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.

Social media for academics

Earlier this week Steven Hamblin wrote a blog post requesting help as he develops a presentation on social media use in Academia.  This has prompted me to put a presentation up on Slideshare; one that is related closely to this topic. This presentation was something I put together back in March, and looking further back, it evolved from discussions with my PhD student Crystal Ernst, and from a presentation given at the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conference last autumn.  It’s far from perfect, a bit outdated now, but hopefully contains some useful information. Enjoy! (and please share and comment!).

Ten fun facts about Daddy Longlegs

Animals with many names: Harvestmen, Daddy longlegs, Shepherd Spiders, Grandfather Greybeard, Phalangids, Opiliones.

Cousins of other Arachnids, but an Order all to their own.   Over the past 11 months, I’ve been on a journal of discovery about these amazing creatures.

After nearly 300 tweets, and over 600 pages of text in Pinto-da-Rocha et al.’s book on Harvestmen, the Opiliones Project (in the way it was originally conceived) is over.  To recap – this was a twitter-based project in which I shared content from that weighty textbook with anyone who cared to follow along (using the hashtag #OpilionesProject).  Many folks followed along, notably my twitter friends Derek Hennen, Jaden Walker, Matthew Cobb, and many, many others…

A lovely Harvestmen - photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

A lovely Harvestmen – photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

I learned a lot along the way – and will take this opportunity to highlight ten fun facts about Harvestmen – all of these were part of the Opiliones Project.

Did you know that…

1. Salvador Dali featured Harvestmen in his work!  It’s true – check it out: “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening

2. Harvestmen can breath through their legs!  Spiracles in harvestmen are located just posterior to the coxae of the 4th pair of legs and this supply of oxygen to Harvestmen legs (e.g., after they are removed) contributes to the duration of twitching

3. Harvestmen have been around for at least 400 million years!  Phenominal!  And Harvestmen from the Rynie chert have an extensive tracheal system – the oldest record of such tubes of ANY arthropod

4. Harvestmen are NOT venomous! They don’t have venom glands!  A common urban myth.

5. Over 60 chemical compounds have been isolated from Harvestmen secretions (e.g., the secretions that are often used in chemical defense)

6.  At least a dozen species of Harvestmen are known to be parthenogenetic (females lay eggs that produce only females)!

7.  Harvestmen often show aggregation behavior, and the largest aggregation recorded is 70,000 individuals on a candelabrum cactus!

8. Unlike other Arachnids, Harvestmen males have a penis!

9. In some Harvestmen species, males use their chelicerae to offer oral secretion to female – a type of nuptial gift!

10. In some species, Harvestment moult even after they are have reached adulthood!

So there you have it.  Many fascinating and fun facts about Harvestmen (and there are many, many more) – you can access all the tweets from the Opiliones Project here (all 24 pages of them).

There were some other notable Harvestmen events over the past year, and it was fortunate this project coincided with these events.  For example, the Taxonomy Hulk burst onto the scene, and highlighted an article depicting a mix-up between a spider and a Harvestmen (a common mistake…).  Also, a truly HUGE harvestmen species was discovered – this sucker had a 13 inch legspan.  As May Berenbaum said over twitter…that’s a Daddy Loooooonglegs!

So, to finish – a big THANK YOU to everyone who followed along.  I hope this project was a fun for you as it was for me.

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Another lovely Harvestmen, photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission.

A special thanks to Brian Valentine for permission to use his Harvestmen photos on this blog!

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’

We need the Taxonomy Hulk

The Taxonomy Hulk burst onto twitter yesterday. We need superheroes like Taxonomy Hulk. As his/her alter ego, s/he surfs the internet, working away as a taxonomist, doing things that taxonomists do – describing species, inferring their evolutionary relationships, discovering their natural history. However, if s/he spots a taxonomic mistake on a website, news story, scientific article, or blog – LOOK OUT. The Hulk goes through an impressive metamophosis. S/he gets mad and gets even. If you make a taxonomic mistake, you will be shamed. Message: DON’T MAKE A #TAXONOMYFAIL. Taxonomy Hulk points out misidentifications in images (e.g., see this website with a Harvestmen instead of a spider.. oops [although a common mistake]).

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Taxonomy Hulk reminds us to use Latin names, not common names.

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Taxonomy Hulk is also funny. We need humour – every day.

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On a slightly more serious note: correct taxonomy is critically important. Other posts (e.g., see here or here) have pointed out taxonomic failures – and I especially like Bug Girl’s Flickr set!. One letter difference in Miridae (a family of plant bugs) gets you to Muridae (rodents and their relatives) – yeah those two are just a bit different. As an ecologist (although one with envy of taxonomists, and one in awe of the work taxonomists do!), I admit that I am perhaps not as careful as I should be when it comes to checking nomenclature, or ensuring spelling is always correct. I try – but given that my training is not in taxonomy, I surely make mistakes. I fear that some ecologists appreciate the importance of sound taxonomy even less than I do, and we need a watchdog. Reminders about correct taxonomy are a good idea. Taxonomy Hulk reminds us that we must be clear in what we are saying, whether it be in science journalism, writing a blog post, or working on a scientific paper.

Taxonomy Hulk is a concept not a person and this is a good thing: the humour and fun and ‘alter ego’ perspective is non-threatening, and allows taxonomic issues to be brought into the open easily and effectively. We can fix our mistakes, smile about it, and move forward.

Thank you Taxonomy Hulk. (and yes, you should follow Taxonomy Hulk on twitter)

I finish by stating that Taxonomy Hulk’s ‘regular’ persona (the Bruce Banner) is known to some of us (and s/he’s an incredibly competent taxonomist!, and a super-nice person).

But I’ll keep it quiet – it’s better that way.

The transformative power of social media: blogs and tweets in a university course

As part of my field biology course this term, groups of students are working on research projects related to observing species in their natural setting – a Natural History‘ project. Students are working in groups of 4-6, and each group is doing a focused project about a particular species (or group of species) including the following:  American beech trees, sugar maple trees, hemlock trees, shelf fungi, aquatic macroinvertebrates, litter-dwelling arthropods, small mammals, the American crow and chickadees. 

The first part of this project involves providing an overview of the natural history of their study species, and this overview is being released in the form of a scientific blog post.  Starting today, and for the next three weeks, the nine blog posts will be released on the following site.  (Today’s release is all about American beech Trees).

ENVB222 – the first post

I have opted to use blog posts, as one form of social media, as a direct communication tool in this undergraduate course.  This opens the work up to the broadest audience possible, and students have a lot more people to write for than just their instructors.  I believe this will increase the quality of the writing since the stakes are quite high: experts on their topics will be able to read and comment on their posts.    The students are encouraged to connect with the broader scientific community and seek input on their study species.    Another reason to use social media is to allow the classroom work to move outside the walls of Academia.  Students have told me that they are inspired by the idea of taking what they are learning and seeing how it is valued outside the (typically) insular classroom activities.

The use of social media in the classroom would not be complete without Twitter! The groups have set up twitter accounts, and within 48 hours of their posts going live, they will be tweeting a series of facts related to their study species!  This is another informative, collaborative and fun way to seek input into their projects, and a way to bring what they have learned out to the broader community of biologists.  Follow along!  You can simply use the hashtag #ENVB222 to track the tweets related to the project. (by the way, you can follow the Beech tee group @BBDteam ).  Here are a couple of examples of other tweets:

A tweet from the litter dwellers…

The Crow group’s tweet

Students have already started to connect with scientists from other institutions – they are already feeling part of something bigger.  For example, students in a field biology course at the University of Hull in the UK have connected with McGill students – the students from the two institutions can share connect, collaborate and share their experiences.  This can be done easily through #hashtags:

A re-tweet to Hull Students, from their Professor (Graham Scott)

So far this social media experiment in the classroom is inspiring, exciting, and leveraging real tools as a way to take the teaching and learning experience to a new level.  However, it will only work if their blogs are read, critiqued, and discussed with the broader community.  So, I encourage you to follow along and take part in this activity.  You are all invited.

Community.  Sharing.  Collaboration. Outreach. Communication.

This is the power of social media.

The beauty of museums: whales, birds, biophilia and a tweeting Dinosaur

A HUGE inflatable whale at the Canadian Museum of Nature

This past weekend, I traveled to Ottawa to visit the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) with my family. I’ve been to the CMN a few times before, and each time there are new things to see – this weekend it was the special exhibit titled “Whales Tohora“.  The content for this exhibit was effectively presented and we spent a long time learning about whales.  I was particularly impressed with how the exhibit dealt with the difficult issue of “whale strandings” i.e., when whales sometimes get stranded (sometimes in large numbers) on beaches or other low-laying coastal areas.  It’s a tricky situation because we (the all-knowing and all-powerful humans) want to save them, but it’s not always possible, nor is it always appropriate to do so.  The exhibit showed how some people and cultures see these strandings as a ‘gift’ from the ocean whereas other people are deeply saddened by such events and rally to save the whales.  The CMN did not shy away from tackling this issue, and they did it in a way that all three of my kids (ages 8, 10 and 12) were able to appreciate.

The rest of the whales exhibition was also enjoyed – from the tiny Hector’s dolphin skeleton to the life-sized blue whale heart (a plastic model, of course!), and we all learned about ambergris (and got to see and smell it, too).  I think I can now properly articulate the differences between porpoises and dolphins thanks to a huge poster illustrating all the groups from a phylogenetic perspective. And my kids were thrilled to learn how whales were terrestrial before they were aquatic. Go, Evolution!

Part of the CMN bird gallery

Whenever we go the CMN we always visit our favourite exhibits and the Bird Gallery is one of these.  This gallery is bright and expansive, and is filled with stuffed, dead birds. I must be honest – I really enjoy seeing all those dead animals.  This may sound morbid, but this kind of display really resonates with me.  The best way to illustrate biodiversity is to have biodiversity on display, in an open, and accessible way.  Specimens are needed to bring people closer to understanding and appreciating biodiversity.  I did observe some people playing on the interactive computer terminals and reading some of the content on the poster boards. Most people, however, were simply staring intently into the glass cases and looking in awe at the shapes, sizes and colours of bird biodiversity.  This happens in the bird gallery, but also in the mammal exhibit, where some terrific dioramas illustrate species in their natural habitats.  The CMN has got it right with these kinds of displays.

Being a good entomologist, we made sure to stop by the Animalium (too bad it is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the basement next to the theatre) to see some live Arthropods (and slugs and amphibians, too):

Up close and personal with some bugs and slugs

I am glad that they have live Amblypygids (aka tailless whip scorpions) to view (they are so bizarre-looking!), and seeing people squirm in fascination at the tank full of wriggly mealworms is terrific.  When seeing these reactions, I am reminded of E.O. Wilson’s arguments about the “Biophilia” Hypothesis. This is the innate and instinctive connection that people have with the natural world.   It is so obvious when you go to a natural history museum, especially somewhere like the Canadian Museum of Nature, where you can see a displays about the death of whales in one corner, stunning dioramas in another, and live cockroaches in the basement.  People wander through the galleries, and when they see displays of nature that make them feel good they have smiles on their faces.  They recoil and squirm at other times – and it is with the usual suspects (e.g., spiders, snakes, bats).  This visceral and squeamish reaction is STILL a reaction and this fills me with hope.

The day that Museums are empty and people have no reaction to biodiversity will, to me, represent a world that has completely lost its way.  Let’s keep supporting museums and help maintain biophilia.

A small part of a grassland diorama at the CMN

I can’t talk about a museum without mentioning the Dinosaur gallery.   It is very well done and the CMN, and you could hear the squeals of delight from a hundred feet away.  And I was pretty excited to get a tweet from “Vic the Dino“.  You can follow this mighty beast on twitter @VicTheDino