AAC&U meeting in San Diego

I’m inaugurating my blog with a rundown of my whirlwind trip down to the American Association of Colleges and University’s “Transforming STEM Education” meeting. Of course, between Halloween and my Departmental faculty search, I was stuck catching the 8pm train from Camarillo to San Diego. So, after arriving in the Gaslamp district at 2am, and stumbling to my hotel for 4 hours of sleep, I was up again and ready for my talk.

It was entitled “Radical Revisioning of the Classroom and Laboratory”, and the challenge was how to pare down a 45 minute seminar into the 15 minute TED-style talk they were looking for. As I prepared for this talk (reviewing the Active Learning, POGIL, fill-in-the-buzzword literature), I found myself thinking that “radical” is the wrong word for my approach to teaching biochemistry. Far from being unique, the educational literature is littered with thousands of articles on “my” methods. They range from reviews and meta-analyses to simple lab activity descriptions. They span decades, too, with active learning making its debut in the Journal of Chemical Education way back in 1980! So, philosophically and mechanically at least, all the ideas and tools are in place for the transformation.

But my own methods were not what I was promoting as radical, anyway. In the end, “radical” was stating that the nonstop proclamations of the need to transform education in the sciences are in discord with what’s actually happening in classrooms. The abundance of nice studies of student learning and student success suggests that this stuff is well and truly out there. I posited that every teacher in the room was already using them to one extent or another. So what needs to be transformed, if not the individual teacher’s practice? In the end, regardless of the existence of all the right methods, what prevents their invasion into all classrooms everywhere are probably administrative structures. My hunch is that faculty evaluation and retention structures are at least partly to blame. Lecturers and adjuncts are most vulnerable to this pressure, but surely tenure track faculty feel their methods are similarly constrained.As long as these structures don’t reward (or even punish) deviation from standard content/lecture/text constraints, then transformation ain’t coming. No matter how many POGILs get published in J. Chem. Ed., folks will continue to teach in the safest way possible.

Anyway, back to the talk. I shared the platform with Mark Lee (Chair of Biology at Spelman, and Scott Auerbach (Professor of Chemistry at Amherst). There were probably 50 people there, much to my surprise, as these talks were almost the very last thing on the conference agenda. I started things off with a rant, which those of you that know me probably expected:

“Hey NIH/NSF/HHMI! Stop telling me to transform my teaching! I was raised in an alternative teaching environment! It’s in my DNA, and I’ve always taught that way, regardless of your priorities!”

But I settled down (ok, I never settled down) to a description of how my biochemistry course looks:

  • no textbook required (NLM’s online textbooks, library reserve, Amazon, and Scoop.it web aggregators)
  • ‘flipped’ with my lectures on YouTube
  • 15 research articles
  • a set of 7 500-word critical analysis essays, revised as many times as the students want, based on those research articles
  • a series of carefully engineered classroom engagement activities designed to build student-construction and manipulation of knowledge
  • two molecular graphics project/presentations in which student develop hypotheses to test in the wet-lab

Of course, there’s no way to do this right in 15 minutes, especially when peppering liberally with data from my tests and surveys. But I did my best, and got a couple of good questions. In the end, I managed to have several really nice conversations with new friends, even though I was only at the meeting for a couple of hours.

I should say, what I’m trying to do is get my own work and message out there; my tendency is to treat my work (instructional or otherwise) as my own little projects… on some level this satisfies the tinkerer within me, but I guess in the end I’m like anyone else, and want my work be noticed, and am frustrated when I’m overlooked! Thus the blog!

Looking ahead, I’m drinking coffee while I wait for the 4pm train back home. I’ll soon turn to all the essays I have to score (see bullet 4, multiplied by 20 students!). Not sure where the blog will go from here, but I do know that I’m leaving Monday night on a redeye to Costa Rica; I imagine my next post will have to do with that sabbatical reconnoitering trip.

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4 responses to “AAC&U meeting in San Diego

  1. Great to see the blog, Blake. Some thoughts. I think you’re right about how RTP (or for lecturers the threat of course evaluations) increases the consequences for risk taking and innovation in teaching. Too often, one rough course (even though one learns and improves) can “go down in your permanent record” (as the Violent Femmes whined). And related to this is students themselves. They’ve been trained in a certain way, and they often don’t like change. They can be mighty resistant. But you know all this. And I can’t resist a little dig about the 20 students–those are luxury numbers for a lot of faculty. As we both know, the efficient processing of our customers/product drives our industry more than we’d like.

    • Thanks, Brad. Yep, those are two other really important issues. Hopefully, I can screed about them at some point in the future… but as I wait for the airport shuttle, I’ll give two cents. First, student discomfort: learning shouldn’t be comfortable! Transformation comes at a price! Are we serious about it? Second, class size. I submit that the STEM transformation advocated by the powers (this time around it’s NSF, NIH, and the HHMI, in the form of their Vision and Change Report, ) is incompatible with big classes… unless each big class is taught by a large number of teachers. So, I guess if Education is to be moved, then we have to look at whether students’ expectations and institutions’ high-througput organizing principles ought to be the first things up against the wall when the revolution comes…. sorry, I’m a Douglas Adams fan. In any case, the two problems you mention are added challenges in the process of teaching according to my own lights.

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