Monday, September 15, 2014

What Common Core has that higher ed needs

A random return to blogging, but here goes....

When two educators are married, discussions of pedagogy are inevitable. Tonight's discussion at my house: Common Core (CC) and its eventual impact on higher education. For those unaware, CC is the newly-implemented system that's meant to standardize K-12 education in America. In its infancy, it is a controversial system, mostly because of its revolutionary approach to teaching and assessment (testing), especially for math. CC has its basis in experiential learning and assessment of understanding through written justification. Additionally, students are encouraged to take charge of their learning, while the teacher serves as a guide on the journey. Despite the controversy surrounding CC, it's commendable that CC was structured using the most cutting-edge information about how students learn best. Under CC, lectures, worksheets, and scantrons are a thing of the past. And yet, that's exactly what students will face when they enroll as university freshman. Ironic, no? In the coming years, we will condition children for one classroom format and then expect them to excel as young adults in another one. Seems bogus to me.

Higher ed is notorious for clinging to outdated classroom formats, mostly out of tradition and convenience. I've been training for seven years (ugh) to become a university-level educator. Yet, everything I know about classroom management, curriculum development, curriculum implementation, and student assessment is example-based. Monkey see, monkey do. Thankfully, my role models have been excellent, and many of them take it upon themselves regularly to read up on and use current teaching techniques. However, how messed up is it that, in all my years, I've never been required to take an education course? Even preschool teachers (no offense to preschool teachers) are required to take many pedagogical courses before they're certified. What about the folks who teach future physicians? Nope.

After 7 years of training to be a professor, nobody's ever asked me to take an education class. They did make me swear on a foot that I was qualified, though. 

To clarify, I'm not saying that professors are inept teachers. I'm saying that teaching is a skill--one that is under-appreciated in higher ed. It's often ranked as low priority by tenure review boards. "Anybody can teach," they say. "What else can you do for us?" Yet, how is one to be an excellent teacher AND an excellent researcher without training and sustained support for both?

The dirty little secret is that, during grad school, many teaching assistants are tossed into the deep end of the teaching pool without any prior training or practice. Their ability to teach swimmingly is based on their previous role models and their own personality and adaptability. Yet, even when teaching assistants succeed at good teaching, they do so only through cobbled attempts of trial-and-error and not through deliberate experimentation with evidence-based techniques.

The bigger issue, in my mind, is where higher ed is headed. The goals of business-minded administrators rarely match those of the faculty (though, keeping the gates open and the power on are probably mutual interests). As administrations at brick-and-mortar universities and colleges work to compete with online options, they attempt to woo students with shiny, new buildings and "best value" educations. Enrollments are at record highs--set high in order to pay for deficits both old and new. Education resource budgets are slashed. Therefore, as admission requirements loosen and as less emphasis is placed on high-quality educational experiences for students, we are left with academic institutions that are nothing more than glorified summer camps (citation needed...anyone remember where that phrase came from?) that house, feed, and entertain slack-jawed idiots.

However, in our post-economic-downturn era, it is now common to hear discussions about whether or not college is a good investment and whether or not it provides students with skills that set them apart from other peers in the job market. For some, college is no longer a necessary step to entering the middle class. This makes total sense. In my opinion, college is not for everyone (however, it should be available to anyone who wants to go). If college happens to be necessary based on the student's chosen career path, the next choice is to decide where to attend. The obvious dichotomy would be go cheap (online degree) or go quality (brick-and-mortar).

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on quality by emphasizing classroom funding, teacher training, and career support for good educators, universities are focusing on aesthetics while dumping more and more teaching responsibilities on non-tenured and part-time faculty, many of whom are inexperienced or under-qualified educators. In the end, and especially as the cost of higher ed continues to rise (thanks, federal loans), it is conceivable that families will turn away in droves from institutions that provide sub-standard training. And rightly so.

For all of its faults, CC is likely a step in the right direction. It aims to anticipate the needs of students and take into consideration their more modern experience. Instead of asking students to memorize everything, it accepts that the internet exists, and it attempts to foster abilities like teamwork, problem-solving, information prioritization, demonstration of mastery, cognitive reasoning, and independent learning. How awesome is that? I mean, talk about preparing someone for the real world. Or at least grad school.

The saddest part is that, even as students experience the ups and downs of early CC, and as CC is refined through the years, university faculty will STILL be droning on from our podiums and complaining that students are texting in class. We'll still be whispering to our grad students about those lazy, pathetic undergrads as we simultaneously force outdated, ineffective techniques on them that hardly inspire enthusiasm for learning. In our ignorance, we'll balk at accommodations for different learning styles and IEPs*. We'll fail our students. We'll dig our own grave, and the university will happily build yet another rec center over it.

The sooner we all realize the following, the better:
-Teaching is not easy.
-Teaching requires training, support, and tools.
-Teaching methods are not stagnant.
-Good teaching is the heart of a university.

 Let's try to keep it beating, shall we?

*Gorramit, if you don't know what an IEP is yet, for goodness' sake go look it up now!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Prodigal Student returns...

Well, hello lonely blog. I haven't been around much to update you these past few months. You see, I've been quite busy getting my feet wet here at OU! There is much to share!

Firstly, I've made it through a full quarter of classes successfully. I've learned a great deal, and I can't wait to finish the anatomy series of courses, which continues from fall into the winter and spring quarters. The training here is superb. If I EVER told you that I knew something about anatomy before coming here, it was a lie.

I am now enrolled in the Thorax/Abdomen/Pelvis&Perineum portion of the anatomy coursework. We have lab two to three times a week, during which I work with a group of three capable med students. We have become quite comfortable working together and with cadaver dissection in general. Hands-on training is a staple for the OUCOM, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to partake!

I am also enrolled in a combined undergraduate/graduate course - Animal Behavior. It's a fantastic class, and I learn something new every time I'm in it. I love how it synthesizes neuroanatomy/physiology with endocrinology and environmental cues to probe specific behaviors. I'm glad I am taking after having Neuroanatomy in the fall. I feel I can better appreciate the neurological basis for the majority of AB research out there now.

Secondly, I have been reading up on Stegosaur endocasts, the neuroanatomy and physiology of archosaurs, and the like to prepare for an oral presentation at the Northeastern/North-Central regional meeting of the Geological Society of America (March 20-22). Here's a link to the session. If you have a chance to look it over, you'll see several folks from Witmerlab and Burpee included in the session as well. Can't wait!

Third, being part of the Witmerlab feels a lot like being a youngling in Master Yoda's computer assemblage course. No longer am I afraid to open up a PC to play with the silicon innards! Can you find the following in a PC?: Power Supply, RAM, video/audio cards, hard drive, motherboard, processor, heat sink/fan? Yeah, you probably can. But the point is, SO CAN I!! :)
See here!

Lastly, GO BEARS! It's a bit lonely for a Chi-town girl here in Steelers/Jets country. Shout out to all my peeps back home. Send the PACK BACK!

Night ya'll!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fossils are neat, but rocks need love, too. So, let's stop blowing them up.

Hi all,

Though slightly out of the realm of paleo, I wanted to take a moment to spread the word about the fantastic people at and their efforts to end coal mining via mountain top removal (visit their site for an explanation of what mountain top removal is and information about the hideous toll this method takes on the land and surrounding ecosystems). Though their group is grassroots, they're gaining numbers and momentum in their efforts. I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to review their cause and to see how you can help. Also, please enter your info in the box on the right side of this blog (--->) to get more info!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The brain is wider than the sky

Hello to the few and brave followers who put up with my large gaps in blog posting!

Just an update or two about classes - I am now nearing the start of my third month as a PhD. student at OU. Immersion was, with the exception of a large final dissection project, completed at the end of August. Since then, I have been learning about the in's and out's of the human brain in my Neuromorphology class with Dr. Pat O'Connor. It's slapped me around some, but with the one and only lab practical looming (Tuesday - yikes!), I am relieved to say that things are really starting to come together. I am still getting used to the medical school approach to lectures and labs (faster pace and more it should be), but the anatomy itself is proving to be extremely interesting.

Learning about the brain, both from anatomical and functional perspectives, takes a great deal of practice and imagination, mostly to picture mentally the brain's internal structures and their connections in 3D. My previous dissection skills were not nearly as helpful as they usually are in anatomy classes, simply because brain dissection is mostly superficial observation, gross sectioning, and, for lack of a better term, "carving". Neuromorphology is a strange combination of gross anatomy, electro- and chemophysiology, embryology, comparative anatomy, and histology - truly unlike anything I've ever tried before. For those of you who are interested in synthesizing a myriad of biological disciplines in order to master them further (as well as learn about the brain along the way), I would recommend Neuro. Side note: I am also enrolled in an Ecophysiology class that deals with climate change and its affect on the day to day physiological systems of organisms. More about that later.

As far as research is concerned, I have, with the input of my advisor Dr. Larry Witmer, determined a tentative path for my dissertation. I will be building on a topic that Ryan Ridgely and Larry presented in a poster at the 2007 ICVM conference. Their poster described the applications of a technique they dubbed "Gross Anatomical Brain Region Approximation" (GABRA). In short, GABRA is a set of quantified, established osteological correlates that allow comparative neuroanatomists to piece together the brain of an animal that may have died thousands or even millions of years ago. GABRA correlates are determined by studying the brains of living animals, usually those that are evolutionarily related to the fossilized creature in question, and looking for patterns in brain structure placement and size. By scanning the inside of a fossil's cranial cavity, and by applying the GABRA set, scientists can obtain a fairly accurate
picture of what structures would have been present in the brain of the ancient animal, where those structures were in relation to other neural components, and how big the various brain parts were. Having an idea of the structure, placement, and size of brain structures in extinct animals would allow paleontologists to infer sensory, motor, and - gasp - even behavior attributes of a long-dead animal. For example, be able to determine if Triceratops was as dumb as we think (sorry Mathews - couldn't resist).

Working with GABRA presents an exciting opportunity, and I look forward to getting started as soon as possible. Sooooo....I've been working lately on becoming acquainted with the witmerlab 3D visualization software. Speaking of which, I better get back to it!

See you all at SVP!!!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Back from obscurity

<--New OU grad student!

Hello everyone! It's been about a month since my last post, but the lack of info is due largely in part to two things: busyness and movin' to the boonies. Dan and I have settled into our 2-bedroom house just outside the city limits of Athens, Ohio. It is teaming with flora and fauna (love it!) but has no internet connection and likely will not be connected for some time. No internet and no TV would have made Ashley go "something something", but a family visit this past week helped calm my restlessness. In one week, I will be starting my first course here at OU, the infamous but uber-interesting Anatomy Immersion. I have been told that, for one month, my life will be consumed with dissecting, reading about, and learning human anatomy. Why would a paleontologist be interested in studying human anatomy? Well, for two very good reasons.

The first reason is simple. Paleontologists, especially dinosaur paleobiologists, must know the anatomy of the animals they are studying in order to be able to constrain speculations about dinosaur locomotion, physiology, behavioral patterns, etc. Without an understanding of and vocabulary for the structures of the vertebrate body, paleontologists would not be able to conduct reliable experiments to test their hypotheses about dinosaurs nor would they be able to communicate the results of those studies to their peers. One can learn a great deal about the vertebrate body by studying human structures. That knowledge, because of the basically conservative nature of vertebrate anatomy, can then be applied to the study of dinosaurs. Not all structures are the same (or else we'd be dinosaurs!), but a great deal of crossover allows human anatomy to be a good teaching tool for both future doctors and future paleontologists.

Secondly, the job market for paleontologists is small. In order to make yourself marketable as well as knowledgeable, it is necessary to expand your skill set to include trade skills that are in high demand. By studying anatomy, paleontologists can pull double-duty as both paleo researchers and as medical instructors. Likely, when I finish at OU, I will be (hopefully) hired primarily for my skills as an anatomist with my research interests and skills in paleo being a bonus (/afterthought?).

Anyway, I'm jumping right in! Larry has been kind enough to add me to the OU WitmerLab website . No turning back now! :)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What ancient fossils can teach us about cancer today

When you think about cancer, you may think about how it has touched your life personally through a friend or a loved one. You may also consider how cancer is often in the news as novel treatments are tested daily. It seems to many, including medical students, that cancer is a disease affecting those in the here and now. While this is certainly the case, Chris Beard, Curator and Chair of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, encourages med students to learn more about the evidence for cancer in fossil animals. Not only does in give perspective on how old cancer really is (hundreds of millions of years at least), it also helps students understand cancer within an evolutionary context. Dr. Beard also hopes that, if given a dramatic example of cancer in fossils, medical students will be more likely to remember the experience and to correctly identify and diagnose cancer in future patients.

Fascinating stuff! More information and a great little video featuring Dr. Beard, a cancerous fossil, and medical student Katherin Peperzak can be found here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Moving to Ohio, Burpee Fame, and Jurassic Journeys post

With two weeks left before our big move, Dan and I have begun to pack...and pack...and pack. As you can see, the mountain of boxes continues to grow. We pick the U-Haul truck up on the 27th, and we'll be on the road by the 28th. The 10 hour drive will be a long one, but I can't wait to start moving in asap!

Last week, it was hard to say goodbye to everyone in Hanksville, Utah. Since we left, the Burpee crew had a fantastic week meeting and greeting the cast of "John Carter of Mars," including Willem DaFoe and Samantha Morton. Dinosaur material was discovered on set, and Burpee was called in to help excavate. Several celebrities aided in the digging and prep. So cool!!

Lastly, look for an upcoming post by me on Dr. Matt Bonnan's blog ( I'll be commenting on my Master's experience at WIU and my general adventures in Paleo. :)