Don’t Just Talk About Microplastics — Make Them Visible

As a biology teacher, I hope you’re aware of, and deeply disturbed by, the enormous volume of plastics that we all discard, day after day. We can see cups, bags, and other plastic trash by the roadside and in waterways, and it’s not hard to envision what happens when fish or turtles eat bits of this garbage or get tangled up in it.

It’s one thing to be alarmed about the amount of trash we see as we walk, ride, or drive by. It’s quite another to understand that the plastics problem extends down to the microscopic scale as well. The big pieces we see physically break down into smaller and smaller pieces. But did you know that cosmetics and fibers from clothing contribute plastic to water, too? These bits of plastic start small and stay small. Microplastics are hard to see with the naked eye, but they climb the food chain just the same.

Recently, The American Biology Teacher published a couple of papers by Franz X. Bogner and his team in Germany (see references below). Taken together, the two papers are excellent because they explain how we release plastics to the environment, why plastics persist when other types of pollutants do not, the environmental consequences of the plastics, what to look for in lists of product ingredients, and ways to minimize the use of plastic. The activities are targeted to an elementary school level, but they could easily be adapted to use in the college classroom.

Microplastic beads from Walgreens Deep-Acting Exfoliation Scrub. Photo was taken with a cell-phone camera mounted on the eyepiece of a dissecting scope.
Photo by M. Hoefnagels

The most memorable thing that I learned from the papers is that it is extremely easy to extract microplastics and view them with supplies no more sophisticated than water, a coffee filter, a funnel, and a cell phone camera. For example, in the first photo, you can see the microplastic beads that I filtered from a droplet of Walgreens Deep-Acting Exfoliating Scrub. All I did to create this photo was to mix a drop of the facial scrub in about 30 milliliters of water and pour it through a coffee filter placed in a funnel over a beaker. Once the water had passed through the filter, I cut the filter open and laid it on a dissecting microscope stage for photography. It’s easy to compare the size of the white and purple microbeads to the 1-mm markings on the ruler.

Microplastic fibers from black flannel. Photo was taken with a cell phone camera zoomed in on the microfibers.
Photo by M. Taylor

The second photo shows the microplastic fibers from a small piece of black flannel. To release these fibers, I cut a small square of the flannel (about a square inch) and swished it in about 30 milliliters of water containing a bit of dishwashing detergent. As before, I poured the mixture though a coffee filter in a funnel over an empty beaker. In this case, we used a cell phone camera instead of the dissecting scope to see if the microscope was even necessary to visualize the fibers and estimate their size. As you can see, the cell phone camera did a fine job on its own.

As biology instructors, what can we do with this simple activity? You could follow the Bogner team’s example and have students learn to find and visualize microplastics in everyday consumer items. (You can also use the workbooks and other materials they provide to do their full set of activities if you choose.) If you’re looking for something simpler, though, here are a few ideas.

First, it is easy for students to understand how the microplastics from facial scrub and laundered fabrics make their way into the water supply. From there, they could use their ecology skills to propose food chains or food webs that explain why microplastics accumulate in tissues of animals at the highest trophic levels.

Second, if you’re teaching about the tools of science, students can use photos like these as part of an exercise in learning to use the microscope and/or learn metric units of length.

Third, perhaps you’d like your students to interpret graphs from the scientific literature. Data from a paper can seem pretty abstract, especially to a beginner. Perhaps seeing examples of microplastics can help your students connect the professional world of published science to something they can see with their own eyes.

Finally, my colleague recently included microplastics in a short, asynchronous lesson called “Plastic Pollution” for his nonmajors biology course. The lesson contains online videos and assessment ideas. If you’d like to see it, please leave a comment below and we’ll be glad to email it to you.


Baierl, Tessa-Marie and Bogner, Franz X. 2021. Plastic Pollution: Learning Activities from Production to Disposal – From Where Do Plastics Come & Where Do They Go? The American Biology Teacher 83 (5): 320–324.

Raab, Patricia and Bogner, Franz X. 2020. Microplastics in the Environment: Raising Awareness in Primary Education. The American Biology Teacher 82 (7): 478–487.

Posted in Chemistry, Ecology, Engaging students | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Using Google Forms for biology class: A free tool with many uses

My all-time favorite professional organization is the Association for Biology Laboratory Education, chiefly because the annual hands-on workshops provide ideas that I can use right away in my teaching. (ABLE’s journal compiles all of the past workshops and is a great resource.)

One great example is a workshop I attended in June at the 2021 Virtual Conference of ABLE (ViABLE) The workshop was presented by Joanna Vondrasek of Piedmont Virginia Community College, and she talked about using Google Forms in synchronous or asynchronous biology courses. Thanks to her presentation, Vondrasek opened my eyes to a world of simple, free, versatile ways of using Google Forms in class.

Here’s a screen shot of a Sample Google Form. I also made a form you can interact with here: Example Form.

I was a little surprised that I didn’t know about Google Forms already, because I occasionally use Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides in my class. For example, in lab, if students use their microscopes to measure the thickness of a frog’s skin, they might enter their measurement into a Google Sheet and later use the pooled data to make a graph. One problem with using Google Sheets in this way, however, is that a student entering data toward the end of the collection time may be influenced by data that others have already put in. They might think, “Hmmm, I thought the skin was 50 microns thick, but everyone else got 300-350 microns, so I’ll change my answer to 300.” As a result, the class may move as a herd to incorrect answers entered by students who rushed through the exercise, or accurate outliers may go unreported.

One strength of using Google Forms instead is that each student reports and sees only their own data. They can’t see what anyone else entered until the instructor shares the results from the whole class. But there are other benefits as well: The interface for Google Forms is user-friendly; the creator of the Form can embed videos and images; it’s easy to create open-ended, multiple choice, dropdown, or check box questions; you can import questions from other sources. It’s even possible to make the form conditional, so that a user can’t move onto a subsequent set of questions before answering precursor questions correctly. (Vondrasek has used this feature to create an “escape room” review for exams – I am not that ambitious yet!)

In the workshop I attended, Vondrasek used this animated gif of root movement from HHMI BioInteractive’s Phenomenal Images collection, and she paired it with questions adapted from the educator materials handout. In the form she created for the ViABLE workshop, we examined the animation and answered some basic multiple choice questions about roots and plants. We then entered our observations and questions about the animation, and we listed environmental stimuli that might affect the direction of plant root growth. As a mock “student,” I found it both engaging and super easy to use.

But the best part was yet to come. She went to the Responses section at the back end of the Google Form site, quickly copied all of our answers about environmental stimuli that influence root growth, and pasted them into a word cloud generator. In the blink of an eye, we could see the collected responses: light, gravity, water, nutrients, and so on. In her class, she uses the word cloud as a visual aid in talking about each of the most common responses (and, I imagine, the less-obvious answers that students may not have thought of). She finishes up the activity with a link to a question in a Canvas discussion board.

Google Forms have so much potential! Vondrasek uses Google Forms as a way to focus student attention in breakout rooms in her online classroom, but they could easily be used in a face-to-face class. For example, would it be possible to use Google Forms to replace clickers altogether? Also, besides generating material for discussions, as Vondrasek has done, could we replace some of the data collection pages in our printed lab manuals with a series of Google Forms?

If you’re intrigued, here are some links to useful resources:

And if you want to try interacting with a Google Form, I created a simple four-question one for you: Please have a look, answer the questions if you’d like, and if you think you can make room for Google Forms in your teaching, I urge you to explore the many features of Google Forms that I haven’t covered here.

Posted in Active learning, Engaging students, Instructional technology, Online teaching, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mindset Matters for Teachers, Too

Mindset has been a recurring theme throughout my blog posts. (If you need a quick primer on the difference between fixed and growth mindset, you can find a good summary here.) In a nutshell, people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are pretty much fixed, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that these same attributes can be developed with practice.

Image credit: Jessica Ottewell on Flickr

Students with a growth mindset tend to be more productive learners, so I have written quite a bit about helping students cultivate a growth mindset; here are a few examples:

At the End, I’m Looking to the Start

Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

This might just be my new favorite book about teaching…

“Practice Perfection”: It’s Not Just for Gymnasts

I have also written about having a growth mindset myself, as an instructor. For example, the post entitled Instructors: Be kind to your future self gives a few tips for quickly noting your observations about each class session so you can improve your teaching in the future when you teach the same course again.

But other than developing our talents as instructors, does having a growth mindset matter to our students in any measurable way? According to this article, the answer is yes. The article, which appeared in Science Advances, is entitled “STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes.” The four-author team consisted of Elizabeth A. Canning, Katherine Muenks, Dorainne J. Green and Mary C. Murphy.

The title pretty much says it all, but let’s dive in a little deeper. Here’s a quote from the article’s abstract:

Faculty mindset beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including their gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience, or tenure status.

Surprised? I confess that I was, especially at the thought that faculty beliefs about student mindsets was the single most important factor in predicting student achievement and motivation. It’s even more important than teaching experience! So I looked more closely at the article to evaluate the strength of their evidence. Read on to learn more.

The article begins with the premise that, on average, underrepresented racial minorities (URM) do not do as well as their white peers in STEM classes. In addition, the authors recognized that faculty members may harbor racial stereotypes and are likely to have varying beliefs about whether or not student abilities are fixed. The researchers designed their study to learn whether “these faculty beliefs are associated with URM students’ motivation and their academic achievement in those professors’ STEM courses.” In particular, they predicted that URM students in classes taught by professors who endorse fixed mindset beliefs would “experience lower motivation and underperform relative to their non-stereotyped peers.”

The study was impressive in its scale. Over seven semesters, the researchers surveyed 150 STEM faculty from 13 STEM departments at one university. The survey questions assessed the degree to which each faculty member identified with fixed or growth mindset beliefs. The researchers also retrieved grades and racial identifiers for all of the 15,000+ students enrolled in the classes taught by these 150 STEM faculty.

Overall, students performed more poorly in courses taught by faculty endorsing a fixed mindset (P = 0.011). But the effect was stronger for URM students than for white or Asian students. While racial achievement gaps persisted in STEM classes overall, the gap for classes taught by professors endorsing fixed mindset beliefs was 0.19 grade points (GPA scale of 4.0), whereas the gap for their counterparts with growth mindset beliefs was 0.10 grade points.

Interestingly, the researchers did not find that a faculty member’s gender, race, age, STEM discipline, tenure status, or years of teaching experience influenced the likelihood of endorsing fixed vs. growth mindset. Nor did any of these characteristics predict student performance as strongly as faculty beliefs about mindset.

The researchers mined student course evaluation data to learn more about the student experience. For example, one possible explanation for the results is that faculty who believe in fixed abilities happen to design classes that are tougher than those of their growth-mindset colleagues. To test for this possibility, the researchers analyzed responses to this student evaluation question: “Compared to other courses you’ve taken how much time did this course require?” The result? No difference, suggesting that the differences could not be explained by course difficulty.

Instead, two other evaluation responses turned out to be important: “How much did the instructor motivate you to do your best work?” and “How much did the instructor emphasize student learning and development?” The researchers found that faculty endorsing a fixed mindset tended to be “demotivating” and to use teaching practices that were less likely to emphasize learning and development. In turn, these practices were associated with lower course grades.

The results of this large study are noteworthy because they point to potential steps that all faculty can take to boost equity and help erase achievement gaps. In particular, as instructors, we can each take an honest look at where our beliefs lie. Do you think that some students are inherently brilliant and others are doomed to fail? If so, you probably think it doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom. On the other hand, do you think that students who are willing and able to put in the work can be guided to higher achievement, regardless of their starting point? I do, and research like this shows that working toward a thoughtful approach to teaching really does make a difference in student lives.

How can students tell if their instructor believes in their potential to develop and grow? For one thing, it doesn’t hurt to tell them! But those encouraging words should be backed up by teaching practices that give students a chance to practice, discuss, struggle, receive feedback, and reflect. That doesn’t mean reworking your class from the ground up. It can instead involve adding small practices that make a big difference. For ideas, please click over to one more blog post from the past: It is about an article by Kimberly Tanner, in which she promotes “Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” I urge you to check it out. Picking up a few of her ideas can help bring energy and equality to your classroom, two good steps on the road to cultivating a growth mindset in your own students.

Posted in Engaging students, Equity and inclusion, Mindset, STEM, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does Comedy Add Interest, or Does It Distract from Scientific Rigor?

[A guest post by Matt Taylor]

The COVID-19 pandemic got me thinking about how difficult it can be to engage biology students, especially nonmajors learning in an online environment. An especially challenging area for me to teach is animal diversity. I struggle to help students find the relevancy in it. And I get their point: Why should they care about the difference between a planarian and a nematode? Will it affect their health? Unlikely. Will it affect how they vote? Almost definitely not.

On the other hand, I know I want to include some amount of diversity instruction in my course. From a macroscopic view, I want my students to have an appreciation for the astounding diversity and beauty of life.

(Side note: I often find it comical to see “appreciate” in a learning objective. “By the end of this course, students should be able to appreciate the diversity of Arthropoda.” As if I would dock their grade if they fail to appreciate arthropods’ evolutionary success. “You don’t find it remarkable?! That’s an F for you!”)

Videos can help students get a feel for animal diversity—in ACTION!—instead of bogging them down with a laundry list of characteristics for each phylum. Don’t get me wrong. Laundry lists have their place in the biology classroom. After all, many nonmajors enter on day 1 with the notion that biology is “all about memorization.” It would be rude to prove them completely wrong.

But should we leave a little more space for the intangible and un-assessable “appreciation” of biological diversity? If so, what’s the best way to do it?

In this blog post I am sharing two video resources with you, both because I think you might enjoy them and because I want your feedback. Which type of video do you think is most appropriate for a college biology classroom? Which type of video is most likely to help students build that coveted “appreciation” of biology?

The first resource is KQED’s Deep Look videos. They are scientifically rigorous, entertaining, beautifully filmed, and cover an astonishing array of animal life (and some plants, too!). Here is an example about sea stars:

The second resource is slightly different. The YouTube channel “zefrank1” has a popular line of animal videos called “True Facts.” These are *mostly* scientifically accurate, with maybe a few mistakes such as suggesting that need-based evolution is possible (“[The animal] said, ‘I want bad-ass scales’ and evolution said ‘no problem'”). Of course, asking students to identify these scientific inaccuracies could be a good challenge.

The main difference between these videos and the KQED Deep Look videos is that these are meant to be outrageous and funny, but they still teach about biological diversity. Here’s one about anteaters, pangolins, and similar animals; be warned, it frequently strays into topics and language that many consider impolite or even offensive:

Of course, the point of these videos IS their questionable taste. If the following frequently up-voted comment below is any indication, many students might like to see True Facts videos in their college classrooms:

I feel conflicted about which type of video would be best for nonmajors: the traditional but beautiful educational videos of Deep Look, or the somewhat scandalous but entertaining True Facts videos? Either way, the videos couldn’t stand alone as animal diversity instruction. I’d have to supplement with other materials.

I would love any advice you have! And if you’re like me, you’ll find these videos an entertaining way to spend your Friday afternoon. Enjoy!

Posted in Engaging students, Videos | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inching Toward Inclusivity, One Instructor at a Time

Credit: DES daughter on Flickr. Image cropped.

Like many instructors, I have spent the past year or so thinking more about enhancing inclusivity and a sense of “belonging” in my college classroom. One thought-provoking paper from CBE — Life Sciences Education that recently came my way has a real mouthful of a title: Signaling Inclusivity in Undergraduate Biology Courses through Deliberate Framing of Genetics Topics Relevant to Gender Identity, Disability, and Race. In a nutshell, the author, Karen G. Hales, describes many examples of the deliberate use of inclusive language in teaching genetics. If this is a topic that interests you, I urge you to have a look.

The article covers a lot of ground, but here are some examples of Hales’s language choices for genetics:

  • In pedigree charts, Hales proposes new symbols for transgender individuals, nonbinary individuals, etc.
  • Rather than using phrases such as “male organs” and “female organs,” Hales refers to “egg-conducting organs” and “sperm-producing organs.” Likewise, instead of “biologically male” and “biologically female,” Hales uses “assigned male” or “assigned female” or “person born with [body part].” And instead of “mother” and “father,” Hales uses “egg parent” and “sperm parent.”
  • Hales emphasizes that varying outcomes of human development are part of a normal population; disabilities do not necessarily need to be “fixed” or cured.
  • When referring to phenotypes, the adjectives “typical” and “atypical” are preferred to “normal” and “abnormal.” Similarly, neutral nouns such as “trait,” “variation,” or “condition” are preferable to “disease” or “disorder.”
  • When referring to genotypes and alleles, Hales suggests avoiding “mutant” in favor of “variant.”
  • Hales reminds students that race is a sociocultural concept with little to no genetic/biological foundation. In Hales’s words, “people are often fooled by loose association with a few features (skin color, sickle cell anemia) for which strong regional selection … has had disproportionate effect.”

I have selected just a few highlights for this blog post; the paper offers much more, along with research reinforcing Hales’s justification for each choice. I agree with much of what Hales suggests, especially when it comes to using neutral terms when referring to diseases and disabilities. And the next time I work with pedigree charts, I have already made a note to consider changing “Male” and “Female” to “Sperm parent” and “Egg parent” because each parent depicted in a pedigree does not necessarily conform to the male/female binary.

One thing I do wonder about, however, is the wisdom of layering the concept of gender identity onto the pedigree chart. Hales suggests using diamond symbols for nonbinary individuals and adding abbreviations for female-to-male, male-to-female, female-to-nonbinary, and male-to-nonbinary transgender individuals. While these notations may boost inclusivity, they may also entangle sex and gender in ways that may confuse students who are new to the distinctions between these terms. Note, however, that Hales’s intention is the opposite: “…my goal is to acknowledge gender identity as central yet separable from the binary of sperm–egg production.” I’m not sure if this goal is being met, based on the explanation in the article.

I also wonder whether some of Hales’s strategies may have unintended consequences, inadvertently making our word choices exclusive instead of inclusive. For example, suppose you decide to use “person born with a vulva” in place of “female” or “girl” or “woman.” If some students don’t know what a vulva is, you will have created a new barrier to understanding in your efforts to include everyone. Similarly, what if your use of inclusive language draws unwanted attention to students who would otherwise prefer to remain unnoticed? In that case, efforts to be inclusive can actually make some students uncomfortable.

Navigating the language of inclusivity sometimes feels like tiptoeing in a minefield, especially with the threat of an embarrassing “wrong” statement going viral on social media. What are instructors to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers. Next time I teach, however, I plan to let my students know that I care about their needs. I will acknowledge that I am not perfect, that I am still learning, and that I want to know if I have inadvertently made someone uncomfortable.

Your decisions as an instructor are highly personal, as is the makeup of each classroom. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. In deciding how to handle issues such as these, however, I urge you to consider the perspectives of your students, not just your own. A good first step might be to brainstorm ways to build mutual trust, to better meet the needs of all of your students, and to stay open to constructive, anonymous suggestions for improvement.


Thank you to Trai Spikes, Elizabeth Besozzi, and Matt Taylor for constructive and enlightening conversations about this article!

Posted in Equity and inclusion, genetics, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This might just be my new favorite book about teaching…

Last month, I bought and read Terry McGlynn’s excellent new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching (published 2020). It is one of those books that hits the rare combination of being informed by educational research without dwelling on the minutiae or jargon of that research. (A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about my other favorite teaching book, Saundra McGuire’s excellent Teach Students How to Learn.)

What do I like about McGlynn’s book? Most importantly, it’s practical. It’s not exactly a “How to Teach” guide, because as the author acknowledges, each of us has different goals, different personalities, different classrooms, and different constraints. Instead, the book presents an easy-to-read narrative describing ways to implement what he calls two keystones: Efficient Teaching and the Respect Principle.

“Efficient teaching” is the idea that we can all spend more time—and more, and more, and more time—crafting an ever-more-perfect class. But will that added effort produce a proportional improvement in student learning outcomes? If not, perhaps it’s time to repurpose some of that polishing time into making larger changes that yield a bigger payoff.

Implementing the “respect principle” means setting aside the idea that students are dishonest or that they are constantly trying to exploit loopholes in our course policies. It means choosing trust instead, and actively dismantling class policies that reinforce a culture of mistrust. The author challenges readers to develop policies that are fair to all students, regardless of their individual circumstances and obstacles. In short, he likes to think of teachers as coaches, not adversaries.

Interested? Well, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve summarized only the first 13 pages! Those pages make up the first part of chapter 1, “Before you meet your students.” Subsequent chapters provide useful suggestions for the syllabus (chapter 2), the curriculum (chapter 3), teaching methods (chapter 4), assignments (chapter 5), exams (chapter 6), common problems (chapter 7), and online teaching (chapter 8).

This book gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few of my other main takeaways:

Make Class Policies More Flexible. I learned that inflexible class policies make life hard for today’s students in ways that many of us “old-timers” may not even think of. College is way more expensive than when we were in school, and lots of students work a lot of hours at low-paying jobs—not to mention caring for kids and/or ailing parents, facing technological challenges, spending time in long commutes, being sidelined by car troubles, and so on. Why not add some breathing room by dropping a few low scores in some assignment categories, or by reducing late penalties? Next time I work on my syllabus, these issues will be at the top of my mind.

Be More Accommodating: I also have been thinking about “services” that I offer outside of class, like office hours, review sessions, and supplemental instruction. Students can and should be held responsible for attending classes as listed in the schedule. But when it comes to out-of-class activities, how can we accommodate students who are unable to attend because of class conflicts, work schedules, or family responsibilities? I confess that I have considered my own convenience more than my students’ needs in offering office hours and weekly supplemental instruction. If a student wanted to attend but was unable to, well, that was too bad. I rationalized that these activities were “extra” and therefore not strictly required for success in the class. Now I see there’s a better way, as I outline below.

Record Review Sessions and Supplemental Instruction: The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly expanded opportunities to offer review sessions and supplemental instruction online, even for in-person classes. Putting them online should reduce barriers for students who cannot physically attend. The recordings can then be made available for all students to view at their convenience.

Better Office Hours: I think online office hours will also be in my future, along with more frequent reminders of what office hours are, how students can benefit from using them, and how to make appointments when my office hours don’t match up with a student’s schedule. I may even require students to sign up for a brief meeting at the start of the semester so I can talk to them one-on-one. That way, maybe it won’t be so scary for them to ask for an appointment later in the semester.

Anyway, this book has so much good stuff in it that I couldn’t possibly summarize it all here. If what I’ve described here sounds good, I encourage you to buy the book or see if you can get it at your local library. If you are open to new ideas about teaching, I think you’ll be glad you did.

P.S. As I was looking up the publication date for McGlynn’s book, I noticed that it is part of a series called “Chicago Guides to Academic Life.” Other titles in the series include What Every Science Student Should Know and How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying) and 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School. There are lots more, too. If they’re as well-done as McGlynn’s, they’re probably worth a look.

Posted in Course design, Equity and inclusion, STEM, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seven Strategies for Sustaining Student Engagement Online

Thanks to an extremely well-timed sabbatical, I have not had to teach my nonmajors biology class during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have paid attention to what my colleagues are doing with their classes, and I have read a bit about best practices. I am especially interested to find out which pandemic-era teaching practices will remain when normal life returns.

Illustration source:

I know that pandemic teaching has necessitated new strategies for maintaining student engagement, which is a challenge that I ponder even in the best of times. For example, in one previous blog post, I wrote about the benefits of random calling, and in another, I wrote about Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article describing 21 teaching strategies that promote engagement and cultivate equity.

A great companion to these articles just appeared in CBE-Life Sciences Education. The new article, by Daniel L. Reinholz and colleagues, is called A Pandemic Crash Course: Learning to Teach Equitably in Synchronous Online Classes. It describes a situation that will feel familiar to anyone who was teaching in spring 2020: The rapid and unexpected mid-semester shift from face-to-face to online instruction. In this case, the “students” were instructors who were participating in a professional learning community focused on equity. That is, the instructors in the learning community were meeting face-to-face to discuss equitable teaching in their face-to-face classes… and when their own classes went virtual, the instructors’ learning community did, too.

The article contains a lot of details about how the participants used a classroom observation tool called EQUIP, but that’s not what I want to highlight here. For me, the most interesting part comes near the end, in a section called “Strategies for Promoting Equitable Participation.” The authors recommend seven strategies, which I have listed (and commented on) here.

  1. Re-establish norms: In face-to-face classes, you may or may not articulate the “rules” of the game, but students quickly come to understand whether, when, and how to ask questions or participate in the discussion. In a virtual classroom, students need to know whether to use Chat, or Q&A, or raise their actual hands, or just interrupt with a question, and they need to know how you are going to decide who to call on. Clarifying the rules will place everyone on equal footing from the start.
  2. Use student names: This is, of course, a good practice in any classroom. One of Zoom’s big advantages for teaching is that everyone’s name is visible on screen, so you don’t have to spend time memorizing names as you might in your face-to-face class. Using names, especially to call on those who have been quiet during a class session or to reinforce a point that a student made during a discussion, helps students feel “seen” and signals that you value their participation.
  3. Use breakout rooms: I have little experience with breakout rooms, but the authors of the article say that students who might be shy about speaking up in the “big class” will be more willing to participate in a smaller discussion group. You might consider popping in on the breakout rooms and then, when the whole class comes back together, calling on students by name to share some of the interesting ideas you heard them discuss in their small groups.
  4. Leverage chat-based participation: A lot of students would rather type into a chat than speak up. Depending on the size of your class, keeping an eye on the chat while you’re juggling your other responsibilities may be overwhelming. In online classes I’ve observed, a teaching assistant has monitored the chat sidebar, typing answers to questions that pertain to individual students and alerting the instructor about issues that need clarifying for the whole class. If you don’t have a helper, then consider taking periodic breaks to skim through the chat. You can then call on students to talk out loud about the comments they typed in. Or you can bring up selected issues that you see in the chat, which will demonstrate that you are listening and responding to their questions and concerns.
  5. Using polling software: Having students answer questions can liven up any class, whether face-to-face or online. If you don’t want to grade responses, then you can use the informal polling using tools built into Zoom or whatever online course delivery platform you’re on. If you want to grade the responses, then you can use applications like Poll-Everywhere or Top Hat or a similar cloud-based system—but then, of course, you will have to deal with the student registration problems that will inevitably arise.
  6. Create an inclusive curriculum: According to the authors, “Equity in a classroom is… reflected in… how an instructor validates different ideas, identities, and cultures (e.g., through the choice of course content, through the use of affirming language).” Part of the idea is for all students to feel welcome to bring their personal experiences into the classroom. I confess that in my own nonmajors biology class, I have been so focused on explaining the core scientific ideas that I have neglected the social implications of biology, as well as my students’ unique reactions based on their own experiences. I am only now waking up to the idea of exploring these avenues as a way to boost inclusiveness and equity, so I don’t have much concrete advice to add—at least not now.
  7. Cut content to maintain rigor: I am genuinely excited about nearly every topic in my nonmajors biology class, so it’s been hard for me to cut content over the years. However, I have also been thinking lately about what my students are missing, such as in-depth discussions about scientific topics that are relevant to their lives. In the words of the authors, “one of the barriers to equitable participation was simply trying to do too much in a course rather than doing fewer things well.” Hear, hear… now to figure out how to do it!

Finally, I appreciate Matt Taylor for offering one more suggestion from the perspective of a student who has been taking online classes during the pandemic. He suggests allowing students a lot of flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule. Instructors are struggling to balance many competing demands during the pandemic, but so are students. Flexibility shows that you see your students as humans. It also doesn’t hurt to be liberal with your praise for what your students are accomplishing during a super stressful time.

I hope this list gives you something to think about as you plan next semester’s courses, which will almost certainly have an online component. Remember, when looking at any list of strategies, it’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the things you COULD do. Instead, look through the list and pick one strategy to focus on first. See how it works, get comfortable with it, and if you’re ready for another challenge, take the next bite. I am sure I am not alone when I say that I am eager to learn what you try and how it works—so please, leave a comment!

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A New Way to Look at Red-Green Colorblindness

When we cover genetics in our nonmajors biology classes, many of us use red-green colorblindness as a familiar example of X-linked inheritance. We may even ask our students to indicate whether they can see the numbers or symbols in Ishihara plates. (For privacy, we’d ask via anonymous clicker questions, of course.) If our classes are large, we may even be able to demonstrate that more males than females are red-green colorblind.

Image of Ishihara plate from Wikimedia

For those of us with “normal” vision, however, it may be hard to understand what the world looks like to people with red-green colorblindness. I admit that I never thought much about it until I saw these two short videos, posted by the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Screen capture from Part 2 of the colorblindness video.

At this point, you may be wondering what red-green colorblindness has to do with art museums. Well, our art museum created these videos to publicize their recent purchase of colorblind correction glasses to loan to museum patrons. The videos follow two colorblind students who are using the glasses while exploring the museum, seeing for the first time what red and green look like to most people. The videos are brief, funny, and enlightening, so I recommend them for use in your classes.

You can stop reading here if that’s all you want; it’s where I would have stopped if I hadn’t started digging a little bit more into how colorblind correction glasses work. I learned that the glasses are made of special materials that block out the specific, overlapping wavelengths that make it difficult for colorblind people to distinguish between red and green.

So … do they work? According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the answer is “it depends.” That’s because the form and severity of colorblindness makes a big difference in whether the adjusted wavelengths actually help a patient differentiate between red and green. The glasses also have some limitations: They are expensive, and they block some of the light entering the eye, meaning they should not be worn while driving.

I also found an article suggesting that the glasses may not be all they’re cracked up to be. That article summarizes research published in a journal called Optics Express. Not surprisingly for a journal about optics, the contents of the article are on the technical side. Nevertheless, the article contains many data tables, one or more of which students could analyze to draw their own conclusions about whether the glasses work as advertised.

If you want to use this topic to teach about scientific thinking instead of as a quick genetics lesson, consider having your students watch the art museum’s videos, look at some websites that promote colorblind correction glasses, and then evaluate the strength of the promotional claims and/or the strength of the Optics Express study’s conclusions. If you do, please leave a comment to let me know what you did and how it worked!

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“BiteScis”: Bite-sized research to promote scientific thinking

Are you looking for biology lessons that promote scientific thinking, are classroom-tested, and are fully customizable to your own needs? On second thought, who isn’t? While reading The American Biology Teacher recently, I learned about a good source: BiteScis, a website with lesson plans that “make it easy for teachers to share exciting, creative, and authentic science research with their students.” BiteScis has existed since 2015, so I am a little late to the party, but it’s never too late to share a great resource.

BiteScis logo

Lessons are available for biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. Of course, I gravitated toward the biology section. I found eight lessons tagged as “Classroom Tested!” plus two more labeled “Beta Test Me!” Most are focused on evolution, including antibiotic resistance, convergent evolution in animal locomotion, homologous gene expression in mammals, mismatch diseases, HIV evolution, and more. (I later discovered that many of the lessons that aren’t classified under the Biology topic nevertheless have a life sciences component, including animal navigation, bioluminescence, kinematics, swimming dolphins, and coral reefs. So I recommend that you don’t narrow your search too much.)

I didn’t see anything I didn’t like, but my favorite lesson was “From Lab to Newsfeeds: Why We Need To Be Skeptical (Like a Scientist) In The Age of COVID-19.” It is one of the two available for beta-testing, and it does not yet have a full suite of student resources. However, there’s plenty there for instructors who want to try it out. If you click on the site, you’ll see a short introduction, accompanied by links to a PDF and an editable Google doc of the “Bite.”

The Science Bite is a 5-page document explaining why science has never actually worked as depicted in the familiar diagram of the simplified “Scientific Method” (question –> hypothesis –> experiment –> data –> conclusions –> repeat). The Bite then goes on to describe how the COVID-19 emergency has promoted a “new normal” of research being rushed into publication while social media platforms hype results that haven’t necessarily been peer reviewed. Fortunately, readers are not left to flounder helplessly in a sea of misinformation. Instead, the Bite includes tips for recognizing real science and, at the end, it provides five “Thinking Questions.” The questions are open-ended and thought-provoking, and they could lead to fruitful classroom discussions.

The second lesson plan I checked out was “Evolution and E. coli: Natural Selection in a Stable Environment.” That one included a Bite plus a student handout; I couldn’t see the Educator portion, which requires login credentials. The Bite is about a long-term experiment in which researchers have tracked mutations and fitness in E. coli cells in a stable environment for a mind-boggling 60,000 generations. I loved the student handout, which walks students through questions about alleles, competition, reproductive success, natural selection, data interpretation, speculation about alternative outcomes, predictions, and more. The level was not too hard, and not too easy—it was in that hard-to-find “just right” Goldilocks zone. (If you disagree with that assessment, no problem. The Google doc version of the student handout is easy to modify to suit your students’ needs.)

The website says the activities are designed for high schoolers, and the lessons are aligned to NGSS and Common Core state standards. As someone who teaches nonmajors biology to college students, however, I can attest they are perfectly appropriate to university-level introductory biology classrooms as well. Next time I teach my nonmajors biology class, I expect to give my students a taste of BiteScis resources.

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What Does a STEM Professional Look Like? One Graduate Student’s Perspective


Photo courtesy of Montrai Spikes

I encourage you to visit today’s Science Careers website and read the moving commentary entitled Why I’ve struggled with the pressure to assimilate when teaching. The author is Montrai Spikes, a graduate student in Biology at the University of Oklahoma (where I teach).

Trai writes that as a teaching assistant, “the mask [that he] crafted” to appear “professional” to his white students had the unintended effect of “alienating students of color.” He ends by inviting us to discard our preconceptions about what it means to be a professional. His observations were enlightening to me, and I think they deserve to be widely shared; I hope you will read his commentary and distribute the link to your colleagues.

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