Teaching about failure through cartoons

Earlier this week, a friend & colleague (Dr. Misty Paig-Tran, @FABBLab) tweeted about some trying to get her students onboard with doing experimental (as opposed to cookbook) science in the classroom:


At Allegheny College, where I teach, we run into this a lot in our sophomore seminar “Investigative Approaches in Biology”. It’s a great course – students rotate among a few faculty members throughout the semester, they do a base experiment, and then groups desgin their own experiments, complete them, write them up, and present them to the class. For my module, students experiment with shark tooth puncture forces.


Student testing a sandbar shark tooth (C. plumbeus) on a mini-lobster (crayfish).

Because there isn’t much published on it, everyone is doing something that isn’t in the literature. There’s no right answer to look up, and it takes awhile to get comfortable with that. They’re not all quite there by the end of this class, but they do understand that we do research because we want to know the answers, not necessarily because they exist already.

Students at Allegheny complete a senior comprehensive project (thesis, or “comp”) that has to be an original work of scholarship. In biology, that means students are expected to complete scientific research (see my website for a list of what my students do). Research and communication skills are scaffolded into our curriculum, and we have a “junior seminar” that helps move our students toward developing their comp projects.  This is daunting – they are nervous because they truly are responsible for an entire research project themselves (with support from their professor). I get the same questions during junior seminar every year: “What if my comp fails to work? What if I get no data? What if my data is wrong? How will I know if I’m doing it right? THEY WON’T LET ME GRADUATE!”


For the record, they will let students graduate if the comp doesn’t work – stuff happens in the lab, and they only have 2 semesters to work on this.

These two classes have more in common than research skills: they share students’ fear of the unknown and of being wrong. It’s a fear of failure. That sets up some big barriers to the learning we’re trying to accomplish here. The psychological and pedagogical literature is chock-full of studies that demonstrate the effects of this fear. It’s not just that people may miss opportunities or not turn in assignments in a classroom setting. There are documented effects on physical and mental health as well. On top of that, first-gen and traditionally underrepresented students are more likely to feel its effects.

So what do we do? We embrace a pedagogy of failure and we give our students the tools to work with failure. We also, as faculty and staff, have to make room to allow our students to fail. My co-conspirators and I here at Allegheny have been working to write & present our strategies for how to do this in peer-reviewed venues (and in delightful irony, have been failing in our endeavors).

And this brings me back to Misty’s tweet. My response to her was to teach her students about failure and how to be use stupidity productively, and that I do this on the second day of class in my junior seminar. I have also done this for incoming first year students during orientation and for faculty at workshops on campus, using the exact same materials across the board. In fact, the classroom activities I do for this particular lesson are so appreciated by my students, that when I was giving a poster on a lesson I teach for a SERC workshop on teaching paleontology, they asked me to make my poster about the failure/stupidity lesson. That’s some high praise from my students and is an indicator that we’re doing something right with this.


The poster I presented at SERC. You can download a pdf of this in the links below.

After I tweeted my response, the requests for the teaching materials started rolling in. Instead of sending the same emails over and over again, I decided that it would be best to just make my files available here for anyone that wants them, plus list out below what you need for the class:

I think that the key things about this lesson that make successful are as follows:

  • I don’t actually use the word “failure” until the end of the class period. There’s too much baggage with that word and it shuts people down.
  • Humor. If you know me personally, the plethora of cartoons won’t surprise you.
  • Being vulnerable. I share stories about my personal failures and how I was able to move into growth mindset before I ask students to. I also tell stories that aren’t easy, because telling the easy story is disingenuous and doesn’t encourage your students to be vulnerable. For example, my first semester of undergrad – I failed Calculus III and barely missed academic probation (concert band saved me), largely because I didn’t have any study skills and didn’t know you could drop a class. My parents wanted to pull me out and have me go to an “easier” university. In the end, I graduated in 4 years with a 2.98 GPA. Clearly things turned out ok for me, but we talk about the mental shift that I needed and how I accomplished that.
  • Not treating this as a one-and-done. This isn’t something you teach once and you’re good to go. You need to reiterate the take-aways throughout the semester, or beyond the semester if you have the students over multiple semesters.

Go forth, be vulnerable, and teach.


Reflections on SICB and Tampa

Note: I wrote this blog post on a legal pad on a flight from Tampa to Pittsburgh on Jan. 8

I generally go to two conferences a year: the annual meeting for the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) and for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). AES was the first meeting that I felt like I belonged at, like my professional home. But, as I settled into my career, our relationship changed. It became the conference I go to see my shark friends, where I can learn all the things about sharks that I ever wanted to, and to remind myself why I love sharks so much. I still enjoy this meeting a lot and enjoy learning as much as I can about sharks. Research-wise, though, I’m an island.

SICB, on the other hand, is full of weirdos like me. Scientists who don’t fit into one neat box of a particular -ology. Scientists who study multiple types of critters, across phyla or even kingdoms. Teacher-scholars who are adept at fusing research and the classroom and producing something awesome. This year I learned how sea robins (one of my favorite bony fishes) walk, how witch hazel launches its seeds, about the mechanics of cactus spines, that some sea stars can bounce to move, why the stinkbugs in my house fall on my head when headed toward my lamp (they stall out) and how to use that the classroom, about tiger shark genetics and migration, about a new way to use my students as peer coaches for other students. This conference has everything!

This SICB was extra special though, because it was in Tampa. I lived there while earning my Ph.D. and during my postdoc, but it’s been 9 years and 1.5 months since I left. I’ve been back twice – once in 2012 for some stone crab reasearch, and for a single afternoon in 2017 to visit a friend. Coupled with that, one my favorite people – one of my Ph.D. advisors – retired about seven months ago. Since many of his former students would be in Tampa for SICB, we threw him a retirement dinner. So, I’ve been an incredibly nostalgic and reflective mood for much of the trip.

Not all of it is good nostalgia. My eight years in Tampa were not easy. It’s where I lost 6 months of my life due to complications from endometriosis. Where I found out my dad had terminal cancer. Where my mental health reached crisis levels. But, there are so many little things – good things – things I had forgotten – that kept popping into my head throughout the trip. Kitten Cannon marathons in the lab with one of my closest friends when we just couldn’t write our dissertations anymore. Pranking my postdoc advisor by showering his lab in pink (yeah, it was me). Meeting newly engaged friends in front of the ice arena to celebrate. Endless hours in the water, helping other grad students with their field work. All of the really weird stuff you see in Tampa, like this dude who had a wooden cross that he would bear up and down 56th St., except he added some off-roading wheels and bungeed a beverage cooler around it. Happily finding out that the bar you went to every Friday for almost 5 years hasn’t changed much, though they did put doors on the bathroom, and the food is as good as you remember. The afternoon you spent with your friend after he defended his dissertation. Coffee breaks. Mantis shrimp. Shrimp boils (but not of mantis shrimp). All of the weddings.

And now my plane is on its final descent into Pittsburgh, and I have a 90 minute drive back to Meadville. People often ask me (especially in winter) whether I miss Florida. I always answer “No, except the ocean and wildlife. And the weather in March when I’m tired of the gray and snow. That’s all.” But now I’ve ben reminded of the good, and I’m less sure of my answer.

I think I needed SICB this year, more than usual. I needed the contrast to other conferences. I needed the guided randomness of the science, which helps me prepare for the variety of my students’ interests and speaks to my own scientific nature. But most of all, I needed to reconnect with that previous life, pre-kids, pre-tenure, pre-middle age, pre-professor life – the one that seems like it belongs to someone else. I needed to remember the good and remember that moments like those are still happening in the hustle of my life now.

I wrote a thing: Observations from my first year as an associate editor

The editors of Functional Ecology invited me to write a piece on diveristy and peer review as part of Peer Review Week 2018. You can find it at the Functional Ecologists blog: https://functionalecologists.com/2018/09/13/observations-from-my-first-year-as-an-associate-editor/

I’ve been an associate editor for Neotropical Ichthyology for just over a year now, and I noticed that suggested reviewers tend to have male names (note: I do not know whether those potential reviewers actually identify as male unless I happen to know them personally and they’ve disclosed this to me). Given the theme of Peer Review Week 2018 is diversity and inclusion, I chose to talk about that in my piece – my observations, the published studies confirming this trend, and some suggestions for how to address it.

Please read the piece and incorporate some of those practices when you submit work and suggest reviewers!


Image source: dictionary.com


Sabbatical: I think I’m doing it wrong?

I’ve been on sabbatical for the Spring 2018 semester, which is drawing to a close with 2 more days of classes. I still have summer, but I’m feeling this immense sense of panic that is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, I look at my list of research things and I feel like I’ve hardly made a dent. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I took enough time to relax and reset. When I’ve talked to colleagues about sabbatical, I hear both “oh, I got so much research/writing done!” and “oh, I relaxed on the beach and traveled and I feel like a whole new person!” This is why every time someone asks me how sabbatical is going, I respond “I think I’m doing it wrong…”


image source: knowyourmeme.com

I set out to do four researchy things on sabbatical, as outlined in my sabbatical application:

  1. Go to the National Museum of Natural History and photograph a bunch of fossil teeth to measure when I’m not on sabbatical.
  2. Analyze the backlog of jumping salamander videos for power analysis, which means frame-by-frame of over 300 videos. And related to same project: learn how to make histological sections of salamander torsos.
  3.  Attend the American Alliance of Museums annual conference, as I’m working on determining if we can open a museum of natural history and culture in Meadville.
  4.  Do a feasability analysis of said museum.

I’ve gotten #1 done, and #3 is in early May. I’ve met with folks re: #4 and discovered I need to take about 3 steps backwards first. I’m currently woking on #2 and have done 41 videos this week. I have 7 days left on my free trial of the video analysis software, and I don’t work on weekends…I don’t think I’m going to make it through all of the videos. The histology is harder than I had hoped…but I finally have tissues not falling out of section and making it onto slides!

But then again….I did a lot that isn’t on the list. Since the application for sabbatical was due almost 1.5 years before this semester, some things came up after that.

  1. I’ve been associate editor of a journal for less than a year, so I had those responsibilities.
  2. I wrote an application for an internal grant (and got it!) to start revamping our intro bio course.
  3. I participated in a reading group to help lead to that grant.
  4. I kept working on cataloging the paleontology collection.
  5. I gave a talk at McDaniel College while I was in DC.
  6. I kept running my programs that related to my educational scholarship/research: 4th Graders as Scientists, Educators in the Workplace, the Allegheny College – Crawford Central School District STEM Partnership. These are all HUGE time commitments, in terms of organization and getting them up and running each year. I found myself asking “how the hell do I do this when I’m teaching 3 classes?!”
  7. I ran a fossil day camp for our local Girl Scout troops:


  8. I submitted a research grant to a foundation, which will allow me to pick up my shark tooth biomechanics research again.
  9. Colleageus and I submitted a symposium proposal to ICVM, and will submit a workshop proposal to SICB next week.
  10. I got two new projects planned out for this summer and next year.
  11. Pulled into several convos about department stuff, as we have several retirements happening this year.
  12. I’m still working with JMIH and AES on code of conduct stuff.

On the relaxation front:

  1. I finally completed a set of mittens for myself (for once). I’ve had the yarn for 3 years:      mittens
  2. I completed a shawl for myself (again!) with yarn I’ve had for about 12 years.
  3. I’m taking voice lessons! I’ve always wanted to!
  4. I have read 13 non-work books (actually fewer than I had hoped at this point).
  5. I’m all caught up on Marvel movies, just in time to see Infinity War this afternoon.
  6. I spent 2 weeks taking care of my mom after her knee replacement (ok, not relaxing at all, but it was 2 weeks I spent out of the office).

And yet, I look back on this list…and see I’ve got a crap-ton of work done, and seem to be missing the relaxation piece, porportionally speaking. This is probably why I am staring at the list of over 200 videos I still have to analyze, and am just thinking about saying “f-this” despite my software trial time running down, and going home to work on my crafty stuff for my side-gig, which kicks into high gear in May:


To be potted…

And then there’s this contribution to not feeling relaxed enough:


The back of my car, February 2018

I didn’t go anywhere, other than my DC trip (6 days) and back to Chicago to take care of my mom (2 weeks). It’s a stay-battical. My partner has a non-academic job. He can’t just take a semester off. We had no interest in making either of us single parent for more than 2 weeks.  My daughter still has to be at the bus stop at 7:25am. My partner still has to commute 25 minutes to his job, and leaves at the same time. My son still goes to preschool. So, normal life goes on. So, you’re seeing mom life in that photo: 2 car seats, Girl Scout cookies that needed to be sorted into individual orders, PVC to build the cookie booth, fabric & paint for the banner for said cookie booth, bird seed for our bird feeders, hockey sticks for both kids, 4 bottles of wine, and a small bag of things I forgot to pick up while grocery shopping a few days earlier.

No wonder I don’t feel like I’m doing sabbatical “right”! I’m comparing myself to colleagues that jet off to France or Australia for a year with or without families, or who aren’t running three programs because there’s nobody to hand them off to, or who can sleep in or take off on a random weekend to go to the Outer Banks.

But I am getting to spend more time with my kiddos and family – days where the kids and partner had off from school/work and I usually don’t. I feel like we can take more down time on the weekends to fun things or make complicated meals (I finally made tamales from scratch!), since I can put off errands to happen during the week when they’re at school/work. I am glad that I got to help out my mom and sisters by hanging with my mom after her surgery – something that would be impossible if I wasn’t on sabbatical. I got to take a detour to UIUC, my alma mater, from Chicago to see my former undergrad research advisor…he’s been retired for over 10 years and had just finished his “omega” monograph. I don’t know that I’ll get to see him again.  I got to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture while in DC, which was moving and amazing.  Travel to far away places can wait until the next sabbatical, when the kids are older. Sleeping in can wait – that’s what coffee is for.

When I stop to write all this down, and take stock of the last several months, I think I did sabbatical just right.

So I wrote a thing about sexual harassment, sexism, and shark science….


Scientific history has always been “whitewashed” & other problems with Nature

There’s a lot for me to be mad about this week. The repeal of DACA. Hurricanes. Whatever governmental shenanigans that are likely flying under the radar while we’re all distracted by DACA and hurricanes.

Today, though – I’ve been mad about the idiocy of Nature News and Comment‘s editorial all day. In it, they propose that taking down statues of scientists that experimented on Black people without their consent (Thomas Parran Jr.) or without anesthesia (J. Marion Sims) is inappropriate. Instead, they propose adding plaques to these monuments “noting the controversy” or adding an “equally sized monument commemorating the victims”.  The thing that angered me most though was this sentence: “Erasing names, however, runs the risk of whitewashing history.”

Let me break this down for you:

(1) History and science have always been whitewashed in this country. Maybe this is not what they were going for with this choice of phrase, but the scientists we read about in our books, the ones that historically super well cited – those are White men. We continue to lift White men above others in science in other ways. For example, Nobel Prizes tend to be awarded to “European and American researchers”, and they have a history of antisemitism (see the delay in giving Albert Einstein his prize) and sexism.  People of color are still underrepresented in STEM fields.

(2) Removing monuments is not the same as removing history. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to forget who Parran and Sims were and what they did. They have published papers. They are still an integral part of our history as scientists, for better or for worse.

(3) Other countries or institutions deciding to leave up statues or acknowledging that they have problematic history is not good support for your argument that we should do the same. This smacks of “if your friends went and jumped off a bridge, so we should too” (thanks, Mom). We’re scientists. We know better than to use that kind of evidence in an argument.

(4) Equal sized monument? How a bigger, better monument to those who were tortured and mistreated? We can put the plaque “noting the controversy” on that, and get rid of the statues of unethical scientists.

<stepping off soapbox>



Music, my job, my life

Yesterday, I took my first guitar lesson – something I’ve been wanting to do for about 10 years. It was only 30 minutes long, and I learned the correct position for my right hand. I’m so excited for my next lesson and to sit and just practice.
I can’t imagine my life without music. Anyone who has visited my office knows that there is always music playing, whether its classical, movie scores, blues, classic rock, or hip hop – really, as long as it’s not modern country, I probably listen to it. My more observant students have learned over the years that they can predict what I’m working on or my general mood by what genre of music is playing. Movies scores and classical are for writing or grading a student’s writing, and usually something like Rage Against the Machine for data analysis. Analyzing video or measuring things from photos call for something I can sing along to.
Currently, I’m listening to a resistance-themed playlist curated by a group of friends, which starts with “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana), followed by “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy), “Suffragette City” (David Bowie), and “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holiday). Take that as you will.
I’ve been playing piano since kindergarten, tried trumpet in 6th grade, then switched to French horn in 7th grade. I still play piano and French horn (and maybe will pick up my trumpet again soon). It’s hard to get practice time in on the piano, because my daughter is taking piano lessons and my son also wants in on the action. By the time the piano is free, the kids are in bed, so it’s a no-go.
French horn happens more often, and that’s because I play with our college’s wind symphony (and sometimes the civic symphony). We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at lunch time, and have one concert each semester. Unfortunately, because of department meetings or other committee meetings, I don’t get to go to every practice. Thankfully our director is super understanding.

My horn, patiently waiting in my lap before our spring concert

 The music faculty that play wind instruments also play in this ensemble (trumpet, bassoon, trombone). I am not the only non-music faculty that plays though. We have a chemist (clarinet) and occasionally another biologist (flute), a staff member from career services (clarinet), and our former provost played until she retired (flute).  The wind symphony, however, is almost entirely students and the ensemble is for them. The majority are not music majors or minors, but they are amazingly talented – far more so than I can ever hope to be.
I love that I get to see them in this different environment. There are a lot of biology and geology majors/minors in that ensemble, and sometimes students get to know me there before they ever have me in class. I also get to know students outside biology and geology in this context. I think we all appreciate that we can talk about music, and not just their science classes, their senior research, etc. This is an added bonus to my job that I never anticipated.
Study after study cites the benefits of music education through childhood: it helps develop language, pattern recognition, mathematical skills, quantitative reasoning, creative thinking, teamwork, discipline, better SAT scores, higher grades…the list goes on. A quick Google Scholar search yielded 1,840,000 results.
Did all of this music help me with things? Maybe. Do I hope they help my kids? Sure. But here’s the real reason why my daughter is in piano lessons and I will always put on music when my son asks: it makes my heart happy, and I hope that my kids will have something that make them that happy too.
Have you ever experienced that moment in a piece of music where you get chills? There’s a suite of music by Johan deMeij based on the Lord of the Rings books (well before the movies; he premiered it in 1988 in Brussels). The first movement, “Gandalf”, is my favorite partially because of its wonderful horn part. You can listen to it here. But there is this part, right at about the 3:40 mark, that gives me chills every time – whether I’m listening to it or playing it with an ensemble; it sounds like the heavens are opening and there is hope.
I love science and I love what I do. But it doesn’t give me chills. It can’t move me like that. That is why we need music education. That is why we need music in our lives. That is why I need music and am grateful that it is part of my job.