Discussion group about the First Year Research Experience


I attended an information and sharing session this afternoon on the Undergraduate research Initiative at the University of Saskatchewan. This project started a few years back but has moved into the implementation phase. AgBio was invited to be a test college for implementing a first year research experience into our classes. Of course, we went for it enthusiastically.

When I say we, the instructors of all 3 AgBio first term courses also embraced the idea and have implemented it in their classes. Fran Walley and Krista Wilde have been teaching research skills all along in their class, AGRC 111: Sustainable plant and soil management for several years now. They incorporated the FYRE project into their course very easily. Colin Laroque is teaching EVSC 110 (Renewable resources and the environment) for the first time this year. He bravely agreed incorporate the FYRE project into his class.

Of course, I am part of FYRE as the primary instructor of ANBI 110: Introduction to domestic animal biology. It’s only the second year I have taught it so I don’t have much to compare this year to. However, I have been amazed at how well the FYRE activities have worked out thus far. The students seem engaged and have improved their writing and numeracy skills greatly. We still have our big poster event on Dec 3. That should tell us how successful we have been. I know we have started something new and valuable. At the very least, a foundation we can build on.

The most exciting thing was a discussion at the end of the meeting about SOTL—the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I have heard the term but have not really paid any attention. It sounds like something we need to bring to the assessment of the FYRE program. Yet another thing to learn…how exciting.

Any students reading this, I would love any comments you have on your experience thus far.

It’s in the syllabus!–Not if you don’t put it there.


When I first began teaching, my syllabi were pretty much what I got as an undergraduate– a list lecture topics beside their dates plus a list of assignments and exams with the percentage each was worth. They slowly got better but it wasn’t until I took a course on course design at Gwenna Moss (thanks to Heather Ross, Ryan Banow) that I really saw the value of a good syllabus. You can find my ANBI 110 syllabus here:  http://ocw.usask.ca/AB/ANBI/110/. It’s not perfect but I try to make it better every year.

When I was Associate Dean (Academic) I distributed syllabus templates to college faculty and hoped that this would significantly improve the quality of our course syllabi. Generally it has. I still think there is room for improvement but its getting better. However, there are still some bare bones, crappy ones out there. Not every teacher who ever lived can say “it’s the syllabus”.

Remember, if you don’t give students all the information they need in a syllabus, don’t complain that students just don’t take responsibility for their education. You have a responsibility too.



Texting in class

A I have posted an article below by Maryellen Weimer on students texting in class. This is an issue I feel strongly about. I tell students at the beginning of the term that if they want to text (or surf the net), they should do it outside, not in class. My reason for this is not only are they wasting their own time, but they are distracting students around them and making it more difficult for them to pay attention. My success has been limited I think. Texting is such a part of everyday life for most students that they simply can’t ignore their phone when a text arrives. This is not only a problem in class, it is a problem on the road as well. I continually see people texting while driving despite the dangers involved. If we can’t stop texting and driving, how can we get rid of texting in class? One of the most disturbing things about the reference that this article cites is that 10% of students admitted to receiving a text during an exam. Apparently it’s easy. This is the reason I have gone to online exams that allow full access to the internet. It takes a lot of work to create questions that can’t be easily answered by Dr. Google, but it absolutely solves the problem of cheating (well I hope it does). I have no solution to the issue of texting in class or during exams. If we want to change behaviour, we need to change attitudes. It used to be very acceptable to drink and drive. Now it is not. We changed peoples minds about this issue. Now we just need to change the attitude of people about when it is appropriate to text and when it’s time to put your phone away.

Texting in Class: Extent, Attitudes, Other Interesting Information – See more at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/texting-class-extent-attitudes-interesting-information/#sthash.q97g2xWr.dpuf People text almost everywhere nowadays, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that students are doing it in class. In this study of almost 300 marketing majors at two different universities, 98 percent reported that they texted during class. They reported receiving just about as many texts as they sent. Perhaps most troubling in these findings were students’ attitudes about texting. Here’s a sample:

  • Sixty-four percent said they were texting in class because “I just wanted to communicate,” and 48 percent said, “I was bored … helped to pass the time.”
  • Fifty-six percent indicated that they were currently taking a course where texting was banned; 49 percent reported that they continued to text even with the ban.
  • Sixty-one percent agreed that they should not text during class; 32 percent agreed that they could text without the teacher knowing; 32 percent indicated that they thought the teacher knew they were texting.
  • Forty-seven percent reported that they could text and follow a lecture at the same time.
  • Forty-seven percent also believed that texting during class does not influence grades on exams or quizzes.

The article contains a literature review with references to many current surveys documenting the use of cell phones and texting during class. The findings of these descriptive studies are succinctly summarized in the table included in the article. In a 2010 survey, 82 percent of a 200-student cohort said they texted in class; in a 2011 survey, 79 percent of an 805-student cohort reported texting in class.

The authors of this article also summon an especially impressive amount of evidence on multitasking. They succinctly and clearly explain the physiological reasons why it is difficult for human brains to do more than one thing at a time and conclude “The problem inherent with multitasking and learning, as expressed by the model [a metacognitive model explained and referenced in the article], is starkly rudimentary. Meaningful learning requires substantial cognitive processing, but the learner’s capacity for cognitive processing is severely limited.” (p. 27) Multitasking hinders mental fluidity, and given that the capacity to process sensory input is innate, multitasking a lot (texting regularly in all one’s classes) does not increase the ability or overcome the negative consequences. If you’d like to explain to your students why the beliefs many of them hold about their ability to multitask are specious, this article is a great resource.

A bit surprisingly, this study did not find a relationship between texting and GPA. In other words, there was no correlation between the amount students reported texting and their overall college GPA (which was not self-reported). However, a positive relationship has been reported in other research, and in this study, the students who received the most texts in the course from which the study cohort was drawn did more poorly in that course. The researchers describe the relationship between texting and grades as complicated. They offer several possible explanations for the lack of relation found in their study.

Reference: Clayson, D.E., and Haley, D.A. (2013). “An introduction to multitasking and texting: Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing.” Journal of Marketing Education, 35 (1), 26–40.

The science of poo

One of my favourite topics to teach is gut microbiology. There are so many fun and gross facts. Feces is 50% bacteria by weight. The average human has about 2 kg of bacteria associated with them and there are more bacterial cells in your gut than cells in your body. I will be using this cartoon next year.


via: http://buttpoems.tumblr.com/post/100192532859

Raccoons aren’t pets are they?

A Saskatoon couple wants to keep a raccoon as a pet but the city bylaws prohibit it. A raccoon is not a domestic animal and is probably not your best choice as a cuddly pet. What I find most interesting about this story is the “International Support” for Dennis the raccoon. It never ceases to amaze me that people will do things for animals that they would never do for other humans. If dogs could get Ebola, I swear the amount of money donated to control the disease outbreak in West Africa would increase by an order of magnitude. So consider why do people in Singapore show support for Dennis and not other humans? Humans continue to be the most interesting (and puzzling) domesticated animal.

Murray Drew


Dennis the raccoon

via Andrea Hill © CopyrightThe StarPhoenix

A Saskatchewan woman who wants to keep her pet raccoon in Saskatoon said people around the world have volunteered to help her lobby city council to let her raise the animal within city limits.

“It’s been overwhelming, the positive response we’ve been getting from so many people, not just from Canada, but the States, Europe and Asia,” Wendy Hook said.

Hook, her husband and her pet raccoon Dennis moved to Saskatoon from rural Saskatchewan this spring. Hook tried to obtain an exotic pet licence for Dennis earlier this month and was told that municipal bylaws forbid keeping a raccoon within city limits. She grabbed Dennis, fled town and is now living with friends outside the city.

After the couple spoke with The StarPhoenix last week, Dennis’s story was shared across the globe. Hook said people have been contacting her through Facebook ever since, to express support for her plight.

Diane Bentley, chair of the city’s advisory committee on animal control, said Hook can come to city hall and argue her case for keeping Dennis within city limits, but expressed skepticism that such a move would yield results.

“I can’t say they could make a single exception, because then we would be making single exceptions for numerous animals,” she said.

Coun. Mairin Loewen, who’s said she’s heard from one Saskatoon resident who wants council to allow Dennis to stay in city limits, said she empathizes with Hook, but that the bylaw is clear.

“I can’t say that I feel a strong urge to revisit the issue of what should and should not be allowed as a domestic pet in the City of Saskatoon,” she said.

Despite offers to help take her issue before city hall, Hook said she’s reluctant to cause a “big political hubbub” and hopes the provincial government can quietly grant her special permission to keep her unusual pet.

“I’m really trying to not step on toes and turn this into a battle,” she said.

Provincial laws allow Saskatchewan residents to keep pet raccoons, but raccoon ownership is forbidden under the bylaws of several municipalities, including Saskatoon and Regina.

The Ministry of the Environment offers special captive wildlife licences that allow qualified educational facilities and individuals to keep forbidden pets in the city, however. Hook said she’s sent an inquiry to the ministry asking what she can do to be eligible for such a licence. She has not yet received a response.

If Hook is unable to qualify for a special licence for Dennis, she said she and her husband will reluctantly move away from Saskatoon.


Sunlight glints off Saturn moon’s seas in dazzling NASA image

Black_Hole_Memories___Photo via: http://utcjonesobservatory.tumblr.com Cassini has seen some things, man. NASA’s intrepid spacecraft left to investigate Saturn way back in 1997 and it’s still surprising us back here on Earth with fascinating images. The latest to wow humans is a color mosaic showing sunlight shining off the moon’s hydrocarbon seas near the north pole. The image was captured in near-infrared light and the result is a greenish Titan with glowing highlights where the seas are located. Cassini has captured the polar seas before. It’s also nabbed some vague views of the sun glinting off them, but this new mosaic is the first time they’ve been caught together in the same view, and it’s breathtaking. The official term for what’s happening in the image is a “sunglint.” There’s more going on here than just a pretty picture. The image also shows bright methane clouds near the north pole. NASA notes that the clouds could be actively refilling the lakes with rainfall, so be sure to take an umbrella if you ever join a manned mission to Titan. Kraken Mare, the sea showing the sunglint, has what NASA describes as a “bathtub ring” around it. This indicates the process of evaporation has caused the sea to get smaller over time. Titan’s seas are primarily composed of liquid methane and ethane, not exactly the sort of place you would want to go for a beach vacation. The moon has been a source of extra fascination recently thanks to a strange phenomenon where a “magic island” has been spotted disappearing and reappearing on the surface. There have been proposals to send more advanced missions to Titan, which may help answer many of the questions scientists have about what exactly is happening on the heavenly body. In the meantime, we’ll have to make due with images and data sent back by the ever-helpful Cassini.