Farewell, dear blog.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been appointed as the Dean of Students at McGill! This appointment will start on 1 August, and will certainly involve a lot of changes to work, life and everything in between.

As many of you know, I have long been involved with University administration, and I have written before about why I enjoy administration, and why it is valuable. Being a Dean of Students is especially interesting to me, and here’s why:

The Dean of Students is an appointment that can help facilitate positive change at my University. I have developed a deep passion and interest in student affairs, and I have developed broader interests in administration and service. The motto of my campus is “Mastery for service“, and although cliché, I want to work to further my skills and abilities as an administrator, and I want to use these skills to best serve this University and most importantly, its students. I want to continue to work collaboratively with all members of our community, build respectful and trusting relationships among all, and help our students achieve success in and out of the classroom.

I want to help students have a truly exceptional experience at University.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology, as this blog enters a long diapause.

Form me to you: goodbye to Arthropod Ecology – it’s been great!

I will certainly continue to keep my research program moving along: my institution supports this, and administrative leaders at McGill are encouraged to continue to be well-rounded academics, as much as is possible. However, there are always trade-offs, and becoming the Dean of Students will indeed affect my ability to blog with any regularity. I am, therefore, announcing that the blog will enter a very long diapause. I’ll certainly leave my old posts up, and I hope people continue to enjoy and share them, but I just won’t have the time to keep blogging on a regular basis.

Arthropod Ecology has had a great ride! The blog started back in 2011, and has been going strong for five years: I’ve written almost 300 posts over the years; I had a go at a few regular features (the most recent being “Spiderday“), and some posts continue to generate hundreds of hits per day (especially “Spiders do not bite“, “Tips for succeeding at University“, and “How to ask for a letter of recommendation“); I’ve been thrilled at the reception my blog has received: 500,000 visitors have come to Arthropod Ecology which is so far beyond any of my expectations! A lot more people visit the blog that would ever read my research papers. I hope writing about spiders, science, teaching, and higher education as proved useful to some. Personally, it has all contributed to my own growth as a scientist and a professor, and I have no regrets.

To my faithful readers: THANK YOU for being such great friends, for being critical, and being supportive. I’m sorry to be bowing out, and I do hope others continue to blog. Working to be good science communicators as well as good scientists, is so very important.

Onward to new adventures!

What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom: Pros and Cons

Earlier this term I wrote about my excitement with teaching in an active learning classroom: as a quick refresher, my course had just over 80 students, and is an introductory ecology class. The course has a strong focus on quantitative approaches to population and community ecology, from equations to modelling. I gave up doing traditional PowerPoint slides for this class a long time ago, but until this term, I was still teaching in a theatre-style lecture hall. With continuing to push the “active learning” agenda, it was great to have an opportunity to teach in a classroom specifically designed for active learning!

The Active Learning classroom

The Active Learning classroom

So, here are some perspectives and thoughts about teaching in an active learning classroom now that term is over.

Pros:

1. I found the tables (with rolling chairs!) were especially great when I did in-class quizzes, especially with group-based problems using “IF-AT” cards. Given the configuration of the tables, I sometimes did the quizzes with two groups at each table (so, 14 groups total, with 4-6 students per groups), or sometimes with three per table (21 groups total). Because the tables had three “wings” and chairs that rolled, it was quick and effective to make groups for these quizzes.

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

2. The configuration of the room made it feel like a ‘small’ class even though there were over 80 students in the room. From what I understand, a lot of care and attention was taken to the acoustics in the room, and I was truly amazed that even with active group work, the noise level was not overwhelming, and groups could work effectively.

3. Almost every class this past term included some kind of peer-to-peer discussion. Because students were facing each other, this was easily done in an active learning classroom: quick problem solving challenges, or getting students to come up with real-work examples related to course content, all was done easily on the spot. In a large lecture theatre it’s clunky and difficult to form discussion groups. A key strength of the active leaning classroom is certainly the configuration of tables: the learning space is optimal for active discussions.

4. I used some, but not all, of the technology in the room. The Tablet was fantastic (but see below…) and allowed me to write and draw, and those notes would be projected on one of the screens. At the end of lecture, the slides were immediately posted as PDFs on the course website. The room actually had dual projectors, and I used the second screen with a document camera so I could project graphs or text from the course textbook: students therefore had the course content from the textbook and from my lecture notes on the screens, during lecture. Although the room was also equipped with screens for each of the tables, I didn’t use these much, but the potential for each group to project their work has great potential.

5. Another advantage of the room was that the walls next to all the student tables were whiteboards. This allowed groups of students to work on problems using markers on the whiteboard, and draw out answers to problems, or do things like create ideas about food-webs. Again, the configuration of the room made this very quick and easy, since the students were just a few feet away from their whiteboard.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Cons:

1. Sometimes you just need to lecture, and an active learning classroom isn’t set up very well for more traditional lectures. Active teaching and learning can be exhausting for the teacher and the students, and sometimes the content really lends itself well to a more traditional lecture. The active learning classroom and its configuration means that a third to a half of the students aren’t facing the podium (which is in the middle of the classroom), and it can feel quite awkward lecturing in that kind of room. I also bring in guest lecturers throughout the term, and it can be daunting for a guest lecturer to be inserted into an active learning classroom (although I briefed them on the layout, it is still difficult to fully grasp the classroom until you actually teach in it).

2. When I sat at one of the desks (as a student would) during the guest lectures, I also discovered another problem with the room: you don’t know where to look. There are dual screens in four different corners of the classroom, and the teacher is standing in the middle of the room, not in front of any of the screens. I can be a bit weird and unsettling. Students have told me about this quirk of an active learning classroom, and after being a student in the room, I get their point.

3. Although I listed the whiteboards as a “pro”, above, they also get labelled a “con” because of their configuration. Since there were only seven tables and one main whiteboard for each table, it got crowded around the whiteboard when students at each table worked together on the whiteboard. Group work with 12 students is really tricky.

4. When technology works, it’s wonderful. When you rely on this technology, and it fails, it can spell disaster. Towards the end of the term the Tablet pen stopped working and this happened in the middle of a class (of course!). This meant I had to quickly change strategies, and I used a sheet of paper under the document camera, and wrote the class notes in that fashion. It was less than ideal, and was frustrating for me and for the students. And, it meant I couldn’t get the notes transferred to the course website. The IT folks did get this fixed, but there were a few classes where I had to adapt on the fly.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.11.28 AM

The dual screens.

In sum, the experience of teaching in an active learning classroom was very positive: students seem engaged, and the room was well suited to group activities. As with all teaching, everything takes practice, and I know it will be much smoother next time I teach in that room. The space is really impressive, and I certainly did not use the classroom to its full potential.

If you want to dabble in active learning in your own class (or other approaches, such as flipped classrooms), I do highly recommend trying to teach in a classroom space that is conducive to your style of teaching . That being said, it’s a very bad idea to teach a traditional podium-style lecture-based class in an active learning space: it just doesn’t work, and under that scenario, stick to a theatre-style classroom.

I also want to give a big shout-out to Teaching and Learning Services at McGill – brilliant minds in that unit worked on the design of the room I taught in this past term, and after spending a term in that space, I am in truly in awe. Well done to the TLS team! And thanks to McGill for supporting Active Learning classrooms across its campuses.

Tips for managing a research lab

Running a research lab* isn’t easy. I learned this the hard way last fall when I performed rather poorly on my lab safety inspection. At the time it seemed to be a low priority: cleaning up the lab always seemed less important compared to, for example, having a lab meeting. We have since done a major lab clean-up, and we are back on track (phew!), but the experience has made me think about the skills needed to run a lab. Hopefully this is of interest to some of you, especially early career researchers (ECRs), but I would also like experienced researchers to wade with comments and tips. This post will be more about the “nuts and bolts” of running a lab, but perhaps a future post can be about broader philosophies around being the head of a research lab.

CleanLab

Part of my lab – AFTER cleaning.

Human resources

There are people in a lab. This means, as the head of a lab, you need to pay attention to human resources. This might be practical kind of stuff, like signing expense reports, or making sure students are getting paid when they are supposed to. But there are also many more complex things to think about, such as helping resolve arguments, or helping students through difficulties. You need to learn to listen, you need to navigate social dynamics, and be a good communicator. Make your expectations clear, and be sure that everyone is well aware of their roles and responsibilities. Work on ways to have a productive AND fun lab. Be sensitive to everyone’s different needs, and be open to change – operate on a principle of kindness. You will likely find yourself navigating some tricky situations so be sure to get help when you need it: there may be training available, or perhaps ask your Chair or a colleague about advice on being a good manager of human resources.

Organization

Running a lab is very much about being organized. There has to be a “plan” for all the different supplies, and space for everyone to store their samples, find the ethanol, or grab new Petri dishes. From the start it’s important to think about space needs in the long-term – anticipate how the lab might change in the future, and make sure there is room to grow. People need to feel that they have a “home” in the lab, whether it’s a desk or piece of a lab bench, and this requires careful assessment of space. I personally struggle with sample storage, and seem to squeeze old samples into various drawers, with a promise of getting rid of them (or putting them in long-term storage) after students have published their work. That promise is mostly broken, as it it easier to just store stuff and forget about it. ECRs: avoid this mistake! Stuff accumulates far too quickly. Be sure to label things too, including where to put supplies.

OrganizedLab

Safety and training

Don’t drink from the beakers; broken glass is dangerous. Stay on top of the safety rules at your institution: it’s easy to miss those emails, but as I learned, they are important. Top-down guidance about safety will show the lab members that safety is a priority not an afterthought. Know where to store chemicals, know about the eye wash stations, and make sure the first aid kit is stocked and ready. Know what needs to get stored where, and be ready when there is a call for hazardous waste disposal. Learn about MSDS, and be on top of the chemicals that may be present in your lab. As the head of a lab, you are indeed responsible for making sure your lab members have the appropriate training in the context of lab safety: whether it be WHIMIS, research ethics, or wilderness first aid, get your students signed up, and pay for the training. Don’t shirk this essential responsibility.

LabSafetyTweet.JPG

Permits

As the head of a lab, your name will likely be on all the research permits, and depending on your field of study, this can be a very big deal, and complicated. From collecting permits to animal care to biohazards, you need to guide your students through the permit process, from application to final reports. You have to be aware of deadlines, and know the ins and outs of the different requirements, especially when your work might cross jurisdictions. This can take an inordinate amount of time, but it requires the time commitment: lacking a permit can stall an entire research program. It’s essential to be proactive and prepared for permits. I certainly get my students to write the bulk of their own research permits, but a manager of a lab needs to facilitate this process.

Budgets and supplies

Running a lab means making sure there is a budget (i.e., you need a research grant!) to buy light bulbs for the microscope, flagging tape for field work, or medium for the agar plates. You need the money, and you need to know the process. The latter is not trivial: at my University some supplies are best bought using an internal purchasing system. Other places need just a credit card, or perhaps a purchase order. There are so many systems to learn, and each one probably needs a different password. It’s confusing and frustrating, and you have to stay on top of it. I keep a special file with all the details written out, and a hard-copy folder with old invoices – this way I can make sure to but the right sizes of things. Consistency is supplies is rather important!

Troubleshooting

Here are some things that have occurred in my lab over the years: weird smells from the sink. Lack of heat. Leaks from the ceiling. Power failures. Spider escapes**. Failing fridge. Failing freezer.

And the list goes on… Running a lab can be a lot about troubleshooting – you need to figure out who to call for what problem, and find a speedy resolution – otherwise you let down your grad students. Make a list of key people to get to know, from facilities to the local safety officer. Even better, post the list up in the lab, next to the telephone.

 

Ok, so there are certainly more things to know about running a lab, but hopefully the list provided is a start. Here’s the catch: almost everything I learned about running a lab was learned on the job. Despite attending some required workshops at the start of my career, I did not learn any real skills about running a lab. I was not trained to run a lab. Scientists must be taught to manage a lab.

That is a problem because a failure to run a lab properly has significant consequence for a lot of people! My students depend on the supplies that I have to buy, and they need to know what to do if there’s a chemical spill. Thankfully I had some good mentors when I was a grad student, and I managed to figure a lot of things out. However, I do think Universities need to do a better job helping hone the skills needed to run a lab; in many research fields, a successful academic career really depends on having a smooth-running lab, anything that can be done to help prepare ECRs for this would pay off.

In sum, I’m certainly a work in progress. Although I have some skills in research, I know that running a lab can be a real challenge for me, whether it’s forgetting to order supplies or checking the eyewash station weekly. I have learned to delegate a bit, and my grad students help me immensely at maintaining a safe and clean lab environment. I sure hope some of you can learn a bit from my own trials and tribulations… And please educate yourself, plan ahead, and know what it takes to run a lab well before you get the keys.

——-

Here are some other resources I’ve come across, related to managing a lab: from Genome Web, ASBMB, a post by Matt Welsh, and a Reddit thread on the topic

——-

 

**Sometimes we work with live spiders, on various projects. There have been times when they haven’t been where we left them. Oops.

Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.14.36 AM

A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.17.12 AM

Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.11.28 AM

I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.12.48 AM

Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.

—-

*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.