Sunday, April 23, 2017

Freshman Biology, #SciArt, and the Amoeba Sisters!

Yes, it has been some time since I have blogged.  Apologies.  It has been a complicated time:  trying to rethink promotion issues (you know the gist of the Sayres' quote:  the reason academic infighting is so bitter is that the stakes are so low), planning a summer where I travel to several laboratories to learn techniques and forge collaborations, trying to set up a microbiology podcast (hopefully titled Your Microbial Minute), and dealing with a large freshman biology course.  

Let's be honest here:  I'm luckier than a lot of fabulous people I know in academia.  It's very easy to focus on the negative and ignore the positives.  After a while, that kind of etches your spirit with negativity.  And as my late father put it when I complained about about academic politics once, "It ain't exactly digging ditches, kid.  Get over it."  So get over it I shall.

But I have some fun stuff to share about my classroom!

My first year biology course, Biology 111, is actually quite enjoyable (other than the large size of the course for our institution).  It remains, to me, a vital course.  This is because, for future STEM majors, I am setting up a common series of concepts, skills, and paradigms.  Think of it as a tree with bare branches. Later courses provide the leaves and decorations on that beautiful Tree of Biology.

For non-STEM majors (and in the Spring, I have many of them enrolled in the course), I still believe that Biology 111 is very important.  After all, as I remind the students, they know more about biology than most decision makers in Washington D.C. or Olympia!

In recent years, I have incorporated a "Science-Art" component into my classes.  I have blogged about this a fair amount (and by no means do I intend to imply I am unique with this approach!).  I continue to find that there are many ways to learn (and to teach); one size does not fit all. So the #SciArt approach in the classroom is decidedly *not* trivial; I have had many students tell me how helpful it can be to them, both in terms of preparing for exam, and for retention over the long term.

It's not a surprise:  ownership and investment always pay off.  The student chooses the topic, creates the art with an investment of time and effort.  Such things stay with a person. 

There are two wonderful artists in Texas who style themselves "The Amoeba Sisters."  

They create GIFs, videos, cartoons, and other #SciArt that delivers a scientific message in an engaging and accurate fashion.  If you are a science educator, you should definitely check them out, immediately.  In any event, the Amoeba Sisters noticed some of the #SciArt my students have produced and I have posted on Twitter, and wrote to me. 

After some discussion and mutual admiration (well, admiration for my students) I created an "extra credit" #SciArt project for my Biology 111 class.  Students would create some kind of artwork that explained or illustrated a course concept from Biology 111.  I would forward these masterpieces to the Amoeba Sisters, who would then judge the top three by their standards.

23 students took up the challenge!

Here is what the Amoeba Sisters wrote when they viewed the #SciArt produced by my class.
We were SO impressed with the student creations, and we had such a fun time looking over these. We wanted to let you know how we judged them. We had a spreadsheet where Petunia judged (A) creativity and (B) difficulty and rigor in the creation of product while Pinky judged for (C) creation's demonstration of content understanding and (D) usefulness in sharing of creation for content. Each of these categories had a 1 (low) to 5 (high) numerical score.

Here is their 3rd place choice, along with their certificate, and social media award.  

Lauren did an interesting job here!  Several concepts were folded into this cartoon confection:  crossing over, meiosis (and a clever pun about cleavage furrows and microfilaments), ATPases spinning away, motor proteins working in concert in a flagellum, exon shuffling to create genes with new functions, and even the centrality of mitochondria to aerobic life.

Here is the award that the Amoeba Sisters created:

And here is Lauren receiving her award certificate (again, created by the Amoeba Sisters) and the applause of her classmates (well deserved!).  Sorry about the text on her face!

What did the Amoeba sisters say about Lauren's artwork, specifically?
Such an original piece, and we love the "personality" given to the structures as this makes it more memorable. Great use of humor. We thought the "Centre of Fuge" cell school was so brilliant and loved the ATP going around the disco ball! 
Here is their second place choice.

Naturally, it would be difficult for me not to adore this one, given how I feel about #MattersMicrobial.  Here, the joke is that my institution used to be called "The University of Prokaryotic Schooling," and it explains how eukaryotes co-opted mitochondria and chloroplasts over evolutionary time.  It's a different way of seeing endosymbiosis, certainly.

Here is Rae's second place award.

And here is Rae receiving her certificate and applause.

The Amoeba Sisters commented about Rae's cartoon as follows:

Great humor and storyline! Panels are very well planned.
Finally, here is the Amoeba Sisters' first place choice for my course competition/showcase.

Zara's cartoon takes us back to earlier in the course, with a fresh approach to think about enzyme inhibition!  Since that kind of thing is sure to be on the final exam, this is a good choice.

Here is Zara's first place award (with, to make my heart sing, a very cool tardigrade).

And Zara receiving her award and wild approval from the class!

The Amoeba Sisters' commented as follows about Zara's artwork.

Very dynamic flow in this panel comic---extremely original idea! Great way to share a concept. We could see this being expanded into a comic book or series as it has so much potential!
Those were the top three winners, according to the Amoeba Sisters. I think that all of the students had interesting ideas and approaches, and I would like to share them. To that end, here is a slideshow of the other twenty participants.

Which ones did YOU like best?

I think that this idea worked out quite well.  Thanks again---so very much---to the Amoeba Sisters for their support of what we do here on campus, with our great students.

Consider using this #SciArt approach in your classroom.  You will be glad you did!  And if you are anything like me, the creativity and energy of your students will inspire you.