FYRE: The Aftermath

The FYRE (First Year Research Experience) poster session took place on the afternoon of Dec 3 in the Ag Atrium. There were 98 posters set up and at least 200 students present at any one time during the event. We had an awards ceremony with awards for the Student’s Choice award for each of the 3 courses involved. There was also one overall award winner picked by 18 judges including Profs, grad students, instructional designers and even some senior undergrad students. I had a wonderful time and was so impressed by the work of all the students. I hadn’t seen what was happening in the other 3 classes and was amazed by the diversity and the excellence of their posters. Everything from Canola Zombies (my favourite title to the grand winner “Solar Energy: Turning Yellow to Green”

Now for the downside.

I had a student so upset about the FYRE part of this course that they sent an email to the rest of the class (me included) saying that they were bringing this issue to the attention of the Dean. If other students had any comments, she wanted them and she would bring them forward. This has now ended up with my department head and I am waiting for the results of that meeting as this is posted.
My take on this is that students want lectures and midterms with the odd written assignment thrown in. The comfortable and familiar. I have tried some new teaching methods in the past and I always get complaints and poor student evaluations as a result. However, as Sheryl Mills (an instructional designer in the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Excellence) told me, the end result is the only thing that counts. Did the students learn more?
The student will probably never talk to me directly about this, which, is a shame. I would value their input and consider how to address them in the next offering of the course. In the absence of that, here are the top 10 reasons why why I think FYRE was successful.
1) Students’ ability to write a persuasive scientific argument backed by published science went from almost non-existent to what I expect from 4th year thesis students. They also learned how to format an assignment in Word; a skill they will need in many future courses.
2) Students learned how to search the scientific literature effectively and organize scientific literature using a reference manager.
3) Students learned how to use Excel to manipulate data and create graphs and tables. (Excel skills were zero in most students at the beginning of the course)
4) Students learned how to form a hypothesis based on an idea they developed from reading the scientific literature. They struggled with this one, but with coaching (thank you to my research coaches Jessica Wang and Khalil Sahtout) they came up with some very good hypotheses.
5) They created questions for a survey that directly addressed their hypotheses. There were some problems here as well. Some students asked vague or overlapping questions that did not allow them to make good conclusions about their hypotheses. However, this was also a valuable learning experience and all groups ended up with something they could use in their posters.
6) They learned how to use powerpoint to create a poster to present their work. This taught them how to communicate their work clearly and make it visually appealing as well.
7) They participated in the poster session at the end and hopefully got a sense of what scientists do. I think having the students vote on the best class poster was a great (Fran Walley and Krista Wilde came up with this one) idea because the students interacted with each other at the poster session and found out what their classmates had come up with.
8) Because all assignments were marked (with extensive comments and corrections) given back to the students and then remarked if they chose to revise them, they actually improved their skills in all of these areas.
9) They learned how to work in groups. I know students hate this but so what. That’s what they will have to do for their entire working lives and they need to develop the skill. Groups were put together randomly so it wasn’t 5 friends in one group. I saw many friendships develop between group members which is a bonus for first term students.
10) Finally, the way all of this was structured, academic honesty was much less of an issue than in other courses I have taught.
From a student’s point of view, FYRE is a lot of work and, in first year, doesn’t seem very relevant. Student’s will start to appreciate these skills once they get into more senior courses where critical thinking and writing are required. I will be interested to see what their work in 4th year will be like.
Also, not all students hated it. I had about 15 students tell me face to face, that this was the best course they took this term and it changed their minds about what career path they might take. About 80% of students in my class want to be veterinarians on the first day of class. That’s because a lot of them don’t know all the other fantastic careers there are that involve working with animals. One student came to my office and told me that this experience opened her eyes to opportunities in animal research. I hope many other students had this experience.
I have learned that I can’t teach (there are students who would agree with that). I can only organize opportunities to learn. I think FYRE was the best opportunity I have ever provided.

The Winner of ANBI 110 Class Choice Best Poster 2014