Mid-Zoomester News at USC!

What a turbulent, crazy year.. but .. I finally have some good zoomester news!

First: I just received word that my recent article submitted to J. Biological Control over the summer was accepted w/ minor revisions- so Yippee! It’s also exciting because it wraps up the last data bits leftover from my work as a Delta Science Postdoctoral Fellow back in 2016-18. I’ll be sure to link to the article once it is in press!

Second- so far this zoommester has been going ok.. and maybe even well! (I decided that ‘ok’ is actually a very positive word choice relative to how I would describe the majority of 2020). I managed to provide hands-on activities for students in both of my classes, particularly in my BISC315 Ecology class which was recently featured in the USC Dornsife News!

https://dornsife.usc.edu/news/stories/3317/from-l-a-to-taiwan-usc-students-hunt-down-insects-to-better-unde/

For my Ecology class (which has a lecture and a lab), the article highlighted my students’ insect collections and pit-fall trap surveys of arthropod diversity. Other projects that they are conducting include: 1) an iNaturalist study and report (where they submit photos of surrounding flora and fauna to an iNaturalist class project, and then they write up a report about their observations in nature as well as the life-history of some of the species that they documented), 2) an independent literature review (they research a research topic of interest in the field of ecology and then give an oral presentation on their findings to the class at the end of the semester), and 3) an independent research project (they write up a mini research proposal, conduct an experiment or observational study (post approval), summarize and analyze their data in R, and then make a research poster to disseminate their findings). I’m hoping they can present their research at the undergraduate research symposium in the Spring (but TBD via COVID19). For the students on campus, I can lend them equipment for their independent projects and sterilize the equipment before and after. Whereas for the remote students- I try to direct them to alternative free or cheap ways to conduct the studies that they want to implement.

Some of these projects are remotely guided, particularly for my students in Northern California, Michigan and Taiwan, and then others are a bit more hands on. For example-with the students that were able to come to USC campus, I handed out insect collection kits and demonstrated how to catch insects with a butterfly net in the first lab, and in the second lab, I handed out equipment and supplies for arthropod diversity field surveys and demonstrated how to set up pit-fall traps in the ground. For each of the -in person socially distant field-labs on campus, I also sent youtube videos to my remote students to help them understand how to catch insects and deploy pitfall traps.

I also discovered the beauty of teaching R via zoom (ironically I don’t have to physically ‘zoom’ around a room and can just calmly use breakout rooms with small groups of students or have students share their Rstudio screens with me one-on-one. I tried something new this semester as well and so far it is going great!-Basically I selected students that had previous R-experience and asked them if they were willing to be leaders of breakout rooms. That way small groups of students can help each other work through Rcode and practice datasets that I give them and then eventually work their way up to using their own research datasets and modifying the practice rcode. If they get stuck, they just simply buzz me into their rooms and I can help them pretty efficiently. So far so good! My TA, Tina Nguyen has also been instrumental in helping me manage all of this!

I’ve also thought about ways to make my other lecture-based GE course (Environmental Studies) more interactive, fun and hands-on. I try to use mixed media in my lectures- so good documentaries and podcasts, along w/ a mix of lecturing with powerpoint slides and lots of participation-point based breakout room activities that involve group discussions and case-studies. For the students that can’t attend lectures, they can always access the recorded material and can make up any point-based activity within 48 hours. I also recently converted one of the assignments on endangered species from a written word-docx assignment to a blog! I actually really enjoyed grading these blogs (way more than grading essays!) and I think the students enjoyed it as well. Not too mention the additional skillset they gained by learning how to make a blog.

There were many incredible blogs, but for the purpose of time/space- here are three excellent blogs from students in my class (I received permission from them to repost):

Blog by my student, Mario Koenigsperger, link below

Mario Koenigsperger

https://koenigsp.wordpress.com/2020/09/06/endangered-species-blog/

Juliana Tichota

https://enst100tichota.wordpress.com/

Bela Echternach

https://loggerheadseaturtlecom.wordpress.com/2020/09/02/__conservation/

The coolest part about having to adapt to the current situation and make modifications to our courses -is that ultimately myself and other instructors are actually becoming better educators! The days of just lecturing (with questions and mini discussions here and there) are over- and that is a good thing. More on this soon.

Teaching while ‘Sheltering-in-Place’

Wow.. has life taken a surprising turn.. not just for me but for the whole world. With the onset and spread of the COVID19 pandemic we have seen people across the whole world have to adjust and make changes in both their personal and work lives.  It’s been interesting for myself and other teachers (K-12 and Higher Education) to try to quickly readjust and attempt to deliver a premium education for our students. Its also been comforting to see the rebirth of ‘community’  such as folks helping out their elderly neighbors and teachers banding together and sharing online teaching resource and tips.

Thus the focus of this post is to share what others have shared with me, as well as some of my lessons I have learned in the first week of online teaching.

However before I go into the meat of  online teaching.. let me back up a bit to BC (Before Coronavirus) time period. As you may know – I recently started a teaching postdoc position at the University of Southern California (USC) , which has been absolutely amazing so far. In the Fall semester I taught an upper division Ecology class and a lower division Env. Studies GE course, and now in the Spring Ive been teaching two sections of the lower division Env. Studies GE course (no labs this semester thank goodness!)

It all seems like a blur but just two weeks ago USC was still proceeding business as usual… as were most schools in California. Then as we got closer to our Spring Break, USC announced a ‘trial-period’ of online teaching for 3 days before Spring Break so that we can adjust our methods as needed “IF” we needed to extend to online teaching. Then as the # of COVID19 cases rose (see here a live tracking website made by 17 year-Avi Schiffmann)- USC quickly changed the plan to teach remotely after Spring Break until April 16th… and then two days later extended online teaching to the end of the semester. Ha.. people’s plans have been changing so fast.. but not as fast as the virus spreads and mutates: https://nextstrain.org/ncov

Immediately I had mixed feelings about online teaching for the rest of the semester: Cons: Im not very good at this online teaching thing yet and now I better get good at it fast! Pros: I can teach in my workout clothes (with makeup on and a nice top) and foster or adopt a dog since Ill be home all day! (..already made progress on latter- see my foster-fail/adopted dog- Yesenia) from the North Los Angeles Animal Shelter. I still have to officially fill out her adoption paper work.. but haven’t been able to go to shelter yet due to COVID19 restrictions.

Anyhow, now that I have my trusty dog by my side, I have been focusing on how to improve my online classes. I also have received lots of helpful links that I am pasting below this blog post to pass on the shared resources and knowledge.  

At USC most of the teachers and myself have started using Zoom as well as Blackboard, the latter which most of us have regularly used to post announcements and assignment instructions, as well as a platform for students to turn in assignments which we can grade online. So far: I have definitely learned some dos and don’ts with Zoom and remote teaching and testing:

ZOOM Dos:

  1. DO RUN A PRACTICE SESSION FIRST! I suggest practicing with your actual students in the physical classroom if possible prior to going to online only (this is what I did and we sorted out some issues on the student’s side of things this way, as well as how to share the powerpoints for them in slide show not presenter mode), but if not possible – get together w/ some colleagues and practice with each other (my mom actually did the latter and I thought that was a great idea!)
  2. Do set the settings to put everyone on Mute when they enter the room
  3. Do tell the students to unmute themselves when they have questions and feel free to speak whenever (much more engaging and feels more like a real class than written chat-room based questions/comments)
  4. Do TURN YOUR VIDEO ON and encourage students to turn their videos on if they feel comfortable-I noticed it makes me feel like Im actually talking to someone than just a green light on my laptop
  5. Do use the ‘polls‘ in lectures to mix things up and encourage participation
  6. Do use youtube videos or other documentaries to break things up, but be sure to adjust the settings to ‘optimize for full-screen video clip
  7. Do assign in-class activities, put students in ‘breakout rooms’ and have them report their results in their breakout rooms.
  8. Do record your lectures in the cloud in case you have international students that are in different time zones.

ZOOM Don’ts: 

  1. Don’t just lecture at the students and forget about encouraging participation and interaction (I actually am still working on this one.. it is more difficult than in-person classes because you can’t see all your students…)
  2. Don’t assume that all of your students are on the same time zone. I know for me it took me a couple days to realize some of my international students had gone back home. Thus I needed to adjust my expectations for them and let them watch recorded lectures and makeup any in-class activities w/in 24 hours .
  3. Don’t talk too fast (oops.. Im also working on this one…).

Blackboard tips and protocols for online testing: So I actually had in-class midterms planned for this week (BC) and I had to adjust to remote testing formats. I knew I didn’t want to use the ‘honor system’ since some students might cheat and that wouldn’t be fair to others… so I decided just to make it completely open-note, but I expanded on the # of questions in the exam so that it is fast paced enough that the students won’t have time to look up every question. Thus they still have to prepare for the exam a decent amount. I also decided to go with the “Respondus Lock Down Browser” app available in Blackboard for Online Exams. It basically locks out everything on a student’s computer except for the exam. For me the only reason why I decided to go this route is so that students can’t copy and paste answers from their lectures or from internet sources. But I did tell them they could use their ipad or iphones or other computers and notes for information. The key with online testing, just like with online classes, is to have the students PRACTICE! I offered my students 2 pts extra credit to try a practice exam with sample questions and the lock-down browser so that we could get all the kinks out of the way ahead of time. 

I also told me students to have a plan for what computers and internet sources they were going to use, and a backup plan in case they had an internet or computer malfunction. As for the actual testing day/time I will be online and can answer questions my students have via email in live-time.

For my international students and DSP students, blackboard testing tools lets you make make exceptions and adjustments to the test time period, date and time of test on a person-by-person basis. So for my students in countries with very different time zones, I adjusted the time of the exam to be at a more reasonable time for them. For my DSP students, I was able to provide them with extra time to take the exam. 

As far as how to make exam questions- I used the Blackboard ‘question poolsand then used questions from those pools to make the exams. The students are not able to see the question pools or the tests until the available date/time that you dictate in the settings. The tests are this week.. so fingers crossed they go smoothly. If not then Ill have to adjust and just make a take-home essay-based assignment for the final exam. The key about teaching and adjusting to a global pandemic is to be flexible, adapt and stay healthy.  To stay healthy, again I totally recommend fostering or adopting a pet, as well as getting more into cooking and working out everyday. (Lots of great online videos to stay in shape while sheltering-in-place, such as this oldie but goodie with Billy Blanks!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOaartzSX6A)

With this said, Im leaving you with some great resources that have been forwarded to me from many great teachers: You got this!

Climate Mitigation and Adaptation E-Learning Site from AESS https://camelclimatechange.org/index.html

Shared Resources for Online Teaching Received from Professor Chelsie L. Romulo (Univ. of Northern Colorado):

  1. Shared googlesheet resource
  2. Geoscience Materials for Teaching Onlinehttps://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1-R6THvCIcAjGrWRspCN915SIzItdZ95ziwiF8BmQrYc/edit#gid=0
  3. Ecology and Environmental Science Materials for Teaching Onlinehttps://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/16K6bGTf-wGjxxi6aGi_v6vlLQSpsOgl1zq3tXLHWweg/edit#gid=0
  4. Dr. Romulo’s lecture videos for her Introduction to Environmental Studies course https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLo6SyhPc8vba11Il5PBFeA-Uc4bCYPvb8

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From Jazzmemes: https://twitter.com/jazzmemes_