Saturday, December 18, 2010

Barefoot and blind

It has been a tumultuous week: evaluation conversations, renewal of courses, paperwork for a new course, finals, finals, more finals, lots of grading, Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and some thoughts about Christmas presents (not done yet). Stress bordering insanity.
Best therapy: a long run.
Even better therapy: a long run, barefoot, on the beach.
Approaching zen: running barefoot, on the beach sand, early in the morning, with eyes closed.
I could write a treaty about running barefoot on sand. After reading Born to Run almost a year ago, I decided to give a try to barefoot running and thought the beach would be perfect. The first time, I chose running on the sand close to the ocean (packed and hard). I tried to run my usual time. At some point I realized it was going to hurt. When finished, my calves and Achilles tendons were in flames. I walked in pain for a week afterward.
Chastised, I started again, but on the freshly raked, soft sand. Much better. In the following months, I experimented with different sand textures: the soft one would work mainly on the thighs, the harder one worked the calves and ankles.
For me, running is much more than just exercise. It is one of the few ways I can manage to empty my mind. The amount of stimuli bombarding me lately has been significant, part of which is self-inflicted due to social media dependency.
It is hard to describe the feeling of running on sand barefoot with your eyes closed. As a very visual person (and visual learner for all that matters), shutting down that source of information had an immediate relaxing effect. I felt submerged in a soft cocoon as my Central Pattern Generators kept my legs moving. It was blissful.
If you wonder: yes I did run into a heap of kelp once. To avoid disasters I would open my eyes regularly to check for obstacles.  
The next experience was the awakening of the other senses. After a while I could tell if I was going away from the trail by sensing the difference in the consistency of the sand. The sound of the waves become a point of reference instead of a background lull.
And one more insight- as soon as I closed my eyes, I slowed down. Without the immediate correction of the eye and relying on my less developed senses, I had to slow down and establish a reliable steady movement.
For the last 10 minutes I wandered down to the packed wet sand by the water, and let go. Empty as the beach was, and with a steadier pace on a more supportive foundation, I could run fast, a true endorphin rush, legs pounding, heart racing, and yes, eyes still closed. 

How often, in our hurry to cover a predetermined material in a pre-established schedule, we push our students through the basics instead of allowing them time and space to acquire a secure footing and a steady pace? How often do we (I) believe that by bombarding them with cool and cooler information, tools, and materials they will learn better? 
As time goes I tend to take longer and longer time on the basics, and try to overcome the temptation to move forward too soon. My morning run showed me once more how essential is to establish a solid foundation, without the need for instant correction and feedback, before trying to accomplish more complex tasks. Especially important in the lab: one of the areas I need to improve training in organization and discipline. 
Going slow, taking time to establish a community in class, allowing students to use different approaches to learn, and encourage them not to do shortcuts in their thinking process. Plenty of formative assessments without the stress of grading. Room for brainstorms, creativity, and play.
It was a good run :)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Insights from the prison

I spent the last weekend in a prison. I mean a real prison, surrounded by barbed wires and blue-clad inmates. And no, luckily I was not incarcerated- I was facilitating another Alternatives to Violence workshop in a state prison. It was special for me, as it was my first Advanced level workshop in a long time. And it was in Spanish, my mother tongue: in this prison, as in many others in California, there are many Hispanics. And in these dire budgetary times, where many programs are being cut, Hispanics seem to be especially affected. AVP as a volunteer organization does not cost money to the state- so often it is the only program still running in certain prisons. 
I got involved with AVP 5 years ago- it immediately gave me skills to handle conflicts and communication issues, and after I completed my training I started facilitating. Besides my work as en educator, I consider AVP my other important contribution to society, both directly and indirectly. I do AVP both in the community and in prisons. It has been shown that inmates that have gone through the program show decreased recidivism. Indirectly, I know that I am a better teacher and person thanks to this program.
How so? It is not a coincidence that many AVP facilitators are also educators. The goal is the same: giving our students the tools to solve problems, not solving the problems for them. We do it in a framework of community and trust: Any AVP workshop start with activities meant to encourage community building and cooperation. Once trust is established, we do exercises and process them afterward. Between exercises we have activities for sharing and also "Light and Livelies," games meant to lighten the mood and play. 
This particular workshop was memorable because our facilitator team (2 outsiders and 3 insiders) decided to give a try to an exercise meant to model interactions based on inequality. The group is divided in 2, where one half can only speak the to other by asking permission first and addressing them in a formal way. This group wears masks, in contrast to the unmasked, who can address anybody without permission and in an informal way. Halfway through the exercise the roles are reversed, so everybody can experiment being "superior" and "inferior." This exercise usually stirs powerful emotions (especially in the prison context), and a deep analysis (debriefing) is essential for it to be valuable.
As the facilitator team plowed its way through available documentation and advices before committing to the exercise, I was struck by the similarity of the debriefing process to the strategies used to foster critical thinking in class. It should start from description and facts, then move to the meaning and significance of those facts (and in this case, the emotions and feelings associated to it), to finally arrive to the application of what was learned. It was stressed not to fall in the lecturing mode, but to combine listening to the group and asking good questions to lead them to actively analyze the exercise and formulate their own conclusions.
We finally decided to go for it. None of the facilitators had done that exercise before, and we were a bit nervous, but as a team we felt that we would "wing it" based on the general guidelines and trust in our group.
It was great. After a hesitant beginning, participants fell in their roles, and displayed different approaches of behavior in those roles. Emotions ran high but not critical and after the exercise ended, during the debriefing, we had the incredible experience of seeing the participants share, think, go deeper and deeper in their analysis, and come to conclusions on their own, helped by nudges of  questions. 
I am back in real life today, preparing finals and planning classes. But I am still in the afterglow of the weekend's experience. I have had those moments in class before, and I know I can do it again. Those are the moments we live for. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Apropos the multiple choice questions

I cannot stop thinking about the Chronicle article I read this morning about a survey showing that part-time faculty tends to use less effective teaching techniques. There are already many comments up, tackling several aspects touched by the article, from the precarious working conditions of adjuncts and less professional development possibilities to their vulnerability to student evaluations. I do not intend to analyze it- enough to say that while I would be happy for anything that made adjunct's working conditions better, I am rather skeptical of studies based on broad generalizations that may lead to knee-jerk reactions. 
Anyway, back to the article: examples of less effective teaching practices were tests based on multiple choice questions. I had to laugh (with some sadness) because just yesterday I had a conversation with one of my classes regarding their final comprehensive exam. I had decided to give it a try to crowdsourcing questions, and told my students to post questions, of which I would use a certain number as part of their final. During the ensuing dialog I was asked repeatedly what kind of questions would I ask, and when I answered that it would be a mixture of questions they have seen before in other exams and assignments, they kept asking about multiple choice questions. Those seemed to be their favorite kind of questions. And as several honest students have told me before, they like MC questions because many times they have just guessed and got their answers right. 
I cannot really understand it, personally. If in my young years I had been tested with MC questions, I would have probably fared much worse academically. I have always been a big picture person (with many hazy details and unexplored corners), so I always loved  essay questions. MC questions tend to throw me off- they make me focus on details and spend time analyzing the meaning of each sentence. And still, I may miss some minor clue. 
Personally, I think there are good and bad MC questions. I use them for a portion of my exams for questions that require clear understanding of certain concepts. They are good for that, if they are worded well- I try not to gauge memorization, but basic understanding of concepts. One of the comments of the article mentioned the point of MC questions perceived by students as impartial and fair, and there is some true in that. Essay writing in a science class like mine will have a huge quality spread depending on writing skills, so while I do have some essay questions, they are only a minor part of exams. I like short answer questions, matching or labeling ones, as well as other assessments like report writing (with plagiarism checking software, of course- even so, I have had my share of complete copy and paste from Wikipedia) and oral presentations. I just got into the wikis, and am planning getting started with VoiceThread next year.  With assessments, I tend to have the same philosophy as with portfolios- spread them out and diversify...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Post-it trail

I am a Post-it addict. Especially if they are yellow or bright orange. They have surrounded me for many years and no digital task list has ever matched neither their efficiency in reminding me each morning what to do nor the pleasure that crumpling and tossing them in the waste basket gives me (after dutifully striking over each line). 
My Post-it from 2 days ago says:
-Record 27 AP = that means recording the lecture for Chapter 27 of the Anatomy/Physiology course I am finishing. I started really good with all the lectures uploaded as ppt/pdfs plus the links to the podcasts 1-2 weeks ahead. Not anymore, but I have only 3 chapters left...and after that they will be available for the next courses. It is also a long process. I record the lectures using Profcast as it is really easy and straightforward, but the format does not transfer to iPods, so I have to reformat them to iPod using Camtasia. Then upload them to Screencast. Anyway, managed to record part 1 of Ch.27, and a bit later will do part 2. 
- K. Wed = I need to get together with K., a facilitator from the Alternatives to Violence Project to plan our next Spanish workshop at a State prison. AVP is my most important if not the only service project I do, by volunteering to lead non-violence conflict resolution techniques in both community and prison settings. It is not by chance that many of those involved in AVP are educators- I see constant parallels in areas such as community building and group projects. I have done some cross-pollination between the two...So I will have K. over for lunch and maybe do some baking on the occasion. My holiday-meter has signaled the beginning of the season, and that includes some heavy-duty baking, especially of bejgli, the walnut or poppy-seed filled Hungarian rolls. Yum!
- Exams!!!! Well of course- exam season is approaching. Yes I hate exams. However exams are still part of my reality. Note to myself- try out next year the crowd-sourcing approach suggested here.
- January syllabus! Of course, the January syllabus. This is the course I am intending to revamp with minimal lecturing and lots of hands-on activities. This includes lab activities. Setting up lab activities demand a little bit more than other activities. I use iWorx for physiology experiments, which is a great program but it has a steep learning curve in the beginning. How should I do it? I have made videos introducing the instrumentation to the students, but I need to do some screen-recording to show the analysis of the experiments. Should I add a little Excel tutorial too? Should I try to remake all the handouts and streamline them? Hm. Lots to think about.
I guess this Post-It has done its job. Let's grab the next one:
Register for couple of conferences I am intending to attend, either live or online. 
Christmas trip, tree, and gifts.
Catch up with grading (I hate grading).
And record chapters 28, 29, and 30...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My take on learning styles

I have never met Derek Bruff but I follow him on Twitter religiously- his tweets from conferences are informative, his insights are sharp, and he posts links and other resources- not to mention that he actually replies to messages. So when last Saturday he provided a link to a keynote address of  Lilly Conference about Learning Styles I was happy to explore it. 
I started reading about Learning Styles some years ago, when I got into more serious teaching and wanted to learn about how to teach better. Mind you, I come from a a place and era when nobody cared about making it easy to learn- it was up to the student to make it or not. However, I did have experiences related to my learning style- more than one teacher got annoyed with my inability to listen to their lectures without doodling. And more than one person in my life got annoyed with my refusal to read instruction manuals or watch tutorials, but instead starting to push buttons and learn by trial and error. 
When I learned about Learning Styles for the first time, I tried to figure out myself first. According to the simplest tests ("if you buy a towel, do you care more about its color or about how fluffy it is?) I am supposed to be a kinesthetic learner. However I know that I am a visual learner- when studying I will remember the image of the textbook page where a certain information is located. 
So I went to this keynote link and tried several of the respected learning styles quizzes. Result? Total confusion. Each learning style finished at around 20-30%  of the total. I tried hard to be unbiased answering, but some questions were just silly. For instance, either I preferred study in a group or not. No choice of BOTH- which is my preference. I like to study individually and then come together with a good study group to clarify issues and practice. My liking of music and ability to remember melodies put me in a relatively high auditory learning bracket, which is untrue. Information that I hear passes through my brain quickly and never stays. I still remember a purely auditory English class I completed many years ago- it stressed me to no end, as I could not figure out anything until I wrote them down and could actually see the words. 
I played with those tests for a while and decided not to pursue them further. I do not come from an education background, so I don't really have the knowledge to pass judgment on the issue in general. But I have the feeling that each individual has a way to learn: very often a mixture of those many styles- and each student has to figure out what is their best way of learning. Narrowing options based on those quizzes maybe useful or harmful- it is a bit like grading rubrics: they make assignments easier to complete but also limit creativity. But this is a subject of another post...

System overload and my next plans

I am afraid I need to step back and take a breath.
It has been an exciting ride: from the Building Online Community Course to the Global Ed conference, jumping into Twitter and then to blogging, checking out a myriad of resources at different organizations such as Get Ideas. Joining a couple of Ning communities. Establishing a Wiki for the online Microbiology course I am teaching. Participating in the "Office Hours" about Building a classroom without walls.
It feels strange to live virtually in a vibrant community of visionaries of education, and then go back to class and have a reality check. 
I had a Saturday class today and I made my students do the Hemoblobin dance. I asked them to become oxygens, hydrogens, and carbon dioxides, changing partners as they became first carbonic acid and then bicarbonate and H+. Hemoblobins and a carbonic anhydrase hovered around, and I hope that they will remember that when we talk next week about respiratory acidosis. One of my first experiences with plays in class was meiosis. I made students become sister chromatids, and for crossing-overs I made them do footsies. Much later a student told me that this was something she never forgot. For the first time I also set up the Immune System role play. The B cell expanding into a plasma cell and spitting out antibodies was clearly enjoying her role, just like the cytotoxic T-cell causing apoptosis of a virus-infected cell. 
In the meantime, I am gearing up for the next phase- the big revamp of my January class, a f2f class, into a blended course with minimal lecturing and lots of lab and group activities. 
But what I am really looking forward to is a trip to Zion National Park next week! I don't think that this is the right time to hike the Narrows, but at least I would like to peek at the beginning of the trail...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Socratic versus blink

I am sure most of you have read if not heard about Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. I remember reading it just after I finished reading Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders. Between those two books I 1) became even more scared of my doctors, 2) thought really seriously about the way I often do things- not as Socratic as I should and too often trusting my rapid thinking and my intuition (which often is not as sharp as I would like it to be).
HE agar

E. coli on LEMB agar
I just came home from a Microbiology class I teach. One of our lab assignments is to separate 2 enterics using Hektoen Enteric Agar and Levine EMB agar. If you are not in the Micro field, these are two media that will differentiate bacteria based on a variety of biochemical criteria, such as fermentation of certain sugars and production of H2S. Our lab tech had prepared demos of what the combinations of enterics would look like on HE and LEMB, and they were there for the students to observe.
Our department has very stringent rules about cell phones in the lab, so there was no way the students could take pictures of the plates. It crossed my mind "How old-fashioned!" observing the students taking notes of what they saw. But then...I changed my mind. I was listening to a group of students comparing notes and debating which plate belonged to which enteric combination. They went back and forth, comparing notes from their lab book and their previous observations. They looked at the plates several times. And after maybe 15 minutes, in that small group, they got it right. And I was delighted to hear their analysis, and wondered if they had gone to such detail if they had just taken a picture and gone home with it. 
So, my dilemma is- how to combine the "blink" style of all the new teaching tools with a rigorous analysis and processing? 

Waves and blended courses

Perfect days in SoCal start by catching waves. At least for me. 
When I moved to San Diego (from Sweden nonetheless) I believed nobody could get depressed in a place like that. Later I discovered it is, indeed, possible to get depressed here. Especially when you think about the cost of living  :) But most of the time I feel very lucky to live here. 
Most bio-scientists who land here will settle down along the coast, usually from Del Mar in the North to Pacific Beach in the South, concentrated in La Jolla and Sorrento Valley, home to most research institutes, UCSD, and biotechs. There is a certain La Jolla- centered thinking in the newly arrived population that tends to believe that anything East of 805 and South of the 8 is some kind of barbarian territory. Many will visit Balboa Park, Coronado, Old Town, and the Gaslamp; some females will even venture to the San Ysidro Outlets. A trip to Tijuana for shopping and drinking used to be a must, but not so much with all the drug violence South of the border. 
After 3 years living in different parts of La Jolla, including Windansea (stage of Tom Wolfe's classic Pump House Gang),  life took me to different parts of the city and made me appreciate all it has to offer. From the bohemian cafes of South Park to the hippie vibe of Ocean Beach, I have come to love many of its facets. Currently I live in East County, 20 min from the coast, surrounded by mountains and great hiking trails. And sunny. In the summer, very sunny (read- very hot). In the winter, cold- I have seen frost here in some mornings.
But it is sunny so we don't have one of the banes of the coast- the marine layer. This morning we left around 7.30 am (too late, traffic was bad), and once we approached La Jolla, this is what you see.
The marine layer gets trapped in the hills around La Jolla, and stays there in the morning. That may lead in the Spring to the May Gray-June Gloom effect: no sunshine most of the day. Can be depressing after a while.
I confess I am a sun-lover, but there are many who prefer the presence of the morning marine layer- those who like it cooler and many surfers who do not like UV- light too much and prefer the amateurs away from the beaches. 
I am not a surfer (yet?) but I am an ok body-boarder. And again, my perfect morning is in the water catching waves. After being wiped out a couple of times, and/or caught some great waves, all the problems in the world disappear. 
Being in the water also helps thinking. These past days I have been musing about science education. I have come to education from a science career- I was trained as a research scientist and teaching was a by-product of my studies. Only in my grad student days was I required to take a pedagogy class, and Bloom's taxonomy is a fairly recent acquisition in my knowledge repository. To teach in higher ed, you do not need to have a lot of education background- which of course leads to lot of researchers doing crappy teaching, but I am not going there. I also started with steely powerpoint prezis, which are the bread and butter of scientific presentations. Then I started learning new ways to do things. And I have still lots to learn. But every time the STEM education issue comes up, I just have to wonder about science teachers. I am a scientist turned teacher. I am sometimes ashamed of teaching for so long without really knowing how to teach. But, how can anybody teach science without experiencing science? And how can somebody who has not experienced science pass that fire on to students? That is why I thought Professor Oppenheimer's idea of providing science mentors to elementary teachers was great. Now, is it viable? Probably not. As passionate I am about STEM education, having a teen at home has scared me about ever considering high school teaching. I do know that there are certain programs addressing science teaching such as the one at SDSU. Very nice. Also, very expensive. I am not sure that I want to go there.
Right now I am reading more about blended courses, see a great website here:
 From what I see (my very personal perception), there is some resistance to online courses in science. Of course there are reasons for that- can online observation of the perfect histology really  replace the work of focusing and scouring a slide, identifying structures and discarding artifacts? Can a virtual physiology experiment replace the experience of electrodes attached, or a Youtube video give you the feeling of a dissected organ? So my take on this is to bet on blended courses. Lectures delivered by podcasts, videoconferencing for questions, Voicethreads for case studies, wikis for research projects- and onsite lab activities. 
I have a course in January that has a very high enrollment and some logistical issues with lab space. I am thinking that this is my chance to design my perfect blended course- concentrate on lab and active/group learning activities on F2F time, and deliver the rest online. Whoa. I will be busy during the holidays :)

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Global Education Conference highlights.

I spent most of my day following lectures from the Global Education Conference. I did not know it was happening until yesterday, and the thought of a completely free online education conference was very tempting. I should have listened to Ed Gragert's Keynote address but I was still in the process of caffeinating myself. I did log in to Toni Krasnic Mind Mapping lecture, because I was curious if it was the same mind-mapping that carried me through college. It was the same or similar, and I was happy to see that many of my techniques were still there- creating visual maps of knowledge. His website Concise Learning describes the Concise Learning Method, which contains 5 phases (preview, participate, process, practice, and produce).  While the session was ongoing, there was a lot of activity on the side- questions and answers in the chat room, links and hashtags flying, and lots of people tweeting about the event #globaled10. The recording can be found here.
After that I was really curious to hear about blended courses by Don W. Brown, but he did not show up in Elluminate at the start time and the session was canceled. As I had not done any exercise the past 2 days, I decided it was perfect timing for a trail run.  It was a perfect morning and a perfect run:
Back to the conference I decided to listen to Kelly Mendoza's Digital Citizenship talk. That was VERY interesting. I learned about how much children and teens text (over 3000/month), about how for kids the interaction with media  these days is two-way, and about the "digital footprints" they (and us!) leave.  She presented  Common Sense Media and their programs. How to make kids understand the complexity of being a digital citizen? "With great power comes great responsibility," was one kid's Spiderman-inspired answer- very good one!
In the Twitter-universe an EDUCAUSE report about Blended Learning landed my way, and what I read made a lot of sense- the design of a blended course not only as addition of online content to a F2F course, but as a complete rethinking of the course content and the opportunity to add new learning and teaching opportunities. And the challenges to implement blended courses run a wide gamut, from resistance by faculty to institutional challenges. Much too familiar!
One afternoon session I was very interested in was  Learning with the Lich King: The Potential of World of Warcraft in the Classroom by Peggy Sheehy. I had a short existence in WoW as a Night Elf Hunter, but my main interest in the game is because of my teen at home. Indeed, this was the first time he seemed interested at all in anything related to my world as the slides were passing through the screen. The program was used with at-risk teens in high school, and it seemed incredibly fruitful in many aspects. The chat window was very active and there were many suggestions as to how to use the game (from math to psychology and of course creative writing). My son translated some of the technical terms mentioned, and I left the Elluminate room with a vague desire to try it out again- however I do not really see it pertinent to biochemistry or microbiology...the recording is here.
After that it was time for me to go to work. I am looking forward listening to several lectures tomorrow and feel like a kid in the much to choose from, so hard to decide.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Art, science and a nod to an artist friend

On my second day here at Blogger I decided to work on the layout of the blog. Art has run strong in my family, and I have always enjoyed drawing. Indeed, one of my joys of classrooms with lots of white boards is the possibility of making  diagrams and drawings, of which my techie students dutifully take pictures.
But back to the blog, I am very aware of the importance of design, particularly colors and images, so I struggled trying to choose my own template. This is not the final one for sure, but I liked the bold orange color. Then I thought about images and after some trials I decided for Alex Lago's image "The wolf's motives."
Alex Lago was my classmate at college in Biochemistry, back in the 80's. That he would go on to study art and become a known artist just blows my mind. I have always had the belief that science and art has many connections, and true scientists tend to be very artistic. Nikon Small World competition showcases the art of science through microscopy, and I can attest to the beauty seen through the lenses. One of my areas of expertise was microscopy, and I am convinced that big part of it was the possibility of seeing all those beautiful colors and shapes, chasing the best shot in a darkened room. Like this one for instance- one of my first shots at confocal microscopy circa 2000: GFP-tagged TNF in melanoma cells. 
I started playing with videos at that time, and spent countless hours doing live microscopy. Then a long hiatus came for my artsy side. I did not do a lot of microscopy during my postdoc years or afterward. 
Now that I am dedicated to teaching I have joyfully returned and let my creative side come out again. It is also much easier these days to create multimedia! 
So yes, it is exciting to be a little bit at the crossroads of art, science, and education, trying to be an artistic science educator :) 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

My first post: why the title?

This is my first "official" blog post.  I have blogged before in more closed circuits but never "out in the open." Twitter was the next step, and the final push came from Michele check her blog here, who was our instructor in the just finished Building Online Community using Social Media course by @One Institute. So I went to Blogger, set up my blog and...was asked about a title. 
Now that took me some time. I did not want to use "musings," "reflections," or other appropriate words, as I tend to do things always differently and often inappropriately. If I wanted to reflect myself, I would have chosen "Pippi Longstocking's random thoughts" as I really like her rebellious character. I thought about something with the word "accidental" in it, but if by any chance this blog becomes more professional I would prefer to have a title suggesting its defined and focused nature.
So I stepped back and thought what would be the main topic(s) I would blog about, and decided it would be science education. And science. Or education in general. In science I will muse about science in general, a lot about microbiology, maybe a bit about cancer or diabetes, or things that catch my attention such as how cats drink. I have a cat and I love cats but I still have my doubts about the significance of this line of research. Ok I just reread it- it may have significance for the evolution of mammalian feeding and to address swallowing disorders. Good. I am still delighted that research in comparative physiology of running mammals would contribute to the book  Born to Run and the whole barefoot running movement. 
Because that is part of the "other beasts" section.  I reserve the right to muse once in a while about my other interests: trail running, cooking, gardening, photography, traveling in general, non-violence, music, and many others. 
I am writing this while baking a pumpkin bread (from Trader Joe's, a no-brainer), making a risotto, looking up information about Pulse Wave measurements as part of a Physiology lab I just tried this morning, reading Michele's post about not lecturing anymore, and thinking about how to set up my first wiki :) And here is a picture of Pippi my hero: