My strategies for mentoring undergraduate researchers

At this year’s ESA meeting, I was part of an Inspire session organized by Nate Emery on “Students As Ecologists: Collaborating with Undergraduates from Scientific Question to Publication”. It occurred to me that my talk would be good fodder for a blog post. So, here are (some of) my thoughts on some specific strategies for working with undergraduates in the lab. This post includes information both on types of projects that we’ve had undergraduates work on, as well as things that I think are important related to working with undergraduates in the lab.

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Results of poll on preferred number of times to teach a course

Last winter, I did a poll asking about preferences related to the number of times people prefer to teach a particular course. Embarrassingly, I never got around to writing up the results post, even though I think the results were interesting! So, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here are the results!

tl;dr: Most people prefer to teach the same course over and over and over again. Those preferences don’t seem to change much over a career, but, if they do, they are more likely to move in the direction of preferring to teach a particular course fewer times. Faculty in teaching-intensive positions reported having less control over what they teach and were less likely to say they are happy with their teaching assignments in the past three years (as compared to faculty not in teaching intensive positions); a key driver of that is department teaching needs.

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What if we make a class better for student learning but unsustainable for faculty?

I wrote a few years ago about our overhaul of Intro Bio at Michigan. We substantially reduced the amount of content we cover in the course (though I suspect current students would be surprised to realize that – it still feels like more than enough). We also added in more in class activities (clicker questions as well as other things such as in class short answer problems and exercises aimed at increasing students’ comfort levels with figures). And, most notably for this post, we added in frequent quizzing. Students are expected to take a quiz before every class, with more basic questions related to the readings for that day, as well as higher order questions related to previous classes. Writing the questions for the quizzes the first semester was overwhelming, but my hope was that, in future semesters, it would be much less work. While it’s been less work, it’s still quite a stressful part of the course for me. After teaching the course multiple times after the semester where we overhauled things, I still feel like I am crawling across the finish line at the end of the semester – and that’s with teaching only half the semester! When I teach Intro Bio the next time, I will teach the whole semester, and I am pretty concerned about what state I will be in by the end of the semester if I teach the course the same way we have in recent years. The current course does not feel sustainable.

In talking with others who use similar approaches, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Teaching this way takes up a huge amount of time, and we still have our other responsibilities (mentoring students, keeping our research programs going, department service, editorial responsibilities, etc.) Lately, I’ve been in multiple conversations with others where we wondered: what do we do if we’ve made a course demonstrably better for student learning but, at the same time, not sustainable for the faculty teaching it?

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Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.

Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.

So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

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How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns

(Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, and suicide discussed below)

I recently attended a really great workshop on interacting with students who are experiencing mental health issues. The workshop was run by Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), which is a fantastic resource. One thing that makes it especially good is that it has the CRLT Players – a theatre program that “uses a diverse array of performance arts to spark dialogue”. Often, they act out a scenario and then pause, allowing the audience members time to reflect and discuss different aspects of the situation in small groups. It’s amazingly effective! They are really good at creating scenarios where there’s no clear “best” option, which leads to really rich discussions.

In this case, the focus of this workshop (run by Sara Armstrong) was student mental health, and the players acted out a scenario where a student approaches her professor to ask for an extension on an end-of-semester assignment. The student discloses that she’s been having a rough time and having a hard time getting her work done. I suspect I’ve spent more time than the average faculty member thinking about how to support students with mental health conditions, but I still learned a lot from the workshop. The workshop also included a great handout with principles to guide interactions with students with mental health concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was covered since the workshop and there’s been a lot of interest in the past when I’ve posted about supporting students with mental health conditions, hence this post.

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Teaching tip: Start lectures with a short video

“Okay. Let’s get started… Okay everyone. It’s time to start. Okay…Alright. Time to start. Okay…..” If you’ve ever taught a large lecture, you may have found yourself standing in front of the room saying things along those lines for the first minute or two of class. It’s really awkward and such an unsatisfying way to start class. So, when I started teaching Intro Bio with Trisha Wittkopp back in 2014, I loved her idea: start class with a short (1-2 min long) video clip that relates to that day’s lecture. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that I loved this idea, given that I maintain a list of videos for teaching ecology.)

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Poll: What’s your preferred teaching arrangement?

Recently, there was a twitter discussion about whether to compress all teaching into one semester. I suspect this discussion is most relevant to folks at research-oriented institutions, since high teaching loads at teaching-oriented institutions often make it impossible to combine all teaching into one semester. Thinking of tenure track faculty at US & Canadian research-oriented institutions, I know several folks who prefer to do all their teaching in one semester. I do all my teaching in one semester right now, but would prefer that it not be arranged that way. So, I’m curious about how much variation there is in preferences, in actual practices, and in reasons for preferences. I could get all fancy and do this as a google form that would allow for cross-tabs, but I’m not sure I’ll have time to do the analyses. So, here’s the quick-and-dirty approach:

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Poll results: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

Last week, I did a quick poll asking people how much math they think is involved in ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, and also how much math they use in their own research. What counts as a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math is up for debate, of course. But I am most interested in the comparison between the three fields and, especially, in comparing the responses of DE readers with those of my intro bio students.

To give more explanation: it seems clear to me that undergrads are generally surprised by the amount of math that is in ecology. And, from talking with colleagues (here and elsewhere), it’s clear I’m not the only person who has the impression that college students do not expect ecology to involve math.

I’ve been thinking about how to try to address this with students. I want to try to better prepare them for what the ecology section of the course will involve. I worked with Susan Cheng (Cornell) to design a survey for students, polling them on their views of ecology, evolution, and genetics. We ran the survey at the beginning of the semester and plan on running it again at the end of the semester to see whether/how views change.

What did we find?
75% of incoming Intro Bio students think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. But only 33% think ecologists do.

How does that compare with DE readers?
64.7% of Dynamic Ecology poll respondents think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. 78.5% think ecologists do.

And how does that compare with what ecologists report in terms of how much math they use in their own research? 80% of DE poll respondents who identified as ecologists said they use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math.

(Sample sizes: For Intro Bio, n = 271; for the DE poll, n = 349; for the subset of just ecologists, n = 225)

In other words: there is a really big difference between the amount of math that students just starting Intro Bio think ecology will involve vs. how much ecologists say it involves.

I’ve been thinking about how I will talk about this with students. I think that, at the start of the population ecology lecture, I will tell them that there’s something that often surprises students: ecology involves math. I will note that most people haven’t been exposed to ecology before taking the course – it was certainly true for me that I never thought about ecology before getting to college. I think that, as a first year college student, I didn’t really know what ecology was, but probably had a vague sense that it was what you see in the nature videos on PBS. It definitely did not occur to me that it involved math! I can then transition to saying this is similar to what students in this year’s course think. I then plan on presenting the same set of numbers that I have above. My hope with this is not to scare them, but to better prepare them for what is coming.

I think it’s problematic that, this year and the two previous times I’ve taught Intro Bio, I’ve only taught the ecology half of the course. That means I haven’t worked with the students through all the genetics stuff — which is hard but in a way that they expect. So, I haven’t developed a rapport with the students as we work through that material. That means one potential explanation for why there’s an unexpected about of math in the ecology portion of the course is simply that I’m a mean person who likes to make things hard. So, I’ve asked to teach the entire semester the next time I teach. I think it will help a lot.

We plan on surveying the students at the end of the semester to see how their views have changed. I’m very interested in seeing those results, but I’m not sure they will change much. Again, because I’m only teaching the second half of the course, some of them might not change their views on how much math is involved in ecology because they might still think that I was just making things unnecessarily hard. (We actually don’t do a lot of math, in my opinion. There’s no Lotka-Volterra, for example. But it’s more than they expect.) So, I’m interested not just in seeing how the views change this semester, but also how they change in future semesters. My hope is that, in the future, I will be able to prepare them for ecology involving math by showing them data on how views of previous students changed over the course of the semester.

Do you find undergraduates who are new to ecology are surprised by what ecology is, including the amount of math it involves? What (if anything) do you do to try to prepare them for what ecology is?

Poll: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

Something I’ve been interested in is student views on ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, including how much math they think is involved in the different disciplines. I’ve surveyed my Intro Bio students to get their views, and realized it would be interesting to compare it to what ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists think. Hence this poll! The poll is brief, but I’m doing it in google forms so I can do the cross tabs.

Here’s the link to the poll in case the embedding doesn’t work. The embedded poll is below the break.

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