As we begin to prepare for the possibility of beginning the new academic year online, a key point being discussed is how to create a sense of connectedness in isolation. As nicely summed up in a webinar from AdvanceHE last week (see here for members) connectedness is about interaction with the campus (including available services), with peers (both socially and academically) and with the lecturers.
This discussion triggered me to reflect on my own undergraduate experience. I took an atypical path as an undergraduate starting an undergraduate degree in an engineering specialism before quitting and changing to horticulture as an external student and finally transferring to internal study from second year at The University of Queensland where I completed my bachelor of science (ecology/botany). These different experiences all had different features and provide a useful opportunity to compare external (with strong similarities to online learning) with internal pros and cons. (at the end of this blog is a list of useful links with different online teaching ideas).
So I'm going to take you on a journey.
Close your eyes (ok maybe leave them open enough to read!). Imagine you are 18, having grown up on a farm 60 km from the nearest town where you attended high school (a journey which took 90 minutes each way on the only school bus). For the last 6 years you studied really hard, attended every science or engineering summer school that your parents could get you to (which required begging financial support from organisers as we had no money) and you scraped through with a mark high enough to secure a local scholarship which covers textbooks and a computer).
This is ,the beginning of my undergraduate (and adult) journey.
Filled with excitement I moved 500 km away to Sydney into a share-house (we couldn't afford college/hall accommodation) with 4 others. The excitement continues into the first week of classes as they tell us about the fascinating subjects we are going to learn.
However as semester gets underway the excitement gives way to stress as the material gets harder -fast. I fail a maths test. First test ever in my life I failed. I try to access my tutor (demonstrators in UK terms). No-one is available to help. I am just one of thousands of first year engineering students. They are all doing so well. I'm not good enough. I'm no-one.
Parallel to this, I had never lived away from my parents for any length of time before this, and now they were 500 km away. I was homesick.
In the end I quit. The day that fees kick in for the year (about half way through semester) I pulled out and called my parents in tears, afraid of their disappointment. They had spent so much time and energy helping get me the best possible opportunities despite our rural location.
Dad drove the 500 km the next day to bring me home. I cried all the way back - but this time because I realised Dad wasn't disappointed in me. He wanted me to be happy. That's why they had done all they had. Not so I would do engineering but so I would be happy. This was a key learning point for me personally. I believe some of the most important things first years learn, are about themselves.
Let’s pause on this journey and think about connectedness for a minute.
The first lesson here I think is that part of first year is actually learning about disconnecting (not completely of course) from the protection of living at home. For our international students this is even more extreme with them also learning to disconnect a little from their own culture and adapt to a new one. How do we enable them to learn about themselves in these ways via online learning?? In the UK (at least in my sphere of experience) the first year marks are focused on progression to second year - which I think is good because it allows space for students to learn about academic expectations, learn about themselves, adjust to living away from home and make a few mistakes along the way. But unless we are careful, this space wont exist for students starting their first year online. Instead they will have to adjust to living away from home later in their degree when the marks count more.
The second point on connectedness is that, although I was connected to the campus, I did not feel connected to my peers. Even though there were only 15 in my specialism, we had classes with all the thousands of other engineering first years and I felt isolated despite the masses. And in the end this is what triggered my quitting …I'll leave this point here and come back to it later.
Fast forward 6 months.
I've settled back in at home and enrolled in bachelor of horticulture as an external student. Our external cohort is something like 30 students and we do all the same material that the internal students do, except we don't go to lectures (back then internal students actually attended most of their lectures!). We are sent lecture notes, example questions and tutorial activities which we receive feedback on from the lecturer via email, and my timetable was mine to decide and I could work at a pace that suited me.
----I need to pause here and explain this was 20 years ago (yes now I feel old!) and our online environment was Blackboard and email. There was no real-time discussion (I didn't even have a mobile phone yet!). So communication was almost exclusively email---
We did our practicals during residential visits to the campus where we stayed in college/hall accommodation and did 2 pracs per day for 4 days straight for each module during the uni breaks at Easter and in October.
In terms of connectivity: Despite the distance, I felt connected to my peers - we were given each other's emails at beginning of semester and we interacted a little (in some classes) on Blackboard. Additionally as many of us did the same modules, we spent almost 2 weeks together during residentials. This meant we got to know each other very well and made subsequent communications much easier. This is fairly similar to the change in relationships I see coming out of field trips.
If this is to be replicated online I think smaller groups (for example our personal tutor groups) having regular activities (not all academic) using video calling will be important.
Of course during this time I didn't learn about reducing the connectivity with 'home' as I still spent a lot of my time with my parents or at my friends' houses in the nearby town. But I did learn in 'my space' at my pace.
The biggest negative to being external was in terms of learning during residentials. We crammed so many practicals into 4 days - some of which we hadn't even covered the theory for yet - which means I honestly cannot remember any of the practicals or the learning that should have occurred. I fear this is also likely to be the outcome of short-fat modules that cram a whole semester into just a few weeks.
I also found (20 years ago) that getting help with the harder material in second year had challenges as an external student. I couldn't knock on my lecturers door and ask them to explain something. They did their best but conversations with questions and answers could take a week or more to solve.
At this point I had been living on the gold coast with a boyfriend (had learnt to disconnect (a tiny bit) from my family home) and so I thought I would go internal at the University of Queensland which also meant re-starting second year.
This experience was amazing. 8 am on the first Monday morning was Plant Science. The same 24 students I went to almost every class with from that hour onwards. I made life-long friends in that class and the lecturers are now some of my research collaborators. The whole degree was very research based with a lot of group work, semester-long experiments and field work. All of which meant I felt connected with both my peers and my lecturers. And the culture around me was of life on campus - we did almost everything on campus (except sleep, and I waitressed 3-4 nights a week to help pay my rent) - in fact the culture was influenced by the campus (even campus botany!) in that when the jacarandas flowered it meant exams were almost upon us!
This is where my undergraduate journey transitions to honours and onto government/industry research.
When I click my fingers, you will wake, completely yourself (yes I'm assuming you are either hypnotised or asleep by now!). Returning to the current situation we have many tools that can enable us to make the most of both worlds - but what is it we can take from this experience of external and internal study modes:
Collaborative software like Microsoft Teams allows a space for many of these things to occur but the challenge now is how we design activities that support connectivity with peers, staff and somehow with campus (which to begin might be a virtual campus).
I've written previously about my third year class and using Microsoft Teams for group assignments (here) and about using mobile apps for helping connect lectures to practicals (which could also be done as a virtual or local treasure hunt). The treasure hunt could potentially be used to help connect students to campus by getting them to find webpages with the appropriate support services, or even using google earth to see how it actually looks.
These are not the solutions to everything, or the only solutions out there (see links below for other locations to get ideas) but I hope this blog helps to identify pitfalls and benefits of past internal and external experiences. Since it is clearly possible to feel isolated while surrounded by 1000 students (as I was in engineering) I honestly believe that together we can make all learning environments better (and more resilient) for the future.
Below are a few articles from 'Tomorrows Professor':
With the switch to online learning being forced on many rather rapidly, I've received a lot of questions about my experience, having used Microsoft Teams since the beginning of semester. With that in mind, I've uploaded tutorial notes here and will continue to add short instruction videos on that page as I make them to help others learn as quickly and painlessly as possible.
First I'll list some key ideas that I've had more time to think about throughout semester. I'll then explain my module and why I chose to use Microsoft Teams right from the beginning of semester. After a reflection of how things have gone so far, I'll explain the key changes that I'll be implementing as a result of enforced online teaching (and I've included some nice plant pictures to help everyone feel better!).
To begin I want to make a few key points that I've had more time to think about since the beginning of semester:
My experience so far:
I've been using Microsoft Teams all semester and I thought it worth giving a progress report here as everyone transitions. I've provided some context for the module and how we've been using Teams. I'm also providing tutorial notes HERE and will upload short instruction videos as I make them.
My module: 3rd year class Plants and the Soil Environment at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Module content: plant adaptations to different soil environments (drought, flood, salinity, heavy metals, nutrient deficiency, and includes plant-plant interactions (both allelopathy and via soil biotic interactions), and biofortification.
Contact time: 3 hours once a week.
Teaching strategies: traditional lectures for each of the themes, workshops centred around their assessment and a computer lab on root image analysis techniques.
Assessment: Poster and storyboard (week 5; 20%), 10-15 minute documentary about one of the themes mentioned above (due second last teaching week; 70%) and 4 compulsory workshops (total 10%).
I chose to start using Microsoft Teams this year right from the beginning because:
The assessment- as it happens!
Part 1 (happened in week 5): poster and storyboard (20%). The poster needed to have science (less focus on graphical mastery!) and they needed to be able to talk me through the science. The storyboard was a scene-by-scene outline of what their documentary video will contain (ie demonstration that they've thought about the logical flow of ideas). I gave them feedback the same day on the storyboard and later that week for the posters (the delay was only because of the strike action - I would otherwise have provided the poster feedback the same day too).
Part 2: 10-15 minute Documentary video (70%) - about one theme related to the module.
This is currently still underway. The students have been encouraged to film (using mobile phones or normal cameras) footage or diagram explanations or interviews with other academics from the region (both at Nottingham and surrounding institutions). For this I've been in touch with our Media Team and the Ethics Committee to ensure students are aware of wider GDPR, copyright and safety issues associated with the task.
The advantage of teams was that I could set up a class notebook (which uses OneNote embedded automatically in Teams) with sections for each set of information they might need - this means they are not bombarded with lots of files all at once in one place. It's all available all the time, but in partitioned locations that are relevant at different times during the process. Students could then adapt their team notebook as they choose. Copies of all information documents are also uploaded to the Files folder in each of their teams (and also on Moodle for good measure).
As students are using different devices and different operating systems I've provided links (in their team notebooks) to OpenSource programs that run on most devices and links to forums where the options have been discussed so they can make their own decisions. This is all more in-line with real world scenarios than our typical strategies of providing students with every program we think they should use and empowers them to make decisions (I also find they are more tech savvy than me and already using video related programs and between their teams of 4 they seem to be doing well solving most challenges so far).
Part 3: compulsory team training sessions. There are 4 compulsory classes throughout semester. We have two already. The next will happen right before Easter (and will now be online only) and the other is the week the assignment is due. These are based on my previously published team training package (see here - link). In total these are worth 10%.
The fourth team training session gets the students to discuss what the authorship order would be if this were to be a scientific publication (and I allow 4 equal first authors if they decide that's appropriate!). They will then be asked to submit a form with their respective contributions as part of their final submission and if a team has had unequal efforts I will scale the 70% video mark accordingly. This has been discussed with all students at both compulsory sessions so far, is in the module handout (on Moodle and on Teams) and will be reminded in each of the upcoming compulsory sessions. Scaling will only happen if challenges are raised with me prior to submission. - all of this is yet to come so watch this space!
Reflection so far: I was very impressed with the depth of understanding demonstrated in the posters - far deeper than any individual lecture that I had given (this was my hope as we have limited time in class). They have all been encouraged to watch each other's poster explanation (this would normally have been done in a compulsory session except the strike action meant I had them video their explanation during that normal class time and upload it to a Team with the whole class). They will also be part of the final marking so they are getting 3 different forms of explanation for the same key ideas in addition to their own repeated viewing of their team's topic during the editing process.
Getting started with Microsoft Teams was challenging and I had the help of our Technologies support person. But once we got it started and I worked out where everything was I've been finding it works brilliantly for teaching like this. I've also found the students have adapted really well even though the week I was planning to train them, Microsoft Teams was experiencing technical difficulties! I gave them screen shots in the tutorial document uploaded already to my webpage and now they are coordinating their efforts almost exclusively through teams. An interesting side note - I set up a Team for the whole class when we were having major traffic issues and floods which coincided with a compulsory session with the intention that students unable to attend in person could still interact during the session. They also used this team to upload their posters and provide each other with constructive feedback. Since then I've been posting all class-wide updates to that Team - no-one ever replies to that page - but they are all having lots of discussions and asking me questions from within their smaller assignment teams of 4 - including about information provided on the full class page. This really highlights the benefit of having smaller teams during online discussions - more personal and less scary to raise issues in a group they feel they know a bit better.
All of the above has already been going on all semester. We are now being told to teach remotely and fortuitously this class and these students are well prepared for the uncertainty to come.
Changes that I've made since the decision for online teaching:
With the turning of the leaves, it is with sadness that this is the third and final travel blog for this summer. It has been a busy, productive and fun 2 months abroad.
My last blog was the final day of the ASPB Plant Biology meeting in San Jose before flying back to Delaware. I had just one day in Newark before flying again, this time with Erin to the root workshop held in Orlando and organised by the University of Florida.
This was a rare experience of been surrounded by people who also understand the importance of whole plant physiology! The workshop was focused on root physiology and included talks, a field visit, student projects and debates.
As invited speakers, Erin and I stayed the week and had the pleasure to not only see all the talks and learn about the latest techniques (aside from our own) but to get to know the students and other organisers better. We found there are lots of synergies between our research interests and I look forward to some great new collaborations.
Since Erin and I were staying at Disney Springs, we decided a visit to the Epcot centre at Disney World was necessary. We had a fun day exploring the park and networking of course! We particularly enjoyed 'The Land' ride which took us through a range of different soil-based, hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics systems of growing food. We even found some great brace roots on their maize plot.
Returning to Delaware we had a grant due and our two glasshouse harvests, including a lot of sample processing in the lab. I truly enjoyed the extensive time 'doing' research.
It has been an incredibly productive and enjoyable summer combining skills with Erin. I'm excited by what the data will show in the coming months and to preparing our next application for funding!
I'd like to publicly and formally thank Erin Sparks for hosting me at the University of Delaware this summer! I have enjoyed getting to know her team, learn about their work and solidify our collaborations and friendship! It has been truly amazing!
Final day of ASPB Plant Biology, I'm too tired for other work pursuits, so what better way to finish the week than in a café blogging! The following covers my second week with Erin, ticking off an activity on my bucket list, and attending Plant Biology 2019!
Delaware week 2!
The second week in Delaware involved starting at the field by 7 am. Our current field experiment is combining our expertise and resources to look at strength/physiology tradeoffs and combines 3D imaging, resource uptake rates and mechanical properties of different soil-borne and aerial roots in maize. Since physiological processes change across the day we have tried to finish daily sampling before lunch (and before the temperatures soared into the mid 30s (degrees C)).
The 3D imaging set up was put together over just a few days by the amazing Adam Stager who works with Erin! I'm so impressed with the talent and enthusiasm he oozes! It's no wonder every time I saw him he was surrounded by a cloud of undergrad groupies! I look forward to more impressive advances that he will no-doubt lead!
The week ended extremely hot (high 30s) turning Erin's car into a very effective drying oven so the samples are all set to be ground, and weighed before we send them off for the next round of analysis!
Redwoods - Check!
The following week I had some recovery time and managed to tick off an activity on my bucket list: seeing redwoods in their amazing Californian cloud forests! This region is incredibly interesting for conifer diversity and if you want to know more I can highly recommend the In Defence of Plants podcast with Michael Kaufman. I did not make it as far north as the magic mile, but I still managed an impressive list of conifers, starting from a total lack of knowledge about northern hemisphere conifers (and with previous experience more around cycads and Araucaria species!) to a list of at least 17 species :)
Plant Biology 2019
1400 plant scientists in one building! It's hard to describe! Chaos in a bubble?
The nice thing about this meeting is the ASPB community are very active on social media and on the Plantae platform. By day 2 a lot of people had written their twitter handle on their name tag and I'd met dozens of people I know, but have never met in person!
In addition to running into cyber-friends, and some really interesting symposia, Plant Biology has loads of networking opportunities. 7 am speed networking breakfasts, group chats, open forums, careers advice and mentoring sessions as well as the usual posters and formal dinners. Bizarrely I repeatedly found myself in the 'mentor' seat for the first time at this meeting, having previously benefited as a mentee.
I also had the great pleasure to hang out with the EEPP (Environmental and Ecological Plant Physiology) section of the ASPB. Wonderful people and I'm excited by the possibility of more ecophysiology talks at future Plant Biology meetings and future cross atlantic collaborations!
Now, an early night I think, and then prep for next week's trip to Florida for the workshop: Linking Root Architecture to Function: Theory, methods and technology!
The summer has begun and my travels along with it! Last week was the Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) conference in Seville, Spain and I'm now in Delaware, USA with Erin Sparks who I met on twitter, skype with monthly and until last Sunday had never met in person!
To set the scene it's a sunny, humid 29 degrees Celsius outside, the tables are set for this afternoon's party. I have a bag of pretzel M&Ms (a new discovery!) open on the couch beside me, and the most adorable bull mastif called Izzy at my feet!
Conferences are a challenge for me for many reasons. For one I struggle with crowds and I'll go sit in a corner with my music playing in my headphones. But I also struggle with my own imposter syndrome. Some years this can be truly crippling but this year's SEB meeting was attended by some of the most amazing people. Along with catching up with friends and collaborators, I reconnected with Australian's I've not seen since I was a PhD student. There were also a lot of PEPG (Plant Environmental Physiology Group) members at the meeting and it was great to have an opportunity to discuss the details of next years Field Techniques Workshop in person. These different groups of positive and supportive people made this year a really positive experience.
The great turnout of physiologists this year was down to the great selection of physiology sessions which also made it quite an intense week! The first day was filled with some really useful teaching sessions - I also presented my teaching using a mobile phone app. I learnt about some really useful tools including the Dejargoniser http://scienceandpublic.com/. This software was designed by Tzipora Rakedzon, a linguist working within the sciences to teach writing skills. the tool is free online and all you do is copy a section of text into the box click start and the highlighted text are words that would be considered jargon. It's a great tool to help with making writing accessible! The whole day was really useful and always a really nice group of people.
The rest of the week was filled with really interesting plant physiology sessions with drought responses from the bottom up, then water use efficiency, and then in silico plants. Each of these talks were engaging and filled with excellent science!
One experience casts a shadow on the plant science community and it's the behaviour of certain individuals.
On the second evening I was out with a group of people for drinks. I wanted to ask someone (lets call them Bob) some questions about their talk. I went over to join the conversation. The other person was saying they work with people from my institution to which Bob aggressively told her the methods at Nottingham are crap and not reliable (and a bunch of other really nasty things about the people) and then said that he had the right tools that she should use.
I was so shocked and disgusted by this behaviour that I walked away and talked to someone else, swearing never to work with this person (or their institution). I don't understand why some people can't just be good human beings.
But the story gets worse... The next day I'm chatting with a colleague from a different institution and who should I see? Bob cosying up with one of the big names from Nottingham and looking at data on a laptop.
It's one thing to not trust people from somewhere else, or to not be compatible personalities - I get that - but to publicly, aggressively insult those people one minute and brown-nose the next is utterly dishonourable. And I honestly struggle to understand people who do this or let this happen. When I'm setting up new collaborations it requires trust so I will never work (or share my data) with people who demonstrate a lack of integrity. The point of having collaborators is that I can't do what they do and so I need to know that the data they collect is reliable. Otherwise how can I be sure we wont be in a situation like this.
Overall SEB was a really great week held in Seville - a beautiful city! I did manage a few hours in the centre one afternoon but I will definitely have to return!
The next leg of my summer travels brought me to Delaware to work with the amaizing Erin Sparks!
Erin contacted me by twitter 2 years ago and we've been skyping regularly since, but when I stepped out of the airport in Philadelphia was the first time we had met in person!
This first week has involved discussions, building our paper plan and preparing for a field harvest next week.
Travel is also about learning other cultures. This week I've discovered pretzel M&Ms, the biggest bag of dried mango I've ever seen from Costco (as an Australian I get regular cravings for Mangoes that can almost be satisfied with dried mango), crab nachos and Corn Hole (a game that's really big over here).
And then there's the language differences: cart/trolley, Koozie/stubby cooler, pruning shears/secateurs and granola/toasted muesli.
Next week will be filled with science and data and icecream!
Stay tuned for the next edition of my travel blog.
Just a quick blog to announce some more exciting news from AR_lab! This week has been the postgrad symposium and in line with our success last year Magda took home the coveted Agriculture and Environmental Science Poster 1st prize!
Findi also gave her first talk and did a fantastic job! Although she didn't win an official prize, Findi has had the steepest learning curve and has improved the most of all my students. To me this means just as much as any official award!
So proud of my team!
It's been an insanely busy term as I'm sure many will appreciate but it's time to share the latest lab news!
Starting with papers I have to say how pleased I am for Olivia who's first paper is now online. She's worked incredibly hard and it's paid off with some really nice findings! The paper outlines how two wheat lines respond to steady or variable water availability under low or high nitrogen. It's one of the first projects to use the drought spotter at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility at University of Adelaide which automatically waters individual pots based on weight and as frequently as programmed. This paper is soon to be followed with the next set of exciting results! Keep an eye on her! More good stuff to come!
Also on the paper front, our paper describing the use of treasure hunt mobile software for undergraduate education is also now online in Plants People Planet. I'll also be presenting this work at SEB in July and as a poster at Plant Biology in August so do come and chat to me about it!
Excitingly our paper combining microCT root imaging with microdialysis nutrient analysis with Richard Brackin from the University of Queensland is a top 20 paper in Plant Cell and Environment. Thanks to Richard for his help on this project during his visit and thanks to Rank Prize Funds New Lecturer Award for the funding for this work.
The team has also had success recently at the Plant Environmental Physiology Group Early Career Event which was held at Eden Project this May. Magda and Findi both attended, meeting other PhD students and postdocs working in different areas of plant physiology. Magda took home the Poster prize and together with the talk winners wrote a really nice blog about the event. Do follow PEPG on twitter for updates on events (@PEPG_SIG).
Also still on my awesome team: Daisy is currently on work placement with BBC Sky at Night and you can read her articles here. It's a fantastic opportunity as part of her BBSRC DTP studentship but all organised by her! I'm looking forward to hearing all about it when she returns!
The semester has been filled with teaching. I was flattered by some very high teaching scores for my third year class. Equally I was happy with the scores from my first year class which is a large class, a compulsory module for many, and faced some administration challenges at the start of term. Adding to that I'm female and not a professor so I was pleased with teaching scores in line with the school average. To be honest the comments are more useful than any metric and supported my suspicions about things that could be better and those that already work well.
Perhaps one of the most fun teaching activities this semester was the first year plant science revision session. I designed this based on the BBC2 Eggheads gameshow. The lecturers from the module made up the Egghead team and 5 students volunteered to be the challenger team. Just like on BBC2 there are themes (in this case based on the lecture topics) and a series of one-on-one question rounds based on multiple choice questions. The challenger team can choose which academic to take on for each one-on-one round and the winners of each round could join their team for the final general knowledge round in which the teams could confer before answering. To increase audience engagement I added an ask-the-audience option using Mentimeter. I was pleased to see about half the class attended the session (110 in the class) even though it was the only teaching week after Easter before the exams meaning for many that was the only lecture that week.
I was really impressed with the students on the challenger team who all did brilliantly! They won every round and were only stumped on one question in the final round! I also want to acknowledge the academics for participating - it's quite nerve wracking being put on the spot for topics they didn't teach. All in all it was a lot of fun and I hope the students found it a more interesting way to revise - and a way to get hold of any of the academics to answer specific questions before the exam!
Finally the summer is almost here! This conference season I'll be at SEB in Seville and special thanks to ASPB for the Sharon Gray Women's Young Investigator Travel Award to attend ASPB Plant Biology in San Jose - very much looking forward to those.
I'm also super excited to be visiting Erin Sparks for much of the summer. Although we have been Skyping monthly, we have never met in person. To those critical of Twitter - this collaboration is purely a result of the great opportunities that Twitter offers! I'm very much looking forward to working with the rest of her team on physiology and seeing their mechanical field trials in practice! I will do my best to write a science travel blog while away so watch this space over the coming months!
I think that's enough for now! There is a new choose-your-own-adventure story for Eca coming soon so watch out for that in the coming few days!
Hartman T, Lydon SJ, Rasmussen A (2019) Hunting for Answers: Linking lectures with the real world using mobile treasure hunt app Plants People Planet; http://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.33.
Cousins OH, Garnett TP, Rasmussen A, Mooney SJ, Smernik RJ, Cavagnaro TR (2019) To stress or not to stress: Plant and soil responses to variable water and nitrogen supply. Plant Science. (http://doi.org/10.1016/j.plantsci.2019.05.009)
It’s been a while since my last blog - travel, writing, teaching - lots of material for future blogs, but today I want to share a green adventure from this weekend and a botanical first for me!
Three times a year the Hillier-Lancaster Plant group brings together an amazing array of people from all aspects of the botanical world. This meeting’s adventure, exploring the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, found our heady mix of obsessive plant geeks soaking up the history of the Hillier family legacy while chatting about plants that take our fancy. The ebb and flow of conversations and discussions are punctuated with stories by the phenomenal Roy Lancaster. Stories of the origins of particular plants growing in the gardens and what they mean to him and others are inspirational. My favourite was a story about the first time he learnt a particular tree that he had seen tantalisingly from behind a wall, and he described the excitement of learning what it was. He encourages us to remember that first time we encounter different plants and likens it to a first kiss – not necessarily the person you want to be with forever, but something never to be forgotten. I love this description of that excitement and curiosity and I encourage everyone to share in this joy and pass it onto others.
For me the stories behind the plant are as exciting and important as the plant species or why it survives where it is. The adventures others went on to bring that seed to that place or the events linked to the variety or species are equally inspiring – it’s like living through the plants! As a nobody from the back of nowhere, growing up below the poverty line, this has always been part of my passion for plants. Reading about the early botanical-explorers in Australia – and elsewhere – planted a seed (full pun intended) that perhaps I could ‘go somewhere’ – maybe not as a physical explorer but as a scientific one. I’m still a nobody, but I am having scientific adventures and exploring the frontiers of plant physiology.
There are still challenges and hurdles as a female, foreign, non-middle class person, but recently living through plants has taken a new meaning for me. At the age of 34 my confidence took a blow when the signalling in my heart failed requiring a pacemaker to correct. Relearning who I am, and what makes me tick (literally and figuratively!) is a slow process, and 3 years on, the road to recovery struggles on. But moments like those from this weekend remind me of the adventures and the excitement that continues. Remind me that at my core is still a plant geek that chases weird plants (like the Amorphophallus in flower at Wisley - below). These amazing people remind me it’s ok to spend weekends doing something I love that also makes up my job. That it’s ok to have a blurry line between work and play. That I never want to forget the excitement of ‘first time’ for each plant! And I encourage others to go out as spring springs and meet a new plant and share that excitement of the first time!
A first time for me today: Amorphophallus at Wisley (Left). I'd love to say the queue was for this beauty but actually not one person (except me) noticed it amongst the lego animals (possibly a blog for another day) - but somehow lining up to tick this plant off my list seems appropriate!
As we come to the end of another academic year and people debate whether we are giving out too many firsts, I find myself pondering a few questions.
But before I start people arguing I should make clear that I completely agree that we need to ensure a level of consistency for our students. Especially in the light of exceptional circumstances like snow interruptions to lectures and practicals which don't happen to every cohort.
Ok so that said I think one of the things we need to decide as lecturers is:
Is it to teach a specific set of skills (or knowledge) to our students? Or is it to produce a clear ranking of who's the best and who's the worst? This question lies at the heart of the debate because the two goals require different teaching and evaluation strategies.
If we are providing our students with skills and knowledge then as good teachers we should be providing all the students with the best opportunity to learn those skills and knowledge. Good teaching strategies will reach diverse students, enhancing their learning through safe and motivating learning experiences. Under this scenario, in theory, all students should have the chance to achieve high grades if they participate in those learning experiences and acquire those skills. In addition, under this scenario since we are good teachers we will continue to adapt our teaching strategies to enhance student learning from year to year which should result in more students acquiring the skills and knowledge in subsequent years, increasing the number of firsts (of course as someone who cares about teaching, I'd love to give the credit of rising grades to the teachers!).
But should we stop adapting once we have the perfect way to impart those skills? This brings me to the next point - students are starting uni with different skills. Similarly the jobs we are training them for also have evolving expectations. So in an ideal world we should be adapting our learning goals to bridge between entry skills and job requirements. A bit obvious? Ok well if we increase our learning expectations from year to year how can we compare a first from this year to a first in 5 or 10 years time since the expectations will have changed? I think this will be very important for us to consider when comparing cohorts in the near future as I would argue we are in a transition period from memorising knowledge to skills acquisition - in particular complex problem solving and team/people skills (to name a few - a topic for another blog).
If we explore the other option where our teaching goals are to rank the students then what does this mean to employers? Students have so many options especially in their final years - each of which teach a different set of skills or knowledge - a student with a first may still not be the best option for a particular job if they had selected modules more suited to a different job….
My personal philosophy (as you may have guessed from the biased way this is written!) is that we are here to teach skills and if the students learn those skills they should all have the opportunity to get high grades. I also feel that the skills required for success in a changing world are different to what they were in the past.
Why am I pondering all this? In exam board there was a point made about a new aspect of assessment that I introduced to my third year module which resulted in good spread of grades. However that wasn't my intention when I instigated the change. In the past I had noticed that third year students still find writing concisely a challenge. In response to this observation the final coursework (two short essays on topics linked to the lectures) included two marking criteria. The first was the standard criteria they have been evaluated against their whole degree. The second was worth 25% of the grade and was deliberately written to evaluate concise writing skills. To ensure the students had the best chance to learn these skills I ran a formative workshop where students submitted a paragraph of text the night before and during the session I projected the paragraph on the screen (anonymised) and as a group (there are 13 in the class) we reworded the paragraphs to be more concise without losing the meaning. I provided a handout with a substitution table which contained common long-winded statements and concise alternatives. The marking criteria included use of the substitution table along with a few other points and we worked through the new marking criteria in the workshop so the students knew exactly what was expected.
I confess when marking some of the essays I was disappointed that although overall there was good improvement, there was still fluff in some of the essays. This is what resulted in the mark spread for which I was complemented during exam board. I actually felt this was a failing of my teaching - that there is more I can do to enhance these skills next year. But is spread a bad thing? Maybe some spread is a good thing? It certainly shows we are stretching the students with skills not already learnt. The students expressed appreciation for the skills training (in person, in the module evaluation and to the examiner who asked). I will still strive to improve writing skills further next year which may result in less spread…I wonder what will be said at exam board if one year there is good spread and the next year there is less!?
Do I have a point to this blog? Not really except to prompt further thought on firsts, spread, comparing cohorts and what is our underlying goal of undergraduate teaching. So what do you think?
It was a bleak Wednesday morning, rain sheeting down diagonally from the blistering cold wind. Sitting in the back of my half empty class while a guest lecturer has the floor, daydreaming of warmer climes. The prospect of collecting plant material (my afternoon job) in these dismal conditions not filling me with joy. I check my weather app for the 4th time in as many minutes….it hasn't changed and for that I'm grateful, although doubtful. 'Clearing by 1 pm' looks less likely as the morning drags on. More concerning for me is the weather for Thursday when I take first years outside to learn about plant traits.
Blissfully the forecast is correct and the rain stops. Even more amazing, Thursday dawns a stunning clear sunny day that's almost warm (says an Australian).
The practical is for a first year module called Life on Earth with 200+ students from a diverse range of programs including biology, biochemistry and environmental sciences based on our University Park campus. From my (geeky) perspective this provides a captive audience with whom to share some of the cool things about plants!
The first plant practical is my responsibility and I designed the session around observational skills - important no matter what degree program is being studied - and peer learning with students working in groups of four for the duration of the session. At the core of the activity sequence is a mobile phone app - ActionBound - selected for ease of use and diverse phone compatibility.
The learning sequence was organised in three stages:
The app is little bit like a roaming Rogo exam (which they have for every other practical but without any negative associations). Students received all the marks (5%) for the practical by engaging with the session and I emphasised that making mistakes is perfectly ok to encourage a safe learning environment. Mistakes made are far more likely to be remembered next time they come across the information.
I also ran a similar activity in the first year Plant Science module on our Sutton Bonington campus with modifications related to the paper-less/mobile-less new teaching lab.
Stage one and two are based on an activity from BIOL1030 at The University of Queensland where I was a demonstrator from 2008-2010 and run by Louise Kuchel and Robbie Wilson (back then). In this case the plant key was made in the lab and several weeks later students were taken on a field trip to the Rainforest where they used their key on plants labelled along the walking track. There are many great ideas being applied in that module and I give full credit to them for the inspirational ideas.
Back to Nottingham: Before the students arrive in the lab, plant samples collected the day before and stored in the cold room need arranging on benches. In the process of setting up I discover that half of the samples of plant 6 have disappeared. There must be a pile of nicely labelled stems sitting out by the lake somewhere! I blamed the squirrels and the groups missing plant 6 were encouraged to use the process of elimination to work out which letter labelled on an outside tree would correspond to plant 6 in the lab.
As the students get under way I'm quickly aware of the biggest problem with the activity - and its not the activity. Since we have ethics approval to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity students need to sign a consent form which Susie or myself need to counter sign. This was a massive bottleneck and meant that instead of being able to interact and talk with the students I was signing forms for the first hour - this must change next year.
Once the forest of paper was signed, we headed out into the glorious sunshine by the lake where the outdoor stages took place.
From a teaching perspective it was a lot of fun roaming around the trees talking to the students providing extra tid-bits of information about plants in a low-stress environment. In the 90 minutes or so we were outside I think I spoke to most of the 50 groups at least once - all actively seeking the plant features for the treasure hunt and all of them engaged in conversations with me about wider topics.
At the end of the treasure hunt there were a few questions about their experience and once they clicked 'send' the responses become visible on my laptop. This meant I could send a document to all the students in the following days to clarify common misconceptions with additional information. In the evening after the prac, I opened an anonymous survey with questions about their experience, favourite question types and any other comments.
I now have a lot of data to sort through but here's a taster from the students:
Many of the students also made suggestions on improvements and all of those who took the time to provide suggestions gave positive responses to how the activity helped them learn. Once the data has been sorted the next round of tweaks will begin, after all teaching is an iterative process of implementing, evaluating, and adapting - just like the scientific process.
I also think there's a lot to be said for the mental health benefits of being out in the fresh air and sunshine in a low pressure learning environment. A topic to be explored another day.
Thinking back to that bleak Wednesday morning, I needn't have worried and the irony in my lack of trusting weather apps when I'm willing to trust apps in my teaching, is not lost on me!
I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank Susannah Lydon for her help, support and signatures! I'd also like to thank the support team who help every week with preparing material for practicals both at Sutton Bonington (led by Darren Hepworth) and at University Park (led by Mike Gubbins). Without them, none of this would be possible. I'd also like to thank the team of demonstrators who helped out on the day and finally thanks to all the students who engaged in the activity and provided their perspectives in the survey.