Want to build team collaboration, communication, and productivity? Make work visible!

A powerful technique for building team collaboration, communication and productivity is to make the work very visible.    You could create a Google document with a big list of tasks and share it with your team.   Simple list applications are not always designed for team speed.   In the ideal case, I want to be able to glance over a project board and see our progress.    We are naturally visual creatures and can find patterns very quickly with our eyes.    In a world without computers, agile coaches promote the idea of using white boards with post it notes.  (i.e. Kanban boards)   They are simple and effective for radiating project tasks.   The tasks boards can be organized in a manner that’s logical to the team.   I tend to favor simplicity.

Here’s a sample KanBan Board.

Sample Kanban Board

photo credit: talios via photopin cc

While these kinds of boards are popular with software teams, the idea of radiating task items from a board is broadly applicable.    A busy family can organize their major goals for a week on a KanBan board.   Teachers using project based learning can encourage their students to keep their project status visible and encourage students to communicate regularly on progress.   A blogger might use this to track ideas and progress for posts.

In the past week, I came across a delightful tool that I had to share with my readers called LeanKit.   As a promoter of Scrum, I found it very easy to create a board that would work for my team.   The tool has other board configurations for personal productivity, sales, project management, and more.   Check out the video below.

I believe this tool does a great job keeping work items organized while enabling the team to quickly assess status at a glance.    It’s really awesome that you can use this tool for 25 team members for free.

I hope it helps you in leading your project based learning efforts, agile projects, or businesses.


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Creating Authentic Learning Environments using Project Based Learning and Scrum

As a leader for a software development team, I really enjoy seeing our team members teach each other.   Because I value education, I personally want to understand how various leadership practices foster learning.   On our team, we have decided to implement an agile project management style known as Scrum.    Seeing my project teams learn, grow, and recover from mistakes every two weeks, I started to wonder if Scrum has been employed in academia in project based learning.

What are the motivations for using Scrum?

Through a quick google search, I discovered Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark, a professional writing and rhetoric professor at Elon University.   Since group work is very common in higher-education, she started experimenting with Scrum to improve team cultures in her class.   In her online reflection, she outlines some of her motivations for using Scrum while teaching her students:

  • She wanted to create a learning environment that is authentic.
  • Students should learn to facilitate collaboration effectively.
  • Students should learn a sense of accountability.
  • When student teams “divide and conquer” project work without Scrum, she found that her students would produce “disjointed and repetitive final papers.”
  • Student teams should hold each other accountable to avoid plagiarism.

What’s Scrum?

Scrum is a team leadership framework popular in software development.   The framework, however, can be used in any situation where a complex and creative product needs to be created.   The framework involves three core roles:

  • Product owner:  This team member controls the requirements of the project and the order in which those requirements need to be addressed.
  • Team:  This is the group of people (i.e. students) who need to serve the product owner and make the project.
  • Scrum master:  This stakeholder acts as a coach for the product owner and team members to help enforce the rules of the scrum framework.   The scrum master is also responsible for removing road blocks or external impediments of project work.   If students need access to a tool to accomplish a task, the scrum master is accountable to resolve the impediment.

How does it work?

Iteration sizes or sprints are strictly time-boxed.    On my team, we use two week iterations.   In other contexts, an iteration size might be one month.    Throughout this process, the scrum master helps to enforce the following rules while fostering communication and removing blocks.  For each sprint or iteration, the following activities occur:

  1. Product backog management: Product owner drafts requirements or stories of what makes the product great.   This list of requirements is known as the product backlog.    In a education context, the professor often assumes the role of product owner.   This gives the teacher the ability to define the “done conditions” for the learning experience.
  2. Sprint planning:   The product owner and team meet to determine what part of the requirements can be built during the iteration.   The stakeholders negotiate what sub-set of the product backlog can be addressed to create a minimum viable product or an increment of value.
  3. Work, work, work:During the middle of the iteration, the team is free to self-organize to build the product increment.    In a classroom situation, the students may design, create, peer review, and test their product.  Each day of the project, the team should have a quick huddle (15 minutes) to answer the following questions.   It’s important to remember that the students are accountable to each other during these quick huddles.
    1. What did I do yesterday?
    2. What work is blocked?
    3. What’s next for work?
  4. Demo day: This is a “show and tell” day.   On the last day of the iteration, the product increment is shown to the product owner.   The team and product owner collectively review the strengths and improvement opportunities for the product.
  5. Retrospective:  On the “demo day”, the students/team members should have a quick meeting to reflect upon how they can improve.   (30 minute meeting)
    1. What went well?
    2. What do we need to change in our process to improve our team and product?
  6. If there is more product to build, go back to step #1.
  7. Party time!  Project is done!

For a detailed summary of the Scrum framework, please visit http://www.scrum.org/Scrum-Guides.

How effective is Scrum in teaching?

In future blog entries, I would like to follow up with Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark.   She mentioned that she would be doing a formal research project regarding the effectiveness of Scrum in the classroom.    Dr. Paul Gestwicki, a computer science professor teaching game development and Android programming, shares his reflections of using Scrum in his classes.   On his blog he shares that “I am taking a significant risk by trusting my students to effectively self-organize and deliver the promised software system.”   He, however, seems to have some positive results to share.

In drafting this post, I am excited to see the strengths, weaknesses and learning outcomes from this style of teaching.   Since the students are encouraged to organize themselves, the process of Scrum helps to foster creativity and critical thinking.   I have personally enjoyed seeing the spirit of collaboration on my team.   It’s always cool to see team members teaching each other.

When “no brain works alone”, cool stuff happens!



Let’s keep the conversation going:   I would love to hear your stories about project based learning.  What is your favorite aspect of project based learning or flat classroom learning?


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Photo taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Trojans_in_huddle_at_USC_at_Cal_2009-10-03_1.JPG


Women in Math and Science

There has  been a lot of chatter on the internet this week on successful women in the workplace (thank you Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg). Nature just dedicated an entire issue to women in science (see interesting article here). Seeing as I am a working mom and a scientist, I figured I would put in my two cents. Most of these things apply to all moms, not just scientists.

#1 Define your own success. No one can do it for you. There are lots of ideas about what makes a person successful (lots of money, lots of publications, tenure, etc.). Each of us must take time to sit down and think about what success means to us. Begin with the end in mind, right?. What do you want your life to look like? When you reach the end of your life, what will satisfy you looking back? For me, it means making an impact on the lives of others and helping them to find their own success. It also means raising a couple of wonderful kids and giving them the best start in life that I can.

#2 Ask for and find help. Build yourself a support network. Find a great daycare. Marry a supportive husband. Live close to family members that can help you raise your kids. HIRE A MAID (I have not yet swallowed my pride to do this one, but seriously I need to). You are not superwoman. Give yourself the resources you need to be successful. Make choices that will make your life easier, not harder.

#3 Choose your employer carefully. I have learned this one from experience. I have worked for people that were incredibly supportive and flexible, and I have worked for people that have no tolerance for family life. Don’t waste your precious life working for someone who does not care about you or your family. Its not worth it. There are a lot of jobs out there. Yes, we all have to suck it up sometimes and work in a crappy job for a while, but keep looking for a better situation and you will find it.

#4 Be willing to make some sacrifices.  Parenting, no matter what, requires sacrifices. As a working mom, I don’t have time for hobbies. I gave up crafting and playing guitar when I went to grad school. Likewise, you are going to have to choose your kids activities carefully. Maybe just one sport instead of 3 different ones. I don’t know.

#5 Take care of you. I do make it a priority to squeeze in time for myself every now and then. In fact, I gotta run because I’ve got a hair appointment this afternoon!

Some people might look at my career and say that I’ve wasted my PhD. I think that I have an incredibly rich life and I look forward to what adventures lie ahead.

5 Resources To Help You Teach Kids Programming


As I have been listening and talking to advocates of STEAM education, I have come to believe that we need to engage young people in science, technology, engineering, art, and math as early as 3rd or 4th grade.   I had the opportunity to start hacking at programming using GW-BASIC when I was six or seven years old.   I am forever thankful for my Dad for many things.   I, however, am especially thankful that he taught me to start hacking on computers so early.    It was a great bonding experience for both of us to work on projects and helped launch my career that helps me support my family.

I have been thinking about the idea of creating a learning resource that would support teaching kids and teens how to code.   So…. what can kids learn about computer programming?   What is age appropriate?    What kinds of programs can a student in middle school create?   What kinds of software can high school students make?

I wanted to share a few resources and perspectives that I collected.

1. Teach U.S. kids to write computer code :  Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com and contributor for CNN, shares 10 reasons to teach young people how to program.  As we learn human language, we learn to speak, read, and write.    As our future generation uses technology more, it becomes more important for them to know how to make software… They can’t just be consumers.

2. TEDxManhattanBeach – Thomas Suarez – iPhone Application Developer

3. Teaching Kids to Program:  This post provides a nice collection of tools that help teach programming to kids.   I am very interested in how to teach programming in an age appropriate way.   I appreciated the author’s recommendations about waiting to teach kids until age 7.

4. So – you want to Teach your Kids Computer Programming?  In this post, I appreciated that the author ordered technology recommendations.    Early recommendations are great for young kids.   Technology mentioned later in the post are great for older students.

5. 36 Resources To Help You Teach Kids Programming – Nice index of tools and resources


Am I a teacher?

“Do you consider yourself a teacher?” This question was posed to me by a colleague standing in the door of my office earlier this week. My first thought was, “Um. Yes, don’t you? That’s why we’re here isn’t it? To teach biology?” I think I muttered some sort of intelligible reply, but the question left me deep in thought. Am I a teacher? What makes me qualified? I don’t have a degree in education. I have no formal training. I have a PhD in biomedical science. I am trained to be a scientist, not a teacher. My graduate school coursework taught me the inner workings of the cell. I learned how to critically evaluate scientific data and I worked long hours in the laboratory learning research techniques. I had three days of “training” during the first week of grad school on how to be a graduate teaching assistant and that is about it. My primary experience in the world of education has been as a student, although when you spend as long as I did in school you should be an expert.

So what makes someone a teacher? Here is the definition of a teacher from M-W.com:

1: one that teaches; especially : one whose occupation is to instruct

Ok, so what does it mean to teach? (also from M-W.com)

1 a : to cause to know something <taught them a trade>
b: to cause to know how <is teaching me to drive>
c: to accustom to some action or attitude <teach students to think for themselves>
d: to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action <I’ll teach you to come home late>
2: to guide the studies of
3: to impart the knowledge of <teach algebra>
4 a: to instruct by precept, example, or experience
b: to make known and accepted <experience teaches us our limitations>
5: to conduct instruction regularly in <teach school>

When I think about the word teacher I think in terms of stereotypes. For me that means Catholic nuns and older, somewhat severe women like the ones that I encountered during elementary school. But really, everyone is a teacher. We can all fit within that definition. Every day have opportunities to share knowledge and instruct others.  As a parent I can see this clearly as I teach my children simple things like picking up their toys and brushing their teeth. As a scientist, I feel like sometimes we can view the label of “teacher” with some disdain, like it is somehow less worthy than performing laboratory research. In reality, the opposite is true. Teaching is the MOST IMPORTANT job of a scientist. All of the scientific discoveries in the world are meaningless if we cannot convey that information to the general public. I see it every day in the misinformation on vaccines, global warming, evolution, etc that is perpetuated on the internet. We have not done a good job as scientist teachers. We must do better.

I get paid to impart knowledge to my students. But its more than that, teaching is my vocation. I feel like it is what I am meant to do. Yes, the students drive me nuts at times, but I love what I do. Teaching gives me a sense of purpose. I feel like I am making a contribution to this world by expanding my students’ knowledge. That is enough to keep me motivated to spend so much time working on my classes, making videos, writing study guides, coming up with active lecture activities, etc. So yes I am a teacher.