Monthly Archives: September 2014

Your life is not a scantron sheet

Last week I listened in on the online seminar by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the writers of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift. After reading Excellent sheep by William Deresiewicz, these books are a breath of sensibility. While Excellent Sheep is entertaining, it lacks the data driven conclusions Arum and Roksa are able to use. It was encouraging to hear, that academic rigor pays off in critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that are carried out to work life. But the lack of rigor in undergraduate education largely makes it a privilege of few. Educators are at the key positions to make academic rigor everyone’s right. The university as an institution should wholeheartedly support this.

From politicalcartoons.com

From politicalcartoons.com

Changes in assessment are one aspect we can change along with connecting education to life again. I don’t know how Scranton based systems would support this kind of rigor. I first encountered these mysterious coloring sheets as an exchange student and again when preparing to take the GRE. I did not learn anything from those exams unlike essay based exams I was used to.

Filling ones life like a Scantron sheet with shades of gray within strict lines is not an option anymore. Information is available to almost everyone with an internet connection. Possessing that same data inside ones head in pretty packages is nothing special or even useful. It is the creative application and the potential for going beyond what we already know, which are valuable. Changing the culture of institutions to favor rigor and offer more learners the privilege of understanding and thinking a better future, should be our priority in education.

from uakron.edu

from uakron.edu

Why do I want to teach?

crystals

When I thought about the reasons for teaching, learning, and working; I came to a surprising self discovery. All of my “whys” grows from my love for science. The attention to detail, diamond-like shapes of protein crystals (see above), the beauty of single molecules, and rhythm of biological processes. But the esthetics is not why I chose to stay with science. Despite a 6-year-long dry spell in publishable data and countless sleepless nights over failed experiments, it is the community of scientists and the impact scientific research can have on choices we make every day. Do I get the flu vaccine this year? Should I eat the yogurt with or with out active cultures? Should I go and see the doctor right now or wait and see?

The standard marketing speech to promote science courses and careers in science usually includes references to innovation and economy. Those are important reasons to support science in society. But for learners they are a tad impersonal. The justification to teach science in higher education, especially to learners leaning towards non-science majors, should be very personal. It should offer connections to their life right now. It is beyond me, why the connection has not been emphasized, as it was outlined by Alfred North Whitehead already in 1929…

My scientific life snap shots

My scientific life snap shots

I am training currently in the field of immunology. But my primary training is in biochemistry and protein biology. I have worked in structural biology to visualize proteins on atomic level. I have dabbled with virology. I prefer not to cage myself under a narrow field description. And any class I teach should not be caged that way either. That is why I have designed a class I would love to teach in the future. A class that combines biological sciences, journalism, and English. The class is called “Immunology and Society”. To put it extremely bluntly… Why learners should take this course and why this course was spawned in the first place, is to prevent anyone swallowing half truths and believing bull**** spouted at them.

So many choices today have huge impact on ourselves as well as on everyone surrounding us. There are several interest groups with their own agenda giving information and information from media sources can be confusing and contradictory. Understanding the connections between science and the choices, gives confidence in ones decisions. And confidence based on truth makes us brave. When we take fear out from learners, they can truly reach their potential in real life. I think this is what happened in Dr. Laude’s students, who were offered extra mentoring and support to help them fit into their university community, as reported in New York Times.

I want to free the learners from any major or society defined cages to make an impact of their own. Communicating learners discoveries in the “Immunology and Society” -class in the form of blogs, news letters, and tweets opens the connections learners have made to a larger audience. The lines between majors can be blurred even with simple tools like e-mail inquiries from learners to professors of majors not their own and video interviews made by students on the researchers on a campus or health care professionals in the area. To make this rewarding, a system for feedback is required and I am trying to figure out the best way to do that. The distribution of learners products via YouTube, blogs, and Twitter does lend itself for immediate feedback, given a public interest in the topics is strong enough.

(http://movinginsider.com/2012/08/19/funny-moving-photos-from-the-web/)

(http://movinginsider.com/2012/08/19/funny-moving-photos-from-the-web/)

Drawing yourself in a neat box as a human will hurt you. And letting other peoples ambitions to paint the walls of that box is just plain unhealthy. This concept was easy to understand in relation to choosing my style, my hobbies, and the people I connect with. With education the avoidance of boxes is still a struggle. When I chose to study biochemistry, I let the surrounding society affect me. The hype of bio business surged, and teachers and I agreed I was good at biology. So it was easy to follow the path.

Later the doubts kicked in. The bleak job market and increasing demands on academic researchers to finance their labs and function as secretaries and bank managers on top of research did a number on me. The re-evaluation of my why’s has been a long process. And it turned out my whys were just buried under stress. The idea of scientific community and impact it can have on choices society makes, were brewing as I experimented with dad’s crop samples and interviewed relatives for inheritable diseases study during high school.

Finding the personal why has guided me to graduate school and to connected courses. Making a difference by teaching in addition to research makes more of an impact for me, than either of them alone. The why of training scientists should not be only to boost a given country’s or person’s economy, or even make new innovations that lift the innovators to a pedestal for all to admire. This mindset can effectively separate scientists from surrounding society and further put different branches of science in their dreaded silos. Changing the way we dish out higher education can help prevent this.

 

Gamers have functioning online communities… Higher education should too!

The gamers’ natural habitat today is online. Games are played online, some games only exist there, and discussion groups are active. No wonder connected learning has taken an interest in gamers. My interest in gamers, online communities, and exposure to Starcraft as a spectator, led me to the report on Connected Learning in Starcraft II Community by Yong Ming Kow, Timothy Young, and Katie Salen Tekinbas published in April of 2014. This is an excellent read outlining the community advantages that I hope the higher education to adopt.

www.watchtheguild.com

The cast of the Guild with Felicia Day in front. www.watchtheguild.com

The culture of making content is strong in the gaming communities. For example Felicia Day’s Web series “The Guild” was created based on her own experiences with World of Warcraft (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), and published on-line. Higher education also should foster this crafting and remixing of content. It is already done especially in engineering (The Ware Lab at Virginia Tech for example). The spirit of making could improve overall experience of online classes and make them an excellent option also for students who have difficulties in staying interested in only reading materials and theoretical topics.

Starcraft II screen capture (joystiq.com)

Starcraft II screen capture (joystiq.com)

Starcraft II community is an excellent example of a great on-line presence. I agree with Timothy Young that it caters to a wide variety of gamers from n00b to professional, and does not leave the spectators cold either. There are subgroups and activities for everyone interested. The inclusive nature of the community makes it an excellent example for online education. The accessibility of internet can break down some of the barriers we still have between teachers or advanced students, and the people just starting their trek on higher education path.

Shaun Clark (Apollo) and Sean Plott (Day[9]) (www.teamliquid.net)

Sean Plott (aka. Day[9]) is a notable member of the North American Starcraft II community, a former pro-gamer, current commentator, game designer, and entrepreneur. His dedication to the community is inspirational for any educator. Producing You Tube videos weekly to dissect the game play of the professionals and offering advice to improve your game play, shows his commitment to the game and the community. And this reminds me always that even online communities consist of people, not computers.

HuskyStarcraft (shop.maker.tv)

HuskyStarcraft (shop.maker.tv)

djWHEAT (www.teamliquid.net)

djWHEAT (www.teamliquid.net)

Other notable people in the community include Marcus Graham (djWHEAT) and Mike Lamond (Husky Starcraft). Their willingness to share their life stories in JP McDaniel’s Real Talk underlines the openness of the whole community. Higher education already has these passionate and dedicated people. I think we just need them to show it more visibly to all students. And what would be a better platform for this than online presence?

Higher education in all fields should already be moving towards the culture of making and creating. Getting the educators to build online communities for learning will make higher education more personal to students of 21st century. We don’t necessarily have a detailed focus point like Starcraft II -game to build upon. Instead we aim to get better at life in general.