News & Updates

Week 15-16: The end

Well, we made it to the end of the semester. As I mentioned at the beginning, I thought teaching this class this second time around would be easier, little did I know I would be doing it in a pandemic with most of it being remote. I think there are some aspects that worked okay remotely and I think there are some things that benefit from in person instruction. I am impressed with what the students were able to accomplish this semester, conducting research from home. After summarizing what we did the last two weeks, I’ll highlight my impressions of pros and cons from the semester. I’m also going to be posting sample slides from the students final presentations to highlight what they did this semester in another post/on Twitter.

Week 15 was our last full week of class. I did not have much planned this week except for one on one meetings. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there has been a lot of disparity in where students were with their research, so the individual meetings were a chance for me to try and get everyone on the same page. On Monday, we all met briefly then had individual meetings. Most of the meetings were dedicated to finalizing results. At this points students had their data files together so we could continue to work in R to get some results. Assignments due were a data upload to our OneDrive, something I hadn’t done before, but wanted to highlight data transparency, a progress report on Monday and their final VoiceThread presentations on Friday. That Friday our Department held the annual research symposium, virtually. Normally I have students present, this year it was an option, with one student opting in. On Wed. I held optional one-on-one meetings, no formal class time. this allowed students who were behind to catch up, while allowing students who were ahead not to have to worry about coming to class. Week 16 we only had our Monday class as finals stated on Tuesday. We all met and reflected on the class, then I had final individual meetings. Their final papers are due this coming Friday. And that’s it.

So, how did it go. Let’s start with the pros of the class. First,  I am really impressed with what the students accomplished this semester, as I was the first time I taught the class. They all did great. I emphasized to them that they ALL have research experience now. We went from nothing, to full project ideas, data collected, and results. Many of the students are in our Animal Behavior program that requires an internship. Most of those internships were (or are) cancelled, so this was a great opportunity for them to gain some experience. The advances in high-speed filming on everyday devices definitely made this class possible remotely. While I was worried about some students not having the capability and was prepared to offer solutions, they all did and used the technology. Without that, this would not have worked. Students again got to research something that interested them specifically, which is always a HUGE benefit. Many students took advantage of their surroundings, one student who was home at the Jersey Shore, researched sand crabs and was amazed at what they learned about creatures they have seen their entire life (like moving backwards). Others took inspiration from the insects around their porch lights or nearby woods. Those that came in (only 3-4 for a few weeks this semester) got over their “fear” of insects and mentioned that this class opened up a whole new area of research to them after working on katydids. So, the core goal of the class, for the students to get research experience, was still there. Lastly, drawing inspiration from our Zoom meetings and others to hold Scientist Spotlights with amazing researchers from around the country remains a highlight. And I know the students really enjoyed having other researchers join us. Again, thank you to those that came.

Cons of this semester, aside from the normal malaise associated with Zoom. There may be more, but it is from my perspective teaching it so I’ll summarize my main thoughts. First, it was still challenging to teach, mainly because of the remote content, disparity in student’s progress, and not being able to directly interact with students. By the end I realized that I was managing 9 (several students dropped) independent research projects that were not part of my lab’s research. This was a lot. But, if I ever have to do it again, I will go in planning for this. I did not force students to work in groups, and none decided to, so they all worked individually. I think this is a con. Students often benefit from their interactions and brainstorming. I think some of the disparity in progress was due to this. If I had to do it again, I’m not sure if I would force group work or not. It did make it easier as there was no peer evaluation, which I still haven’t quite figured out how to fix. While students did amazing on their own, it is better when we are together, especially for brainstorming project ideas and getting animals to cooperate. While they all got videos, none got the sample sizes we had in the first iteration. I think many spent more time refining their project and were switching up late into the semester. Being in person, we can move ideas and troubleshoot filming setups more easily. Lastly, analyses and R. I had trouble instructing students in R the first time around, but it happened at the beginning of the course to get kinematics using some code I have for the course. This time, we had trouble at the end with analyses. As I mentioned in previous posts, I had multiple sessions to work through analyses, and still wound up doing most of it with them in personal meetings. Still not sure how to get around this.

So, this is the end. Hopefully next time I teach the class we’ll be back to in person (and in a new science building as we are preparing to move into it now!). Again, the students amazed me and they did great given their constraints. I wouldn’t recommend doing a course like this remotely, but with this specific topic of quantifying animal movement with high-speed cameras, it did work remotely thanks to advances in technology. I did have a few researchers offer their high-speed videos to analyze (thank you for the offers), but students really wanted to collect the videos themselves. I’m just waiting for them to submit their final papers, but this was an interesting semester. At least I’m on sabbatical in the Spring. Good luck to the rest of you!

Week 11-14 recap: Steady as she goes…

The course has shifted gears and is moving along this semester. Week 11 saw our first rounds of progress reports. This is something new I’m doing this semester, but has been incredibly helpful given the fact that we are all remote at this point. For the progress report, students submit answers to questions (see course materials) based on where they are with data collection, are they having any troubles, where they are with the next major assignment due, and if they have a question for me. They then sign up for a 15 minute meeting with me to discuss their progress. I planned to do these this semester to ensure students working from home were keeping up with their projects. They have been very beneficial. I get one-on-one time with each students (since there are no groups), I hear how things are going, and its time for us to discuss their projects and troubleshoot any problems. So, instead of all of us meeting for the full time during our longer Monday class period, I break that up into 15 minute individual meetings, providing the students with more time to work on their projects. We will be doing these every Monday until the end of the semester. On Monday I was going to go over data analysis and visualization in R, but there was some confusion whether there was class because it was our first progress reports, so I pushed that to week 12. On Wed. of Week 11 we had our last round of students presenting an article from the primary literature.

Week 12 started off with a lecture and virtual workshop on data analysis and visualization in R. I always struggle with the best way to approach this for our students. I started with a powerpoint and some code, that worked okay. Then we all went into R and worked through the examples together with some sample datasets. We didn’t finish, so we planned to continue. After an hour of working in R, we shifted to our progress report meetings. Again, these are really helping me understand where the students are. At this point, most students have collected all their videos. Some were finishing up collecting a few more, luckily we had some warm weather to assist us. Through these progress reports I have really started to see some disparity among the students in where they are with their projects. So I think it is good to meet individually, so I can help move them along and provide goals for our next progress report. The individual work has been a downside to our remote learning this semester. The benefits of students working in groups on these projects has become more evident in these individual meetings. Instead of students trading off responsibilities (some digitize, some analyze) each student is responsible for all of it. They also don’t have anyone to help troubleshoot. On Wed. students had their Annotated Bibliographies due. This was a new assignment I added after talking to some others at SICB a few years ago, and is an assignment I will keep in. During the first iteration, students only found a paper or two, having the annotated bibliography ensured they were looking into the literature more. I will post a rubric for this on the course material page. Wed. class time was devoted to how to write a scientific paper as they had paper drafts due the coming week. As I’ve mentioned, this semester I’m trying to provide more lectures focused on research skills, since we are virtual and limited.

Week 13 saw a similar format to Week 12. At this point in the course, I was trying to get students to finish data collection (digitize video and analyze them in R) so we could all work on analyses in R together. We spent more time on Monday going through analyses in R, then we had our individual progress reports. These seemed more beneficial at this point than actual class material. Wed. saw more working through R. I realized some of the example data I used wasn’t the best. I have also realized it works better with specific examples from the class, so I used one of the student’s data as an example. However, the best thing has been meeting independently. It is a lot though, as I am managing 9 projects this semester instead of 4. I’m not sure the best way to approach analyses in R in future iterations. I think when they are in groups it helps as one student might get it more and move the group along. But, it has been a lot of repeating myself over and over. We also had our paper draft due that Wed., with the intent that I would get them comments back before the Thanksgiving break so they could work on them. I did not have this assignment the first time around and some suggested adding it. I think it was helpful to produce a better final paper, but the disparity in the class really came through on this assignment. Some had complete first drafts, several pages long; others had very, very rough outlines barely a page long. The final paper is 10-15 pages (scaled down from the normal 15-20 to accommodate the lack of group work). It was a bit frustrating to see this disparity. I was trying to get them to start on their final papers early and not wait to the last minute, but it didn’t work for some. I’m not sure how to correct that and maybe some students will always wait until the last minute.

Week 14 was short, we only had class on Monday so I devoted all the time to individual meetings as I had realized they would be better for analyses. Nothing major was due as there was no class on Wed. I also took the time to talk about their paper drafts, which I uploaded to shared OneDrive folders with comments. After Thanksgiving students have to upload their data, as data integrity has become an important topic in research these days.

Semester is almost over. It has been interesting. New stresses for the students and I. But, I’m still impressed with what they are accomplishing at home in a pandemic. The disparity among students is bit concerning and something I think the pandemic is making worse. I know that if we were in class, some of the ones that are struggling more could get more attention and help reduce that disparity. Some are ahead, some are where I think they should be based on the timeline I showed to them earlier, some are behind.

A long overdue update, but things are steadily moving along.

Week 9-10 Recap: Moving right along…

At this point in the course, students are suppose to have the basic content of the course under their belt and their projects firmly established. despite us being mostly remote, for the most part we are where we should be. We have learned a lot from our scientists that joined us. We all have experience filming. We have worked through filming setups, animals not doing what we want, and the students have projects they are working. It is pretty impressive what the students are doing this semester at home with their iPhones, some basic supplies, and invertebrates. I’m planning on sharing at the end of the semester what they have all been doing. The focus of the course shifts at this point from scaffolding to student-driven inquiry. My role is to be a mentor to them as they conduct research, it’s a bit tougher remotely, but it is working. The projects this semester may not be publishable, may not have the sample sizes, or be ideal, but again, I’m impressed with what the students are accomplishing.

Week 9 had us focusing on collecting videos and starting to digitize. There was an assignment at the start of week 9 where students had to submit an example video, the digitized point, and the resulting performance/kinematics. Aside from some glitches in Tracker that we figured out, the videos, tracked points and resulting performances look good. This is one of the checkpoints I have in the class to ensure we can get the data we hope to, which has become more important working remotely. On Monday, I gave a short lecture on presentation skills using some slides from Amy Cheu. Thank you Amy for posting those, as I am not artistic and her presentation is really helpful. This short presentation was in preparation for the students presenting during the rest of the semester. Wed. of  Week 9  saw our first set of live, virtual student presentations where they summarized a paper from the primary literature. These went well given the virtual environment.

Week 10 started with a small lecture on what an annotated bibliography is as that will be our next large assignment. There was a Research Proposal VoiceThread presentation due at the start of class Monday. This is one thing I changed due to the nature of the class. Normally there are only 4 or so presentations as students are working in groups. Since everyone is working independently, we would have 10 presentations. Instead of doing it synchronously, having more Zoom time, I turned it into a VoiceThread assignment. Students uploaded their presentations to VoiceThread and commented over their slides for their presentation. This worked well, aside from some formatting issues with VoiceThread. They can do the presentations at their own pace without having to sit online more. Students continued to collect videos and worked on projects, at home for most. The students coming in continued to collect videos of their animals. Wed. saw our second set of student presentations, summarizing articles from the primary literature.

A fairly uneventful two weeks, which is perfectly fine. The class is building up to larger projects, so I want to make sure they have the time (in class or at home) to complete those. As most students are finishing up data collection, we’ll turn our focus to data presentation and analysis.


Week 7-8 Recap: Ch, ch, changes…

Katydid jumping. Video collected in class Fall 2020 at 2000 Hz using an Edgertronic SC1 high-speed camera.

Well, we made it to half way through. One of the biggest differences I have seen this semester as most students are remote is that my stress levels at this point about student success with projects is still pretty high. During the first iteration, at this point when we had animals collected, sample videos taken, and I can see projects were “working” as we were in person, this is not true during remote learning. The disparity among students with where they are with their projects is much higher. Some students are moving along at home, collecting data; others are having more trouble. This again, stems from the fact that I am not there with them to troubleshoot filming setups and animal behavior. So, I am still concerned about the success of student projects. Especially now, given the changing season. I have implemented some changes to the class to try and reflect that most students are working from home. The three that are coming in are working fairly normally, compared to the previous iteration. But another thing I have noticed is the lack of discussion among students as all are working alone. Even the ones coming in are working on their own projects to make the class more equitable since those at home are working alone. I’ve also noticed the lack of group work affects the projects. Students really do seem to benefit from group work in this class, to help with troubleshooting, coming up with ideas, and general project discussions.

During week 7 we had our fifth scientist spotlight with Dr. Mary Salcedo from Virginia Tech University, who talked to us about insect wings and flight. She also offered some great perspectives on her journey into research. During lab it was more time for students to work on projects, whether in class or at home. Students had to submit their 3rd project revision by Monday, with the hopes that they would be finalized at this point. Most were, but we are actually still revising project ideas. On Wednesday we had our 1 and only midterm. It was all short answer/essay and open notes. I had the exam available for 24hours and students had 2 hours to take it within that window. Online exams are difficult in general during remote teaching, this one was fine.

Week 8 started off with a formal research proposal abstract. Students had to take what they’ve been working on and turn it into a formal abstract. Again, the several rounds of project revisions is to ensure that I can interact with them to help revise their ideas into a doable project. Most of the time on Monday was for lab work. Those that came in continued to go out and collect in the Glen (trying to increase sample size of katydids) and started collecting videos for analysis. On Wed. we had our sixth and last Scientist Spotlight with Dr. Sebastian Echeverri, who talked to us about vision and communication in jumping spiders. I have mentioned it before, but it is worth emphasizing that these Scientist Spotlights have been the highlight of the semester for me. It took advantage of the fact most of us are remote, I got to highlight the amazing work of some great researchers at all different career stages, we got to hear from researchers from Virginia to California, which we would not be able to bring, and students in the class really got to hear so many perspectives on how people got into science and research. A huge thank you to all our Scientist Spotlights!

So, where have I changed things with the class? Well, the peer evaluation for group work is out the window for this semester. This is kind of good as it didn’t really work last time, and I want to revise it the next time I teach the class. All the assignments will be scaled up so they are the same points. I got rid of the movie trailer abstracts, as I feel it will just be busy work for students that are already too busy. This is unfortunate as I really enjoyed them last time, but with students working at home and by themselves, it’s not the same. Instead, I now have them uploading their data (videos, tracked points, master data files) so I can see what they did all semester. This also helps with research integrity, which is an important issue in the sciences right now. I will likely have a small lecture on some recent events related to this. The final presentation, which was a poster last time at our department Fall poster symposium, will be a VoiceThread presentation, with the option of including it in the department Fall symposium. I’ve also been trying to spend more formal time on teaching them about the process of science. On Week 8 we discussed experimental design, sample sizes, randomization, and master data file. Coming up next week we’ll talk about effective presentations using great slides by Amy Cheu.

Half way through and we’re still moving along. Instead of having only 4 group projects to worry about, I have 10 individual projects, 7 of which are remote, to troubleshoot. For example, I was reminded this week that I need to make sure all students adjust the R code we initially used so the timings match their frame rates. In the first iteration, this wasn’t as much of a problem, since we were all in the room together and I could see what they were working on and ask how it was going. These finer details seem to be glossed over. But, we are working through it. Our video of the week this week will be one of the student videos so keep an eye out for that.

Week 5-6 recap: Perseverance

The class is continuing in its mostly remote format. I am learning there are new challenges trying to instruct students on research remotely that I did not necessarily anticipate. The scaffolding of the course continued, with us learning about jumping, climbing and clinging in lecture during Week 5. On Monday we had a Scientist Spotlight with Ms. Elizabeth Mendoza, a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. We read her recent paper in Functional Ecology, and she talked about her journey as a scientist and her current work. I’ll keep saying it, but these scientist spotlights are the highlight of the week for me, and I think they are really inspirational for the students. I have students turn in a Reflection after the Spotlight, and many have commented how they are amazed that most researchers really didn’t know what they wanted to do as an undergrad. I think the students can really identify with that and gives them hope when they are still not sure. It’s also been great to hear from other researchers how animal’s don’t always want to cooperate and the struggles that we may encounter. However, with patience and perseverance great science can come out of it.

Week 5 had us submit our initial hypotheses we hope to test this semester. I did this assignment previously, and while it is difficult to discuss in class together we did talk about it virtually and I used the discussion board for them to submit their hypotheses. Week 5 also had their paper summaries due. This is a small assignment designed to make sure students know how to find scientific articles related to their research. I did this assignment earlier last time, but think it worked better during the same week as the initial hypothesis, as most students had a paper related to their proposed research.

Three students have been coming in regularly to work and its the same 3, which is good. We went out to the Glen Arboretum on campus, caught some insects and practiced filming.

Week 6 saw us continuing on. Students submitted a revision of their project idea for Monday. We had another Scientist Spotlight with Ms. Ophelia Bolmin who talked to use about her journey in science and click beetles. Those that came in continued to collect from the Glen and practice filming to refine their project ideas. Those at home were doing the same. I sent out more kits to students to be able to work from home, which seem to be coming in handy. On Wednesday of Week 6 we had our last formal lecture, learning about flight in animals.

Teaching this CURE this semester has been interesting. The first iteration I was stressed about the success of the students because I didn’t know if we could collect, film and analyze data. This time around I’m still concerned about student success, but it’s a bit different. I’m still stressed whether they can capture and film animals to collect data. It’s also really difficult trying to instruct students in research when I am not in the room with them. I can’t directly see what they are trying to do, I can see what the animals are doing either so it’s hard to offer advice. I learned I needed a third revision of their project idea, really to see how they were trying to capture the animal’s movement. This has been useful, but it is much easier when I am in the classroom with them. I’ve also spent time revising the second half of the course. While the first half is scaffolding, the second is suppose to be in class time to conduct research. However, most are doing it from home. So I’ve been modifying assignments, which I’ll update later, to reflect this and ensure students are collecting data.

Up next week, another scientist spotlight, our only midterm and final revisions of project ideas. Although it has been challenging so far, I have been impressed with what the students are coming up with, their questions, videos they’re getting at home, and their motivation to succeed.

Week 3-4 recap: The way we move…

Well, we’re moving along. A quarter of the way done. Week 3 was fairly uneventful as we had Labor Day on Monday and no class. Wednesday’s class focused on muscle physiology and energetics. The last time I taught the class, this was a long lecture to get through as students varied in how much muscle physiology they had in previous courses. This year, since we’re mostly remote anyway, I decided to pre-record part of the lecture, focused on sliding filament theory of contraction. I had two portions ~20 minutes each I prerecorded. This way, students familiar with the material could review it quickly. Those unfamiliar with it could spend more time with it. In class, we picked up where the pre-recorded material left off and focused on how muscles vary in their force production, from the cellular level up to whole-muscles. Only one small assignment due for the week, since there was no class on Monday, focused on students submitted two observations from nature on factors that might affect animal movement. Some examples included temperature, predation, and wind. One student had a great video of a dragonfly hovering over his car in the wind.

Week 4 was a full week, meaning we had class on Monday and Wed. On Monday 3 students came in for face-face activities. Note that anyone still planning to come to campus has to get another Covid test, which is good. Students had an assignment to use some R code to get some basic kinematics/performance data from their digitized point they submitted previously. I have learned from the first time, that this is one of the biggest hurdles. Some students have experiences with R, some do not. Some have Mac, some PC. So, my plan was a live tutorial and trouble-shooting segment. Which seemed to work well. After our live session, students on campus went to the Glen to see what they could collect and film. We brought back some sharp shooters, crickets, a moth, and a damselfly. Students then practiced using the cameras to get videos of animals moving.

Wednesday’s class had a lecture focused on terrestrial locomotion followed by our second Scientist Spotlight with Dr. Ryan St. Pierre, a mechanical engineer from Carnegie Mellon University working on micro-robots. Before class I had virtual office hours, where several students and I did some more troubleshooting in R, but got most of it working. Lecture was not one of my best, as I rushed it. Being virtual doesn’t help as it is hard to gauge how much students are understanding. Having the Spotlight at 4 meant I kept my eye on the time, trying to cover everything (I know, rookie mistake). And, I extended the invite to the Spotlight to our Introduction to Research Methods students as well as some others, who started popping in to the waiting room way too early, distracting me. Luckily I remembered to pause between material and a student asked to review. The Scientist Spotlight was great, these are becoming some of my favorite activities this semester. We had about 50 students join us and learned how Dr. St. Pierre draws inspiration from insect locomotion to make micro robots. We do not have an engineering program here, so I think it was great for students to see this side of applied Biology. They also had some great questions. A definite pro of the week.

Some cons of the week. It is difficult this semester being remote/hybrid, who knows. I am concerned for some students that aren’t keeping up or getting lost, as it is hard to talk to them in class and check on them. It is a choose your own adventure. Some are doing most of it asynchronous, a few come in for face-face, most are synchronous and virtual. Not easy to manage. I’ve been sending emails out, but its different than being in person. Students are anxious about the final paper, I’m nervous about projects. I think this can work remotely, but I’m not sure. they have to submit initial project ideas next week, which is when we’ll reassess. I’ve also added a new hat to wear, postal service, as I am shipping out supplies to students working from home. Included in the kits are an insect net, butterfly cage with viewing window, plastic cage, ruler, and grid paper. The “basics” to film animals. ULA Karlina made some videos on how to make DIY tripods so they can film at home. So, we’ll see if this works.

Up next week, our third Scientist Spotlight, learning about jumping, and trying to get an idea of projects.

Week 1-2 recap: I heard you missed us, we’re back?

Whew. That felt like an entire semester. And we’re only 2 weeks done. Let’s recap teaching this research based course in a pandemic.

Remember, the University was allowing and pushing for some face-face classes. We were one. A hybrid.

Week 1 started off with an email to the faculty and students the Saturday before, that classes the first week would be remote due to a high number of positive Covid-19 tests. Every one returning had to take a test or provide results of one. So, already had to pivot for the first week. The only thing the students would really miss was an in class experiences working with high-speed cameras that weren’t their phones. In the back of my mind, I knew this is it for the semester. The first day was introductions and organizing. Monday is designed as a long class period for in class time to do research, instead after about an hour and a half, I let them go to work on small assignments at home. The first assignment is getting a high-speed video of something. I normally do this in class the first few weeks to get them use to using the equipment, instead they learned to use their phones. Students submitted videos to a VoiceThread and turned in great examples (highlight of my week). Spray aerosols, lighters, sandcrab flipping, pets, their eye blinking, partners drumming, ink in water. So, even though they weren’t learning to use high end cameras in class, they were learning how to use their devices.

Wednesday’s class was a lecture but was preceded by another email from the University that the entire semester was remote, with exceptions. Students that just moved in…had to move out. I filed to be an exception as some students really want lab/research experience. Several students are part of our Animal Behavior major and many of their internships were cancelled this summer. This might be the only hands on experience they get. Wednesday’s lecture was fine, but from my perspective it is different. I was in the classroom to give me (and them) the perspective of being in class. But I lectured to an empty room and a screen. With an owl staring at me. It’s hard to gauge how fast I’m going, if student’s understand the material, and open the class for discussion. I don’t envy the students who have to do this for all their classes, likely on different platforms (Zoom, Webex, Blackboard, oh my). It’s tough.

Week 1 went okay, despite the changes. Students were submitting videos. They were commenting on VoiceThreads on material we normally discuss in lab. The goal of the week was to understand how to get a high-speed video and what makes a good one for analysis.

Week 2 started out a bit rougher. We got approval as an exception to remote learning for at most 6 students to come in. I set up a sign up sheet on blackboard and 3 decided to come in. The building was suppose to be unlocked….it was not. I set Zoom up to be 1am not 1pm, so the link was hard to find. As I lecture I have to deliver the material, man the waiting room, and chat room. I might see if one of the ULAs can assist with this. At least I had some students in class, but I had a mask on, making it a bit more difficult to lecture. It was short lecture to introduce the week’s topic, learning how to track animals. So, afterwards I kept Zoom open and the three students in had a 1:1 ratio of student to teacher/ULA. I had some crickets, crayfish and fiddler crabs in for them to practice filming with and tutorials how to use the equipment so I didn’t have to be close. It all worked out well. But it was exhausting. There is another assignment this week to submit a video of an animal moving, some will use the videos from class some will upload their own.

Wednesday’s class was a bit smoother. I had the right zoom time to start. I lectured from my office on my computer, taking the time to have powerpoint, Zoom participants and chat open, so I could see them all at once. We discussed factors that might affect performance. The highlight of Wed. was our first Scientist Spotlight. Dr. Kristin Winchell from Washington University in St. Louis joined us virtually to tell us about her journey as a scientist and her research. The class read her recent paper on urban evolution (Winchell et al. 2018), submitted questions before hand, and asked them after her talk. She gave a great talk on her journey as a scientist, her research, provided videos for the class to see how it can be tough to motivate animals, and had some great messages throughout. I’ve never done anything like this, but thought it was great and hope to do it more, even not when we are all remote. We have a few more Scientist Spotlight’s coming up throughout the semester.

So, a rough, changing start to the semester, but we’re off and running……

Hybrid Moments….

So, a weekend out from the start of this Fall 2020 semester. Here at Towson, we are offering face to face opportunities at the discretion of each faculty and student. That is, faculty can choose for their course to be fully online, synchrnous or asynchronous, or have some face to face options; students can chose to not come in. Our class, since it is a research class, is starting off as a hybrid. This has been one of the most daunting aspects leading up to the semester. I am providing in class opportunity for students to come in and conduct research. The class is small, the room holds 6, so we could work it out. However, the uncertainty of not knowing how many students will chose to come in, how that will change, and managing to provide both in person and at home material to ensure everyone succeeds in the course is tough.  As I mentioned in the last post, I will be lecturing from the classroom, so 6 students could come in; it will be on Zoom, so students could join in; and I will record lectures, so students could tune in later.

It seems Hybrid has a lot of meanings among University and even within Universities and Departments. I empathize with our students trying to navigate all the uncertainty and options, do they have to come into class, do they have to sign up, do they choose to stay remote, is there a sign up sheet to come in, what happens if we go fully online? The question of “where is my classroom” may have a whole new meaning this semester. Some want to come in and get experience in research. Others do not think it is worth the risk. I get it. Meanwhile, us faculty seem to be facing similar issues of whether or not we choose to come in, technology issues (lecture live, broadcast, and record), uncertainty of potential in class numbers (given the constraints), and we are all trying to make the organization of our courses as clear as possible. Clear organization can be difficult if everyone (student and faculty) are in their own ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I feel as though the book is written, I know the content and the goals, but I have no idea which story students will choose. And I want to make sure, regardless of their path they have the tools to succeed in a research based course, in a hybrid environment, during a pandemic. There’s really no going back to page 7 this semester, is there? And I am just one faculty in a University writing my own choose your own adventure this semester. Not to mention the plethora of technology available. It is great we have so many options, and I do appreciate all the efforts the University has put in to providing us faculty with the tools to succeed. There have been great resources, tutorials, and discussions of all the options; and I’m excited to try out a few new ones this semester. But, all this technology can also be daunting figuring out which to use, how to use, and when to use them. It’s also occurred to me that again, I am one faculty, so students may be using Zoom for one class, Webex for another and Blackboard Ultra for yet another. So, I guess not only are students and faculty dealing with multiple choose your own adventure books, but they are going through those books on different platforms (hardcopy, audiotape, digital…). Thinking about, maybe a definition for a “Hybrid” course is choose your own adventure. Since adventures are suppose to be fun, let’s try and keep it positive for the semester and embrace the uncertainty (I say now before it all starts ;). I went out on campus with the ULA’s the other day and within minutes we caught some katydids, leafhoppers, and moths, and were able to film quickly. There is some hope we can do this.

For our class, the longer time on Monday is designed to give research experiences in class. So, some students could come in for that. However, if a student chooses not to come in, they will have to complete the assignments at home. Most of the early assignments are focused on stepping students through the process of using high-speed cameras, filming animals, digitizing, and getting some performance variables. As many (if not all) smart phones and GoPros have the capability to record at 120-240 fps, students could collect videos at home. Although, this is still a concern as we cannot assume all students have the latest tech gadgets (I’m working on alternative solutions to this). I have insect nets ready and some small containers for students to use at home, if they choose. Digitizing, analyzing, and presenting can all be done remotely. It is really the data collection that is the trickiest part, can a hypothesis be formulated to collect insects, video their performance, and digitize the videos at home.  Will it be like me in undergraduate counting fruit flies late at night on the kitchen table to see if I got Mendelian Inheritance? Or, does it all have to be home if at least one group member chooses to come in to record, while the others Zoom in to assist in the logistics and data recording. This is something I’m waiting to determine as we start next week. As students are mostly graded on the process and not the outcome, I hope, even if projects fail, they will still get something out of the course and do well, even if working remotely. But, I feel I am constantly thinking of alternative solutions that may work or that I may have to deploy if the situation at the University changes.

Sometimes I feel like Dr. Strange in the Avengers Infinity Wars when he looks into every imaginable outcome for the semester. Hopefully there is more than one solution for us all to succeed during this semester. Stay tuned as we begin on Our Adventure on Monday. Good luck to everyone else out there navigating these difficult times.

“If you’re gonna scream, scream with me. Moments like this never last…..”

Here it goes again….

Well, t minus 2 business days until the start of this “new” semester. The butterflies are fluttering (and not the ones outside!). I’ve spent the past few weeks organizing the class and have a pretty “decent” plan, despite the looming uncertainty for what might happen in this Fall. Right now, the plan is for a hybrid delivery with lectures, presentations, and meeting activities all being virtual. Some of them (such as lectures) will be synchronous and recorded; some will be asynchronous. There will be opportunity for in person collecting of specimens on campus (following proper social distancing guidelines outside) and filming of organisms following University guidelines for any face to face delivery. The class is small, so we should be able to do this if we rotate who comes in to work or if some chose not to come in. I’ve had to shift things around a bit, which has been an interesting exercise in teaching creativity.

For labs, I’ve chopped up the delivery to be smaller live components, VoiceThreads to generate discussions, and tutorials (how to digitize and use R for example). One of the biggest challenges I feel like I’m facing this semester is removing the in person discussion of research (observing in nature, discussions in small groups, troubleshooting), so I’m trying to move it online, using VoiceThreads, discussion boards and tutorials. I’ve also been motivated by Price et al’s (2020) recent paper to have discussion threads of research questions online. VoiceThreads are a new technology to me, integrated with our blackboard, so we’ll see how they work. I’ve also been inspired by colleagues at Towson teaching CUREs, where they plan to have one group member in class, while the others Zoom in. This is something I’m hoping we can do once we get groups formalized and data collection starts. A group member or two come in to film, one is at home recording the data.

As I continue to plan and organize I have been thinking about incorporating other components to the course that could use some assistance from the broader scientific community (which I am happy to reciprocate).

First, in the (likely) event that we go completely online, meaning no collection on campus or filming, I am curious if others would be able/willing to share videos of animals moving (locomotion, feeding, other) for students to analyze at home.  The videos could be part of a publication or extra that were not used, as long as students can obtain data from it (performance or kinematics) using ImageJ or something similar and there is information about the videos. The videos will not be used in publication and full credit will be given. Students may do an assignment interviewing you about the data if they chose to use it. I and ULA’s (undergrad learning assistants) will also be going out around campus collecting invertebrates to film to add to the database. I’m happy to reciprocate sharing videos, but please contact me if interested and I can provide more details.

Second, I have decided to introduce Scientist Spotlights. I have several planned with researchers whose papers we will read (thank you to those that already agreed to join us). However, I am interested in more Scientist Spotlights in the second half of the semester (after 10/12, which has fewer planned activities as most of the time is dedicated to research and lab meeting type activities). If you are interested in giving a half hour talk about yourself, your journey, and your research, please let me know. We meet M 1-4:30 and W 3-4:50 (EST). I can provide more information. My hope is that if we are limited in “doing” research, maybe we can have more discussions about research with others from all over. Again, I’m happy to reciprocate, and contact me if interested or for more details.

More information on the class can be found on these webpages and in Oufiero (2019). Towson University is Maryland’s largest comprehensive university situated just outside the Baltimore City limits. The class is all undergraduates from all of our majors, including concentrations in Functional Biology of Animals; Ecology, Evolution and Conservation; Cell and Molecular; as well as other majors in Bioinformatics, Animal Behavior and Environmental Science.

So, this is the “plan.” I have to remind myself, as I learned first time around, to expect the unexpected and be flexible.


And I thought it would be easier…..

In this ever changing world, I will be teaching the Organismal Form and Function CURE this coming Fall 2020. Our semester does not start until August 24th, so I have a little over a month to get ready. As Dante from Clerk’s once said, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” Initially, I was scheduled for sabbatical Fall 2020, but decided to postpone until Spring 2021 to accommodate international travel plans. I thought Spring might be more likely for me to travel, we will see. Since schedules were already made, I added the CURE last minute, advertised and have a full class. Back in March there were hopes we would be in person. Things have been changing quickly.

In an effort to once again document what I do in the course, I will be posting through the rest of the summer and semester. The course will change, as it will not all be in person. Teaching a lecture remotely is not too difficult. Trying to engage students in research remotely is a different story. I have some ideas and plans in the works, so we will see what happens.

The first time I taught the course it was stressful not knowing if student’s could come up with questions, if we could collect anything, or if animals would perform. It all worked (Oufiero 2019). I couldn’t wait to teach the course again as I thought it would be easier. Little did I know a global pandemic would be happening. So, once again I’m a bit stressed about how all of this will go. I am currently surveying students to obtain an idea of what they might prefer, including:

  • Face to face opportunity in class to film animals in limited student capacity
  • Film animals at home with their own device and nets, enclosures provided
  • Not to film and only digitize and analyze prerecorded high speed videos
  • Not to film, but come to campus to conduct a project on morphological variation based on museum specimens

If anyone in the scientific community is reading this and has videos they are willing to share to help with option 3 above, please contact me (coufiero -at- I would be happy to reciprocate and even develop a network of videos students can work with. I will also be reaching out via social media, including a post on more details. Five and a half weeks to go, stay tuned. I will be updating information on this website, including course material, archiving old material, as I go.