What Can I Do With a STEM Degree? — Ricochet Science

Reblogging a great infographic from our friends at Ricochet Science:

Perhaps you are considering a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), but aren’t quite sure what you can do with the degree once you graduate. Our infographic provides a quick look at some of your career opportunities that a STEM degree provides. Need more information? See the list of resources at the end of the article or contact your local college or university.

via What Can I Do With a STEM Degree? — Ricochet Science

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What Are the Best Ways to Study?


Image credit: UBC Learning Commons

When I first started teaching, I could not understand why some bright, motivated students struggled in my class. Once I discovered the true problem — awful study skills — I became something of a study skills evangelist. Once a week I present a “Study Minute” in class, I co-host a “How to study for the sciences” seminar that attracts hundreds of students every semester, I include a “Learn How to Learn” section in each chapter of my textbooks, I host a weekly supplemental learning session that models effective study skills, and so on. I want my students to not only learn about biology but also become better learners.

So I was happy to learn of an article by John Dunlosky et al. that summarizes research on the best ways to study. You can find a condensed view of the article at Scientific American, but you have to be a subscriber or get it through your university library. Or you can dig into the full monograph in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That article is longer, but the price is right: It’s free.

Or you can read on to find the take-home message. Basically, Dunlosky and his colleagues evaluated the evidence behind 10 study techniques:

  • elaborative interrogation (for example, students might be asked to explain why photosynthesis requires water or why aerobic respiration requires oxygen)
  • self-explanation (for example, students might explain to themselves how they know that plants need nitrogen)
  • summarization (for example, students might read a passage about thermoregulation and create a summary of the most important points)
  • highlighting (or underlining)
  • the keyword mnemonic (you know, like ROY G BIV for the color spectrum, or the cheerfully phrased “Dumb Kids Playing Cards On Freeway Get Smashed” for the taxonomic hierarchy)
  • imagery use for text learning (students might read a paragraph about, say, transcription, then be instructed to create a mental image that will help them remember what they have read)
  • rereading
  • practice testing (self-testing)
  • distributed practice (students spread out study sessions rather than cramming)
  • interleaved practice (students mix topics as they study; for example, they might practice what they know about photosynthesis and respiration at the same time instead of keeping those two topics separate, helping them see the connections between them)

So, which five do you think Dunlosky et al. found the most effective? Have you picked your top choices? OK, then read on…

The winners were self-testing, distributed practice, elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice. Notably, the old standbys — highlighting and rereading more than a second time — are pretty much a waste of time. The other three techniques might be OK but more research is needed.

I love this article because I spend a lot of time coaching my students on the best study techniques. Thank you, Dr. Dunlosky and your colleagues, for giving me tools I can use to help my students succeed in all of their classes.

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If you don’t know ABLE yet, you should

I just got back from the 2016 conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE). If you teach biology labs at any level, you really should check it out. It’s hands-down my favorite meeting of the year because it’s about DOING labs, not about listening to people TALK about doing labs. It’s also the friendliest group of colleagues you’ll ever meet. And if you’re a member, you have access to the latest volumes of ABLE’s Proceedings, which contains write-ups of every workshop presented at the annual conference — that’s 35 years and counting. If you’re looking for ideas for labs, I urge you to start there.


Attack of the killer fungi. A trapped nematode is in the lower right; two flowerlike clusters of spores are visible across the field of view to its left. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

I attended several sessions that I liked, but I want to especially call attention to Brian Sato’s workshop, “Attack of the Killer Fungus: “Real” Research in the Classroom.” I have a lot of background in mycology, but I didn’t know how easy it is to obtain Arthrobotrys fungi that produce nematode-snaring traps. What a great way to help students appreciate the ecological role of fungi, up close and personal.

Once students have had a chance to explore and understand the system, Brian suggested how they can devise and test their own hypotheses about what triggers trap formation, how the fungi attract nematodes, how the traps ensnare the worms, and how the fungi digest their prey. Along the way, students develop their skills in dilution calculations, micropipettor use, literature searches, and data analysis.

I just noticed that Brian published a full description of his module in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Skip to the section called “Possible Modifications” to learn how to adapt the lab to different course levels and for a list of variables for students to test. His ABLE workshop materials will be available online once the Proceedings for this year are published. Check it out if you’re interested in a unique lab activity that teaches students about the process of science and gives them a window into ecology occurring at a microscopic scale.

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Recognizing purposeful evolution: A treasure trove of prompts



Can you imagine typing all of these test questions in, one card at a time?

I was recently cleaning out my teaching lab and found a stash of index cards with test items from the early 1950s. As I was trying to decide whether to keep them or toss them in the recycling bin, I idly looked at a few. Out of the million or so* test questions, the first one I picked up happened to be from a category called “recognizing purposeful language.” Immediately, I perked up, as “evolution to serve a purpose” is one of the misconceptions that I think most about. (See, for example, my prior blog posts on Clever Cockroaches and on the Evolution game.)

Some of the cards come in pairs, one with a purposeful tone and one without. If I were writing a clicker question to help students learn to recognize purposeful language, I could present both statements and ask them to choose the purposeful one. For example:

Which of these sentences uses purposeful language to describe a biological process?

  • Cactus plants have thorns, which protect them from many animals.
  • Cactus plants have thorns to protect them from many animals.

Here’s another one:

Which of these sentences uses purposeful language to describe a biological process?

  • Food accumulates in the seeds of many plants to supply the embryo (young plant in the seed) with food.
  • Food accumulates in the seeds of many plants and supplies the embryo (young plant in the seed) with food.



This card has one of my favorites: “Carrots grow beneath the ground to avoid being eaten by rabbits.”

Then, when the students get more advanced, they could pick out the one sentence out of four that uses proper language rather than purposeful language. For example:

Which of these sentences uses proper (unpurposeful) language to describe a biological process?

  • Plants bend toward a light so that the greatest possible leaf surface will be exposed to the light.
  • Leaves have stomates so that they may get rid of excess water.
  • Some seeds have a hard coat to protect the young embryo.
  • A plant without oxygen cannot live because oxygen is necessary for certain plant processes.

I’m curious how many teachers share my concern about this misconception; those who do might be interested in the entire list of prompts from the index cards. If you want to see them all, send in a comment and I’ll email you the Word document. Happy teaching!

*slight exaggeration

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“Surprisingly Awesome” podcasts

What do broccoli, pigeons, frequent flyer miles, and mattresses have in common?

They are all subjects of “Surprisingly Awesome” podcasts.Surprisingly Awesome logo

I just listened to the one on broccoli, and I was really impressed. I love resources that help students see connections among topics. In just 41 minutes, the broccoli podcast touches on genetics, chemistry, sensory biology, natural selection, selective breeding, human evolution, and culture.

The podcast opens with the hosts swabbing their mouths to collect DNA, in an intriguing effort to find out more about their personal relationship with broccoli. But they don’t follow up on this tantalizing idea right away. Instead, they turn to an explanation of broccoli’s evolutionary history. Broccoli, collard greens, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all belong to the same species, Brassica oleracea. Millions of years ago, Brassica oleracea was a weedy, stemmy plant with yellow flowers; in its original form, it doesn’t even look edible. But the species has lots of variation in the genes that tell it how to grow stems, leaves, and flowers. Some variations tell the plant to grow a super thick stem, as in kohlrabi; others tell the plant to make long, curly leaves, as in kale. Before recorded history, people were already selecting for these different variations.

This brings us to the ~15 minute mark and a couple of highly palatable commercials (narrated by the podcast hosts themselves). When we return to the podcast, the hosts introduce bitter-tasting chemical compounds, like the goitrin in broccoli (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goitrin). Our genes determine if we can taste it — that’s the connection with the DNA test at the start of the show. A goitrin solution has no flavor to non-tasters, who do not express the receptors for that chemical. But the same solution tastes awful to a taster. Like other bitter compounds, goitrin is a defense against herbivores — there’s the natural selection connection. Bitterness often indicates poison, so it’s no wonder people (especially kids) generally don’t like bitter foods. However, some bitter plants that taste bad are nutritious, so we cook them and add seasonings to make them taste better. From here on, the podcast is mostly devoted to the interplay of biology and culture, before returning to the awesomeness of broccoli.

I recommend this podcast as a relatable way to introduce students to selective breeding and natural selection. Instructors might want to assign the podcast as an at-home activity to inspire later in-class discussion about natural and artificial selection.

However, the hosts do commit a couple of linguistic crimes against evolution: When talking about plant defenses against herbivory, they say “The plants know they have something inside of them that animals want” and “They’re trying hard to keep animals away.” Anyone who has read my “Clever cockroaches” blog post will know that this shortcut — depicting evolution as a purposeful process — is one of my pet peeves because it undermines student learning about how evolution really works. On the plus side, statements like that can be valuable if we use them to point out  what’s wrong with talking about evolution that way.

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Boost your evolution IQ: An evolution misconceptions game

A guest post by Matt Taylor

Last Spring, Mariëlle and I spent some time reading education articles about student struggles learning evolution. In particular, we were interested in which misconceptions about evolution students might bring to introductory biology classes. We identified the following misconceptions:

  • Evolution explains the origin of life.
  • Evolutionary processes serve a purpose or strive for perfection.
  • Traits arise when needed.
  • Individuals can evolve.
  • All members of a population develop new traits simultaneously.
  • All mutations are harmful.
  • Evolution and natural selection are the same thing.
  • Evolution only happens when conditions change dramatically.
  • “Adaptation” means adjustment within a lifetime.
  • “Fitness” describes how strong or fast an organism is.

2016-04-06 01.07.50 pmTo target these misconceptions, we developed a collaborative, rapid-fire quiz game for use in class (the activity is based on an idea presented in Nehm and Reilly, 2007). Students work together in teams to answer evolution questions, which are each displayed for 30 or 60 seconds on a PowerPoint slide. Each correct answer scores points for the team. If you’d like, you can award a prize to the team with the most points at the end of the quiz. The fast pace and the gaming aspect of the activity keep students engaged and focused. So far we’ve had great success!

We wrote a full description of the activity and published it on CourseSource.org, a great site for educational resources (we introduced CourseSource in a previous post). All of the details and materials that you need to implement the evolution misconceptions activity can be found at the following link. Please check it out!

“Boost your evolution IQ: An evolution misconceptions game”


Nehm, R.H., and Reilly, L., (2007). Biology majors’ knowledge and misconceptions of natural selection. BioScience, 57, 263–272.

Posted in Active learning, Assignments, Engaging students, Evolution, Instructional technology, Laboratory activities | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Help for Students Struggling with Radiometric Dating

A guest post by Matt Taylor

A little over a year ago, I developed an instructional video that aims to help students understand evolutionary trees (and we wrote a post about it here).

Several months later, Mariëlle updated me on the video and sent a request: “I posted the ‘How to read an evolutionary tree’ movie you made earlier this year, and my students have really benefited from it. I think the next topic should be ‘How to solve all three types of radiometric dating problems.'” 

Students do have trouble with radiometric dating problems, so I developed a video that describes this method of dating fossils. Halfway through the video, I turn to three sample problems: calculating a fossil’s age, calculating the percent of a radiometric isotope remaining in a fossil, and calculating an isotope’s half-life.

I hope you and your students find it helpful!

If you notice any errors, or if you have suggestions for other instructional videos, then please let me know in the comments section.

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Return of the “Clever Cockroaches”

Longtime followers of my blog may remember that nearly two years ago I wrote a post about the misrepresentation of natural selection and evolution in headlines and news stories. In the study that prompted the post, researchers found that coating insecticides with glucose selects for cockroaches that avoid sweet-tasting substances. The headlines and nonscientific accounts of the story really got on my nerves, implying that cockroaches are “clever” and “wily” and that they have evolved with the explicit goal of evading our poisons.

Fast forward to the past couple of weeks, when my husband/colleague showed the post to his class, along with an assignment: In the next 30-40 minutes, form small teams and use PowerPoint to make a movie that shows how natural selection really works. He gave them a quick lesson explaining how to use PowerPoint as a movie production tool; I can send it to you if you leave a comment on this post. By the time class was over, the videos were created, saved as .mov files, and uploaded to the class dropbox.

As a teacher, I always love seeing other instructor’s assignments, and it’s especially fun to admire what students can create. I figured some of my readers might feel the same way, so I acquired the students’ permission to post their videos on YouTube and link them at this site. You will notice that they all take different approaches, and some of their stories are more complete than others, but they all succeed in telling the real story of natural selection. You may want to create a similar assignment for your own class. Alternatively, you can have your students evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the four movies I have linked here. Special thanks to the students for permitting me to use their videos!

Group 1


Group 2


Group 3


Group 4

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Growing a Thicker Skin: A Borrowed Lab Activity

Skimming through the August 2015 issue of The American Biology TeacherI found a lab activity that I am eager to try. It’s by Troy R. Nash, Suann Yang, and John C. Inman of Presbyterian College, and it’s called “Growing a Thicker Skin: An Exercise for Measuring Organismal Adaptations to Terrestrial Habitats.” It caught my attention for several reasons: It asks students to apply the scientific method, use microscopes, and create graphs to evaluate how different environments select for adaptive traits. Also, the main part of the activity focuses on plants, and I’m always looking for ways to make my lab less “animal-centric.”

Here’s the basic idea. Each group receives microscope slides containing five tissue samples: three leaf cross sections and two animal skin cross sections. Each plant and each animal is adapted to a different environment (dry, wet, or temperate).

Students use their microscopes to observe the specimens. They sketch how each specimen appears at different magnifications and compare the appearance of the three plant specimens and two animal specimens. Each group then formulates a testable hypothesis about how the environment has selected for adaptations in plant and animal morphology.

In the Nash et al. article, students first view the slides with their microscopes but then test their hypotheses by measuring pre-printed photomicrographs with a ruler. Each group receives six photographs of each leaf type, at both 100x and 400x magnification. They measure the thickness of the “outer layer” (this vague instruction encourages creativity) of four leaves for each type and use Excel to graph their data. Finally, groups test for statistical significance using an online ANOVA calculator, and then they draw their conclusions. The article even provides helpful worksheets, a rubric, and suggestions for extending the activity.

I haven’t used this activity in my lab yet, but I had my student assistant, Lauren, try it out as a substitute for our current dull-as-dishwater “How to Use the Microscope” lab. Students are already learning to view cells and measure a field of view in that lab; why not have them test hypotheses and learn about natural selection at the same time? The existing lab even has them look at cross sections of human skin (e.g., Carolina Biological Supply Item #314522), so I already had some of the slides I needed.

For Lauren to try out the lab, I first purchased frog skin slides (Carolina Biological Supply Item #314486) and the mysteriously named “Dicot leaf types c.s.” slides (Carolina Biological Supply Item #303520). The latter slide has cross sections of leaves from three unnamed species (a hydromorph [water lily?], a mesomorph [privet?], and a xeromorph [rubber?]). I also bought stage micrometers from amazon.com for about $10 apiece. Instead of using printed micrographs, I had Lauren use her field-of-view measurements to estimate the thickness of each specimen’s “outer layer.” She did not report any problems, so I am confident that we can make it work in our class next fall.

When we do, each group will make its own measurements. We will then compile the class data and develop a homework assignment in which our students graph the average measurement for each type of organism. I look forward to reporting our results as an update to this post in the fall.


Reference: Yang, Troy R., Suann Yang, and John C. Inman. 2015. Growing a Thicker Skin: An Exercise for Measuring Organismal Adaptations to Terrestrial Habitats. The American Biology Teacher, 77 (6): 426-431.

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A Cheap and Wonderful Way to Use Bananas in Lab

Banana with article

Photo courtesy Marielle H. Hoefnagels

I’d like to report on another great idea from a recent issue of The American Biology Teacher. This time it’s from the October 2015 issue. Dawn A. Tamarkin from Springfield Technical Community College wrote a wonderful article called “Exploring Carbohydrates with Bananas.” I haven’t tried this in my class yet, but my student worker did the activity. It was quick, easy, and informative.

The basic idea is to compare the amount of starch in cells from a green banana to the amount in cells from a ripe banana. The procedure couldn’t be simpler: Just smear a bit of banana on a microscope slide, flood with iodine (we used an I2KI solution left over from a previous lab), and add a cover slip. Any starch-rich plastids in the cells immediately turn purple and are easily visible with a compound microscope.

Banana cells 400x

Cells from a ripe banana at 400x; the dark spots are plastids containing starch. (Photo courtesy L. Gillingham.)

The article has some nice black-and-white photos of cells from unripe and ripe bananas. Here I’ve included a color photo (taken at 400x) of cells from a ripe banana. The iodine stained the starch-containing plastids an easy-to-see purple/black. Sadly, we did not think to take photos of the unripe banana cells, but the difference was striking. The green banana’s cells were chock full of distinctive purple plastids.

Sometimes it’s not possible to get both green and ripe bananas at the same store; it would be nice to stock up as needed, but bananas are perishable. My student worker and I therefore tested whether frozen banana tissue would work as well as fresh tissue. The answer is no, as you can see from the photos I have included below this post. Freezing the cells made the tissue much harder to interpret; the plastids were present, but they seemed to explode into the cells and were not the dark, distinct organelles that you can see in the fresh (unfrozen) ripe banana photo. We won’t be using that strategy again. Too bad!

This activity is a keeper. I plan to integrate it into our digestion lab, in which we are already using iodine to demonstrate the digestion of starch in a test tube with pancreatic extract. The problem is that students don’t think of digestion as something that plants do. Adding the banana activity, along with a supplemental exercise that will help students see the connections between “test tube” enzymes and the disappearance of starch from a ripening banana, should help us correct that stubborn misconception.

I should add that the original article, though brief, has a really well-developed exploration of banana flesh. It begins by having students taste each type of banana (or “reflect on their prior experiences”), which should lead to the idea that a ripe banana is much sweeter than a green one. The article then explains how to direct students to explore the bananas at the tissue level, cellular level, organelle level, organ level, and organ systems level. This would therefore make a great exercise for a microscopy lab as well. That’s a pretty huge benefit for the price of a couple of bananas and a bit of iodine.

Cells from ripe frozen banana.

Cells from ripe frozen banana. [Photo courtesy L. Gillingham.]

Cells from unripe frozen banana

Cells from unripe (green) frozen banana. [Photo courtesy L. Gillingham.]

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