Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My commencement address

 Today (June 14th) I received the Laurier Teaching Award for Sustained Excellence at the Spring 2017 convocation. As the recipient of this award I was asked to address the graduating class of Biology students (and their guests). I decided that it would be a good opportunity to talk about how success does not necessarily come easily. Specifically I wanted to focus on my initial difficulties with teaching
(starts ~38min mark)

It is a great honour to be the recipient of this award and I would like to thank all the individuals who nominated, supported and selected my nomination. As the recipient of this award, it is my privilege to be asked to give the commencement address for the class of 2017. Convocation is an excellent opportunity not only to celebrate your accomplishments, and to imagine the next steps of your journey, but also a chance reflect back on the challenges you have faced to get where you are today, and how you were able to overcome them. For me, receiving this award is –as I said- a great honour, but it also somewhat ironic, because it was not too long ago that I had serious doubts about my future as an educator.

When I began my position at Laurier it was with a great deal excitement and (and an equal amount of nervousness). Landing a tenure-track position was an amazing opportunity, and one that I (initially) thought I was well prepared for.  Throughout my graduate studies I had had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant, and I had taken numerous elective courses and workshops on effective teaching practices. So I thought I would be able to at least hold my own when it came to teaching my first class. How wrong I was.

The first time I taught BI111 – Biological Diversity and Evolution – it felt like everything went wrong. I had taken over the course from a recently departed and much beloved instructor who I looked to as a model for how to run the course. But in that first class nothing clicked, nothing worked. As I stood in front of my sometimes confused, often bored, and occasionally frustrated, students I felt like a failure both professionally and personally. At the end of the semester my departmental chair came into my office – closed the door- and told me how worried she was for my future prospects at Laurier based on my teaching evaluations.

Now I don’t know if you – the class of 2017 – can empathize: Your first year at Laurier and getting much worse grades than you had been expecting based on you previous experiences – but I hope you can use your imagination.

Talking about failure is tough. Which is strange because we all encounter it. Far too frequently reality doesn’t match our expectations. For me it took some time to figure out how to identify why my teaching wasn’t working, and to start upon a better path. But I did not find my way along that path alone.

I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by many excellent instructors both in my department and across the Laurier campuses who I have looked to for mentorship, for guidance and for conversation. I am here today because of Faculty, friends, and family members who shared with me their experiences and advice. I am also here because of some of the most important feedback I got was from my students on what they found effective, and what they found challenging. They inspired and encouraged me to take greater risks in my teaching. To imagine new approaches to learning about the amazing world in which we live, such as play-acting the process of secondary growth in eudicots, taking a busload of biostatistics students on a field trip to a literal field to collect their data, or learning the principles of Hardy-Weinberg equlibrium with thousands of playing cards (and the occasional pictures of cats). They helped me avoid getting discouraged if these experiments in teaching didn’t go as planned (which they sometimes did not).

And so here we are 6 years and roughly 4000 students later. I am on this stage because of the support of Laurier community and it is to them that I am eternally grateful. Class of 2017, today marks an important milestone in your lives.

For many of us in this room there will be challenges ahead, dark days in which you question your abilities and the path you have taken. Please remember you do not have to travel alone.  

Thank you

Monday, March 27, 2017

Thoughts on an predator-prey active learning exercise

Today was a very exciting day for me in my BI111 class, as I got to try out a role-playing game that I have been thinking / planning for a long while. At this point in the semester, my course (Biological Diversity & Evolution) has reached the topic of community ecology. One of the phenomenon I talk about this week is how predators and prey can become linked into cyclical patterns. A well-known example of this involves the  Candian Lynx, Lynx canadensis and its prey, the snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus. I've been wanting to try and let my students seem how this pattern, arises, so I devised an exercise that could be done in my two sections for BI111.
For context, this class has ~400 students per section, and I run i out of a lecture hall that holds 450 students (see pictures below)

Here is the set of rules I came up with, and shared with the students before today's lecture.

Now before you get too worried, I chose soft foam practice golf balls (I bought 4 sets from amazon) for use by the "lynx".

OK. So, flash forward to the exercise in question. Overall. I felt it went well, but there are a few tweaks that I'm going to consider for next year's implementation.
1. Lynx - it was perhaps too easy for the lynx to survive and reproduce. In my 10:30 class, I followed the original plan, and it it didn't take long for the lynx population so rapidly rise. Things were a bit better in the second round, where I changed the rule to 4 hits =survival, 5=1 offspring and 6 hits=2 offspring. Lynx numbers still did increase pretty high, but it took a bit longer (I'll upload some scans of the data sheets later).
2. Hares. It became clear early on that the hares that survived needed bigger litters. Perhaps it was the orientation of the room, or the skill of the lynx at throwing, but predation success was greater than I anticipated. I tired out 3 offspring per litter. That seemed to work.
3.Time. I had expected that 5-6 rounds of predation + instructions preamble would take ~20 minutes (to give time for cycles to become apparent). It ended up taking about 30. Perhaps reducing the number of balls/lynx/round might speed things up.
4. Loundness. This was loud exercise. I knew it would, but - wow! Lots of excitement from the students (good), but hard to keep focus on the exercise. I'll need to think about what can be done.

That's it for now,  but I'll update this post when I get the student feedback on the exercise.