Arrangement Games

Oh my . . . it’s been a while since I posted anything. I had such good intentions last semester, but never found the time to sit down and write. Over the next little while, I’m going to go back and post about cool things that happened last year, but for now, I thought I’d jump back in by moving forward with some content that is timely for the beginning of a new semester: arrangement games. This isn’t anything particularly new or groundbreaking – people have been doing these things for years – but I thought I’d do a quick round up of some of the ones that I find work particularly well.

Arrangement games fall into the category of “Ice Breakers” – something to get a new group of students interacting with one another in a low-pressure way. In this case, the games get students up out of their seats, to mingle and form groups with other students based on some sort of criteria. I find this particularly important with a discussion or lab class, where students will be asked to do a lot of group work. It’s a nice way for them to interact with a few different people before having to make a decision about who they might want to partner up with for a longer-term assignment. I’ve also found it really useful in my big (125+ student) general education courses, as a way of helping them get to know their classmates, so they can work on homework together, or form study groups, etc. (In these big classes, though, I skip out on the “arrangement part,” and just have them chat with people already seated nearby).

These activities are great for freshmen classes, where the majority of them won’t know anyone else in class. And, while it might seem less important for upper division majors courses where many students have existing relationships (and could easily form groups with people they already know), it’s worth taking the time to integrate students who don’t yet know anyone else (recent transfers, change of major, etc). Plus, for any group of students, I find it tends to both relax and invigorate them, and at the end they’re more engaged for whatever we’re going to do next.

There’s another a really nice side benefit to this, especially for those huge general education courses: I ask them to jot down their answers to the questions on a sheet of paper – one sheet of paper per group – and turn it in at the end of class. Then I can use these responses to check attendance, rather than going through the process of calling out 125 names off of a roster.

There are endless ways to go about doing an arrangement game, but the basic format is as follows:

  • Ask them to arrange themselves into groups (some ideas for this below)
  • Have the group members “interview” one another with a list of questions provided to them
  • At the end, come back together as a group and do some sharing with the whole class. At this point, I usually share my own answers to the interview questions, as a way of helping them get to know me. Then, we go around the room and ask everyone to introduce someone else from their group to the class, or (in a large class) ask for a few people to volunteer their answers.

As for the arrangement activity, here are my favorites:

Hometown. Ask students to get into groups (of whatever number you like – I usually do groups of 3 or 4) based on what they consider their hometown. You can designate one corner of the classroom as the town your school is in, for people who didn’t move away from home to attend college, and the other corner for people who moved from a long distance. Then, they have to introduce themselves to one another and say where they grew up, and eventually they’ll find their way to the correct spot somewhere along the continuum. I’ve had really good success with this one – sometimes, students discover that someone else in the class came from the same place, even if it’s not all that close to campus. (“You’re from Fresno? ME TOO!”). Overall, this is my favorite of the games for forming groups where students will be doing long-term projects together.

Birthday. Ask students to get themselves into a single line, based on the month and day they were born (don’t include the year). Again, they’ll have to chat with one another to figure out who goes where. This is by far the simplest one, and usually takes the least amount of time to accomplish. It doesn’t work in all classrooms, though, depending on the set up of furniture. Ideally, there should be enough room for them to form a single-file line.

Clothing. This one is super fun, especially if you want them to have to think a little bit more to get to the end result. Tell them to arrange themselves into groups based on their clothing. That’s it. Those are the only instructions you give. It’s up to them to decide what that means. Are they grouping themselves by the color they’re wearing? By footwear (boots, sandals, athletic shoes, etc.) By short sleeves or long sleeves, jeans, skirts, etc.? This one is fun to watch, as they work out just what to do. A benefit is that this allows students who already know one another to potentially group themselves together – they just look for some aspect of their clothing that all matches – but it also opens the door for other students to join. “Hey, we’re all wearing jeans – I’m going to come hang out with you!”

Comic Strip. I print out a set of comic strips, and cut each comic into its individual frames. (The ones I’ve linked to below are designed to get students into groups of four, but you could also use comic strips with three frames if you wanted smaller groups). Cut up enough comics so there are the same number of individual frames as there are students. Put all the frames in a “hat,” and have each student randomly select one. Then, let them mingle around until they find the other 3 students with a frame from the same comic. This might not be as easy as it seems at first – I usually have more than one strip from the same comic strip, so even if they find another students with a “Calvin and Hobbes” piece, it might not be from the same “Calvin and Hobbes” strip.

Calvin and Hobbes

Once they’re in groups, you can have them ask one another 3 or 4 “interview” questions. I like to have a mix of school related ones, along with some fun, personal interest type stuff. I usually give them anywhere between 3 and 7 minutes to do this, depending on how many questions I’m asking. I also like there to be a little bit of time afterward for them to connect on a more individual level. The list of potential questions is endless, really, as long as you’re not having them share things that might be uncomfortably personal.

Some of the questions I typically ask include:

  • What is your full name? (I always start with this one, so I have that info to take roll)
  • What name do you like to be called? (Nicknames, people who go by their middle name, etc)
  • What is your major? If undeclared, what are some subjects of interest?
  • (For majors classes) What first got you interested/inspired to major in this subject?
  • What sort of work do you hope to do after you graduate?
  • What are some things you’re hoping to learn in this class this semester?
  • Tell me something fun you did over [the Summer; Winter Break, etc].
  • What song are you really into RIGHT NOW? (I particularly like asking this one, because I can go through later and see if there are any songs I like – it’s a great way of finding out about “new to me” music).
  • What is your favorite film (or film genre, or favorite film you saw this year)?

For a bit more extended version:

  • Collectively, find something that all three group members have in common (they can’t just say that they’re in this class, or attend the same university). Maybe they all come from the same hometown, or they all have dogs, or they like Canadian bacon and pineapple on pizz, whatever. Kind of a little scavenger hunt.
  • Then, they each come up with something totally unique – something about themselves that they think won’t apply to anyone else in the class. For example, I might say that I’ve lived in Scotland (since not that many people living in California have done that)

This makes for a fun classroom share (in a small class), as you can go through the various “unique” statements, and see if they really ARE the only one in the class with that trait.

For a very heavily discussion oriented class, you can target the questions specifically toward fostering good discussions:

“Think about your favorite class ever . . .”

  • What did the teacher do to help create a good learning environment?
  • What did the students do to contribute to this environment?
  • What did the teacher and students NOT do?
  • What is necessary in class for you to feel comfortable sharing with the whole group?

“Think about the CLASS FROM HELL . . .”

  • What did the teacher do to create this situation?
  • What did the students do to contribute to this situation?
  • What did the teacher and students NOT do?

With this exercise, I like to bring them together after they share within their groups, and have them share their responses while I create a brainstormed list on the board for each category. If you think students might be shy about calling out their own ideas, you can always anonymize it somewhat by having them write things down on paper, and then trade around with other students, so they’re calling out someone else’s comments.

That’s all there is to it. A full arrangement game, depending on class size, and how much sharing we do afterward, usually takes somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. That’s a small amount of time to spend on an activity that can potentially increase engagement a lot. Also, with lecture classes, I don’t do this right at the beginning of class. I wait until about half-way through, and it gives them a little break, which helps them wake up and get refocused, after sitting still and listening for a while.

Here are some comic strips that I use for my biology/ecology classes (you might want to find comics that relate to your own field of study):

Dinosaur Comics: Chicken or Egg
Dinosaur Comics: Earth Day
Calvin and Hobbes: Tyrannosaurs
Calvin and Hobbes: Scientific Experiments
Sherman’s Lagoon: Ecosystem Services
Sherman’s Lagoon: Eating Assignment

If you’d like to read about some additional ice breaker ideas, check out this article:

Maker Space: 3D Printing

Last October, a really spectacular space opened up on campus – we now have a dedicated Maker Space! Loads of equipment, including: vinyl cutter, embroidery machines, sublimation printer, oscilloscope, Arduino, soldering station, engraving machines, laser cutters, Carvey mill, and a virtual reality set up. Oh, and of course, we have 3D printers.

That’s where I decided to start. I don’t really have any pressing need for things I can laser print, but the technology is SO cool, I wanted to learn how to use the machines. My son and I started out with two projects: some Lantern rings (Indigo for me, and Yellow for him). Mine didn’t come out too well – I need to learn enough about the software to make some adjustments, and try again.

3D printed Indigo Lantern ring - not quite right!
3D printed Indigo Lantern ring – not quite right!
3D printed Yellow Lantern ring. Nice!








I had much better success with a little owl figurine. I’ve been collecting owls for years and years, so I hoped this would make a cute little addition to my collection.

It did take me two tries – the first machine we tried cut out part-way through – but look at this little cutie:

3-D printed owl


Summer School – Day 14 – Ecosystem Service and Food Security

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.

Eventually, though, I did finish up the ecosystem services lecture, and then we watched “Hurricane on the Bayou.” It’s a beautifully filmed documentary about Hurricane Katrina, and the ways in which the loss of natural coastal habitats led to more severe storm damage than would have happened otherwise. Probably the most interesting thing about this film, though, is the circumstances under which it was made. They’d actually started filming it some time before the hurricane hit, and obviously had no idea that Hurricane Katrina would happen when she did. The original intention was to talk about the importance of wetlands, and the need to conserve them, to protect against a “big one” that could hit in the future. But part way through filming, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina happened, and the film changed from something more theoretical into video documentation of the disaster and some of the people whose lives were devastated. There’s an authenticity about it that is remarkable, and disturbing, and really gets the point across: preserving ecosystems and the services they provide is so crucial to human well-being. I highly recommend this film, even though it can be difficult to watch at times. (All photos © MacGillivray Freeman Films)

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. 🙂

Selected Materials

110 Hurricane on the Bayou
110 Population Growth

Summer School – Day 13 – Climate Change, Biomes and Food Webs

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.

Selected Materials

110 Climate and Biomes lab activity
Google Earth file can’t be uploaded to WordPress, but should be available at the link in the first paragraph
110 Trophic Interactions in the Kelp Forest SU17
Kelp Forest Food Web Cards

Summer School – Day 12 – Human Evolution, and Intro to Ecology

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!!!!

We also watched an interactive video from HHMI: Great Transitions: the Origin of Humans. ( It’s about 20 minutes long, with quiz questions embedded along the way, so students are able to reinforce the most important points from the video.

We finished up today with an introductory lecture on Ecology – what it is, and a bit about why it’s important. We didn’t get far enough to do a lab activity, though, so I’ll expand on this tomorrow.

spuɐןƃ ʎɹɐɯɯɐɯ puɐ ɹnɟ (ƃ ؛ɥʇuɐɔɐןǝoɔ ǝɥʇ (ɟ ؛ǝsɹǝʌıp ssǝן (ǝ ؛suǝƃoɥʇɐd (p ؛sǝןʇɹnʇ puɐ suɐıןıpoɔoɹɔ (ɔ ؛ʞɔoɹ snoǝuƃı (q ؛sʇuɐןd ɟo sɹoʇsǝɔuɐ ǝɥʇ ǝq oʇ pǝʌǝıןǝq ǝɹɐ ǝɐƃןɐ uǝǝɹƃ (ɐ

Summer School – Day 9 – Speciation and Pond Water Lab

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: 

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):

SO COOL!!!!!!!!

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.

Seriously, microscopy is the best.

Selected Materials

110 Speciation Simulation

Summer School – Day 8 – Evidence of Evolution

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:

AlleleAnaphase IICharacter vs TraitDirectional Selection
Disruptive SelectionFunction of tRNAsGene FlowGenetic Drift
Haploid CellHomologous ChromosomesIncomplete DominanceIntegumentary System
Metastatic TumorNervous SystemPhases of MitosisProphase I
Recessive PedigreeReplicationTranscriptionTranslation

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.

Selected Materials

110 Disease Transmission Lab
110 Disease Transmission Buffet

uoıʇɔǝןǝs ןɐuoıʇɔǝɹıp (ɔ ؛ǝɔuɐuıɯop ǝʇǝןdɯoɔuı (q ؛sʇıɐɹʇ sʌ ɹǝʇɔɐɹɐɥɔ (ɐ :sɹǝʍsuɐ ʎɹɐuoıʇɔıd



Tag Wrangling in Evernote

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:

To 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).

I’ll update on my progress soon!

Summer School – Day 7 – Darwin and Natural Selection

Started out the day by picking up where I left off on my Darwin lecture, and then moved on to adaptations, and the principles of natural selection. I frame most of this discussion around the Oldfield Mice experiment, partly because it’s a perfect example of a scientific study that demonstrates the effects of selection on populations, but also because the mice are so cute! I end up using these mice as an example all the way through evolution and speciation, so I have a bunch of slides I’ve animated showing all sorts of things happening to the mice. (Selective forces, like being caught by a hawk when the fur doesn’t match the substrate; and, later, random forces, like severe weather).

Oh! I almost forgot to mention that this is the lecture where I reveal probably the single most important biology fact of all . . . the secret connection between Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. It’s common knowledge that they were born on the exact same day (February 12, 1809), but I’ve uncovered a surprising bit of information that is much less well known . . . the image at right should make it obvious what I’m talking about (all photos were found on the internet, so obviously they must be completely legit).

We completed two big lab activities today. Before lunch, we viewed a short film from HHMI about Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, called “Making of a Theory,” along with a rotation lab that helped them explore Charles Darwin’s life, and the inspiration behind his ideas about natural selection and evolution.

I usually modify activities to some degree, to better suit how I cover the topics, but in this case, I used materials I’d found online exactly as is.

“Making of a Theory” –
“Darwin Rotation Lab” –

When we came back from lunch, I lectured about natural selection, and then we did some lab activities to demonstrate selection, and competition, in ACTION!

First, the predator lab: each group is provided with a bucket filled with a substrate of a particular color (mostly pink, mostly white, or mostly blue). We then populated these habitats with pink, white, and blue pipe cleaner “worms.” They then switched off hunting for prey in their habitat. After each round of hunting, they calculated how many of each color had survived, and the survivors were allowed to “reproduce” (so more worms of those colors were added to the subtrate).

The hypothesis? That worms that matched the substrate color would survive the best (because they were the hardest for hunters to spot), so over time, this color would be favorable, and the other colors would decline.

So, catching worms is a lot of fun, but did their results match up with this hypothesis? Turns out, not really! In the past, I’ve done this activity with students, and generally the data they collect is exactly what they expected: the pink habitats have more pink worms than other colors, white habitats have more white worms, etc. But we only made that finding for one of our substrate colors (and it wasn’t a strong effect at all):

So, how do we explain this? I gave them some time to come up with an answer . . . our new hypothesis is that most of the students weren’t hunting by sight (in which case, color would be under selection), but were hunting by touch, so color didn’t impact how easy or difficult the worms were to catch. I think that’s a pretty sound hypothesis. 🙂

Our final activity for the day is also one of the most exciting of the semester . . . *drumroll please* . . . COMPETITION LAB!!!!!!! In this lab, students use chopsticks to simulate the beak of a wading bird. All birds start out with short beaks, and have to compete against their team members to catch the most food out of a limited supply. Each generation, the most successful birds are able to reproduce. It is also possible for a mutation to take place, causing an adaptation of beak length. As you might guess, birds with longer beaks are more successful at catching food swimming in deeper water. Yes, this activity allows us to demonstrate some principles of natural selection. But it’s also just hilarious to watch!

Everything usually starts out nicely enough, with each bird just trying to catch some food:

But, sooner or later, things start to get brutal. This is COMPETITION we’re talking about, after all. (It doesn’t hurt that I goad them on throughout that “IF YOU DON’T CATCH ENOUGH FOOD YOUR BABIES WILL DIEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!”).

Honestly, I don’t remember what our results were. I think Cassandra (in the greyish green jacket) was the winner, overall. But really, they were all winners that day. Well, at least those that caught enough food to feed their little offspring hahahahaha.

Summer School – Day 6 – Inheritance

This is always one of the favorite topics of the semester – Mendelian genetics, and inheritance. We cover a bunch of really interesting stuff, including questions like:

  • “Can two brown-haired people have a blond baby?”
  • “Why do I have green eyes and my sister has blue eyes?”
  • “Do twins have the exact same DNA?”
  • “What are the genes that determine how you look?”
  • “Can you choose which traits your child will have?”

We also talk about pedigree analysis, and inherited diseases, and Punnett squares (okay, they don’t usually love Punnett squares haha). But still, loads of cool stuff! My lectures on the topic are pretty well set, but I needed to figure out some lab activities. The one activity I use with my lecture-only course is designed as a homework activity, but it was pretty simple to restructure it into a rotation lab. I also found a few additional things for them to do, and explore the subject of inheritance.

Right from the start, they figure out that this isn’t going to be just any old inheritance lecture. When explaining Mendel’s breeding experiments, I make a very minor adjustment . . . instead of all those pea plants, we pretend that he was breeding dragons. Mostly because I like dragons a lot, but it also ties in with the hands-on activity I had them do later in the day. 😀

We didn’t jump right into dragons with our lab activities, though . . . we started out breeding dogs, instead. I found this really cool online activity at PBS Kids, and created a worksheet to accompany it. We took a trip over to the library, so they could use school computers, and they all got busy trying to breed dogs with desired traits.

The rest of the day’s activities I sort of switched around on the fly, as I decided I didn’t really like my original plan. So, I’ll describe what we actually did, and I’m not going to post all of the worksheets, as I ended up doing activities in a different order.

Before lunch, we did an activity on inheritance of human traits, where they assessed their own phenotype for several different classic “monogenic” traits. (In reality, many of these are probably determined by multiple genes, but I think the activity still has value).

In addition to the ones listed above, I had a station for phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). I provided strips of paper soaked in PTC, and by touching it to their tongues, students were able to discover whether or not they have the gene that allows them to taste the compound. (Of course, the ones who could taste instantly regretted it – apparently it taste AWFUL. I wouldn’t know – I don’t have the tasting gene). Interestingly enough, I had two students who appear to be heterozygotes – they could taste the PTC, but only mildly.

I asked them to add their results to a chart that tracked the entire class, so we could play around with percentages. Of course, we’re not able to make any strong statements about our results, as a sample size of 11 is pretty small.



We did have one super interesting result though – two of the students in class shared the same phenotype for EVERY SINGLE ONE of the traits. The probability of that is less than 1% (roughly 0.78%). My hypothesis? They were unknowingly separated at birth. 😉

After lunch, we go to the really fun stuff . . . the DRAGON GENETICS ROTATION LAB! As I mentioned, I usually assign this activity as a homework assignment, but it transitioned perfectly into a rotation lab. At the earlier stations, students practiced things like Punnett Squares, and interpreting pedigree charts. Then, they were able to breed a baby dragon of their own. They’re given information for how several characters are inherited, and they flip a coin to determine which allele the baby inherited from mom, and another coin flip to determine the allele from dad.

Of course, there’s not really much point in determining the baby’s alleles if we never get to SEE the baby, so the final step is to create a phenotypically-accurate dragon. Usually, when doing this for homework, students visit one of the Doll Divine sites, and make a dragon there. In class, though, I turned it into an arts and crafts project. I gave everyone a template with a generic dragon, and all the possible traits, and a huge box of colored pencils, some scissors, and glue sticks . . . and let them go to town.


The verdict? Coloring is fun. 😀

After finishing up with the activity, we still had about an hour left of class time, so I started my Darwin lecture. It’s one of my best lectures, and usually keeps a class’s attention pretty easily . . . but about 20 minutes in, I saw that I was losing them. They were getting sleepy-eyed, and slumping to the side . . . so I found a good breaking off point, and decided to pick it back up in the morning. I suppose that breeding dragons is hard work. 😉

Selected Materials

Dragons from lecture slides were generated on the Flight Rising website
Dragons from the Dragon Genetics assignment were generated on the Draconis Siirexsis dollmaker at Doll Divine.

Inheritance Dog Breeding
Dragon genetics traits2
110 Dragon Genetics Rotation Lab 110