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Starting a Research Program with Undergraduates

One of my tasks this summer was to get a research program up and running with undergraduate students. Let me give you some background before I begin on my plan of action…

My position her at SU is as a Teaching Postdoc, meaning that according to my contract, my responsibilities end at the classroom. Fortunately, I have been given opportunities to start doing research here – which I NEED to do because I’ll be applying for tenure-track positions this fall. Let me count the ways I have been assisted in this venture: First, I have an AMAZING department that is supporting research projects I conduct with student research assistants. The cost of antibodies is covered and my colleagues allow me to use chemicals and solutions they have with out asking for anything in return. Second, I was awarded a mini-grant from SU, which is also covering the cost of supplies I need. Finally,  my colleague Dr. Keen-Rhinehart has generously offered some of the brain tissue she still has from other projects and, more importantly, introduced me to her collaborator at Bucknell University, Dr. Judy Grisel, who has opened her lab to me and we have already started a project using her mice.

I don’t know what I did right in this life, but I have been so fortunate to have such generous colleagues and a supportive department to help get my research program up and running…especially when it’s outside of my duties and they could all have told me “no can do”.

Like I mentioned above, thanks to my collaborators, I now have plenty of brains and plenty of work to do. Essentially, my projects involve examining the microglia in these brains to see if there is any correlation with some of the behavior outcomes of those rodents. After we collect some data, we plan to get some follow-up studies underway. Helping me with these projects are three undergraduate students: Jordan, Lauren and Liz. They are all rising seniors and are taking advantage of the summer to get a start on their capstone projects (SU requires biology and neuroscience majors to complete a capstone research project). Jordan and Lauren are teamed up taking on the “ethanol project” and Liz is working on the tissue from Dr. K-R.

So I have the support I need to run a research program, I have the brains (literally, I have rat and mouse brains to use), and I have the students…but what else do I need? Lab management skills...which no one trains you on as a student of science. Elizabeth Sandquist states the situation perfectly in a really nice article…”You chose the research profession because you were fascinated with the world around you …You have found that being the head of the lab is more than just making big discoveries; it is about managing a small business. Lab-management skills, while used every day by scientists, are not directly taught to young scientists. Rather, they are learned secondhand.” And if you have been in labs where no one was really managing, then you really have no idea what you have to do (points at self).

This seems a bit overwhelming…as a professor, not only do you need to take care of classroom responsibilities and be a researcher, you need to manage a small group of undergraduates. From experience, managing can be a full-time job by itself. Reading through some short articles on the topic offered a few good tips that I have absolutely been using. These included creating subgoals with my students and determining what motivates them (they are a competitive bunch, so having a totally baller poster was all they needed); giving pep-talks to remind them that it won’t be easy but they can do it; and setting a schedule on which they knew that I would assess their performance. The readings reminded me a lot of what I did in leadership positions for non-profits, so I started to think about my lab as an executive board – not so much a bunch of students I had to boss around, but colleagues who would come to me for guidance and support. I liked thinking about my lab this way because it’s very much in-line with the type of culture I want in my lab – students feel like they are valued and working toward a common goal and are respected by each other and me.

With my brain full of ideas and plans, it was time to take action. I decided to start the summer off by motivating the troops and setting some goals: There are two research symposiums for the students to present at in July, so we definitely want to have a bunch of data by then. With the dates for the symposiums in mind, we worked backwards to figure out what needed to be done and by when (schedule of assessment). This was really helpful for everyone as it showed us when we had to complete things by and to understand the sequence of steps to collect data. I think this has contributed greatly to the exceptional effort and after-hours work my students have been putting in. So they are working hard which I’m happy to see!

Weekly lab meetings/ journal clubs (the schedule) are also a part of my research program. I feel that these meetings benefit the students in three major ways: 1) they are evaluated on a regular basis and can see marked improvement; 2) and 3) pertain specifically to the journal club portion and allow for familiarization with current research in the field and practice improving their presentation skills. Enhancing communication skills is a big part of my teaching philosophy – as far as I’m concerned, they can be the smartest kids in the class, but if they can’t talk about the science or give an engaging presentation…it doesn’t matter. I tell my students to prepare a powerpoint presentation that doesn’t contain any full sentences. I actually suggest they try to avoid words completely and work with images. This is challenging for them at first, but the presentations are SO MUCH BETTER!! Gone are the days of students reading off of the slides! So far, journal club presentation have been the main show each week, but starting this week they will actually have their own data to present!!

Not everything has been super smooth this summer, despite the planning. While we have set goals and they are working hard, often times not all tasks have been completed by the original deadline due to legit problems or a case of senioritis. While this can be agitating, I try to never show any frustration. My approach is to give a stern reminder of the goals and timeline, assure them that I do know that they are working hard, and to encourage them to keep up the good work. I don’t want my students to be afraid to come to me if they are having trouble or really need my help, which is why I don’t get upset. I really do believe that I have a good working relationship with my researchers and that they do give me a really good effort (even with the occasional reminder!) with this philosophy and course of action.

I’m super proud of my students this summer and I’m happy to report that their hard work is paying off! I’ll be reporting back pretty soon on their prep and performance at the two upcoming research symposiums on the 27th and 28th!!

So, fellow investigators, what have you found that keeps the lab functioning? Any outstanding/unusual problems you have faced getting projects going? Whatcha think?

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The Virtual Classroom (Part II) – Lab Reports

Hey ya’ll! It’s been a while… but I’m ready to chat a little more about that summer course:

I talked about my 4-week Intensive Introduction to Neuroscience with virtual lab in my second blog post a couple weeks ago…it has since ended (it was only 4 weeks long). It’s been an experience.

The Pros: students can move at their own pace to a extent, I can use programs that allow me to assess them at multiple points and correct mistakes, with proper planning students can have a really good experience. “With proper planning…”

The Cons: I wasn’t always able to predict where my students would struggle and didn’t realize they still didn’t understand a concept until after the exam or lab report was submitted. And with a four week course, there’s no time to go back, fix things, try again because we have moved on to new material!

So, in short, I didn’t predict trouble spots 100% of the time. Fortunately (and I do think this is fortunate), I saw all of my students (all 4) struggle with the same concepts. To me, that means I know exactly where I need to increase instruction and attention. One example of this was the lab on neurotransmitters. Despite the chapter reading, the lecture video with questions, my students still didn’t understand that the ‘mystery solutions’ we were using were having an effect on Daphnia heart rate because they were mimicking endogenous neurotransmitters.

So, the virtual labs. Lots of prep, but overall, worth it. As I mentioned, I created videos with instructions for students to follow so they could collect their own data. The data they collected was due by Wednesday of that week, and then I compiled all of it, analyzed it in GraphPad Prism, and provided the graph of the data for them to use in their final lab report, due that Friday.

First, I made a video with instructions (you may have to create a free account with NJVID to see it). To actually complete the lab, I had to make a number of videos in which students could count the heart rate of the Daphnia. Each video contained instructions, such as: “Count the heart beats and multiply that value by 6 to get the bpm. After you have acquired the bpm for each of the 3 trials, average it and submit the value. That is the data point for that subject.” You can see an example here. Data was submitted on a Google Form so that I had all of their data in one place.

The lab reports were another beast. To start, not all of my students were neuroscience, or even science, majors. And even if they were, most of them (3/4) were underclassman, and likely had not had to write up a lab report before. Knowing this, I prepared a few resources to get them on the right track: I uploaded a lab report template, figuring that if they took a look at that, they would understand the basics of including an introduction, hypothesis, methods section, results section and conclusion. However, even when students know that all of these sections and components must exist, they don’t always know what they should be writing about, so I included a word document with questions that should be addressed in each section. While this was helpful, students either provided a bunch of single sentences smashed into a paragraph that didn’t necessarily flow, or they provided a list of responses. This is a big example of not knowing what my students don’t know and not giving them enough guidance.

So, on the second lab report, I provided some questions to get them started as well, but also included in the instructions that these questions should be addressed in paragraph form, should include transitions and should overall be giving the reader the information needed to support they hypothesis they would make at the end of the introduction. I also provided a single primary literature article for them to read and reference to support any claims they made. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this with undergrads, but they like to make statements and hypotheses based on their personal feelings or experiences. I mean, I was probably guilty of that too, but I’m really trying to get my students to kick that habit, so I also included in the instructions that “You must provided a citation for any statements you make”. I think that helped.

I also provided a rough format for students to follow for the methods, results and conclusions, as well as provided a graph of their data. A problem I encountered was that some students completely disregarded (or didn’t understand?) the graphed data, and made contradictory statements to it in their results section. For subsequent lab reports, I provided the graph as well as a statement about what the graph meant.

What I hope is that I was able to provide guidance for my students without completely holding their hand and writing the lab report for them. I did see improvement over time, and I also asked students to submit their lab intro with hypothesis prior to receiving a graph of the results. While these were graded, it allowed me to give them some feedback for improvement on the final lab report.

Now I want to ask: who else has run a virtual lab and how did you tackle the lab reports? I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, so if you know of some resources or have actually tried some methods of teaching how to write a lab report, fill me in!!

Overall, the online course was a good learning experience for me. One student filled out the course evaluation and it was all positive. I definitely have some changes in mind, and I’m still trying to figure out the absolute best way to design a virtual lab, so I will probably write about that later (as a heads-up I’m currently experimenting with Microsoft’s Sway program).

Thanks again for stopping by!!

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Formative Assessment and a Product Review: LEARNi – The Teaching Panel

On a regular basis I look for new apps, programs and tools to aid in my classroom teaching – be it actually a new technology or just new to me. Last fall, for example, I used clickers in almost every Introduction to Neuroscience lecture I gave. It was great – in a classroom of 17 students I was able to test comprehension following each new concept, the students liked the high frequency of low-risk opportunities to test themselves and I like to see where I needed to re-visit material before moving on to the next topic. This type of assessment is called formative, and is defined by Black and Wiliam (1998) as “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.”

7/21/16 EDIT – LEARNi has been rebranded and is now LiveRhino. The product includes improvements which I will review once I’ve started using it during fall semester!


So late last fall semester during one of my “new app” searches, I came across a product called LEARNi. I didn’t put much thought into contacting the administrators to create a teacher account to see what the whole thing was all about – and I am so glad I did, because I got to introduce my students to a really fantastic product and experience. At that point in time, LEARNi was exclusively used in elementary, junior high and high school classrooms; no college classroom had ever seen the likes of this classroom management technology. However, after a couple of skype training sessions with Noam, the VP of business development, I was ready to start piloting the program at SU in my Functional Neuroanatomy class.

In short (very, very short), LEARNi allows me to upload a presentation and then layer assessment into the presentation. Meaning, I may decide that on slide 4 of my presentation, I will want to ask my class a question about the content or if they feel they understand what I said. During the presentation, I can then share my question with the class and get their responses back in real-time, anonymously. I am able to see the results, and so are the students. This is nice because it shows them that more than one person may have struggled with a concept. I can add a number of assessment types into a presentation before I present, or while I am actually giving the presentation.

Here are some screen shots showing the addition of a poll to a presentation:

Here I used a very low-level type of question for the material being covered, but I think it demonstrates what you can do.

The other polling options, as you can see from the side panel are:

  • Snapshot – allowing you to simply ask the class if they feel “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” about the material thus far. This is nice for students who may not speak up about not fully understanding the material. When I get some thumbs down I will usually back-up and talk about a topic more slowly or more simplified.
  • Participation – this button “calls on” a student at random. All of your students should be logged on to the app, so then when you push this button, one of them will be selected at random to answer a question or to do whatever it was you needed a volunteer for!
  • Assess – allows you to build a more involved assessment with multiple questions. I typically save this for the end of a lesson and it includes multiple choice and true/false questions. I will also make these questions a little more tricky than the questions I scattered within the presentation.
  • Ideas – this is a fun way to get some open-ended responses from your students (in short phrases). Students submit responses that are then displayed in a word cloud! The most common responses are shown as large words in the word cloud, and less common responses are smaller.
  • url – this is a relatively new feature, it allows you to add a link to the presentation. This may not be too terribly exciting for many of us who use powerpoint on a regular presentation, but it’s nice to be able to use to enhance the presentation on this platform.

Like I said, I really enjoyed using this technology and introducing it to the class, however, you may be asking, “well, what did the students think??” They loved it.

As I learned with the clickers, and which stayed true in this course, students want lots of low-risk opportunities to test their knowledge and understanding of material. This allows them to test themselves without penalty and without drawing attention to themselves. This platform also allows for more than just multiple choice questions, which you are limited to with the clickers. Also, at the end of a classroom session, all the results from all the assessments are saved for you to reference later!

Now, there are some things about the platform that took getting used to and there is still room for improvement. I also haven’t told you about EVERYTHING you can do with this app – like tracking which students are actually viewing the presentation and which ones have exited the app… but I really just wanted to introduce it to you and talk about formative assessment.

Other ways to assess

Obviously, clickers and fancy platforms are not the only ways to assess your students during the class period, these are just the two that I’ve tried out and have a lot of positive feedback with. Another technology I want to try is Socrative, which also allows you to create quizzes for your student, but does not tie into any type of presentation. Without trying it, it seems like it would just be easier to stick with clickers if you are using a powerpoint presentation, but I will keep you posted. I’d also like to try more small group assessment activities.

What have you used to assess your students? Any other technologies, programs, or methods that have really stood out for you? Tell me about it!

Thanks for checking in, have a great week!

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The Virtual Classroom (Part I)

So, I’ve just finished my first year of full-time teaching! It was great…I learned a lot (how to teach, how to deal with students, the material I was teaching…) and I’m looking forward to implementing those lessons into my courses next year. However, I’m in no way done challenging myself!..keep reading!

Back in fall, when I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be at SU for a second year, I elected to run a course that would end before the date at which my lease would be up. So, that meant a 4-week intensive Introduction to Neuroscience course – online. Oh, and the lab is online, too.

Truth be told, I knew nothing about how to organize and run an online course. My teacher training was already limited and certainly did not include material on this. But, I could see the value in learning via trial by fire. Not only is my inexperience a road-block, so is creating an experience for students that is as high quality as what they would experience in a classroom at SU. The small class-sizes with faculty who focus on how to teach is unlike what students likely experience at large public institutions. How would I make sure that I was giving them a small liberal arts online course? How could I make this four week course AMAZING? I’m probably putting a tad too much pressure on myself, but I know no other way.

Regardless of how this course goes, what I learn and how I change it in the future is going to be really valuable. E-learning will likely continue to increase in popularity due to low costs for the students and flexibility in time and location – students don’t have to quit their jobs (which pay for the course) to take the course. Learning how to successfully plan and execute a online course, be it four weeks or twelve, will likely serve me well on the job search and the students who are exposed to my creations in the future.

To begin planning my course, I went back to the Intro to Neuro course I taught in the fall. I liked the text, The Mind’s Machine by Watson and Breedlove, and I liked the inquiry-based lab activities we did. I chose to organize the course chapter-by-chapter, meaning we would move through the weeks covering each chapter sequentially. I think in the future I may do this differently and focus on major learning objectives, but for my first time, I think this is OK. I also chose five lab activities that I thought would be most valuable: eBrain+ Virtual Dissection (Sinauer Associates, Inc), MetaNeuron – an interactive neuron simulation program, the Daphnia lab to study effects of excitatory and inhibatory chemicals, a somatosensory lab in which students time their motor responses to different stimuli, and finally, a cortisol ELISA assay to investigate neuroendocrinology and stress. My syllabus contained a schedule of activities that looked like this:


What you may also notice is that this schedule contains discussions. Having students bat ideas, responses and reflections around with each others makes the classroom a more interesting place and enhances learning, and I hope it does the same online. While there may be a number of ways to have a virtual discussion or forum, I chose to use an app that SU is piloting called Yellowdig. It allows for a virtual learning community where students, or myself, can post articles and content and then everyone else can comment or ‘like’ or what have you. The interface looks a lot like Facebook which is appealing to the students and not as clunky as the discussion option that is available on Blackboard.

Of course, I must assess them! As you can see in the schedule, I have a quiz mid-week and an exam at the week’s end. Very traditional summative assessment that gets the job done. What is not on the schedule are the videos that I made in which I talk students through some of the more complex topics, such as action potentials. For these short (15-20 min) videos, I have a powerpoint that I voice over. Once created, I can upload it to EdPuzzle and insert questions into certain points of the video – some good ol’ formative assessment. I love it, the students love it, everyone is happy and learning. What is also cool about EdPuzzle is that I can see if students have watched the whole video and if they attempted questions and how they responded. So this would also be useful for a flipped classroom situation or something.

Anyway, this adventure embarks on Monday, so I will learn (rapidly) where the flaws are in content organization and how unclear my instructions are on some tasks.  Keep an eye out for updates and let me know if you’ve tried anything in the virtual classroom that has worked particularly well! Thanks everyone!

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Welcome to Coffee & Culture – a blog about my experiments in teaching in the college classroom.

I dedicate a lot of my time to thinking and talking about teaching, however I have not spent a lot of time writing anything down…

So, I’ve decided to start writing about and sharing my ideas and experiments in teaching and learning in the college classroom and lab settings. I think this is valuable for a couple reasons: I should really be documenting these things, and sharing my experiences and getting feedback from the greater educator community will likely enhance what I do in the future.

The blog name? It includes a personal touch (coffee) and a pedagogical (culture) component. Those who know me also know that a cup of coffee is never far away. I use my time drinking coffee to get to know people, as an excuse to take a break and socialize, and to think about my work. The ‘culture’ represents cultivation and refinement in a few arenas – my personal and profession self, as well as my journey to create a learning environment where students are not limited by my teaching.

Welcome to my blog and thanks for stopping by!