The penultimate day of the summer term! Compared to some of our other days, this one was pretty low key, but we did have a little unexpected adventure.
I’d intended to lecture on ecosystem services in the morning, and then watch one of my favorite “teaching” films, “Hurricane on the Bayou.” And this is mostly what happened, except for a little detour part way through. When I arrived on campus, I noticed some flyers posted in the science building – one of the biology grad students, Vanessa Dodge, was giving her thesis defense. Not only was I really interested in her research, as I’d been up to the field site in Point Reyes a couple of times, but I also thought this would be a good way for my students to learn a bit more about the process of science. So, I gave them the choice – do you want to listen to me lecture all morning? Or do you want to go hear someone else talk for a while? They voted in favor of variety, so about an hour into the day we headed upstairs to the thesis defense.
Taking them was, I think, a good experience for them. The talk was good – she did her research on the effects of tule elk on soil composition, so it was very ecology focused, and not too technical. And my students were a great audience! So, that was a little bit of serendipity for our last week.
After lunch, we started talking about human populations, including an activity on population growth. This makes an easy transition to our next topic: food security, but we didn’t get all the way through the lecture . . . I decided to save one of the most interesting topics for the next day: GMOs. Oh yeah. That’s always an entertaining lecture. 🙂
Here’s an article in the Press Democrat about the outreach I took part in last week at SSU:
ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | July 13, 2017, 9:13PM
It was a campus takeover.
Hundreds of elementary and middle school children swarmed the cafeteria, dorms, quads and halls of Sonoma State University Thursday for what’s becoming an annual tradition.
It’s the second year the Rohnert Park campus has hosted “I Am the Future Day” for the Sacramento nonprofit Roberts Family Development Center, which provides academic and other services to hundreds of economically disadvantaged children and their families. The event is intended to give children a “taste of college” to encourage them to pursue higher education.
We covered a lot of ground today. We started out with a lab activity, since we hadn’t had time to explore biomes fully the previous day. I started them out with a super cool Google Earth file that I found here. One of the resources is an interactive Google Earth map with layers that show various aspects of climate – average winter temperatures, average summer temperatures, that sort of thing – along with a layer that shows the location and distribution of biomes, worldwide.
After working with this data for a bit, I handed out an outline of a continent, with the instructions that they should place the biomes wherever they wanted, as long as it was in keeping with the concepts we’d just learned – which biomes are found at which latitudes, how landforms like mountains can affect climate, that sort of thing. And yes, this was another coloring project! (Always popular). Although we hadn’t talked about climate change yet (that would happen next), I set that up by asking them to think through what sort of shifts we might see in the location of biomes, if temperatures were to rise by even a few degrees.
After lunch, we talked about the movement of energy and materials through ecosystems, including the concept of food webs. For lab, we did an activity that I adapted a couple of years ago for an upper division biology course: “Trophic Interactions in the Kelp Forest: An Ecological Detective Story.” My original inspiration for this activity, an NSF case study, can be found here. In the past, I’d provided students with a matrix of trophic (feeding) relationships, and asked them to create a food web diagram:
I’d always assigned this as homework, so I needed to make some adjustments to turn it into an in-class activity. The biggest change was the addition of some little “Food Web Cards,” each of which had a picture of an organism, along with the details of what that organism eats, and also what it gets eaten by. Each group received a complete set of cards, and instead of giving them a completed matrix, they had to come up with that on their own.
Then, instead of doing their food webs online, we made good use of the white boards, and some colorful wet erase markers. (This ended up being not ideal for me – it took me AGES to clean off all the marker, since it needed to be sprayed down. But it was worth it).
The activity went REALLY well! Everything worked out just as I had hoped, and they did a great job of coming up with their food webs. A REALLY good job . . . in the past, I’d had complaints from students that the matrix was too complicated, and it took them too long to complete. I think maybe the difference was that doing this in class gave them plenty of time and space to really get into it, whereas the attitude for doing it as homework might have been to speed through it as quickly as possible? I don’t know . . . all I know is that my non-majors totally owned this activity, so next time some upper division bio students try and tell me it’s “too hard,” I’m going to have a rebuttal for them haha. 😉
While they were drawing food web diagrams, I did a bit of kelp forest artwork of my own:
I really liked the way this went using the little cards . . . I think I’ll incorporate that into the activity for the upper division students, as well.
Not a whole lot to post about this day . . . once again (as usual on exam days), I didn’t take any photos. Our morning was taken up with the third exam, including an exam review session. No Pictionary this time, though . . . instead, I put together a game of Jeopardy, using this awesome Powerpoint template.
Here is a sample of the questions (answers at the bottom of this post):
After the exam, we finished up with diversity, and talked about the evolution of humans. I do a fairly quick run-through of the main groups of ancestors (Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis), and the patterns of dispersal from Africa. I share with the class that 2.5% of my DNA was inherited from my Neanderthal ancestors (2.7% is the average for people of European heritage), and of course we talk about the appearance of Homo sapiens. I had to change up my powerpoint presentation this term, however, in light of some REALLY COOL fossils found in Morocco, which push the timeline back a great many years. Previously, we placed the evolution of humans about 200,000 years ago; now, that date has been pushed back to at least 300,000 years ago. SO COOL!!!!
Another favorite day! And another rotation lab. Today’s lectures focused on the diversity of vertebrates. We started out with chordates, and then followed the major groups all the way through their transition to land. In the morning, we covered fish, amphibians, and (some) reptilian vertebrates. Then, we stopped for some lab activities that allowed them to explore further the transition to land.
First, an activity from the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, “A Strange Fish, Indeed,” This interrupted case study describes the extraordinarily COOL discovery by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer of a living Coelacanth – a sarcopterygian fish from an order believed extinct for 70 million years. This is one of my very, very favorite biology stories, and I did touch on it briefly in lecture, but working through this case study, which allowed the story to unfold gradually, was wonderful. On the whole, I’ve found that the case study activities put out by the NSF are excellent. I used this one as is, without any modifications.
I also showed them this adorable music video about Tiktaalik – another transitional fish.
After lunch, it was time for probably my favorite lecture of the entire semester . . . *drumroll* . . . DINOSAURS!!!!!!! I do love dinosaurs, always have, so this is a big deal for me! When the students return from lunch, I have the “Jurassic Park” theme song playing to set the mood. I have animated slides, including the most epic image ever created:
The dinosaur lecture has a bunch more cool stories – how Othniel Marsh put the wrong head on his “Brontosaurus” skeleton; why the original name for Megalosaurus was Scrotum humanum; the problem with the “Velociraptors” in the Jurassic Park films.
And of course, the question that everyone wants answered: WHEN WILL I BE ABLE TO GENETICALLY ENGINEER MY OWN BABY DINOSAUR? This leads to a discussion of cloning, which, sadly, will probably not ever allow us to make baby dinosaurs, BUT there are some other genetic techniques that will – our first attempts have led to the majestic CHICKEN-O-SAURUS!!!!!
After lecture, more fun during the vertebrate rotation lab! The trick with this lab is choosing which of the LOADS OF COOL SPECIMENS from our Vertebrate Museum to pull out and put on display.
This time around, in addition to some specimens from each of the major groups (fishes, amphibians, “reptiles,” birds, and mammals), I went with a couple of stations that would allow them to explore function: skulls, to look primarily at the teeth, and hypothesize about diet, and bird feet, to determine whether they were for perching, wading, swimming, grasping prey, etc.
Once again, they really enjoyed everything! And one of my students said something really sweet at the end of the day. He’d asked if I’d set up the entire display myself (I answered honestly that I’d had assistance in pulling out the museum specimens, but I’d set up the classroom myself. During the summer semester, I am solely responsible for most of the lab set up and tear down, since I’m not technically employed by the Biology Department, but instead by the Department of Extended Education. I have access to department materials, but not the same level of support that happens during the regular semesters).
After I explained this, he said, “Thank you so much for all the hard work you put into setting all this up for us.”
It meant a lot to me, to know that he’d been enjoying the lab activities, and appreciating the work that went into putting them together. Seriously presh. <3
Taking a quick break from Summer School posts to share something that happened on campus today: the school hosted about 450 elementary-aged students from the Roberts Family Development Center, a CDF Freedom School. Departments from all across campus set up hands-on activities, the Rohnert Park Fire Department and Police Department came out to say, “Hi,” and it seemed as though a good time was had by all!
Our Biology Department activity focused on insect defenses – particularly camouflage and warning displays. We had a dissecting scope set up with butterflies for the kids to view, a nice display on insect defenses, some books, a coloring station, and some live critters. Unsurprisingly, the live insects were a bit hit, but the star of the show today was definitely Rose, the department’s Chilean rose tarantula. (She’s my favorite)!
Rather than write any more about this, I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves. 🙂 Outreach is so much fun.
Here’s the coloring page, if you’d like to join in. I’ve also included some suggested colors, but of course you are welcome to color it any way you’d like! 🙂
I know I keep saying this, but THIS IS ANOTHER OF MY FAVORITE DAYS OF THE SEMESTER! Today was pretty much fun from start to finish. In the morning, lecture on the diversity of plants, including the various adaptations that allowed plants to make the transition from the ocean onto land. After the lecture, I’d arranged for us to have a tour of the Tropical Greenhouse on campus. The greenhouse is across campus from the science building, so along the way I gave them a little walking tour of some of my favorite plants on campus, including a few Ginkgo trees, a Cycad (my all time fave), several ferns, redwood trees, and the Butterfly Garden. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures along the campus tour, but I have loads of pics from our greenhouse tour! We were welcomed to the greenhouse by Kandis, who provides instructional support for the Biology Department, and she is an exceptionally gracious hostess!
To be honest, for most of my time at SSU, I didn’t know we had a tropical greenhouse. It was only when I was teaching this class last summer that I found out about it, but now I want to bring as many students here as possible. It’s not all that big, but there are so many GORGEOUS plants!
While we were there, I asked everyone to draw at least one of the plants in their field notebooks, and that occupied much of their time, but we also had time to wander around and talk about the different types of plants we were seeing.
All four main groups of plants were represented here: Bryophytes (including mosses), seedless vascular plants (including ferns), gymnosperms (evergreens), and angiosperms (flowering plants). Mostly ferns and angiosperms. Here are some highlights:
Here are a few student drawings:
Kandis did a couple of particularly cool things while we were there . . . first, she cut off a branch of the rubber tree, so we could see the sap ooze from the plant (and yes, that’s really rubber)! I remember having a rubber tree in the backyard of the house where I grew up, but I don’t think I knew sap would come out like that. (Probably a good thing for the tree; if I’d known, I’d have been cutting off branches all the time).
Kandis also gave everyone a cutting off of a spider plant that needed to be trimmed back anyway. So, we all ended up with adorable little spider plant babies to take home with us, perfect examples of asexual reproduction! (The big plant pictured below is the parent).
Everyone had a fantastic time investigating plants on campus, and then it was time for lunch. When we got back, it was time to move on to the next topic: ANIMALS! In particular, invertebrates – animals that don’t have backbones. I’d set up the classroom as a rotation lab, with a whole bunch of stations: Sponges, Cnidarians, Molluscs and Annelids, Crustaceans, Horseshoe Crab, Arachnids and Insects (including some live specimens; we took a mini-field trip upstairs to view the tarantula and stick insects in one of the 1st floor displays), and Echinoderms. I’m honestly not sure which part of today they liked better – plants, or animals. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all super cool!
Sponges, Mulloscs, and Annelids:
Here’s a cool video I took of a snail scraping algae off the side of the tank with a specialized structure called a radula:
Arthropods, including Crustaceans, and Insects:
Echinoderms (these might be my favorite. Their tube feet are SO CUTE):
Such a fantastic day! And we’ve got more fun in store tomorrow, when we talk about VERTEBRATES!
Today, it was time to leave microevolution behind, and talk about how new species form. Now that they understand how adaptations and natural selection cause populations to change, it’s an easy step to understanding how this can lead to speciation. To drive that concept home, I put together a speciation activity based on this cool online natural selection simulation: http://sepuplhs.org/high/sgi/teachers/evolution_act11_sim.html.
The simulation tracks populations of birds on an island, to see how natural selection and mutations can cause phenotypic changes. You start with 3 populations of 300 birds each, and follow them through 1,000,000 years of evolution. Throughout this time, the simulation makes a notification any time a mutation takes place, along with the overall effect – was it positive or negative? Did it help to increase, or decrease the population?
The instructions on the website call for starting with three phenotypically different populations of birds, to see how they respond differently to the various selective forces. But since I was interested in speciation from common ancestors, I had my students do things a little bit differently. They started out with three identical populations of birds, with all birds having intermediate phenotypes for all characters (medium size, rather than small or large; medium beak length and curvature, and brown plumage). This way, they could get a feeling for how both selective and random forces can affect populations.
The simulation takes place in two rounds: the first, you follow birds in a single location for 500,000 years. Then, the populations disperse to different habitats on the island, and you can then witness another 500,000 years of evolution, under different selective forces. Since we were modeling speciation, I specified that, by the end of the simulation, any populations that differed in at least two characters would be considered separate species.
We didn’t see a whole lot of change after the first 500,000 years, which makes sense since all birds experienced the same conditions. But once they dispersed to different habitats, WHOA they started differentiating quite a bit. On the whole, I was pleased with the way the activity went, and the students seemed to really enjoy it. I would definitely use this activity again in the future.
After the activity, we watched a film: the Nova Origins, “How Life Began,” featuring Neil Degrasse Tyson. This is a great introduction to our next unit: diversity of life on Earth. In the film, he talks about how life might have emerged out of the chemical constituents and conditions that were present on early Earth. I mostly like it because there’s lot of volcano eruptions, and cool stuff like that. Also, I think Neil D.T. is fantastic.
After lunch, I dove right into diversity. I tend to spend more time on this part of the course than anyone else I’ve spoken with about this non-majors curriculum, and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the amazing variety of life on Earth is one of the things that caught my interest in science at a very early age, so I absolutely love sharing my enthusiasm with students about all the cool organisms that surround us. One of my dreams is to be able to teach a dedicated zoology class one of these days (honestly, that is the class I was BORN to teach haha). If it was just about my enjoyment, however, I would try and rein myself in, but invariably, I have students who tell me this is their favorite part of the course. So, I spend a fairly substantial amount of time on diversity.
Today, we started out with mostly teeny tiny things: prokaroyotes (bacteria and archaea), and protists (mostly eukaryotic microbes, but also including some larger things like algae). I walked through the basics in lecture, and then the fun started: MICROSCOPY LAB!
In the past, I arranged to have prepared cultures of little critters on hand – things like Euglena, Parameciums, Volvox, blue-green algae. This time around, I’d thought we’d try something different. Instead of providing samples, I took the class out to the campus lake, so they could collect their own water samples, focusing more on discovery, rather than studying any particular organisms. (Along the way, we also visited the nifty fungus we’d found back on the first day of class).
On the way back from the ponds, we stopped for a little adventure. Transfer orientation was going on that week, and there were all sorts of booths set up for the new students. We tried to get some free t-shirts, but failed (they were for incoming students only), but they did take this fabulous picture of us, pond water samples at all:
Back in the classroom, we pulled out the compound microscopes, along with some glass slides and methylcellulose quieting solution (to slow down how fast they swim), and I showed them how to make wet mounts from their samples.
So, how did it work out?
IT WAS AWESOME! WE FOUND THE COOLEST STUFF!!!!!!! Here are some photos and videos, taken with my microscope camera (I have a microscope similar to this one, but I usually just remove the camera, and insert it into the eyepiece of one of the school’s microscopes, as they have better quality optics).
To be honest, although this was supposed to be the protist lab, most of the things we found were actual animals. We did find a few protists, though, like this algae:
Another protist: Halteria grandinella
I think these might be Tetrahymena:
We found an insect, and a few crustaceans, including what I think is an Alona sp (shown in the videos):
But I think the star of the show today was this lovely critter: a HYDRA! (No, not the multi-headed dragon kind. This one is a Cnidarian, closely related to jellyfish and corals):
We ended up spending the rest of class time looking through the microscopes, and I’m pretty sure everyone found something cool in the water sample they’d collected. There’s just something very satisfying, and a bit mind-blowing, about finding all these things living in the lake we walk by every day.
Today we covered sort of a hodge-podge of things, but there was a common thread – ways in which we can see evidence of evolution, both on long time scales, as well as short ones.
First things first, though – Exam #2. Before the exam, we played a game of Pictionary, using the following prompts:
Character vs Trait
Function of tRNAs
Phases of Mitosis
Again, no photos from that day, but I’ll recreate some of the drawings . . . answers at the bottom of the post. 🙂
After the exam, I walked them through the evidence of evolution: how the fossil record demonstrates graduate change over time, in the form of transitional fossils; how geographical patterns are explained by common ancestry, such as the radiation of marsupials in Australia; how we can track the number of mutations over time in a sequence of DNA, and use this to estimate how long ago two species diverged from a common ancestor. And my favorite: comparative anatomy. At this point in the lecture, I always tell the story of the “ah-HA” moment in my own life, when this understanding clicked for me. When I was young, I spent a lot of time at the L.A. Zoo. Eventually, in high school, I’d become a student volunteer there, but even before that, I spent a lot of weekends at the zoo, sometimes attending some really cool educational programs. There’s one class I remember really clearly . . . the woman giving the program showed us a diagram of a whale’s skeleton, including the bones in the fin. Then, she showed us a diagram of the bones in a human hand . . . same configuration, both inherited from a common ancestor way back in our evolutionary history.
After lunch, we continued with evolution, but on a slightly different tack: infectious diseases. At first, it might not seem related, but when we talk about the influenza virus, and how it evolves to overcome our immune system’s adaptations, BOOM! Evolution that we can watch happening in real time. Plus, students tend to find the topic of disease really interesting. Bubonic plague, malaria, Lyme disease . . . fascinating stuff.
Today’s lab activity explored a couple of types of disease transmission, in the context of a role-playing exercise. I had the class “attend” a convention: the International Association for the Breeding of Dragons (since they are experienced dragon breeders after last week’s inheritance lab). Unfortunately for them, however, one of the conventioneers showed up carrying a nasty case of contagious Dragon Pox, and the following morning, there was a problem with food poisoning in the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
Figuring out how to do this lab took some ingenuity on my part. I found a few examples online of disease transmission labs, with the general idea of seeing how quickly a disease can travel through a population, depending on the method of transmission. Transmission would happen by exchanging “body fluids,” represented by cups of water. One “infected” individual (who wouldn’t know they were infected) would have a cup with water and sodium hydroxide, and after a sort of “musical chairs” in which students would randomly contaminate one another’s water cups, all of the water would be tested with phenolpthalein solution . . . the water of anyone who’d been infected by the disease would turn pink. Only problem: I didn’t have any phenolpthalein on hand.
So, I improvised. Instead of using sodium hydroxide, I filled the “infected” cup with 3 parts water to 1 part vinegar. It wasn’t enough vinegar so that the smell would be obvious, but it was enough that, even after mixing with two or three other “uninfected” samples of water, there would be enough acidity to see a difference using standard pH test strips. I had the students “mingle,” and everyone exchanged body fluids two times. Then, each of them had to visit the “doctor,” to be tested for Dragon Pox. Once we knew who had been infected, they tried to figure out the identify of Patient Zero – or, the original source of the infection. In our case, four of the ten students were infected, and we were only able to narrow it down to two people, but of course, I knew all along that Greg was the bearer of the disease.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the “next morning” at the convention, I had them eat a big breakfast from the hotel’s buffet. I had a list of food items, labeled with photographs . . . in order to take a helping, they took an eye-dropper full of water out of that item’s cup. Again, I’d laced two of the cups (the ones containing “strawberries”) with vinegar. Turns out, a lot of people like strawberries, and almost all of them ended up with a case of food poisoning. This time, they compared notes as to who ate which items, and they were able to determine that the strawberries were tainted.
It went well, and the vinegar/pH paper system worked out perfectly. I’ll definitely do that again in the future, instead of trying to source less common chemicals. I think I’ll also add another section, to simulate airborne transmission, although I haven’t yet thought through how to do it.
We ended the day by watching a film – it’s one of my favorites for this class: “Why Sex?” This one follows another couple and their path to parenthood, while exploring the ways in which humans, and other animals, benefit from the process of sexual reproduction.
As usual on test days, we didn’t cover a much material as usual today, but no worries! There will be more fun tomorrow.
I’ve written about Evernote before (Archiving RSS Feeds with Evernote, Storage Space in Evernote, and Evernote), and it’s time for an update. I’d been feeling as though my organizational system wasn’t quite working as efficiently as I want it to – I can’t always find things easily when I want them – so I went looking to see how other people are using the program. After being inspired by some Evernote gurus (particularly Michael Hyatt and Thomas Honeyman), I decided to make a HUGE leap, away from notebooks, and to using tags as my primary tool for organizing my notes. With more than 16,000 notes in my system, it’s somewhat daunting to think about making this change, but I’m going to take the plunge anyway.
The main thing that convinced me that tags might be a better method of organizing notes is this: each note can only be placed in a single notebook. So, for example, if I have a notebook for “Blog Posts” and a notebook for the “Introduction to Biology” course I teach, if I’ve written a blog post about teaching that course, I have to choose one or the other. That’s kind of limiting. But I can use as many tags as I like on a single note. Certainly, I have the capacity to do that regardless of which notebook holds any given note, but I was starting to find myself overwhelmed with notebooks. If I can come up with a tagging system that really works, finding notes at will relies on Evernote’s search function, which is pretty kick-ass, actually.
The basic idea is to have an Inbox, and a very small number of “Cabinets” to hold all notes. Then, a hierarchical tagging structure makes it possible to search quickly and efficiently for notes.
So, just for teaching materials, I’m going from this:
This is something of an oversimplification, but not much . . . especially since the first screenshot shows JUST my teaching notebooks, which represented only about a quarter of my total notebooks.
Of course, the simplification of notebooks will be accompanied by an increase in the number of tags, but probably not hugely more tags, as I’m already in the habit of thoroughly tagging posts for topic. Mostly, I’ll just be adding “descriptor” tags – what type of file is held within the note. Right now, here are the tags I need to wrangle:
Haha, I’ve got my work cut out for me, don’t I? But I think that by committing to using tags to find things, instead of scrounging around for them in notebooks, I’ll be able to find things a lot faster. (I hope so, anyway, because otherwise this switchover will have been a crazy amount of work for not much payoff).