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?”

Guest author, Beth Beverly, on “Laugh and Learn”

Approaching education with a creative learning environment has been a subject discussed for quite some time. I am always enlightened and intrigued to incorporate new ways for students to not only learn the material at hand, but to actually enjoy the process.

 Enjoy learning? Yes! Extensive research has shown that the amount of serotonin released in the brain during pleasurable experiences enhances the ability to retain and recall, thus it makes perfect sense to attempt to make education pleasurable for students. How we as instructors do this is the true question.

  It’s convenient to make a comment such as, “I hope you enjoy this lecture!” However, when you look out amongst the bored stiff, nodding off, doodling, staring blankly into the unknown faces in the room…it’s not hard to figure out that they are far from the word “enjoy.”  Grasping the understanding that education can actually be taught in an enjoyable and even pleasurable way has reshaped the very way that I approach the classroom.

One of the comments that I have found extremely flattering on student evaluations is that students love coming to my class, and have fun learning the difficult material. I start pleasure learning on day one with an introduction to my life. I have found that becoming personal with students makes a huge difference in how they receive you as an instructor. I want my classroom to be relaxed and as stress free as possible, so from the beginning I attempt to make a connection with them that will give them confidence to participate in my open floor policy.

 What’s that? Well, in my class at anytime if someone is struggling, we will pause for a question and answer explanation. The entire class will participate in helping answer questions. Of course, I will guide the session, but this allows students to shine and take pride in what they know. Students love this activity, and I always have great participation. I have over heard several students asking each other, “Hey, what was that you said about antibiotics the other day?” It engages them and helps them be a part of the class as opposed to just sitting there.

Another pleasurable approach I take would be humor. Ask anyone that has taken my class, and I guarantee they can remember at least one silly or funny story that I have told. You’ve heard that laughter is the best medicine…well it’s also a great educator! I have students come into the classroom on the first day of class and say “So what about the honey bees?” or “I’m suppose to ask you about the opossum!” I just smile and assure them I’ll tell that story when the time is right. Having students laugh and learn has been very successful in my class. I give them fun examples that are often real life experiences that they can not only relate to, but remember. Granted I do get some “pity” laughs since not all of my jokes are humorous…but then that’s in the arm anyway.

Attacking education with pleasurable experiences is a wonderful way to help students learn. Many instructors do this already and don’t even realize it! Students gravitate to certain professors because they know the class will be fun or exciting. Incorporating even a small amount of pleasure in the class can make a huge difference!


(pleasureteam note: Elizabeth Beverly teaches a popular course in medical microbiology at Hopkinsville Community College.  Her students love her upbeat personality and her creative teaching style.)