Nervous? Excited? So is your neighbor.

From freshman to returning grandmother, everyone has to go through that first day of a new class.

I asked my Principles of Biology I students this semester to share “Any concerns that you have about the class” after the first day. Here’s a peek at what y’all said, and some help!

General worries…

  • Finding the textbook – Armstrong bookstore, the textbook broker across from campus, Amazon.com, Chegg.com, Half.ebay.com … Just remember, you’ll need this book again for Biology II. Renting might not actually be the best option.
  • Staying organized / Managing my time – Find someone to help you be accountable. Meet, text, or email each other when you’re supposed to be reading the book/your notes. “This chapter’s killing me… are you doing any better?”
  • Keeping up with notes during lecture – Focus on added explanations that I mention in class. Don’t try to write down every word – outline & use short notes – especially if it’s already on the slide (I post them on the course website for you!).
  • Not sure what/how to read effectively – Don’t highlight everything. Skim the chapter first, looking for unfamiliar ideas. Mark those sections for extra time, and take notes about what you don’t understand.
  • It is a really big class – Well, you have the option to either stand out or blend in, but anyone is welcome to ask questions. There are also more options for who to study with! Also, my office is 50% less intimidating than most professors’ offices. Come by during office hours and ask for help.
  • Memorization – Know the story, memorize the details. Biology is always integrated, so make sure you can put the pieces together. Example: Facts – electrons are negatively charged. The valence shell is involved with bonding. Story – sharing & stealing electrons is the basis for constructing molecules, and the valence structure tells you how an element will bond.
  • This is my first college class / I have first year jitters… / It’s been 10 years since I was in school – Ask questions, and don’t panic. Use D2L/E-classroom to keep an eye on your grades. Ask for help early: Office hours (free…), STEM tutoring (free), Supplemental Instructors (free), making friends (okay, you might buy them lunch sometimes).

Information worries…

  • Making the best grade that I can / Making an A – Shoot for the stars, and at least you’ll land on the moon. Read the study guides along with the textbook chapter, so that you know what the most important topics will be. Always aim for that A, and back up that ambition with solid, productive work.
  • I might not catch on as fast as other students – Positive thinking + Positive action = Positive results. Reality check might be that you need to ask for help: Office hours (free…), STEM tutoring (free), Supplemental Instructors (free), making friends (okay, you might buy them lunch sometimes).
  • Not learning as quickly as I did in high school – Find out how you learn. Does it help if you draw everything? Do you need music in the background while you study? Take notes in class. Answer the questions at the end of the chapter – I’m not going to assign them like your teacher used to, but it will help you learn if you do them.
  • Have I forgotten my high school biology? – Maybe so, but don’t panic. Khan academy might be helpful, or CrashCourse. I post extra videos and activities that will give you another run through of many of the crucial topics. Send me an email or stop by during office hours.
  • Worried about the topics that I struggled with last time – Don’t psych yourself out, psych yourself up! You are going to knock them out of the park this time, because you are planning ahead, asking for help, and working hard. Remember to still study for the topics that you understood well, as it’s easy to forget the basics. What’s the mitochondrion do again?
  • This class will be a lot of work / will be difficult – Maybe so, but you can plan ahead. Do the assignments, be prepared, and find out why/how you answered wrong when it happens. This class is designed to prepare you for amazing upper level courses – such as parasitology, applied microbiology, environmental chemistry…
  • The comprehensive final exam – Study Guides on D2L are already posted! Come to office hours and review exams I-IV after they are graded so that you understand why/how/when you chose the incorrect answers.

It helps to remember that you’re all in this boat together, even if your seats (your lives/backgrounds) are different!


Featured image: Science scarf and epic purple shirt – cool things from my mother-in-law and mom, both of whom love that I’m a college professor.

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New Semester, New Technique?

Humans love stories, but get bogged down by information.

“Shrimp wisely divide their time between eating, hiding from predators, and finding mates.”

“Shrimp respond to variable changes in their environment in order to optimize their caloric intake while minimizing predation risk and maximizing reproduction.”

Let’s be honest – it’s much simpler to understand the first sentence, but as scientists we’re expected to write the second sentence. The content is basically the same, although the details are variable.

Why do readers relate to the first version?
1 – less jargon (technical language)
2 – intuitive phrasing that connects the main ideas

Why is the first version problematic?
1 – less information, fewer details
2 – teleological (the shrimp has goals)

In teaching, can we reconcile the two? Can we use stories to help our students build mental models of the topics?

In an attempt to utilize one of the ideas that we discussed in our faculty reading round-table last semester, I am incorporating the idea of narrative sensemaking, or storied truths, into my biology lectures. The idea is to use sensible, intuitive stories to understand realistic, complex, patterns in the real world.

Good stories don’t just have to come from fantastical imaginings, rooted in the mythos of our ancestors. Scientific facts don’t have to be clinical and hyper-accurate in order to be useful. Just like a good teaching model, we can incorporate the best parts of both.

Why am I doing this?

Students are often frustrated by exam questions that require critical thinking skills, and say they are “too hard” or “not based on the lecture.” I am hypothesizing (Yep, I’m a scientist – I do this all the time.) that part of this problem is a mental disconnect from the material.  Many of the extra study materials that I direct my students to use are youtube videos (Hello, CrashCourse) or activities that have a clear, succinct, and entertaining story – they are more likely to mentally interact with the information more intuitively than if I were to simply remind them to “review section 7.3 in the textbook”.

Understanding connections is key to successfully studying increasingly complex topics in science, not simply rote memorization. Without the ability to think on their feet, analyze available information, and reach sound conclusions, they also are not productive, scientifically literate citizens. They can’t make connections if they don’t understand how the story works in the first place.

How am I going to do this?

I’m adding “What’s the story?” pieces to my existing lectures, in an effort to regularly remind students of the larger picture. My goal is to create 1-2 sentence story bits that aren’t just summary, but illustrate the narrative thread running through the past few topics for the section of material that we’ve just discussed.

For example, Chapter 1 of our Campbell Biology textbook discusses overall themes in biology. The first topic is the basic properties of life vs. non-life, moving on to where it is found. What’s the story? Life has adapted to deal with a wide variety of conditions.

What are the results?

I’ll let you know!


Featured image: Stalactites and stalagmites at Carlsbad Caverns (July 2016)

How to “Do well in class”

Students ask this question often, especially when they are taking a class in an unfamiliar subject, or when they have existing anxiety about the topic from previous experiences (of their own or from classmates).

It isn’t a bad question to ask! It shows that you are thinking about making a Plan for Success. In response, expect to hear 1st: some of the tried-and-true recommendations that you might already know, and 2nd: advice specific to that class/professor/subject.

Tried-and-True

  1. Have a growth mindset! Dedicate yourself to improvement and success, instead of reinforcing old prejudices about your skills. Positive thinking + Positive actions = Positive results.
  2. Take notes in class. Write down more than what is written on the slide instead of thinking that you can look back at the slides and remember everything the professor said.
  3. Come by office hours with your questions or set up a meeting with your professor. [See video below]
  4. Be engaged in class. Not everyone is outspoken, but you should all be willing to challenge your classmates’ comments, guess, or give your opinion when the professor opens the floor during class. You’ll remember more by being engaged with the material instead of passively listening.
  5. Do the review/practice exercises in the book. Think about them, and don’t just look up the answer online.

Science Focused

  1. Use your critical thinking skills! Many science courses are not about memorizing a lot of facts, even though you will be learning a lot of new terminology as well. The most challenging questions on exams will often require you to demonstrate that you can apply what you have learned.
  2. Find out how/why we know. Science is a process of understanding the world, so successful science students need to understand this methodology for inquiring about processes over the course of scientific investigations. Sometimes these answers will be the focus of more advanced courses than you are currently in, but asking the questions puts you in the right frame of mind.
  3. Make connections between old and new facts, as well as the processes linking them together. Few things occur in a vacuum, which means that interactions and changes are a normal part of our dynamic environment. Everything is connected!
  4. Be open-minded about new ideas. You don’t learn anything by refusing to consider facts that contradict your current beliefs & ideas about the world. Every single idea was new at one time.
  5. Understand the value of “I don’t know.” Why do we conduct experiments? Because we don’t know what results we will get. So why would you think that admitting you don’t know is a problem?

featured image: a giant bee in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, NM (July 2016)

Idiotic Intelligence

This year I’ve been part of a faculty Reading Round Table that is studying a book by digital education guru James Paul Gee – The Anti-education Era.

One epic quote in the preface grabbed my attention immediately, and I knew that this was going to be an interesting book.

After many years of studying people I have become intrigued, as have many others, by how a species named for its intelligence (Homo sapiens: wise or knowing man) can sometimes be so stupid. Depending on how you look at it, humans are either marvelously intelligent or amazingly stupid.
– Preface, pg I

Gee’s point here is about the ways in which people can use fabulously helpful information and incredibly sophisticated tools in ways that are ultimately destructive.

Knowledge in itself is neither good nor bad – it is the way in which we use our knowledge that is consequential.


featured image: The Rocky Mountains near Denver, CO (July 2016)

Exercise your mind – Criticise!

Use your mental muscles every time you consider a decision or read an article.

Impress your friends, professors, and supervisors with your ability to analyze a situation instead of simply reacting and/or following someone else’s directions.

Image not showing?
Go to the Source: National Geographic Press


featured image: Autumn in Georgia, Armstrong State University (Fall 2016)

The Professor

Biology Instructor: Brigette Brinton

I’ve always figured that I’d be part of academia, and it is no surprise to me that Armstrong State University is now my second post as a college-level instructor. The courses that I teach are primarily introductory biology and ecology, although I have also previously taught a course on environmental issues and would gladly do so again. My experience with the National Science Foundation’s K-12 Fellowship program placed me in a good position for teaching first-generation and non-science students, which has served me well at both Armstrong and at Savannah State University. I draw on my diverse interests to engage all of the varied types of students in these classes, encouraging them to connect to the process of scientific inquiry from their own perspectives.

Anyone is welcome in my office, pretty much any time.

Ratings & Feedback

Reality Check: College professors have many responsibilities, often teach several different classes during a single semester, and are working hard at doing a good job at all of these tasks. Students often are taking many courses and have other responsibilities as well, and we understand that. I always do my best to help students who are struggling, and accommodate busy non-traditional students as much as is feasible.

  • Positive thinking + Positive actions = Positive Results
  • I am willing to help, and typically offer some form of extra credit in every class. This does not mean that everyone in class deserves a passing grade. It means that you will get the grade that you earn.
  • Grading and assignments are often “tough,” requiring critical thinking and demonstration of comprehension – not simply rote memorization. Translation: Know how to “put the pieces together,” or you often will follow the wrong path when trying to answer questions.

I read student feedback (on websites and on Course Evaluations), and at try to understand why a student would have made a particular comment – even if I truly believe that their frustration is the result of overwork, false expectations, or simply lack of effort.

Some insightful positive and negative comments that I’ve received over the past 2 years.

“The course was great!! Professor Brinton taught me a lot and I enjoyed her style of teaching. She encouraged group communication which I found to be effective. She also assigned a group project on a topic we found interesting which helped me learn about the topic a lot. She was a great professor. I would take her again!”
-Diversity of Life

“Panel discussions and hot topics helped with real world information from current events tie into our lectures.”
-Diversity of Life

This class was great! Every assignment was clearly explained and very helping to learning the material. Class participation was required but for good reason. Professor Brinton was always available for questions or any other additional help. Extra credit always helps your grade. Assignment were always helpful for retaining information for tests.”
– Environmental Issues

“The lab activities were directly connected to the previous lecture, so the information was presented quite thoroughly.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“The daily “Kid Questions” helped me to think about how I would explain the content to a student.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“Nothing was unexpected the Professor laid everything out and that was what was to be on the test. It was up to you, of course, to study and retain the material taught.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“I understand that sometimes we have to work in large groups but I feel like having more than four people in a group was very difficult, especially when we had to come to an agreement on our experimental variable. It made the experiment less of a learning experience, though I still enjoyed it by the end.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“Prof.B. I personally believe was the best teacher out of all the ones who teach this course. I think the course is meant to be very challenging on the students which a lot of students have misunderstood and in turn blamed the teacher as a poor teacher. I always felt Prof.B. wanted to help the students succeed and put a lot of effort into her class.”
-Principles of Biology I

“A quiz every single class…”
-Principles of Biology I

“I had her for Bio Lab 1107, and she was awesome. She really cares about your success in the class. One thing I will say is she does grade hard. She gives guidelines, but sometimes that still isn’t enough. Just ask questions and participate in discussion, and you’ll be fine. Her practicals don’t require a lot of studying, just look over the material.”
-Principles of Biology I Laboratory

“Professor Brinton goes very fast and does not explain concepts as they are on the test. You must take notes on the powerpoint before class and take notes on what she says during class. She is very willing to meet with you and explain things during her office hours or after class. She also does not care if you interject during her lecture.”
-Principles of Biology I

“The practical was too specific. I studied a lot and did not feel like the questions were a fair comprehension of the knowledge, but rather very tedious. Other than that, I found the professor to be very accessible and helpful answering questions throughout the course.”
-Principles of Biology II Laboratory

“I took her for the BIO1103 Lab course. Biology isn’t my subject but she makes the labs interesting. The class isn’t super hard, but you have to put in the effort. Attendance is mandatory and buy the lab manual because you are going to need it. You work for your grade, but she is a great teacher for people aren’t science people.”
-Concepts of Biology


featured image: Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides, which is neither Spanish nor a moss – it is a bromeliad) and Oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis

Nature at Work

img_20170207_113825079

Small shrine to nature on my desk at work. Rock salt lamp, conifer cones, oak bark, sycamore seed heads, camellia petals, cedar branch, grass seed heads, unidentified seed cluster. Ceramic container with Brighid on it.