My 2017 ENT 432 reckoning

Another semester has ended and with it another iteration (my 9th!) of Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT 432). I like to ruminate on the pedagogical hits and misses while they’re fresh in my head, and it’s worth sharing them publicly, in case others want to share their viewpoints or otherwise provide feedback. Check out my fall 2016 post for context.

Changes for 2017

Based on what didn’t seem to work in 2016 I made several adjustments to the curriculum, including the elimination of formal lab notebooks (although the students were still expected to go through the handouts), more guidance on how to take field notes, and the reintroduction of weekly (more or less) readings and discussions that were led by students. I also scaled the collection back to a minimum of 41 families, including 10 that we don’t cover in lab (i.e., ones that students need to key out). I also uploaded all my materials and developed the course using Penn State’s current, preferred learning management system (LMS), Canvas.

What worked

I haven’t cracked open my student evaluations (SRTEs) yet, but here’s what I thought worked. First, yay for readings and discussions! I’m not sure we had the best articles (all picked by me and Emily, the TA), nor am I convinced that all the students read the papers. We did have some great presentations and lively discussions, though, and it was a fun way to break up the lecture. Second, yay for field notes! The students did well in describing their field experiences and in linking specimens to written observations. I also had the support of yet another great TA. Thanks, Emily! This is not an easy class to assist, and I have been very fortunate to have such dedicated partners over the years.

I should also put in a plug for Canvas, or maybe for any LMS. This was my first time ever using one, and I don’t think I used it to its full potential. The system did, however, make it easy to communicate with the class and to share important files. Grading likewise was easier to keep track of.

Even after 4 years I still like the field trip site – Powdermill Nature Reserve – and am learning more about the habitats that surround the property. This year we spent time dissecting pitcher plants and sorting/observing their contents (see below). It was fascinating. We’d love to share the experience with another class, though, especially an advanced organismal course, like entomology, botany, mycology, or similar. Anyone …?

gelatin-like matrix with fly larva and pupa in it

Inside surface of a pitcher plant, where a midge larva and pupa reside inside a slimy matrix. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for original

insect parts in ethanol, spread out in a dish

Pitcher plant chyme, with lots of identifiable arthropod parts – dipteran and hymenopteran wings, ant sclerites, orthopteran legs, Opiliones chelicerae, etc. It was fun to look through! Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for original

What could still be improved

Now would be a good time to open my SRTEs, before I write something that contradicts my students’ opinions, but here I go anyway …

The synthesis needs to go. For the last two years I had students each write a synthesis of some interesting natural history phenomenon s/he witnessed. The goal was to get them to identify a few specimens to species (no easy task for many insects; get into the keys, use collections s references, etc.) and then to research what was known about what they witnessed. It could be a behavior, a particular morphological phenotype, predator-prey interaction – almost anything. They were charged with synthesizing the observation(s) and background into a digestible synthesis, similar to a blog post. I’d say most students handled the exercise fairly well, but it always seemed to be a distraction from other, more relevant elements of the course. And most students seemed to the choose the “instant oatmeal” phenomena (e.g., Tenodera sinensis, ootheca construction) over the “steel cut” observations that require time and patience to understand.

the two mantids are hiding in the grasses and flower stems of a pollinator garden; they are facing each other but are about 10 cm apart

Two (or more?) Tenodera sinensis mantids approach each other Will there be a battle? Who will win? Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for original.

The collection is too small. Honestly, I think the “41” families was a typo in my documentation, but man did the students hold me to that number. There was a lot of anxiety over finding 10 families we don’t cover in lab, but with minimal effort a student could collect (and identify!) those in an afternoon of pan trapping. Next year that will probably go up to 60, 70, or 75 even. I’ll also keep the 10. All that said, the collections looked pretty good in terms of specimen preparation.

The mid-semester collection and spreadsheet check needs to be worth something. Too many students turned in unusable spreadsheets at the end, and too many students were caught off guard by how much work even a minuscule collection requires to properly prepare, curate, and determine. The mid-semester collection check was designed to rectify that situation, but we got almost nothing … because it didn’t count for anything.

I still enjoyed witnessing and reading about the students’ Discover your inner Darwin experiences; we’ll keep it. We also had fun this year doing what Emily referred to as “mini-Darwins”. These were 10-15 min interactions (rather than 3+ hours) with nature. I’m now working on a list of relatively brief natural history experiences I think students should have, almost like a scavenger hunt (observe and listen to a singing insect, watch insects crawl on the surface of a pond, etc.) More on this soon.

Altogether it was a great semester. I can’t wait to do it again! Until then watch for a follow-up post.

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