A naturalist and his moquitoes

This is another in the “meet the lab” series – here’s a feature by MSc student Chris Cloutier:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the world of creepy crawly things. For as long as I have been able to grasp and crawl I have been collecting and observing insects and spiders. Although my mother wasn’t always fond of the critters I would trek through the house, my parents were very supportive of my curiosities and did their best to nurture my interests. As a family we would go camping and fishing often, introducing me to the world outside of our backyard and ultimately landing me where I am today.
My passion for studying insects began many years ago with my first entomology course in CEGEP. After completion of that program I enrolled at Macdonald campus of McGill University. Before I even started my first semester I got my first real taste of applied entomology, when Chris Buddle hired me for several months during the summer to be his field and lab technician. Let’s just say that from that point onward I was hooked.

While studying at Mac I really started to discover where my interests were in this very diverse field. I was intrigued with the ecology and natural history of insects and the amazing things that they do. I really enjoyed learning about insect-human interaction, and for some reason I was very interested in disease transmission and parasitism and the amazing enzootic pathways they can take.

Chris Cloutier: the man, the naturalist, the legend.

Chris Cloutier: the man, the naturalist, the legend.

My Master’s research began in early 2014. I had been working for several years at the Morgan Arboretum, a forested property owned by McGill, when my employer, and now co-supervisor, Dr. Jim Fyles approached me with the idea of performing some graduate research using the Arboretum as a study area. I jumped at the idea of doing this, and we got Chris Buddle on board right away. My thesis will be analysing the temporal variation of mosquito community composition across a habitat gradient which includes suburban areas, fields and various forested sites within the Morgan Arboretum. One of the reasons for this research is the fact that in many suburban and forested areas around Montreal, mosquito densities reach near intolerable levels during the summer months. This, coupled with the increasing number of cases of arbovirus (arthropod-borne viruses) infections, such as West Nile Virus, the importance of understanding where mosquitoes are located, and when, as well as which species are present is becoming more and more important.
Collection of mosquitoes takes place for 24h once a week for the entire frost free period, typically from April to November in Montreal. The traps I use to collect mosquitoes are quite specialized and are designed to capture only females which are seeking a blood meal (the ones that we worry about on our strolls through the woods!). These traps use a combination of LED light and carbon dioxide to attract the insects. The LED lights draw in mosquitoes from quite some distance, and the CO2, produced with the help of a few kilograms of dry ice, draws them ever closer to the trap. Once in range, a tiny fan sucks them into a mesh catch-bag and they are trapped.

Chris in the field, checking a trap.

Chris in the field, checking a trap.

When not out in the field, I spend most of my time with my eyes firmly attached to a microscope, sorting, identifying, and counting mosquitoes. After my first field season, I have collected just over 43,000 mosquitoes representing 9 genera and approximately 28 species. I am now faced with the task of analysing the data and making sense of all those numbers, which in fact has revealed some interesting patterns already. I’m looking forward to heading out next spring to start all over again.

The hard work.

The hard work.

I consider myself to be a “geek of all trades” with interests in everything from birding, to plants, herps and pretty much everything in between. I rarely leave home without my binoculars, and during the summer I almost always carry some vials, an aerial net and several field guides (yes, I often get some strange looks…). I’m also a husband and more recently, a father too. My wife still hates mosquitoes but I feel her coming around slowly, and my daughter doesn’t know it yet, but she will be spending an awful lot of time outdoors with us.
Follow me on twitter @C_Cloutier15 or email me at christopher.cloutier@mail.mcgill.ca if you would like to know more about what I am up to and how things are going with my research.

Under the influence: how insecticides affect jumping spider personalities (Part 2)

Under the influence: how insecticides affect jumping spider personalities (Part 2)

This post is written by former PhD student Raphaël Royauté, and is a plain-language summary for our most recent article titled: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider

It’s well known that personalities can shift and change when we are ‘under the influence’ of chemicals, be it drugs or alcohol. As entomologists, we also consider this question for the insects and spiders that live among us: although we assume arthropods can similarly be affected by chemicals in their environment, it’s less clear how these chemicals may affect the personalities of these arthropods. We tested the effects of insecticide residues on the personalities of a jumping spider known to live in apple orchards. We found that individual-based personality shifts occurred when spiders were exposed to sub-lethal doses of an insecticide. This mean that even before we might see ‘population-level’ effects of insecticides on an important predator in agro-ecosystems, individual spiders themselves get, um, sort of messed up when under the influence.

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

Insecticides are often used in agriculture for various reasons, but can have negative effects on the ‘non-target’ fauna living in our agricultural fields. One of the most important challenges in evaluating their toxicity is that these chemicals can persist at low concentration in the environment. These concentrations are unlikely to kill exposed organisms but may substantially alter behaviours. Most of our evidence of the toxicity of insecticides on behaviours comes from studies on pollinators and research has shown decreases in spatial memory and learning capacities.

There remain gaps in our knowledge about how other types of organisms respond to these compounds. Studies on insecticide toxicity may be also limited because they tend to ignore how insecticides shape variation in behaviour. This is important because individuals differ in their behavioural tendencies and may not have the same weight in ecological processes: some individuals are more active, show more aggressiveness or consume more food. Personality traits can also be inter-related and form “behavioural syndromes”: clusters of behavioural traits that are correlated and evolve as a package. If personality traits are interconnected, any insecticide modifying one trait is likely to alter the whole syndrome. We’ve shown previously that behavioural syndromes differed between populations exposed and unexposed to insecticides in the Bronze Jumping Spider, a species common in apple orchards and known to prey on several economically important pests. But those populations could be different for a variety of reasons: for example, perhaps the insecticides affect spider behaviours because there is simply less food available in insecticide-exposed areas for example.

We wanted to test if insecticides could be directly responsible for the shifts in personality and behavioural syndromes we noticed. In other words, when a spider is “under the influence” of insecticides, is it still behaving according to its personality type?

The similarities between insecticides and drugs is fascinating: Both types of compounds target the nervous system, both can affect behaviours and both can kill above a certain lethal dose. In fact caffeine and nicotine evolved as natural plant defenses against insect herbivory and the latter was one of the first insecticides ever used. As crazy as it sounds, the effect of psychoactive drugs has been investigated in spiders in the past! The legend goes that, back in 1948, zoologist H. M. Peters was annoyed by his garden spiders spinning webs at “such ungodly hours” (2 am-5am). He wanted to found a compound that would shift the spinning behaviour to more a “decent” schedule, and he asked pharmacologist Peter N. Witt for help. Witt tried different psychoactive compounds on the spiders, including caffeine, LSD and marijuana but couldn’t produce the desired effect. What he found was in fact much more interesting: each compounds produced a distinct type of “drug web”, altering its shape, size or regularity ! (from Foelix’s “Biology of Spiders”) More recent research has shown that some commonly used insecticides affect web building in the same way drugs do.

We focused on how activity and prey capture capacities were affected by exposure to a widely used insecticide (phosmet) in the Bronze Jumping Spider. We tested activity and prey capture before and after exposure the insecticide and compared the amount of behavioural variation with that of a control group. Doing research in ecology sometimes requires using original equipment. In our case we found that the best way to expose our spiders to the insecticide was to use a hotdog warmer! We applied the insecticide solution on test tubes and used the rotation of the hotdog machine to get a homogeneous surface coated with dry insecticide residues. This allowed us to have a more precise control of the dose that each spider received while simulating field exposure conditions.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer. (photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

We did not found any effect of the insecticide on average behaviour between treatments but the ranking of individuals was strongly affected after insecticide exposure. In general spiders exposed to the insecticide were more variable in their behavioural tendencies. This suggests that the effects of insecticides on personality differences may manifest before any effects on the population as a whole are detected, in which case scientists may be frequently underestimating the toxicity of insecticides. Another puzzling result was that males and females did not respond in the same way to insecticide exposure. Males were most affected in the way they explored their environment but their capacity to capture prey remained intact. Females instead showed a decrease in the strength of the activity-prey capture syndrome.

Spiders play an important role in agricultural fields as they help regulate pest outbreaks. By altering personality differences and their syndromes, insecticides may limit spiders’ capacity to provide this important ecosystem service in subtle ways. As usual, this research leads to more questions than answers. At the organism’s level, it is important to understand how long these personality shifts last for. Do these shifts vary depending on how frequently spiders get exposed to insecticide or to what types of insecticides they are exposed to? How do they ultimately affect a spider’s capacity to escape predators, capture prey or reproduce depending on the individual’s personality? At the ecosystem level, prey get exposed to insecticides too, what happens to the predator-prey dynamics when the personality of both prey and predator is affected? How does that translate into biocontrol services? These are all important questions that I hope to contribute to in the future. Stay tuned!

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

References:

Royauté, R., CM Buddle & C. Vincent: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider. Functional Ecology. . http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12413

Godfray, H.C.J., T. Blacquiere, L.M. Field, R.S.Hails, G. Petrokofsky, S.G. Potts, N.E. Raine, A.J. Vanbergen & A.R. McLean. 2014. A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 40558 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0558

Royaute, R., C.M. Buddle & C. Vincent. 2014. Interpopulation Variations in Behavioral Syndromes of a Jumping Spider from Insecticide-Treated and Insecticide-Free Orchards. Ethology. 120, 127-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/eth.12185

Nathanson, J.A. 1984. Caffeine and related methylxanthines: possible naturally occurring pesticides. Science. 226, 184-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.6207592

Rainer F. Foelix (2010). Biology of spiders. Oxford University Press. p. 179.

Samu & Vollrath. 1992. Spider orb web as bioassay for pesticide side effects. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. 62, 117-124. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1570-7458.1992.tb00650.x

Spider Book!

WE are excited. The “We” is me and Eleanor Spicer Rice, of Buzz Hoot Roar fame, and author of the incredible e-books about ants.

Here’s the really big news…

We are teaming up with The University of Chicago Press, and writing a book about spiders!

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

There are already some really amazing spider books out there – one of our favourites is Rich Bradley’s gem, Common Spiders of North America: it’s beautifully illustrated, rich and in-depth. For those looking to cuddle up with a microscope, there is “Spiders of North America: an identification manual“: that book can unleash your inner taxonomist and help you identify (to genus) most spiders of the region. There are also some regional field guides about spiders, photography books, and detailed books about spider silk, or about general spider biology.

However, more books about spiders are needed! There is so much to say! These amazing arachnids are one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with about 40,000 known species. They have the most unusual courtship and mating behaviours, and are often misunderstood, eliciting fear and loathing due to unwarranted fears about spider bites. Fundamentally, spiders are our friends and our goal with this project is to help share a fascination and love of these eight-legged marvels. We want all people to be familiar with the spiders they most commonly encounter, and when they bump into spiders as they move about the world, they’ll see friends and familiar faces instead of fangs. We want our book to be a non-technical primer of spiders and our goal is to bring awe and wonder, dispel myths, and help create an entire generation of arachnophiles. We hope to reach as broad an audience as possible, and teaming with University of Chicago Press will certainly help with this.

Our project will share stories about some of the most common spiders you will find in North America. Much like Eleanor’s ant books, we will research (using the primary literature) the life history and biology of common spiders in North America, and weave the science into a narrative about the species. We will unpack their biology, and write about spiders using accessible language. We’ll team up with our favourite photographers, and stunning images will accompany the text. Our hopes are that this book will complement the other books out there, and provide readers an accessible and fun-filled glimpse into the fascinating world of spiders.

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Calling all Arachnologists!

We can’t do this project alone and WE WANT YOU! This project will be bigger and better with your help. Although we would love to include ALL the common spiders in our backyards, local forests and fields, this would make the project a little too big… so we need to narrow down to a reasonable number of species. So, we would like to know what species you want to read about.

Do you want a chapter about the glorious Black-and-yellow garden spiders?

What about the Zebra spiders?

Surely you would like to hear more about black widows?

Please provide us some feedback in the comment section, below. Tell us what you want to read about, and what aspects of spider biology must be included in our book. We will take your feedback seriously and try to include your suggestions.

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Needless to say, we are SUPER excited about this project, and those of you that know us are already aware that we super-enthusiastic people to begin with, so this project has taken things to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT!!! We are so thankful for University of Chicago Press for the opportunity to tackle this project, and are already quick out of the starting gate: we have an upcoming writing retreat planned in March, and have already drafted some chapters. And in the coming months, we will certainly keep you updated on progress. We do hope you are as eager as us to see the finished project hit the bookshelves.

Spiderly, yours,

Chris & Eleanor

/\/\o00o/\/\

Meet Shaun Turney and Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping

This is another in the series of “Meet the arthropod ecology lab“: Meet PhD student Shaun Turney, and a neat project he’s been working on…

I joined the lab in September and I’ve been really enjoying my first months as a PhD student. I haven’t done any field work yet so that means no specimens to ID or field data to crunch. Instead I’ve been occupying my time very happily playing on the computer. I recently released an R package on CRAN for Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping called “FCMapper”, in collaboration with Michael Bachhofer. It is based on FCMapper for Excel, distributed at http://www.fcmappers.net/joomla/, developed by Michael Bachhofer and Martin Wildenberg. Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping is really cool and you should try it out!

Shaun, in the lab, thinking about food-webs.

Shaun, in the lab, thinking about food-webs.

Recently I’ve become interested in graph theory and all that it has to offer to ecology. Anything that can be represented as boxes and arrows (or lines) can be represented as a graph (in the graph theory sense) and can be analyzed using graph theory tools. I LOVE box and arrow diagrams. Like, maybe an inappropriate amount. Any paper that I’ve printed out and read has at least two or three box and arrow diagrams scribbled into the margins. My notebook is filled with box and arrow diagrams from lectures that I’ve attended or random thoughts that have passed through my mind while I’m sitting on the train. Some people think in words, some in pictures, but I think in boxes and arrows. So you can imagine my enthusiasm as I’ve discovered over the past year that there exists a whole body of mathematics that can represent and analyze box and arrow diagrams.

My latest favourite graph theory tool is called Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping. It can be understood by breaking down the term into its component words. A “cognitive map” in this case is when you represent a system as interconnected concepts. Boxes and arrows, in other words. The “fuzzy” part refers to fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic is logic that deals with approximate rather than exact values. So to make a fuzzy cognitive map, you make a box and arrow diagram and assign approximate values to the arrows (positive vs negative, weak vs strong relationship). The concepts are then allowed to affect each other until they come to an equilibrium. The exciting part is that then you can try out scenarios! For instance, you could fix one (or more!) concept to be a high or low value and see how it affects the rest of the system. In the context of ecology, one use is to explore potential ecosystem management scenarios (ex, http://en.vedur.is/media/loftslag/Kok_JGEC658_2009.pdf).

If Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping sounds interesting to you (and it should!), you can download the package from CRAN. Michael Bachhofer and I plan to create a tutorial in the spring, but until then you are welcome to email me if you can’t figure out how to use the package.

Download here: http://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/FCMapper/

A graphics output for a toy example I was playing with the other day. It is a cognitive map of things which might affect spotted owl abundance. FCMapper uses igraph for visualization. The thickness of the arrows represents the strength of the relationship and the color represents the direction (red=negative, black=positive), as assigned by me. The size of the circles represents the "size" of each concept at equilibrium, as determined using the nochanges.scenario function in FCMapper. Think of the fun maps you could make for your favourite study system!

A graphics output for a toy example I was playing with the other day. It is a cognitive map of things which might affect spotted owl abundance. FCMapper uses igraph for visualization. The thickness of the arrows represents the strength of the relationship and the color represents the direction (red=negative, black=positive), as assigned by me. The size of the circles represents the “size” of each concept at equilibrium, as determined using the nochanges.scenario function in FCMapper. Think of the fun maps you could make for your favourite study system!

Studying natural history by stealth

Natural history can be defined as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature. I see natural history research as a more formal and structured approach to studying and recording the natural world. I also see this kind of research as a branch science that is often driven by pure curiosity. Many well-known and popular scientists are naturalists (ever hear of David Attenborough or E.O. Wilson?), and we can see that curiosity is one of the underpinnings of their work and personalities. Natural history research is, without doubt, very important, but in world of academic research, it sure doesn’t headline as pulling in multi-million dollar grants, nor does “natural history” appear in the titles of high profile research papers.

Is there a place for curiosity-driven natural-history research in today’s science? If so, how do we study it in the current climate of research?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research... just because?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research… just because?

This is big question, and one that we grapple with occasionally during my lab meetings. Most recently this came up because I challenged one of my students when they wrote about how important their research was because “…it hadn’t been done before“. In the margin of their work, I wrote “…so what? You need to explain how your work advances the discipline, and the explicit reasons how your research is important independent of whether or not it has been done before“.

Am I wrong? Is it acceptable to justify our research endeavours because they haven’t been done before?

The context matters, of course: some disciplines are very applied, and the funding model may be such that all or most research is directed, project-oriented. The research may have specific deliverables that have importance because of, perhaps, broader policies, stakeholder interests, or needs of industry. In other fields, this is less clear, and when working in the area of biodiversity science, such as I do, we constantly stumble across things that are new because they haven’t been studied before. And a lot of these ‘discoveries’ result from asking some rather basic questions about the natural history or distribution of a species. These are often things that were not part of the original research objectives for a project. Much of natural history research is about discovering things that have never been known before and this may be part of the reason why natural history research isn’t particularly high-profile.

Here are just a few examples of interesting natural history observations from our work in the Arctic:

This is the first time we observed the spider species Pachygnatha clerki on the Arctic islands!

Wow, we now know that an unknown parasitoid species frequently parasitizes the egg sacs of a northern wolf spider species!

Females of this little pseudoscorpion species produce far more offspring than what had been previously documented!

Now, if I wanted to follow-up on any of these observations, I think it’s fair to state that the research would be curiosity-driven, and not necessarily grounded in a theoretical or conceptual framework. It’s the kind of research that can be rather difficult to get funded. It’s also the kind of research that is fulfilling, and a heck of a lot fun.

I'm likin' these lichens. And surely data about them is required...

I’m likin’ these lichens. And surely data about them is required…

How then do you study such fascinating aspects of natural history? How do you get out to the field to just watch stuff; record observations just for the sake of it; spend time tabulating life history parameters of a species just because it’s interesting?

Perhaps you have the luxury of doing natural history research as your full-time job: You may be able to sit back and have people send you specimens from around the world, and maybe go out on an extended collecting trip yourself. You may be lucky enough (and wealthy enough?) to devote serious amounts of time to “think”, measure and record data about species. Perhaps you can even take a long walk each day to mull over your observations. Maybe you will gather enough observations to eventually pull together some generalities and theories, and perhaps you will get around to writing a book or manuscript about this….

Reality check: Most of us don’t have that luxury. Instead, we chase grants, supervise students, do projects that fit in with our unit’s research area, and publish-or-perish in the current model of academic research. Despite how we might long for the “good old days” of academia, they are gone (at least in my discipline). It’s rare that a University Professor or research scientist is hired to do stuff just to satisfy her or his own curiosity.

That main sound depressing to some, and hopeless, but it’s not meant to be. I do believe there are still ways to do exciting and interesting natural history research, and we can call it research by stealth.

In my field of study, establishing a research programs means getting grant money, and these are often aligned with priorities that matter to government, to policy, or to a particular environmental threat such as climate change or invasive species. It’s important to get these grants, and work with students and collaborators to try to solve some of the large and complex problems of the world. I am not advocating avoiding this. Instead, as we move along with these big projects, there are also countless opportunities to do a little natural history research, by stealth. Our first priority may not be the collection of natural history data, but nothing stops us from finding creative ways to make careful and meaningful natural history observations.

When taking a lunch break on the tundra, take a little longer to watch the Bombus flying by, or write down some observations about the bird fauna in your local study site, even if you aren’t an ornithologist. Keep a journal or sketch a few observations while you are sitting in the back of the field truck on that long drive up to the black spruce bogs. Each year, buy a field guide for a different taxon, and learn new stuff alongside your focused project. This ‘spirit’ of natural history observation is one that I promote to my own students, and I encourage them to follow up on some of these as a side-project to their main thesis research. Often, these end up being published, and end up in a thesis, and they certainly end up informing us more about our study species or study area.

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Despite writing all of this, I still think my comment in my student’s writing will remain: we have to look at the importance of our research in the context of the bigger picture – it’s not enough to say something is important because it hasn’t been done before, and I’m not sure a PhD thesis can (or should) be entirely based on natural history observation. I would not be doing my job as a supervisor if I promoted curiosity-driven natural history research as the top priority for my student’s projects. To be candid: they won’t get jobs or publish papers in the higher profile journals (i.e., those ones that matter to search committees), and they won’t be well equipped when they leave my lab and head to another institution.

…But I will promote natural history research by stealth.

I think there is loads of room for curiosity-driven natural history research in today’s science. We may need to be creative in how we approach this, but, in the end, it will be worth it. We satisfy our curiosity, and learn a little more about the world along the way. We will also gain perspective and experience, and my students will be well equipped for a future in which natural history research is valued more highly then it is now.

Take the active learning challenge

Dear Instructors,

Here’s your challenge: Include active learning activities in every lecture.

Just do it.

Active learning is a philosophy and approach in which teaching moves beyond the ‘podium-style’ lecture and directly includes students in the learning process. There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, there is evidence that it works, and active learning strategies have been around for a long time. Active learning can make learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles. Active learning places the student in a more central role in a classroom, and allows students to engage with the course and course content in a different way.

So, why doesn’t everyone embrace active learning?

Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work. This post by Meghan Duffy provides an excellent case study, and illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of embracing a ‘flipped classroom’ in a large biology class, and part of that involves heaps of active learning strategies.

Active learning also involves some risk-taking, and perhaps risks that pre-tenure instructors should avoid. The strategies can remove some of the control of the instructor, and this can be uncomfortable for some teachers. For any active learning strategies to work, the instructor, and students, need to be on board, and each strategy brings some challenges, takes time to prepare, and certainly takes time in the classroom.

This term, in my 70+ student ecology class, I decided to take the active learning challenge, and, every lecture, include active learning*. I want to share a few of the things I have done so far, and hopefully show that some ideas are easy and doable, for pretty much any teaching context (note: I do use this book to help generate ideas)

1) The teacher becomes the student: for the last five minutes of class, I pretended to be a student, and asked the students to become the teacher. I then asked them some questions about the course content, drawing upon material from the last couple of lectures. Because I have taught the course for many years, I had a good sense of where some ‘problem areas’ may be, and thus formulated questions that got to the more difficult material. Students then were able to respond to my questions, and share their own expertise with the whole class.

2) Clear and muddy: at the end of one lecture, I asked the students to write down one part of the content they really understood well (the clear), and one area that might be “the muddiest point” (i.e., what they are struggling with). Students handed in the pieces of paper, and I went through and sorted them, and then spent part of the next lecture re-explaining common muddy areas. This was a terrific way to get anonymous feedback, helped reinforce areas that I perceived to be going well, and allowed me to target problem areas in the course.

Here's a "muddy" - this student's comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

Here’s a “muddy” – this student’s comment reflects a common concern around how I teach some of the content.

3) Gather in groups: many active learning strategies work best when students are in groups. To quickly set up groups during class, each student holds a ‘card’ with different symbols, letters, numbers, and drawings, and when I call out one of these, the students form groups. I made the cards so students get sorted into groups of different sizes, depending on the activity.

 

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

Cards given to students, for quick abilities to arrange into groups.

An easy and effective active learning strategy with groups is to have student discuss among themselves a particular problem or question. After a few minutes, a spokesperson can report back their findings to the whole class. I’ve also had some students come to the front and present the result to the class. This does depend on having ‘enthusiastic’ volunteers, but I have not found this a barrier.

4) IF-AT cards: this term, I am trying to use Instant-feedback assessment-techniques for multiple choice questions. These cards allow students to scratch off answers on a card, and they immediately know if they are right and wrong, and can scratch a second or third time to receive partial points. I have used these in the classroom, for group work, and then students can work on problems (presented by me on the blackboard or screen), debate and discuss the answers, and then scratch off to reveal the correct answer. This activity therefore includes group work, problem solving, discussion and debate, and instant feedback. It does take a little bit of time (20 minutes or so, for a few questions), but is an effective active learning strategy that combines learning with an instant-feedback style of assessment.

5) Pair and share: this is also a simple and effective way to get discussions happening in lecture. I pose a question or idea, and simply have students turn to their neighbour to discuss the answer. I then ask some of the pairs to share their answers or ideas, and I also divide the lecture hall into different sections and ask pairs from each section to report back. This allows full use of the space in the classroom and students at the backs, fronts, or sides are able to feel included.

All of the abovementioned strategies don’t actually take that long and do not require a major overhaul to the course or course content. I believe they are relatively risk-free and easy, and suitable for any instructor, pre-tenure or not. I see these kinds of active learning strategies more as ‘value added’ activities, and as small steps that can increase student engagement in the classroom.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that's a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

I also teach with chalk, as I find that’s a great way to make the classroom more active, for everyone.

 

——–

* Full disclosure: so far I have succeeded in all but one lecture, and I’m eleven lectures in. I’ll post an update at the end of term, to let you know if I’m successful all term!

Leading a discussion of a scientific paper

I’m teaching a graduate class in Entomology this term, and part of that class involves students leading discussions about scientific papers in our discipline. These discussions are typically between 60 and 90 minutes, with a small group (4-6 individuals). This post provides some advice and guidelines around how to go about doing this. That being said, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of world, especially when talking about science: you may have better or alternative approaches when discussing scientific papers – please comment, and share your ideas!

1. Provide a (quick) summary of the paper:

In most cases, you want to first provide the audience a brief but accurate overview of the paper. It’s often useful to do a little research about the authors – this provides a context that may be very helpful and may prove insightful later on. For example, do the authors have a publication record that aligns with the current paper? Are the authors graduate students or post-doc (not that it matters, but it does provide context!).

The focus on the summary should be about the Research Questions / Hypothesis, and to explain these you will also need to discuss an overall conceptual framework. This means you need to know this conceptual framework very well. After providing the broader context and framework, you should quickly go over the main methods, and the key results. You should act as a guide for your audience, and take them through the key results. Try not to spend a lot of time on more trivial aspects of a paper. In general, your summary should not delve too deeply in the discussion part of the paper.

Don’t forget: you are assuming everyone in the room has read the paper, so your overall introduction should be relatively short (no more than 10 minutes). More time may be required if a concept or methodological approach is particularly complex. Try not to provide opinions or critiques of the paper at this point in time – save this for the general discussion.

2. Ask for points of clarification:

Before proceeding with detailed discussion of the paper, you should ask the audience if they require clarification on anything in the paper. You are leading a discussion and therefore considered an ‘expert’ on the paper, and as such, should be prepared to handle these points of clarification – this will most likely require you to do a bit of research on areas of the paper that you do not understand!  It’s important you you make it clear that you are not starting a detailed critique (yet); you are first making sure that people all understand the critical ‘nuts and bolts’ of the paper.

3. Leading a discussion:

The majority of the time should be spent on the actual discussion.  There are many ways to do this, but here are some tips:

  • Try not to let your own opinion of the paper distract or take over – your goal is to get other people to reveal their own views; these may or may not agree with your own views! Be welcoming and accommodating to other people’s opinions and viewpoints. Never make anyone feel small or stupid, even if they make a goofy mistake.
  • That being said, make sure that you do have an opinion, and be willing to share it at some point
  • Prepare a list of questions that you could ask other people if the discussion needs help to get started. Always try to find positive points in a paper, even if the paper is, overall, very weak. Similarly, try to bring out negative features even if the paper is strong.  This means you have to sort out strong and negative parts of a paper for yourself (well ahead of time)
  • It’s sometimes a good idea to first go around the room and ask for something that people felt was strong and positive about the paper, and then do this again but ask for points of constructive criticism about the paper.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask people (specifically) for their views on some sections of this paper: a gentle push may be needed to get started on discussing the specifics, but this can be fruitful.
  • Since you are chairing the discussion, don’t be afraid to take control if the discussion wanders too far from where it needs to be, and/or if the discussion gets too trivial or mired in the weeds
  • Related, whenever possible, draw the discussion back to the actual research objectives, and try to broaden the discussion out to the overarching concenptual framework: are the results generalizable to other fields? Does the paper make broad and meaningful conclusions that will be long-lived and significant?
  • Towards the end of the discussion, it may be useful to ask people how they might have done the work differently. Or, stated another way, what could have been improved?

4. Summarize the discussion:

Spend the last five minutes of your time reminding people abou the actual research objectives, and provide a concise summary of the discussion that just wrapped up. Do this in an inclusive way, and give a nod to everyone in the room: make everyone feel that their points of views and opinions are taken seriously.   Try to get an overall consensus about the general quality of the paper, and one litmus test may be whether or not you would cite the paper in your own work, and in what context.