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.

 

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* 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!

What is the motivation for pursuing graduate school?

Last week an interesting hashtag was floating around twitter:  #whyididaphd.  It was great to see reflections on this topic, and during our most recent lab meeting, I asked my students why they were pursuing advanced research-based degrees, and here are some of their responses:

  • Graduate school allows an opportunity for freedom to do the things you find interesting, every day.
  • Doing research means you can follow your interests and curiosity.
  • Doing a MSc is a perfect transition between an undergraduate degree and whatever might come next!
  • Doing research is an opportunity to work independently, and this is important to me.
  • Research is about gaining knowledge and learning on  your own. It’s like the best kind of drug: you can get hooked and it’s good for you, and it never ends.
  • Graduate school develops my network of collaborators, and I need this as I enter the work force.
  • I want to do things that are relevant, and are my ‘own’. Research allows this.
  • Doing an advanced degree was an important career stage, because I need it in order to do what I really want to do into the future (i.e., academic position).

These reflections were insightful, and showed that the students had wonderful motivations for pursing advanced degrees in a research-based laboratory. I agree that doing a MSc or PhD is perfect for people who are curiosity-driven, and who appreciate the independent nature of the work.

I had two responses to #whyididaphd. The first one certainly reflects my thinking now:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.12.23 PM

The second response is a little more honest, and reflects my thinking at the time I decided to continue with research, about 20 years ago:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.13.21 PM

Is it wrong to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because there’s nothing better to do”, or “because I don’t have another plan and I like University”?  We had a heated debate about this, and the lab was divided. One argument is that it’s a total waste of time, energy, money and resources to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because”. Sure it’s nice to stay in a University after the undergrad degree is done, but why pursue it unless you know you need that advanced degree!  Have a plan, have a career goal, and if a MSc or PhD is part of that plan, pursue graduate school.

In contrast, if you don’t have a plan, or a specific career in mind, perhaps graduate school is the *perfect* place to develop your research skills in an exciting, and familiar environment. Graduate school is a perfect transition to many, many careers, so if there is nothing else on your horizons, keep on trucking along at a University! If you are a curious person, and independent thinker, it’s an ideal learning environment.

I suspect many people fall somewhere in the middle (I think that was the case for me).  I always felt I might eventually like a career at a University, and since I seemed to like research, and be good at it, pursuing graduate school was a natural progression. So, even if the motivations for doing graduate school aren’t always based on a clear career path, those motivations can still be more than enough to give it a try.

I’ll finish by expanding that last point: “give it a try” does not mean “stick with it even when it’s not working”.  It’s important to know when to quit if grad school is not for you. It’s an awfully difficult and frustrating process if it’s not going well. Give it a try if it floats your boat, or it’s what you need. However, also know when to quit.

 

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Teaching with mobile technology: seeking help!

I need your help!

Tomorrow I’m attending a conference on Education Technologies, and I will be giving a talk about using mobile technology, and social media tools, in ‘out of the classroom’ environments.  I am excited about the opportunity and I welcome the chance to discuss the topic, highlighting my field biology course as a case study.  Here’s an overview of what I will discuss:

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 12.51.25 PM

As part of this talk, I would like to engage a broader community of educators, using social media tools.  More specifically, if you have comments or ideas on some of the discussion questions (below), please comment on this post, or tweet at me, or use the twitter hashtag #EdTechMobile to give your perspective. (Note: For ‘real time’ interaction, you can tweet using that hashtag between 330-415 PM (Eastern) on 5 March)

Here are the discussion questions:

1) What are the challenges and opportunities when using social media tools in the classroom?

2) How might mobile technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) facilitate learning? How might it interfere?

3) How might the approach of linking ‘out of class’ learning environments with mobile technology and social media tools be adapted for other teaching environments? (i.e., other than University-level, the context in which I have used these tools).

Thanks, everyone!

Operation zero: how to achieve an empty inbox every day

I’m continually fascinated by how people deal with to-do lists, projects, contacts, and emails. All of these things relate to the broader issues around time management and productivity. If you can ‘take control’ of time management, I believe this is a key ingredient for success. My friend and colleague Dezene recently published a terrific blog post about email management. His ideas are great, and he’s found a wonderful system. His post was partially initiated by a conversation on twitter about how (overworked) scientists manage their emails. This is a very significant problem, and one that’s quite universal. One problem that I share with all my colleagues is the feeling of being inundated by email (I easily get over 100 emails each day). It’s a real challenge to deal with emails, and takes a lot of time and mental energy.

I wanted to offer you a peek into my email management system – not because I don’t like Dezene’s (I do!) but rather to offer an alternative. It’s a method that’s quick, and offers you an opportunity to achieve the joy of having a ‘zero-inbox’ EVERY day! It’s also pretty simple:

1) Simplify: I only use two addresses: my work email, and a gmail account. The latter is for family / social (‘non-work’) things, and it’s the email address I give out to my kids schools, or when I register for on-line accounts. I NEVER delete any of those emails, and just let all of that reside away on google’s servers. The gmail search function is so amazing that it’s always possible to find an old message.

2) Consolidate: I only manage email on my one, main computer using one program (Mac Mail) and when I read mail on other devices (mobile device, webmail), I never manage messages or tasks. This is so the system is consolidated. With my main Mac Mail, I have the gmail and my work accounts set up (but separated, so I don’t confuse work and family business).

3) Minimal rules: I set up a few rules, but not too many, since the system I will outline reduces the need for too many rules. I do set up rules for all my ‘calendar invites’ I receive over email, so that I can deal with scheduling things on my own time – that means all invites go to a separate folder. I also set up rules for my editorial work, so that all emails related to editing end up in one folder on my computer.

4) Moving messages: In addition to folders associated with rules, I use only two (or so) other main folders: one is called ‘IMPORTANT‘ (yes, in all caps!) –> into this goes stuff that’s really REALLY important. The sorts of emails that need to be found quickly.  There only about 20 emails in that folder, related to flight confirmations, or exam scheduling, or other emails whose content is important to access regularly and quickly. The other folder is called “short-term archive”. At the end of every day, any emails that are in the ‘inbox’ get dropped into the short-term archive.  After a month or two, all of those emails get moved into a ‘long-term archive’ (which is on my computer), and after about a year or two, those all go into a long-term ‘deep’ archive (e.g., external drive). I will occasionally set up another folder for a specific project (e.g., research project, or grant proposal).

This system means I NEVER have to delete any emails (megabytes are cheap – why bother deleting anything? … and it takes time to delete stuff), and I always achieve ‘zero inbox’ at the end of each day. That is a very nice feeling!

Operation zero, daily.

Operation zero, daily.

5) Flags: If I can’t deal with an email quickly, or during the course of the work-day, but it still requires some kind of action, I simply flag that email, and then after all emails are sent to the short-term archive, I simply look in the ‘flagged email’ folder (which is a feature of Mac Mail) and all those emails are in one place. This is sort of like a to-do list, although I prefer to think of those emails simply as needing some kind of attention, sometime. That attention can be because they are part of a conversation with important contacts or content, or perhaps are waiting for some follow-up, or or perhaps a review request, etc.  I have come to realize that there are always between about 70 and 100 ‘flagged’ emails. Every now and then I go back and double check how many of those flags can be removed and thus there is turnover in those ‘action item’ emails.

6) Search: Finally, I depend very heavily on the search function to retrieve old emails.  Because nothing is ever deleted, I can almost always find it again. If I can’t, you can bet someone else has that email in one of their folders.

In sum, hopefully some of you might find this system to be worth trying. In my time using it, I’ve never lost an email, and I’ve been fooled into thinking I’ve dealt with all my emails each day.

Now.. what isn’t included, above, is the dreaded ‘to do’ list. For this, I generally depend on a rather inefficient combination of scratching things down on sheets of paper. Recent conversations are causing me to re-think this approach. I do think I need to write things on paper in order to keep the tasks on my mind. I also block of time in my calendar to specifically tackle big jobs. It’s the only way I’ll protect the time and get productive work done – that is only moderately successful. So, my next task is to rethink how I manage my tasks…

Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

UPDATE: some people have noticed that *this* post contained some errors (Gulp. Oops. Sorry). We all make mistakes, and there is always room for some errors. So, I would like to propose that we stick by the argument that we “strive for” error-free emails! (and blog posts).

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dear prof can u help me with a Q about the crs work…. Its really important and would be gr8 if u could let me know when i could come by and see u in your office”

I get emails like this all the time. Most often, emails sent with shorthand, all in small-caps, without punctuation come from undergraduate students. Sometimes they are from graduate students, and very occasionally, from colleagues.  Quite often, emails from prospective graduate students are riddled with errors and make no sense. This is not the way to make a positive first impression.

Rite gud emails pls

Email remains the last vestige of anything reassembling ‘official correspondence’ between a writer and a reader. As such, any ‘first contact’ over email, or whenever you are not sure of the relationship with the receiver*, you must proofread and strive for clear, error-free emails. It matters. Here’s why, from my perspective as an Academic:

 1) Triage: I’m overwhelmed with emails. Every one of my colleagues is overwhelmed with emails. Triage is often based on a series of quick decisions, and if an prospective student can’t string together a sentence, that email will likely be deleted**. If a student asks questions about course content, I guarantee that the well crafted email will get a response faster than the one that was sent without being proofread. Well-written emails are seldom ignored or deleted quickly.

2) Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear in your writing will not hurt your chances of a positive interaction with someone. Being too casual and sloppy can hurt your chances of a positive interaction. It’s not a chance worth taking.

3) You get what you give: A well written, clear and error-free email will raise the bar. It tells me the sender is serious, and I will respond with the same level of seriousness.  Quality gets you quality, and you will not be taken as seriously if you do not take the time to think about what you are going to write, draft it, proofread, think about it, edit, and then send it.

4) Know your audience: most Academics are somewhat “old school”. We hang on to things from the past. We like books and remember the days of hard-copy newsletters, fax machines and the sound of the dial-up modem. When writing to people of that ilk, take the time to craft an email like it’s an old-fashioned letter, sent with a stamp.  I guarantee it will get noticed.

End of rant.

* email communication can quickly slide into the informal/casual and shorthand provided you have an established relationship between the sender and the reader. If there is a certain amount of familiarity, I see nothing wrong with quick and sometimes sloppy short-hand.

** writing problems are sometimes because of language (i.e., writing in something other than your first language). From my experience, it’s usually quite easy to separate a language issue from sloppiness or carelessness. If you are writing to someone in a language you are less familiar with, I suggest being clear about this. Tell your reader that you are writing in a second (or third language), be honest and genuine, but do pay careful attention so that your email is not sloppy.

(oh, and by the way, here’s a post about common writing errors!)

Tablets in the forest: using mobile technology in Higher Education

I am pleased to present a publication that came out earlier this week in Educause Review On-line. This article resulted from a pilot project done in Fall 2012, in which students in my field biology class at McGill used tablets to enhance experiential learning.  Authors on the paper included colleagues from Teaching and Learning Services at McGill (Adam Finkelstein and Laura Winer), and PhD student Crystal Ernst.

Here are the ‘take away’ messages from the project:

  • Environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets’ most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.
A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

Stated another way, tablets are wonderful to use, and can be effective tools in a field biology course, but the students felt connectivity (which facilitated communication) was essential: the mobile WIFI units paired with the tablets made the project successful.  Here’s a quote from the paper to further illustrate that point:  “most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills.”

I previously highlighted a video from that project on social media use in the class, and the video (below) is more specifically about the use of the tablets in the class.

This work was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba Canada, and Bell Mobility helped us with mobile WIFI units.  I am immensely thankful for the support and I am truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year.