Summer Reading


After suffering through the semester from, well you know (see my last post here), I have not been inclined to do much reading or thinking about teaching. That said, I have read some interesting books during my summer break and I’d like to share them with you. When I get snippets of free time like I’ve had for the last 6 weeks or so, I tend to binge read. Some of these titles hold academic interest, while others were purely for entertainment. I realize that a couple are classified as “Young Adult Fiction”. Judge if you must.

Honestly, I feel a little vulnerable sharing the list with you 🙂 You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelf. I firmly believe that books have the capability to expand our worldview and open our minds to new ideas in a way that TV and the internet cannot. Books allow you to completely immerse yourself in a subject. When I’m reading the rest of the world just kind of falls away. That said, books can influence your thoughts and actions well after you are finished reading them. I’m still digesting the material but I do have a few initial thoughts that I’d like to share.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

These two books were both set during World War Two. The first was a work of fiction, while the second was non-fiction. Both illustrated the power of fear and discrimination that dominated Europe during that time. They also provided examples of people that did not give in to the mass hysteria of Naziism and instead made choices that they believed were right, but put themselves and their families in harm’s way. Interestingly, both also emphasized the importance of education. In The Book Thief, the main character learns to read, while in The Zookeeper’s Wife, an underground school is maintained despite being outlawed by the occupying German forces.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy by Seth Mnookin

These two books are centered on infectious diseases. The Ghost Map chronicles the emergence of the field epidemiology during a cholera outbreak in Victorian England. The Panic Virus, on the other hand, is set in the modern day and examines the many different factors that underlie the phenomenon of the antivaccine culture. As a microbiologist, it is hard for me to imagine a world in which people believed that miasma and vapors caused disease rather than microbes. I also struggle with understanding why parents make the choice to forgo vaccination in the face of scientific evidence that contradicts their point of view. Both of these books emphasize for me the importance of education, not just in terms of facts, but also teaching students how to think scientifically.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Ok, so honestly, I don’t really have anything profound to say about these two books. They were both read for their entertainment value (Who reads sob inducing, romantic, teen fiction for entertainment? Me, that’s who).

What books are you reading this summer? I tend to choose books based on other people’s suggestions so I’d love to know what you are enjoying!!!


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Survival Mode


Hey there. Remember me? I’m that crazy biology professor that used to blog on this site. I just survived the semester from H-E-double hockey sticks. Survived is a good word for it. I can’t say that I was the most inspired educator this Spring. Creativity and ingenuity kindof went out the classroom window. Instead, I relied heavily on old standbys and previous semesters’ work.

Let me give you some context. I was teaching two courses this semester. One that I have taught every semester since I began teaching, and a brand new prep (the subject of my last blog post in January). Teaching the new course was akin to being thrown into the deep end of a pool without floaties having just a rudimentary ability to swim. The person who taught the course before me didn’t give me much to build off of. She didn’t use a textbook and had not established a lab curriculum that I could easily follow. Basically, I had to start from scratch. This alone is intimidating, but I was up for the challenge.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s add in the weather. We live in Georgia. You may remember the the great Atlanta snowpocalypse of 2014. Fortunately, we live far enough from the city that we didn’t suffer through the horrible traffic; however, we had no less than four “snow” days at the beginning of the semester, two of which were days that we were scheduled for labs, which are hard to make up. I found myself making adjustments to the syllabus on the fly.

On top of all of it, I was incredibly sick for the first half of the semester. There was the stomach flu, an awful head cold, a sinus infection, the stomach flu again, pinkeye, a crazy rash all over my body, and oh did I mention that I’m pregnant with baby #3? Morning sickness is enough to suck any sort of motivation from your soul, but add all the illness on top of it and I was a bit of a zombie in the classroom. I found myself just praying that I could get through the semester without doing irreparable damage. Blogging just didn’t happen.

The one thing that I can be thankful for is that my microbiology course is so well organized at this point that I could let it mostly drive itself. I had all of the lectures already recorded and posted on YouTube. The lab curriculum was well established. I could copy homework assignments from the previous semester and I simply followed the schedule that I had been working to perfect the last several years. Am I completely satisfied with the way it turned out? Nope. There are lots of little changes that I want to make here and there, but this was not the semester to do it.

Now that it is all over I am taking some time to reflect and reevaluate. Summer is great for that. I’m also planning for the future. The next six months or so promise to be interesting. Coming soon, I will be teaching microbiology again during a short, 4-week summer term. Right now I am trying to figure out how to fit 16 weeks of material into that small space. This Fall will be another unique situation. Baby #3 is due at the beginning of September, which means I will be taking most of the semester off. I will be leaving my courses in the hands of one of the best micro instructors in our department, but the logistics of course sharing should be interesting at best.

All of that was to get you up to speed on what’s been going on with me and to explain my absence. I’m hoping that I can return to blogging with renewed enthusiasm now that I have a little bit of breathing room. Well, at least until September, but I’m trying not to think about that right now.

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Ownership in education

Coaching in Teaching

How do we encourage our students to take ownership of their education? Over and over again I encounter students that want to sit passively in the classroom and receive knowledge. They expect me to tell them what they need to know and then the memorize the bare minimum necessary to pass the course. As soon as the semester is over, any knowledge they might have gained is quickly lost. This model of “education” is inherently flawed. It does not encourage life long learning, subject literacy, or critical thinking. Instead, it generates mindless drones.

My job is not to make students learn. I cannot do that against their will. Instead I see myself as a sort of personal trainer. I can point students in the direction of knowledge, but I cannot make them think. They must take an active role in the process. If someone buys a membership to a gym but never uses it, they will never get into shape. The same concept applies to the classroom. A student can pay thousands of dollars in tuition but never learn a thing.

As teachers there are many tools we can use in the classroom to encourage active learning. I am by no means an expert but here are a few of the things that I am trying to use to help my students take ownership of their education:

1) Make it relevant and relate able. One section of my introductory biology course where students really seem to get interested in the material is genetics. The subject is not easy but they can easily see how it can apply to their own lives. We spend a lot of time talking about inherited diseases like sickle cell anemia. I tell them stories about friends of mine that have a little boy with cystic fibrosis. I make it personal. There is a great Nova documentary called “Cracking Your Genetic Code” that discusses some of the real life implications of genetic testing. Together, these things provide my students with the context they need to see why learning this material is important.

2) Don’t talk at them, talk with them. I am totally guilty of this, especially this semester, but it is important to allow your students to engage in a conversation relevant to the course material. One thing that can help is to use case studies. I do this more in my microbiology course, but there are a lot of resources available for general biology courses as well (One great resource a comes from the College of Charleston and can be found here). Again, these provide relevance, while encouraging discussion.

3) Be smart about homework. In my introductory biology course I am using an online homework system that allows me to build pre lecture assignments that are designed to engage the students in the material before they come to class. They are relatively short And it is my hope that they might actually crack open the textbook before they enter the classroom each week. I also provide post lecture assignments that examine how well they understood the lecture content. I have mixed results with this approach. Some students seem to be much more engaged in the classroom after completing the assignments, but mostly I get a lot of complaints about how much work they have to do each week. I hope to continue to tweak this process in the future. I want to bring more of the homework problems into the classroom and use them as a platform for discussion.

Key Question: What have you found that can help engage students more deeply into the course material? One thing that I am hoping to explore more in the future is to use inquiry based labs. I’ll save that for another post later.

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Mind Like Water


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How to Avoid The Technology Trap


Technology is supposed to make out lives easier right? In many ways it has, but we must remember that technology is only a tool and it can be used for good or for bad. You can probably think of several ways, right off the top of your head, that technology has improved your life. Smart phones help us to be more organized. Facebook connects us with long lost friends. Online banking makes balancing a checkbook easy. But there are also ways that technology has negatively impacted our lives as well.

The first thing I think of is automated phone systems. Hours of my life have been lost in the virtual mazes of the customer service systems of my banks and insurance companies. Another example is what I like to call the “GPS effect”. This is when people rely so heavily on their technology that their forget how to think for themselves. I once gave a family member simple directions to the store near our house (less than 2 miles- two right turns and then you’re there). Instead of following my directions he got into the car and put the name of the store into his GPS. Unfortunately, it did not direct him to the correct store and we got a call an hour later saying he was completely lost. SMH. Finally, technology can make us feel connected virtually, without truly connecting with anyone. We can exist in a virtual world without experiencing the amazing things going on in front of our eyes. As a parent I must be particularly conscious of my tendency to plug in when I’m around my kids. They are only young once and I need to unplug my eyes from my phone and plug in my heart to my kids.

As a teacher I can see many ways in which technology can improve my classroom, but as in everyday life there are pitfalls that we must avoid. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are mistakes we can make as teachers and some ways that I think we can avoid them.

1) Disconnecting from assessment. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately. There are lots of tools that we can use to make grading and assessment easier. Some are old and some are new. Scantrons have been around as long as I can remember. When I started teaching I immediately starting using scantron testes because I was overwhelmed by the shear number of exams I had to grade. I just have to feed the tests into the machine and it calculates the grade and the class average and gives me a report on which questions the class struggled with. The problem with this approach is that I don’t see how each student answers the questions. I don’t know if they simply got mixed up between two similar concepts or if they just wildly guessed. I can spend time analyzing each exam, but it is easy to just spit back grades at my students without paying attention to what the grades mean. This can happen with all types of technology- classroom response systems, online homework programs, multiple choice tests, etc. We must be intentional about looking at our student assessment and using it as a guide in the classroom, making adjustments to our classes as necessary, not just as benchmarks as we proceed through the semester.

2) Disconnecting from the students. In this age of email and electronic communication it is easy to walk in to the classroom, lecture and never actually talk to my students. This world is already so impersonal. Let’s not make it worse. Students who feel cared about will be more engaged in the material and more likely to succeed. Learn your students names. I average about 100 students a semester. It takes me most of the term to learn their names, but I know that they appreciate it when I do. Talk to them about things outside the class. Get to class a little early. Spend five minutes talking to students about their other classes, their families, politics, whatever they are interested in that moment. Get to know them a little and let them get to know you. We can use technology to do this as well. Set up discussion boards in Blackboard/WebCT/Desire2Learn etc that allow students to introduce themselves and create a sense of community.

3) Letting technology be a distraction.  I know that I have done this. I’ve been excited to try a new tool, but haven’t completely learned in before introducing it into the classroom. I’ve been known to spend 5 minutes at the front of the room tinkering with the computer. I went to a seminar last week where the presenter said that he has a 90 second rule. If he can’t get technology to work after 90 seconds, he proceeds without it. I think that is a good rule of thumb. I think it is also important for us to learn the best ways to use a particular tool before trying it out. Take the time (I know, who has the time these days) to really train yourself on a new tool. It will pay off. The better prepared you are, the more you will get out of using a particular technology. Again, it’s not what you use, but how you use it.

What are some pitfalls that you see with using technology in the classroom and how do you avoid them?

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Here’s an App to Teach Strategy and How a Disease Spreads


On a Sunday drive with my wife, Sarah talked about how she will be teaching on public health and epidemics in her microbiology classes soon. For as long as I have known Sarah, she gets REALLY excited about epidemiology. She gets excited in the same way that a four year old boy gets “giddy” to go on a shopping spree in “Toys R Us” with grandma. She’s just really passionate about this topic.  With this in mind, I did a little bit of game hunting for my wife.

Through one of my work buddies, I heard about this game called “Plague” that relates exactly to this topic. In the game, the player gains a better sense of why some illnesses are transmitted more than others, the formal names and characteristics of various symptoms, and how world governments and media might react to an outbreak.

For a quick introduction to the story of the game, I would invite you to check out the video below:

I have to admit the game is kind of morbid. As a player, your objective is to destroy the whole world with your disease. (bacteria, virus, fungus, etc.) You take on the evil role of infecting and dominating the whole world. In this game of strategy, you start by selecting the country where your disease starts. (usually a poor country) The app simulates aspects of people traveling from one country to the next and “country to country” trade. If your disease has high infectivity and becomes lethal too quickly, countries start to isolate themselves from the infected countries. You receive feedback about the progress of the game by reading news headlines and listening to the various sounds. (coughing, sneezing, etc.) In this game, your enemies are those who are making a cure for your disease. You especially need to outwit the richer nations who have well funded medical research. As your disease spreads, you earn DNA points. You exchange DNA points for the opportunity to evolve your illness. During the simulation, you influence how your disease gets transmitted, disease symptoms, drug resistance, and other abilities. To win, you have to find the right timing and balance between infectivity, disease severity, and lethality.

The following video shows how the game is played:


On the easiest mode, it took three or four trials before I started to understand the basic dynamics of creating a plague. While the game is a very morbid simulation, I can see that students would have fun designing their illnesses while getting a gentle introduction to the basic vocabulary of public health.

If you’re a biology teacher looking for a fun and meaningful way to introduce epidemiology or you’re looking for a new strategy game, check out Plague. You can find it on the Android and iOS app stores.


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