Thursday, October 26, 2006

Blackboards or Powerpoint?

I go to a great conference (Analytical Genetics) where only whiteboards are provided - no Powerpoints or transparencies are allowed. The dynamics of the presentations are wonderful, and taught me the importance of body movement in teaching.

With a white- or blackboard, the observer's eyes are led directly from the body - arm - hand of the person creating the visuals to the visuals themselves. The visuals are an extension of the person. This helps the observer form a mental connection to what is being drawn, because our brains are much better at attending to people than to abstractions.

In contrast, with any kind of projection, the presenter and the visuals have no physical connection. Using a stick pointer rather than a laser pointer helps, as the stick leads the eye from the presenter's arm to the part of the graphic being described.

Watching the visuals being created is also a big help for the learner. So writing on the board or overhead is better than showing a finished graphic or table or notes. Similarly, gradually assembling a complex image in sequential Powerpoint slides or an animation is better than just showing the final graphic.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No TAs?!? No tutorials?!?

It's sad but true. The ~2000 students who take BIOL121 each year get only lectures with about 225 students per class. There are no tutorials, because no money is allocated to pay the graduate students who would act as teaching assistants.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Towards community service learning in Biology

Today I met with the BIOL121 course coordinator and with representatives of UBC's Community Service Learning (CSL) and Learning Exchange initiatives. We're trying to develop resources that will let students in my first year Biology 121 classes get academic credit for helping teach biology to children in inner-city schools.

Last year about 65 of my students did this as an optional project. Their reports on their projects were worth 15% of their course mark, making their midterm and final exams count proportionately less. This year we don't have enough CSL/Learning Exchange support to coordinate independent projects with the schools, so students will be limited to doing the separately-organized "Reading Week" projects, which are planned and organized by graduate student volunteers.

But in future years I want to offer students opportunities for relatively independent projects. One component we will need is one or more teaching assistants who will guide the BIOL121 students in their interactions with the schools, themselves under the guidance of Learning Exchange staff. We're applying to the department heads for the funds to pay this TA (initially one TA for one year). The other approach is with UBC's CSL and Learning Exchange staff, who have the contacts to work with the school teachers to find out what kinds of projects they would value. (Otherwise our attempts at "service" will just be nuisances for them.)

The CSL and Learning Exchange people are wonderfully keen about this. Because a major component of BIOL121 is ecology, we can emphasize sustainability (one of UBC's big buzzwords at present). They also say that successfully incorporating community service learning into BIOL121 would be a powerful example to the rest of the UBC community.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

More relevance

My BIOL121 classes don't start until January, but teaching is creeping more and more into my mind lately so I'm going to be posting more about it.

This year I'm going to try to make the material (genetics, ecology, evolution) more relevant, by regularly asking "How can we use this information or these methods to help ourselves make better decisions about the things that matter to us?"

Genetics can help us make decisions about health or family.

Understanding ecology can help us preserve and support the parts of the world we value most.

What about evolution? Is it unimportant because it's all in the past? The biggest issue in many people's lives is their belief in a supreme being whose supernatural powers created the world and living things. Understanding evolution shows us that the wonderful sophistication of living things could have arisen without divine intervention.