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.


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


Keeping the Big View

Brian picWith any venture of importance comes an initial dream or vision. A big picture forms like wanting to be a teacher. Then comes getting an education in the dreamed of discipline.

That’s just the beginning. Once in the classroom, other contexts require attention as well. For example, there is the institution that a teacher becomes part of. It’s very different from being the lone tropical fish in a bowl on someone’s living room table. Our grandchildren once had a small exotic Betta fish named Nixon, and Nixon enjoyed a modest sized, glass tank, colorfully decked out. Nixon was it. However, in education, it’s a bigger world, with all of the politics, fundraising, and paperwork that go with an institution.Nixon 1

Then there are the difficult students. Some don’t show up, turn in assignments, or make themselves an active part of a course. They might entertain unrealistic hopes of salvaging success. My least favorite questions are, “Do you think I can catch up?” and “Can I still pass?” I generally only say that I can only go by what students turn in, adding a recommendation for withdrawal where that appears best.

Nixon 2As institutional, political, and classroom problems mount, being a teacher can make a teacher wish for a simpler life like Nixon’s. Such, however, is merely fantasy. What is important is keeping the big view. This is the rescue when particular irritations and vexations need to be shrunk, while the big view is enlarged even more. Then, the good times go on, and the not-so-good times—well, they take on a less consuming perspective.

March Madness!

anneOnce again there is a buzz around college campuses – bracketology. Number 1 seed vs. Number 16 seed; who will advance who will no;, and who is the Cinderella team? Sound all too familiar? Well, if you are a sports fan, it should. President Obama just completed his bracket choices. Las Vegas is buzzing with making odds on each and every team. It is mayhem for about 4 weeks.

In my house there is a 3’ X 4’ poster of the NCAA men’s tournament brackets. With great care, it is updated daily after each and every game result. This will be displayed until the end of the tournament. One big exception:  if “our” team wins the tournament, it will stay up well into the summer – bragging rights, you know! Presidential+NCAA+Bracket+2016

Coaches plan strategies, work long hours designing plays, schedule specific teams to play and work hour upon hour in practice gyms from October until March in preparation for this event. Player’s shortcomings are tweaked down to the tiniest detail. The end result is focused on being as close to perfect as you can be. Everyone watches ESPN Selection Sunday to see who is in and who is out, whom each team will play, and where they will be going. Then it’s GAME ON!

caliperiIt dawned on me that this sounds similar to what happens at our college. At the beginning of the term you receive your team. Some are going to be NBA draft picks, and some need to be worked with to get them off the bench and onto the playing floor Some of the team (bless their hearts) will sit on the bench the entire season.

Planning strategies for classes and practice sessions are meticulously designed.  Working tirelessly for long hours becomes what you do. What can be done in class to make sure all of the players are getting the correct training? Your time frame is a short – 4 and one-half months (eight weeks at Fort Campbell!). In that short time students are expected to develop a knowledge base of the subject matter and prove to be proficient in the material. Each and every class is getting that student ready to participate in the “big dance”. lesson-plans-and-aims

As a coach, what is your game plan? The success of these players depends on what you provide in the way of educational material. You are taking your experience, knowledge and expertise, just as coaches do, and helping them to become successful. Think about it.

From Spectator to Player on the Field

Brian picOne of my professors made a comment one day in class about football, saying, “At a football game you see 22 players on the field desperately in need of rest and 55,000 people in the stands desperately in need of exercise.” Our class had signed up to hear the famous lectures of this salty professor, but he let us know that we would not be spectators only, and his assignments proved that.SpectatorsImage

Though his lectures were stimulating, full of pith, and insightful, his assignments were designed to make students concentrate on all levels. They brought out the global picture of a text but also required noticing tiny details. The assignments were like an elaborate quilt; it gives up immediately what the main picture is, while at the same time including rich, small details without which the quilt would fail as a work of art.

1218_boston-marathon-2I notice passivity in some students who come to college. They got by previously by being “good listeners” and taking tests or doing worksheets. The premium for them has been intake of information and the ability to replicate it from memory. Intake and replication are vital to any profession, but eventually the practitioner learns to discover how to use information in difficult situations where the human component is present.

That is the sticky part—the human part. Humans defy neat categories, and so applying knowledge to them goes beyond our spectator days. We have to put our knowledge into play on the field and not in the stands.knowledgepic

It is true that every endeavor has its virtuosos whom we love to observe. Certainly it is a wonderful thing to study and celebrate the works of a master in any field. However, virtuosos are not a separate category of human. All humans live by giving their all to play at something and serve others. Everyone has a game to play, and to play well means a move from spectator to doer, which reminds me of a scripture, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

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.

More Organic Carrots in the Classroom, Please

Brian picThe debate about organic foods is always interesting. Articles can range from minimizing the benefits, to maximizing them, to remaining indecisive. Ten years ago, the English department derived its 102 exit exam from three articles—one from each opinion on the spectrum, and students wrote their own argument using the articles as sources. Many students were willing to try organic foods except for the price. Would it be worth it? Generally, they thought not.

Organic_Food2I’m interested because our son’s family in Boone, NC buys organic milk, meat, and certain fruits and vegetables. Their favorite store is Earth Fare, and the store is marvelous. I love going there, and even if the foods are not boosting my life span or vigor, the store is a work of art and an immensely pleasurable outing, so I count part of the cost under the entertainment budget.

The reason for this blog today, however, is not to encourage organic eating but to share an insight that comes from organic carrots and how instructors would like more of their students to be like an organic carrot and less like a carrot sprayed with pesticide.

earth-fare-on-hendersonville-rd-asheville-nc-cheese-005While looking at news stories on line at NPR, I noticed an article by Allison Aubrey on organic food. Click—I opened it. Therein was one of the most interesting study strategies for college students. But first, let’s think about carrots.

Aubrey cites the work of Professor Chris Seal, who explains that certain nutrients come about by stress on a plant. Aubrey goes on to say, “if a carrot fly lands on a carrot and starts to chew on it, what options does the plant have? If it’s a conventionally grown carrot, a pesticide can be applied to repel the pest. But in organic agriculture, that carrot has to fend for itself a bit more. So, Seal explains, the carrot produces compounds … which taste bitter to the carrot fly. These polyacetylene compounds may help drive the fly away — and, serendipitously, this compound may benefit us as well.”

carrotsHow great it is when a student turns into an organic carrot of a student. Adversity begins to work in the student’s favor by producing resistance to predators and by developing healthy internal nutrients, beneficial both for the student and for the quality of the carrot offered to the instructor. Definitely, instructors can taste the difference and feel the vibrancy of the organic student.

Work Cited: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/02/18/467136329/is-organic-more-nutritious-new-study-adds-to-the-evidence