Considering Latin names and the -ologies through the lens of mindful teaching

As part of the undergraduate wildlife conservation curriculum, students are expected to take several different “-ologies” courses. These courses are focused on a specific group of organisms, covering key concepts in their biology and natural history as well as basic identification. Most of these classes are split into a lecture focused on biology and natural history and a lab section focused on species identification and field trips. Some of these courses, like dendrology and wildlife field biology, are required for all students, while others, like mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, and ichtyology, are part of a list that they must choose a specified number of courses from. Regardless of which classes they choose, the biggest complaint from students in these courses is almost always identical: Why the heck are they required to learn Latin names along with identification?

The more we talked about it, the more I started thinking that maybe we should drop the Latin names component of ID-based courses, or at least rethink the way we assess and grades students. Are we testing their ability to identify species, genera, families, etc., or just their ability to memorize Latin names and regurgitate them? On one hand, Latin names provide a useful common identifier for things that may have many different common names. They can help us look at the relatedness of different organisms. For example, species within the same genus are more related than species in different genera. And they can highlight unique traits that aid in identification or describe that organism’s natural history. For example, the Latin name for island fox  is Urocyon littoralis, which roughly translates to “coastal tailed dog”. Kinda neat, huh?

Fast forward to earlier today, while I was going through this week’s reading on mindful learning. Through the lens of mindful teaching, the Latin name debate seems to boil down to one question: does requiring students to learn Latin names encourage mindful or mindless learning? I think that the answer really depends on how you approach it, and on how you include Latin names in course assessments. If you include Latin name sin your curricula, why are you including them? Is it clear to the students? Are you framing the usefulness of Latin names, or presenting them as a mandatory memorization requirement without context? Are you encouraging students to think as they learn and ask questions about what these names mean? Are Latin name quizzes and tests a major component of course grades, or just one of many things being assessed?

So how does all this relate to finding my teaching voice? In considering the pros and cons of Latin name memorization  in  ‘ologies classes, I thought about the things that I want to encourage in my students. I want them to be engaged and excited. I want them to think critically and apply what they’re learning. I want to instill a sense of curiosity and help them learn the skills to find the answers they seek. To do this, I need to think critically about whether or not the assignments, assessments, and grading system in my class contribute to these end goals. As a teacher, I aim to let my students know both what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and be a part of the feedback loop to help keep things moving in that direction. As I continue to find my teaching voice, I hope to remember to listen to the voices of my students along the way.

Critical Pedagogy: Thoughts on alternative grading approaches

During this week’s class on critical pedagogy, we discussed several different grading approaches, and briefly touched on the pros and cons of them. Some of the approaches are ones that I was unfamiliar with, so I did some follow-up research to learn more.  For my blog post, I’d like to briefly summarize what I learned about these different approaches, share links to resources I found helpful, and offer my thoughts on how we as teachers can use them to improve our grading systems.

Traditional grading: Weighted percentages/points

In a traditional grading approach, the teacher will specify a series of assignments, tests, and quizzes, and assign weights to each of them in the form of percentages (i.e. tests are 50% of your final grade, quizzes are 25%, final grades are based on a weighted average) or points (i.e. each test is worth 200 points, each quiz is worth  25 points out of the total 1000 points possible for the semester). This is the approach that many students are most familiar with. It’s clear from the beginning what is expected, and students can keep track of how they’re doing using simple math.

Additive grading 

In an additive grading approach, students start the semester with a clean slate (in other words, zero points), and work to accumulate points towards their desired grade by completing tasks from a list of options. Different assignments may be worth more points based on the difficulty and effort involved. Teachers may specify criteria for selection (ex. at least one assignment from each category) or leave it entirely up to the students. One benefit of this approach is that it is based on rewards, so fear of failure is less of a barrier to student success. It’s also more flexible than a traditional approach, where all students are required to complete the same assignments. However, this approach may backfire by shifting student motivation away from learning and towards simply earning enough points to be done or reach their target grade.  This article offers a great summary of an additive grading approach and describes its similarity to video game rewards systems:

Subtractive grading

This approach is also described in the article linked above, and is pretty much the opposite of additive grading. Rather than a clean slate, students start with full points, then keep or lose those points based on their performance on assignments and tests. While the motivation to keep their A may be a positive motivation for some students, fear of losing their A can hinder performance for others. It seems to me like it could also lead to greater student dissatisfaction, since students who get lower grades may feel like something was taken from them unfairly. As a student, I have had teachers try this, and it stressed me out a lot. I felt like I had to aim for perfection to avoid ruining my grade.

Contract grading

In a contact grading approach, students are presented with the criteria to earn a certain grade, and assured that if they meet these criteria, they will get that grade. I found this topic a bit confusing, but found some great resources that helped clarify things. This article describes both contract grading and portfolio grading (our next topic), and grading in general from the viewpoint of a PhD student preparing to teach their first class:

I also found this great example of a grading contract created by Jennifer Hurley:

Contract grading seems like a great way to foster a sense of student agency and mutual respect while clearly laying out expectations, but I have some concerns. First, it seems like it could be really stressful not knowing until the very end of the class what grade you’re on track for. This could be mitigated by regular status updates for students throughout the semester. Second, depending on the criteria to earn higher letter grades, this approach could make it super difficult for students to earn an A. I don’t think that As should be the end goal of education, but for students who want/need to keep a high GPA, this could create a lot of stress.

For example, as an undergraduate, I was on an academic scholarship that required at least a 3.5 cumulative GPA. This effectively translated to at least an A- or B+ in all courses, or a combination of one or two lower grades and the rest As to balance out to at least a 3.5. After a semester of difficult classes, my GPA dropped below the 3.5. requirement, and I was told that if I didn’t bring it back up the next semester, I would lose the scholarship. For me, that meant losing my housing (the scholarship was tied to living in an Honors dorm) and financial ability to stay at the university. I managed to get back above a 3.5 and keep the scholarship, but that next semester was incredibly stressful, knowing that anything less than an A was too low. If I was in a class that used contract grading, I would have been even more stressed out, especially if the contract reserved As for exceptional performance only.

Portfolio grading

Portfolio grading encourages continuing student improvement by basing grades on final products, rather than intermediate products, although feedback is provided throughout the course. It may also allow students to select what they feel are their best works from a course to submit for grading. This approach seems more common in the humanities. This web page includes more information and links to articles discussing pros and cons:

Curve/Rank-based grading

In this approach, students are all compared based on their performance and assigned grades relative to each other, for example the top 10% of students get an A, the middle 50% get a C, the bottom 10% get an F, etc. I think that this is by far the worst approach. By pitting students against each other for the best grades, it fosters a hypercompetitive learning environment rather than a collaborative one. It can also be incredibly discouraging to students to know that no matter how hard they work and how well they do, their grade is heavily dependent on factors outside of their control.


While there are many different ways to grade, I think that no matter what approach is used, a good grading system is one that:

  1. Clearly specifies expectations
  2. Allows for flexibility and individual variation
  3. Encourages student learning and growth (rather than grade-grubbing)

I personally think that additive grading and contact grading are great ideas, and would like to include these in future courses. What  are your all’s thoughts?


My experiences with online and distance learning: The good, the bad, and the ugly

This seems like an especially well-timed blog topic, given that I missed last week’s class while traveling for a conference and am catching up via the class recording. (Note for Anurag: I also prefer to leave my shoelaces tied in between wearings. There are dozens of us!) I’ve had a few experiences with online and distance learning, and would like to share some of the highlights and lowlights in this blog post, and some general thoughts on online teaching.

The Good: This class and Preparing the Future Professoriate’s online recordings

Due to conferences and work-related travel, I have had to miss a few of the evening grad classes and catch up afterwards by watching the class recordings. Although this approach lacks the in-person interactions and ability to chime in on discussions that being in the class offers, I feel like I still got all of the material and information.  It helps that the class is already designed in a way that allows for easy online sharing and participation. Having an actual voice recording and video feed allows for a personalized feel, as opposed to just an online Powerpoint. It also helps that the instructors are dynamic and engaging, posing questions and working to get people engaged.

The Bad: Finishing up a traditional statistics class from afar

As part of my dissertation research, I have spent 5-7 months of the past 3 years living in Long Island, New York, conducting fieldwork and collecting data. This has been great for my research, but has made it a little tricky to fit in all of the classes that I need and want to take for my degree. During my first field season, I got permission from the instructor of an introductory statistics course to take the class in-person for the first half of the semester before I left, and finish it from afar while I was in New York. This entailed going through the posted slides and recorded lectures, and completing and emailing the homework assignments and tests within a specified time period to match up with the class schedule. I did great during the in-class portion, but as soon as I started field work, my performance in the class tanked. I was very busy with field work, and the class soon became an afterthought on my priority list. The professor would record lectures, but I found myself just flipping through the slides and only half-absorbing the materials. While the professor was always responsive to emails, I rarely took the initiative to ask for clarification when needed. I would cram-study before tests, then forget the information almost as quickly as I had learned it. Tests and homework were squeezed in between long nights out trapping foxes and long days conducting sign surveys and getting data downloads from our GPS collars. I passed the class, but ended up having to re-learn most of the material later on when working on analyses. Since then, I have learned not to attempt taking classes from afar during field season.

The Ugly: The Virginia Tech Math Emporium

During my freshman year of my undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, I had the joy of taking introductory calculus at the Math Emporium. This news articles summarizes the pros and cons of the “Empo” much better than I ever could:

Long story short, the Empo is a massive alternative learning system for introductory math classes. When I took the class, material was split into online modules with a short lesson and practice problems that could be completed online, and quizzes and tests were proctored in an off-campus computer testing center. It was a disaster. The online modules were tricky to navigate and often glitched, and the practice problems were way easier than what was on the quizzes and tests. The physical environment was miserable, with hundreds of computers set up in a large converted retail space. Interaction with an actual human being was limited to a handful of TAs that would roam the Empo and could be summoned to your work station using a red Solo cup placed on top of the computer. Despite having completed a high school class series that covered calculus, differential equations, multivariable algebra, and other more advanced topics, I struggled to earn a “B” at the end of the semester. Overall, it was a terrible learning experience, and the following semester, I was relieved that the other calculus class I needed for my degree was offered in-person.

Based on these experiences, if I ever end up teaching a class with a significant online or distance learning portion, I aim to:

  1. Record and share videos of the actual lectures (not just post the slides)
  2. Incorporate regular opportunities for student-teacher interaction, via chat room “office hours.” If there are students taking the class from afar, they would be required to check in each week via chat or email, to discourage repeating my poor approach to distance learning.
  3. Facilitate student interaction using collaborative technology, such as Google Docs, online discussion boards, etc.





Digital Pedagogy and Fieldwork

I was surprised to find “fieldwork” while scrolling through the list of terms in the MLA’s collection on digital pedagogy. As someone not very familiar with the humanities, I was curious to learn more about what humanities fieldwork entails, and how digital tools could be applied to something that is so deeply connected to the real-world, boots on the ground feeling that comes with getting out of the office and into the field. Coming from a wildlife conservation background, my idea of fieldwork involves remote places, unique habitats, and lots of looking for critters. Digital tools can facilitate the data collection and analysis process, but fieldwork is still primarily based in the non-digital world of paper datasheets and waterproof field notebooks.

In reading through the materials, I learned that humanities fieldwork, like wildlife fieldwork, often involves traveling to new places with unique significance, but it can also include traveling through time using archived materials, interviews, and other artifacts of history. Digital pedagogy in humanities fieldwork takes advantage of the wide array of digital tools available for storing and searching for materials, as well as compiling and sharing information. It can also use digital tools to bridge the gap between past and present, near and far, by creating an immersive experience accessible without any travel.

It seems like similar digital pedagogy approaches could be applied in wildlife conservation and other natural resource fields to encourage student reflection and interaction following field trips. For example, in lieu of asking students to turn in field notes after a class trip, we could ask them to write reflective blog entries or contribute to a class photo collection or social media thread, or pinboard and  discuss what they found most interesting and intriguing.  Another possible application could be a collaborative project to create an immersive, interactive web site about a place visited in class to share with the public and increase access to remote areas.

An example of digital pedagogy connected to fieldwork from my own educational experience comes from an undergraduate forest ecology class that I took several years ago. One of the key topics that we learned about in class was ecological succession, or the change in plant and animal communities over time. For one of my favorite assignments of the course, the professor provided a series of historical photos taken within about a 30 minute drive of campus, and asked us to revisit and photograph those same places and discuss how they had changed over time. Such a project would lend itself quite well to the creation of an informational article or web site to help share local history with a broader audience.





Moving forward

Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned about inclusive pedagogy and case-/project-/problem-based learning. As we move to another professor and another section of the class, it’s time to reflect and figure out how to use what we’ve learned so far.

For inclusive pedagogy, the biggest thing that has stood out to me is the idea of fixing the system, rather than fixing the student. As a teacher, when I see a student struggling, my first instinct is to reach out to them and see what I can do to help them work past whatever barriers they are facing. But as long as those barriers still exist, they (and others in the future) will still need help. In addition to helping individual students improve, we must also critically examine our teaching and the larger academic system, identify barriers to student success, and work to dismantle them. One way that I would like to do this in my own teaching is to ask students to fill out a short survey at the beginning of the semester, with questions about their experiences in other classes, including what obstacles they have encountered, what (if anything) helped them overcome and/or helped remove those obstacles, and whether there is anything specific that I can include in my teaching and class design to help them prevent these same things from becoming barriers in my class. I also plan to ask what they have found helpful in other classes for their own learning. At the end of the semester, I would like to have a similar follow-up survey focused on their experiences in my class and what they would recommend changing for the next time that course is offered.

For case-/problem-/project-based learning, I am really excited to take advantage of the resources offered by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, and to  use some of my own research experience to create useful case studies. During my time as a graduate student, I have collected lots of data and studied specific questions in great depth, and I imagine that I will continue to do so  if I stay in academia. Using actual data from my work seems like a great way to get students involved and excited, and make sure that these studies continue to make a difference long after the research is completed. For example, my dissertation research is on predator ecology and interactions with a threatened prey species in a highly human-altered ecosystem. This work is directly relevant to several different courses in the undergraduate curriculum, and could be used to create case studies on predator-prey interactions, population dynamics, endangered species management, and other key topics in wildlife conservation. For our PBL assignment, I am working to create a case study based on my dissertation research, and hope to use the finished product in an undergraduate guest lecture.

Overall, I think that the biggest barrier to implementing these ideas and others that I have scribbled in the margins of my class notes is my fear of going too far outside the teaching norm. It’s easy to write about how I’m going to design the most inclusive, interactive class ever, but the reality of planning and executing such a class is much more difficult, especially if you are a relatively new teacher trying to prove yourself to both your colleagues and your students. I want to go beyond the traditional Powerpoint lecture-based, passive learning approach, but there is comfort in knowing that I can hide behind clearly organized slides and the steady one-sided stream of information that many students are used to.  What if my case study is boring? What if my plans for a wider variety of assignment types to cater to different learning styles means that none of my students can learn effectively? What if nobody talks during class discussions? As I continue on my teaching journey, I aim to build the skills and confidence to take these chances and embrace the unknown.

My experiences with case-based and project-based learning

When I look back on all the classes that I have taken over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies, there are three that really stand out as having influenced my approach to education, learning, and teaching. All of these classes were on different topics, taught by different professors, and impacted me in different way, but they all encouraged active learning through case-based and/or project-based learning. In addition, they were all taught by professors who seemed to truly care about their students’ well-being, and made an effort to get to know us as people. In this blog, I’d like to briefly describe each of these classes and how they impacted me, both as a student and as teacher.

Class 1: Principles of Fisheries  and Wildlife Management

As an undergraduate Wildlife Science major at Virginia Tech, this was the first in-major class that I took. It is typically taken in the fall of sophomore year, and helps introduce fisheries and wildlife majors to key concepts in the field and provide a foundation for more advanced coursework. It is also open to non-majors, who can use it to fill elective requirements. As such, it’s one of the largest classes offered in our department. I would estimate that there were ~120 students when I took the class in 2009. It has grown to~150 students in recent years. It’s been taught by Dr. Karpanty for quite awhile, so I’ve had the privilege of being on both sides of the teaching strategies that she discussed during Monday’s class on case- and project-based learning.

This was also the first class that I remember taking where case- and project- based learning were heavily emphasized. Class time typically included a brief lecture, some kind of discussion on the out-of-class assignments or recent material, and lots of small group work on various cases or projects. This variety led to lots of built-in shifts between activities, which helped me stay way more engaged and attentive than a traditional hour-long Powerpoint lecture, and the small group work helped me feel way  more comfortable contributing to discussions that I would have otherwise just sat and listened to. This class helped me realize the value in variety, and showed me first-hand that learning is possible outside of the standard lecture. It also helped me learn how to make big classes feel smaller and more welcoming. On a more personal level, it introduced me to Dr. Karpanty, who has been an amazing mentor and role model for me, and is now one of my PhD advisors.

Class 2: Forest Ecology and Silvics

When I took this class, I expected it to be a boring lecture class with painfully long lab periods spent doing busy work . My expectations could not have been further from the truth. With only ~20 students, the professor was able to take project-based teaching to a new level. Lab time was spent collecting data and going on field trips, and class time was mainly spent learning how to analyze data and use it to make useful inferences about forest ecology. I can count on one hand the number of actual lectures that our professor gave. We didn’t have a single standard exam. Instead, our course grades were based on multi-week projects and/or simulated professional events that included student poster sessions, mock job interviews, and brief research talks. For the final exam, we were actually tasked with creating our own cumulative exams in small groups, then trading with other groups who would then take those exams together. In doing so, we were forced to review everything we had learned and identify key concepts, but with much less pressure than a regular final exam. As someone who struggled a lot with test anxiety in the past, I really appreciated this non-traditional approach to exams, and plan to implement it in my own teaching strategy.

Class 3: Wildlife Field Techniques

As the name would suggest, this class is all about learning the various field research techniques involved in wildlife conservation and management. It was split into a lecture portion in the early spring semester, and an intensive 10-day field portion at the end of the summer. I’ll admit that the lectures were a bit painful, with lots of back-to-back Powerpoints in order to cram a semester’s worth of information into 6 weeks of class. The field portion, though, was pretty much entirely hands-on. We learned how to safely capture and handle a wide variety of animals, navigate in the field, conduct habitat surveys, set up monitoring equipment, and more by doing all of those things under the guidance of our professor and several TAs. From this class, I gained a renewed appreciation for the value of hands-on experience in the learning process, and learned the basics of nearly all of the field research techniques that I have used in my post-graduate career. I enjoyed it so much that I came back as an undergraduate TA the following year, which provided me with my first teaching experience and cemented my love of teaching in a field setting.



Diversity and Inclusion in Wildlife Conservation

When you think of a wildlife biologist, what kind of person do you think of?

Going a step further, if I asked you to name a wildlife biologist, who would come to mind?

Many people would answer with one of the following three:

Image result for steve irwin

Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, a well-known zookeeper and nature documentary star.


Image result for jack hanna

Jack Hanna, former zoo director and a frequent guest on morning talk show animal features.


Goodall and baby chimp, Flint.

Or Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and anthropologist who revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees.

With their encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, fashionable khaki-on-khaki attire, and an animal in hand or close at hand, these three people embody everything that comes to mind when most people think of a wildlife biologist. They also fit the traditional demographics of wildlife scientists and managers in our country. The field of wildlife conservation in the United States has  traditionally been dominated by older white men. But as our country has become more diverse, so has our field. While the khaki-on-khaki dress code remains a staple among wildlife biologists (photographic evidence below, featuring yours truly), the faces of wildlife conservation are changing.

A few weeks ago, I was up at Mountain Lake Biological Station helping to teach small mammal trapping for a field course. It was a huge class, with well over 50 students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  I was amazed at how much more diverse the students of this class were compared to when I took the same course back in 2011. During one of the evening lectures, which was focused on how to be successful in field jobs, I mentioned the importance of being able to get along with people from a variety of backgrounds and identities. Later on, one of the students approached me while I was sitting at the bonfire, a little bit away from the rest of the group. He said that he was really glad that I had mentioned varying identities within the wildlife field, and that he felt like was having a hard time fitting in with the rest of the students.  I listened and reassured him that he belongs, and that he wasn’t the only one there who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. I also shared a little bit about my experiences feeling like I don’t belong in our field. We talked about how even though the field of wildlife conservation is becoming more diverse, change takes time, and it’s hard to feel like you belong when you’re the only person like you in a group.

As a teacher, I want my students to know that they belong, and that they are  all valuable members of our field. I can’t change their past experiences or their identities, but I can change and adapt my teaching to help make sure that they all feel welcome and included. I’m looking forward to learning strategies for more inclusive teaching, and hope that I can continue working towards a more inclusive field.



Image credits:

Steve Irwin:

Jack Hanna:

Jane Goodall:

Kat the Khaki Queen: Cropped from a photo taken by Lindsay Hermanns

PowerPoint: Useful teaching tool or lazy lecturing?

I recently came across an online article entitled “Let’s ban PowerPoint in lectures-it makes students more stupid and professors more boring.” (

The author, Bent Meier Sørensen, proposes that we should ban PowerPoint slides from lecture classes on the grounds that they are boring, they limit interaction between teachers and students during class, and they discourage students from thinking for themselves. Furthermore, by forcing teachers to cram complex concepts into sequential lists of bullet points, PowerPoint lectures give students the false sense that knowledge is the result of a predictable, straight-line process, rather than a series of ever-evolving, interconnected ideas.

Instead of filling class time with PowerPoint lectures, Sørensen encourages teachers to treat class as a more open-ended discussion, calling on students frequently and writing key points on a chalkboard. While this approach may seem archaic, some teachers take this approach even further, banning the use of laptops, tablets, and phones in class to prevent students from multitasking and surfing social media during lectures. (

Sørensen has some good points, but I believe that, like all things, PowerPoint can be a useful teaching tool when used wisely. It’s an efficient medium for sharing tables, figures, and pictures, and can also help students who are visual learners to absorb and retain material better than a lecture that is primarily spoken. Even in the Copenhagen Business School, where Sørensen teaches and PowerPoint lecture slides are banned in class, teachers will use the program to show relevant images, videos, and quotes.

What do you all think? Should PowerPoint be banned? Or is an effective teaching tool when used in moderation?

Future of the University

Our prompt this week was to write about one thing that we believe should change in higher education. I struggled for quite awhile to pick a topic. There are a lot of great ideas in higher education, but also a lot of issues. Some of them, like skyrocketing tuition and the abysmal salary:work ratio for many adjunct and instructor positions, are relatively obvious and straightforward to describe. Others, like the hypercompetitive academic job market and pervasive pressure on graduate students and faculty alike to shift work-life balance towards more work and less life,  are more complex and difficult to put into words.

It is one of these more nebulous topics that I would like to write about in this post: the general “weed-out” culture in many fields of study. It’s the idea that only the best of the best can or should succeed in a program. It’s the courses that seem intentionally designed to thin out the competition, and force students who don’t make the cut to either retake the class, likely prolonging their time to graduation and adding another semester’s tuition to their student debt, or switch majors. It’s the fact that it’s acceptable for professors to assign grades based on students’ relative rankings as opposed to the merit of their work, i.e. the top half of the class gets a passing grade, and the bottom half does not.

These  weed-out courses can be found in many fields, but seem especially common in STEM fields.  Instead of encouraging students to think creatively, ask questions, and work together to achieve a common goal, these types of classes encourage students to focus on grades instead of actual learning, and compete with one another for top ranks. This weed-out approach sends a message to students who might be struggling with a particular topic that they are just not good enough, and should probably give up,  instead of encouraging them to work through their difficulties.

It can also discourage students from taking class outside of their major and exploring new subjects, as Kara Sherrer describes in this article:

I’m not saying that all classes should be easy. Some topics are just plain difficult to understand. A key part of higher education is challenging ourselves to go beyond the basics, and this challenge is what eventually expands our thinking and understanding. I don’t think that professors should water down courses and shy away from tough topics. But I do think that they can change the way that they approach these topics and respond when not all students understand them. Instead of writing off these students as the x% who won’t get a passing grade, or just another engineering-turned-business major who couldn’t pass Physics 2, professors can acknowledge that the concepts are challenging, offer extra help to students who need it, and design their courses in a way that encourages understanding instead of frustration. When students come to them with questions, professors should offer patient guidance and encouragement, instead of responding with belittling comments and telling them to “just try harder.”

One of the most difficult classes I have ever taken was high school calculus. When it came time to choose which math course I would take, I was torn between two options. Having done well in Algebra 1 and 2, I had qualified for the International Baccalaureate (IB, our school’s equivalent of Advanced Placement) math track, and wasn’t sure whether I should take the lower level IB math course, which covered pre-calculus during junior year and moved into basic calculus senior year, or the higher level IB math course, which jumped straight into college level calculus junior year then moved on to linear and differential equations and multivariable calculus and a variety of other advanced topics senior year. I decided to take the higher level option, enticed by the promise of college credit. Within the first week, I was struggling. I had trouble grasping the material, and class seemed to move at lightning pace. The homework was time-intensive and frustrating, and the textbook was not much help. The teacher, Mr. Evans quickly noticed that I and a few other students were falling behind, and after the first test, several of us were on the verge of switching to the lower level IB math class or out of IB math altogether.  Mr. Evans reassured us that it’s a difficult subject, and encouraged us to not to give up yet. We went through the test answers as a class, and he patiently explained the answers and thought process in detail. He also started offering after-school help sessions for homework, studying, and any other math questions we might have, and made sure students felt welcome to ask for help. A few students did decide to switch out of the class, but everyone who stuck with it passed and returned for the senior year continuation of the 2-year class series.

For comparison, the second most difficult class I’ve ever taken was a 1-credit, identification-based lab. My undergraduate major, Wildlife Science, required several lab courses focused on memorizing the Latin names of a wide variety of species, and being able to identify them in the field or using preserved specimens. Each lab course was focused on a specific taxa, such as mammals, herps, plants, trees, etc., with an emphasis on local species. One of these labs is a notorious weed-out class in our department. It’s not uncommon for students to repeat the class in order to graduate. While the TAs were very friendly and helpful, the professor seemed to take pride in the fact that so many of us struggled to pass the class. Instead of selecting test specimens that highlighted the key traits that we had learned, he would often use abnormal specimens that were missing distinguishing features, to make quizzes more difficult. Students avoided asking him questions, because he had a way of answering them that made you feel belittled.

I remember him shaking his head as he graded my quiz questions and telling me “Don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll get one right.” A few weeks later, he took it upon himself to remind me how poorly I was doing (it actually wasn’t that bad, maybe a B- at the time), and suggested that perhaps I was not cut out for science. He suggested that maybe I should “switch to an easier major, like communications. ”  I mean no offense to communications folks, this is a direct quote from him.  He often suggested this to people he deemed unfit for science, which included a decent portion of the students. With a lot of extra studying and independent identification practice, I ended up passing the class, but my enthusiasm in the subject was severely dampened. Several of my classmates did not, and ended up having to repeat the class.

Both of these teachers were tasked with difficult subject matter, but took very different approaches to sharing it, resulting in very different class outcomes. As an aspiring educator, I hope to contribute to a shift towards the Mr. Evans approach to higher education, and away from the weed-out approach.




Academia and outreach

Over the last few weeks, the graduate student listserv for our department has shared calls for volunteers for a variety of upcoming outreach events. These opportunities include teaching first graders about local wildlife, creating engaging activities for elementary school students at a summer STEM camp, and helping organize a on-campus fishing tournament for local anglers. These recent emails, along with the Communicating Science workshop during our recent class meeting, have got me thinking about how public outreach fits into academia and research.

On one hand, outreach and academia appear to have opposing goals. Public outreach aims to share basic information about a topic with a varied audience, typically outside of your field and with a wide range of interest and experience levels. The main objectives are to get people excited about your work and connect with the community. Outreach events rarely result in scientific publications, but may generate local press coverage.

Within academia, we aim to gain in-depth understanding of specific topics. We share our findings with other experts in our fields through conferences and journal articles, which typically only reach a limited audience that is already interested in our work. Rather than broadcasting the basics, our collective objective is to further our understanding of complex processes and answer very detailed questions.

This dilemma is very similar to the culture clash between museums and universities that Jennifer Kingsley described in her 2016 article for the Journal of Museum Education (linked here).  This article, which I just read for a class that I’m taking on natural history collections and curations, actually inspired this blog post.

While some scientists believe that outreach is a crucial component of conducting and sharing meaningful work, others dismiss it as poor use of time that could be spent focusing on research, writing, etc. The use of social media for science outreach is particularly divisive, as evidenced by a recent Science article entitled “Why I don’t use Instagram for Science Outreach,” by Meghan Wright (, and the resulting online response.

Given these opposing goals, why do we engage in outreach? For some scientists, outreach is closely tied to financial support their work, and is necessary to reach potential donors. For others, outreach is mandatory. Our department, for example, requires PhD students to give at least one non-technical presentation or write at least one non-technical article during their time at Virginia Tech. Some scientists, myself included, really enjoy outreach, and value the opportunities to connect with others over shared interests.

One major reason that we engage in outreach is that it’s necessary, if we want our work to reach beyond the “ivory tower.” Outreach is often emphasized as the most effective way to make your work “matter” outside of the academic realm. As the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech points out, “public engagement is the key to solving wicked problems” (

Effective public engagement takes time and practice. It can be difficult, but also very rewarding. As I type this, I’m getting excited to take my pet tortoise to visit a local kindergarten classroom in a few weeks. I’m a little nervous about planning a short talk about turtles that will be understandable and interesting to kindergartners. However, these concerns are outweighed by the desire to help foster a sense of natural appreciation in the next generation. Here’s a picture of Sheldon, getting pumped and excited to go to kindergarten:

What do you all think? Does outreach get enough credit and recognition within academia? Is it an exciting opportunity, a necessary evil, or just a small part of academia that’s being way over-analyzed? Comment and share your thoughts below!