Reflections on teaching insect biodiversity

Last semester I taught my Insect Biodiversity and Evolution course in a slightly new way, and now that it’s over I have a chance to revisit the experience and read my student evaluations. Overall I have to say that I am quite happy! I do see lots of room for improvements, of course, but first a little context …

Three ongoing situations drove me to revamp the course: (1) I get a lot of requests from colleagues to share my teaching materials, and I often found myself uncomfortable with their state (not always clear, sometimes with images of questionable provenance); (2) so many TAs have worked on the materials (often improving, sometimes meddling) that they lost some cohesion; (3) the collection exercise was never quite right, requiring so many specimens/taxa that the resulting product was often not usable for research or teaching (poor preps, sloppy labels, … rushed work).

My goal was to rebuild the course, almost from the ground up, and avail the new materials in such a way that they could be iteratively improved, commented on, and used by anyone. See the results at our GitHub repo. I hoped to release the new materials under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), to maximize peoples’ ability to refine the materials. I think it’ll be a long time before that can really happen, as many of the images I used are licensed in a way that doesn’t allow commercial use or derivatives.

grad students sitting on stone steps inside a dorm

The ENT 432 crew, at Raven’s Roost at Powdermill Nature Reserve — lots of smiles! September 2016. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Hillary Morin https://flic.kr/p/LPuPrV

What went wrong 🙁

Overall I was happy with the course, but several elements could be improved. Here are three that come to mind, but you can read more in our issues feed:

  1. I’ll probably get rid of the requirement that lab notebooks be graded. Honestly I forgot about that line in the grading rubric (oops!), and so everyone got 100/100. They probably deserved that grade, though. These students answered all of our lab questions, many of which didn’t have “right” answers and were not easy. For example, we asked students to hypothesize the function(s) of the elaborate surface sculpturing one can see in Tingidae (see photo below and question 9-13 in the handout). I don’t know the answer if there is one!
  2. Students need more guidance regarding how to take field notes – or at least what I expected from them for this aspect of the Discover Your Inner Darwin exercise – and iterative examination of their notes. Their field notebooks were quite inconsistent in their detail.
  3. I need to lecture (even) less and bring back required readings that are discussed as a group. I jettisoned this element in order to bring the work load more in line with what Penn State recommends for a 4-credit course (about 160–180 hours of work in a semester). Time to rework the load again. I missed the readings!
top of a lace bug, whose surface is elaborately sculptured like lattice work

Amazing photo of a lace bug (Hemiptera: Tingidae), by Gilles San Martin (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9hv9Nj. Why is their cuticle so elaborately sculptured? I don’t know! And my students didn’t seem comfortable with that.

What went right 😀

I definitely feel like this course is morphing into one that is both effective and fun. Although imperfect, it was easily my best semester as an instructor. Highlights for me:

  1. The observation component of the natural history exercise was really fun for me to witness and read about, and most students found it incredibly rewarding. With more direction from me, and maybe multiple iterations per semester, it could emerge as a highlight for students and an avenue for future research.
  2. The collection is also heading in the right direction. Each one was relatively small but sufficiently diverse, and the specimen preps were almost immaculate. Clearly a lot of time and care was put into these collections!
  3. The blog post exercise was also good fun, and it was an opportunity for students to dig deeper into observations and subjects that inspired them.
  4. The collections resulted in real data that can be used for research! Each student submitted his/her data as Darwin Core Archives, which are basically ready to share through GBIF (I want to doublecheck them first!) With a little help from GBIF, I think we can make this element almost as compelling as the collection.

Changes and opportunities

I’ve discussed one possible change with three semesters of students now, and I feel confident now that it’s an idea worth pursuing: I’d love to partner with a likeminded professor at a university relatively close to ours, say within a 6-hour drive of Penn State, for a combined field trip. We mix our students into teams that collect, prep, cook, and learn together … It could be fun! Another possible change to my course could disrupt the potential for any partnerships – a move to the spring semester.

More on that later!

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