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 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, " 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:

Problem solving

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.