Category Archives: Technology for Teaching

Do You Want To Be On TV?

Last summer, some colleagues and I published a paper on how high school students can communicate their understanding of science through songwriting.  This gradually led to a press release from my home institution, and then (months later) a feature article in a local newspaper, and then appearances on Seattle TV stations KING-5 and KOMO-4.

It’s been an interesting little journey.  I haven’t exactly “gone viral” — I haven’t been adding hundreds of new Twitter followers, or anything like that — but even this mild uptick in interest has prompted me to ponder my relationship with the news media. In short, I do enjoy the attention, but I also feel some responsibility to influence the tone and emphases of these stories. In this post, I share a few bits of advice based on my recent experiences, and I invite others to contribute their own tips in the comments section.

(1) Find out how your school/department/committee views media appearances.  In April, I was invited to appear on KING’s mid-morning talk show, which sounded cool, except that the show would be taped during my normal Thursday physiology lecture!  My department chair and my dean encouraged me to do the show, noting that this sort of media exposure is generally good for the school, and so, with their blessing, I got a sub and headed for the studio.

(2) Respect students’ privacy during classroom visits.  After some students were included in a classroom-visit video despite promises to the contrary, I realized that I needed to protect their privacy more strongly. I subsequently established an option by which any camera-shy students could live-stream the lecture until the TV crew left.

(3) Anticipate and explicitly address potential misconceptions about what you’re doing.  I’ve worried that these “singing professor” pieces might portray the students simply as amused audience members rather than as active participants, so, during the classroom visits, I’ve used songs that are conducive to the students singing along and/or analyzing the meaning of the lyrics. (Well, mostly. “Cross-Bridges Over Troubled Water” wasn’t that great for either, but I had already sung “Myofibrils” for KING, and KOMO deserved an exclusive too, right?)

(4) Take advantage of your institution’s public relations expertise.  Everett Community College’s director of public relations offered to help me rehearse for the talk show — and boy am I glad that she did!  Being familiar with the conventions and expectations of TV conversations, Katherine helped me talk much more pithily than I normally do. In taking multiple cracks at her practice question about “how did you get started [using music in teaching]?” I eventually pared a meandering 90-second draft answer down to 30 seconds. She also asked me a practice question to which my normal response would be, “Can you clarify what you mean by X?” — and convinced me that in a 4-minute TV conversation, you don’t ask for clarifications, you just make reasonable assumptions and plow ahead with your answers.

(5) Ask your interviewers what they will want to talk about. Like a novice debater, I struggle with extemporaneous speaking; the more I can prepare for specific questions, the better.  Fortunately, my interviewers have been happy to give me a heads-up about possible questions, thus increasing their chances of getting compelling and focused answers.

Readers, what other advice would you add to the above?

Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College. His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.

An inventory of meaningful lives of discovery

by Jessica M. Ibarra

I always had this curiosity about life. Since the very beginning, always wanting to understand how animals’ breathe, how they live, how they move. All that was living was very interesting. – Dr. Ibarra

“I always had this curiosity about life and I wanted to become a doctor, but my parent told me it was not a good idea,” Lise Bankir explained in her interview for the Living History Project of the American Physiological Society (APS).  The video interview (video length: 37.14 min.) is part of a rich collection over 100 senior members of the APS who have made outstanding contributions to the science of physiology and the profession. 

The archive gives us great insight into how these scientists chose their fields of study.  As Dr. Bankir, an accomplished renal physiologist, explain how she ended up “studying the consequences of vasopressin on the kidney.”  She describes her work in a 1984 paper realizing “high protein was deleterious for the kidney, because it induces hyperfiltration,” which of course now we accept that high protein accelerates the progression of kidney disease. Later she describes her Aha! moment, linking a high protein diet to urea concentration, while on holiday. 

“It came to my mind that this adverse effect of high protein diet was due to the fact that the kidney not only to excrete urea (which is the end product of proteins), but also to concentrate urea in the urine.  Because the plasma level of urea is already really low and the daily load of urea that humans excrete need that urea be concentrated about 100-fold (in the urine with respect to plasma).” 

Other interviews highlight how far ahead of their time other scientists were.  As is the case when it comes to being way ahead of teaching innovations and active learning in physiology with  Dr. Beverly Bishop.  In her video interview, you can take inspiration from her 50 years of teaching neurophysiology to physical therapy and dental students at SUNY in New York (video length: 1 hr. 06.09 min.).  Learn about how she met her husband, how she started her career, and her time in Scotland.  Dr. Bishop believed students could learn better with experimental laboratory activities and years ahead of YouTube, she developed a series of “Illustrated Lectures in Neurophysiology” available through APS to help faculty worldwide.

She was even way ahead of others in the field of neurophysiology.  Dr. Bishop explains, “everyone knows that they (expiratory muscles) are not very active when you are sitting around breathing quietly, and yet the minute you have to increase ventilation (for whatever reason), the abdominal muscles have to play a part to have active expiration.  So, the question I had to answer was, “How are those muscles smart enough to know enough to turn on?” Her work led to ground breaking work in neural control of the respiratory muscles, neural plasticity, jaw movements, and masticatory muscle activity.

Another interview shed light on a successful career of discovery and their implications to understanding disease, as is the case with the video interview of Dr. Judith S. Bond. She describes the discovery of meprins proteases as her most significant contribution to science (video length: 37.38 min.), “and as you know, both in terms of kidney disease and intestinal disease, we have found very specific functions of the protease.  And uh, one of the functions, in terms of the intestinal disease relates to uh inflammatory bowel disease.  One of the subunits, meprin, alpha subunit, is a candidate gene for IBD and particularly ulcerative colitis. And so that opens up a window to – that might have significance to the treatment of ulcerative colitis.”

Or perhaps you may want to know about the life and research of Dr. Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen, the first woman president of the APS (video length: 1 hr. 18.07 min.) and daughter of August and Marie Krogh.  In her interview, she describes her transition from dentistry to field work to study water balance on desert animals and how she took her family in a van to the Arizona desert and while pregnant developed a desert laboratory and measured water loss in kangaroo rats.  Dr. Schmidt-Nielsen was attracted to the early discoveries she made in desert animals, namely that these animals had specific adaptations to reduce their expenditure of water to an absolute minimum to survive. 

The Living History Project managed to secure video interviews with so many outstanding contributors to physiology including John B. West, Francois Abboud, Charles TiptonBarbara Horwitz, Lois Jane Heller, and L. Gabriel Navar to name a few.  For years to come, the archive provides the opportunity to learn from their collective wisdom, discoveries, family influences, career paths, and entries into science. 

As the 15th anniversary of the project approaches, we celebrate the life, contributions, dedication, ingenuity, and passion for science shared by this distinguished group of physiologists.  It is my hope you find inspiration, renewed interest, and feed your curiosity for science by taking the time to watch a few of these video interviews. 

Dr. Jessica M. Ibarra is an Assistant Professor of Physiology at Dell Medical School in the Department of Medical Education of The University of Texas at Austin.  She teaches physiology to first year medical students.  She earned her B.S. in Biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio.  Subsequently, she pursued her Ph.D. studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio where she also completed a postdoctoral fellowship.  Her research studies explored cardiac extracellular matrix remodeling and inflammatory factors involved in chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes.  When she is not teaching, she inspires students to be curious about science during Physiology Understanding Week in the hopes of inspiring the next generation of scientists and physicians. Dr. Ibarra is a native of San Antonio and is married to Armando Ibarra.  Together they are the proud parents of three adult children – Ryan, Brianna, and Christian Ibarra.

Creating Unique Learning Opportunities by Integrating Adaptive Learning Courseware into Supplemental Instruction Sessions

Teaching a large (nearly 400 students), introductory survey course in human anatomy and physiology is a lot like trying to hit a constantly moving target. Once you work out a solution or better path for one issue, a new one takes its place. You could also imagine a roulette wheel with the following slots: student-faculty ratios, student preparation, increasing enrollments, finite resources, limited dissection specimen availability (e.g., cats), textbook prices, online homework, assessment, adaptive courseware, core competencies, learning outcomes, engagement, supplemental instruction, prerequisites, DFW rates, teaching assistants, Dunning Kruger effect, open educational resources, GroupMe, student motivation, encouraging good study habits, core concepts, aging equipment … and the list goes on.

If the ball lands on your slot, are you a winner or loser?

Before getting ahead of myself, I need to provide an overview of A&P at the University of Mississippi. Fall semesters start with 390 students enrolled in A&P I within one lecture section, 13 lab sections at 30 students each, anywhere from 10-13 undergraduate teaching assistants, 2 supplemental instruction (SI) leaders, and at least six, one-hour SI sessions each week. The unusual class size and number of lab sections is the result of maxing out lecture auditorium as well as lab classroom capacities. I am typically the only instructor during the fall (A&P I) and spring (A&P II) terms, while a colleague teaches during the summer terms. The two courses are at the sophomore-level and can be used to fulfill general education requirements. There are no prerequisites for A&P I, but students must earn a C or better in A&P I to move on to A&P II. Approximately one-third of the students are allied health (e.g., pre-nursing) and nutrition majors, one-third are exercise science majors, and the remaining one-third of students could be majoring in anything from traditional sciences (e.g., Biology, Chemistry, etc.) to mathematics or art.

The university supports a Supplemental Instruction program through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (https://cetl.olemiss.edu/supplemental-instruction/). The SI program provides an extra boost for students in historically demanding courses such as freshman biology, chemistry, physics, accounting, etc. SI leaders have successfully passed the courses with a grade of B or better, have been recommended to the program by their professors, agree to attend all lectures for the courses in which they will be an SI leader, and offer three weekly, one-hour guided study sessions that are free to all students enrolled in the course. SI leaders undergo training through Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and meet weekly with the course professor. Students who regularly attend SI sessions perform one-letter grade higher than students who do not attend SI sessions.

It can be as easy for an instructor to be overwhelmed by the teaching side of A&P as it is for the student to be overwhelmed by the learning side! I know that a major key to student success in anatomy and physiology courses is consistent, mental retrieval practice across multiple formats (e.g., lectures, labs, diagrams, models, dissection specimens, etc.). The more a student practices retrieving and using straightforward information, albeit a lot of it, the more likely a student will develop consistent, correct use. Self-discipline is required to learn that there are multiple examples, rather than one, of “normal” anatomy and physiology. However, few students know what disciplined study means beyond reading the book and going over their notes a few times.

To provide a model for disciplined study that can be used and implemented by all students, I developed weekly study plans for A&P I and II. These study plans list a variety of required as well as optional activities and assignments, many of which are completed using our online courseware (Pearson’s Mastering A&P) and include space for students to write completion dates. If students complete each task, they would spend approximately 10 out-of-class hours in focused, manageable activities such as:

  • Completion of active learning worksheets that correlate to learning outcomes and can be used as flashcards.
  • Practice assignments that can be taken multiple times in preparation for lecture exams and lab practicals.
  • Self-study using the virtual cadaver, photographic atlas of anatomical models, interactive animations of physiological processes, virtual lab experiments, and dissection videos.
  • Regular graded assignments aligned with course learning outcomes.

Weekly study plans are also useful during office visits with students. I can easily assess student progress and identify changes for immediate and long-term improvement. An advantage of using online courseware to support course objectives is the ability to link various elements of the courses (e.g., lecture, lab, SI sessions, online homework, group study, and self-study) with a consistent platform.

All of this sounds like a great sequence of courses, doesn’t it? Yet, the target has kept moving and the roulette wheel has kept spinning. Imagine for the story within this blog that the roulette ball has landed on “using adaptive courseware to improve supplemental instruction.”

In 2016 the University of Mississippi was one of eight universities chosen by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with support of the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities to increase the use of adaptive courseware in historically demanding general education courses. Thus, began the university’s PLATO (Personalized Learning & Adaptive Teaching Opportunities) Program (https://plato.olemiss.edu/). The PLATO grant provides support for instructors to effectively incorporate adaptive courseware into their courses and personalize learning for all affected students. Administrators of the grant were particularly supportive of instructors who could use adaptive courseware to support the SI sessions. This challenge was my personal roulette ball.

I decided to use diagnostic results from Mastering A&P graded homework assignments to prepare for weekly meetings with SI leaders. Diagnostic data on percent of University of Mississippi students correctly answering each question as well as percent of UM students answering incorrect options are compared to the global performance of all Mastering A&P users. For each question incorrectly answered by more than 50% of the students, I write a short (4-6 sentences) explanation of where students are making errors in expressing or using their knowledge and how to prevent similar errors in the future. I then searched for active learning activities and teaching tips associated with the challenging questions from the LifeSciTRC (https://www.lifescitrc.org/) and Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS; https://www.hapsweb.org/) websites. I specifically search for active learning exercises that can be conducted in a small, group setting using widely available classroom resources (e.g., white board, sticky notes, the students, etc.).

By using online courseware diagnostics, selecting focused learning activities, and communicating regularly with SI leaders, I was able to create value and unique learning opportunities for each student. The SI session format has been extremely well-received by the students and they immediately see the purpose in the study session experience. The best part is that it takes me only 30-40 minutes each week to write up explanations for the diagnostics and find the best learning activities.

I would say that we are all winners with this spin of the wheel.

Carol Britson received her B.S. from Iowa State University and her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Memphis. She has been in the Department of Biology at the University of Mississippi for 22 years where she teaches Vertebrate Histology, Human Anatomy, Introductory Physiology, and Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II. In 2018 she received the University of Mississippi Excellence in Teaching award from the PLATO (Personalized Learning & Adaptive Teaching Opportunities) Program supported by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Why I’m a Clicker Convert

Recently I was faced with a teaching challenge: how to incorporate active learning in a huge Introductory Biology lecture of 400+ students. After searching for methods that would be feasible, cost effective, and reasonably simple to implement in the auditorium in which I was teaching, I came up with clickers. Our university has a site license for Reef Polling Software which means I wouldn’t add to the cost for my students—they could use any WiFi enabled device or borrow a handset at no cost. I incorporated at least 4 clicker questions into every class and gave students points for completing the questions. 10% of their grade came from clicker questions and students could get full credit for the day if they answered at least 75% of the questions. I did not give them points for correct answers because I wanted to see what they were struggling to understand.

I’m now a clicker convert for the following 3 reasons:

  • Clickers Increase Student Engagement and Attendance

In a class of 400+, it is easy to feel like there is no downside to skipping class since the teacher won’t realize you are gone. By attaching points to completing in-class clicker questions, about 80% of the class attended each day. While I would like perfect attendance, anecdotally this is much better than what my colleagues report for similar classes that don’t use clickers. Students still surfed the internet and slept through class, but there was now more incentive to pay a bit of attention so you didn’t miss the clicker questions. In my opinion, getting to class can be half the battle so the incentive is worth it. In my small classes I like to ask a lot of questions and have students either shout out answers or vote by raising their hands. Often, students won’t all vote or seem to be too embarrassed to choose an answer. I tested out clickers in my small class and found an increased response rate to my questions and that I was more likely to see the full range of student understanding.

  • Clickers Help Identify Student Misconceptions in Real Time

Probably the biggest benefit of clickers to my teaching is getting a better sense of what the students are understanding in real time. Many times I put in questions that I thought were ‘gimmes’ and was surprised to see half the class or more getting them wrong. When that happens, I can try giving them a hint or explaining the problem in a different way, having them talk with their group, and then asking them to re-vote. Since I don’t give points for correctness, students don’t feel as pressured and can focus on trying to understand the question. I’m often surprised that students struggle with certain questions. For instance, when asked whether the inner membrane of the mitochondria increases surface area, volume, or both, only half of the students got the correct answer the first time (picture). Since this is a fundamental concept in many areas of biology, seeing their responses made me take time to really explain the right answer and come up with better ways of explaining and visualizing the concept for future semesters.

  • Clickers Increase Student Learning (I hope)

At the end of the day, what I really hope any active learning strategy I use is doing is helping students better understand the material. To try to facilitate this, I ask students to work in groups to solve the problems. I walk around the class and listen while they solve the problem. This can help me get an idea of their misconceptions, encourage participation, and provide a less scary way for students to ask questions and interact with me. While working in groups they are explaining their reasoning and learning from each other. Interspersing clicker questions also helps to reinforce the material and make sure students stay engaged.

I’m convinced that clickers are helping to improve my teaching and students seem to agree. Of the 320 students who filled out course evaluations one semester, 76 included positive comments about clicker questions. Here are two of my favorites:

“I like how we had the in-class clicker questions because it made me think harder about the material we were learning about in that moment.”

“I enjoyed doing the clicker questions. If the class disagreed with something she would stop and reteach the main point and hope we would understand. That was really helpful on her part.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t end by thanking the many researchers who have studied how to incorporate clickers into your class to maximize learning. I decided to try them after hearing Michelle Smith talk at the first APS Institute on Teaching and Learning and highly recommend seeing her speak if you have the chance. If you only want to read one paper, I suggest the following:

Smith, Michelle K., et al. “Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions.” Science 323.5910 (2009): 122-124.

I hope you will comment with how you use clickers or other strategies to engage large lecture classes. For more resources I’ve found helpful designing my classes click here.

Katie Wilkinson, PhD is a newly minted Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at San Jose State University. She completed her undergraduate work in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh and her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. She was an NIH IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow in Research and Scientific Teaching at Emory University. At SJSU her lab studies the function of stretch sensitive muscle proprioceptors. She teaches Introductory Biology, Vertebrate Neurophysiology, Integrative Physiology, Pain Physiology, and Cardiorespiratory Physiology to undergraduate and masters students.
12 years of teaching technology to physiology educators

When I was approached to write a blog for PECOP I thought I could bring a slightly different perspective on classroom technology as I am not a full-time classroom educator.  My primary role for the past dozen years with ADInstruments has been to work with educators who use our products to get the most from their investment in our technology.  This has led to thousands of conversations about use and misuse of technology in the classroom and teaching laboratories.  I would like to share some of my insights here.

Early in my academic career I was tasked with a major overhaul of the introductory Biology curriculum at Louisiana Tech, and incorporating technology was part of this mandate. I have always been a bit of a tech geek, but rarely an early adopter.  I spent quite a bit of time and effort taking a good hard look at technology before implementing it in my classrooms.  I was fortunate enough to participate in T.H.E. QUEST (Technology in Higher Education: Quality Education for Students and Teachers). Technology was just beginning to creep into the classroom in the late nineties. Most courses were traditional, chalk and talk; PowerPoint was still a new thing, and this three-week course taught us how to incorporate this emerging technology appropriately.  PowerPoint worked better for many of us than chalk and talk, but also became a crutch, and many educators failed to use the best parts of this technology and applied it as a panacea.  Now PowerPoint has fallen out of favor and has been deemed to be “Killing Education”(1).  When used improperly, rather than curing a problem, it has backfired and reduced complex concepts to lists and bullet points.

I was fortunate enough to have been on the leading edge for a number of technologies in both my graduate and academic careers.  Anybody remember when thermocyclers were rare and expensive?  Now Open PCR can deliver research quality DNA amplification for around $500.  Other technologies became quickly obsolete; anybody remember Zip drives? Picking the tech that will persist and extend is not an easy task.  Will the Microscope go the way of the zip drive?  For medical education this is already happening (2).  While ADInstruments continues to lead the way with our PowerLab hardware and software packages for education (3); there are plenty of other options available.  Racks of very specialized equipment for recording biological signals can now be replaced with very affordable Arduino based electronics (4,5). As these technologies and their supporting software gets easier to use, almost anyone can collect quality physiological data.

One of the more interesting technologies that is evolving rapidly is the area of content delivery or “teaching and learning” platforms. The most common of these for academia are the Learning Management Systems. These are generally purchased by institutions or institutional systems and “forced” upon the faculty.  I have had to use many different platforms at different institutions. Blackboard, Desire 2 Learn, Moodle, etc. are all powerful tools for managing student’s digital records, and placing content in their “virtual” hands.  Automatic grading of quiz questions, as well as built in plagiarism detection tools can assist educators with large classes and limited time, when implemented properly.  This is the part that requires buy in from the end user and resources from the institution to get the faculty up and running (6).  While powerful, these can be cumbersome and often lack the features that instructors and students who are digitally savvy expect.  Many publisher digital tools integrate with the University LMS’s and are adopted in conjunction with, or more frequently now instead of a printed textbook.  McGraw Hill’s Connect and LearnSmart platforms have been optimized for their e-textbooks and integrate with most LMS’s (7).  Other purpose-built digital tools are coming online that add features that students expect like Bring Your Own Device applications; Top Hat is one of these platforms that can be used with mobile devices in and out of the classroom (8).

 

So what has endured?

In my almost 20 years in higher education classrooms and labs, lots of tools have come and gone.  What endures are passionate educators making the most of the technology available to them.  No technology, whether digital or bench top hardware, will solve a classroom or teaching laboratory problem without the educator.  While these various technologies are powerful enhancements to the student experience, they fall flat without the educator implementing them properly.  It’s not the tech, it’s how the tech is used that makes the difference, and that boils down to the educator building out the course to match the learning objectives they set.

 

 

 

My advice to educators can be summed up in a few simple points: 

  • Leverage the technology you already have.
    • Get fully trained on your LMS and any other digital tools you may already have at your institution. The only investment you will have here is your time and effort.
    • Check the cabinets and closets, there is a lot of just out of date equipment lying around that can be repurposed. Perhaps a software update is all you need to put that old gear back in rotation.
  • Choose technology that matches your course objectives.
    • Small and inexpensive purpose-built tech is becoming readily available, and can be a good way to add some quantitative data to the laboratory experience.
    • Top of the line gear may have many advantages for ease of use and reliability, but is not necessarily the best tool to help your students accomplish the learning objectives you set.
  • Investigate online options to traditional tools.
    • eBooks, OpenStax, and publisher’s online tools can be used by students for a lot less money than traditional texts and in some cases these resources are free.

References:

1) http://pdo.ascd.org/lmscourses/pd11oc109/media/tech_m1_reading_powerpoint.pdf

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4338491/

3) https://www.adinstruments.com/education

4) http://www.scoop.it/t/healthcare-medicine-innovation)

5) https://backyardbrains.com/

6) http://www.softwareadvice.com/hr/userview/lms-report-2015/

7) http://www.mheducation.com/highered/platforms/connect.html

8) https://tophat.com

 

Wes Colgan III is the Education Project Manager for ADInstruments North America. He works with educators from all over the world to develop laboratory exercises for the life sciences.  He conducts software and hardware workshops across North America, training educators to use the latest tools for data acquisition and analysis. He also teaches the acquisition and analysis portion of the Crawdad/CrawFly courses with the Crawdad group at Cornell. He has been a Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience member since 2007, and was named educator of the year for 2014.  Prior to Joining ADInstruments, he was an assistant professor at Louisiana Tech University where he was in charge of the introductory biology lab course series.
May I Cut In? – A Short Dance With Social Media

1 hour, 43 minutes.  Per day.  In the United States, ~10% of a person’s waking hours are spent on social media.  And, you’d be hard pressed to find a college student who doesn’t use social media as 90% of adults between 18-29 years old use some form of it.  It’s a tremendous online environment in which people spend considerable amounts of time – a promising place for educators to expand their repertoire for teaching.

Now, some may consider it “crazy” that social media influences the way people think (about politics, for example), but it certainly has the power to affect the way we feel (for good or ill).  It also seems to increase student interest in a subject near and dear to my heart – physiology.

So, earlier this year, I experimented with social media during my block of a large (~330 undergraduate students), upper-division course on integrative cellular physiology.  This class was principally lecture-based with the online portal for the course only used for distributing slides/notes, administering quizzes, and tracking grades.

Browsing through the science education literature, I found a number of articles evaluating the benefits and burdens of using social media in the classroom.  After some reading, I decided I needed to test the waters myself and get a better sense of how to use social media as a tool to improve learning.

But, why even bother with social media?

  1. Location, location, location. I wanted to go where the students were (digitally).
  2. Beyond the lecture hall. By extending the learning environment past the walls of the classroom, I hoped to get students thinking more about physiology outside the isolated microcosm of the lecture (whether they’re standing in line at Starbucks, checking status updates during lunch, or sneaking a peek to clear the notification bubble on their app).
  3. Build rapport. If I engaged students in an online locale they were familiar with, I could help erode some of the barriers (fear of speaking in class, an “intimidating” professor, etc.) that tend to inhibit communication between teacher and student.
  4. Cultivate a sense of community. I wanted to take advantage of a hub that would help foster the formation of friendships and study groups.  I also hoped to provide a curated online environment for students to help each other with the course material – a community of learners.
  5. “Go online,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.  I saw an opportunity for myself to grow as an educator, and I wanted to challenge myself by wrestling with a tool I had yet to add to my teaching kit.

Which social media venue, though?  

A Facebook group.  Facebook has the largest active user base of social media platforms (192 million active users in the US), it’s in the top 3 most visited sites in the US, and it’s the social media site with which I have the most experience.

social media meme

 

Soon, I began to have feelings of self-doubt and trepidation as an onslaught of questions started rolling in.

Would students be willing to participate?  What about students who had chosen to avoid Facebook?  How many points would I need to assign to get them to buy in?  Would students have concerns about their instructor potentially seeing their Facebook profiles?  Would other privacy issues arise such as online student-to-student harassment?  How frequently would I need to post to keep students interested?  What kind of material would I post?  How would I compose posts to make them “effective”?  How would I evaluate participation and engagement?

Well, some of these questions can only be answered in execution, so I looked at this endeavor as an exploratory, two month “pilot study” and pressed on.

I announced the Facebook group during the first lecture in my block of the course, explained that it was completely optional (no associated points), listed some of the benefits (that I perceived) of joining it, and told them that all supplementary materials posted to the group would also be posted on the course website (if they didn’t have/want Facebook).  The first prompt I gave them on the Facebook group was a question I had found on an 8th grade test from 1912:

“Why should we study physiology?”

Immediately after lecture ended, I whipped out my smartphone and checked on the group.  About 30 students had joined.  This was encouraging, but really… I was hoping for more.  With less than 10% of the class on board, I began to regret not offering more carrot.

Over the next week, the students trickled in.  It climbed to 40.  60.  80.  By the end of my block two months later, 108 students had joined the group.  Close to a third of the class, which (considering I made it optional) was a success.

Ah, but were students actually participating? 

In order to get an overview of this, I turned to marketing analytics for social media.  Likes, shares, and comments are the marketing currency for businesses in this realm.  I think it’s much the same for educational purposes, though the value you assign to each currency for their contribution to “engagement” rating may differ.

Regardless, I used the website sociograph.io to give me metrics for my Facebook group.  Sociograph.io is free and quite a nice tool (despite some bugs).  The image below shows the kind of data it provides, which includes:

kanady1

 

  1. Summary for number of unique contributors (post authors, commenters, and likers)
  2. Timeline showing activity for the group in graphical format (posts, likes, and comments).
  3. Breakdown of the types of posts that have been made (photos, videos, links, statuses, and events).

Sociograph.io also allows you to analyze posts to see which had the highest engagement ratings (which is done by summing data for likes/shares/comments for each post).

kanady2

 

Of my posts, those that included videos were the highest rated followed by ones containing photos.  The second highest rated post for the group was from a student who posted a photo that related to a topic we were covering in class.  Perhaps unsurprising, visual content is the best bet for engagement.  Pure text-based posts and links were not very popular.

Additionally, summary stats ranking each visitor can be viewed.  This is useful for finding students in the group who are the most active or who are generating the most engaging posts.  This “visitor rating” takes into account received likes, shares, comments, and comment likes and submitted likes, posts, and comments.  The comparison between the two (received versus submitted) is what sociograph.io measures as “karma”.

kanady3

 

On top of all this, each set of data can also be exported as CSV or XLS files for analysis.

That said… did this actually have a positive impact for learning physiology?

Yes, I believe so.  Based on comments from students (directly asking them or through course evaluations), using the Facebook group got them more engaged with the material.  Students seemed to like the online dynamic.  They felt that it showed that I cared about interacting with them and facilitating a different avenue for them to ask questions.

It also gave me a chance to share interesting tidbits about physiology with students without having to shoehorn them into lecture.  Social media is definitely well-designed for “hey, look at this cool thing” kind of communication.  Often, it’s those tidbits that tend to stick and motivate students to dig deeper on their own.

But, did using social media make an appreciable difference for their exam grades?

Given the way I carried out my “pilot study”, determining that with confidence is trickier.  However, students who simply joined the Facebook group scored a few percentage points higher on the block exam.  Since the group was optional, though, those who took part may represent students who usually take more initiative in their learning.

While my approach to trying out social media was a little messy, I thought it was an extremely valuable experience.  I’ve found that fumbling around is often the best way to learn.  I may still have two left feet, but I’m not going to find the rhythm without stepping onto the dance floor.

Sources for social media usage statistics:

  • Kemp, Simon. “Special Reports: Digital in 2016.” We Are Social, 27 Jan. 2016, http://wearesocial.com/uk/special-reports/digital-in-2016
  • Perrin, Andrew. “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015.” Pew Research Center – Internet, Science & Tech, 8 Oct. 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/

 

kanadypic

 

 

Scientist, teacher, and all-round geek, John Kanady earned his PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona.  He is currently a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Janis Burt’s laboratory at the University of Arizona.  His research involves looking at how cells communicate with each other via proteins called connexins and what that communication means for cell function.  He serves as Postdoctoral Councillor for the Arizona Chapter  of the American Physiological Society where he strives to advance the three pillars of the organization: teaching, research, and outreach.  You can follow him on Twitter @JDKPhD

 

 

Simulation as a Component of First-year Medical Physiology

cardiac simulationbIf you’ve spent any time around soon-to-retire, senior physiologists, you’ve probably heard nostalgic talk of the old dog labs.  I am a member of what may be the last generation that participated in these in a medical/graduate school environment.  The old-timers will tell you that there was no better way to teach physiology than by demonstration and experimentation with an anesthetized dog.  The experience was dramatic, and the various concepts were obviously relevant.  Nevertheless, time marches on, and with changes in economics and societal values, we are unlikely to ever see the return of the dog labs in medical or graduate school.

For the purposes of teaching physiology in a medical environment, much of the impact and value of the dog labs can be obtained through simulation.  Centers that use high-fidelity manikins and other simulation technology are becoming more and more common, and if your institution doesn’t have one yet, there is probably one in the pipeline.  However, you may be skeptical of the high-price tag that the equipment carries and its relevance to bench scientists.  After all, most of us teaching physiology aren’t clinicians, and we have neither the expertise nor the experience to teach medicine.  I was firmly of that opinion when the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center first opened its simulation center, but I’ve tried to keep an open mind, and I’m happy to say that I’ve learned to incorporate these resources into my teaching.  More importantly, simulation works for the same reason the old dog labs worked:  it provides a clear and dramatic demonstration of fundamental physiological concepts.

Although the equipment available in most simulation centers is capable of reproducing some pretty sophisticated disorders, there is little need for such advanced capability during the pre-clinical years of medical training. The basics are more than adequate, and they can be covered adequately without obtaining a medical degree.   Cardiovascular physiology was my entry point using this new approach to teaching.  There are few things in life more fundamental than a heartbeat, and nearly every simulation center will have cardiopulmonary manikins that allow the student to practice auscultation.  This is not to say that heart sounds can’t be taught with alternatives, such as good digital recordings, but the use of manikins adds an important degree of realism.  I first ask the students to practice positioning the stethoscope for optimal detection of the various heart sounds in a healthy individual.  Demonstrating where to best hear the sound associated with pulmonary valve closure, for example, draws the connection between cardiac anatomy and physiology more closely together.  I then ask the students to explore various valve pathologies and illustrate what they would expect to see on Wiggers diagrams and pressure-volume loops.  The four murmurs that are most relevant to first-year medical students, aortic valve stenosis and regurgitation and mitral valve stenosis and regurgitation, are great starting points for illustrating the relevant changes in pressure that are associated with these defects.  For example, the combined use of auscultation and Wiggers diagrams make it easier to appreciate the excessive pressures developed in the left ventricle as a consequence of aortic valve stenosis.  It also makes it easier to understand how the high velocities of flow and resulting turbulence can cause the distinctive murmur.  In my class, I follow up the auscultation activity with standardized patients and ultrasonography, allowing the students to correlate the sounds that they hear with the coordinated movements in the heart, as visualized with the ultrasound probe.

The cardiopulmonary manikins provide a great resource for showing the practical relevance of hemodynamics to the clinical setting, but we must turn to high-fidelity manikins if we are truly to recapture the drama of the old dog labs.  I remember vividly the effects on an anesthetized dog when, as a student, I infused a sympathetic agonist or antagonist.  Now, as an instructor, I achieve a similar memorable effect with a full-blown simulation of hemorrhagic shock.  This is the capstone event in the cardiovascular physiology section of our course, when the students must recognize the problem and come up with a solution.  Our simulation center has rooms like you would find in the emergency department in which we place the manikins.  The potential “treatments” available for use by the students include a muscarinic antagonist, a sympathetic agonist, and the infusion of normal saline.  As I did with the dogs back in the day, today’s students apply various drugs or treatments to the manikin, and, from the attached control room, I can simulate the appropriate physiological response.  There are few things that bring home the importance of preload and stressed volume like the “recovery” evoked by rapid infusion of saline, especially if this follows unsuccessful attempts at treatment with various drugs.  Later in our class, we have additional simulations that illustrate fundamental principles associated with respiratory physiology and endocrinology.   I admit that it took some persuasion to convince my bench-investigator colleagues that they had sufficient experience to facilitate these activities.  However, after trying it a time or two, they usually find that the activities require more physiological knowledge and deductive reasoning than clinical skill, and, as an added bonus, they have fun.

So why not take advantage of that high-priced center that your medical school just built or is in the process of developing?  You’ll find that simulations provide hard-to-ignore demonstrations of physiology’s relevance to the clinics.  If my experience is any indication, your dean will be happy that you’re trying new things, and you’ll be rewarded by students who respond enthusiastically.

The nitty-gritty to get you started:

My colleagues and I have boiled down the use of simulation to a few key points that can provide a good start to your own efforts.

1)  Keep it simple.  You’re teaching physiology, not a subspecialty.  As described above, we require the students to recognize a loss of blood volume as the fundamental problem in hemorrhagic shock.

2)  Require a decision or intervention.  The students must follow a problem logically, putting into practice the physiology that they are learning.  In the hemorrhage scenario, they treat the “patient” with a rapid intravenous administration of saline.

3)  Provide some background material.  You’re providing a value-added experience that goes beyond simple lecture, but the students need some guidance to prepare.   For the shock simulation, they study a 20-minute online presentation focusing on low cardiac output the night before the activity.

4)  Do a debrief.  If things work well, there will be a lot of excitement and keyed-up emotion.  You’ll want to give the students a chance to talk things out and assess their performance as a team.

Good luck!

Pressley head shot

 

Thomas A Pressley is a Professor in the Department of Medical Education at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. After earning his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University, he entered the graduate program in biochemistry at the Medical University of South Carolina. His postdoctoral training was in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He was recruited by the University of Texas Medical School in Houston in 1987, and he transferred to Texas Tech in 1995. Tom has served as an interim dean, a visiting professor at multiple institutions, a member of grant review committees, and the chair of the Education Committee of the American Physiological Society. He is the current chair of the APS Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee. He has also developed numerous courses, and he has reviewed degree programs at several institutions.

Technology in the Classroom: A Double-Edged Sword?

studyAs I sat down at the end of the summer to write this blog post, I was in the midst of revising syllabi and planning out my fall semester.  For me, this tends to be a very reflective time.  What worked last year?  Or more importantly, what didn’t work and needs to be revised?  Which activities did the students like?  Which ones did I like?  What new case studies, problem sets, or online models should I add?

Over the last few years, I have been incorporating more computer simulations, online demonstrations, and website resources into my physiology courses.  I often send emails to students reminding them to bring a laptop or tablet to class because we will be using an online Nernst-Goldman simulator, creating cell-signaling animations in Power Point, etc. I receive positive feedback from my students about these interactive exercises, and I am always on the lookout for new ones.

And it appears that I am not the only one. Each new issue of Advances in Physiology Education features an article on a new technology aid – interactive iPad apps for acid-base physiology, increasing physiology interest through Facebook, or the effectiveness of online quizzes.  These technological advances allow us to provide additional self-assessment tools to our students and give them instantaneous feedback.  Models and simulations help engage visual and experiential learners.  Perhaps most importantly, these tech tools attempt to clarify hard to explain or challenging physiological concepts through interactive interfaces and dynamic models.

However, I worry that technology in the classroom may be a double-edged sword.  At the same time that I have been embracing and encouraging these technology tools in class, I have noticed some disturbing trends about improper technology use during class. No teacher is immune from the angst of a ringing or vibrating cell phone during a lecture.  Under the desk texting has become ubiquitous. Several years ago, I team-taught a course with a colleague.  I sat at the back of the classroom during her lectures and vice versa.  Over half the students in the course “took notes” on their laptops during lecture.  I use the term “took notes” loosely because my back-row observations indicated that these students were spending a considerable amount of the lecture time updating their Facebook status, looking at Power points for other class (e.g. studying for an upcoming O-Chem test), or online shopping.

This trend of multi-tasking and web-surfing during class has been noted across the country and at all levels of higher education and has driven many professors to include penalty clauses in their syllabi or ban laptops altogether.  Moreover, recent studies suggest that note taking on the computer is not as effective as traditional pen and paper.  Students who type their notes tend to do less processing of the material and simply transcribe the lecture verbatim.

So what’s the answer?  Accept technology warts and all, banish it from the lecture hall altogether, or seek some middle ground? To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure. But I would love to hear your opinions and experiences….

 

PECOP Blythe headshot cropped

 

 

 

 

Sarah Blythe is an assistant professor of Biology at Washington & Lee University University in Lexington, VA. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from Northwestern University. She teaches anatomy and physiology, vertebrate endocrinology, neurophysiology, and nutrition courses. Her research interests focus on understanding the effects of diet-induced obesity on the brain and the reproductive system. She is a strong advocate for undergraduate research experience both in and out of the classroom. She was recently awarded a Jeffress Trust Interdisciplinary Research grant along with two of her W&L colleagues, which allowed the team to fund three summer research fellowships for undergraduates.