Congratulations to the new Doctor of spider behaviour

I’m delighted to announce that lab member Raphaël Royauté successfully defended his PhD yesterday….  and he did it with grace, maturity, and poise. The defence was fair, but tough, and Raphael was able to show his breadth and depth of expertise on the broad topic of behaviour in arthropods.

Raphaël’s thesis was titled “Factors influencing behavioural variation in apple orchard populations of the jumping spider Eris militaris (Araneae: Salticidae)” and the during the defence, he was asked (not by me, remarkably!) to offer a ‘tweet’ of the his thesis. Here it is, coming in at almost exactly 140 characters.

Raph's thesis, in a tweet.

Raph’s thesis, in a tweet.

So, his research looked at behavioural syndromes in this remarkable jumping spider: Raphaël collected spiders in apple orchards, maintained them in a laboratory and ran them through a battery of behavioural test. He defined behaviours, looked at correlations among these behaviours (sometimes called ‘personality’), and how these traits varied during the development of individuals, consistency of these behaviours and whether behaviours differed depending on whether the spiders came from insecticide-free on insecticide-treated orchards.  Raphaël also looked at the direct effect of sub-lethel effects of insecticides on behaviour and will soon be publishing the ways that insecticides mess up their personalities.

Raphaël has really done incredible work – but looking back, I should not be surprised. Soon after he arrived in the lab we worked together on a short project about the activity of spiders right after snowmelt, at at that point, I was impressed with his intellectual curiosity, drive and motivation, and overall approach to scientific research.

Raphael and me, in 2008

Working together on Raph’s first project at McGill

After that first project, Raphaël came back to McGill to work on a PhD with me and Dr. Charles Vincent as co-supervisors. And now, many years later, he is now successfully defended a PhD. What a marvellous journey, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned far more from Raphaël than he could have learned from me.

Good luck Raph! (And you’ll be missed in the lab)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

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.

Congratulations to the lab

Last week my laboratory attended the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting, held in Guelph. I was so proud of the whole lab – we had an impressive showing at the meeting, and I was especially impressed with the three undergraduate students who presented their research to Entomologists from across Canada. Wow – I don’t think I had that amount of confidence when I was an undergrad!

I am THRILLED to announce that three arthropod ecology students were recognized for their excellent presentations.

First, Master’s student Étienne Normandin was awarded first prize for his oral presentation in the Biodiversity section.  His talk was titled Biodiversity of wild bees in two urban settings: Montreal and Quebec city. He’s co-supervised by Valérie Fournier at Laval University. Here’s a photo of Etienne doing some field work:

Field work!

Field work!

Second, PhD student Dorothy Maguire was the runner up in the the same Biodiversity section. Her oral presentation was on Insect herbivory in fragmented forest landscapes: linking land use with changes in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Dorothy is co-supervised by Elena Bennett. Here’s a photo of Dory doing what she loves!

Tree climbing!

Tree climbing!

Finally, PhD student Raphaël Royauté was runner up in the student poster competition, for his work titled Does physiological state affect individual variation in boldness in a jumping spider?  Raphaël is co-supervised by Dr. Charles Vincent, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Here’s an older photo of me and Raph, not long after he first came to the lab for a short internship.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based 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. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.

Undergraduate students tweet their research questions.

As part of my field biology class this term, students (in groups) are working on research projects about natural history. As part of this, they have set up twitter accounts, and groups were challenged to “tweet their research question“.

This is a great exercise: it forces concise writing, and allows for help and feedback in the development of a good research question.

Here are the tweets – please feel free to direct comments to the groups! (the research projects are officially starting today, 1 October) [click on the tweet to get to the group’s twitter accounts)

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And yes, these groups DID receive help from people outside of the course (and from around the world) as they developed their research question. For example, the group studying medicinal plants discussed some ideas over twitter with a biologist in Germany:

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And in the following conversation, the Chickadee group received some reinforcement from Prof. Margaret Rubega, at the University of Connecticut, about the need to develop a solid research question:

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SO… what do YOU think?  Could you tweet your research question? Can you help these students improve their questions? Feedback, as always, is welcome!

Tweet tweet, twitter twitter: linking natural history and social media in a field biology class

Last year I used twitter and blogs in my field biology class at McGill, and it was such a successful experiment that I shall do it again!  Last year, students sent tweets to promote their blogs about natural history in the St Lawrence Lowlands, and the tweets were one way to disseminate information to a broad audience. This assignment also gave students an opportunity to write in different ways, and to distill information down to the most important facts.

This year things will be a little different: Students will again be completing natural history projects in the course, and will be doing so after assembling in groups early in the term. Projects will be focused on specific species found in our region, from trees to beetles, to mushrooms and mammals. Each week, students will be tweeting facts, anecdotes, and observations about their study species (and some of these tweets should come directly from the field)

Tweeting from the field!

Tweeting from the field!

So, this raises the question: why Twitter? 

1. Open. Twitter allows the conversation to go out to the world, to whomever is interested. It allows ANYONE with an interest in the topic to follow along, reply, interact and collaborate. It provides an opportunity for experts on the topic to comment and improve the quality of the content and information. As an instructor in a general field biology course, I cannot be an expert on all things, and thus twitter can bring in the experts.

2. Collaboration: Twitter is terrific at fast, easy collaboration. It allows quick commentary, discussion, and is immensely user-friendly. I am especially fond of the reply features in Twitter that allow a conversation to maintain some elements of open-ness for all to see, but the direction and flavour of the conversation can be  focused. Experts external to the course can quickly view the conversation and take part regardless of their geography. The quality of the ideas and content are what matters, not whether someone has a PhD, or attends a certain institution. Its requirement of 140 characters is an asset, making sure that users get to the point quickly, and thus allow opportunity for the careful construction of a sentence. It’s more difficult to write concisely and twitter presents an extreme example of this.

3. Tracking: The use of a hashtag allows easy archiving of content, including conversations, and it’s also possible to track who (outside of the course) engages with students, and has an interest in the topics. Students can monitor the activity occurring in other groups, and can learn about who to follow, who to engage with, and that can improve the quality of their own twitter use.  They can track related hashtags, and find content more specific to their own project.

4. Academic value: In my experience, twitter is not fully appreciated for its academic use. Twitter has serious value, and in some circles, twitter is embraced as a teaching tool (e.g., see this & this). Education is about people, communication and collaboration as much as it is about facts and content.  ANY tools that help us better connect, discuss and debate are good tools, and when we can engage a community beyond the institution’s boundaries, everyone wins. Sure, twitter can be fun and social, but its value is much deeper and more significant.

5. Validation: we all need to feel that things we do are valuable and valued.  In most University classes, students write for a Professor or Teaching Assistant, sometimes for peers, but seldom for an audience beyond the institution’s walls. Last year, one of the most significant ‘A-Ha!’ moments was when students talked with delight about how they interacted with people from other countries about their natural history projects – interactions facilitated by social media tools such as twitter.

A tweet from one of last year's groups.

A tweet from one of last year’s groups.

So, are you sold, now?  Make a twitter account and follow along!  Carly Ziter (incidentally, a TA for the class this term!) wrote an excellent ‘how to’ guide for social media (accessible from this page).  Follow the hashtag #ENVB222 and take part in this class, whether you live in Brisbane, Medicine Hat, or Dublin. If you like Natural History, you’ll enjoy the experience.

How to succeed at University: 12 tips for undergraduate students

About a year ago I wrote a post about “10 tips to success at University“. Since that time, this list has increased, and it’s also clear that these tips don’t just apply to incoming students. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to update this post … and it’s now 12 Tips for success!  Hope you find this helpful!

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The start of term is an exciting time for those of us involved in Academia – new students are arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As a Program Director for McGill’s Environmental Biology Major, I am asked a lot of these questions, and I am sometimes asked for advice.  I thought it worthwhile providing some tips for incoming and in-course students, and perhaps some of these will help make your time at University a little easier..

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education, but don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life, engagement in students clubs and activities, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, but success largely rests with a student’s ability to develop and maintain a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Meet your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help students get through their program, and advisors typically help students with course selection, and help plan a student’s academic program.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program!

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, facebook, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and to help with this, develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my phone – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of deadlines.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Furthermore, effective use of an agenda and task list will help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to success at University (and for your career, beyond…).

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and you never miss deadlines.  In fact, aim to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).    Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects, does you no favours.  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.    At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early.

5.  Go to lectures:   Lectures are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be in the textbook or on-line.   Professors take a lot of pride in lecturing, and work hard to make the lectures engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being in lectures, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University do tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for you day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up.

8.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by the Professors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

9.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with a personal relationship, failing a course, or getting sick.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling.  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it – visit health services when you are sick, or talk to your academic advisor if you are having difficulties with your program.  Most importantly: know what services are available ahead of time (e.g., see this example for McGill), so when you need assistance, you know how to get it.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic':  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components slow down occasionally, this does not mean the program is broken.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular University subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in perspective, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures (see point 5, above), your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is incredibly enriching on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.  Slow down every now and then, breath deeply, and remember what an amazing environment you are in. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and these are all extremely rewarding in many ways.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines.

Hear This! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

It’s the week before classes start at McGill University. Professors are getting course outlines ready, and thinking about ways to assess students. In this post (first published over at the Inquiry Network Blog of McGill), I explore the idea of using podcasts as an assessment tool… 

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrolment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as a student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.

Why care about Higher Education? (Quebec, please listen)

I don’t usually get political with my blog but this issue of Higher Education in Quebec is too important to sit back passively.  The Provincial Government of Quebec is imposing budget cuts to Universities, and the manner in which these cuts are being imposed is irresponsible, disrespectful, and the demands are untenable.  As is discussed by my Principal in her letter to the McGill community,   Universities are expected to cut budgets before the end of this fiscal year (an unprecedented challenge), and this was only brought forward in December.  No institution in its right mind would change the course of budgets mid-way through a fiscal year.

This makes me angry and frustrated because the cuts will affect people and will affect the ways we do our jobs.  They will affect livelihoods, morale, and they will affect services to students.  Universities in Quebec will struggle with recruitment of students and professors, and struggle with retention. These budget cuts will have wide-ranging  and long-term consequence for Higher Education in Quebec.

It’s time to reflect on the important question that is at the heart of this discussion:

Why care about Higher Education?

Caveats:   this list is not exhaustive, and it is certainly not complete.  These are my opinions, and I do not have expertise with all of the points I have raised – rather, they are my observations, ideas and are based upon my experience working at McGill for over 10 years.   Please share, add to the ideas, and comment.  

1.  Creating Leaders: My institution is helping in the process of educating creative thinkers, good communicators, and global citizens.  Our society need people with these characteristics as we move towards a difficult and uncertain future – a future with wide ranging environmental problems; a future with strife and conflict; a future with much economic uncertainty.  We need young people to become leaders, and regardless of their discipline (biology, economics, physics, etc) the individuals coming out of my institution will become these leaders.  We cannot turn our back on our students – we have a responsibility to continue to create and support a positive environment of higher education that will help train the the decision-makers of the future.   At our doorstep are complex problems that need individuals with creativity, curiosity, imagination and motivation – the sorts of characteristics that I see in the students in my lectures and in the students in my laboratory.

2. Creating Communities:  I work at a small campus that has a broad reach.  Some examples:  we have an Apiculture association that is developing workshops about beekeeping – an art and a science that we must understand and foster as we recognize the value of pollination for the food we eat.    We have a working farm – a  farm that invites school kids from the local area in to see the process of farming: work that is often rural and less accessible to people living in cities.   Professors in my Faculty give seminars about their work and invite anyone with an interest to come and listen to how we are working to solve global problems.  Higher Education is more valuable now that it has ever been in the past. Universities are becoming places with a focus and appreciation for outreach – outreach into our communities – our surrounding towns, schools, and community centres.  Universities are more than lecture halls filled with students. Universities are more than Professors talking to each other and writing research papers for their peers.  Universities are part of  fabric of our communities and integral to the well-being of our communities.

3. Creating Knowledge:  The beauty of higher education institutions is that they provide a home for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and a kind of knowledge that can be gained from the intangible, the curious and from the process of reflection.  Although funding systems have changed, the job of a tenure-track Academic is stressful, and we are busy, I still think that most academics have some freedom and a bit of time in their jobs that allow for that pure and amazing process of ‘thinking about neat stuff‘.   Knowledge is dynamic, and knowledge is a product of the times we live in.  Knowledge cannot be generated with cookie-cutter approaches or prescriptive top-down directives – my University still allows some flexibility and freedom to engage in the process of creating knowledge.  That’s a very, very good thing.

4. Creating Friendships:  I have coffee with colleagues who have become my friends.  I see my Departmental administrative assistants every day – we talk about how the hockey practices went over the weekend – we talk about the local ski trails.  We discuss the fun and frustrating things that happen in our lives.  Students move through the system, but some become friends over time.  Students who have long graduated have come back to say hello – we talk about what they are doing now, and about how their little brother is going to come to University because he has heard so many great things about the place.    We discuss how they see the world after graduation, and talk of dreams and ambitions.   Like any good workplace, my Department is more than faces and names – my Department is about people and about friendships.  This is what happens inside the building and in the hallways of Universities.  Expanding this –  my University supports lives – it supports my family and the families of my friends at my workplace.

5. Creating Economies:  There are strong economic arguments about the value of Universities to the economies of the region and province and country in which they operate.  Students rent apartments and buy groceries, employees of McGill travel to conferences, and pay for taxis to and from the airport.  We cater meetings, and drink a lot of coffee.  We get business cards printed, we need to buy paper, computers and phones.  Universities help make small, local businesses become successful. On a bigger scale, our research programs are catalysts for larger economies in our cities and in our province, whether they be advances in medicine or solutions to global food security.  Graduates from our Universities go on to become lawyers, CEOs, and they build businesses and create opportunities for thousands.  Universities support and create economies – big and small.

Yes, higher education is about creating great things that are much bigger than the footprint of the buildings we work in.    Higher Education has values that are far beyond the curriculum and far beyond esoteric, and intellectual pursuits.

To the Parti Québécois:  making rash, and ill-thought decisions about funding to Universities is a serious mistake.  I urge you to step back, reflect, and move carefully with rethinking the budgets of Universities.  As my Provost stated, your economic approach is an assault on higher education, and this is truly alarming.

To my colleagues, my students, my friends:  please speak up.  Please raise your voice and be heard.  Let us stand together as a community (this is starting).  Let us ensure higher education remains a central part of Quebec.  May we continue to create great things.

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There is an upcoming summit about the future of Higher Education in Quebec.  I sincerely hope that part of the discussion can reflect on the bigger question about the value of Higher Education in this exceptional and incredible province.

Careful what you say in lecture: a tale of tweets, ice-storms in Quebec, and population ecology

While discussing age pyramids in my ecology class last week, I mentioned that there was a mini baby-boom in Quebec following the 1998 ice storm. In other words, after an extended period of time without electricity, more babies were conceived.  This is one of those ‘urban myth‘ stories for which I had no data to actually discuss whether this was fact or fiction, but it was mildly amusing, and certainly related to the discussion we were having about population ecology and the effect of the baby-boom generation on Canadian demographics.

I expected this story to stop there, but a savvy student in my lecture tweeted what I had said (yes, there are definitely pros and cons of being an active participant in social media, including twitter).  I was being called out, publicly, about my casual comment in lecture.  This forced me to look to the data and test my hypothesis that the birth rate in Quebec may have been higher after the ice storm of 1998.

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Data required?  Yearly population estimates of areas affected by the ice storm (i.e., numbers of females), and number of births in these regions.

Thankfully, these data were readily available.  However, not all data were tabulated in the same way by geographic region in the Province.  This meant that I had to narrow down the region to just the island of Montreal (thankfully one of the more populated parts of the province).    I took the number of births, divided by the number of females to get a per-capita rate of births per female per year in Montreal, and I looked at the years from 1997 through to 2000.

I predicted that if my hypothesis was true, birth rates would be higher in late 1998, therefore if data were collected properly, the ‘boom’ in births would likely be in that year (…or possibly in 1999).

Here are the results:

1997: 0.012 (babies born / female)

1998: 0.012 (babies born / female)

1999: 0.011 (babies born / female)

2000: 0.011 (babies born / female)

So, the data do not support the hypothesis that the ice storm resulted in a higher rate of births in Montreal.

Caveats?  There are a lot.  I have made quite a few assumptions, and my methods are partially flawed… I do expect students in my class to think about this…

Two other points to mention:

First, while searching for information about population-level effects of the ice storm, I came across a McGill press release about how babies born during the ice storm may be stressed later in life – Interesting!  And also somewhat counterintuitive to what I originally proposed in lecture.

Second, (and less related), we must be wary of these myths – they pop up all over the place (e.g. increase in births after the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey?), but without a more detailed look at the data, we must be careful what we say.  Thankfully the urban myth about mini-baby booms and power outages are debunked with some regularity.

In sum, I learned an important lesson. Careful what you say in lecture.

…and thank you to my student who forced me to look more carefully into the story of the ‘ice storm babies’