we go about interpreting our strange world? If we want to assert our agency in that world, and do it effectively, we have to interpret signals. Lichens with their strange seemingly abstract forms, difficult to put into any kind of familiar context, turn out to provide a great study instrument.

So as a warmup I asked students to tweet me their impressions of the figures in my article. People overwhelmingly wrote, "...it looks like..."  Bunny rabbit ears, coral, human hands and feet all appeared as descriptors. All focused on "visible" appearance though in nature, most form (I'm thinking molecular form) is observable though technically "invisible." This lab was also intended as a bridge to our next unit, where we will start looking at molecular interactions. If you don't think form is important in molecular biology think water. Or proteins. Or DNA.

After the warmup I asked students to consider a series of questions about form, its relationship to shape, and whether it only applies to living things.


Students put a lot of thought into their answers. I was inspired by all the work people invested in this lab, and I think they were too. As a biology professor I see my role less as a purveyor of biological "facts" and more as a learning coach. Especially focusing on how we solve problems, how we observe, and how we think and perceive. This is all connected with the new Boston University Arts Initiative. And I am a strong proponent as well of S.T.E.A.M., which includes arts in the traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) way of thinking. It follows that the introductory essay I had my class read was "Thinking Critically with Aesthetics," authored of course by me. 

I just spoke with one of my students who's doing a double major in advertising and economics. He reports that his class at BU's COM school is similar to mine. Students are asked to think hard, innovate, collaborate, and communicate, a tall order that goes way beyond the old models of imparting and receiving information. 

Lichens were a fun thing for me to study. They presented a real intellectual challenge. But the work I'm doing now goes way beyond that challenge as I design learning environments for my undergraduates that get them thinking (and performing) in new ways. 

Incidentally I spent my time in lab responding to students' tweets. Instant feedback and thoughtful discourse. Can't beat that for an effective learning environment.



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Genius of Landscape: Communal Built Environments and an Architectural Mystery in the Yucatan


Individuals, communities and societies build landscape. How societies form, how communities relate, what people do every day and all their lives reflects and builds landscape. Societies make landscape in different ways. All societies construct landscape communally. In fields, roads and cities, building and maintaining are collective endeavors. Tires, feet, exhaust – all part of a shared action – motion, erosion, corrosion. A pile of garbage, a garden, a coating of soot or fresh paint.


Prelude: Valladolid, a sleepy Yucatecan town, a place of conflict where the "caste wars" were fought by the Mayans, desperate for self-determination, economic and social freedom. Nightmares crawl up onto you from the blood spilled here.

Today Valladolid is cheerful, leafy and lively. Janet suggests we follow the "Route of Seven Churches" to get the lay of the land. First hesitating, then confidently, we follow the tourist information map. We see the spire of one church from the plaza of another churchwe visit. We drink a coke in the semi-shade of a tree filled with birds. 



We consider the flat landscape of Valladolid and its churches, every one replacing a Mayan pyramid. We reimagine the city in its Mayan incarnation, a different place but one still filled with people, markets, roadways and pyramids.

Continuation: Mérida, Yucatán’s capital, a pulsing city of over a million. Valladolid's “seven churches” are replaced by twenty or more. Walking the narrow colonial sidewalks, bathed in fumes from careening buses, this is a grey city for all its vibrancy, coated in the dust of exhaust and baked by tropical light. The buildings squat together in the hot light of noon or in late day shadows. Walking more than in Valladolid, we see more and we see less.

South of the city—a fork in the road. In ancient times, one road led to Ticul and trade in the interior, another to Campeche, the sea and beyond. Ancient geography superimposes itself. The modern place melts onto the bones of the old. Standing here, Mérida becomes real, not just a collection of shops, restaurants, hawkers, buses, trucks, and evening strollers. Mérida is history. What communal efforts built it?


The next day-a cool, rainy bus ride to Mayapán, supposedly the only Mayan ceremonial center that remained active into European times. At Mayapán – after a long ride into uncharted areas teeming with ruined pyramids in the middle of busy villages – we encounter a super deluxe coach carrying Germans, who have spilled onto the site. They are doing yoga on the buildings, kneeling and stuffing notes into cricks in the structures, possibly thinking about human sacrifice.

They leave, almost forgetting the smallest, weakest, oldest member of their group in her wheelchair. We have Mayapán to ourselves. In the wind and low sky of grey clouds, spitting raindrops, it is intense-- intensity of travel, intensity of site, intensity of an encounter with the plain lunacy of foreigners who travel with cognitive maps so clearly clashing with the place they visit. Mayapán looks like it was buried almost to the tips of its pyramids. It reminds us that much lies beneath.



On the bus back to Mérida we are chilled, tired and overwhelmed with the site, hard to interpret. In town we try for a Spanish (not Mexican) restaurant, are chased away by cigarette smoke and steep prices. We wander the downtown streets of Mérida hungry and thirsty, a head above the crowds that pack the workaday sidewalks. 

Janet points out a parking lot raised just above street level. On the far wall of the parking lot are two baroque columns, remains of a Spanish-era chapel. Why the chapel? And why is the parking lot raised in dead-flat Mérida? Obvious. It's sitting on temple ruins.


Is this whole city sitting on ruins? Is Mayapán, ruins itself, sitting on even deeper ruins? What about Valladolid and the surrounding villages? Is there any place in the Yucatán not sitting on ruins? How did they come to be buried? Some we know were recycled—contemporary roadside walls built from the whitewashed sacbeob stones, churches constructed from the rocks of temples and pyramids.



But the puzzle I've been trying to solve since I first came to the Yucatán: stucco walls decorated playfully, skillfully, boldly, with what appear to be random stone chips.




Experiment: Ceramics Studio, Boston University. Up here on the fifth floor I've been venting my creative instincts, finding new colleagues and new ways to play with clay, struggling with a project referencing the pillars of Ake, near Mérida, where I took dozens of photographs of amazing, outsized, isolated, windswept, sculptural stone pillars.




My ceramics experiment is a mixed bag. None of my miniature pillars sing with the energy and awareness of the real thing. I decide to carve, painstakingly, chipping off pieces of my small, imitation Ake pillars, coming to grips with the shape of the rocks I'm trying to depict, building a pile of random leather-hard clay chips—chips that look exactly like the random stone chips of the stucco walls in Valladolid. I return to my Flickr site, where I've faithfully recorded every picture that's worth sharing of my time in Mexico. I stare, breathless, at a wall in Downtown, Mérida, whitewashed but grey with soot and smoke, chock full of tightly packed, random-looking stones.


But those stones weren't random. They littered the streets of Valladolid (not yet Valladolid), and they littered the streets of Mérida (not yet Mérida), when the Spanish arrived. They were the chips left by generations of stonecutters – hundreds of years' worth – who trimmed the stones that built the temples, evidence of collective human work on the landscape. Colonists incorporated the chips into their stucco, and there they sit. Puzzle solved.

The ancestors of today's Mayans built a landscape of glorious cities of worship and power. The by-product: unassuming chipped stones piled in the streets, created over ages by many hands. The collective goal of the Mayan civilization was the building and upkeep of those cities. Every hand in society supported the priests, sacrifices and physical presence of the cities of ritual that became Valladolid and Mérida. Temples and pyramids were built from stones trimmed and chipped near these sites for hundreds of years. Landscape: a collective human endeavor.

Postlude: A visit to New York City and Ground Zero. "Occupiers" are still stationed at Zuccotti Park, a few steps away. The horrible, scarred landscape, the hole, the crowds, the bronze bas-relief of heroes of the NYPD, overwhelmed by a calamity beyond their ken and beyond their means to ameliorate. Yet all around the scene of disaster, all around the milling people, all surrounding the Occupy protesters soars the landscape of Wall Street, which we as a society continue to build with all our focus. Cranes pushing skyward, the landscape of the financial apparatus is the centerpiece of our communal efforts. Whatever we save, buy, eat or “invest” contributes to those buildings, to that financial "community.” I realize with a dollop of shame that these towers are our pyramids, this landscape of greed our bequest to the future.

This appeared as an article in Arcade Magazine 31:4

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Designing learning environments

I'm teaching science to non-science major undergraduates. How to start? The core curriculum I came into almost 20 years ago was a lock-step program with identical content, coursework, and exams for all 600 or so students. Four years ago our department was cut in half by a short-sighted administration that was swayed by departments outside of the sciences. About that time we decided to loosen our curricular approach, maintaining certain conceptual benchmarks that we could all teach in common. Even so it took me years to break out of the stereotypical "wet labs" that students had been doing for decades. Not only were the labs getting older, students had done equivalent work in high school. I had to break the mold to stay sane. 

A restful, stimulating sabbatical, initially denied me by the same dean who threw our department under the bus, was the key to my new lab approach. The core of that approach was to share with students my own ways of learning about nature and science. As a scientist and as an artist I have a profound relationship with the natural world. How could I share this with students?

Yesterday I got some inspiration as I watched students work through part of my lab. I gave them the link to my Flickr site, where I've assembled several hundred photos of flowers I took myself. I asked students to go through the photos, find one that they liked best, and tweet the photo to me along with the reason they chose it. Students simply came to lab, opened their laptops or phones, clicked on the link, and sank into a bed of floral eye candy. The oohs and ahs, the "I want to tweet every one of these," and the exclamations of "these are so beautiful" spoke for themselves. Instead of rushing through lab people spent time with the material. They engaged just because it was so aesthetically pleasing

The focus of my course this semester is how we can use aesthetics, broadly, as a problem solving algorithm in science and in everyday life. Designing my labs I've had to strategize how to introduce critical thinking through aesthetics at every possible opportunity. Along with that I've asked students to think about and analyze why they see things the way they do. Lots of focus, lots of discussion, and lots of written communication has gone into these labs so far. 

As people slip into lab and start to go about their business engaged, quiet at first, and focused, I'm getting a kind of automatic feedback on how well this designed learning environment is working. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Using twitter in lecture

It never occurred to me to use those horrible "clickers" that publishers have been trying to sell us for the past decade. But this year the most logical thing seemed to be having students tweet their response to a lecture question. A couple of weeks ago a student asked if it was for taking attendance. I answered "no" and I meant it. But today when I asked my students to tweet me their response I made it clear: this was just to get their opinions. 

On Mondays at 2 PM my students have just come from a large lecture given in a cavernous, anonymous hall. Many of them skip lunch to make it to the 1PM lecture so in addition to being disengaged, they're hungry. How to get students to take a minute to think, not just take notes on what you're saying?

I asked my students today to respond to the question, "can inheritance be considered as a selective pressure?" This after a short discussion on "subjective" vs. "objective" based on their responses from lab last week. I was surprised how many people responded in a short discussion to my queries about that topic:

1) How do people make judgements about what's objective and what's subjective? (How did you do it last week?)

2) What does it take to convince someone that something is "objective?" (Does it matter?)

3) Is there a use for the "subjective" in problem solving? (What about aesthetics as an algorithm...one of our themes of the year).   

I got a large number of tweets in the minutes after I posed the question about inheritance. It led to a relaxed, receptive mood as my phone buzzed off the hook and people heard their responses "coming in." Here's what they wrote:


Friday, September 20, 2013

Beauty and utility: "only" subjective?

This week I asked my students to read several posts about human evolution and tool use. I asked them to comment on the posts by listing out what they thought was "subjective" and "objective" in the readings. I've put the words in quotations because after all, they are both open to interpretation.


Students worked very hard on the exercise, most spending the entire two hours we had scheduled for lab. My observation of their work and the nature of their responses led me to several questions. 

First, a note on the responses. Most striking was that students classified as "subjective" any statements about the gracefulness, beauty, balance, or elegance of Paleolithic and Neolithic tools. Interesting because beauty aside, the first essay of this semester discussed the "beauty" or "elegance" of problem-solving in both scientific and artistic contexts. But what about the evidence in front of them? 


My close reading of students' responses led to a couple of questions. First: how do people make decisions about what's objective or subjective? Were there key words, phrases, or ideas that students distinguished as one or the other? I know these judgements were not made in haste because I listened in to all of the discussions. Students seriously debated this stuff. 


My second question asks what it takes to persuade someone about the "objectivity" of a statement. Perhaps it's a matter of the eye of the beholder. This is the first time many of my students have seen objects like these. Maybe, because of unfamiliarity, bias, or perception, ideas of gracefulness, balance, and beauty don't come to mind when students observe these objects. 

I engaged a few students in a discussion of the iPhone, the beautiful new ios 7 operating system, and less than stunning alternatives. They insisted that sales and profit are the most plausible reasons for excellent design in these contemporary tools. I wonder if they thought about utility. 



It comes down I think to a re-training of the eye, an appreciation for the deep historicity of these objects, and acknowledgement that beauty and utility go hand in hand. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Engaging undergraduates in paleohistory

How do you get students to engage in ideas about paleohistory? As a cultural anthropology major I remember the dreaded "stones and bones" course, the catalogues of skulls, the charts of Mousterian implements, the dead hand (or so I then thought) of digging. 

If you've read my posts you know I have a much different feeling about these things now, a positive take that I have a strong need to impart to my students. But undergraduates are undergraduates. They lead busy lives in the present, they are taking a history course in addition to my required science course, and loading too much about our hominid and human ancestors on them just seems unfair. And a bit unrealistic. To go back to my initial question: how to engage students in this material?

So this semester I tried something a little different. In addition to my lectures, breathless with excitement about climate and tools and caves and effigies and dolmens and depictions, we worked on some new problems in lab. As usual, we started with a solid selection of skulls. And replicas of some very old tools, dating back about 700,000 years. Instead of including labels for students to copy down (or photograph) and then rush out of lab, I asked my students to study and sketch one skull or tool that interested them. I also had them read a couple of my blog posts 







and asked them to work as a group picking out what was "subjective" and what was "objective" in each post. In part this provided a vehicle for close reading, and in part, it's because the study of paleohistory is so fraught with controversy. Why not let the students partake?

Back to the sketch, I asked each student to post it to flickr with a title and caption addressing these questions:

How does it feel to the touch? How would you describe its shape? Which features about it stand out? Why do they stand out to you personally? How would parts of this tool/skull have been used? 

Then I asked students to look up three online articles on any one of these subjects. I asked them to start with wikipedia, then use an article cited there, and to finish up with an article (or abstract) from Science Magazine or Scientific American. I chose the subjects because they interest me, but I think I left a wide enough range for everybody's taste.


1) Origin of pottery

2) Origin of sculpture
3) Paleolithic
4) Neolithic
5) Chalcolithic
6) Olmec culture
7) Mayan cultures
8) History of writing
9) Aztec origins
10) Primate evolution
11) Early hominids
12) Neanderthal culture

After this bit of research I asked each student to make a short (2 minute) presentation to their table about the salient points of the articles they chose. Out of these presentations students were asked, as a table, to come up with 3-5 unifying concepts that connected the "research" readings, my blog posts, and the material we covered in lectures this week.

Finally, a tweet with their sketched skull or tool and a short statement on one of the unifying concepts from their table.

************************************

The results were a happy surprise for me. Periods of intense concentration interspersed with heated discussions about the readings, about concepts, and about the material in front of us in lab. 

I heard and received lots of communication, solid and well thought out discussion, debate, and inquiry about the topics of the week. 

This lab gave students an opportunity to use the social media sites they had signed up for the week before, and more importantly, it gave them a chance to observe, document, analyze, and abstract their ideas. It was a long lab--no one made it out until almost the full two hours. But I think we all got something useful and maybe even exciting out of it. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Problem solving: technology and evolution

Thinking about complex situations and the way we solve problems that emerge from them. It's connected to my course design for this year. Do I want to focus on content or process for my students? In the long run it's much more important that I coach them on how to problem solve, how to be creative thinkers, and how to innovate. To paraphrase Julia, no one will ever ask them if they know the parts of a flower, or which came first, the Neolithic or the Chalcolithic, during a job interview.

Inspiration came from two places this morning. First, reading the amazing introductory chapter of J. Stephen Lansing's "Perfect Order," a study of irrigation systems in Bali. He sets up many questions in what I consider to be a must-read introduction for people who are interested in complexity and how to study it. What struck me was the question of whether the complex systems he studied were a solution in themselves or a device for finding solutions. As he puts it, "had the subaks [indigenous organizations empowered to manage rice terraces and irrigation systems] solved a problem, or built themselves as a problem solver?" Lansing makes the case for subaks as a multi purpose problem-solving mechanism, one that inadvertently, though very effectively, mimics evolutionary processes in biological systems.


The second inspiration came from a tweet by John Maeda, "...design matters increasingly more than technology..." I translate this, perhaps too liberally, to mean process over content. Technology can solve a problem but design is a problem-solving mechanism. 

My course design for this year's group of non-science major undergraduates at Boston University follows a theme I developed over my sabbatical last year, contemplative learning. Through various exercises in close reading and consideration of texts, topics, objects, and processes, I am encouraging my students to explore, problem-solve, and innovate as they develop self-awareness and an awareness of the natural world. A lofty goal perhaps, but one worth pursuing. I want to teach them to think broadly as they build collaborative models of understanding.



Things came home to me this summer when I was teaching in the sustainability program at the Boston Architectural College. Do we need our graduates to be builders or problem solvers? How do you teach what's important in an emerging discipline, one that will devise solutions to problems yet unseen? As I schlepped students through urban neighborhoods, cajoled them to build ideas (literally) with cool zometool blocks, and pushed the envelope in discussions about what "sustainability" means to them, I struggled to nourish these students with the tools to think about and solve problems apart from the usual charrette environment of BAC studios. In a subsequent discussion with my colleague and friend Shaun O'Rourke, we discussed the importance of teaching problem solving skills, a suite of behaviors much closer to evolution than to technology.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Inviting metacognition through the back door

For my first lab of the year I threw my students a bit of a curve ball,  asking them to look below the surface of complex images, asking them to articulate less than obvious connections between art and science, and asking them to write and re-abstract their ideas by condensing sentences into short phrases and finally, a single word. 

What does this have to do with science? I wondered myself when I discussed my lesson plan with my rhetoric colleagues. Turns out they had done similar exercises with their students. Should I be teaching rhetoric instead of science?

My goal for this lab was to prepare student for the upcoming struggle with science ideas. Something that will unfold in the next few weeks as we tackle more complex and abstract ideas. I hope that this (and upcoming) labs will provide practice for taking on abstract and seemingly unrelated concepts. I hope that as students study for exams they will find themselves re-abstracting ideas from their careful notes, articulating the central ideas of the course. 

As students worked on their phones and laptops, independently and in groups, I took a few notes on their behaviors. Here's what I observed:

Concentration
Discipline
Collaboration
Discussion
Problem solving
Composing
Focusing
Contemplating
Engaging
Modeling
Questioning
Comparing 

I think students have used technology intensively in other classes, though perhaps not as intensively as they did this week. There was sustained work with their devices over the two hours of lab. Minor technological problems were resolved through group work as students helped one another navigate.

Thinking about complexity, making unexpected connections, articulating, simplifying, and abstracting. Using precision language through tweets and other exercises, struggling with ideas and processes, working solo and together, these exercises were designed to invite metacognition in through the back door. 





Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Learning better by seeing it twice

Going to art shows or galleries we saw that images that had been advertised got the most attention. When we visited large museums we realized that one visit wasn't enough. For example, during a day at the Prado in Madrid we started with a cursory run-through, ate an early lunch outside, and returned for an intense afternoon of study and reflection. 

I think it's the same way with science. The material we cover in lectures can't be understood by just taking notes, no matter how thorough the notes or how carefully students have been listening. And coming back to those notes a few days before the exam is never adequate. By then the story line has gone in so many directions it's hard to get a handle on exactly what transpired during all those weeks. 

I ask my students, urge them in fact, to re-read their notes at the end of the day they wrote them. Every day we have lecture I want my students to go back to their notes, starting with the first lecture, and review what they've written all the way up to the most recent lecture. This shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes or so. 

During lecture I ask my students to sketch, draw arrows to things that are connected, circle important phrases, and sometimes, to put questions I interject in parentheses after a statement. All of these are mnemonic devices to encourage deep understanding of the material. But no matter how fresh and agile their brains, if students come back to these notes too long after they've written them, the signal is weakened. It's too hard to pick up the scent of a concept. 

It's kind of nerdy to study this way. I know I never managed to do it. But I didn't care as much about my grades as these students do. So when I see my students in lecture today I'll ask them, "What study technique did I mention during the last lecture?" They'll probably answer, "contemplation?" "analysis?" "observation?". Nice sounding answers and all part of learning. But if they had re-read their notes from last time they'd know. Study it twice to learn it better. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Teaching science: seeing below the surface

Yesterday in lecture I tried something new. I showed my students a photo and asked them to spend a couple of minutes writing about what was going on in the image. Specifically I asked them to describe what was going on below the surface. Most students got started right away. Some people had bemused looks. Once asked me if this was a trick question.



I asked students to email me their responses. This provided me with an opportunity to send a short note back, a good way I think to start discourse and set an encouraging tone. I also got to see what students think about. I got responses that ranged from discussions of symbiosis and molecular biology to statements like "the flower is doing photosynthesis." This wasn't an examination but you could call it a probe.




Seeing, or at least thinking about what's below the surface is so much of science (and art for that matter). Considering unseen processes, engaging with thoughts about immediate and deep time, and acknowledging that what we look at has functionality beyond our simple understanding--all of these things contribute to critical thinking.




As my students spend this semester engaging abstract scientific concepts I hope they will get a sense that this frustrating process is a way of growing. As we struggle to articulate the workings of the natural world, all the way from molecules to ecosystems, I hope my students will derive enjoyment from the practice of contemplative exploration. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

New Science Labs for non-Science Majors

My goal for undergraduate students is to encourage awareness. Mindfulness about how we see the world is the first step toward understanding nature. So for my non-science majors at Boston University's College of General Studies I designed a series of lab exercises this year that introduce contemplative science learning through engagement with the arts.

For my first lab I took a page out of the book of my friend Maggie Macnab, a master designer and instructor at Santa Fe College of Art and Design. In Maggie's book "Design With Nature" she has readers design a personal logo for themselves. I think this is a great exercise for promoting self-awareness along with an aesthetic sense for visual impulses. 

Because my students will tweet much of their work in lab this year I decided to build on Maggie's personal logo idea. As part of our first lab, students will design a header for themselves in twitter. Once they have completed their project I'll have them tweet me the reason why they designed it this way. 

My objectives for this exercise are many. First, promoting visual awareness is key. It is also part of scientific inquiry. Second, as we explore the abstract signals of nature and try to articulate what they mean, I will be asking my students to re-abstract their findings through the condensed medium of twitter. We will be practicing this from week one. Finally, as we explore science through the interdisciplinary lens of art and the humanities, there is no better medium than the social universe of twitter. I want my students to get in there and play. 

I think this is pretty exciting stuff. And it's highly applicable to my students' majors outside of CGS. For example, my students who pursue a major in finance will find value in our exploration of scientific pattern, process, and prediction. I'm also excited about this because it's the first step I'm taking in BU's Arts Initiative, bringing the arts into every classroom at the University. Finally, as we work to develop a S.T.E.A.M. curriculum, I'm planning to get students thinking critically about science through engagement with the arts. After all scientists and artists have so much in common in terms of how we approach and solve problems. This exercise is the first step. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The moat at the Louvre

The greatest attraction at the Louvre is da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" but there are so many things to do at this place, so much more than a museum. 

Deep under the Louvre the well-preserved moat is open to exploration. The Louvre was once a fortress, and the moat is a reminder. Militarism and culture. This theme reverberates all over Paris whether you regard the Housmann urban plan, the Pere Lachaise cemetery, or the bronze-age statuettes and spearheads at the Louvre. Certainly the moat itself tells that story. 

As a deeply historical city there is so much history in Paris that is buried or untold. An ancient settlement that pre-dated the Romans, the city has built and rebuilt itself, sometimes with little regard to the past, sometimes with a deliberate strategy to suffocate history. 




Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Baaaad Design: Think About Your Users

Baaaad. And I don't mean good. It's common to use the Blackboard system as a course aid and I've used it many times in past years. So I wasn't reluctant or wary in the least to get in there this morning and load some content for my new students. 

First I should say I had to click five or six times into my class list, in order to ask our IT people to build me a site last week. This semester I have 66 students in four sections. Don't ask me why they can't be listed together but they're not. This isn't Blackboard's fault, it's my school's but here's what I get after my first longish series of clicks. 


Oh there's that class list click. Easy. Just one choice out of about 20. Right. So here's how my four "sections" present on the screen:


Now, to write a note to my students I have to click on a little button near each imaginary "section" and then click "list." Then I click "send email," or as I did last week, "request to create Blackboard site." No biggie. I guess. If you like clicking. 

So this morning, even though our IT department promised they would notify me when my site was ready (they didn't) my blackboard site "popped up" after I felt, or clicked my way through the dark to find it. Kind of like the underground moat last week at the Louvre. Rocky and dank. 

Here's what the "home" page on Blackboard looks like:


Home sweet home. OK I can make my way through it, click and clack my documents onto the site, log off, go back into my class list and click five times to let students know their syllabus and introductory essay are ready on Blackboard. 

But wait. All the way on the lower left of the "window" (window in quotes because it's more of a dungeon), the "properties" click. Since I didn't take that clickable opportunity I neglected to make my Blackboard site available to the students. 

About a dozen emails from students and a dozen emails back to them, I call our IT department. They didn't design this nonsense. They just get paid to help us work around it. All fixed up and "available" I click into the group email and  let my students know they can now get into Blackboard. 

More trouble. Students still can't get in. I phone into IT again. This time it's not a six minute wait. The professors are all probably photocopying their syllabi and readings to hand out in lecture. How much hassle are you willing to put up with to save a tree? Or maybe they just killed themselves. 

The nice young person on the other line tells me my Blackboard site is open to 16  students, I guess when they "built" the site for me they forgot the other three "sections." OK. Easy to fix. Here at 3:30 PM all's well that ends well. I started at 6:30 this morning but PhD time isn't that expensive at our school so no problem. 

Design. A problem. When you design stuff, whether it's a spatula or a backpack or an imaging system, think about how your customers will use it. If it's Blackboard you shouldn't have to hear the chalk screech every word you write.