Posted in teaching

More to Science than the Science: Cultural Components of STEM.

In this blog I’ve talked a lot about what I do in the classroom to provide the best experiences and opportunities for my students to learn. However, I want to take this opportunity to talk about my personal feelings on providing an education for my students outside of the lab or classroom – specifically, educating them on the culture of science. I’ve mentioned before that one of my goals is to help produce knowledgeable, critical-thinking, positively-contributing citizens of the world, but to do that I need to expose my students to very real issues outside of the field of neuroscience, too. To try to accomplish this, I recently invited a visiting scholar, Mateo Cruz, ABD Organizational Psychologist and lecturer at Bentley University, to campus to talk to our Women in STEM student group about stereotype threat and bias in STEM. Before I get into how great Mateo is and how important his message is, I want update you on goings-on in Selinsgrove, PA:

Spring break was much needed this year…between the course overload and traveling, I haven’t had time to get a lot of grading done. So, thankfully, I’m snowed in and have almost no other choice but to do work!

 

image
This captures Spring Break 2017. I’m house/dog-sitting for a colleague who lives on a farm. Yesterday snowstorm Stella rolled in, dumping about 17 inches of snow (here at least, more in other places). I took this opportunity to snuggle the hounds (Barley and Ava) and get some grading done (that number is down about 50 items…).

 

Stereotype Threat and Bias in STEM

Before spring break, I hosted Mateo Cruz on campus to speak with our Women in STEM group about stereotype threat in STEM. While on campus, Mateo also met with a Human Resources Management class in the Sigmund-Weis Business School and with the Principles of Psychology students. A little about Mateo, pulling from his faculty bio: his research and teaching interests include stereotype threat; identity management; gender, diversity and career outcomes; organization change; multicultural competency; and management education. Not only are these areas extremely interesting, Mateo is charismatic and a fantastic teacher, making learning about these issues very easy and engaging. I had met Mateo at the AAC&U Transforming STEM in Higher Education conference in fall of 2016, which I wrote about here. I attended his workshop with our Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and we both agreed that our students would really benefit from hearing about stereotype threat in STEM and the research Mateo was doing on the topic.

I think here is a good time to say something about my experience as a woman in a STEM career. I, personally, have not perceived outright, slap-in-the-face, bias or stereotyping in regards to my being a woman within the STEM community. This doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened (I likely didn’t notice at the time), and it doesn’t mean that other women haven’t had really horrible experiences. I have heard stories from colleagues and read about situations other women have published, and it’s hard to believe some of the ignorant and offensive things people think it’s ok to say and do. Then again, we do have stuff like this getting published that people truly believe.

The point is that there is a cultural component of working in a STEM field that my students should know about so that they can navigate their careers and make positive changes in their own behaviors, and eventually contributing to beneficial institutional changes in the long-run. This is what I mean by ‘science outside of the science’. Yes, having knowledge of the current research and knowing how to do science is critical to a career in STEM, but it is not the only factor influencing success. Women drop out of STEM careers pretty rapidly after receiving a degree, and some reasons, of many, that women leave is due to stereotype threat and bias they experience. Mateo’s research is focused on strategies women use in navigating stereotype threat in STEM and the first strategy, used primarily by young women in the early stages of their career, is to deny that the problem may apply to them and believe that their success is dependent ONLY on their ability to do good work. I must admit, this is absolutely how I felt about it for a long time, and I’m pretty sure most of my students do as well. However, ignoring bias and stereotyping is not helpful to my students nor will it influence the cultural changes that need to occur.

While I truly believe the work Mateo is doing is critical and everyone should know about it, my blog is not the proper platform to deliver his message and research, so I will stop there. I will say that the students, faculty, and staff that were able to chat with Mateo about these issues were enlightened and I think there were a few ‘ah-ha’ moments. It is certainly a bit depressing to think about the current situation for women in STEM fields when all the problems are laid out, but again, the glimmer of hope is that educated young minds will have the tools to fix the problems that many still face in our scientific community.

I often wonder how I can help make big changes in the world. How can I help fix some of the biggest problems our society faces? Trying to find solutions gets overwhelming, real quick. I then remember that every day I have an audience of young minds. I know some may call it indoctrinating, but I think I am teaching my students to think critically and question everything – current issues included, even if those issues don’t seem to play a big part in their experience. I have chosen to focus my efforts on a handful of cultural issues, and the experience of women in STEM is one of them. I sincerely hope that talking about these issues and serving as an example will help create positive change in the future. I believe my job is so much more than teaching college students about the brain, and I hope I am using my platform wisely.

 

Posted in neuroscience, Pedagogy

Happy New Year!

2017 is finally here! I’m pretty happy about it…not only do some things certainly need to be left behind, but I have many things to be looking forward to in 2017!

As far as this blog, here are some upcoming posts:

  1. Using a Group Exam for Assessment – can it be done? Is there a right way? I’ll tell you about how I did it and discuss pros and cons.
  2. How I made the Virtual Daphnia Lab – I’m currently preparing a paper that I hope will be accepted by the Journal for Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE) on the virtual Daphnia lab I made for my Intro and non-major neuroscience students. I’m going to provide a bit more detail on how exactly I did that and what I think the benefits are in my post.
  3. Service-Learning: Part II – ?? I have about 100 ideas and have received a lot of feedback from my colleagues on best practices that I should incorporate into the project for this coming semester. I’m going to write about it in multiple parts over the course of the semester.
  4. Running a Collaborative Course – This semester I’m teaching a Clinical Neuroscience course that is a collaborative effort between three institutions: SU, Bucknell, and Geisinger’s Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute (ADMI). SU and Bucknell students will meet together and, over the course of 5 modules, will learn about neurological disorders and meet researchers in the field. I’ll write about how we envision the course going, how it actually goes, and thoughts for improving the next time around.
  5. Follow-Up on Group Projects – I will update on how the group project feedback looked and what I will likely change next.

Again, very excited (and already a little tired) for what 2017 has in store for me! I wish you all the very best in your teaching and lives!

Posted in teaching

Learning about Learning – AAC&U STEM Conference 2016

Last week the Association of American Colleges and Universities hosted a conference titled, “Transforming Undergraduate STEM Education: Implications for 21st-Century Societyin Boston. It was fantastic! I was joined by a number of faculty from SU, as well as our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only did we learn a lot, but we got to get to know each other better, see that we have been implementing some best practices already, and we listened to some truly inspirational speakers. I’ll write about some of the things I learned and people I met…

Thursday

The first day of the conference was Thursday and included the option of participating in one of four pre-conference workshops. I chose to attend Workshop 4: Project Kaleidoscope Leadership Development for STEM Faculty. The workshop focused on the “underlying theory that supports Project Kaleidoscope’s unique approach to leadership development” and it engaged “both SLI alumni and other STEM faculty and administrators in hands-on leadership training experiences designed to impart immediate efficacy in directing campus-based and/or national undergraduate STEM reform initiatives.” While I am still a bit early career to actually participate in the institute, it was interesting to hear about what seasoned faculty had to say about the issues/obstacles one experiences when trying to initiate change, and the skills needed to overcome them. We also did a fun activity that reminded me of the EarthQuake Activity that I did with students at LeaderShape last January (which, if you get the chance to participate in LeaderShape as a faculty member, you should do it!). It was all about managing a group as a leader, which really means appreciating that everyone has different input and skills and a good leader is able to tap everyone and guide the group forward, not just do all the work themselves. The game was one of the ‘experiential learning experiences’ that the institute uses to develop skills in the participants. Outside of what I learned about being a faculty member by listening to the other workshop participants, I was also able to start meeting some cool people. Yay, networking!

The Keynote Address was also delivered Thursday by Dr. Eric Mazur. He’s a physicist at Harvard, but what I admire most about him is how he has contributed to completely changing how we teach in the undergraduate classroom. He told us about how he started his teaching career by using just the passive lecturing that we are all too familiar with. However, with some observations and experimentation, he perfected “peer instruction” which involves students working in small groups to teach themselves the underlying concepts by working on questions. This technique is one that had been drilled into me as I was completing the Preparing Future Faculty program at UC. So, to hear Dr. Mazur speak about it was inspirational and totally awesome and I totally fan-girled out about it.

wp-1478286196951.jpg
Dr. Eric Mazur and I.  I refer to him as E-Maz when I am talking to my other nerd friends. 🙂

I do sincerely hope that someday I am contributing to pedagogy the way that he has and am traveling around to tell people about it. Again, this was a highlight of the weekend.

Friday

The next day was tidal-wave upon tidal-wave of information, just as any good conference is. The morning began with a poster session where I focused on presentations within Theme I:  Undergraduate STEM Teaching and Learning: Contexts, Content, and Relevancy. I reasoned that the information within this theme was immediately relevant to me and what I do everyday. The other themes were:

Theme II: Supporting, Rewarding, and Building Capacity of STEM Faculty
Theme III:  Inclusive Excellence/Broadening Participation in STEM Higher Education
Theme IV:  Assessment and Evidence for High-Quality Undergraduate STEM Learning
Theme V: Understanding Effective Strategies for Transforming Institutional Cultures for Undergraduate STEM reform

While all of these are important, I think I’ll appreciate many of them later when I am tenure-track/tenured and part of the leadership of a department or program.

As I mentioned above, I learned a lot about what other schools are doing in their STEM programs, ranging from specific assignments to course sequences. What was even better was that I am already doing a lot of these things in class and SU is also incorporating some hot new practices into the Biology/Neuroscience curriculum!

In addition to poster sessions, there were concurrent breakout sessions with the same themes. Again, I tried to focus on Theme I to see what I could incorporate into my classroom. One session was on inclusivity in the classroom, another was on the benefits and challenges of an online classroom. The inclusivity session I liked because it was an opportunity to talk with other faculty about what they do and we had time to think about resources needed to make the classroom comfortable for every learner. The online course session, however, was literally just a discussion, no actual examples or tools were discussed, so that was a little flat for me.

All-in-all, a fantastic day. Our SU group finished the day with dinner at an amazing Italian restaurant called Davio’s (WOW) and some rich conversation on work and life. I think this is a good time to mention, again, that I work with some really great people!

Saturday

The final day of the conference had a single breakout session and then the plenary. Of all of the sessions I attended, the one on Saturday was the best. It was about the strategies that women in STEM use to navigate through the bias they face in the workplace. The speaker, Matteo Cruz, was engaging and enlightening. His presentation data was based on that which he had collected surveying women at various stages of their careers. It really hit home because I recognized strategies I have used and those I have seen other faculty use. Really, that we are still trying to even the playing field between men and women is ridiculous, but it’s a fact. Programming such as this is great for women to prepare themselves, but honestly, EVERYONE (yes, men too) needs to buy-in and listen to these issues if we are going to move forward. Anyway, I was so inspired that I am going to try to bring Matteo to SU to speak with our Women in STEM student group, as well as faculty across the university.

To close, we had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Tyrone Hayes of Harvard tell his story of being just a little boy interested in frogs to becoming a major-player in researching how pesticides are a public health hazard. The man is brilliant, and a hell of a story teller. Yet again, I sat in the audience, completely inspired by him and his story. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture, but I did get to introduce myself and thank him!

Take-aways of the weekend:

  1. I still have a lot to learn, not just about best classroom practices, but also about how to be a contributing and leading faculty member at my institution.
  2. To follow-up #1, being a faculty member doesn’t mean that my responsibilities stop in the classroom or lab. To be good, I think you have to jump in, both feet, into the institution and try to influence positive change at all levels.
  3. I want to be a GREAT teacher someday; I want to find new/the best ways to reach my students. I want my students to be able to learn highly complex material because I am delivering it clearly, giving them the necessary resources and facilitating the right activities, I will have become great.

Outside of the academics of the weekend, I also got to wander around Boston a bit. I was luck enough to see some college teammates – Jordan, Jake, and Marsha – as we watch the Cubs work on winning the world series. No joke, the game was tied the entire time I was at the bar and didn’t budge till I got my cab back to the hotel!

I also checked out a couple pastry shops and many of the sights of downtown Boston with Massooma.

Well, time to get back to it…the semester will be wrapping up soon and I will have plenty to report on as far as those group projects!

Cheers!

Posted in Uncategorized

The Elusive Functional Group Project

First, Updates!

Yikes! Half the semester has flown by already! What have I been doing if not writing blog posts? A few things:

  1. Teaching, of course. The non-majors biology, turned Neuroscience and Society, course is going really well. We just finished talking about neurotransmitters, how drugs influence behavior and how drug policies in our country would be different if they were established on the basis of science and not racism. I think these topics are not only a good way to use the hard science we learn, but also generally important for my students to know as they turn into citizens of the world. They seem to really be enjoying the course and I’ve already found a few places I can tweak for next semester when I teach another two sections.
  2. Applying for jobs. ‘Nuff said.
  3. Research. My capstone students are making some really great progress and will likely each be turning out a publication at the end of the year. They have simple projects, but those projects are pretty foundational as far as where my research program is going. We will also add another layer to the projects by including some transgenic mice!
  4. Just livin’ life. Last weekend was fall break and my beau and I did some hiking at Ricketts Glen.

    It was beautiful. 🙂


Designing the Perfect Group Project

Does it exist? I don’t know. But it’s part of my professional mission to figure out the most effective and efficient way for my students to do group work.

We are all familiar with the issues of the standard group project. All of those issues, which I will not list, come down to THE PROBLEM, which is that not everyone contributes equally. Unfortunately, it is really difficult, nay impossible, to see where the work of one student starts and another’s begins when it come to assessing. In the end, each student receives the same grade on the project regardless of contribution. I struggle with this because I hate giving good students bad grades and vice versa. I’ve decided to try, and improve upon, an approach that mimics the workplace and puts accountability on the members of the group. Groups will designate a team leader whose only responsibilities are keeping the other members organized and tracking individual members’ responsibilities – and grading them. Unlike previous trials of this system, this semester I will be providing incentives for the student leaders -they will receive an individual grade based on the overall project grade.  I’ll explain…

The Project and the Incentive System

In this back half of the semester my classes will be working on their group service projects. As a reminder, groups will be creating an interactive activity that will help school-aged children learn a neuroscience concept. We will take the activities to the local elementary school’s Family Fun Night at the end of the semester to share with the kids. In addition to the number of criteria that the projects must meet to be considered an ‘A’ project, I have required the students organize themselves in a specific way during the group work.

Each group will self-assign a project manager / group leader. This student is in charge of keeping the group on task, organizing group meetings, and monitoring the quality of the project. The other group members are the worker-bees. They will be assigned specific tasks over the course of the project timeline that will bring the project to completion. These tasks aren’t necessarily assigned by the project manager, but the manager should be keeping track of when member do, or do not, complete what was assigned to them.

In addition to this ‘real world’ organization of groups, I have also incentivized it. Each individual has 25 personal points to earn for these projects (the projects themselves are worth 150 points). Each member will be awarded their individual points by the project manager. So, if a member completed tasks on time and participated to the satisfaction of the project manager, they will receive all 25 of those individual points. If the member does not perform well, they will earn less than 25, again at the discretion of the project manager.

The project managers also have 25 individual points to earn. I will be assigning the project manager points based on the performance of the group. The top 1/3 of the projects, based on grade, will earn the project manager all 25 points. The middle 1/3 and bottom 1/3 will earn the project manager 15 and 5 points, respectively. My hope is that this will inspire the project managers to encourage their groups to perform at a high level.

I used the project manager role in group projects last semester, but had not used this incentive system. I actually found the outline for this system in a paper by Ferrante et al. (2006).  They included a survey for the students before and after on their views of group work and overall saw a positive change in feelings toward working on a team. I think that this structure will increase efficiency and quality of the projects, as well as teach students some valuable workplace skills.

Since I do want students to learn some good group work skills and keep their work organized, I gave each group a binder with some essential information and worksheets to complete. The materials include a calendar to write due-dates and meetings, a worksheet to help them plan/create their activity, an example of a high-quality project, meeting worksheets to organize tasks and talking points, rubrics, and much much more. The binders will be turned in at the end of the project with everything completed, making my job of grading a little less overwhelming…I hope.

Upon introduction to the group organization scheme and the binder, the students seem positive about the work. I’m looking forward to how this plays out and will definitely be reporting on the success from my point-of-view and that of the students. I think there’s a lot of potential here to not only make group projects easier, but to also teach students valuable group works skills.

Have you ever done something creative with group projects that worked really well? Is there anything you’ve been wanting to try? Let me know, I’m open to ideas and suggestions!!

Reference

  1. Ferrante, C. J., Green, S. G., and Forster, W. R. (2006). Getting more out of team projects: Incentivizing leadership to enhance performance. Journal of Management Education, 30 (6), 788-797.
Posted in teaching

Designing a Course for Non-Majors: The evolution of an instructor and her course.

Non-majors courses.

I found that this topic usually makes faculty cringe. It’s the “paying your dues” course that no one wants to teach, but “someone’s gotta do it and it’s your turn”.

“How exciting… a room full of people who are hard-pressed to even pretend to enjoy what I am talking about.”

I totally get it, it can be an uphill battle. Before the semester even starts you have a bunch of students who are already convinced they will hate your class and will fail it. For us science folks, we have a bunch of students who “are not scientists and never will be”.

fucking-science-fair

I have not given up hope on such courses yet. I actually see a lot of potential and get pretty excited about my non-majors biology courses. This coming semester I have two sections of what SU calls Issues in Biology. I’ve been thinking about my approach for this class since I got the assignment last semester. I see these classes as an opportunity to show students just how relevant science is to their lives…because even though they know, they don’t really know, ya know?

Below I outline how my ideas about the course, and the course itself, have changed over the last couple semesters.


Evolution of my Non-Majors Biology course

Spring 2015

This won’t be the first semester that I teach a non-majors course in biology. Actually, I first taught a class like this when I was an adjunct at Mount Saint Joseph University in Cincinnati. And goodness, has the course evolved since that first semester just over a year ago. At that point in my career, the course was my FIRST full lecture and lab responsibility. Up until that point I had only adjuncted for the lab portion of courses. So, it was a big deal. So big, that I was terrified of failing miserably and did what I think is the WORST thing to do and lectured chapter by chapter, directly from the text. I know what you are thinking, “Sarah, how could you? You know better. Shame.” I’m not proud of it.

However, to be fair, I was in survival mode. So I lectured through the text and did some cool lab exercises that I felt demonstrated the concepts in the book. My students were not thrilled, I was happy to finish the course. I do feel like when you are first dropped into the classroom, this is the easiest way to do things. A lot happens that first semester: you have to deal with the logistics of the course, you have to deal with students, etc. While learning how to run a course, I didn’t have it in me to also figure out and incorporate all the hottest active learning activities. I was also in the last year of PhD program, so that was happening too.

We did do some fun stuff though, like go on a field trip to a distillery after talking about fermentation. How cool is that?

The point is, I learned a lot and finally had the opportunity to go through all the motions of running a course for the first time. The teacher I was at the beginning of the course was completely  different from the teacher I was at the end of the course.

Fall 2015

Next time I taught this class I was at SU. I used the same text, however decided that I would only lecture on topics relevant to interesting issues to my students…like disease. For example, we learned about DNA replication and mutations after opening with cancer. I started the semester with at least a full week of scientific methods and ethics, and instead of hardcore lab reports I had them write popular science articles based on their data. I also incorporated group projects: each group selected a topic and then created webpages addressing the topic. Essentially it was a group term paper, but since it was on an website, they could incorporate pictures, graphs, maps, etc. I had all sorts of big ideas for these projects, imagining all the cool stuff that could be incorporated. Unfortunately, all those ideas were stuck in my head and not laid out in some way as an example for my students. So the projects were a little ‘flat’, but I think that was my fault. I did collect feedback on the projects at multiple points, so this was less of a problem in the future. Actually, I did the same projects in spring with a psychology course, with a lot of the same students, and they reported much higher satisfaction with the whole process! Phew!

Fall 2016

This brings us to now. The course will evolve, yet again. This semester, I am going to focus on science literacy in the context of neuroscience and I am not going to use a text book. Am I sounding like a real professor yet?  I’m pretty excited about what I have planned.

We will start the semester with some big-picture questions: Why do we need to know the scientific process if we are not scientists? How do I use the scientific method in my field – how could it be used to improve society? What is science literacy and what does it mean to be scientifically literate? Why do I need to be scientifically literate? What does that have to do with my liberal arts education? 

I am hoping that questions like these will really motivate my students to engage.

We will also be learning some neuroscience, starting with the basics – anatomy, how a neuron works – and then moving into two big fields that are particularly interesting to college students: drugs and disease. However, we won’t just talk about what drugs are doing in the brain, for example, we will also talk about how using science could improve drug policy or change the stigma associated with mental illness. BOOM. This is important stuff. I hope that since I am so convinced of it, my students will be too.

Discussion is going to be a big part of this class, considering the amount of ‘soft’ topics we will be covering. Student input – opinions, experience, etc – is going to drive these conversations. Each week I have assigned a reading to get the discussion started. Some weeks, these readings will be more vocabulary or basic information-heavy because we will spend the week talking about neuroanatomy or neurotransmitters. Other weeks, they will may be book chapters introducing students to drugs and society or stigma associated with mental illness. To ensure that they read, I routinely reference their readings and ask them questions about it in class. I may also start off the week with a quiz to support good habits as well. Students will also be able to contribute data. I use the online discussion platform Yellowdig on Blackboard to allow students to look up information and add to the conversation as needed (they also can only acquire points if they take the convo in a new direction). Yellowdig looks a lot like Facebook and allows for a much smoother discussion experience compared to the default Blackboard discussion board. In the example below, you can see that I posted a “Pin” that included an article. Students would read it and then comment, sometimes commenting on a peer’s input or starting their own. They can also “Like” posts (as well as vote if they “Love it!” or find it’s “Not relevant”).

Untitled

Then then there’s the group project…which is where I will incorporate service learning. The addition of a service learning group project was a no-brainer, the Susquehanna University motto is ‘Achieve, Lead, Serve’, after all. Groups will develop active learning activities for school-age children, meeting criteria for lessons plans set by the state of Pennsylvania. Since we will be learning neuroscience, I expect the activities to be based on topics in neuroscience. At the end of the semester, we take the lessons/activities to a science fair at the local elementary/middle school to expose children to the wonders of the brain. My two sections of Issues won’t be the only classes working on these projects either. The Introduction to Neuroscience students will be working on similar projects, so we will have a sizable group. Pretty cool, right?

As I mentioned, a service learning project fits right it with the values of SU. In addition to practicing core values and enhancing their understanding of neuroscience, I hope these projects will promote positive social change through education – within my students and the community. A big part of these projects will be reflections addressing how being familiar with science/scientific method helps understanding in other fields and how teaching someone else about the brain has enhanced their own understanding. With any luck, my students will be inspired to use what they learned to change the world, and they will inspire the children they interact with as well!

 While I won’t go into it now, I will require that my students to assign specific roles to each group member – for example, there will be a project manager and a group editor…just to name a few. I’ve used this approach to group work before and had positive outcomes. I’ll write about this approach more in a future post.

Finally, the labs. I’m a huge fan of hypothesis-driven lab exercises, but these can be hard to do in a non-majors course where they don’t have the background, lab skills, or motivation to ask a question and find the answer. I will be able to incorporate a couple of these kind of labs into the semester, but I’ll be balancing it out with a lot of other soft activities. ‘Soft activities’ include, to me, task-driven labs (look at something and answer a bunch of questions) and discussion heavy labs. In this course, where I’m really trying to connect science to ‘non-science’ areas, there will be a lot of discussion-based labs. The first lab we will have will be about the scientific method. I use an activity where groups are given an aphorism (for example: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”) and asked to design an experiment to test the statement. It may seem simple, but once they get into the details, they see how difficult it can be to answer a question. We will also be watching some films that incorporate neuroscience topics, such as Lorenzo’s Oil. That discussion will revolve around ethics, the role of science in society and the value of a liberal arts education.

Non-majors courses can be difficult to do well because the instructor wants to show-off the fun and exciting side of science at the same time as teaching why it’s so important. This is exhausting for a class that meets for an hour, three times a week, for 14 weeks. I hope that my plan for this semester will be stimulating for my students. Since I’m trying new things, I’ll be asking my classes how they feel about the course at multiple points and adjust instruction as needed.

Wish me luck! I’ll report on the progress as the semester goes!! Welcome back to school!

What have you done in non-majors courses that has been super successful? Do you have any suggestions for activities that help students learn about ethics? What have you struggled with the most in non-majors courses?

Posted in Uncategorized

Summer Research Symposia

Hello again! As promised, I am writing about the poster presentations that my students gave following their summer of research.

I’ll start off with saying that I am very proud of their work and commitment, and am even more psyched that they are excited and inspired to expand on their projects into the school year!!

So let’s talk about this last week…

To get ready for the symposiums, my students had to build their posters from scratch. This is a big deal…because constructing a poster from nothing is really difficult. How do you tell your story to a multi-field audience on 36” x 48” of space? To be honest, I don’t think I was even prepared to tackle this with my students. But, we figured it out. Here’s how we did it and how I would do it differently in the future:

I started off by providing the kids with a poster that I had created previously. This way they didn’t need to mess with size setting, the format was already in place, they would just need to replace the content. I asked my students to take the template I provided, plug-in their content, and send me a draft. What I anticipated receiving was posters that needed minor editing, what I got was…less than that. An analogy I used to describe my situation to a friend was this: I wanted a baked and iced cake, which I would then add the final details to to really make it pop. What I actually received, however, were the ingredients to make the cake myself…you see where this is going. I think I spent, like, 6 hours working on posters.

Outside of moving things around and resizing and finding better photos, I also had to do a lot of work on the writing. I think I forgot how inexperienced students are with writing. Even though we had all worked on the abstracts, the introductions that my students sent seemed, to me, really off-target. There was good stuff in there, but it wasn’t as succinct and intentional as it needed to be. In the future, I plan to dedicate much more time to writing the introduction (and methods and conclusions and future directions) with my students rather than seeing what they submit and scrambling to re-write it before the deadline.  I think, overall, condensing their thoughts was really difficult for them. I saw a lot of “fluff” and repeating. This went for the conclusions and future directions as well as the introduction. Does anyone have some good resources they refer their students to to help with this? 

Poster organization was also another aspect that I think they will become better with over time. For example, each poster started off with the pictures and graphs each as individual figures thrown into the middle of the poster. What I think is more appropriate, and how I hope they organize it in the future, was to split the data up by brain region and dedicate each region to a single figure. Such that Figure 1 was all about the prefrontal cortex and within that there was Fig. 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. with images and graphs. Figure 2, then, was another group of images and graphs dedicated to the hippocampus. I find this easier for the audience to help move through the poster because it makes in clear that a lot of the information is specifically referring to one thing, in our case, brain regions.

After lots of back and forth, we finally got final products done and printed. Phew.

Overall, my lesson was this: Take the time to work on each aspect of the poster with your students the first time around. This will save time and frustration. For real.


Once we got past actually making the posters and getting them printed at the last possible moment (making me feel like a grad student again), we could look forward to the presentations. My students would only be participating in the poster sessions, not giving any talks. I thought this would be a good choice since they probably didn’t have enough data to talk for 10 minutes…next time! I talked with each student at length about how to balance their 2-minute spiel with introduction/background, results and conclusions. We were all confident, so I did not have them practice in front of me before we went. It’s not like we left ourselves with time to do that anyway…

I also discussed wardrobe with my students. Business casual. Always. For everyone. I’m hate to be a presenter-shamer, but dressing down (shorts/jeans/t-shirts) or like you are going to da club (tight/short) is one of the best way to take the focus away from your poster. End of rant.

Finally, I warned my students about the haters out there. You know, the folks that come around and tell you that your methods are wrong or that your data is wrong. I have never experienced such aggression at any one of my presentations, however I have heard horror stories. And while I think that the response to these people is a no-brainer, I took the time to discuss it with my students. My advice: always be polite and never get upset. Thank them for their observations, tell them that they bring up valid points (whether or not they really did), and assure them that you will seriously consider their suggestions as you move on with your unfinished project. I see no quicker way to diffuse a situation. Anyone else? 

Fortunately, I think confrontations like I described above are unheard of at undergraduate poster symposiums, so I really wasn’t too worried. However, it never hurts to be prepared.


The first symposium was at Bloomsburg University and the second was at Moravian College. Both venues were great and there was a great showing of students who were very excited to talk about the work they had been doing all summer. All three of my students enjoyed walking around and hearing about what other projects had been worked on and what they could bring back to our lab. They also did really a really fantastic job presenting their work. Some of my colleagues listened to them and reported that overall, the prepared talk and the posters were good, no red flags. Really, I am so proud of them!

Like any proud parent I was sure to take photos that I will now share with you:

Following the symposium, on our 2 hour ride home from Moravian, they all shared some ideas they have for their projects, some cool things they learned from other fields, and how much they loved presenting!! Music to my ears!! I think that these two days were not only a great way to wrap up the summer, but have also propelled us into the fall semester. These three are actually EXCITED to get into lab and see where their projects go. Isn’t that the point of undergraduate research? To expose students to the wonder of asking questions and learning how to answer them and then to inspire them to keep asking? Goodness, I’m having a moment. I’m a little inspired, too!

Anyway, I’m proud of them and how far they have come. I’m very much looking forward to what is next and to see how much each of them grows as a researcher over the next school year.

As always, thanks for reading and please share some of your thoughts on student presentations and how you’ve prepped your researchers in the past!