Year 4: The Home Stretch

It is truly wild to think that with the completion of grading on Friday, April 29th, I have pretty much completed my third year of the doctoral program. This semester, I got to teach the same introductory biology course I taught in Spring 2021, and it was such a wonderful experience. I am sure that my middle school biology teacher would be shocked to hear that I enjoy teaching dissections, when I insisted that my lab partner do most (or all) of the dissections for that class. It has been a unique and gratifying experience to work on refining my approach to a course. The last time I taught this course, my students included in their feedback that they would have appreciated more emails. This was quite surprising, as if you’ve been an undergraduate in the last five years, you know that undergraduates get like 20-30 emails a day. In my past work in student government, I have even been in meetings with administrators where I had to explain that frustration with students asking questions about things that were “included in the email” isn’t fair when students have so many emails to read. I decided to do a trial period of around four weeks, where I sent at least one reminder email each week to both of my sections. At the end of the four weeks, I had my students vote on whether the emails would continue… and not a single student wanted me to discontinue the emails. This was a good reminder that approaches to supporting to students have to be context-specific and that even if we know that student evaluations put educators that look like me at a disadvantage, there can be valuable suggestions from students on how we can improve.

Ironically, I will be spending the summer running a plant-soil feedback greenhouse experiment, just as I did the summer after junior year at Scripps. There is a significant amount of work ahead of me, but if I’m being honest, I have also had a lot of free time. I have definitely been using that free time in some questionable ways, like looking at apartments in different SoCal cities, and refreshing various job boards, even though jobs I can apply to won’t be listed until August. I am so grateful for all the opportunities I have had here at UH, and I am so excited for some of this work to be published so I can share it with everyone, but I have been increasingly homesick. I hope to share some good news soon, and stay tuned for job hunt updates in the fall!

Milestone: My first field project

Many field projects were thrown into limbo due to COVID-19 related concerns and restrictions, mine included. There was a period of time when it seemed likely that my field project would never make it to fruition.

But today, March 22nd, I am so proud and excited to say that the outplanting phase of my very first field project has been completed! It took over a month (a month and three days, to be specific) and a lot of help.

I can’t share too much at this time, but here’s the highlight reel of pictures I had other people take:

Raking away grass in white sneakers, for some reason.

The mask helped some with not getting dirt (or carbon) on my face, but not completely, as you can see here.

I am thrilled to be planting here, surrounded by very science-y things, like milk jugs full of water.

And finally, a picture I am happy to say I took myself, of one of my outplants, looking strong, with the irrigation all laid in.

With my chronic illness, there are some things that my body is simply not capable of, without jeopardizing my ability to take care of myself. I’ve run a greenhouse experiment before, but as I set out on this field project, it occurred to me that I don’t actually know if I am physically capable of this. I feel like I’ve run a month long sprint. While it’s been hard… my symptoms have not been impacted. It is an incredible relief and melancholy joy to say that my body is capable of a field project, and today, what is hopefully the first of many can be crossed off my to-do list. I am so grateful to all the people who made this possible, by helping directly with the project, or by providing necessary support in other areas of my life.

I imagine that no one really finishes a restoration project feeling like their project isn’t going to work, but still, I have this feeling that my project is going to work.

I look forward to sharing more pictures in six months, and in the meantime, I hope to have news about a new publication (!!). It’s not related to the field work but I am proud of it and my fingers are crossed I’ll have good news soon!

My greenhouse project is still running, so that will be my focus again starting tomorrow, but I hope that I will have that wrapped up by the start of next school year, which (all things according to plan) will be my final year in the doctoral program.

The Human-Grass-Fire Cycle (Let’s Talk Gender Reveal Party Wildfires)

This awesome article made it’s way into my google scholar alerts the other day, and I wanted to share it:

The human–grass–fire cycle: how people and invasives co-occur to drive fire regimes Emily J Fusco, Jennifer K Balch, Adam L Mahood, R Chelsea Nagy, Alexandra D Syphard, Bethany A Bradley. Front Ecol Environ 2021; doi:10.1002/fee.2432

In this article, Fusco et al. draw attention to an important and frustrating bias many people have when it comes to thinking about wildfires. Wildfires are frightening, so maybe it’s just natural that we view them as anomalies that disrupt our communities. As Fusco et al. argues, our communities are actually key to the cycle that drives wildfires.

In California and here in Hawai’i, invasive grasses contribute significantly to the frequency and intensity of wildfires. When I talk about my research, I am often asked how the grasses got here, and the reality is, for many major invasive grasses, people brought them here, and deliberately planted them. That’s not to say that those responsible for the deliberate introduction did so knowing the impact these grasses would have. They made an assumption that they could control the spread of a plant, and they were wrong.

You know what else people do?

They smoke.

They fix power lines.

They don’t do the best job putting out their camp fires….

and sometimes, they hold gender reveal parties.

The resulting wildfires shouldn’t surprise us, because our society is responsible for both contributing factors: the grasses and the ignition. When we see wildfires as a consequence of anthropogenic change, we can build support for actions that can reduce the frequency and associated destruction of these climate events.

Fusco et al. provides this cool illustration of actions falling into three different approaches:

Figure from Fusco et al. (see citation at beginning of post)

My research focuses on understanding and mitigating the soil legacies that invasive grasses create which makes restoration harder. My work, therefore, would fall into the reactive approach (“eradicate and contain invasive populations”). My work would also fall into the adaptive approach (“prioritize removal from…important areas”) since one of my projects looks at the impact of drought on soil legacies, and if drought increases the impact of soil legacies, areas that we expect to experience drought in the near future could be important areas to prioritize.

Some actions we can all take:

  1. If you are doing a home landscaping project, or have influence on landscaping projects through work, it’s important to research your choices of plants. If you don’t, you may end up contributing to spread by purchasing and utilizing invasive grasses. This is related to “regulate sale of invasive grasses.”
  2. Avoid human ignition activities, or have a thorough checklist to prevent ignition. If you want to have a campfire, for example, check local rules and weather conditions, and make sure you know how to put it out. This is related to “public outreach ignition prevention programs.”
  3. Stay on the trails, and don’t go into protected, restricted, or designated no-access areas. With so many open trails, parks and reserves, there is no reason to risk spreading the invasive grass seeds that have embedded themselves into the bottoms and sides of your shoes. You could even try to get in the habit of cleaning your shoes before and after every hike you do. This is related to “reduce the use of corridors that contribute to invasive spread.”

Art Corner:

From my own reference picture of the Center for Korean Studies here at UH, painted with water mixable oils. Fun fact: I took this picture when I visited campus in January 2019 before I was admitted to the graduate program.

Weed-out Classes: ChemAvengers Article

Fall has been a bit of a hectic semester for me, so I haven’t had much time to write or read new publications. That said, my google scholar alerts have been looking out for me, and a new article from the The Journal of Chemical Education caught my attention: Moving Toward Inclusivity in Chemistry by Developing Data-Based Instructional Tasks Aimed at Increasing Students’ Self-Perception as Capable Learners Who Belong in STEM

J. Chem. Educ. 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX (from Bustos-Works et al. 2021)

This is a great read, and it explores the approach a group of faculty have taken towards shifting ideas of who counts as a chemist, and how they adapted their approach to an online classroom. They highlight some feedback from students, all of whom who were within the CSU/UC/California Community College System. I’m not much of a chemist, and I don’t expect to teach it, but I did take Chemistry during my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. As I felt utterly incompetent in Chemistry, I was really heartened by the quotes from students expressing a wider imagination of what it means to be a chemist/scientist, and self-confidence in their ability to succeed. My self confidence was so impacted by my year of Chemistry at UC Santa Cruz, that when I transferred to Scripps, I made sure my major didn’t require taking Organic Chemistry.

I really appreciated the authors’ honest representation of “weed-out” courses. I have previously written about my issues with “pre-med syndrome” and “weed-out” classes, but ultimately, I think it is important to prepare students for the reality that goals have to change, and that changing goals can be a positive thing. The career ambitions of STEM students are typically narrow not necessarily because STEM students are more certain than Humanities students, but in part because they may have had little to no exposure to the variety of careers they could have within STEM. It’s the responsibility of STEM programs to introduce students to more options, and to help them view re-direction as a sign of personal growth, rather than failure. I look forward to seeing more research like this in the future, and hopefully, we can expand the intention from changing student perceptions of who can be a scientist and what a scientist does, to what different STEM careers can look like.

Evidence that Teaching Time Management Improves Outcomes for Minority Students: My Time Management Strategy

My little brother (who I am so incredibly proud of!) started as a freshman in a math program last month. I haven’t liked math since high school (might be because my first instance of falling asleep in class was in a math class), but I have been doing my best to be supportive of him. He and I are similar in some ways, and different in others, as most siblings are. One difference is that one of us… procrastinates more than the other.

Research I’ve Been Reading

My Google Scholar alerts sent me this great study out of Ohio State (Supporting Undergraduate Biology Students’ Academic Success: Comparing Two Workshop Interventions) by Hensley et al. 2021. In their study, they compared exam scores and degree commitment in two groups of students. One group of students got a “meta-cognition” workshop, which included teaching learning strategies based on Bloom’s taxonomy. The other group of students got the same workshop, plus a time management workshop, which included making a master task list, translating that list to daily tasks/priorities, different approaches to taking breaks and reducing distractions, and strategies to combat procrastination. The “meta-cognition + time management” group saw significant increases in outcomes in minority students (focusing on minority ethnicity or race). The study did not ask students to self-report disability status, which I hope to see more in research going forward. The authors do a great job of going through the caveats of their findings, so I highly recommend reading it yourself.

After reading the study, and struggling to explain my time management strategy to my brother, I decided this would be a good topic to write a blog post on, so here it is.

Google Tasks

Google tasks is great! It has the option to create multiple different “lists.” Some that I have are teaching, greenhouse, field, and professional development. Within each list, you can add tasks.

Sometimes you just simply add a task, like “Move student plates from incubator to the fridge.”

Other times, you have tasks that are within a larger task or “goal.” For each exercise that I grade, I typically split grading across two days, and before uploading grades, I review all my graded rubrics to make sure I’ve been consistent. For each exercise, I make one task, like “Exercise 72.” Then, as sub-tasks, I add: “Grade first half Exercise 72,” “Grade second half Exercise 72,” “Review Exercise 72 grades,” “Upload and update Exercise 72 grades.”

For my research, I might have big goals like: “Make 60 ion-resin bags.” Making ion-resin bags involves cutting out the mesh squares, painstakingly sewing the squares together on three sides, adding the resin beads, sewing the squares closed, and conditioning the bags. For 60 bags, I have to cut 120 squares. It would be truly impossible to cut out 120 squares in one day, or even one week, without wanting to buy a one-way ticket out of town. If I divide the 120 squares into 4 chunks of 30 squares, that’s a task I can finish in 3 or 4 hours, and spread out over four weeks, I can maintain my willingness to get on the bus to campus at 8 AM. For this example, I would make a task like “Cut 120 squares,” and add four sub tasks like “Cut 30 squares.”

Once I have a bunch of tasks, separated into a number of lists, you can start adding dates. So, I might decide that I will cut 30 squares each Tuesday over the next four weeks. I’ll add those dates to the task. I’ll go through an add dates to all my tasks, and then I’ll look at my Google Calendar, which shows tasks assigned to each date at the top of the day. If I have too many tasks on one day, or it’s the end of the day and I haven’t finished everything, I’ll just go into the task and change the date.

What I really like about this approach is the organization and convenience. It’s easy to stay organized, and you can revise tasks anywhere, using the google calendar app or google tasks app. You can edit tasks from your Gmail page, which helps when you get a lot of emails with different things you need to do. You can also get a desktop (non-affiliated) app; I use TaskBoard. On TaskBoard, I’ll drag and drop my tasks so they go in chronological order, which helps me picture how my work will progress over time.

Because of my chronic illness, some days I don’t get as much done. On those days, I move tasks to another day, and somehow re-assigning the date makes it feel like I’m being responsible, and less like I have failed to complete something. When I do feel like I’ve failed to do enough, or I haven’t accomplished anything, I’ll go into my calendar and look at what I’ve completed that day, or in that week, and it boosts my self esteem.

I have invested in (expensive!) personalized planners before, since I need to track my chronic illness as well, and I’ve found that the Google Tasks strategy is way easier to maintain, and if I have a few days where I haven’t used my system, I can go back and add in whatever I’ve accomplished, and I don’t feel bad looking at the lonely, expensive planner sitting open on my table.

Hopefully, this is helpful to someone!

Life Update

It’s been a tough semester, but generally, everything is progressing well with my research. My Masters En-Route comes in the mail in December… so that’s happening! Hope to share more soon!

Engaging with critique of UDL as a disabled educator

Since I began developing a cohesive pedagogy, I have been frustrated with the gap in research focused on UDL in STEM. In some ways, it felt to me like an extension of the erasure of disabled students from STEM in higher education. All this to say, I was excited when the following article appeared in my google scholar alerts:

Lessons (Not) Learned: The Troubling Similarities Between Learning Styles and Universal Design for Learning

[Boysen, G. A. (2021). Lessons (not) learned: The troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication.]

I recommend reading the article yourself, but I wanted to share a few of my thoughts.

While this article presents fair and insightful criticisms of UDL, I did feel that the criticisms brushed over what I have considered the underlying goal of UDL (which may differ from the description of UDL in the literature). To me, the underlying goal is to accommodate disabled students without relying on their ability (for lack of a better word) to go through the ADA process and present an official accommodation letter. There are many reasons why this is an important goal.

First, there are financial, social and cultural barriers to receiving a diagnosis or long term care that would qualify a student for ADA accommodations.

Second, many in the rare disease/chronic illness community struggle for years to get any kind of diagnosis that would qualify them for ADA accommodations (if they receive a diagnosis at all).

Third, this proactive approach to building an accessible classroom acknowledges that even with the best disability coordinators, the ADA accommodation process can be extremely taxing on a disabled students’ emotion and physical health.

That said, the author is clear that they do not believe UDL should be wholly abandoned or condemned, and their criticisms has informed my future inclusion of UDL (as a term) in my pedagogy. Here’s what stood out to me:

Variability and experimental design challenges

This one is self-explanatory, but the author provides examples of different conceptions of UDL implemented in the classroom, and discusses how that creates problems for experimental design. Hopefully, with more research, we can see progress on these issues.

Specificity and student agency (a la learning styles)

The lens of the article is presenting criticisms of UDL through a comparison to learning styles. I found this to be very relatable, as I have used the concept of learning styles as an analog to explain UDL, while giving the preface that learning styles is an outdated concept. At the same time, I did not engage with what this comparison said about UDL itself. I have at times also used unsupported cliches like, “UDL helps everyone,” because I felt that the conclusion was intuitive. The author, however, points out why this shouldn’t be an intuitive conclusion.

Sure, if we teach using a variety of formats, students have more opportunities to succeed regardless of their “preference” for specific formats… but that would require that:

a) students have a clear and accurate understanding of what their “preference” is, and

b) students, when given choices, choose that preferred format.

The literature on learning styles has established that there isn’t much in terms of the evidence of these specific categories of learning preferences, such that students would actually be able to make these determinations. Additionally, students are going to make choices based on multiple factors, including convenience.

Concluding thoughts

At the end of the day, I engage with this criticism from a significant bias. I have a rare illness, and I resonate more with this ‘individualized’ orientation towards teaching, because I have had very different experiences than the average student, or the average person in general. At the same time, I have written before about how to me a supportive learning environment includes interactions with other students, and thus, I believe pedagogy should include more generalized considerations of facilitating and supporting group interactions. As the author concludes, the best path is probably one that combines aspects of individualized and generalized theories of learning.

When I talk about my pedagogy, my goal is to help students understand my commitment to accessibility, so that if any access needs come up, they can feel comfortable expressing that need to me. I will be re-working my pedagogy statement and the pedagogy intro to exchange references to UDL and format variety for a description of ADA accommodations and access needs. I think this switch would accomplish the same goals without running into the critiques from this article.

Hope everyone is having a great summer! I am hoping to post a research update soon.

Why I Love Science Summer Camps

When I teach a class that involves starting with an icebreaker, I prefer to use the activity to ‘prime’ students, rather than learn who has the best memory for their peers’ names. I like to ask my students: What is your favorite science memory? I always qualify this question by stressing that a science memory is not exclusive to science classes or lessons in your K-12 journey. Science memories can also come from at home experiences, workshops, and, of course, summer camps.

Since the age of 14, I have taught around thirty weeks of science summer camps, with my most recent week having ended today. I have taught camps as an employee, but also as a volunteer, so my love for camps does not wholly have to do with employment.

I love science, and regardless of how uncool I seem to middle schoolers and high schoolers, I believe that science should be fun. Kids in K12 have a distinct “school mode” that runs the length of the typical school year. During that “school mode,” the orientation of the education system towards measures of academic performance looms large in kids minds. While measuring progress towards learning goals is an essential part of a teaching pedagogy, we can’t deny that test taking is not…fun. The liberating part of summer camps is the opportunity to re-engage kids in the joy of learning in an environment where measures of academic performance are relatively “low-stakes.” And as much as I am an educator who enjoys the act of developing and teaching my lessons, I will always be so excited by a student who can genuinely tell me that they have had fun learning something from me.

Image: A plastic plate with three wells with pink somewhat transparent, clumpy liquid in each well. This is from a blood typing lab we did.

In the past two years, I have enjoyed teaching undergraduate labs, but I missed teaching camps. In the hiatus, I have further developed and fleshed out my teaching pedagogy. I especially enjoyed trying to find visual ways to briefly describe my pedagogy to my campers. While Zoom will never be a preferred teaching mode for me, I am happy with the progress I can see in my own ability to gauging different levels of comfort with virtual engagement, and “listening” and adapting to the “virtual body language” of zoom behavior. That said, I look forward to teaching in-person again in the fall.

Image: Manya and her dog, Sicily, on a laptop screen showing their webcam video while they are in a Zoom room before camp.

Additional Reading:

The Influence of Science Summer Camp on African-American High School Students’ Career Choices

Hands-On Summer Camp to Attract K–12 Students to Engineering Fields

Students’ Perceptions of the Long-Term Impact of Attending a “CSI Science Camp”

On Chasing New Challenges

TLDR: My term as a student representative on the DEI Committee of Botanical Society for America starts in July. I’m excited for this new opportunity as my time with student government at UH comes to a close. Edit: I’ll also be serving as the outreach coordinator for the Hawaii chapter of Graduate Women in Science for the 2021-2022 school year!

Anyone who has known me through college and into graduate school knows how important and central student advocacy has been in my life. After I moved to Hawaii, I knew I needed to find a new home for my efforts instead of trying to stay up to date on what was happening in Claremont. I was approved by the General Assembly to serve as the Academic Affairs Chair for the Graduate Student Organization in October 2019, only two months after I started grad school. I have had many opportunities to advocate for students in a time of great turmoil and change. I have also had the opportunity to learn about the structural differences between a consortium of small colleges like Scripps, and a massive, flagship state university. While there was much to learn, I was qualified for the position. I had extensive experience in helping students manage grievances and inter-personal conflict and a breadth of knowledge on institutional procedures because of my work at Scripps. I am proud of the work I have put into the position, and the time that has gone into supporting students.

Before I even knew it, it was December 2020. The fall semester was over, and more importantly, it was the one-year anniversary of my friend’s passing. There are a million things I face each day that make me miss her. One big thing is student advocacy, because she taught me everything I know, and was my biggest supporter. I am someone who emotionally invests in advocacy work, and this can result in somewhat regular feelings of burnout, and she was always the person I turned to with that. Her support meant the most out of everyone in my life because she was there working alongside me. In a time of so much grief, I have accepted that grief doesn’t end, and I have found myself thinking of happy memories more often. I have struggled, however, to make decisions about my path in student advocacy without her support and input. I have spent so much time trying to imagine exactly what she would have said, but even when I think I know what that is, it just isn’t the same. At the end of 2020, I was finally able to acknowledge that she was part of what made student advocacy exciting for me, and what kept me going through each burnout. I have struggled to maintain my pace in her absence.  

I had to change something.

I wasn’t sure what the next chapter would look like, but I took the plunge anyway. When I saw the announcement go out about my position opening up at the end of fall, instead of feeling sad or defeated, I felt lighter. I need to chase a new challenge in advocacy work, to reenergize my excitement, and to do something new to fully accept that the rest of my journey will be without my friend. If that counts as failing or giving up in someone else’s book, that’s okay with me.

I am excited to say that in July, I’ll begin my term as a Student Representative on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at the Botanical Society of America. I look forward to contributing to a new vision of science, where every kid has someone to look up to.

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