Category Archives: teaching

Drosophila, exponential growth, and the power of evolution

A few weeks ago I blogged about the way the universe is doomed by the exponential growth in readership of an old post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  That exercise was a bit silly, but I used it to make a non-silly point or two about biology.  My blogging example reminded me that I used to use an almost-as-silly fruit fly example in my undergrad ecology courses. I thought you might enjoy it – so here it is. (And if you’re teaching, and want to borrow it, be my guest.)

Imagine that you return from the grocery store with some bananas.  Unbeknownst to you, a single (inseminated) female fruit fly* has stowed away in there.  If all her offspring survive, how many fruit flies will your kitchen have after just one year? Continue reading

Moving courses online isn’t easy – or cheap

Yesterday evening (as I write*) I spent 40 minutes filming three minutes of video.  It was a clip explaining how to collect aquatic insects, for my newly-online-with-lab-at-home Entomology course. That “40 minutes” is just camera-rolling time.  It doesn’t count planning what to film, travel to location, or editing the video later for posting (I only stepped on a slippery rock and swore on camera once; but it was a good reminder that I should probably learn how to bleep the audio track). Continue reading

Cracking the code of biology tests: let’s get metacognitive!

This is a guest post from Greg Crowther

In a previous post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, Steve raised an important and hard question: aside from helping students learn the specific content of our courses, how can we help students get better at learning in general?

Although it’s a hard question, I think I have a pretty good one-word answer: metacognition. Continue reading

Steal this (updated) syllabus for Scientific Writing

I’ve just finished the 3rd go-around of my Scientific Writing course.  When I first signed up to teach it, I was very scared, but now that I’ve been through it a few times, I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.

After the first offering, I posted my syllabus and other materials, and quite a few folks found that useful.  But I’ve polished and improved the course, so today I’m posting an updated set.  I’m also including some notes about adapting the course to online delivery – something I had involuntary experience with this year, as most of us did! Continue reading

I wish my students were motivated by love of subject. But I shouldn’t.

I’ve said it many times: I wish my students were motivated by their love of the subject, not by the course credit or the grade.  We all know what a joy it is to teach someone who’s there because they can’t wait to know more; who reaches toward us for knowledge rather than sitting back to have it delivered; whose eyes sparkle when they learn something new.  Teaching that student is fun, and it’s easy.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our students were like that?

Actually, no. Continue reading

From one big midterm to weekly quizzes: what I expected, and what actually happened

You can sometimes teach an old dog new tricks.  Last semester, I made a significant change in my teaching, in one of my courses*: I dumped the traditional high-stakes midterm exam in favour of small weekly quizzes.  I know, it’s not a breathtakingly original idea.  I was persuaded to try it not because I’m a brilliant pedagogical experimentalist (I’m not), but because I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Terry McGlynn’s new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching. You can read Terry’s book too, as soon as it’s released this summer; in the meanwhile, you can read a little bit about it here.

If The Chicago Guide has one theme, I’d say it’s using respect for your students to make navigating your courses easier them and also for you.  Who wouldn’t want to do that? The book makes lots of suggestions I’m likely to adopt; but one I jumped on right away was that move from a big high-stakes midterm to small weekly quizzes. It’s not that I’d never thought of that, or seen it done – it’s that Terry does a wonderful job of selling the idea.  The Chicago Guide convinced me that the weekly quiz could have lots of advantages, both for my students and for me.  (It slices! It dices!).

It didn’t quite work out the way I expected. Continue reading

Insects are incredibly cool (or, a whirlwind tour of my Entomology course)

When I’m not writing Scientist Sees Squirrel (or writing books about the lovers, heroes, and bums commemorated in the Latin names of organisms), I have a day job.  I’m a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, Canada.  Over my years at UNB I’ve taught first-year biology, introductory ecology, population biology, biostatistics, scientific writing, non-majors biology, field ecology, and more.  But I’ve just finished teaching the course I might love most of all: entomology.

I don’t really know what I am, scientifically, but I’m often mistaken for an entomologist. And it’s true, I know some stuff about insects.  The most important thing I know about them is probably that they’re just about endlessly diverse, endlessly beautiful, and endlessly fascinating. Continue reading

Teaching writing through the curriculum

Image: Writing, CC 0

I teach a scientific writing course, and I think I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t mean that I’m teaching my course wrong.  It might not be the course you’d teach, but I’m happy enough with it, and my students seem to be too.  What I mean, I guess, is that we’re doing it wrong, as a department.  That’s because I’m teaching my course to grad students and 4th year (Honours-by-thesis) undergrads – and it’s pretty easy to argue that that’s way too late.

I’ve come to understand that writing is one of the most important things we teach our undergraduates.*  And while I teach scientific writing, I think writing is also one of the most transferable things we teach. Continue reading

On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming.  I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”).  That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence.  But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues.  Continue reading

Yes, I’m teaching a tropical field course. No, it’s not a vacation.

Images: Howler monkey (Alouatta pigra); Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus mexicanus); Helmeted basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus).  All photos © 2017 S Heard, CC BY 4.0

In March, I’ll be heading to Belize to teach an undergraduate tropical ecology field course (not alone; I have an excellent batch of co-instructors).  I mentioned this to someone last week, and their reaction was to chuckle and say “wow, must be nice!”.  And maybe it seems petty, but I’m getting really tired of that reaction.

The thing is, it’s near-universal.  Continue reading