Lead a horse to water…

But you can’t make them drink. Or, why grades are not enough.

I’ve been teaching heavily the last month or so and been rather disparaged at the focus on grades and things ‘for points’. It seems as though a chunk of students (and a rather large one, I might add) might do anything I said if I simply attached the words ‘worth X points’. Although the maniacal part of me wants to cackle and see how far this might go, all other parts of me react with pretty strong disgust. Are points really enough? Do they cloud creative and practical thinking? Do they hurt, rather than help, students to master material?

Now, to be clear, I think feedback (early and often!) is a good thing. I just don’t know if needing to attach point values is a good practice. This semester alone, as an advisor, I’ve dealt with at least two issues of students breaking down about their self-worth because of their grades. It never occurred to them that they could be measured by other means, or that the act of measuring up in grades isn’t necessary to be ‘enough’ as a person.

That’s the negative side for low-earners: to internalize they are low-grade, instead of that they got a low-grade. The focus isn’t on improvement. If the goal is to help students understand where their understanding needs refinement, grades aren’t functioning as intended there. But what about the high earners? Do they really ‘get’ grades, or just get graded?

For the high earners, I fear that grades give them an over-inflated sense of what they understand and to what depth. This is especially dangerous for those preparing for cumulative exams, where a misreading of one’s scores from past exams can derail even the most promising student. Worse yet, it can make a student think narrowly, rather than in ways that benefit them most in the long term.


In trying to prepare students for their final exam, I recently held a class session where the students could write exam questions based on the learning objectives for each lesson of the course. I worked ahead to make sure the next and final 5 lessons were complete; this meant they’d have the learning objectives for those sections and the ability to write questions for the entire content of the course. I created a shared document for these students to put their questions into, along with a template that asked for the lesson the question came from, which objective it addressed, and the general topic. Since the class is about double the number of students as there were lessons, they could choose to work in pairs or individually and cover the content of the entire course.

I started the class and pointed out to them that they could and should work together on this shared document of questions. Since they only had that class period, whatever they came up with in that time could be eventual questions on the exam, so sharing with one another and dividing up the work would be the best way to ensure mutual success amongst the group.

So what’d they do? Not work together, that’s for sure. Rather than devise a way to best help one-another (and themselves!), they each acted as if silos had been built. Most wrote 1-2 questions (a few wrote a couple more), but they almost all overlapped in content, leaving large chunks of the course untouched. Unfortunately for the students, this now leaves lots for each of them to go back and review individually for the cumulative final. That’s lots of hours to spend instead of putting their heads together for 50 minutes.

So what gives? These are really smart students. Why do they do the suboptimal? Well, devising a plan requires thought and stepping back, and my hypothesis is that taking those few moments to think a problem through are the critical steps students tend to skip in point-based thinking. Those steps aren’t directly rewarded in the same way. For example, you write a question, and if you’re hopeful, you’re assuming your question will be chosen and you’ll instantly get 3 points. Those seem more tangible than the class set of questions which you contribute to, but which could, by the end of 50 minutes, amount to over 30 points, and at the very least, far less study time if they can be used as a study aid.

In looking over the questions which were written, admittedly a bit disparaged from what I’d witnessed, I was happy to see that there were indeed at least a few good questions which got to the meat of the material without being needlessly detailed. In looking the questions over more, I noticed an interesting pattern: the students who had done the best job of working together and splitting up questions weren’t my high-performers/A-students, but those students on target for B’s/C’s. Since the activity wasn’t worth points, these students weren’t just looking for a boost; rather, it seems as though they ‘got’ what the activity meant broadly and didn’t just try mindless plugging-and-chugging to complete the task.

Who knows ultimately how these students grades will turn out. And honestly, what do grades really mean if the students can master the course material, but can’t think broadly enough to apply it in ways that solve real problems? Grades aren’t enough. Or perhaps our ways of measuring growth in thinking outside of just the material aren’t enough. We need more ways to push students to work smarter, rather than just harder, and to do so in ways that are healthy. Grades aren’t a measure of you as a person, but they should be a better reflection of how you as a person holistically think.

Yes, I know this is another teacher lament, and yes, there are data to get at some of these issues. But there also needs to be systemic change so that we’re not simply training students to perform doggie tricks, but really to see and solve problems in ways that aren’t necessarily always the easiest.

I’m willing to put in that work and try new methods for the collective good. I bet you are, too. Let’s go to work.


Mid-semester woes: That *first* bad grade

In my new role at Georgia Tech, I am responsible for advising about 1/4 of our biology majors, of which a large chunk are transfer or first-year students. We’re now about halfway through their first semester at Tech, and they’ve just received mid-semester evaluations. These evaluations are used as a ‘warning flag’ of sorts for students who need to improve their performance in a course. Basically, if you score ‘satisfactory’, you’re on the right track (passing with a decent grade); if you score ‘unsatisfactory’, well… your grade outlook isn’t favorable.

For many students, particularly those who are thinking about pre-health and graduate careers, to receive anything other than an A is a real shock. It is especially disturbing the first time this happens. Getting a less-than-stellar grade isn’t just an academic problem for many students; it strikes at the core of their identity. So what can we do to help coach students through this? How can we help them develop resilience and learn from missteps?

  1. Remind students: Your grades are important, but they don’t define you. Your transcript is not your identity. Remind students of past successes in different parts of their life, and help them to feel that they ‘belong’ on campus. Often, first-timers experiencing issues take a bad grade as a sign that they don’t belong in their major or in college, rather than limiting the bad grade as simply an evaluation of inadequate performance in a course.  Help them to see the scope of the issue.
  2. Additionally, make clear: past grades don’t necessarily predict future grades. If students are not doing well in a course, it is possible (sometimes admittedly to a greater or lesser degree) to improve skills, even if the grades don’t ultimately reflect what you’ve gained. Situations are in their control, and they have the power to make decisions that affect outcomes.
  3. Focus on the problem: Ok, so something didn’t work out. What are you going to do? There are lots of ways to solve this problem that each have their pros and cons. Help students weigh their options and practice making tough, but necessary, decisions
  4. Keep conversations realistic, but positive. Sugar-coating doesn’t help students clearly see and deal with the nature of the issue, but neither does berating past mistakes. Have students assess what they’ve been doing that has/hasn’t been working, and make a plan to move forward.
  5. Refer students who might need additional help. In your conversations with students, it may become clear that certain resources would help the student weather the crisis. Don’t be afraid to mention the academic, counseling, and/or disability services on campus that the student could consult (as appropriate).
  6. Keep in mind: your students are unique, but they may struggle in similar ways. If you’ve developed a relationship with a student who has undergone (or is currently undergoing) a similar struggle (or overcome it), ask if students would like to be connected to one-another. Accountabil-a-buddies and peer mentors can do a lot to help a student’s self-esteem when slogging through the hard times.
  7. Support your students as they enact their plans by checking in. Ask how it’s going, and if necessary, offer further guidance to correct and/or amend trajectories.

What would you suggest? Any tips or tricks to share? Let me know and I’ll add them here.


After a long wait, our How-To article on #SciStuChat is finally out! You can read it here: http://abt.ucpress.edu/content/78/7/599

So what’s #SciStuChat? Read the paper.

Just kidding. You should read it, but the tldr; is that it is a monthly chat where students in science classes across the nation and the globe interact with scientists via Twitter.

You can read more about #SciStuChat and get updates here: http://www.scistuchat.com/

So, some of you might be thinking, “That’s nice. Moving on.” But maybe you should be asking: Why as a scientist should I use Twitter to interact with high schoolers? What do I get out of it?

Well, here are my top 5 reasons for engaging particularly with HS students using Twitter:

  1. Communication: Scientists often stink at communicating their and others’ work succinctly. A once-a-month session ensures a bit of practice to work on communication. Being confined to just 140 characters forces you to keep things short and let go of those important (but sometimes non-expert-confusing) caveats.
  2. Easy, big impact: Outreach unfortunately is often confined to where we’re already working (i.e. near lab or field sites), so we miss classrooms geographically. Also, because time is limited, we can’t go to visit every classroom even within a 2-hour radius. There’s just not enough time in the curriculum or personal schedules to guarantee quality interaction. By using a digital medium, it is super easy to reach lots of students at once in many places. In one hour, you can virtually reach tens of classrooms that are signed in and wanting to talk to you. There isn’t a lot of set up, and typically the chats occur outside of the normal workday, so if you can spare an hour one evening, you’ve made a big impact, without even having to leave your house!
  3. Guided- and extended- conversations: Students often have misconceptions that scientists aren’t people, too. By participating in guided conversations through Twitter chats, you can humanize scientists by having an organic discussion about a topic, as opposed to a drier, prepped activity. Students can get to know a bit more about your personality and what gets you excited about science, and if they want, follow your twitter handle to learn more science once the ‘official’ interaction has ended.
  4. Diversify the faces of scientists: Science is more diverse than the representation it gets in the media. Although we’ve still got a very long way to go, we shouldn’t undersell the various forms of diversity that there are today (And keep in mind, there are many ways to demonstrate uniqueness beyond more ‘traditional’ demographic categories).
  5. Scaling for level: What students are learning in the classroom today is more advanced than when many of us had as high schoolers. And whether we like to admit it or not, for many people, their last exposure to science was back in high school. So, interacting with high schoolers and engaging in content can give you a bit of a ‘reality check’ on what is common scientific knowledge. Furthermore, it can help to show what reasoning these students (and likely, their families) are using when they encounter new scientific information. Sometimes we forget how specialized we have become; it’s important to break out of the expert bubble and talk to others. There is value in this interaction for everyone!

So these are my top 5? Do you have another that didn’t make my list? Please share!




ROADTRIP! Or, Closing Out Summer Field Season

This summer’s research adventures took us from Atlanta north. Most recently, we completed an 18-hour road trip (one-way!) to collect various bluebird and tree swallow nests. We survey and collect from hundreds of nests to find just a few parasites on which to do our work. It’s lots of effort, sure, but we’ve had great help from collaborators, and it does pay off!

This latest trip, we were able to collect nests from several places, including Ganondagan State Historic Site, Mt. Hope Cemetery, and a few of Cornell’s bird research sites. On our collection adventure, in addition to some very helpful scientists, engineers, and hobbyists, those we ran into at gas stations, fast food joints, and about town were super curious as to what we were actually doing.

So, here’s what it looks like:

Boxes (like the one I’m opening in the photo below) are where our birds nest. These boxes near open fields make great nesting spaces for birds like bluebirds and tree swallows.

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Depending on the age of the nestlings in the nest, we have two options: if they’ve fledged, great. We just pack up the contents of a box into a gallon ziplock. If the birds are old enough to have parasites, but not at risk of fledging too early, it’s a different story;  typically our bird collaborator will hold and monitor the birds while we scrape out what bugs have fallen through the bottom of the nest.

Once we get back to a space to process the nest, the fun begins! And by fun, I mean a bit of icky tedium, but… such is life. This is where we sort through all of the contents of the nest/scrapings to look for our bugs….Our bugs hidden amongst a lot of other squirmy bugs, dead things, and bird poop. Oh, the poop!

The nest I have photographed below came from one of the Cornell boxes of some birds that recently fledged. This is the nicest you’ll see one of these, not just because of the relatively low amount of extra debris and poop, but also because we could take a whole cardboard insert from the nest box and recover everything.

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Most of the time, it looks more like what’s scattered on the sheet of paper below: Lots of debris and poop to filter through once the straw-like parts of the nest are removed. This is actually generally a good thing, as more poop (and debris caught in poop) typically means the nestlings were more numerous and/or lived longer, so there tend to be more parasites.

EDIT: People wanted to know what it smells like. It’s actually not that bad. The poop doesn’t smell like dog/human poop (or really at all), so the nests smell more like bales of hay.

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So, we sort and collect our parasites, and rebag the rest (sometimes for collaborators, but mostly just to keep the bugs from spreading). We process just one nest at a time, so we can track where the bugs came from, how many we found, how old they are, etc. So, we just repeat this nest sorting…MANY times (hence my face after a long day stretching into the night). Don’t let my face fool you, though: it’s worth it in the end for  all of the cool stuff you see, and it’s how I can honestly call this field work an adventure (instead of a nightmare)!

We’ll run genetic tests back in the lab, so we have to travel with the samples kept cool or in preservative chemicals. So, once we’re done sorting and packing it all away, we make the trek home with our little squirmy friends to learn a bit more about them!

Meat Camp!

Summer field season is upon us, and our first stop: Meat Camp!

As strange as it sounds, this isn’t a summer camp of sorts, but rather the small North Carolina town where some adorable young bluebirds, and their tiny parasites, can be found.

Above and to the left, you can see a nest box with baby birds cozy in their nest. And on the right, a few baby bluebirds in hand ( about ~12-14 days), one with a tiny brown-red parasite along its leg (look just to the right of the ring finger on the hand holding the chicks).

That tiny brown parasite will feed on the blood of the baby bluebird until the bird is about ready to fledge. At that point, the parasite pops off the bird, falls down into the nest, and continues its development.

Like many insects, they’ll go through a bunch of stages, from worm-like, to pill-like, to an eventual adult. And if they’re female, they’ll grow up to look for a new bluebird nest in which to raise their parasitic young.

This summer, we’ll be working in several locations, from Georgia, to North Carolina, to New York, to figure out just where these parasites like to hang out and what makes them ‘tick’ (see what I did there? 😉 ). Stay tuned for more!

Getting Science Journalists to Write About Your Work

Recently, a colleague publicly lamented via an ecology mailing list the lack of science journalists writing about his work. Although the colleague, post-response, seemed to just want camaraderie vs. solutions, I felt it useful to others to post my response to him here, along with supplemental advice (in italics) suggested by Dr. Jorge Santiago-Blay:

The market right now isn’t that great for Science Writers professionally, so they can be few and far between, and obviously, they’re overworked (just like us!). The National Association of Science Writers and Eurekalert can be good avenues to get others to start writing about your work. Because of time constraints, science journalists usually don’t have a lot of time to search for your work, or wait on responses, so a good thing to do is to follow these guidelines:
1. Put up press releases or contact with emails that are already written for a lay audience. This means starting with why people should care/what makes this cool. Be sure to include your preferred contact info; they may use part of this for quotes and want to contact you for a follow-up.
2. Don’t firehose everyone by putting up/contacting a journalist about everything, even the little stuff. Make sure you’ve got a good story and the ‘right’ to tell it (check with your publisher about embargo dates, etc.). Otherwise, you risk overselling/breaching agreements/being ignored after a bit.
3. When a journalist contacts you, get back to them quickly. Their deadlines are tight, so respect that. If someone calls, you can take 5-10 min to compose yourself and get ideas together, but don’t wait too long. If you get back to them quicker, it does 2 things: 1) helps you gain a bit more control about how the pitch of the story will go, and 2) it encourages them to contact you again if they need to (for this work) or in the future (for new stuff/outside opinions on the work of others).
On point # 3a, so true re. due dates. Once I was contacted by one of them and it could have given me huge publicity. Yet, I could not do it their time. Instead, I suggested another. I did not suspect (then) that they may be operating under due date pressure. Btw, ditto with some jobs, some employers do not seem to respect their own posted (in ads) due dates.
On point # 3b, re. control. Also so true. Make sure about who is the author, how much control on wording/time of publication, etc. journalists have. These days, requesting to see a prepublication version on what they have written about your (or my) work is considered by some a type of censorship. Then, if they make mistakes or display your work in a fashion you do not like or is inaccurate, one has to invest time fixing things… 
4. Make your work ‘timely’! If there is something in current events or a major holiday/season/sporting event coming up that it relates to, this will make the ‘sell’ easier. Ex. If you work on acoustic pollution, there’s an angle for talking about a big NASCAR race. If you work in mating, bringing up summer lovin’/spring flings can be good, too. There’s lots of stuff, and you might have to fight a bit of anthropomorphism, but it can work in your favor, too. Be creative here!
5. Write about your work yourself now. If you’ve got a blog or website, go ahead and start writing things there. A journalist who can Google and see you’re able to talk to the public in understandable, interesting terms is more likely to want to work with you. You’re less of an unknown gamble on whether they can quickly glean what they need from you and get a good story out. (Once you’ve got some content, don’t be afraid to email and invite folks to read there)
Overall, to me it is a balance between, on the plus side:
a. Publicity to your (my) work and ourselves
b. Overall generosity to others (that is important to me) by promoting good info
and (on the minus side):
a. Investment: time and energy (as usual)
b. Aggravation of potentially dealing with errors, etc.
Hope this helps, and good luck!

Great Panel, Poor Pocketbooks: Why You Should Write Your Representative

I just returned from one of the most critical, but kind assemblages of experts. What was I doing? I was serving on a National Science Foundation (NSF) Panel where we were deciding what extremely few project pre-proposals would get even a chance at competing for funding with a full proposal.

To be clear: Lots of great science goes on around the US, but we simply don’t have the means to support it (or even the majority of it). Why? Our budget is insufficient.

Here’s where moving+panel experience= inspiration for this post.

I write my representatives pretty often (take that, Millennial-Haters!), and much of my writing is in support of science and education funding, as well as efforts to end discrimination. Because we moved to a new district, some of my representatives have changed. So I went searching…

Cue  https://www.govtrack.us/

Here you can look up your representatives’ contact information, voting record, efficacy, term and re-election dates, etc. You can get updates emailed in digest form, too.  A feature I found that makes me excited about this website is the ability to easily track committee work. In particular, I’m glad my new rep. also happens to serve on the budget committee. I suspect we’ll become quite close 🙂

Please, for what you care about, contact your reps. And if you’re a scientist, fan of science, or patriot, we can’t afford for you not to.