With the exception of a little grading I am done teaching the intro entomology lab for the spring semester. This also marks the end of my first year as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA), and my transition to working as a research assistant for a couple of terms. I have the lofty goal of not just being an assistant professor but actually being one of those who is tough but at the same time engenders interest in the area that I am teaching by sharing my own excitement. To this end I am trying to keep track of the many mistakes that I am making as a GTA. Hopefully I can iron out all the kinks before I am actually in charge of one of those big lecture halls with 100 plus student.
So what did I learn teaching this intro to entomology lab? First off the freedom that I was give was both a blessing and a curse. I spent far more time teaching this class than I did last semester when I taught intro biology lab. With intro biology we have a lab manual and specific experiments to perform each week. With entomology I was told that the lab should primarily focus on identification of different common groups of insects. I was given a list of orders to cover guidelines for a collection and told to give one quiz and a practical. Beyond these broad instructions I was free to run things as I saw fit. This freedom was great for me. This is a subject that I love and I was given a chance to explore the best way for me to share this field of study with my students.
That freedom also meant that this semester was something of a learning process for me. I have tried to identify five things that I think were especially important that I learned this semester. Maybe by sharing these observations I can help someone else I know that remembering them will help me.
1. Anatomy has to come before anything else!
Basic anatomy was supposed to be covered in the lecture portion of the course so I didn’t worry about it much at first. This was a huge mistake. When I teach this class again someday I will spend the first couple of weeks really teaching anatomy and comparing anatomy among groups. Being able to label a diagram is different from being able to interpret characters under a dissecting scope.
2. Prevent procrastination.
Students will procrastinate if there is any possible way to do so. Should a professor design a course so that it is easy for students to put stuff off to the last minute? I guess we all have to answer that question for ourselves but I would say no. We should try at least to set our students up to succeed. I believe that you can still have a course with just as much rigor but with checkpoints on large assignments and frequent assessments that allow students to measure their own understanding.
3. Developing a consistent “style” or “pattern” of presenting information.
I was trying to think of some way to create some continuity as we jumped from order to order each week and I remembered the famous title of an article written by Dobzhansky his article was titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” From that point on I tried to stop giving the class a list of traits that this group or that group had and instead I tried to get the class to see why the characters unique to a group were really cool evolutionary changes. This made it a lot easier to be excited about teaching the information and hopefully made it a little easier for students to remember. Obviously this task was a lot easier for the groups with which I am most familiar with. However I believe that starting with this idea from the beginning will really improve this course or any other course that I teach in the future.
4. Make it simple… no utterly clear… even clearer.
What is simple and straight forward to us in our own minds is often completely obfuscated when presented to others. This has come up a lot over the past year. (For the record I speak clearly, with sufficient volume, and I am on the whole normally considered a good communicator.) A perfect example would be my first practical. I had stations set up throughout the room and told the student to work through them until they were finished. This resulted in a huge traffic jam as apparently all student put off the same few stations to the end. The next time I told the students to find a numbered station and when I instructed them they were to move to the numerically next station. Foolproof right? WRONG. Again traffic jams people wanting the same spots etc. etc. Finally I taped arrows to the table directing student from their current station to the next one. Result… with limited navigational assistance from me they found their way around. The same confusion reigned supreme in my attempts to explain the collection requirements: 50 specimens representing at least 13 different orders and 25 different families. All specimens appropriately mounted, labeled and identified to order. Eventual solution…. In this case a sample collection for them to see and a checklist for them to fill in for their own collection finally clarified my meaning to most students.
5. Other bugs are OK.
While beetles will always be the coolest insects out there some of these other bugs aren’t bad. I especially enjoyed learning to identify all the hymenoptera and the amazing number of heteropteran families that I never even knew existed. I am also really glad that I had a chance to learn about the higher groupings within insects and arthropods. I had read some of this literature but always in a fairly casual manner. It was nice to have an impetus to actually dig into this and get a good understanding of the current theories and questions.
Well hopefully I will be able to apply a few of these lessons and do a better job when I teach some time next year. If you were one of my students this semester or last first thank you and secondly.... I hope it was more or less enjoyable :-)
24 April 2011
02 April 2011
01 April 2011
I am slowly trying to put together a collection of photos that are appropriate for the lectures and talks that I have to give for my classes and research. Because of this I need a lot of general beetle photos showing different anatomical structures. Here are a few that I have taken in the last few days. Have a great weekend!