Perspective on developing curricula

At the University of Maine, I am currently developing two new courses based on similar material I’ve taught previously at the University of Oregon and Montana State University. I’ve written about several of those classes, including a retrospective after teaching ‘Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes’ to humanities students. Here, with the spring semester commencing this week, I thought I would share my approaches to developing coursework. While a class doesn’t stand on organizational physique alone, it can go a long way to facilitating your communication with your students, their understanding of course expectations, and their ability to assimilate the information you are disseminating.

Organization of materials

The nature of my teaching means means that I don’t assign readings from a textbook, I curate reading lists for my students from current scientific literature, which changes a little each year. Because of this, and the need for file management, I have a few tricks. First, I have a folder (on my computer and the online teaching tool) specific to readings for that class. I curate the file name with first author, year, and few words from the title so I can keep track of what it is (ex. Zhulin_2015_databases_review). I duplicate that file name in my syllabus, so I can copy and paste instead of writing it out again.

I format my syllabus as a table, and add each reading to the day on which it is assigned. If I move lectures around, I move the whole table row, so I can migrate assignments and readings along with lecture titles. Lastly, because the readings are specific to lecture and date assigned, I mimic that order in my file names by numbering them all instead of leaving them in alphabetic order (ex. 10_Zhulin_2015_databases_review), to facilitate knowing when and which is assigned.

And I don’t just number them by order, I number them by lecture so students or I can just match the lecture number across the lecture files, assigned readings, etc.

Written assignments (when logistically possible)

A stack of papers facedown on a table.

There’s no easy way to grade written assignments from students, but I prefer it to exam-style assessments. Particularly in teaching microbial ecology and sequencing data analysis, there’s not a lot of strict memorization like there is in anatomy. The material lends itself more to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing mock scientific manuscripts. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, say, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off.

Written assignments allow me to give them feedback, including grammatical corrections, suggestion on sentence structure, pointing out leaps of logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.

Red pen.
Photo credit: Merriam-Webster

In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more information than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.

Stacking assignments for improved retention

It takes time to become familiar with new information. That’s why school subjects are taught multiple times, or in specific orders, as you progress through education. I have 13 – 15 weeks in a semester (or 10 in a quarter!) to on-board students and teach them a skill. For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first introduction, or their first formal introduction, to the subject.

Especially for my host-associated microbial courses, there are hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that inhabit us. Without that history, an explanation of the available technology, and a discussion of how that technology shaped the view we had, I can’t do justice to the majority of the coursework where I explain how we discovered the relationship between salivation and the microbial community geography in your mouth. The first section of my ‘host-associated’ course includes this background information, and a discussion of current technology, which is reiterated when later discussing literature and how technological shortcomings can hamper our understanding of a microbial community.

To give students more time to practice the material, I give related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and stack assignments. Students start with a non-technical summary of a paper; 1-ish paragraph where they have to introduce the paper and why it was done, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is a great way for students to gain familiarity. When it comes time to write a two-page essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose.

An inclusive syllabus

A syllabus is a document which encompasses the important information for the class, including meeting times and rooms, grading policy, lecture and assignment schedule, required reading materials, and more. It can be used to recruit students to sign up for the class, and once in attendance, it’s the first impression students have. It’s where they refer for questions about the course, what’s expected of them, and where to find instructions on assignments. I write my syllabi in a way that makes sense to me, the instructor, and I welcome feedback from students when my instructions are confusing. But, I also welcome feedback from different student populations in order to make the language and presentation of the document more approachable. Sometimes you just need something to break the ice. Like a paper turkey hat.

Sue wearing a paper hat shaped like a turkey.
Wearing the turkey hat that my mentee and I made.

I haven’t actually worn a turkey hat to teach a class, that’s too informal. I dress up like an anatomically-annotated dissected cat, because I’m a professional. Or, I ran regular class discussions that occasionally got heated and were monopolized by a fraction of the class. The next year, I took a stronger moderator stance and would impose more restrictions (“Ok the next comment HAS to use the word “microbes”). I don’t like calling on students, so the next time I have discussions I think I’m going to give them all D20 dice and have them roll for initiative on the order of presenting comments. I also added this to my syllabi:

Class participation: Students are expected to participate in discussions in class.  I strive to create inclusive discussions, but if students still find it challenging to participate please notify me and I will alter the discussion format as needed.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Most universities also require text or links to their campus policies, driven by federal, state, or university law. These include a statement about accommodations for disabilities, although many faculty are happy to make accommodations without the student receiving prior approval. I started allowing students to occasionally attend lectures by video conferencing, if they notified me ahead of time. It allowed students who were ill or traveling to keep pace with the material, and I have even remotely conference-videoed in to a student’s laptop to present when I was home sick but didn’t want to cancel class.

New this year, I’ve included text about students missing classes for parenting or caregiving responsibilities, something I don’t currently participate in, so it was not something I thought to include information on until someone else (Jenn Perry) gave me their perspective. Now I have this:

Pregnancy, lactation, and parenting: I am happy to make accommodations for students based on pregnancy, lactation, and parental needs, as well as work with the Office of Equal Opportunities. Maine state and UMaine policy allows students to breastfeed in any space, including in class. If a lactation space is required, please contact E.O. for arrangements.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Similarly, a tweet by Dave Baltrus about including inclusive statements such as information for food insecure students led me to add this:

Food insecure? Need clothes? Check out the Black Bear Exchange’s Food Pantry: https://umaine.edu/volunteer/black-bear-exchange/ or Old Town Crossroads Ministry.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

And finally, I added text about mandatory reporting. As a public university employee, I am obligated to notify the University of Maine Title IX office about criminal actions towards or by anyone on campus. If a student reveals information to me, I have to pass it on to the Title IX office which will then discretely reach out to the student with resources. The office advocates for anyone on campus, but they are particular important in situations involving students who are low on the power scale and cannot advocate for themselves. While my door is always open to students looking for help, I felt it was important for them to know that I might not be able to keep the meeting confidential.

Inclusiveness in the classroom is important to me, because if students don’t feel welcome, comfortable, and free from hunger, they can’t learn. Despite what opponents think, this doesn’t involve “coddling” or “being too soft”. It means being realistic in my expectations about how people learn and what else they are dealing with that might be inhibiting that. It means that I learn to be more proficient at communication and personnel management, which are vital skills for academics. And it means that we all elevate our skills together.

Silhouettes of four people jumping in a dark cave.

Microbes and social equity preprint available!

Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity.

Suzanne L. Ishaq1,2*, Maurisa Rapp2,3, Risa Byerly2,3, Loretta S. McClellan2, Maya R. O’Boyle2, Anika Nykanen2, Patrick J. Fuller2,4, Calvin Aas2, Jude M. Stone2, Sean Killpatrick2,4, Manami M. Uptegrove2, Alex Vischer2, Hannah Wolf2, Fiona Smallman2, Houston Eymann2,5, Simon Narode2, Ellee Stapleton6, Camille C. Cioffi7, Hannah Tavalire8

  1. Biology and the Built Environment Center,  University of Oregon
  2. Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon
  3. Department of Human Physiology, University of Oregon
  4. Charles H. Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon
  5. School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon
  6. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon
  7. Counseling Psychology and Human Services, College of Education, University of Oregon
  8. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Oregon

Abstract

What do ‘microbes’ have to do with social equity? On the surface, very little. But these little organisms are integral to our health, the health of our natural environment, and even impact the ‘health’ of the environments we have built. Early life and the maturation of the immune system, our diet and lifestyle, and the quality of our surrounding environment can all impact our health. Similarly, the loss, gain, and retention of microorganisms ⁠— namely their flow from humans to the environment and back⁠ — can greatly impact our health and well-being. It is well-known that inequalities in access to perinatal care, healthy foods and fiber, a safe and clean home, and to the natural environment can create and arise from social inequality. Here, we frame access to microorganisms as a facet of public health, and argue that health inequality may be compounded by inequitable microbial exposure.


In just a four-week course, I introduced 15 undergraduates from the University of Oregon Clark Honors College to microorganisms and the myriad ways in which we need them. More than that, we talked about how access to things, like nutritious foods (and especially fiber), pre- and postnatal health care, or greenspace and city parks, could influence the microbial exposures you would have over your lifetime. Inequalities in that access – such as only putting parks in wealthier neighborhoods – creates social inequity in resource distribution, but it also creates inequity in microbial exposure and the effect on your health.

By the end of the that four weeks, the students, several guest researchers, and myself condensed these discussions into a single paper (a mighty undertaking, indeed).

And now that I’ve found a preprint server that accepts reviews/commentaries, it’s available for preview! The paper is currently under review and will be open-access when eventually published.

During the course, a number of guest lecturers were kind enough to lend us their expertise and their perspective:

“Microbes and social equity”: I’m teaching a new UO Honors College summer course!

I’ll be teaching a new course for the UO Clark Honor’s College this summer!

Course Description: Microbes and social equity

This colloquium course introduces students to current knowledge on selected host-associated or human-associated microbiomes, and uses that base knowledge to discuss their relevance to human health in the context of social equity.  Example topics include the effect of diet on the microbial community in the gut and the importance of nutrient composition of free school lunches; maternal stress and the effect on offspring physiology, immune development, and host-microbial interactions; microbial communities in air, air quality, and income-based housing; building quality, indoor microbiology, and enforced occupancy (ex. prisons or public schools); and more. Guest lectures from relevant experts will be included as possible.

Some background in microbial ecology, genetics, anatomy, immunology, or sociology would be helpful, but is not required.  While difficult concepts will be discussed, the course is intended to teach students about the basic principles and how to apply them to contemporary social issues: what is a microbiome? How does host anatomy and health drive microbial ecology?  How does environmental microbiology and building microbiology contribute to or impinge on health? When we read about host-associated microbiomes in the news, especially regarding health, how can we assess if the study is rigorous and how should we interpret the scope of the findings?  The skill-set objectives include learning to review scientific journal articles, distilling their findings while understanding their limitations, and developing science communication skills via written assignments and in-class discussions.

Lessons learned: a retrospective on a newly developed course

This fall, I developed and taught a course called Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes for the University of Oregon Clark Honors College.  The course objectives were to:

  1. introduce students to basic concepts, laboratory techniques, historical background, terminology, and technology related to microbial ecology in or on mammals,
  2. familiarize students with online resources, including sequence repositories, scientific databases, and analysis tools,
  3. discuss how host-associated microbiomes are shaped by the anatomy and lifestyle of the host, and how the microbiome can reflect onto the health and performance of the host, and
  4. review current literature on host-associated microbial ecology.
As always, include plenty of humor.

Keeping it fresh

While I’ve taught similar material at Montana State University, and have plenty of teaching experience from my graduate teaching assistant days at the University of Vermont, I’ve learned that each student population is different, with a unique core knowledge base and interests.  Thus, I developed this course from scratch, and constantly revised it during the semester to adjust to the pace and learning style of my students.  A draft syllabus, as well as an example of a student’s final project, can be found on my GitHub.

To improve engagement, I tried to make the course (which did not have a lab section) more interactive. I offered a tour of the molecular biology lab I work in, I brought agar plates to class so students could try culturing their own microbiota, and I dressed up like a dead cat.

These students were not science majors, and had had very little science since high school. Even if they had been science majors, I wanted to give a broader look at the field of science than just giving an overview of current knowledge.  At the end of some lectures, I facilitated class discussions on various topics in science: the role of scientists in communicating science and whether we should report only or have an obligation to convince the public; elitism, recognition, and credit for intellectual property in a highly-collaborative working environment; the transfer of maternal microbiota and health status to offspring and how we approach prenatal care and parental leave; air quality (and air microbiota), residential zoning in urban areas, and income inequality; should we eat dirt?, etc.  The students enthusiastically participated in class discussions, and — to my surprise — requested more (see below).

Phone a friend

I wanted to highlight current research in host-associated microbiomes, and hosted three mini-lectures from guest researchers; Deepika Sundarraman, a graduate students in UO physics, Dr. Candace Williams, a postdoctoral researcher who Skyped in from Vienna, and Dr. Edward Pajarillo, a postdoctoral researcher who Skyped in from Florida.

Feedback

I really enjoyed teaching this group of students, and I got regular feedback from them about how the course was going and what was working.  More formally, I volunteered the class to participate in a pilot evaluation for my midterm and end of term review, which asked more probing questions of students than typical teaching evaluations.  For the midterm, only 4 of 15 students responded, but for the final, 13 of 15 responded and I have decided to share those (anonymous) course evaluations for IMM2018: 

Students wanted more in-class discussions, and more group-based work, which was surprising to me as science students tend to prefer fewer of these, or at least the option to opt out. I am already considering additional topics for discussion next year. While there was an option on the final to submit a group project, no one chose to pursue that.  Similarly, students were able to work collaboratively on journal article summaries to improve their comprehension, provided each student submitted a unique response.  Perhaps this option simply needs to be reiterated.

What surprised me most about the evaluations was that several students replied that (the second half of) the course was not challenging enough.  The course content was entirely new to them, and while the assignments drew on skills from their core competency as humanities students (reading and writing), they were required to distill large amounts of scientific information and be able to explain it back to me.  It’s a challenge to serve the learning speed and style of all students in a class, and I try to manage this by varying the format of assignments, as well as to teach skills in the first part of the class which can be refined with successive assignments. 

An example of this was the final project, for which the students needed to create a public outreach presentation in the format of their choice (essay, poster, pamphlet, presentation), which covered a particular topic or discussion point on host-associated microbial communities. Students were able to draw from scientific article summaries they had previously written, or even material from their exams (take-home essays), provided it was more developed and presented in a new and creative way. This flexibility allowed students to choose topics that they were passionate about, and to focus on the message rather the format. I felt this would help them find their voice, and judging by the final projects I received, it was effective.

That being said, if humanities students thought the material too easy, I take credit for communicating it well. I’m pleased with how the course turned out, as well as with the feedback I received from students.  I’ve already begun implementing upgrades to my curricula, and have proposed this course again to the Honors College. Pending approval, I’ll be back at it next year!

Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes

Since the end of September, I’ve been teaching a course for the UO Clark Honors College; Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes.   And in a novel challenge for me – I’m teaching the idea of complex, dynamic microbial ecosystems and their interaction with animal hosts … to non-majors.  My undergraduate students almost entirely hail from the humanities and liberal arts, and I couldn’t be more pleased. So far, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to pilot a newly developed course, improve my teaching skills, and flex my creativity, both in how I explain concepts and how I design course objectives.

I enthusiastically support efforts towards science communication, especially in making science more accessible to a wider audience.  My students likely won’t be scientific researchers themselves, but some will be reporting on science publications, or considering funding bills, and all of them are exposed to information about human-associated microbial communities from a variety of sources. To navigate the complicated and occasionally conflicting deluge of information online about the human microbiome, my students will need to build skills in scientific article reading comprehension, critical thinking, and discussion.  To that end, many of my assignments are designed to engage students in these skills.

I feel that it’s important to teach not only what we know about the microbial community living in the mouth or the skin, but to teach the technologies that provide that knowledge, and how that technology has informed our working theories and understanding of microbiology over centuries.  Importantly, I hope to teach them that science, and health sciences, are not static fields, we are learning new things every day.  I don’t just teach about what science has done right, but I try to put our accomplishments in the context of the number of years and personnel to achieve publications, or the counter-theories that were posited and disproved along the way.

And most of, I want the course to be engaging, interesting, and thought provoking.  I encouraged class discussions and student questions as they puzzle through complex theories, and I’ve included a few surprise additions to the syllabus along the way.  Yesterday, University of Oregon physics Ph.D. student Deepika Sundarraman taught us about her research in Dr. Parthasarathy’s lab on using light sheet fluorescence microscopy to visualize bacterial communities in the digestive tract of larval zebra fish! Stay tuned for more fun in #IntroMammalianMicrobiomes!

 

Spring Updates

It’s been a really busy spring so far, so much so that I haven’t had much chance to write about it!  Here is a brief overview of what I’ve been up to.

Research

This past year has easily produced the largest number of research topics I have been working on concurrently.  In addition to publishing a paper on the rumen in cattle last September, I have been working on a paper on the rumen of yearling rams which is currently in preparation and due to be submitted to a scientific journal for review soon.  I still have several small projects in development from my post-doc in the Yeoman lab, as well as a number of grad-student-led papers that are still pending, and was invited to contribute to a scientific review which is also in preparation.

I’ve been working through the large dataset of soil samples from my post-doc in the Menalled lab.  That large project has blossomed into four papers thus far, two of which I’m writing on the soil bacteria, and one of which I am co-authoring on the legacy effects of climate change.  Those four are also due for submission to scientific journals for review soon.  The Menalled lab just received a grant award from USDA AFRI NIFA, on which I am a (subaward) PI and to which I will be contributing soil bacterial community analysis.

The rumen and soil work over the past year has been entirely in my spare time, however, as my position in the Biology and the Built Environment Center has kept me delightful busy.  I have been collaboratively processing a large and complex dataset on weatherization, home operation and lifestyle, indoor air quality, and microorganisms in dust, which I will be presenting at two (possibly three) conferences this summer.  I have also been collaboratively writing grant proposals, and while those are still in development or pending review, they span everything from light, to chemistry, to plants and living machines, to hospitals, to social networks in buildings.  I hope to further develop some of these collaborations with a short trip at the end of June to the University of Austin, Texas’ Test House.

In addition, I have been assisting in the planning, development, and launch of the University of Oregon’s Institute for Health in the Built Environment.  The Institute will facilitate collaboration and information sharing between researchers and industry professionals, with the goal of researching, building, and promoting healthier built environments.  The Institute just hosted its #BuildHealth2018 Consortium meeting in Portland, OR, at which I presented some of the results from that large weatherization study regarding indoor plants.  The meeting was fantastic, and spurred in-depth discussion on problems facing industry professionals, innovative research goals, and a wealth of new possibilities.

Outreach

In the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of my spare time helping to develop the Eugene Pod of 500 Women Scientists, an organization created to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, and to promote education and interactive between scientists and the general public.  We have focused on hosting monthly Science Salon events, four to date, to do just that.  I presented at the first one, and have helped organize and MC the others.  The Eugene Pod’s activities were just featured on the central 500 WS page, as Pod of the Week, and you can also follow our updates and events on our Facebook page.

29351793_356599468080862_2462754110013482735_o
Running trivia on fire and fungi.

 

While it has been a struggle to maintain regular contributions, I still maintain Give Me the Short Version, along with a few intrepid contributors, which summarizes scientific articles for easier consumption.  This spring, I spent several days judging STEM and robotics competitions for several local Eugene middle and high schools, which has been a lot of fun.  The student projects are enthusiastic and creative, and I appreciate the chance to assist in these programs in some small way.

 

I have continued to mentor UO students.  The post-bac student from the BioBE lab that was learning bioinformatics with me, Mitch Rezzonico, was accepted to the University of Oregon’s Bioinformatics and Genomics Master’s Program!  Mitch wrapped up his work this spring to prepare for the intensive program, and with his interest in health research, BioBE hopes to work with him again in the future.  BioBE recently hired an undergraduate student for science communication, Mira Zimmerman.  Mira has been making some upgrades to the BioBE and ESBL websites which will continue to be rolled out over the next few months.  In addition, she will be helping me develop informative blog posts on the built environment, and helping to grow our information dissemination capabilities.  Hiring a student as a science communicator was something I had been hoping to test out, and so far it’s been a smashing success.

Teaching

My course proposal for “Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes” was accepted by the University of Oregon Clark Honor’s College for the fall term!

In April, I gave a guest lecture to Mark Fretz’s Design the Unseen course at the University of Oregon, on the Indoor Microbiome.  The class was populated by architecture students, who were learning about integrating health considerations into design strategies.  As a final project, students design a brief field experiment or intervention strategy for a design assistance project with Portland firms. I assisted one group in designing a small experiment on natural daylighting in an office and the effect on E. coli growth on culture plates – more on those results soon!

 

Later that same day, I have a lecture at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, as part of their OMSI After Dark series which opens the museum after-hours to adults for hands-on activities and lectures.  The lecture was on the gut microbiome, and I was able to present in the Planetarium!

 

 

I’ll be teaching “Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes” this fall!

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching a course this fall on “Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes”, with the University of Oregon Clark Honors College.  I hope that this will be the first of many courses taught at UO, beginning with my background in “host-associated”, and expanding out into “house-associated”.

Course Description: Introduction to mammalian microbiomes.

The learning objectives of this course are to introduce students to basic concepts in host-associated microbiomes. Some background in microbial ecology, genetics, anatomy, bioinformatics, or immunology would be helpful, but is not required. While difficult concepts will be discussed, the course is intended to teach students about the basic principles: what is a microbiome? How does host anatomy drive microbial ecology? How does that community develop over time? How does it change? How does technology inform our understanding of these systems, and what limitations does that technology introduce? When we read about host-associated microbiomes in the news, especially regarding health, how can we assess if the study is rigorous and how should be interpret the scope of the findings? The skill-set objectives include learning to review complicated journal articles, distilling their findings while understanding their limitations, and developing science communication skills in a variety of formats.