Pedagogy and a Pint

bar-406884_1280Academics have many draws on their time: research (grant applications, writing papers, speaking at conferences), teaching (planning lectures and workshops, delivering teaching, marking), and administration (committees on all of the above and more – admissions, marketing, student education, research, outreach). Most of that is just keeping things afloat, and so we sometimes lack the time to develop new ideas and discuss interesting and novel ways of working. Over the past couple of years I have been the “Academic Champion for Blended Learning” in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and that has meant that I have spent a fair amount of time horizon scanning for teaching technology and working with early adopters. However, trying to roll-out big initiatives (like our brilliant new lecture capture system) can be hard because staff have limited time to engage. Recently, I tried something new to give colleagues an opportunity to talk about teaching: “Pedagogy and a Pint”.

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One simple way to increase visibility of your scientific publications

Background: As well as publishing in ecology and evolutionary biology, I am also interested in how that publishing industry works. There is a clear need to disseminate information as widely as possible in order to accelerate the rate of testing of new theories and discovery of new information. However, some publishing models (and some publishing companies) hide scientific research away so that most people do not have access to that work. Self-archiving is a way for researchers to make available certain forms of their research without breaking copyright (which is almost always handed over to the publishers).

What I did: I reviewed some of the literature on the benefits of self-archiving, in terms of the access to the general public and what has become known as the “open access advantage”: papers that are more openly available are cited more. I also show that over half of all ecology and evolution papers could have been archived in a format that was almost identical to their final, finished format without breaking copyright. I then highlight key methods that researchers can use to self-archive their work: publishing through institutional repositories, third party websites, or self-creation of online portfolios using online tools.

Importance: Self-archiving has the potential to open up research (often funded by taxpayers) to a far wider audience, and this is an important step towards making research more accessible to the general public.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled ““Going green”: self-archiving as a means for dissemination of research output in ecology and evolution”, was published in the journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution in 2013. You can find this paper for free at the publisher.

The psychology of animal camouflage

DisruptiveColourationBackground: There are a number of ways in which animals and plants attempt to defend themselves from predators. Sometimes they look or sound like something that they are not, such as another animal or plant that is venomous, in a process known as “mimicry”. Other times, rather than attempting to deceive a predator after being seen, the animal or plant might try to hide altogether. This second defensive strategy, known as “camouflage”, can take a number of forms. One of the most interesting forms of camouflage is “disruptive colouration” which involves breaking up the edge of an animal to make it harder to detect.

What we did: Rich Webster is a PhD student at Carleton University who applied a novel approach to the question of how disruptive colouration helps to hide animals. He used eye-tracking technology with humans as predators searching for digital moths on pictures of trees. With this approach he was able to see where people were looking and how long it really took them to find the “moth”. Importantly, he could also tell how many times they looked at the moth without actually seeing it. We were able to show that the length of time taken to find a target and the number of times that the target was missed were both significantly higher when the moth had a larger number of patches on the edge of its wings.

Importance: Mottled colouration has been observed in many species, but until now we have not had a clear description of the mechanism by which this form of defensive colouration acts. Our results provide that first insight into how and why predators sometimes fail to find prey which are camouflaged in this way.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Disruptive camouflage impairs object recognition”, was published in the journal Biology Letters in 2013. You can find this paper at the publisher or archived at Figshare.

Image credit: All images are by Rich Webster, and used with permission.

Online computer programming courses

Computer programming is becoming an increasingly important part of biology (my own discipline) and a range of other subjects.  Programming allows the analysis of data, the creation of software and the building of online resources and interfaces.  There are a range of online courses that you can take to develop these skills, and use as teaching aids for students, that cover a lot of different languages with different applications:

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Codeschool offers four key “paths” composed of sets of modules in different programming environments: Ruby and JavaScript (two different methods for online application building), HTML/CSS (web design), and iOS (for Apple apps).  However, they also offer “electives” alongside the main paths, looking at R (an open source programming language), Git (a method for version control in the development of programming), and Chrome Developer Tools (for apps in the Chrome browser).

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Codecademy, much like Codeschool, offers a wide range of programming languages. However, all courses through Codecademy are free of charge.  The focus is on web programming using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and application building using Ruby, APIs, and Python.  Codecademy also allows people to generate their own courses, meaning that there are many smaller sets of tutorials designed to teach specific principles.

An Example of Use
CodeSchool runs a course called “Try R“, which offers a few hours of interactive training in the R environment.  For those of you not familiar with theR language, R is an open source programming language that is mostly built around data manipulation and analysis.  The course itself loads within the website, with a simulated R environment within which the student can work.  The content covered includes: syntax, vectors, matrices, summary statistics, factors, data frames, and “working with real-world data”.  At Leeds we teach our MSc Biodiversity and Conservation students in R for a short period, but this is the kind of tool that the students can use to familiarise themselves more completely with the language.  It could also be a gentle introduction to some of the R-based MOOCs that are run by Coursera.

Twitter in teaching

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Twitter is known as a “micro-blogging” site, in the sense that communication through Twitter is restricted to 140 character “tweets”.  Probably as a result of this slightly unusual nature, it is rarely adopted in a teaching framework, but that doesn’t mean that there are not opportunities to use the platform to help students.  Uptake has not been helped by the fact that a relatively small minority of academics are currently using the service, meaning that there is a lack of familiarity.  There is also some jargon that you will needto be familiar with to interactthrough this medium:

  • Hashtags – these are tags denoted by the “#” character that group tweets according to particular topics.  For example, a recently published paper on avian phylogenies might be tagged as #bird #evolution.  This makes it easier for users to find and share relevant content.
  • Retweets – rather than generating all of your own content on Twitter, it is common practice to spread the content created by others.  If someone has posted something you found interesting, you can retweet (designated “RT” within the tweet) to push that back out to your followers.
  • Followers – the people who subscribe to tweets from your account are known as “followers” and you will see the option to “follow” other users on Twitter.  This is the audience for your tweets.

The good thing about Twitter is that there is a lot of information. The bad thing about Twitter is that there is a lot of information. Using Twitter effectively means being able to take what you can from the stream of data without feeling too bad about letting a lot of it slide past. This can be helped by managing lists of users of particular interest, and by using programmes that interface with Twitter, such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite.

An Example of Use
As part of a tutorial on research methods, a class of eight second year undergraduates are given the table of contents to three leading ecology journals from the past few weeks and are told to find a paper that they are interested in and engage with one of the authors on Twitter.  The exchange should involve questions related to the content of the paper or the authors’ similar work and should fit the format of the medium (140 characters).  The students should submit the Twitter exchange, along with a reflection on the experience and the information that was gathered, as an assignment for marking.  This kind of activity helps the student explore a medium of communication that is rarely emphasised within university education, as well as developing their online personae and potentially networking with important researchers.
Also think about:

  • Using Twitter as a communication tool with the rest of the class (e.g. posting assignment deadlines)
  • Using Twitter in-class, by incorporating a Twitter stream on a screen while teaching.  Students can then interact in real-time.

Student blogging

I don’t get many readers, but some people do find my blog and that has led to over 70k views for the past few years. I’m quite pleased with that, and it gives me the encouragement to carry on through the dry spells. However, I remember starting out and not knowing who would ever read (or even find) my blog. Now I have students who are setting out into the blogosphere and writing great material so I thought I would do my bit to send some traffic their way. Here is a quick list of their blogs, vlogs, radio shows and documentaries that I have come across recently:

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EcoSapien – my former student David has been busy working on a number of projects. EcoSapien is a YouTube show dedicated to spreading awareness about conservation and biodiversity, as well as providing resources for teachers to educate school pupils about wildlife.

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North Ronaldsay – David was also the mastermind behind a three-part documentary on the Orkney Island of North Ronaldsay. The show covers the history, wildlife, and people of the island with some beautiful nature shots.

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Eye on Wildlife – Emma produces blogs and podcasts focused on wildlife biology and biological conservation. You can also see her talking about How the Internet Can End Global Poverty, from the University of Leeds TEDx event in November 2014 (video should be available here soon).

Simon the Scientist Logo

Simon the Scientist – a mixture of science writing looking at a wide range of (pretty diverse!) topics.

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In Search of Ancestors – Simon (a different Simon, just to confuse us) is currently – at the time of writing – working as a field assistant in South Africa working on a fossil hominid project. This blog catalogues his ideas on hominid evolution.

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The Roaming Researcher – Dan and I worked together on his MSc dissertation project. Since finishing his MSc, Dan has been travelling the world working on a wide range of field projects and shares his experiences on his blog.

Weekly Wildlife Watch Logo

Weekly Wildlife Watch – Tania and Gabriella have been running a student radio show on wildlife ecology and conservation for some time and have managed to get some fascinating folk in for interviews. Go listen and share!

If I have missed anybody then please do let me know and I am happy to update!

Drones and quadcopters in conservation

I’ve had a bit of a go at using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the past (see this little write-up) but with mixed success. Part of the problem is that there has not been any consistent attempt to develop a technology that can be used for environmental or ecological research – just a bunch of scientists trying to MacGyver existing equipment. Now there’s Conservation Drones, who seem to be taking a slight more systematic approach, designing their own drone, spreading the knowledge around, and starting up PhD research projects to develop the tech further. Here’s an early demo of one of their models:

Why I blog (occasionally!)

There has been a lot of discussion over the merits of academics blogging (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The positive arguments seem to be that:

  1. It’s good outreach, allowing a flexible platform for communication of science
  2. Blogs allow rapid responses and reporting on research
  3. Online profiles are important and blogs can be a strong foothold in internet-space
  4. Writing for a non-technical audience is good practice for science communication

The negative arguments seem to be that:

  1. It doesn’t count in academic terms (it’s not a paper, a grant, or a lecture)
  2. Sometimes tenure panels might see blogging as a waste of time
  3. There’s the danger of “upsetting” people.

Well I think it counts (even if my colleagues disagree), we don’t have tenure in the UK, and I don’t mind upsetting people, so there’s no good reason for me not to blog! I was letting it drop off a bit, but all this discussion has encouraged me to start up again. One of the problems is that I lacked a blogging strategy, which meant that I only shared what I (A) found interesting, and (B) found time to write about. Most of my problem was that I found interesting topics and spent too much time on too few, too niche issues. That’s going to change. Here’s the plan:

  • I’m going to post lay summaries of each of my publications.  That’s 25 to start with, and I’ll add more as I go along. I see that as a vital part of science communication, and I’ll link them back to my publications page on my website.
  • I have recently been immersing myself in Twitter which has led to my discovering a lot more interesting (and sometimes plain weird) papers and articles. This will be a key (near-bottomless) source for new ideas, but I’ll try to keep to a theme.
  • The main topicsare going to be
    • General science things
    • Entomology news and views
    • Education and technology
    • Specific posts about my research
  • Finally, I’m going to write in short form now – no more monthly long reads. 500 words max, and always with an image or video. It was the length and detail that was killing my productivity, and nobody reads those longreads, anyway!

I am hoping that that is going to provide a sustainable flow of content over the next few months, and I’ll reevaluate at Christmas.  Happy reading!


Image credit: Cortega9, CC-BY-SA 3.0, http://bit.ly/1oiVIwr

iPad apps for academics (Part 2)

I wrote earlier about a few apps that I had found useful in my first weeks of owning an iPad. Well I’ve been actively pursuing opportunities to learn more about the learning applications for tablets like the iPad and wanted to share some of what I have found. A lot of this comes from a workshop by the brilliant Joe Moretti, who came to my university to run a workshop on iPads in education. I hope these are useful to you, too:Read More »

Flipping the classroom – how to make lectures engaging and interactive

I’ve been taking a teaching course that requires me to change the way that I teach to explore new techniques. At first it seemed like it was going to be a lot of effort, but it turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable experience.  I was experimenting with a type of teaching called the “flipped [or inverted] classroom“.  Here’s how it works:

Flipped vs traditional teaching models

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