Is it summer yet?

It’s 65 degrees and raining here in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It doesn’t feel much like summer…yet. But my research students get here next week, and then it won’t matter what the weather is like. It will be SUMMERTIME in the lab.

Why is summer so awesome?

No grading.

No faculty meetings.

No 8am organic chemistry labs.

Just plenty of time to think about our research and actually DO the experiments we want to do. My NSF-RUI proposal was just (finally) funded. I’m ecstatic. I’m thrilled that we will finally have the instrumentation we need to move our work forward, and that someone thought it was worthwhile to fund us. Nailing the undergraduate research niche is hard…harder than I thought. Doing high impact work that is accessible to undergrads and that you can publish at a rate that won’t get you scooped…well, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Part of the NSF funding allows me to refresh my teaching lab, BCM 341 to bring in new original projects – so, this summer I’ll be working on rebooting that course.

TTFN

DoOO@M: Teaching on the Open Web

Democracy in the classroom

A theme that I see among all these readings is democratization of education. Taking the power structures out of higher ed and working with students to create learning.  And yet there is a implicit hierarchy to any course – no matter how much Tweeting you do. The course is as open as I say it is.  So…are the power structures really gone? In the end – I still give the grade. Perhaps it is rather a change in my – the instructor’s – exercise of the hierarchy.  Coming down the steps of the ivory tower and working with and alongside students is more effort, it takes longer and it is arguably messier…but I think it might also be more fun…and maybe even more effective.

 I want to encourage deep, sustained thinking the kind that culminates in measurable growth or innovation.

Effective at what?

I want to come alongside students as they construct their understanding of complex issues, but I don’t want to hear what they think – just because they thought it. There is enough of the unfiltered, spontaneous and personal already on the web.  I want to encourage deep, sustained thinking the kind that culminates in measurable growth or innovation. I really don’t want to re-think my pedagogy for a lesser goal.

In looking at the ds106 assignment bank, I kept thinking the same thing over-and-over-again for every assignment that I looked at. What is the goal? What are these assignments supposed to teach the student to do, exactly? The one about Tweeting what emotions you have when listening to a song…really? This is an assignment? Maybe I’m missing something, and that assignment is really about learning how to use Twitter – but shouldn’t it say so?

I didn’t find any ideas from ds106, but one of the idea I did have was ignited by Bonnie Stewart’s blog. One of my learning goals for BCM 441 is for students to engage with high-impact primary literature in biochemistry in order to, 1) learn how to tell when science is high-impact, and 2) communicate high-impact science in a succinct way to peer and non-expert audiences. This is harder than it sounds, because there is a barrier for students to engage with the scientific literature. Academics in general, but scientists in particular, are infamous for writing in a detached scientific voice that takes years of enculturation to adopt and speak with fluency. I’m asking them to speak from a place of authority on the science – “remixing” it for their peers in an illuminating way – and yet they really are only just developing the skills to speak “science” at all – which means their work sounds “juvenile” to the larger scientific community.

My Goals and my means…am I getting there?

In the past I’ve had them identify a paper they find interesting and “blog” about it to a peer audience – taking the full paper and analytically summarizing it in about 1 page or so. I give them examples of the sort that are already out there in the science literature, etc – we do a class on creating this kind of writing and so on. Now – what if I brought Twitter into the whole thing. (I’m kind of morbidly fascinated by Twitter – I wan’t to love it…I do). Nature Chemistry and Nature Chemical Biology (two of the highest impact journals in the field) ASBMB (the organization that runs the Journal of Biological Chemistry) all have Twitter accounts, in particular the Nature people are tweeting about articles routinely. What if I had them blog about one of these tweeted articles and then enter the Twitter conversation. Meh. I don’t know…

Oh wait! What if they have to come up with their own hashtag – or at least adopt one that is already out there…based on what they think is exciting about biochemistry and then pull that content into their own website. ~ this idea doesn’t make sense in the flow of this blog right now, but I don’t want to lose it. 

I could definitely have them find and Tweet one article per week – it could be a re-tweet – with the class hashtag (and their own descriptive hashtag?) and then somehow (I’m pretty sure this is possible with what Tim showed us last time) pull it all into our class website. I still want them to blog at greater length about a high-impact paper or two or three. The blog should answer the question – Why is this work really cool?

What are the GOALS of the Blog assignment?
  • Identify high impact work
  • Explain to scientific peers why the work is high-impact – this will require understanding the literature context into which a work was published.
  • Efficiently recount the strategies and outcomes salient to the work in an illuminating way – this requires assessing the paper and choosing to talk about the approaches/results that are most important for making the work high-impact.
  • Look beyond the work to forecast future applications, innovations or areas of inquiry

I also have students build a longer term project on a human disease. They essentially curate a substantial literature review and analysis of the disease state using a biochemical lens. From what I have been learning here, I know I want to open up the design and dissemination of the content to the student. It’s like their website should be a collection of what they find significant in biochemistry (and related fields). I could have them write a blog on “why I built my website this way”, another on – what does it mean to study “biochemistry”? Because looking at a disease with a biochemical lens first requires understanding what that lens is.

The ACS on Biochemistry as a career

About ACS Biochemistry

JBC – mission statement

Nature – Chemical Biology

Nature – Structural and Molecular Biology

What are the goals of the BP? (Big project)

  • Produce a comprehensive, deep literature survey centered on the chemistry, biochemistry and molecular/cell biology of a human disease that you have a particular interest in.
    • Learn how to assemble and navigate the literature on a deep scientific topic – literature that spans decades and a variety of disciplines
    • Assess the biochemical scientific literature on your topic and organize it in a meaningful way by collecting references along (self-chosen) themes and placing them in conversation with one another.
      • There would have to be a point when they articulated what those theme were going to be…
    • Ascertain the major scientific innovations that moved the field forward (from reading the literature) and locate them in a variety of relevant contexts (historical, medical, biochemical etc).
    • Communicate the biochemical, mechanistic underpinnings of the disease and disease state (which are typically quite complex) in a biochemically rigorous way that is illuminating to scientific peers.
    • Assess the body of scientific literature to curate the salient scientific points for a non-expert audience and then communicate those points in a scientifically authentic way that is also useful and understandable to non-experts
  • Interact with peer experts in scholarly conversation over the content you create
  • Interact with non-experts over the content you create in order to educate

The thing I really want to say is….

David and Jill teach us to write this prompt when we need to bring closure to what has been something of a ramble.  I think what I am trying to say here – is that I want to show students the finish line…the star they are shooting for…and then allow them to work out how they are going to get there with a  more freedom. I thought that giving them guidelines of how many words and how many figures would be helpful…but I think it sapped at the creative energy in the assignment, replacing it with “banking” boredom.

SOMEHOW I also need to create effective assignments that I can actually grade and survive. I can’t grade everything they write…heck, I can’t even read everything they write. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

That’s all for now.