Saturday, September 5, 2015

STEM, Google Classroom, & fostering creativity

Yesterday, we had a fantastic time in Genetics. I believe that this partly stems from a concern I've long had about being a scientist: I feel that there are few opportunities for creativity in the sciences. If I've bent your ear on this topic before, you've heard me argue that the three times you get to be creative in biology are:

  1. when you title your manuscript
  2. when designing an oral or poster presentation (to an extent), and
  3. if you are so lucky, when you discover and name a gene (or, likewise, if you develop a clever acronym for some new technique)

Of course, those of us in the daily practice of science know that there are indeed more opportunities for creativity. This term, in class, I've been trying to address this potential misconception in a number of ways. The obvious one I pursued first is simply telling the students that creativity is valuable in STEM (and in genetics, specifically). Almost daily, I've been urging students to be creative, especially in:

  1. thinking about how to solve a given problem (I don't think a day has passed when I didn't say "there is not always one correct answer to this question")
  2. coming up with alternate interpretations to explain an observation. Critical thinking is a critical skill, and the first step to developing critical thinking can be thinking creatively and not blindly agreeing with the interpretation that somebody else has developed, simply because it sounds plausible.

But, it is easy to talk about this; much more difficult to put it into practice. Enter the tablets. I decided to make one of our earliest forays into creativity in genetics (not an oxymoron, as I've tried to establish, above) explicitly creative. My class is just starting to discuss molecular genetics, which has entirely to do with understanding the properties of the molecule upon which genetics is based: DNA. I've found in the past that a difficult alternative conception to overcome is how the structure of the DNA double-helix is related to what we commonly see in figures and micrographs as a chromosome.

The assignment

The assignment was straightforward: for class, each student was to identify a free drawing app that would let them import and annotate photographs that they found elsewhere. They were then to find a micrograph of a chromosome, and to draw their interpretation of how the double helix relates to a chromosome.

The use of tablets

My integration of tablets here scores higher than stage one (substitution of technology for another method) in the SAMR Model, but the way that instruction is enhanced by tablets might be subtle here.

Before tablets, I probably would have brought a printout of a chromosome micrograph to class and had each student draw on the paper. This would be simple Substitution (the "S" – the lowest stage of tech incorporation – in the SAMR model).

However, I wanted students to develop some information literacy skills by having to practice how to find a  photograph of a chromosome (I had suggested a Google Images search; some students used other methods). Plus, having each student identify his/her own image to annotate might have the additional benefit of making them more invested in the outcome, because they're involved in decision-making and customizing their experience from the very beginning of the assignment.

At this point, students having either a laptop or tablet in class could achieve this goal. But, My belief is that one of the most important benefits of the tablet is the ability to draw more naturally on the touchscreen surface than one might using a mouse or trackpad on a laptop. So, after students chose their photograph of a chromosome, they had the opportunity to annotate that image to draw me their understanding of what a chromosome is.

Google Classroom

Here's where the tablet can really shine (and also where I goofed on this first attempt at using Google Classroom to collect and share student-generated content). I'll post soon on using Google Classroom, but the upshot, for now, is that it is a platform for disseminating and for collecting digital content from students - much like Google Drive, or Box, or every other cloud-based drive, but with a very useful wrapper.

So, I created an empty assignment: attach your chromosome micrograph annotation. Each student, upon entering the web-based Google Classroom, sees a post about this assignment, and can attach an image. When they "Turn In" that assignment, the attachment is copied into my Google Drive, in a subfolder named after that assignment "Double Helix & Chromosome," which is in a folder named for my classroom "Fall 2015 BIOL 102." So, I get all of the attached work in one place, on my laptop, on the fly, during class, and I can quickly scan through the images and assess student understanding. This is where the power of every student having a computer (tablet or not) in class can really benefit the educational process! This is the same argument for using clickers, or Socrative, or other methods to poll students during class to get feedback (ideally anonymously) on the state of the class' understanding.

To make things more interactive during class, my instructions to the students were slightly different than this workflow. I asked the students to form groups of 3-5 students and to show each other their images. The groups served two purposes, I thought. First, if half of the class hadn't come prepared with their chromosomes annotations, at least those students would still be able to be involved in evaluation of others' images. Also, group discussion can be very valuable in helping to resolve any differences between the annotations that might raise good questions about the topic at hand (how the double-helix is related to a picture of a chromosome).

They had about five minutes to debate within groups which of the images might be the best response to the assignment, and the group-elected image would be the one that was uploaded to our Google Classroom. It was during the group work that I was pretty sure I had success on my hands. As I later Tweeted (from @rossbiology), "You've got learning when students are standing up & facing backward in class! Nice job #rossgenetics."

After the students uploaded their annotations, my intention was then to display student responses to the class via our video projector, and engage in some larger group analysis of benefits and shortcomings of some of the submissions. This time, this didn't happen, for two reasons. The first is trivial: I ran out of time. The second is critical:

Anonymity and Safety and Google Classroom - a best practice

As I mentioned ever-so-briefly above, I strongly value the idea of having anonymous feedback. This is mostly because I like to create a safe environment for sharing opinions. In a class of 75, sometimes some students just aren't willing to talk and to share, but I want their input, too. So, one of the benefits of Google Classroom is that the file attachments that students submit are named whatever they like (so the file names don't have to include the student's name or ID number, for example). This is true if you access the files through your own Google Drive.

However, what I hadn't thought about in advance was that I was projecting in class from my tablet, and I opened the Google Classroom app on my tablet. In this view, the names of all of the students appear in the app (which probably isn't the best way to adhere to FERPA). So, I quickly closed the app, and we went on with the rest of the class. What I should have done is also had my laptop connected to the video projector, and switched to projecting from my laptop, where I could simply open the Google Classroom folder in my Google Drive and opened all of the attachments directly.

In sum, although this incorporation of tablets might not score high on the SAMR model (let's debate! Leave a comment!), I really feel that the ability for me to collect student feedback digitally, in class, and to allow students opportunities to participate more deeply in critical thinking (i.e. by finding their own image of a chromosome to annotate) and to demonstrate their creativity using a tablet computer made this exercise a true success.

To close, I'd like to show off some of the creative work from this exercise. The below images, from students L. Farshidpour and D. Whittington (who agreed to let me highlight their work here), are great examples of how invested and creative students can be in the classroom with their tablets!

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