Two pathologies

Today I’m moved to reflect on the two pathologies gripping our nation, and our world. The first is Covid-19 bringing not only death, illness and fear, but also joblessness, uncertainty, loss of hope, and conflict over when and how much to reopen for business and normal social life. The second is racism, bringing death and illness from violence, inequities in health care, jobs, housing, education, and so many other facets of life. The two pathologies intersect, so that people of color are disproportionately falling ill and dying of Covid-19.

My thoughts today owe their inspiration from a broadcast email from the chair of MIT’s Biology department, Alan Grossman. In this email, Prof. Grossman confesses to his own struggles to come to mental grips with the George Floyd tragedy. He wrote that, as a biologist, he could understand and deal with Covid-19. Certainly many uncertainties remain about the biology and pathology of the virus, and hugely consequential questions are being debated about how cities and states should respond. But this pandemic will pass. As biologists, we know what the solution looks like – a vaccine. We know reasonably well when this pandemic started and we can estimate how long it may take to get to the end.

In contrast, the pathology of racism appears to have no beginning – it has seemingly always afflicted humanity. We cannot see an end. We appear to have no effective treatments or vaccines. To biologists knowledgeable about human genetics, the concept of human races is almost nonsensical. Every human population is a twig or branch of the great tree of humanity rooted in Africa. Yet our notions of race and tribe complicate everything.

I am in my mid-sixties. Until a few years ago, I had thought that modern societies, and the United States especially, had made significant progress towards equity and justice. I witnessed the first Black President of the United States, and nearly the first woman President. A naturalized, Korean-American immigrant, I had married a woman who could trace her ancestry to the Mayflower. We have a beautiful daughter who embraces both her ancestries, and she went to wonderfully diverse public schools and has friends of all colors.

Then Trump was elected President. I cannot adequately express my shock, disbelief and sense of betrayal, still. A man who was the darling of white supremacists and actual neo-Nazis. A man who repeatedly doubled down on insults and slurs towards Mexicans and Africans. A man on video record as boasting about grabbing women’s genitals. A man who was obviously ignorant of both the US Constitution and the Christian Bible. White Christian Americans voted for him in droves. People in my own church voted for him – people I had respected and considered friends.

Until today I have been stunned into muteness. I recalled my immigrant experience from childhood to adulthood, trying so hard to blend in, and always being conscious that I was different – the only Asian kid in my class, in my high school. The unshakeable feeling that I wasn’t a real American, because real Americans are white, as in all the TV shows and movies and books. Now the President of the United States is saying that implicitly in his tweets and actions. So are his supporters – all the people who voted for him and continue to support him and vote for his enablers in the Senate and House of Representatives. People in my own church.

Oh, they make exceptions for me and others they know personally. They can deal with and show kindness to select “other” individuals. So their lips disavow racism, while their votes elect racists and support racist policies.

I look now for strength and inspiration to the people who have most suffered injustice and oppression. The black community has learned how to endure, and continue to strive, live, and love one another and love their white neighbors in the face of daily injustices.

I no longer think we can cure or even treat effectively the pathology of racism. What we can do, and must do, is care for one another, and pray that will be enough.

I pledge to support and care for each person as I find them.

I pledge to act on my faith that every human being is beloved of our Creator.

All lives cannot matter until black lives matter, and Hispanic and Asian and native American and queer and every other color and kind of lives matter.

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A little empathy can go a long way

A student stopped me today on my way back from lunch. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him at first. Then I recalled that he had appeared at my office door last year, out of the blue. He had been a student in my large Biol 1510 class – one of over 200 students. But not that semester; some previous semester, and he had never come to my office before or ever spoken to me. So he was not one of my current students, and I learned that he was not even a Biology major – he was a bioengineering student. He was desperately seeking help and advice, and he must have thought that I was at least approachable. And my office door was open.

He was an international student in danger of failing out of school. He was messing up in his undergraduate research. I pulled up his academic transcript and his grades were all over the place.  We talked. I asked him what he really liked doing, about his dreams for his future. He was clearly extremely bright, but I thought I could see signs of ADHD. I gave him some words of encouragement: I mentioned Steve Jobs as someone who had similar interests and talents. I urged him to seek counseling and get tested, and advised him to consider a change of majors to better suit his true interests. I also invited him back to talk at any time.

I did not see him again until today, on my way back from lunch. He told me he took my words of encouragement to heart – he told his parents that I compared him to Steve Jobs and they were impressed. He got diagnosed and on medication. He was booted from his undergraduate research lab, but he changed majors and he is now doing very well, and he’s happy.

I spent less than an hour with him. I can’t claim that I mentored him – that takes much more time and a deeper relationship. I had an open door and showed him some empathy. And that was just enough, apparently, for him to take action and get his life back on track.

Today is a day I celebrate an unexpected and hitherto unknown victory.

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Is it time to ban studies of computers in classrooms?

“Is It Time To Ban Computers From Classrooms?” asks the title of an NPR blog post by Tania Lombrozo. Her post is a mostly accurate summary of a new working paper by Carter, Greenberg and Walker: “The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy” reporting the results of a study conducted in Spring 2015 and Fall 2015 with 726 West Point students taking an introductory Economics course.

The punchline of the paper is that allowing laptop or tablet computers in the classroom lowered final exam scores by 0.18 standard deviation (1.7% – the mean was 72% with a standard deviation of 9%). The students were randomly assigned to sections, and each professor taught both a section that allowed computer use and a section that banned computer use. All sections took the same final exam, that included multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. The authors could thus account for professor effect, GPA, and student self-selection, making this truly a randomized controlled study.

The authors argue that the size of the negative effect of computer use could be considerably larger in other college or university settings. The class size at West Point is capped at 18 students per section, and professors are expected to interact with all the students in a class session. West Point students may be more motivated because their overall grades and class rank affect their priority for post-graduation postings, and they are subject to discipline for inappropriate classroom behavior. At other colleges or universities, students in larger classes may may have less motivation to stay on task and experience greater temptation to engage in distracting computer use.

The study methodology and data analysis look really solid. These conclusions are in agreement with previous studies that all reported a negative effect of computer use on student performance. But I say these studies are misdirected.

I’ll start with key details of this study. The authors had 2 different “treatments” in the computer use category, in addition to the sections that completely banned computer use. Some sections had no restrictions on use of laptops or tablets. Other section allowed only tablets (iPads), that had to stay flat on the desktop during class. In lieu of measuring actual student computer use, the professors monitored and recorded student computer use during 3 class sessions over the course of the semester. In the sections that allowed unrestricted computer use, 80% of students used a laptop or tablet during at least 1 of the 3 class session. In the sections that restricted use to tablets that had to stay flat on the desk, only 40% of students used a tablet in at least 1 of the 3 class sessions. Despite the disparity in observed computer use in the two treatments, the supposed negative effect of computer use was indistinguishable (0.18 vs 0.17 standard deviations).

Another key detail is that the negative effect was observed only with the multiple-choice and short-answer questions that were machine-graded. The grades on the essay questions, graded by the professors, were the same between banned, restricted, and unrestricted computer use sections. Although the authors discount the essay question grades as being subjective, they do acknowledge that the essay questions addressed higher-order conceptual thinking than the multiple-choice and short answer questions.

If computer usage is detrimental, why doesn’t it scale with the amount of usage, and why does it not affect higher-order conceptual thinking?

Of the course, the biggest problem with this study and others like it, is that the course did not integrate computers into their classroom lessons. The authors themselves admonish in their concluding paragraph:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material.

In other words, there was not a functional role for computers in these classrooms. Computers were irrelevant to learning – only 40% of students used a tablet in the tablet-restricted sections.

I argue that this and other such studies are tantamount to studying the effect of any potentially distracting, useless item in the classroom. The effect of pet rocks in the classroom. The effect of goldfish in the classroom. The effect of allowing eating candy in the classroom. There is no potential upside to having computers, or pet rocks, or goldfish, or candy in the classroom, if the lesson does not use any of these things. These studies are asking the wrong or irrelevant questions. What I’d really like to see are studies of how students using computers can enhance mastering of particular learning objectives, compared to other methods.

So by all means, if you are teaching in a way that has no use for computers, ban them. But in this information age, I prefer to challenge my students to explore, analyze, evaluate, create, and communicate with the universe of information and computing tools now available to them.


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Gardner Campbell’s “Apgar” test for student engagement

Thanks to a link from my Twitter feed, I clicked on Gardner Campbell’s UNFIS 2015 keynote talk on “A Taxonomy of Student Engagement” on Youtube. I was enraptured for over an hour – the video itself is an hour and 5 minutes, but I paused and took notes and wrote this post. His talk turned around my ideas about student engagement and course syllabi and student assessment, and among the many interesting ideas he presented was this: a simple 5-question test to assess the health of student engagement in a course.

1. Did you read the material for today’s class meeting carefully?

No = 0, Yes, once = 1, Yes, more than once = 2

2. Did you come to class today with questions or items you’re eager to discuss?

No = 0, Yes, one = 1, Yes, more than one = 2

3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting?

No = 0, Yes, one person = 1, Yes, more than one person = 2

4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study?

No = 0, Yes, one item = 1, Yes, more than one item = 2

5. Since our last class meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings?

None to 29 minutes = 0, 30 minutes to an hour = 1, over an hours = 2

From Gardner Campbell, UNFIS 2015 keynote – a Taxonomy of Student Engagement

I’m afraid that many of my students will often score near zero, unless they’re studying for the upcoming midterm. Gardner’s point is that we have a tendency to over-prescribe what our students shall do, and we spend our energies monitoring and rewarding compliance, in ways that detract from student interest and engagement with the course topics. We may be constrained by large class sizes, our colleagues expectations, and the need to assess student learning outcomes, but can we think creatively about even small ways that we can truly engage our students?


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First ever Georgia Tech School of Biology teaching retreat

We had our first ever biennial teaching retreat this past Wednesday and Thursday for Biology faculty, at Callaway Gardens. I emailed a solicitation for agenda items, a number of faculty responded, and Linda Green put together a final agenda. Fourteen Biology faculty attended, including all of our teaching faculty (Academic Professionals).

We began Wednesday afternoon with a session featuring 2 interconnected ideas: student metacognition and breaking the lecture mold to deepen student learning. This session began with some slides and data from Saundra McGuire’s talks on metacognition at the Southeast Regional PULSE Institute last summer and at Georgia Tech this spring. Linda and I shared our survey data on students in Biol 1510/11 and Biol 1520 (our introductory biology sequence) from the past two years, on how much time they spend and the methods they use for studying and learning.

This discussion then segued into one way of encouraging metacognitive practices in our students: “flipped” or “inverted” classes. Linda and I showed data from our flipped intro classes, and from Meg Duffy’s blog post on her flipped intro bio class at the U. of Michigan. In all 3 classes, student exam grades either increased or stayed the same in the flipped model, even though the exam questions shifted to higher levels in Bloom’s taxonomy. Linda has also teased apart her Biol 1520 students according to major, and found that students of all majors performed well in the flipped format, except for computer science majors. This is a single observation with a small n (n = 6); more observations are needed to see whether a consistent pattern emerges.

Wednesday evening was an after-dinner social and poster session, featuring teaching projects that our faculty have engaged in. This was BYOB, as the state of Georgia does not permit its monies to be spent on alcoholic beverages. Maybe we can find a sponsor for the next retreat to spring for such lubrication.

Thursday morning began with Shana Kerr presenting results from her study of vertical integration of the learning objectives (LOs) from Biol 1510 Principles of Biology with our 2xxx/3xxx core courses: Ecology, Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology, and Evolution. Each core course has a corresponding module in Biol 1510. Shana surveyed faculty who teach the core courses to rate each Biol 1510 LO as to whether the LO was essential, important, or not relevant for students entering their core course. The results were largely as expected, and most Biol 1510 LOs were rated important for their follow-on core courses, with a few points worthy of note:

  • Photosynthesis LOs are not required or elaborated by any of the core courses; most students will not study photosynthesis after Biol 1510.
  • Origin of life is discussed in Biol 1510 and in Evolution with some instructors, but perhaps not consistently
  •  LOs that address the metabolic and structural diversity of prokaryotes are not germane to any of our required core courses, although they are important for our elective Intro Microbiology course.
  • Genetics LOs were rated as important or essential by both Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology courses, indicating that these two courses have substantial overlap of these topics.
  • drift and other neutral evolutionary processes were lost (not sufficiently emphasized) in either the core Evolution course or Biol 1510 evolution module.
  • some topics of themes may be threaded across modules in Biol 1510 or across courses (e.g., cystic fibrosis)
  • may be interesting to map Bloom’s taxonomy levels to coverage of topics in Intro to core to senior elective courses

Linda Green and Mirjana Brockett then followed with how they use case studies in their classes. Linda handed out copies of Chemical Eric from the NCCSTS (U. Buffalo), and asked faculty to discern what LOs or topics this case study addresses. Mira presented results from her Class of 1969 Teaching Scholars work and a paper she authored on teaching the Evolution course. I concluded this session with 5 minutes of showing how I use Learning Catalytics for case study work in Biol 1510, and to ask students for metacognitive reflection at the end of the case study.

After a short break, Chrissy Spencer and Patrick Bardill discussed how they train undergraduate and graduate student teaching assistants, in a CETL class and in weekly lab prep sessions. The training emphasizes how to lead students through active learning and inquiry-based learning. One important discussion arose from a question about plagiarism. Although the TAs are told about how to define and detect plagiarism, some of the TAs themselves may need a more in-depth understanding of the gray areas.

We also had two working group sessions, in the morning and in the afternoon. In the morning, faculty clustered in 4 main topic areas discussed possible active learning approaches for particular concepts or learning objectives. In the afternoon, faculty groups extended Shana’s vertical integration study by mapping the Biol 1510 LOs not only to their respective core courses, but to senior level capstone elective courses. This discussion was especially rich and productive, as this was possibly the first opportunity for faculty that taught intro, core, and senior electives to get together and examine the vertical flow of concepts and topics.

The concluding general discussion had reports of the different faculty groups and discussion of some salient curricular matters. The group reached consensus on some action items:

  • continue and deepen assessment activities, for metacognition, flipped instruction, case studies, and other pedagogical initiatives.
  • faculty teaching the Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology core courses should discuss the substantial overlap between these courses, and possible alteration of course content. In particular, the Genetics course could make room for more quantitative genetics and genomics if most of the molecular genetics (central dogma and gene regulation) were left to Cell and Molecular Biology.
  • extend the vertical integration study to apply to lab skills
  • articulate LOs for the core courses (already done for Ecology; revisit with revised LOs for ecology module of Biol 1510)
  • bioethics, currently a 2 credit-hour course with a 1 credit-hour supplemental “readings in bioethics” addition, should become a 3 credit hour class, with an Institute-wide “ethics” designation.
  • identify faculty to “think about” Biology’s role in Georgia Tech’s Quality Enhancement Plan initiatives on service learning and sustainability, and to develop ideas of courses and curricula.
  • faculty who have flipped their classes will invite other faculty to their classes to observe how these class sessions actually work.

Overall, the retreat was productive, stimulating and time well-spent. We all learned from each other, from small tips and tricks to broader issues of how biology is changing, especially in genetics and genomics, and how to revise our curricula and teaching practices to deepen student learning. I look forward to doing this again in two years.

Slides and documents shared at the teaching retreat:


Blooms Verb Table

Biology core curriculum vertical alignment Bio Vertical Alignment Analysis for Teaching Retreat Intro course LO evaluation Core course topic evaluation – Evolution Core course topic evaluation – Cell & Molecular Core course topic evaluation – Ecology Core course topic evaluation – Genetics

CETL Class of 1969 Teaching Scholars Additional material from the meeting talk

Biology Teaching Retreat 2015 – TA Training Worksheet Biology Teaching Retreat 2015 – TA Training Notes

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