Friday, May 20, 2011

Engaging College Students to Support Science Learning

summer camp

Aquatic Biology summer camp

A recent Science article reported by the New York Times ( presented the findings of a study that compared the impact of a traditional lecture format to a more interactive approach to teaching in a large college physics class. The latter approach included soliciting students’ ideas and providing feedback, small group work, and in-class activities — and resulted in improved student learning, attendance and engagement.

The foundation of the ‘deliberate practice’ model and related ideas in educational research is that learners have their own ideas about how the world works, and that we can support learning by actively exploring and connecting with these existing ideas through meaningful, engaging experiences. In short, students are active participants in their learning.

On a small scale, our Aquatic Biology summer camp could be viewed through the lens of ‘deliberate practice.’ It involves small group activities and provides opportunities for participants to practice their knowledge and skills. Youth are introduced to basic ideas about water quality and assessment techniques, exploring these techniques through a series of simple experiments, and then collecting and recording data in the field. We then discuss our findings.

The hitch with a more interactive and engaged approach is that it takes a lot of time. Consciously and deliberately designing your teaching around such strategies at any level is time-consuming, although it gets easier with experience. For example, creating field journals that are accessible and usable by 8 to 11 years olds takes thought and planning.

Many years ago as a graduate student in Canada I was involved with a Women in Science organization which conducted a study on the impact of a ‘female-friendly’ introductory college chemistry curriculum which included in-class activities and problem-solving with real-world connections. The result — test performance was on par with other sections, but student interest and motivation were significantly higher in the study group. It turned out that such strategies were not only ‘female-friendly’, but were in fact ‘student-friendly.’

An important finding from the Science study and others is that more engaging teaching strategies not only improve traditionally tested outcomes but also enhance student confidence, interest and motivation — critical factors in thinking about life-long learning and career choices. They can also support informed decision making about science/technology issues.

Museums and other informal science institutions are familiar with this approach as they seek to connect with visitors through their exhibits and programming. Such experiences support factual and conceptual understanding, but perhaps most powerfully influence affective elements related to learning such as engagement and motivation about science. Enhancing content knowledge and understanding as well as supporting an interest in science without the incentive (or disincentive) of a test is a powerful impact!

In a time with mounting pressures and decreasing resources, it can seem daunting to attempt such a course. But there are resources to help. KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence provides resources and workshops to support and enhance faculty teaching. A surprising success story comes from Quarked! Adventures in the Subatomic Universe, a collaborative KU physics education project that includes a website with videos and games. Originally targeted at youth 7 to 12, teachers and the general public, several physics faculty have found it useful for their classes to provide an overall conceptual framework for particle physics and the mechanisms involved.

Thoughtfully planned and informed learning experiences are time-consuming, but well worth it and become easier with time and practice. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Oarfish Omen


A week before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, an omen washed up on its beaches. The appearance of the oarfish, a ribbon-like, deep sea fish has long been perceived as a warning that seismic activity is on the way. This fish has become a feature of speculation as to whether they can be used to predict an incoming earthquake.

There are many news reports that speculate on the issue, as well as impressive photos of this critter, which can reach lengths in excess of 50 feet.

The important message here is that so little is known about the habits, breeding, biology, and ecology of these fishes – and deep water species in general. It is difficult to say what they are reacting to – small tremors signaling a larger quake to come, poisonous gases released by shifting tectonic plates or perhaps water temperatures affected by subtle movements in these plates. So little is known about deep water fish species due to the difficulty involved in studying them in their natural environment. They do not survive long (or act erratically/unusually) in shallow water, making it difficult to glean anything about their behavior based on these shallow water sightings. Their natural environment, depths below 1000 feet, is the place to study them, only possibly by using submersible or Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) but these tools are very expensive and not very numerous.

It is estimated that we have only described about a quarter to half of the species in the deep oceans. Who knows what lives down there and what sort of interactions they have with their deep water environment, as well as what sort of future events they may be able to sense before we know anything about them?

It is also interesting that local folklore (dismissed or ignored by many in the scientific community) says that these fish appearing in shallow water signal not only an earthquake, but also a good catch! These two are likely related in that tremors or earthquakes will scare or force deep water fish into the shallows.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Communicating Evolution

collecting insects

A recent New York Times article summarized a national survey of high school biology teachers published in Science. Its findings include that only 28 percent of teachers follow recommendations from the National Research Council on teaching evolution, 13 percent advocate creationism in their classrooms, the remaining 60 percent of teachers neither endorse evolution nor any alternate non-scientific explanations.

As the Director of Education at a natural history museum in Kansas, I was forwarded this article many times by friends and colleagues. Sadly, the results of this study are also not surprising; they closely parallel previous studies and my own professional experience. There is no question that evolutionary thinking is a fundamental concept that forms the foundation of modern biological understanding and current research, a point that has been emphasized by evolutionary scientists and educators. Nonetheless, the situation remains relatively static.

The story also illustrates a couple of important points. Firstly, it is not a Kansas thing — the absence of adequate of evolution teaching in schools (and even advocating non-scientific explanations) is a pervasive problem in the United States — and while some regions may seem more obvious or extreme on this issue, this is a national problem. Secondly, it highlights the crucial role that natural history museums and other informal science institutions play in communicating science to the public.

Museums play an important role in teaching evolution. Reports indicate that one in every five adults in the US has visited a museum or science center at some point in their life, which means that informal science institutions have a critical role in communicating evolution to the public. For some visitors, a museum will be their only opportunity to learn about evolution. In addition to teaching about evolution through exhibits and programming (like in many of our exhibits), many museums participate in research to explore a visitor’s understanding in an effort to communicate more effectively. See the special issue of Museum and Social Issues on evolution in museums as an example. My own "Understanding the Tree of Life" project explored how people interpret ‘tree of life’ diagrams in an effort to help design more effective graphics to support visitor understanding.

Would I love to see more and better evolution education in schools? Absolutely! Most museums offer field trip experiences for school groups, and many are involved in providing professional development opportunities about evolution for educators. I take pride in the efforts of museums, science centers, zoos & aquaria, nature centers and others in providing and an opportunity for students and teachers to explore evolutionary ideas through museum visits.  And as this study suggests, such experiences are more important than ever.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taxonomy Trouble

Worm recently published an article about the decline of taxonomists over recent years.  In the mid-1990s, in response to concerns about disappearing taxonomic expertise, the US National Science Foundation established the PEET program — Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy.  It was designed for taxonomic experts to train their successors before those experts retired or died.  But it is not taxonomists of all organisms that PEET trains: the program announcement specifies “poorly known organisms,” which is generally meant to exclude vertebrates, “higher plants,” and commercially valuable taxa.  KU has been successful in training taxonomists with PEET grants — three of the first 20 such grants awarded came to KU people, and two of the first renewals made in the PEET program were to KU scientists.

The biodiversity that is eligible for PEET funding represents the vast majority of life on earth.  The number of people who can identify such organisms and describe new species of them continues to decline.  This is a world-wide problem, which is ironic because ostensible interest in biodiversity has never been higher.  People are concerned about conservation and extinction.  But if nobody is capable of accurately identifying the sea spiders of coral reefs, for example, how can we know if any are endangered?A look at the natural history museums of the world illustrates the imbalance between the world’s biodiversity and the taxonomists employed to deal with it.  In the animal realm, all major museums employ taxonomists of fishes, birds, mammals, reptiles and/or amphibians, and insects; commonly the vertebrates and insects are in separate departments, and in many museums there are three or four departments for the vertebrates.  All the other kinds of animals that exist, excluding single-celled organisms — something around 30 major groups (phyla) – are typically dealt with by taxonomists in one department.  So at any time, there may be a few taxonomists in the entire world employed to study animals of any major group that might have thousands of species, not to mention crucial ecological importance.

Ideas continually arise for remedying the shortage, and making sure that knowledge of a particular group does not die out entirely.  Just this month a “Recovery plan for the endangered taxonomy profession” was published in BioScience by David L. Pearson, Andrew L. Hamilton, and Terry L. Erwin.  We taxonomists continue to inventory organisms, train our successors, and try to remind people that the poorly studied organisms on earth include those we admire (such as the corals that make coral reefs), those we eat (such as cockles and mussels), those that aerate our soil (such as earthworms), and those that supply us with decoration (such as pearls) and other materials (such as sponges and our birds’ cuttle bones).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sequencing the Elephants

The lab

The Biodiversity Institute’s Genetic Sequencing Facility

A recent NYTimes article highlighted research identifying the existence of two elephant species in Africa.  This is an important discovery not only for conservation purposes, but also because the researchers at Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of York used new DNA sequencing technology that gives a much fuller picture of a critter's DNA.

My work at the Biodiversity Institute's Genetic Sequencing Facility directly relates to this kind of research.  DNA sequencing data is ideal for studying cryptic species - different organisms that appear in many ways to be the same species, but may or may not actually breed with each other.  Sequencing provides DNA characteristics that may help scientists figure out how many species are in a given population.  Simply put, they may look the same on the outside, but their DNA sometimes shows otherwise.

The elephants discussed in the article aren't cryptic per se; they were utilizing different habitats.  But there might not have been enough different physical characteristics to recognize them as distinct species. With this new study, scientists surveyed nearly 40,000 DNA base pairs. We (the Biodiversity Institute) and many other research centers do this type of thing on a regular basis, only on a smaller scale.  Instead of sequencing hundreds or thousands of pieces, we may survey 2,000 to 4,000 base pairs.

It sounds like this is the first major paper to use new generation sequencing systems (that can run a cool $500,000) for a group of species. The other outstanding thing about the study is they used DNA from an extinct North American mastodon!

Friday, September 28, 2012


Please congratulate Dr. Matthew Gimmel on his acceptance of a 2.5 year European Social Fund postdoctoral fellowship to work on beetle systematics in the lab of Dr. Milada Bocakova, Department of Biology, Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Since graduating from Louisiana State University (Dr. Chris Carlton's lab), Matt has worked as my lab manager, helping so much with my Peru project: processing an unbelievable amount of specimens, overseeing undergraduate assistants, helping to mentor undergraduate researchers in their manuscripts. Indeed, his enormous knowledge of beetles, coupled with his generosity, patience, and enthusiasm, has made him a wonderful mentor to all in our unit. Now, we must race to submit our first manuscript together — on Peru beetles, of course - before he departs Kansas for Europe.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Beetle Visitor from Mexico

Caroline ChabooThe Chaboo lab hosted Sara López from the Ciudad Universitaria (UNAM) and the Departament of Zoology, National Collection of Insects, Mexico City, Mexico. Sara is conducting M.Sc. research on a revision and phylogeny of the genus, Ogdoecosta (Cassidinae: Mesomphaliini). Several cassidine genera have most of their species distributed in Mexico, and Ogdoecosta is one of them. Sara’s phylogenetic matrix will open new research into the biology of this little known group. We had a super time discussing morphology, characters, biology, and combing historical literature for clues of new characters, to understand how important researchers like Spaeth and Boheman defined the genus and species. Good luck to Sara in completing this important new work in Cassidinae and in becoming a badly-needed expert of the Mexican chrysomelid fauna.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stepping into Insect Science

Caroline Chaboo, Riley Wertenberger (KU undergraduate), and Josh Cunningham (Haskell U. undergraduate) led an outdoor insect discovery class for the Stepping Stones, Inc. school, Lawrence KS, on June 7, 2012. Fourteen 7-10 year old school kids and their two teachers were armed with insect nets and large vials and shown how to net and sweep sample insects in the Rockefeller Prairie, KU Field Station. The kids were excited to catch, study, and release a wide variety of live insects and learn a little about the prairie ecosystem.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bug lunch talks

KU Entomology has enjoyed a long tradition of weekly lunch talks given by resident entomologists and visiting colleagues. This spring, I am handling the speaker schedule, which has been a piece of cake since we are enjoying a flow of short and long-term international and domestic visitors. Dr. Barbara Hayford, a KU alumnus who is now at Wayne State University in Nebraska, spoke recently on her work, "Use of ecological niche modeling to extend knowledge on biodiversity of midges (Diptera: Chironomidae) of Mongolia. I was a M.A. student here when Barbara got her first phone call inviting her to join the Mongolia research team.  It was great to hear how this program evolved 12 years later.

Another colleague, Dr. Mary Liz Jameson at Wichita State University, presented her latest research, "Scarabaeoid beetles of the West Indies".  Her graduate student, Christian Beza-Beza, spoke on the Phylogeography of the Ogyges laevisimus species group and its implications for cloud forests in Guatemala (Passalidae), while her other graduate student, Mathew Moore, spoke about the biology and phylogeny of Cyclocephalini beetles (Scarabaeidae: Dynastinae). Mary Liz also overlapped with my student days at KU, so it was super to have our students meet and work on cool beetles from my Peru inventory. Their visit was timely — some identified specimens are now on display in the Peru exhibit in the Spencer Art Museum.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Exhibition Opening Soon!

What an exciting day to participate in the installation of specimens and other objects in the upcoming exhibition, "39 Trails: Research in the Peruvian Amazon", curated by Dr. Stephen Goddard of the KU Spencer Art Museum. The 2011 field course in Madre de Dios, Peru, has been so rewarding in research, publications, and specimens. And now an insect-themed an ART museum!

Dr. Goddard and the exhibition designer, Richard Klocke, are putting finishing touches in the small display cases, closing up completed cases, and preparing the final labels and clean up. Apart from materials of individual researchers, we placed  three drawers of insect specimens on display.

Richards' exclamations over these specimens were a reward in itself: for the sheer beauty of bugs and also for our hard work on diversity research in Peru.