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.



Brian picWhen I was in K-12, there was one thing I did not want to hear at school: “We’re going to have to tell your parents.” That was bad news. Even the threat of such brought amazing compliance on my part, well sometimes. Off at a university 600 miles away was another story, much more remote.

A Community college has a local feel, but still, students have entered another world—one where adulthood is imminent or has arrived. A little parenting by the college, however, can be in order. It’s not that this is imposed, but it is offered in a new form named Starfish, which is a communications loop for progress reports, either kudos or alerts. starfish

A recent email posted notification that it was time to do the Starfish surveys, and frankly, it felt like a bother, so I ignored it for a few days. I even thought of not doing it. However, there was no point in being a rebel, and the surveys are easy to complete and not time consuming. I just didn’t like the idea of a third party being needed to get students to attend and do assignments.

A look at the calendar of an eight week course pricked me with increased urgency. Week four was beginning, and seven Starfish flags were in order. The next day, my email contained assignments from three of the flagged students plus several Starfish emails about conversations between Starfish coordinator, Teresa Bailey, and flagged students.

Woman-Pointing-Her-Finger-006I felt like the school who had told the students’ parent, albeit an institutional parent—a college official checking up on the students. Teresa is benign, but no student wants to be reported by an instructor. Being reported as delinquent is the opposite of pleasure in learning, but has its own effectiveness.

It is possible that some of the flagged students will make a brief rally and then fade. It is also possible that the rally will continue.

Speaking of Starfish reminds me of another story. When my ship was deployed to the Philippines in 1972, I found a beautiful starfish while snorkeling and put it in a cabinet to save. A few days later, a bad smell emanated from the cabinet, and my starfish had to sadly be tossed out. It needed the ocean to live, not a cabinet aboard a naval ship. It was naïve not to think this out beforehand. discus-fish

There is a good lesson there for all of us at a college. College is like an ocean. Students are a type of fish in it. In order to live, the fish need to spend enough time in the ocean, and the ocean keeps inviting them to do that.

Cell Phones in Class: Boon or Bane?

Building SkillsOur colleague Carol Kirves shared a link to a post from NPR-affiliate WKMS titled “How to Get Students to Stop Using Their Cell Phones in Class.” Author Anya Kamenetz describes a strategy employed by Dr. Doug Duncan at the University of Colorado Boulder. Duncan and others have done research noting the frequency of cell phone use in class, as well as the detriment performance that accompanies the inability to put down the phone.

After a unanimous class vote, Duncan offered his students an extra class point for leaving their phones on Duncan’s desk during class. That’s right, he “pays” (bribes? positively reinforces?) his students for turning off their phones. Another professor at a different institution said that he found that asking students to forgo cell phone usage during class was too stressful, so he avoids that cruel-and-unusual tactic by scheduling frequent cell phone breaks, starting with 1 minute between breaks and increasing over a few weeks to 30 minutes. Seriously.size1_55463_175339-children-using-smartphone

Here’s how I deal with this. My A&P students are free to use their phones during class to take photos of models, microscopic slides, the class displays, and almost anything else that they find helpful. They may not text during class. Many of them are solo parenting and/or have deployed family members. They may leave their phones on silent mode on their desks and leave to answer them as they deem necessary. (This rarely happens…maybe once ever 4 or 5 classes.)

During assessments, any phone that must be on—never more than a couple—goes on my desk in silent mode. I have had to deliver a phone to a student during an exam exactly once in the last eight years, and, yes, it was important.

Cell phones are not going away. Learning how to manage them appropriately is a challenge for instructors and students alike. We’d love to hear your strategies. For now, I’m agreeing with our buddy at


R2: A Place to Start

ReadingthuRsday-R2I recently came across a document from the National Forum on Information Literacy that addressed literacy standards for Adult Learners. While some are reminiscent of Bloom’s Hierarchy, the descriptions and actions associated with each level are focused on both print and electronic resources. I began to think about students who are trying to use electronic sources, but do not know where to start. start-here

Students often have difficulty determining which information is appropriate when dealing with electronic sources. I suggest student think about where their information if coming from, in other words, students should be aware of biased sites and sites which have false information. I suggest students pay attention to .org, .com, .edu, and .gov as clues to the sites they choose. Of course, this is easier talked about than done. When a site is amateurish, and it has format and grammar or spelling errors, one is more apt to not trust the site. geekclubbooks_mazeHowever, sites that are very polished are often very tempting for students looking for quick information. So, I now encourage students to go ahead and look at Wikipedia, but with the idea such a site is a starting point, a place to find some key terms and to get some type of very “loose” notion of how to proceed. I also caution about the use of blogs. Some blogs just sound so good, students are easily swayed. So, once again, I remind students blog might help them get a “feel” for their topic, but blogs are just a place to graze and not a place to fill one’s plate.ConfusionLaptop

For a student who is a novice to finding and using information to write a paper, to understand a concept, or to just get more information, the wide array of information available in electronic and print sources is overwhelming. So, it is important to share our experiences with students about how we find source material and use source material. A few minutes during instructors’ explanations about papers and projects about how to locate good source material and a few suggestions for sites and databases give our students a better chance of being a good consumer.

Classhack: Starfish Kudos

starfishOur college has implemented Starfish Retention Solutions, an online system designed to enhance advising and student success. Starfish offers the opportunity to create “Kudos” for individual students in each of my classes. Initially, I assigned a Kudo to each student who earned an “A” on a big exam. Student response was remarkably positive, with verbal and email thanks from recipients. More recently, I have used the “Showing improvement” Kudo for students who have made significant progress but may not yet have reached the upper tier of performance. These students seem to be even more pleased to receive the encouragement, perhaps because their efforts aren’t as frequently acknowledged.

Why do Kudos work? Students are surprised to find  little goodies in their inboxes. The messages allow them to own something of value. Above all, the praise offers convincing evidence that they are meeting an achievable challenge.

It takes only a few moments to enter the Kudos after each major assessment, as Starfish is easily accessible via BlackBoard. So far, I have only used the ready-made messages, but I plan to come up with some more  original and personal versions for next term. Have you tried assigning Kudos yet? How did your students respond?

Classhack: Rhonna Designs

rhonnaFormer student Danielle Pleas sent an email this week touting the utility of Rhonna Designs, an app available from iTunes for $1.99. While taking Anatomy & Physiology I & II, Danielle used her phone to take some great photographs through her microscope and labeled her efforts using PicCollage, which we featured in a previous post. Now she’s experimenting with Rhonna, as seen in this shot of the kidney model below.



My students continue to suprise me with clever ways to use technology to enhance their learning experience. Danielle’s generosity in sharing her work with her study buddies has made her a favorite among her colleagues.

Classhack: YouTube Playlists

keep-calm-get-organized-blueYou may have used YouTube videos to enhance your classes. When students learn that I’m interested in using videos, they are eager to share their own finds, often presenting me with “gifts” that are as good or better than my originals. Sometimes class discussions lead to students mentioning topics from the news, television shows, or movies, and we go to the web to learn more. My own web surfing surprises me with some really useful treasures, too.

Problems arose as my collection grew. Having all my goodies in a file marked “Favorites” became an unwieldy mess, and I was reluctant to waste precious class time searching for that great clip I’d saved among 250 others. Finally, I made a playlist for each chapter that I teach, as well as separate lists for “Inspiration” and “Funnies,” for those days when I really, really need to show one of those.

My playlist system often reminds me that I have stashed some great stuff that would otherwise have been forgotten. Plus, it allows me to store comments like, “This is the best one,” or “Stop after the first 3 minutes,” or “Explain terminology before playing.” The lists are easy to generate and modify, too. Here’s a screen shot of part of my playlist for the chapter on cell biology:


For easy-to-follow instructions on how to make your own playlists, click here. Your lectures may become more lively as your students help you find the best resources.