Field Notes UNKHAIR: Infrastructure Gap

My Fulbright field location, Khairun University in North Maluku, Indonesia, was a deliberate choice.  When I initially applied for the program, I had intended to work on an island on the outskirts of mainstream Indonesian society, which tends to be centered around Jakarta and the island of Java where most of the population resides.  My interest was in finding a challenging environment that was as different from my privileged American teaching environment as possible.  In the last few years, I had grown disenchanted with how work that had been intended to empower teachers to transform their own classrooms was becoming more expensive, more exclusive, and more stressful to complete, making these tools and approaches even more inaccessible than they had been a decade prior.  But in the high-pressure production environment that had developed around me, where bandwidth was plentiful and more powerful computers arrived whenever they were required, it became difficult to think in terms other than more intense computational models, splashier simulators, and more complex learning designs.  I found my mind boxed in and my creativity sapped.  Hence my desire to find something radically different from the experiences that typified the last decade of my career.

My six-month Fulbright plan had been to spend a couple of months adjusting and learning the various educational, governmental, and societal systems in which I would be living and working.  I had also wanted to explore the nearby islands to see how they compared to Ternate, which was the largest city in the region.  As I would grow familiar with the system, I had brought low-powered computers, do-it-yourself tech kits, cheap drones, and old cameras that I could use to figure out the best ways to digitize science education for this region and its local challenges, working with my new colleagues and students.  The hope was that by the time I left Indonesia in August at the end of my fellowship, I would have a completely different digital education architecture to work with that was at the opposite end of the spectrum of the high-end American digital education architecture that I was already quite familiar with and that did not easily translate into more challenging teaching environments even within the US.

Like most of the rest of the planet, those plans were thrown into ruin by the pandemic.  Because it was a six-month program and I was only at the 1.5-month mark, I had barely familiarized myself with my new surroundings when I was forced to return home.  Course digitization needed to be accelerated to a couple of weeks, which also overlapped with my chaotic evacuation back to the US.  I was walking into this digitization with little rapport with the students (for one class we had only met three times, and for the other just once with six students because the university was already in the process of shutting down) and little to no understanding of the digital infrastructure of the region aside from my immediate experiences in Ternate.  Additionally, there was no scholastic culture in creating, offering, or taking online science courses either with the teachers or the students.  I was able to set up Google Classroom and post a few activities in the limited formats that Google Classroom allows, but those materials ran into a myriad of problems which included unclear translations, student unfamiliarity with asynchronous learning, digital literacy problems, time zone differences, poor connectivity, and for about half of my students no internet connectivity at all.  One class is limping along on Google Classroom with real-time communication via WhatsApp when we’re all awake at the same time, which can be made even more difficult when students default to Indonesian 1337-speak that Google Translate can’t work with.  The other got no participation at all and no ability on my part to figure out why.

Difficulties working in the digital education space tend to break down into three categories:  technical, language, and cultural.  Technical challenges are the easiest to work with because they are easy to identify and have straightforward solutions.  Computer can’t run the program?  Find another computer or rewrite the program.  Bandwidth too low?  Compress the file or build out your bandwidth infrastructure.  Language challenges are more difficult.  They can be familiar ones like student unfamiliarity with technical terms or the lack of a suitable translation for a technical term.  But they can also include basic digital literacy such as unfamiliarity with computer iconography, especially now that so many of them have become so abstract.  Cultural challenges are the most difficult of all and can include developing relevant local examples or even whole-scale restructuring of curricula so that it follows storytelling conventions that are typical in a particular culture.

I ran into all three problems when trying to digitize my Indonesian classroom.  The most frustrating aspect, though, is how fundamental the technical difficulties are and how they have remained essentially unchanged for twenty years.  Think piece after think piece has pointed out how the rapid conversion to digital education is leaving so many students behind, including rural students, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students.  Learning management systems (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, and Google Classroom, which are the dominant US format for managing digital classrooms, are essentially the same as the ones used twenty years.  They allow you to post content, create typical exams and quizzes, manage your grades, and link out to more interesting resources.  Maybe you’ll have a discussion board with basic functionality to interact with students and maybe you’ll have the ability for adaptive release of content.  But it is an ecosystem fundamentally designed for passive learning, which is the least effective type of learning.  Everything truly creative must be constructed elsewhere.  And most of that content tends to be passive as well, taking the form of videos and PDFs.  A more promising development ten years ago was the intelligent tutoring system (ITS), which allows you to develop your own content, adaptive responses, and lesson flow that can respond to what a student is doing (replicating, in my opinion, far better the teacher-student interaction you would have in the classroom).  But most of those systems have become overly complex or are restricted to learning designers and large publishing companies, with limited availability to actual in-the-trenches teachers.

The digital education transition in these challenging times is still ongoing.  But I doubt many people will say that it has been particularly easy or successful.  Most of this comes down to the quality and availability of education technology that can be quickly learned and deployed, yet remain affordable.  This risks not only entrenching terrible methods of teaching but also poisoning the well for digital teaching, which can be a huge improvement over traditional ways of doing things when the right tools are available.

Final view of an empty Khairun University before departure. The students departed over the weekend to shelter on their home islands across the North Maluku province.

Can we do better?  I think we can and I think the moment is right to finally address the yawning infrastructure gap that is leaving everyone except the most privileged students behind.  If you’re interested in being involved, consider joining our project to create an active teaching/learning system by teachers and for teachers.  It will be a long slog, but we are also at a point in time where we can permanently and positively change the conversation around digital education.

Digital Education for the Rest

Check out Devpost for details on the project. Join the team if you’re interested in prototyping, either for fun or during hackathons.

Or e-mail [email protected] and let me know how you would be interested in participating.

Notes for Practice – Cross-Cultural Digital Education

Learn your local 1337-speak.  Students will communicate with you in language-specific abbreviations, 1337-speak, and emojis.  Google Translate will be mostly helpless.

Don’t take technical shortcuts. If you are working with students who are mostly working through smartphones, try to build your materials via smartphone.  Or if you absolutely can’t, test that your materials work in a smartphone environment.  Don’t assume that they will, because sometimes they won’t.  And even if they do, they’re not guaranteed to work on all smartphones.

Train students on how to work in an asynchronous digital classroom.  If you are teaching in a different time zone, students may not understand why their questions are going unanswered, or may feel stressed that you expect an answer when you e-mail them in the middle of their night.  Since most classrooms globally occur in real-time, students need to be told what the expectations are in a digital classroom that does not operate in real-time.

Everything will be harder.  Translations will become more difficult once you are no longer immersed in the language and your translator is not available to quickly look over your translations.  This can lead to hilarious and not-so-hilarious improvised translations.  Some students won’t respond because they won’t be able to.  There will be lots of technical problems that will be difficult, if not impossible, to troubleshoot from halfway around the globe.  Some simple go-to tools, like video, simply won’t be an option.

Field Notes UNKHAIR: Khairun Classroom Experience

I discovered I would be teaching my first class at Khairun University about twenty minutes after it started.  “Sometimes the teachers just don’t show up,” my host, Dr. Halikuddin Umasangaji told me with some annoyance.  It’s something the university was working on.  But that did not help me the first day of my Marine Geology class.  I had expected something like this, so I had activities from classes I had previously taught that I could utilize on day one.  Unfortunately, they were all in English.  I was told that this was fine, but since science is often about very precise communication, I would have felt better if I had had a chance to prepare a proper Indonesian translation.

Although I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare (mere seconds, as it turned out), I found my experience in online and offline American classrooms, particularly when technology horribly misfires, prepared me well for adjusting to new classroom settings and unexpected developments.  Because I was working in eastern Indonesian in a university setting that didn’t typically see a lot of funding, the classroom facilities were limited.  The classroom I worked in had desks for dozens of students, a desk in front for the teacher, a projector that showed almost all the colors, and what at some point had been a white whiteboard.  Fans and the island breeze kept the air circulating in the classroom, but it also meant that the curtains were blowing into students’ faces and the only way to cope was to tie the curtains open, making the projected content much less visible.

Still, the facilities are less important than the class atmosphere.  I was hoping to observe a typical Indonesian classroom to calibrate my expectations, but didn’t have the chance due to the short length of my stay in Indonesia.  Halik and other lecturers told me that active learning is not typical and that Indonesian college classrooms tend to be overwhelmingly passive learning environments, with a lecturer presenting a significant amount of material to students via slides.  Without previous experience in active learning, it is often difficult for students to adjust to a format that requires active participation, and without good examples of active learning in practice, it is difficult for teachers to redesign their courses into an active learning format.  I ran into both challenges via the classroom and the professional development sequence I was running for the faculty.

Passive and active learning have their challenges when working in a multi-lingual classroom.  Since I wasn’t actually prepared to teach the first day I was teaching, all my slides were in English, and they included a lot of technical language.  This resulted in a significant slowdown as Halik, who was acting as my translator, needed to read the slide, ask me clarifying questions, translate for students, answer their clarifying question, and then sometimes translate those questions for me to answer.  A lesson that took me about 2 hours in the US took double the time in Indonesia.  Since the class only met for two hours a week, my “introduction to science” lesson ended up taking two weeks.  Halik mentioned that if I wanted, we could just call the students in on Friday or Saturday to teach them more, which was apparently a fine thing to do.  However, I needed prep time, so I deferred on that option until I felt it would be truly necessary.

The active learning component of the class worked better, but it took students a while to get used to the idea that I expected them to answer my questions and to discuss ideas with each other.  However, I also noticed that the class came alive during those portions.  In one lesson that I typically do on the philosophy of science, I use a “stopped car” example to illustrate how our hypotheses change as our observations change.  At first, students were hesitant to offer ideas for why a stopped car at a traffic light might not be moving.  But once a student volunteered that the driver may have died, to much laughter from the class and then surprise when I said it was a viable hypothesis, the creativity, discussion, and ideas started to flow.

That first experience helped shape the approach I took in subsequent weeks.  After the introductory material was complete and I got a basic feel for how the students and I interacted, I could start thinking about the science content I wanted to teach.  Internet connectivity in the classroom was poor and students were mostly equipped with smartphones.  I had to pre-test a lot of the digital activities I wanted to do on my phone, which was usually the only internet connection I had anyway (as long as I prepaid for enough quota).  I found that I had to ditch a lot of ideas because they simply weren’t feasible in that kind of technological environment.  Some of my favorite digital teaching resources were old and hadn’t been updated in a decade, and so weren’t very usable by smartphone.  Others just wouldn’t load at the available bandwidth speeds.  Since bandwidth needed to be prepaid by the gigabyte, I also needed to be cognizant of how much bandwidth a chosen tool would require, as not all my students could afford the quota costs. Once I accounted for all of these limitations, the library of quality interactive teaching content became shockingly slim.

The IRIS Earthquake Browser, a fantastic teaching tool for doing basic investigations of global earthquake patterns. It was usable in some smartphone environments (pictured here a screenshot from my Pixel 3a), but not all. Because the tool was built before smartphones were ubiquitous (I started using it in 2010 and it has remained essentially unchanged), some features were not very smartphone friendly.

To assist my students with the content, since few had command of the English language, I took the time to translate each of my slides into Indonesian.  Since I was working with slides that I had from other courses, it was a fairly simple matter to create Indonesian translations, especially since my slides tend towards images and important definitions.  I worked via Google Translate and my intermediate-level command of the Indonesian language to refine the word choice of translations that I found questionable.  Wherever I could, I would have the Indonesian translations next to the English versions so that students could work on their technical English skills while getting important definitions in a more familiar language.

A key component to success, however, was working closely with Halik to prepare for each class.  After I determined the flow of the class activities and completed the supporting slides, we met up on Sunday nights to review the material.  He wanted to understand what he was translating, as some of the material was outside his areas of experience.  I wanted him to review my translations to ensure that the words I had chosen for some of the technical language were correct, as the results from Google Translate, although a good starting point, tended towards using colloquial synonyms rather than a more appropriate technical word.  Reviewing the material beforehand also helped alleviate his curiosity because on a number of occasions in the first few weeks, he tended to answer my questions because he was interested in the topic, instead of translating the questions for the students to answer.

The most challenging problem, and the one I was most interested in exploring (hence my choice of assignment location), was how well these concepts would translate across a significant cultural boundary.  I was surprised to see how quickly my most useful analogies fell apart and at my inability to find a relevant local example because I had not yet spent enough time on location.  For example, my go-to analogy for teaching about the scientific process is the stopped car example, which works extremely well in US classes (and worked fairly well in Ukraine as well, with slightly different outcomes).  On an island with few cars and traffic rules that technically existed but were opaque to me, I had a lot of difficulty adapting the example to be relevant.  Should I switch to motorbikes, which were much more common?  How do people typically signal they have a problem with their vehicle?  Do they also use the hazard lights here?  Does the example still work if you have a motorbike where you can see the rider, compared to a car where you may not?  We muddled through the example as best we could, but it felt less effective since I didn’t quite yet understand the cultural context.  My distances-in-space example, where I use everyday transport modes (usually a car traveling at 65 miles per hour from Phoenix to Los Angeles) to shock students with how long a journey at those speeds takes to various solar system bodies, likewise suffered problems, as using the typical island motorbike speed took a journey to Mars (about 60 years at 65 mph) and made it unimaginable (1000 years at typical island motorbike speeds).  I switched the example speed to an airplane, but how many of my students had been on an airplane before?  Would a boat example be better to use instead?  And if so, what kind of boat?  A ferry?  A motorboat?  How did people move from island to island?  I hadn’t personally visited another island yet, so I didn’t know what was most typical and couldn’t choose a relevant maritime example.

Because of the pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the Fulbright program, I was never fully able to slip into the local environment and start to learn the culture well enough to create relevant local examples for the content I was teaching.  Still, my incredibly limited teaching experience (3 classes for students and 5 professional development seminars for faculty) challenged me in ways that I was both prepared and unprepared for.  The parts that I was unprepared for were a wealth of learning opportunities, even if they were more limited than I had anticipated.

Halik and me with the Marine Geology class. This was followed by about 30 minutes of selfies.

Notes for Practice – Multi-Lingual and Cross-Cultural Classrooms

Learn the language.  Having a working knowledge of basic words, such as colors, numbers, and shapes, helps you communicate with students and them with you for simple tasks like interpreting graphs or observations without having to go through a translator.

Take the time to translate slide materials.  Presenting information in both English and the primary language of the students gives students practice with English while also providing important information without information loss due to poor automated translations.  Google Translate is great as a starting point, but all text should be reviewed by a fluent speaker since technical terms often aren’t translated correctly.

Review materials with your translator ahead of time.  Science often requires precise communication and even if you have a correct conceptualization of the concept, your translator may not and may introduce misconceptions during the translation process.

Reduce amount of content covered. Translation increases the amount of time activities, lectures, and questions take considerably.  For a two-hour class, limit to one active learning activity and the concepts that branch off of it.

Mobile-friendly content. In many global classrooms, internet bandwidth is limited and students may be limited to smartphones. Find and test resources on smartphones ahead of time.  When developing new digital content for educational purposes, consider swapping flashiness for efficiency (bandwidth and memory usage) so that your applications and websites are not chewing through bandwidth and battery power.  Consider also clever usage of smartphone capabilities that expand beyond using the phone as merely a portal to videos, images, and written text.

Field Notes UNKHAIR: Island Time

Flexibility.  That is the key to surviving Indonesia, I was told at my Fulbright Scholar orientation in Jakarta in early February.  Things operate at their own pace and in their own time.  I was familiar with this concept based on traveling through the Middle East, Hawaii, Eastern Europe, India, and many other places.  Later, I had learned that there is actually a name for this phenomenon:  monochronic culture versus polychronic culture.  In monochronic cultures such as the US and Western Europe, things are highly organized and scheduled, often happening sequentially.  In polychronic cultures, found in most of the rest of the world, many things happen at once, plans change, and the interruptions are many.  For me, the tempos of polychronic cultures were familiar.  But visiting temporarily on a vacation is different from living and working full-time in such a culture when coming from a monochronic culture.

When I applied for the Fulbright Scholar program in 2018, I had specifically chosen Indonesia because I wanted to work in a culture that was as different from my everyday experiences as possible.  In the past few years, I have become interested in how scientific concepts move between cultures, as there is this silent assumption that if we just toss science teaching resources online, they will somehow magically be adopted worldwide and enlighten everyone.  But considering that accurate scientific understanding of phenomena often has difficulty gaining traction in Western civilization, it should not be particularly surprising that this understanding doesn’t magically cross cultural boundaries just because it’s on the internet.  I wanted to take a closer look at the challenges in moving scientific ideas across cultural, language, and technological boundaries.  Plus, I liked Indonesia as I had spent a lovely Thanksgiving weekend there in 2017.

My chosen assignment was on the island of Ternate, an active volcano in the North Maluku province (Maluku Utara, in Indonesian) in eastern Indonesia.  My host, Dr. Halikuddin Umasangaji, met me in the capital Jakarta (on the island of Java) for orientation with the Fulbright program and traveled with me to ensure that I would actually make my way successfully to a place that was a bit off the grid and with which I had difficulty familiarizing myself in advance.  Turns out that when you want to live and work a bit off the beaten path in a foreign country, it’s difficult to find English language resources to guide you.  Plus, being too prepared would have taken a lot of the fun out of the process of discovery.

The island itself is tiny, only about 7 miles (11 kilometers) across, and located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the equator.  Historically, Ternate and the neighboring island Tidore were the major producers of cloves.  This valuable spice allowed the rulers of these sultanates to become extremely wealthy and powerful while competing against each other for influence in the North Maluku, Sulawesi, and Papua region.  The region came under the sway of Portuguese colonizers first, followed by the Spanish, and then the Dutch.  It was from here in 1858 that Alfred Wallace sent his paper on evolution (the “Ternate Essay”) to Charles Darwin, who publicized it along with his own work on evolution.  Wallace made many observations that led him to the theory of evolution in this region, where the Asian ecozones of western Indonesia transition to the Australasian ecozones of eastern Indonesia.

During my time in Ternate, I worked at Khairun University (Universitas Khairun, UNKHAIR) and my introduction to the community began immediately.  The plane had only landed the day before and the next morning I was introduced to my department, Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science (Fakultas Perikanan dan Ilmu Kelauatan), and everyone up and down the hierarchy of the Gambesi campus on the south side of the island (the other campus was on the north side, near the airport).  UNKHAIR is the biggest public university in the North Maluku province.  It serves students from across the region, including the major islands of Ternate, Tidore, and Halmahera, as well as smaller islands like Hiri, Maitara, Mare, Moti, and Makian.  Because classes hadn’t started yet, there weren’t many students around.  The ones who were there peered at me curiously and called out “Hello, Mister!” in some of the only English they knew.  It was going to be an interesting experience both for me and for the university, as they had never had an American scholar visit for a prolonged period before (or possibly at all).

Flexibility was indeed key.  The first week was quiet as I tried to get a lay of my new surroundings and understand how things were structured.  During the second week, the students flooded campus and the “Hello, mister!” greetings became ubiquitous.  Since my host, Halik, was head of the department, he needed to review each student’s progress prior to the start of the semester.  For two weeks, his office, where I was working as well, was overflowing with students whose performance and grades he needed to review and verify.  Digital infrastructure was very sparse, with a wireless network that quickly became overloaded once students were on campus.  Records were almost exclusively on paper, requiring physical signatures from department heads and university staff.  It was a lengthy process.  I was amused by the response to my question, “When do classes start?”  For several weeks, it was “Maybe next week.”

As someone who comes from a monochronic culture where precise scheduling and timing are essential and sometimes overemphasized (to the detriment of creative work), this should have been a harder adjustment than it actually ended up being.  I realized quickly that many more agreements about events and meet-ups were made than were kept, but I was able to quickly pick up which ones were likely to be kept and actually required my attention (the “high context” communication aspect of polychronic cultures).  The lack of a structured schedule was liberating in many ways.  As I waited for events to happen or for classes to start, I was able to work on other backlogged projects or focus on settling into living in this place, including where to buy food, how to work with a limited kitchen, and figuring out where to do my laundry.  The flip side of that, however, was the sudden notice that I would be giving a public talk in an hour and scrambling to either construct something new or dig up something old, and then quickly translating the content into Indonesian using a mix of Google Translate and my rudimentary knowledge of the language to edit parts of the translation that seemed off.

I spent about a month and a half adjusting to this new living new teaching environment.  Although some aspects I adjusted to quickly, such as the teaching environment and people’s desire to stop me in the street to talk and practice their English, other aspects took longer to adjust (particularly figuring out how to cook with a limited kitchen or even where to get fresh vegetables as there were no grocery stores and I couldn’t find the markets on Google Maps).  Unfortunately, the six-month experience was cut short by the cancellation of the Fulbright program in mid-March due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, forcing my premature return to US just as I was starting to get the hang of the place.

On my last night in Ternate, as I was walking home from the mall with food and some cheap clothes, someone pulled up next to me, Eddy, a colleague from UNKHAIR that I hadn’t gotten to know yet but who recognized me (I was very easy to pick out on the island).  He offered me a lift home on his motorbike.  Since he didn’t speak much English, we conversed in Indonesian.  I was lamenting the opportunity that had just slipped away and what my deepening cultural immersion was just starting to reveal to me.  But I commented that flexibility was key.  Halik and I would try to move our work into the digital realm and see if we could salvage what we had set out to do under more challenging circumstances than any of us had anticipated.

Notes for Practice – Polychronic Learning Environments (for Monochronic Cultures)

Flexibility. Things will happen when they happen, which requires patience for when things move slowly and agility for when things move quickly.

Working Around Innumeracy

Scientists love their numbers.  Numbers and equations are an easy way of representing our understanding of the universe and extending it to places we can’t directly observe.  Scientists are so comfortable with mathematical language that it’s our default when explaining concepts to students.  To which our students usually reply, “I’m not a math person”.  And then we run into trouble.

I discovered this problem very early in the development of Habitable Worlds (starting in 2011), an online astrobiology course I developed at Arizona State University.  When translating my activities from paper to an intelligent tutoring system (ITS), I started with a direct transcription.  It’s an excellent place to start, even though it doesn’t take full advantage of an ITS system.  For example, in teaching the vastness of space, a typical lesson might focus pretty heavily on calculations, usually using speed and travel time to emphasize the shocking distance between celestial objects.  In the first iteration of just such a lesson built in an ITS, I gave students a calculation grid … a list of objects down the side and a list of speeds across the top.  Students were supposed to calculate how long it would take to get to LA, the Moon, Mars, Pluto, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and the Andromeda galaxy at driving speed (65 mph/105 kph), Voyager 1‘s speed (38,610 mph/62,140 kph), and the speed of light.  That’s a page of 21 separate calculations, which is supposed to impress on students how incredibly vast space is.  Upon deploying the lesson, this page quickly became a kill point that pushed marginal students out of the class.  Without any sample calculations or strong guidance on how to figure out time when given the distance and the speed, a lot of students gave up.  And those that didn’t got lost in a flurry of numbers and how precisely they should report them.  At the end of the day, all the page had accomplished was to force students to execute a mundane algorithm multiple times and transcribe the results.  There was no gain in appreciation for just how vast space actually is.

Slowly over time, I replaced this page with different activities.  I broke the calculations out into separate pages so as not to overwhelm them with a calculation grid.  First LA, then the Moon, then the other bodies.  But after a certain point, the numbers become so big that they become meaningless.  What exactly does driving for a trillion years mean??  We can’t even imagine driving for more than a few hours, much less a trillion years.  At some point, the calculations become a purely intellectual exercise that give you numerical answers but that don’t necessarily translate into a true understanding or appreciation for what those numbers represent.

My eventual solution was to replace most of the calculations with a guessing game.  Rather than giving students a distance to Mars and a travel speed, I structured the problem differently.  I had them complete the calculation for driving to LA from Phoenix (6 hours).  This created a baseline of understanding, as this was a trip many of them had done before.  I extended this calculation to a drive to the Moon to show them how quickly the reality the numbers represented became unimaginable (it’s 153 days at 65 mph/105 kph).  Then, rather than doing any more calculations, I simply had them guess how long it would take to drive to Mars and would have the ITS system tell them whether they needed to guess higher or lower.  If they had properly calibrated themselves with the LA-Moon calculation sequence, then they would have guessed a number in the correct ballpark.  Most students don’t and guess numbers that are way too low.  On average, it takes students 3-4 guesses to get into the right ballpark (~60 years driving at 65 mph/105 kph).  Then I have them do it again for Jupiter.  At this point, students are properly calibrated, because the number of guesses drops to around 2-3 guesses (~640 years driving at 65 mph/105 kph).  The approach seems to be working.  However, most depictions of the solar system are distorted, making the outer solar system look more condensed than it actually is.  The average number of guesses for a drive to Pluto (~5000 years at 65 mph/105 kph) jumps back up to 3-4 because students are underestimating as a result.  By the end of the lesson, post-tests indicate that students have gained a correct conceptualization of the scales of space via this guessing game, which proved to be far more effective than my block of calculations ever was.

This type of activity is something that can’t be done in traditional classroom settings.  A guessing game like this can’t work with paper-pen because there is no feedback.  It can’t even work vocally in a lecture hall because you are only interacting with one student and while you may change that student’s perspective by activating their feelings of surprise, observing students won’t share that experience, as they may have guessed different numbers but never got the feedback to their own personal guesses.  This is where digital technologies can come into play.  ITS systems can allow the design of novel learning structures that can’t be done any other way, like a guessing game that leans into students thinking the universe is smaller than it actually is.  This also allows us to start working around students’ general innumeracy.  Innumeracy, then, becomes less of a shortcoming and more of an opportunity to try novel learning structures that don’t rely on explanation-by-equation.

When showing this activity structure at a teachers’ workshop in Ukraine last month, I received a lot of skepticism about this being an appropriate or professional way to teach science.  This isn’t surprising because even as a student, I felt that “conceptual” science courses were dumbed-down versions of “real” science courses.  But math isn’t science.  It’s a tool of science.  And there is benefit to learning concepts through tools other than math.  Far too often when teaching at Chandler-Gilbert Community College this past fall, I found the math to be an active barrier to student learning.  Many of my students couldn’t transcribe equations from paper into a calculator or Excel sheet (it’s not intuitive that you must use a “^” to create an exponent) and had difficulty with the logical structure of equations (order of operations).  I spent most of my time during math-heavy labs correcting Excel equations and order-of-operation mistakes.  In the worst cases, students were thrilled that the system finally accepted an answer and didn’t care what that answer was or meant … just that it was done.  So what learning had been accomplished?  I started to muse about just eliminating math all together in a future edition so that the students can more fully engage with the concepts and their logical connections to each other.  Often I found it far more satisfying when I asked my students to strip away all the equations and calculations and simply focus on explaining to me what the numbers represented, rather than on how they were derived.

I suspect that a lot of science courses around the world fixate on mathematics (which is an important tool of science, but not the essence of science), and the idea that you can teach science at the introductory level without it will be surprising.  I was amused that my Ukrainian teachers, upon finding no numbers for the distance to Mars in the guessing game activity, insisted on Googling the numbers so that they could do the calculations and get the right answer.  Since this was a training session, I convinced them to just play around with the structure as it was to understand how it responded to their inputs.  To my surprise, I saw the same type of behavior from the teachers that I see from my students.  They discussed which guesses to try, made bets on who would get it first or who would be closest, and then expressed surprise as they had to keep pushing their numbers higher and higher (or lower and lower in some cases).  And then, when doing it again for Jupiter, became competitive and attempted to get it in fewer guesses than before or their neighbors.  Later on, upon returning to the argument that this isn’t the right way to teach science, I asked them where they had spent most of their time … on the calculation pages or the guessing game pages?  They admitted that they spent more time on the guessing game because it was more interesting.  And then the musings went in the right direction … “If this was interesting and effective for us, maybe these kinds of designs will also be interesting and effective for our students.”

Serhii and Natalka compete to see who can guess the distances correctly the fastest at the Teachers’ Workshop in Lviv, Ukraine, January 2020

Numeracy is critically important to science.  But it is not necessarily important for teaching science, at least not at the introductory level.  Far too often, we use equations and numbers as crutches to explain difficult concepts.  But equations are not explanations.  They are descriptions of concepts and relationships.  Through the clever use of even simple technology and game design, we can work around the innumeracy problem that plagues our students.  Then, later on, after they at least appreciate the concepts and can work through their logical connections, we can build up their confidence in the mathematical language that can help them take those concepts beyond what we can immediately observe.

Field Notes CGC: Major-Based Projects

It is no secret that many students in general education science courses aren’t there because they want to be, or if they are, quickly lose interest when we hammer them with math and methodologies in lieu of easily memorizable factoids about the subject.  Science departments, of course, want students taking some kind of introductory science course before graduating, with the idea that these courses will teach critical thinking and reasoning skills that are important for civil society.  But do general education science courses actually accomplish these goals?

The answer to this question seems to be “not really”.  There are many factors contributing to this problem.  Often, science instructors were good students who naturally picked up the material, and so presume that everyone else learns just as easily (I certainly fell into that category early on).  There is also an underlying assumption that science and its skills are self-evident and these skills will naturally diffuse into student minds with mere exposure to any kind of science.  Essentially, there is a disconnect between the general student population (who tend to be shallow learners because most of their schooling has trained them to be so) and their science instructors (who tend to be deep learners because of a natural curiosity about the topics they study and teach).  This is gap that needs to be actively bridged by instructors, as students cannot make these connections on their own.

I was curious how I could address this problem in my Introduction to Solar System Astronomy course at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, which was aimed primarily at non-majors.  The class topics focused on important concepts in astronomy and planetary geology, capped by a final integrating project.  Traditionally, my final projects tend to be complex puzzles, often mathematically focused.  But I couldn’t use my usual mathy project templates because I didn’t cover most of the topics that fed into those projects.  Instead, I decided to have my students construct their own projects.  The premise was for students to find some topic, concept, skill, or anything else that they learned about in the class and build connections to their actual interests and field of study.  I told them that I wanted them to find a way to make what we studied relevant to them.

Needless to say, many students were confused by this project.  They genuinely had no idea where to start to build these connections, especially the students who were artists or history majors.  To help students bridge this gap, I gave them pretty specific ideas for projects.  For students who were studying business, for example, I suggested looking into asteroid mining, which they could link to meteorite chemistry and planetary object density topics that we had explored earlier in the course.  For the artists, I pointed them to some of the awesome NASA travel posters (LINK), which used the chemistry of the objects to guide the color scheme.  Once I made those initial connections for students, they were able to start exploring them in more depth.

I planned to evaluate the projects on how good the science was, how well they connected the topics with their majors, peer evaluation and interaction, and presentation style.  Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, the science content was lackluster.  However, I was very impressed by the bridges they had built between the topics we studied and their majors.  I was even more impressed by how well they communicated amongst each other about these connections.  Even the shyest students became animated when they discussed their interests and how they saw astronomy intersecting with them, easily answering questions from other students and engaging in lively conversation.  By the end of the project presentations, instead of lamenting that my students had picked up less science than I had hoped, I was lamenting a lost opportunity to build a community that could have explored more deeply those astronomy topics that had sparked everyone’s interest.

The student projects were illuminating for me as an instructor as well.  I had tried to get to know my students early on by having them introduce themselves and tell me their majors.  But like in any other meet-and-greet, the information was lost within seconds and my students mostly remained blank slates to me, aside from a few personalities that stood out immediately.  After the projects were complete, my view of my students was completely changed.  I was able to see what motivated and excited each one of them, instead of just the few who were active participants in my class.  I also began to understand the structural differences I had observed between my two classes (the silent and disengaged one was full of artists, while the lively and engaged one was full of business and criminal justice majors).  When the projects were finished, I wished that I had done them in week 3 rather than week 15.  An earlier project deadline would have helped me understand my students earlier, including their interests, strengths, and weaknesses.  It would have made it easier to craft our study topics into a format that would have connected with them better, and an earlier project would have opened up opportunities to iterate on those initial designs over the semester to improve depth of knowledge, presentation skills, and community building, most of which were lacking and were too late to fix by the end of the course.

Some of the most memorable projects included:

  • A reimagining of the worlds of Star Wars with proper science (computer graphics major)
  • Teaching sign language to aliens to help communicate (sign language major)
  • Penal colony design on Mars (criminal justice major)
  • Lessons from historical mining in Arizona for future asteroid mining (history major)
  • Density lesson for grade school children (childhood education major)
  • Advertisements for Venusian tourism and Saturnian restaurants (graphic design major)
  • Neptunian colony history and design for a novel (writing major)
  • Mars colonization business featuring mostly indentured servitude for young adults (business major)
  • Memorandum to the President about the legal status of interplanetary corporations (business law major)

Notes for Practice – Developing Major-Based Projects

Run an iteration early in the semester and build on it over the semester. It will help you get to know your students better, provides a foundation upon which you can explore topics of general interest and relevance to students, and builds community that you can utilize later to build interdisciplinary team projects.

Tell students exactly what class topics they can connect with their major and how they can connect them. They do not know enough about the topics you are teaching to be able to identify which ones will be relevant to their own majors and how to make those connections.

Support a variety of presentation styles. Powerpoint or poster board may not be appropriate for all topics.  Dioramas, a photography exhibit, live music, or a political speech may be more appropriate presentation styles for a student’s topic.

Field Notes CGC: Puzzle Projects

My favorite course that I have ever taught was the lab component of the Introduction to Cosmology course at Chandler-Gilbert Community College last semester.  This course was a disaster mostly because I was so overloaded with my Introduction to Solar System Astronomy courses and their labs that this lab was an afterthought.  I had been told that the labs were pretty much the same between all the courses, but they really weren’t and between trying several new approaches with my main courses and running an additional lab for another instructor, that didn’t leave me much prep time for this lab.  So I started with pre-prepared paper labs and just handed those out every week.  The students weren’t engaged and when I eventually sat down to grade the labs, I realized that their answers were pretty bad.  It wasn’t just because the students weren’t doing a good job.  Many of the questions were poorly or ambiguously worded, resulting in answers that were pretty poor as well.

But for some reason, I had clicked with this class.  Maybe it was a joke I had cracked about them slashing one of my tires when said tire blew out on the highway the day before.  Or maybe it was because they brought me free food.  Or maybe it was the conversation I had with one of my students who asked about a conference I was attending and what I was presenting on.  I said that it was about best practices for teaching science and lab courses, especially results stemming from my work in digital science education.  She asked if I was using those best practices with this class.  I said that I wasn’t because I didn’t have time to do the prep.  She pointed out that that wasn’t really fair to the class and the students who were paying my salary.  I realized she was right, especially after reviewing the results of the paper labs and seeing how unsatisfying they were.  I owed this class more.

For my Habitable Worlds class at Arizona State University, I developed a final project that consists of a sky of 500 randomized (fake) stars that students need to analyze to discover habitable worlds (of which there were only 10).  Each star requires about 30 calculations and analyses to complete.  However, analyses can be streamlined with funding.  A student can pay to evaluate their analyses and if they demonstrate that they have mastered the analysis (by doing it correctly a set number of times), the analysis is automated for them and they can focus on higher-level analyses and strategies.  In the second half of the semester for the Cosmology lab, I decided to throw this project at my complaining students and see what would happen.  They, of course, immediately regretted their complaints of me not doing my best work (yet somehow still nominated me for a teaching award with the ringing endorsement of “He tried”).

The initial reaction was shock and confusion.  They had done enough on their paper labs in the first half of the semester to complete some of the analyses, but I quickly realized that I would need to supplement with additional labs and activities so that they could do the rest of the analyses.  Even though I had suddenly thrown a mountain of challenging work at them, I noticed an immediate change in the class.  Engagement shot through the roof.  Students who had been disengaged with the paper labs were working on the puzzle-based project on their own time and became impatient for me to release additional content.  Discussions in the class increased, as did student leadership as those who figured out tricky concepts taught them to students who were struggling with those same concepts.  We went from ending classes forty or fifty minutes early because we ran out of material to students showing up early and working through their breaks to complete the project, or staying long after class was over because they felt compelled to solve it.  It was an extraordinary change and although most students couldn’t quite complete the full assignment, all agreed that they learned more in the month of struggle with this puzzle project than the cookbook recipe labs we had been doing up until that point.

Notes for Practice – Developing Puzzle Projects

Puzzle-based projects are different from research-based projects.  Research-based projects have students dealing with a research question that the instructor may not know the answer to and include real-world complications.  These tend not to be appropriate for introductory-level students, especially in general education science courses.  Puzzle-based projects mimic research-based projects but have more definitive answers that are knowable by an instructor and have simplified the datasets and procedures so that students don’t get frustrated and confused by real-world complications while trying to master the basics.

Have a focused question or task. For the Habitable Worlds project, it was “find the habitable worlds in this field of stars”.

Have broad metrics for success. For example, rather than “find whether there is a habitable world around this star” use a task like “find a habitable world in this area”. This gives students more options for tackling the puzzle.

Simplify the dataset. Noise, exceptions, and other complications of real-world data distract and frustrate students who have not even mastered the basics yet, much less the messiness of real-world data.

Use randomization to create the illusion of infinity. Each student gets the same 500 stars in the Habitable Worlds project, but they don’t know it because the positions and names of the stars are randomized. The illusion that they are each dealing with a unique dataset pushes them away from waiting for one person to find the answer for copying and towards collaborative work that improves overall understanding.

Incorporate game mechanics. Your puzzle project doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) a game. But you can use game mechanics to engage students. For example, rewards for performance are an easy mechanic to incorporate (in the Habitable Worlds project, it was automated calculations for mastered equations). Risk is also a good mechanic to use (in the Habitable Worlds project, it was limited funding, but you can easily imagine using limited samples and destructive vs. non-destructive analyses).

Field Notes CGC: Digitizing Labs

Now entering the field site (architecture at the Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Chandler, Arizona)

This past fall, I had the opportunity to teach two classes of Introduction to Solar System Astronomy at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, part of the Maricopa Community College system in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  As it has been almost ten years since I last taught in a physical classroom, I wasn’t sure how much of my digital toolkit would translate back into that setting.  What did and did not work during the semester gave me some interesting insights into the optimal use of digital technologies in a lab course.

When I first started the semester, I fell back on what I had utilized successfully prior to starting down the digital science education pathway … paper labs.  My paper labs follow a logical sequence, starting with assumptions and preconceptions, moving on to observations, and followed by analysis.  This is slightly different from typical labs, which have quality observations as the starting point of science.  We would like to think so, but they aren’t … observations are driven in large part by our interests and preconceptions about how the universe around us works.  My labs bring these out into the open so that I can better understand where my students are starting from and, eventually, giving me greater insight into why they are making the mistakes they are making later in the lab.  After explicitly outlining their preconceptions and assumptions, student then proceed to observations, do some basic quality control checks on those observations, then utilize those observations in higher level work.  That higher level work includes building models, using them to make predictions about future observations, and then using those new observations to modify their models.  The end goal is to build up to a very basic version of the scientific consensus on the topic we are studying, rather than just telling students what it is during a lecture.

In reality, of course, this didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped.  The general approach of most students was to slam through the questions as quickly as possible.  I found students rapidly diverging on unexpected tangents, making critical errors in setting up and recording observations, blowing off the validation step (or more often assuming that they had done everything correctly and didn’t need to validate), and writing down nonsensical interpretations.  Each of my classes had 24 students, divided into 6 groups of four that I needed to keep tabs on.  As I reviewed students’ work, I would catch a lot of these mistakes as they were happening and then work with that group to rectify these errors to get them back on track.  But as I did that, another group would get off-track and by the time I got to them, we had to backtrack significantly to correct earlier errors.  Providing meaningful real-time feedback to six groups as they made (often) the same errors was difficult.  By the time I got around to some groups, they had finished up the questions, turned in the labs, and departed.  That left me with a mess to evaluate and grade.  Ideally, I would have gone through each lab and provided individual commentary on each question for each student.  But there wasn’t enough time and it quickly became tiresome to hand-write the same comment 48 times.  The best I could muster was a review during the next class period on what the general mistakes were, what the correct solutions were, and how to derive them.  Students failed to see that this was a learning opportunity and mostly zoned out.  With written commentary coming weeks after the learning moment had passed, what was the point? All the important learning moments were getting missed.

This is the key problem in many lab courses.  Lab settings provide a significant number of learning opportunities, but we are not taking advantage of them.  Often we can’t because of the limitations of our tools.  Standard laboratory exercises, often done with paper and pencil, don’t have a mechanism for flagging incorrect or incomplete understanding in real time and students often have too little experience to realize that they’re completing tasks incorrectly.  An attentive instructor can catch these errors as they happen and help students think their way through to the correct solutions, but there is a limit to how many students that even the most attentive instructor can assist in a given lab period.  After-the-fact grades and feedback are almost completely useless except for the most diligent students, because most students barely remember what they did a few classes ago, never mind the chain of logic they used to complete the work.

This is where digital systems shine and help address the main problem of exploratory activities like laboratory exercises … they can provide meaningful feedback to students based on what they are actually doing when they need the feedback the most.  About a month into my courses, I was able to switch two of my lab courses to digital activities built in an intelligent tutoring system (ITS).  This accomplished one of the primary goals that I had for the lab activities, which was to provide students with instant feedback on what they were doing, even when I couldn’t personally provide it.  ITS systems excel in this by essentially multiplying me for all my students as if I was working right beside them during the entire activity.

More importantly, I wanted students to be stopped dead in their tracks if they didn’t know what they were doing.  This is a critical component of my preferred learning design as it forces students to stop, discuss, and ask questions.  Paper labs don’t allow for that, allowing students to run off into un-reality because their lack of understanding can’t be caught as they move from question to question.  But digital systems allow for this kind of learning structure.  They even allow for an “infinite loop” structure, where a student loops through the same activity as long as the misunderstanding persists.  In a particularly interesting moment in one of my classes, I watched as a group that was especially prone to shallow thinking became trapped in one of my infinite loops, running through it three times before the learning actually happened.  Upon realizing what was happening and that neither Google nor I were going to help them, they began to discuss what they had already tried, what patterns they had observed, divided up the labor to try a few more permutations, and then logically reasoned their way to the correct solution.

This is a digital learning design that doesn’t seem to be especially popular.  Instead, I’ve observed that many learning designs prioritize student comfort over learning.  In the most frequent adaptations of my designs, I find people following the “three strikes and you get a free pass” structure combined with a point penalty for using the bypass.  This is a system that allows students to avoid material they don’t understand and sends them into more complex material that they are then unprepared for.  But student frustration (within reason) is a critical part of the learning process and I find that by triggering it with learning designs where students can’t simply exhaust the patience of the system, students engage more with each other and with me to figure out how to continue, leading to deeper understanding.

In the end, the switch to digital labs was successful.  Many students who generally knew what they were doing received helpful assistance when they needed it, while the students who really didn’t understand what was happening engaged with me and their peers to try to figure out what they needed to do.  As an extra bonus, students could rerun the same ITS activities dozens of times to perfect their score and mastery without giving me additional grading work.  Overall, students reported being more engaged, despite often being aggravated with a particularly difficult topic.  But students can be prepared for this as well, if they are informed in advance that frustration is normal during learning and simply means that how they think the world works is colliding with how the world actually works and that this discrepancy needs to be resolved through discussion and questions.  As a result, in my classes the frustration never boiled over and for many students, triumph over a particularly challenging concept became a memorable moment that they recounted weeks later.

Notes for Practice – Digital Tech in the Lab Classroom

Intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) can provide instant feedback on what students are doing. This is preferable to providing written feedback days or weeks later in a pen-and-paper setting (which is also extremely repetitive and time-consuming for instructors).

Create moments of student frustration to force engagement with peers and instructor. Avoid free passes and bypasses through difficult content, as this leaves students less prepared to tackle more complex content.

Utilize the tension between student preconceptions and reality on a topic to drive frustration. Avoid designing difficult activities simply to frustrate student.

Consider infinite do-overs for full credit. There isn’t a particularly logical reason for requiring a student to master a concept on their first attempt and ITS systems allow infinite do-overs without additional grading work for instructors.

Tracing Roots

Twelve years ago, I had the stunning revelation that my grandmother, already in her 90s, wouldn’t be around forever.  She was born in 1914 and was my deepest link to the past.  So I began to speak with her about her life, and then eventually recording the discussions for posterity.  Her first memories, she told me, were of the Ukrainian National Army (UNA) stopping by her family’s house to ask for directions to Lviv, a city in the then breakaway region of Galicia.  It was 1918 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed after the end of World War I.  The Ukrainian peasants who primarily occupied the villages were taking this opportunity to liberate the Polish-dominated cities for a new, independent Ukraine.  Her father, a priest, gave them sanctuary and provided them with directions to the city.  Days later, there was a different knock on the door.  Her father instructed her to hide behind the pillows.  The Polish army had arrived and wanted to know if the UNA had been in the area.  He told them they hadn’t.  That small act of resistance didn’t really matter.  Being peasants, the UNA had no street fighting experience and so Lviv, briefly liberated, became annexed to Poland along with the Galician province.  My grandmother grew up under Polish occupation and, between resistance activities that often landed her in jail, became a teacher.

Ivanna Horodyskyj, teacher and rebel (1914 – 2011).

I wanted to follow these stories to their source, and so my first visit to Ukraine came in 2009.  My grandparents from both sides of the family came from Ukraine, fleeing their home villages as the Bolsheviks invaded during World War II.  I spent the week of my first visit to Ukraine in Lviv, which was named for Prince Lev, the eldest song of King Danylo, the first king of Ruthenia (also known as Galicia-Volhynia), a successor state after the collapse of Kievan Rus’.  The city took me a bit by surprise.  As I had been traveling Europe for a month prior, I was expecting a relatively wealthy European city, considering the cultural place that Lviv holds in the minds of the Ukrainian diaspora.  Instead, although I could see the contours of a European city with a city center dominated by Austrian and Polish architectural motifs, these contours were mired in poverty and disrepair.  My family lived in old Soviet block housing that felt dreary and rundown and not exactly structurally sound.  As my cousins took me around the city, they pointed out amusing anecdotes, like the “lady liberty” statue on one of the building roofs in downtown who occasionally dropped her torch on bystanders because there was no money for maintenance.  Family in my grandfather’s village bemoaned endemic drug problems and crime because there were no jobs.  Family members were often gone for months at a time, working in relatively richer places like Poland.  A $20 webcam so that we could stay in touch was considered too generous a gift.  It was sobering.

Still, I could see potential.  During one of my lengthy tours of the city with my grandfather’s best friend, Volodimir (who knew the lengthy history of every building, as well as its chain of ownership and whether the current owner had any marriage-eligible daughters), we ended up at the Lychakiv Cemetery.  In the back part of the cemetery, past friends and family who had passed over the decades, lay a memorial to the 1918-1920 wars.  Here, the Ukrainian and Polish soldiers who had fought so bitterly a century ago, some of whom were glimpsed by my grandmother as a small child, lay close to each other.  If that bitterness could be transformed into friendship, then other changes could be possible as well.

Volodimir chatting with a friend on a cold December day at Lychakiv Cemetery, near the Polish-Ukrainian memorial (photo by Lev Horodyskyj)
Wasyl Ilczyszyn, businessman (1927 – 2013).

I had wanted to be a part of that change.  As I began my career in online teaching, I imagined eventually bringing those approaches to my grandparents’ homeland.  My maternal grandfather had loomed large over my trips to Ukraine a decade ago.  He was a successful businessman in Cleveland, Ohio, and frequently sent money back to his family and home village.  He connected me with many of his friends and family in Ukraine, many of whom had expectations that I would play a similar role as my grandfather did.  But I was never in a position to do so.  Return visits in 2010 and 2013 were increasingly gloomy as the specter of clandestine Russian influence grew and my visits seemed more of a nuisance because I brought nothing more than my curiosity.  The hopelessness I had just barely sensed on my first visit completely subsumed my subsequent visits and eventually, the connections faded away.  Everyone had their own problems to deal with.

But even though my connections to Ukraine weakened, they never completely disappeared.  I was tuned in to the goings-on in Ukraine over the years, especially during the Euromaidan revolution, noting that it happened on what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday.  I watched Russia’s secret invasion and marveled at how credulous the media were of the official cover stories.  I watched as the war in the east continued to rage, but faded from public view.  Ukraine started to loom heavily in my mind once again.  It had been too long.  Who would be left when I returned?  Who had passed away from old age?  Who had died in the war in the east?  My grandmother and grandfather here in the States had both passed.  Which of their family and friends would be left when I returned?

This year, I finally returned.  Over the past couple of years, I had been working on building new international collaborations, although oddly not so much in Europe.  In April, I was aiming to change that, with talks at the European Geological Union annual conference and essentially a cold call to faculties in Lviv.  As I left the Lviv Danylo Halytskyi International Airport, I marveled at how even six years later, I still knew the beats and quirks of the city.  I could still find my way around via the chaotic bus, trolleybus, tram, and marshrutka transportation system.  But something felt different.  I couldn’t really feel the gloom anymore.  I didn’t know why.  Maybe the roads were a bit different?  I saw a modern tram, maybe that’s what it was.  There seemed to be a lot of construction.  Or maybe it was just because it was spring.  I thought I could sense … hope.

At Lviv Polytechnic in April 2019 (photo by Lev Horodyskyj)
Me with old Soviet drilling equipment, still used to teach (photo by Serhii Tsikhon)

I spent the week with Serhii, Ihor, and Ulyana, three professors at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and Lviv Polytechnic.  The facilities they have to work with are, unsurprisingly, aging, although filled with the quaint charms of historical academic buildings.  There were several impressive collections of rocks, minerals, and animals, which served as great, if classical (some were over 200 years old), teaching resources for students.  But they all universally bemoaned the fact that innovating in teaching was difficult.  They wanted to involve students in drone operations and geographic information systems (GIS), but the rest of the much older faculty insisted on still using paper maps, just like in the good old days.  “The students are learning outdated skills.  They won’t be able to get jobs,” Serhii had told me.  As a result, the department is shrinking.  They can’t recruit enough students.  But it didn’t have to be that way and Ihor was pushing the envelope on what could be done with limited resources.  One of the days during my visit coincided with the spring recruitment fair for prospective students.  At Ihor’s booth, he showed off his advanced drone and his students talked about learning how to operate it and using it to collect imagery for 3-D mapping of outcrops.  It seemed to draw a crowd, which one of the administrators seemed pleased with.  However, Ihor and Serhii are still outliers and they felt isolated.  Ulyana, another colleague, also felt isolated.  “I had to run my course in secret,” she said as she took us around the city.  Her innovation was using the rocks in Lviv’s buildings to teach the geology of the entire western Ukrainian region.  In antiquity, Lviv was connected with many nearby cities and rocks from various regional outcrops were used to construct the city’s buildings and roads.  Building materials changed as relations between cities changed.  There were Devonian fossils in the sides of churches, church steps that were in different states of erosion due to different installation times, and dislodged cobblestones in the sinking roads that ran over where the river had been covered up.  It was a treasure trove of geological teaching materials and one that they all thought could be digitized to bring the history and geology of the city to a broader audience, perhaps even improving tourism.

Change will not be easy.  Despite innovative pockets of people like Serhii, Ihor, and Ulyana, the system still suffers from extreme inertia.  A PhD defense that I sat in on consisted mostly of pre-prepared statements and slides that were read for three hours.  Ihor bristled at the lack of spontaneity, which seemed to trigger boredom in the audience who spent most of the defense texting or having noisy side conversations.  I noted the strong bimodal age distribution in the room:  aging and an almost completely male faculty at the front evaluating the candidate, with younger and more diverse students observing from the back, including exchange students from the Middle East and Africa.  I was literally the only person in the room bridging that age gap.  And I could start seeing my place.  There is something I can bring to the land of my grandparents … my skillsets and knowledge.  I sought out the stories of my grandmother because I wanted a connection to where I came from.  Now I can help write the next chapter of that story.

Education for the Anthropocene

About two weeks ago, I found myself in a world of unfamiliar acronyms and jargon.  CM and PLM and CAD were thrown around casually and I had difficulty decoding what was going on, as it’s not jargon I usually work with.  During icebreakers, I found myself chatting with aircraft engineers and chemists working industrial assembly lines, and it wasn’t easy for me to understand exactly what they did or, for that matter, explaining what I did.  When I described my education work, a quizzical look crossed their faces.  “Why are you at this conference?”  I wasn’t really sure.  It was the ConX19 conference by the Institute for Process Excellence.  I had been recruited a few months back to speak about Habitable Worlds, but I didn’t quite understand how I fit in with an industry group.  But it started to make sense as the conference progressed.  Industry is transitioning to Industry 4.0:  digitalization (with Industry 1.0 being steam power, Industry 2.0 being electrification, and Industry 3.0 being automation).  Digitalization requires working with and understanding complex systems, often powered or analyzed by analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.  But our educational pathways are not preparing students with the skillsets necessary to understand and work with complex systems.  My purpose, it turned out, was to explain both how I taught systems thinking through my astrobiology course Habitable Worlds (to demonstrate better curricula) and the system processes I used to develop the course (to demonstrate better processes for teachers and developers).

Astrobiology is a naturally cross-disciplinary systems science.  Unlike many basic sciences, where principles and relationships can be described with equations or simple cause-and-effect relationships, astrobiology teaching and research requires thinking about multiple cause-and-effect relationships at once, as well as their feedbacks and how they can amplify or cancel each other out.  This makes it an especially challenging topic to teach, especially when structuring curricula.  Take climate or paleoclimate, for example.  Climate integrates topics such as the physics of molecules, light-matter interactions, emission of light by stars and planets, gas chemistry, water-rock chemistry, atmospheric circulation, ocean circulation, density gradients, temperature gradients, and water phase changes (for starters).  How do you teach all that?  Do you start with what we observe in the world and work back to basic principles?  If so, in which order do you tackle the basics?  Some basics require two or more prerequisites!  Or do you start with the basics?  If you do that, how do you keep students interested in all these disconnected and often abstract topics until you show them how they are integrated into the big picture?

There are many narrative structures you can use when teaching complex systems like this.  The digital classroom allows new forms of scaffolding that aren’t possible in a physical classroom.  Top-down or bottom-up?  Using technology, you can do both.  A properly designed digital experience can allow students to proceed from first principles to the big picture, or dissect the big picture into its individual components, depending on which they prefer.  Additionally, well-designed digital approaches, much like a video game, allow for evaluation of systems thinking.  In a videogame, this kind of evaluation is described as a “set piece” or “boss fight”.  It’s usually a big, dramatic event in the narrative of the game and requires scaffolding of multiple skills that have been taught and practiced piecemeal throughout the game.  Digital educational experiences can do something similar.  In Habitable Worlds, it was the final project, where students were given 500 stars with observational data and given six weeks to analyze and interpret them to find a habitable world.  The skills had already been taught during the rest of the course.  The project, then, was evaluating when students could assemble all the pieces into a strategy that would help them solve the puzzle.  Success or failure in the project gives a good indication of students’ systems thinking capabilities in a way that a multiple-choice question exam can’t.

This is quite the change from a physical classroom or even a basic digital classroom built in a learning management system like Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle.  Often the evaluations in these environments boil down to multiple-choice questions, true/false, or fill in the blanks to deal with large numbers of students or the design limits imposed by learning management systems.  These are decent approaches for evaluating content knowledge, but not particularly useful for evaluating higher-order thinking skills.  To evaluate those skills, we often use written activities or oral exams, but these don’t scale particularly well.  More game-like projects or challenges and curricula structured around them can be a better method of evaluating higher-level thinking.  They are more complicated to build and take more time, but they allow an instructor to teach and evaluate how students understand and work with systems, rather than specific concepts.  This applies well not just to astrobiology but also to preparing students for the Anthropocene, a proposed geologic epoch where Earth system processes are dominated by humans.  As we take control of complex systems on a global scale, whether through climate manipulation or Industry 4.0, we need to prepare upcoming generations with better systems thinking abilities so that they can act as more responsible planetary stewards than we have been so far.

Adapting course material for the digital realm, which is a common task for many of us as universities embrace the online model, requires systems thinking as well.  In the typical resource- and time-stressed educational environment, it is difficult to think of the course itself as a system.  It can become a rapid-fire sequence of lectures, homework assignments, grading, and exams.  To cope, we may recycle other people’s slides and activities, construct linear storylines for content that is non-linear, and throw together multiple-choice questions for easier grading.  However, if we teach the same course multiple times over many years, we adopt an iterative process, during which we improve assignments that didn’t work well, or change the order in which we teach concepts to tell a better story.  Usually when we do this, we’re working with limited data.  Anecdotes from students.  Complaints on student reviews.  Poor exam results.  Still, it’s enough to allow us to make somewhat informed changes.  But as we start making these changes, we quickly see that there are non-linear dependencies.  A new approach to a topic may necessitate new lectures, which then impact subsequent lectures.  This may then necessitate changes to exam questions, which necessitate changes in homework assignments to prepare students for the new exam questions.  Mature classes operate as a well-functioning system, a complex interaction between teacher, student, and content that evolves over time.  A systems approach is the only way to think about a course, really, because as students change over time, their interaction with the teacher and content will change as well.  What worked five years ago may no longer be as effective.  Good classes remain robust and adaptable to changing scholarly environments.

“Courses as a complex system” is an important point to remember when moving courses into the digital realm.  The approaches you use in the classroom to adapt content and keep it relevant over the years also apply to digital courses.  Towards that end, you want to find tools and platforms that allow quick and easy modification of your content.  Additionally, because digital systems can capture a lot more data, you’ll want to use tools and platforms that gives you more insight into what students are doing, which allows for improved improvements to the course.  But it’s not just the technology you use.  Your build process needs to recognize that you are interacting with a complex system with non-linear dependencies.  A linear process, where first you write the questions, then program simulators, then record the videos, then make the graphics may not necessarily work, particularly if the approach doesn’t allow for iteration, addition, or whole-scale deletion of material that isn’t coming together or that just plain isn’t working for students.  This concept, of a course as a system, can often be frustrating for developers and engineers, who expect a linear process and for all the unknowns to be understood and accounted for prior to beginning any building at all.  But as teachers, we recognize that some of these unknowns can’t be identified until after students have a go at it.  For all the planning in the world, a handful of students will always do something unexpected.  Sometimes it’s more than a handful.  Sometimes it’s all of them.  If you are working with developers and engineers, you need to prepare them for multiple iterations as new observations come to light that necessitate changes.  An instructor or team that understands that a digital course is a complex system will, over time, optimize it into a phenomenal experience for students.  Instructors and teams that try to enforce linearity on the development process end up with non-optimized experiences with no mechanism for improvement, or even mid-stream error correction.  The shelf life of these digital experiences will be brief.

Systems can be tricky.  They aren’t easy to teach and they aren’t easy to manage, especially if they contain unknowns.  But if we want to succeed as planetary stewards, we all need to become systems engineers, or at least learn how to think like them.  We can start by using digital tools and platforms to better teach systems thinking in the classroom that can prepare our students for the Anthropocene.  And using these tools and platforms successfully requires the realization that a course is a complex system itself and processes that we put in place, either as individuals or teams, need to respect, work with, and become comfortable a system’s inherent complexity.

How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?

It’s a common trope that adults just don’t understand kids these days, with their twits and tiktoks and facespaces.  This can become especially apparent in the classroom setting when in order to try to stay relevant, instructors throw in references and jokes to something that students might be familiar with.  Sometimes it can work, and sometimes it can fall flat, especially as the reference or joke ages and students become increasingly unfamiliar with the reference.  But when done right, pop culture references and jokes can do quite a bit to maintain and enhance engagement in the classroom.

I see the classroom as a storytelling setting, and the mark of a good storyteller is keeping an audience engaged and entertained until the end of the story so that the storyteller can get the main lesson across.  Humor and references to popular culture are tools in that storytelling toolkit.  In my case, I’m a big fan of word play, irony, obscure references, and non sequiturs.  My class narratives incorporate that sense of humor.  As an example, in my online astrobiology class, Habitable Worlds, an angry chinchilla that popped up when you made a particularly egregious methodological error was the main non sequitur.  His angry mug had only one particular use case … a really boneheaded move.  It was both amusing for students and also a design element used to signal that this was a stupid mistake that shouldn’t be made (for example, not making any measurements, or saying that cracks in rocks can form before the rock itself does).  Because the class was focused on where and how to look for alien life, the pop culture references were mostly science fiction that was popular at the time. Additionally, the references mined science fiction tropes and historical science fiction so that as current references aged, they wouldn’t stand out as much.  Finally, to cater to my fondness for wordplay and irony, the assessment quizzes were tied to an evil AI who tormented students (extending the astrobiology and science fiction tie-ins to artificial intelligence and its associated fiction tropes).

The end result was a course that was intimately tied to both the scientific study of astrobiology and the science fiction stemming from and informing the future of astrobiology.  Throughout the course, there were references to TV science fiction like Star Trek, Farscape, Futurama, Babylon 5, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica, and movie science fiction like 2001:  A Space Odyssey, Aliens, and The Terminator.  There were also references to science fiction gaming, such as Starcraft, Half-Life 2, Mass Effect, and especially Portal (which had the benefits of exclusively female characters, a sadistic sense of humor, physics puzzles, and strong narrative tie-ins to science and experimentation). Sometimes the references were serious, such as using science fiction examples to explore the viability of a particular idea (for example, silicon- or methane-based life).  Other times, the science fiction realm was mined for quotes, such as GLaDOS’s unhelpful help in testing situations.

So, did this approach work?  It seems like it did.  Older students appreciated the references to classic science fiction while younger students appreciated the references to video gaming.  A good portion of the students attracted to an astrobiology class are already interested in science fiction, so the science fiction references and humor resonated with them.  The Portal references were especially appreciated, especially by female students.  Students reported that the science fiction references and jokes made the course relatable, especially when they were able to identify particularly obscure references.  Common feedback, even the insult humor in the quizzes, included:

“Helped make the class even more fun!”

“As a gamer I appreciated all of the Portal and Mass Effect references.”

“The type of humor that’s easy to digest but still rude enough to make you say ‘lol, you jerk!'”

“The game references and real life jokes are what gave it a strong engaging environment.”

“It was cheesy but it also relieved a little bit of the tension/stress.”

Of course, the humor didn’t work for everyone.  Students who were frustrated with the course were less likely to enjoy the humor and references, reporting that:

“It made me feel bad when I didn’t know the answer.”

“I did not understand the references and didn’t appreciate them when I was frustrated.”

Surprisingly, despite the caustic nature of a lot of the humor in the course, most students responded well to the overall class personality, even if it didn’t always resonate with them. The vast majority of students reported that they found the class occasionally or often funny (for the Spring 2018 and Fall 2018 semesters, when I started collecting that data).



There is always the concern that humor can backfire and result in less engagement, especially if the humor is derived from a sub-culture like science fiction. The Spring 2018 results, at least, suggest that this isn’t the case, with no strong demographic trends in the group of students who rated the humor in the class as “consistently unfunny”. That group consisted of students who simply didn’t find the humor funny and it didn’t seem to affect their performance very strongly. This is also reflected in a recent study by Cooper et al. (2018), who looked at the effects of humor in science classrooms.  The results broadly match my own experience with Habitable Worlds.  If students found the humor funny or even unfunny, it made the instructor more relatable and the content more engaging.  Interestingly, the researchers found that jokes about science, TV, and college were generally considered the least offensive.  Habitable Worlds seemed to have hit on that perfect trifecta, as most of the jokes were related to TV (the vast science fiction library), science (gas giants, noxious gases, searching for intelligence), and college (the horrible indignity of being tested on your knowledge).  Cooper et al. identified jokes about identity as more offensive to their US audience, and more off-putting to female students than male students.  Offensive jokes can lead to disengagement, and it’s no surprise, because identity-based jokes are often seen as “punching down” on groups who are already marginalized.

When used well, pop culture references and humor in the classroom can do a lot to humanize an instructor and engage students.  But humor and relevance via pop culture references can be hard to pull off.  A humor scheme in one class may not work when transplanted to another class.  It’s all about the narrator, the timing, and the context.  I’ve seen the Habitable Worlds flavor of humor transplanted into other classes and it felt flat, mostly because it didn’t feel like it fit the theme.  When working on other projects, I’ve worked to develop different voices.  For example, with a political science class, I developed a humor style that was more inline with that particular course content and the absurdities of governance, from dictators with ten-too-many honorifics to ridiculous economies based on historical accidents (and often derived from real-life versions of the same).  It’s still a work in progress, but new creative directions are always interesting to explore.

So a few notes for practice:

  1. Humor and references to pop culture are good for engagement and connecting with students (unless it is too offensive)
  2. Humor should be consistent with the theme of the class
  3. Humor should be consistent with the comedic sensibilities of the instructor
  4. Pop culture references shouldn’t be shallow and should be linked with the deeper history giving rise to those references
  5. Also, more food puns, an apparently underutilized comedic tool
Angry Chinchilla is not amused. Food puns are the wurst.