Saturday, February 4, 2012

The importance of a storyline (and embedded videos)

I have been away from this blog for a while. I did some traveling in Europe, then have been (and am) dealing with some unexpected renovation issues (thanks to a leak). Luckily I did not plan a lot for the month of January, so it was not as hectic as it could have been. But it is February now and in two days I start a quickie course, one month Intro to Biology course for non-majors.
This is itself perfect, as I can use some of the tools learned and material prepared last semester, while contributing to Carnegie-Mellon's OLI initiative adapting a Biology course for non-majors. The first version of the course is a pilot now, and having the experience of a storyline with the well-defined learning objectives makes my work much easier.
As I started setting up the website for the course, I had one of those small epiphanies about how important is to "tell a story" when teaching a class. A long list of amazing links and resources do not really work for students if there is no thread linking them together.
Last semester I took an online course related to accessibility. There was an incredible rich array of materials on the website, which I seldom looked at, except if it was required for a quiz...a quite typical attitude of today's students. My starting point was always the link that would walk me through that week's assignments and readings.
For this intro Biology course I received a beautifully designed course shell, intended for online students. It is full of interactives, animations, and a lot of great resources. I have probably deleted or hid half of them, because I know most students will not even look at them if it is not absolutely necessary, and if they look they will be probably overwhelmed. 
On the other hand, instead of links I have embedded a variety of videos interspersed with the lecture links (I provide them as powerpoints, pdfs, and podcasts). For instance, after the lecture that deals with protein structure I have embedded a short Nature video introducing the game Foldit. Or after the metabolism lecture, a musical adaptation of glycolysis
I spend a lot of time looking for good videos to illustrate my classes. Besides the classic ones (such as Paul Berg's translation movie) there are lots of new material using imaging techniques. But I also like to lighten the atmosphere with fun or quirky ones. 
I know it is a commercial- but the BioRad PCR commerical (shown above) really makes everybody smile after a DNA structure explanation...
My goal is to make it a story- introducing the topic, then showing an application of it, or maybe breaking the monotony with something funky, moving on to the next etc. 
And again, presenting it as a story- I doubt my students would spend the seconds required to click 3 times to see a video if I only provided them the link. I embed it, colorfully, in the middle of the page with the lecture, so the color will attract them to watch it. 
Glad to be back, folks!

Monday, January 2, 2012

What you do the first day of the year...

...will determine how the year goes. That was one of the many New Year's Eve traditions I learned. When you put them all together it becomes quite a long list to fulfill. In Cuba, you ought to wear something new on New Year's Eve, and do no chores January 1st. You also have to throw out some water exactly at midnight to get rid of “bad stuff.” If you add the eating 12 raisins according to Spanish traditions, plus kissing your loved one(s) at the same time, it can be hectic. In Hungary, you are supposed to eat lentil soup after midnight with lots of sausages inside, as the little circles resembling money will bring good fortune.
Years of trial and error have clearly shown the lack of correlation between those traditions and the actual performance of the coming year. However, what I do the first day still retain some magic- somehow it sets the stage for the year. I have done New Year's plunge in the freezing waters of the Pacific, gone bodyboarding, and this year it was skiing. Which is itself, a major achievement.
I did not try skiing until I was 40. Neither Cuba nor Hungary are known as skiing nations, and during my years in Sweden I was too busy with research and too poor to get into it. Skiing is not a cheap sport, when you count gear, lift tickets, and the actual travel.  
Years later, as a postdoc, I found myself at Snowbird, Utah for a Keystone conference. Distinguished scientists were showing up at plenary sessions in ski pants, there were options of discounted tickets and a long time gap in the middle of the day. I just had to try. "There goes my apoptosis project!" my then PI, a black diamond skier cheerfully commented. But he did not need to worry. I paid for a lesson to learn the basics, and spent some time on the bunny slope the first day. I spent some more the second day, and decided I was ready for a green trail the next day. All went well until I arrived to a real slope. I looked down and quietly exited through a shortcut.
I forgot to mention a minor detail. I am afraid of heights.
Not really of heights- I have no problem standing on a cliff and look down. My fear is of the sensation of going down fast. When I was 9, I tumbled and fell down the stairs of our apartment building. I managed to escape with minor bruises. But since then, jumping off trampolines, bike downhill, and certain rollercoasters freak me out.
I tried skiing again a couple of times. I guess I would have stopped there, had I not met my future husband, who gushed about Alta and powder during our first date. A native Vermont guy who jumped from the crib into ski boots, skiing is his passion. I quickly realized, that if we were to have a life together, I would have to make peace with the slopes.
During the past years, I have been progressing slowly from the bunny slope to blue trails. Nothing major, nothing epic. I am still scared to death of going downhill on steep hills. There have been many times that I have skied down looking steadily at the tips of my skies because if I look up I panic.
That's why I am so proud of it. That in spite of my fears I still do it. And that I am actually getting better at it. This has been a recurring motif in my life: attempting something that seemed very scary, doing it, and getting better at doing it. 
As Eleanor Roosevelt said:
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. "
And it feels so good to do it the first day of a new year! 
Happy 2012, dear Readers!