MiSciWriters is proud to partner with the UM Center for Microbial Systems to provide live coverage of the 2016 Michigan Meeting “Unseen Partners: Manipulating Microbial Communities that Support Life on Earth.”

We will be live-blogging the event here, and live-tweeting from @MiSciWriters today from 9:00-12:00. We hope you’ll add to the conversation by commenting below or tweeting with the hashtag #MiMicrobe. Enjoy!

The “Unconference”
Conveners: Melissa Duhaime, Pat Schloss, Nina Lin

Blogged and Edited by Ada Hagan


The unconference began in a very non-traditional way, with introductions from the audience. Feasible since the crowd had dwindled from 200 to less than 50 attendees. Pat Schloss transitioned to introductions by the speakers with the side note that the audience has just as many experts on the session topic as there are on the panel. He also pointed out that there were many audience members using their Ph.D.’s in a huge variety of scientific career paths. Perhaps, he’s the one practicing research as an “alternative” career.

Convener Melissa Duhaime, invited a 10 minute discussion between small groups to come up with questions for the panel, and each other, on the first theme: “Teaching Microbial Ecology”. The conversation at my table centered around the concept of the flipped classroom. Didactic lecture may be the form of the classroom that we’re most familiar with, but it isn’t the most effective way to learn. Broadly, the conversation quickly turned to “how do we make microbiology education relevant?”

One of the most popular questions in the audience focused around training students to think, and be able to answer critical questions, not just memorize material. Aaron Best has found that having students working as teams with a specific purpose, and having a “report out” situation works in his classroom. Steve Hecht advocated for a technique from “7 ways of teaching.” In other words, every 10 minutes in a lecture, you should be doing something different. Allow a classroom discussion to occur and do your best to ensure that all are participating, he even maintains that this is possible in an auditorium-style classroom. Mark Martin advocates for student ownership of concepts, that inventing (and grading) their own test questions can help students learn important concepts and simultaneously learn about how to think differently about material. Convener Pat Schloss asked how about how to teach a topic that is constantly changing? What should be taught? Nicole Koropatkin argues that building the skill set of interpreting primary literature allows students to acquire the tools to learn as things change. And helps them understand why and how the material these students are being taught might change.

In response to a question about engaging introductory microbiology students, Martin says he teaches his students that the three most important words in microbiology are “we don’t know”, stating that they know when we B.S. them, just as we know when they B.S. us. Best followed that with the bold statement “content is a red herring, it’s essentially useless.” He argued that the facts change, and that there are too many to really know. In the age of Google, as long as you know what to look for, you can find it. In other words, it’s not the content that you should be focused on teaching as much as the skill sets that allow students to learn moving forward that is important. In response to the “red herring statement”, what about upper level courses? Some content absolutely needs to be taught. Best agrees, and notes that students do come out with content., and that building your course around a core set of content is absolutely important, but the danger is that teaching content only (like memorizing the TCA cycle) often leaves students behind because they don’t learn how to learn.

The lone graduate student on the panel, Marian Schmidt maintains that it’s important for instructors to interact with the material, giving context for how information, materials and tools are used. But how does this extend to teaching microbiology? Schmidt says that adding our own personal stories about learning and (my words here) falling in love with microbiology can help bring these things home to students.

From here, the conversation segued into a discussion of microbiology analogies and stories that are useful. Tom Schmidt asked if there is a resource curated that contains this type of information. A few were suggested and the conversation proceeded to further develop into one of inclusion. How do we, as instructors, use analogies to foster inclusion in our classrooms, preventing isolation of students from different backgrounds (cultural or scientific). One key point is that it is important to break down the barriers of the “white coat scientists” and get students to understand that perhaps they aren’t a “scientist,” but everyone can think scientifically.

Best was asked repeatedly about his “sea phages” program (his implementation of a larger program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), and finally, he acquiesced with a description that can be found here. He noted that the course encompasses a model of teaching where he’s not worried about doing a phage program per say. Instead he’s focused on a scientific-based research program with students. There are no “non-scientists” in these classrooms, and all are actively contributing to the current state of science. This type of developed program is easier to integrate into the classroom than “reinventing” the wheel with an institution specific program and helps create a community of students that are learning something in common, which facilitates inclusion.

Ok, but how do you grade these active learning components? Martin uses a model split between anonymous student grading (with strict rules, of course), and a detailed grading rubric. He emphasized that you should model what you want to see, so be the example but peer-review helps to keep students engaged.

While the unconference officially ended at 11:30, we were only able to cover one theme. Attendees interested in covering the second theme, statistics, were invited to stay as they liked (or to head out for lunch). Schloss ended by noting that a couple of UM groups that focus on data analysis discussion and networking. Anyone interested in learning more about statistics could use those as resources moving forward by contacting Duhaime.

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