I Sorta Like Sorting

Karen3On rainy days when I was a little girl, my dear mom, no doubt at the end of her patience with the busy and inquisitive child that I was, would sometimes allow me access to her button box. She was a talented and frugal seamstress, and she kept a dazzling stash of buttons, most harvested from discarded garments, in a fancy fruitcake tin. I loved to sit on the floor and sort the buttons into stacks by shape and color. Maybe it’s a genetic trait. A favorite aunt, a notoriously demanding nursing instructor, once told me that her ideal job would be sorting oranges. Buttons

Sorting is a skill that can help you succeed in the game of school. Once you start to figure out what goes with what, memorizing facts and writing papers gets a lot easier. Establishing how to sort things has made many scientists’ reputations…just ask Linnaeus. Sadly, some students’ childhoods must have lacked a button box, because they struggle with sorting tasks.

It doesn’t help that we apply intimidating labels, like “dichotomous keys,” to tasks that are basically just sorting, and simple sorting at that. For example, identifying an unknown bacteria with a dichotomous key boils down to plain old sorting. It just looks scary when depicted like this:dichotomouskey

What’s a teacher to do? I like to lead students from what they know to what they don’t by taking small steps. Many of them are familiar with the game “Guess Who?,” so I dragged ours from the depths of the family game closet. Two willing students played a round that lasted less than a minute, identifying the culprit after only five yes/no questions.guesswho

Then I showed them a silly example from mental_floss magazine, including this one:presidents

Next, they worked in pairs to quickly complete a nuts-and-bolts sorting task using a dichotomous key I found on the internet:


Finally, they were ready to see how a multi-test identification for bacteria is basically just a fancy, colorful dichotomous key, a bit like having a group of tiny elves in a tube answering a series of yes/no questions for you while you sleep. What could be more fun?enterotube

If you have anything that needs sorting, give me a call…happy to help.


Handing Them Their Lives

Karen3I recently began teaching medical microbiology, a challenging but intensely rewarding class. The students in the class are mostly those I’ve now had for three terms, and they’re the cream of the crop. I tease them about being “border collies,” always ready to work and apt to get into trouble if I don’t find interesting things for them to do. They love the hands-on nature of the class, and their skill set has expanded at a remarkable rate. They quickly mastered the techniques for preparing bacterial smears and examining them under the daunting “oil immersion” lens of their microscopes. The first day that they tried this, one student jubilantly hollered, “I FOUND something!”

We decided to attempt observation of living organisms by a technique called “hanging drop.” I concocted couple of different jars of nasty liquids (“effusions,” to the sciencey folks), and we went hunting for microbes. Many of the little critters swim fast, and students were challenged to show their colleagues and me their dashing discoveries. Several students reported telling their family members about what they had observed. amoebaproteus450

All this reminded me of what is possibly my favorite passage of prose in the entire English language, taken from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Probably because Dillard’s experience was so similar to my own, I know it almost by heart:

“Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba.  The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park: it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was a blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.”

Dillard then recounts how she ran upstairs to urge her parents to come view her find. “Chance of a lifetime” in her estimation. But her mother, while pleased for her, declined to join her in her basement lab. As Annie returned to the basement, she had an epiphany:

“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine.  She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”

microscopeHow very fortunate I am to be able to share “my private passion for the thing itself” with a group of students who seem to share that passion. The quote at the end of my campus email is from Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters. Could anything be more fun?”

When Would I Ever Use This?

Building SkillsOne of the essential skills for any worker is being able to apply the knowledge previously gained in an educational venue, like our college, to a practical problem. In medical education, a student who’s at the top of the class when tested on didactic material may struggle to transfer that information to a clinical situation. All that hard-earned knowledge isn’t much use if you can’t apply it to a living person’s medical situation.

A few days ago, I emailed colleague Pat Riley, an expert in helping students transfer math skills to useful real-world applications. I had been struggling to help my students see the advantage of using logarithms to plot bacterial growth, so I turned to Pat for help. After graciously providing some great suggestions, he shared an example of using math skills in his own kitchen:


For those of us who “don’t do math,” we offer this refresher on scatter plots from this site Math Is Fun.  A finished scatter plot might look something like this:


By the way, Pat and I agree that the broccoli is yummy. Here’s a plug for the product:steamfresh-ranch-broccoli


Getting a Hand from Pop Culture

Karen3A great pleasure in learning afforded by my 23-minute drive to work is listening to Terry Gross of WHYY’s Fresh Air interview a wide variety of people on all sorts of topics. Earlier this week, she spoke with Adam McKay, who received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film The Big Short.

The film details the collapse of the housing bubble and the ensuing consequences for the global economy….scintillating stuff, right? McKay and his collaborators devised an innovative way to deliver wonky information to their audience. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

GROSS: So you have some cutaways for popular personalities, not that I’m necessarily familiar with all of them (laughter) like actors Margot Robbie, and Chef Anthony Bourdain and actress and singer Selena Gomez. Explain some of the more complicated things. And they’re just, like, cutaways where, like, Anthony Bourdain’s in the kitchen and Margot Robbie is in a bubble bath. How did you come up with the idea to do cutaways like that and to find, like, the comedy – the comic way for them to explain it?the-big-short-1-556x300

MCKAY: You know, it came about from, really, the – what I think once again is the central question of the movie, which is why did these people see it and we didn’t when the numbers were so obvious if you looked at them? So one of the answers we started talking about was just this kind of white noise pop culture that America has a lot of. I mean, the rest of the world has it, too. So we started talking about the idea of, like, we want to represent that pop culture in the movie. We don’t just want the movie to be in offices with Wall Street guys talking. We want to see what America is thinking. And then off of that thought I had the idea of, like, well, what would happen if pop culture actually gave us usable information? Like, what would happen if Kim Kardashian every time she was on camera explained the LIBOR rate scandal? You know, what would happen if any time you’re watching a red carpet for an award show and everyone comes down in their gown, you know, each person, you know, talks about climate change statistics…
(emphasis mine)

If an award-winning filmmaker can do this, why can’t we? In fact, I do it all the time…just yesterday in fact.

Here’s what my students needed to grasp about the thirst mechanism: When your serum osmolality rises above 300 milliosmoles, osmoreceptors in your hypothalamus (part of your diencephalon), trigger the desire to drink.

What this means in plain English: If you eat something salty, or lose too much water, your brain realizes that your blood is too salty, and you want something to drink.

How to make this more accessible and memorable? Get a little help from Seinfeld!

If you’re not sure how to find a good clip for your concepts, just collar any culture-savvy young person of your acquaintance, offer them the “plain English” version of the idea, and ask them for suggestions. Works every time, and I now have a pretty spectacular collection of clips stored in my YouTube account.

Einstein Touts Skills

Building SkillsOur Chief Student Affairs Officer, Dr. Jason Warren, recently shared an infographic of “8 Success Factors Even More Important Than Intelligence.”  For those of us whose IQs don’t reach stratospheric heights, this might offer hope and perhaps even comfort. “I may not be that smart, but I can still be successful if I…”

So I was delighted to learn that even those blessed with a double or triple helping of Wechsler points recognize the important role of workplace skills in achieving success. To wit, I offer today’s featured quote from FinestQuotes.com, just as it arrived in my inbox:

Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.                 ~ Albert Einstein

Dr. Einstein’s observations dovetail nicely with several of the success factors in the infographic.albert-einstein1 Finding simplicity amid clutter requires conscientiousness. Agreeableness leads from discord to harmony. Finally, the very heart of emotional stability may lie in the capacity and openness to find opportunity in the midst of difficulty.

More proof that great minds do indeed think alike.


The Cœur of the Matter

Karen3Sometimes I have trouble getting out of my car after arriving in the Fort Campbell Education Center parking lot. I’m stuck not because I’m dreading work—I truly love my job—but because NPR’s Fresh Air is just too interesting to leave. Today, Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, interviewed Maggie Smith, legendary actress, Academy Award winner, and portrayer of the incomparable Dowager Countess Violet Grantham on Downton Abbey. What a treat, and a great way to start the day.maggie smith1

Well into the interview, Davies asked a question that elicited an interesting response:

“DAVIES: Were you an entertaining kid to your friends? Did you make them laugh?

SMITH: I don’t remember doing that particularly. I went to a school where they were – well, no, they did plays and things. I was never in those, really. But I had a very good English teacher who said to me that she thought I ought to do it. She – I don’t know, she saw something thank goodness because I think if it hadn’t been encouraged by somebody that serious, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me.” (emphasis mine)

encourageheartEncourage is an interesting word, its etymological roots in the French word cœur for “heart.” To encourage is literally “to put the heart in,” while to discourage is “to take the heart out of.”  Surely an anatomy teacher should have known this. If our students are to experience the pleasure that comes from meeting an achievable challenge, we need to do a lot of encouraging.

Later in the interview, Davies invited Smith to comment on her Oscar-winning performance in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith portrayed a charismatic and controversial teacher at a conservative girls’ school in Scotland. Predictably, Brodie runs afoul of her headmistress. Their exchange includes this gem from Smith’s character:missjean

“To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ex meaning out and ducere, I lead. To me, education is simply a leading out of what is already there.”

Well said, Miss Jean. Perhaps the best way to encourage our students, to put the heart into them, is to lead them out of their self-doubt and poor habits into a better way of thinking and behaving, regardless of our discipline. To finish with another quote from Miss Jean’s defense of her methods:

“My credo is lift, enliven, stimulate.”

You can read a transcript—or, better yet, listen to Smith’s incomparable delivery—at http://wunc.org/post/maggie-smith-pressures-acting-you-want-so-much-get-it-right#stream/0


Patience, Patience

Karen DoughertyI’m sitting in my office with a student’s records scattered over my desk. These papers tell a sad story that offers not so much as a glimmer of hope for academic success. I’ve never met this student, so I have no idea what events led to the grim facts before me. She’s now fifteen minutes late for her scheduled appointment. I’ve checked my email twice for a message of cancellation…nothing. The phone hasn’t rung. I’m feeling miffed about the time I’ve spent gathering her information and visiting other offices to clarify her situation.

Patience…certainly not my cardinal virtue. In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he lists the “fruits of the Spirit,” one of which is “patience” in most modern translations. The older King James Version uses “longsuffering,” a choice that somehow seems closer to the truth of the matter. Some of the other named “fruits”—love, joy, peace, goodness—sound absolutely delicious. Sign me up for a double helping. But longsuffering? Not so much.chickenpatience

Still, if I’m really committed to the idea that learning should be pleasurable, patience on my part must be a prerequisite. Surprises should be unexpected flashes of understanding, not traps that snap shut with a “gotcha.” Humor should be self-deprecating, not sarcastic or belittling. Steps on the path toward achievable challenges must be added carefully, deliberately, supportively. Ah, patience.

Patience-on-truckLet’s not forget the joys of autonomy. Good instructors understand that there will always be a tug-of-war between accountability and enabling. What is coddling for one student may be the support that another student needs. The best teachers learn how to make the right call. The rest of us steady our aim and hope for the best.

Nineteenth century theologian and scholar E.B Pusey offered these thoughts on the subject:

“We have need of patience with ourselves and with others: with those below, and those above us, and with our own equals; with those who love us and those who love us not; for the greatest things and for the least; against sudden inroads of trouble and under our daily burdens; disappointments as to weather, or the breaking of the heart; in the weariness of the body, or the wearing of the soul; in our own failure of duty, or others’ failure toward us….”

Too long to write on my wall, I suppose, but worthy of daily re-reading.

She never did show up.