Monday, November 13, 2017

Phases of the RET experience

(NOTE: The following post was written by Tania Tasneem, a middle school science teacher in Texas.  Tania worked in Dan Bolnick's lab for three summers. In 2006 she was supported as an REU student (Research Experience for Undergraduates), paid by a REU supplement to an NSF grant. Shortly after, she graduated and began teaching middle school. In 2013 she returned as an RET (Research Experience for Teachers) to do both field work in British Columbia, and lab work in Austin.  Her salary came from the fantastic 'Research Experience for Teachers' (RET) program that NSF funds as supplements to new or existing grants, in this case  a collaborative grant between Dan Bolnick, Andrew Hendry, and Katie Peichel. Tania returned in 2014 for an additional summer's RET, this time exclusively doing lab work in Austin identifying fish stomach contents and parasites from the samples she helped collect in 2013. As a result of this work, Tania is a co-author on a Nature Ecology & Evolution paper, and on another manuscript in preparation.  Since 2013, the Bolnick lab has hired 7 RETs to participate in research, usually in pairs, or paired with an undergraduate studying to become a K-12 STEM teacher. Most of these teachers have ended up as co-authors on one or more published articles. The following essay conveys the RET's perspective on this experience.  I have posted this without editing, to clearly convey both the pros and cons of the RET experience in the hopes that this information can improve other researcher-teacher interactions.- Dan Bolnick, Nov 8, 2017)

The author, Tania Tasneem, as an REU student in summer 2006 in British Columbia

I recently went to a training for seasoned teachers on how to best support new teachers during their first year. Figure 1 shows the progression of a first year teacher’s attitude toward teaching and was projected at the end of the day long training to remind us of all of the emotions a first year teacher encounters.  As the first semester of my 11th year comes to an end, I can assure you that this data holds true to most teachers every single school year. The figure also mirrors some of the emotions I encountered during my first field/lab experience in the Bolnick lab as an REU during the summer of 2006 and again as an RET summer of 2013 and 2014.

For each of these emotions, I have tried to reflect on my mindset/paradigm shifts as an REU (in my early 20s and a novice teacher) and as an RET (in my early 30s with 8-9 years of teaching experience) about joining the project, doing field work, my lab experience during the summer, and the impact on my teaching practices. I’ve tried to give a brief explanation of what that phase is like as a teacher and how it is related to the field/lab experience in the summer from the perspective of a novice teacher (REU experience) and a veteran teacher (RET experience).

Anticipation Phase (Before going into the field)
The anticipation stage begins during the student teaching portion of pre-service preparation. My first field experience was the summer before I started my student teaching semester so I can definitely relate to feelings of excitement and anxiousness as I became closer to the start of a school year with a mentor and being in the classroom every day. New teachers, myself included entered with a tremendous commitment to making a difference and a somewhat idealistic view of how to accomplish these goals. Seasoned teachers on the other hand are more anxious about new district and campus initiatives, administrative/teacher turnover and impacts for their campus, what their new student needs will be for the upcoming school year. This feeling of excitement carried me through the first week of field work and carries me through the first weeks of school every year. 

Survival Phase (In the field)
During the survival phase, teachers (new and seasoned) are overwhelmed, bombarded with a variety of problems and situations they had not anticipated, and trying to keep their heads above water. New teachers are learning a lot at a very rapid pace and consumed with the day-to-day realities and routines of teaching. There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences. It is not uncommon for new teachers to spend up to seventy hours a week on schoolwork. While seasoned teachers can manage these realities a little bit better, most seasoned teachers have a similar work load or work as mentors to help new teachers survive this phase. There is little time to stop and reflect on their experiences. It is not uncommon for new teachers to spend up to seventy hours a week on schoolwork.
Particularly overwhelming is the constant need to develop curriculum. Veteran teachers routinely reuse excellent lessons and units from the past. New teachers, still uncertain of what will really work, must develop their lessons for the first time. Even depending on unfamiliar prepared curriculum such as textbooks, is enormously time consuming.

Disillusionment Phase (Field season almost over)
This is the “I’ve made a terrible mistake, what was I thinking?!?!?!” phase. After six to eight weeks of nonstop work and stress, new teachers enter the disillusionment phase. The intensity and length of the phase varies among new teachers. The extensive time commitment, the realization that things are probably not going as smoothly as they want, and low morale contribute to this period of disenchantment. New teachers and veteran teachers alike question both their commitment, competence, and career choices during this phase.

Rejuvenation Phase (field work is over, to the lab)
The rejuvenation phase is characterized by a slow rise in the new teacher’s attitude toward teaching. Having a break makes a tremendous difference for new and veteran teachers alike. It allows them to resume a more normal lifestyle, with plenty of rest, food, exercise, and time for family and friends. This vacation is an opportunity for teachers to organize materials and plan curriculum. It is a time for them to sort through materials that have accumulated and prepare new ones. This breath of fresh air gives teachers a broader perspective with renewed hope.
During this phase we are ready to put past problems behind us, have a better understanding of the system, an acceptance of the realities of teaching, and a sense of accomplishment. Through their experiences in the first half of the year, teachers gain new coping strategies and skills to prevent, reduce, or manage many problems they are likely to encounter during the second half of the year. Many feel a great sense of relief that they have made it through the first half of the year. During this phase, teachers have the time to focus on curriculum development, long-term planning, and teaching strategies.

Reflection Phase (End of the summer lab/field season and on to the new school year)
The reflection phase is a particularly invigorating time for teachers. Reflecting back over the year, allows us to highlight events that were successful and those that were not. We think about the various changes that we plan to make the following year in management, curriculum, and teaching strategies. The end is almost in sight, and we have almost made it; but more importantly, a vision emerges as to what our next year will look like, which brings a new phase of anticipation.


Tania Tasneem as an RET in summer 2013

Friday, November 10, 2017

Your Departmental Seminar NEEDS YOU

Remember that time you, or your supervisor, invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks – and you promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then the speaker came and only half the department showed up? Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
Oh, wait, perhaps you also remember that time when someone else in the department invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks (at least that is what they wrote in the email) – and promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then you didn’t go because you were busy, or because it was too far away, or because it just wasn’t that relevant to your work. Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
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Having now given more than 100 invited departmental seminars, having invited dozens of speakers for our departmental seminars, and having even been the chair of our departmental seminar committee for a number of years, I can attest that the above contrast is a universal problem facing departmental seminars. To combat this apathy, seminar organizers and committees try all sorts of inducements – they have wine and cheese receptions (many places), they have raffles for good wine (Oslo – when I visited some years ago anyway), some have a keg of beer afterward (UW Fisheries – in my day anyway), they take attendance, they give guilt trips, etc. Sometimes these devices work somewhat (and sometimes not) and some places have reasonably well developed cultures of seminar attendance (although many don’t). Regardless, I would guarantee that every department has had discussions and committees where low seminar attendance is bemoaned, dissected, and debated - and solutions are sought. Should it be earlier or later? Should we encourage/force people to invite famous speakers? Should we give more of a vote to grad students? Should we have receptions afterward? Should we change the venue? In short, seminars are never attended as regularly or as widely as they should be.
The main reason is that people don’t attend seminars is because they quite reasonably weigh the immediate perceived benefit of each seminar attendance against the immediate cost of that attendance. These benefits and costs are nearly always weighed on the basis of a person’s immediate research or teaching. “Will attending this seminar help me understand my science or give me new ideas?” Is weighed against “But I could use that hour to do this analysis, or write this paragraph, or talk to my student.” Or it is weighed against “I have to give a new lecture tomorrow” (or in an hour). Weighed in these ways, yes, it is true that the cost of seminar attendance will sometimes outweigh the benefit.
While I could make the usual point that long-term research and teaching benefits are gained by attending lectures not in your immediate area of research, that point has been made frequently and – seemingly – to relatively little effect. Instead, I am going to make an entirely different, although obviously complementary, point.
My main argument is that benefit-cost calculation based solely and teaching and research is NOT the only important factor to consider – and, in fact, neither might be the most important factor. Instead you should also view seminar attendance as a service – echoing the research-teaching-service triumvirate of university obligations.

Seminar attendance is a SERVICE because:

It reflects on the department to speakers and visitors, who will remember vividly if attendance was low. Remember that visiting seminar speakers are independent subsequent (dis)advocates of your department. Indeed, I am sure I have spoken to my colleagues in some context or other about every single seminar I have ever given.
It benefits the person who invited the speaker. That person will be embarrassed and disappointed if attendance is low, which will then reduce their inducements to invite more speakers and to attend the seminars of your invitees.
It sends an important signal to graduate students. I am sure nearly all professors would agree that their students benefit from attending a diversity of seminars and, yet, failure of a professor to attend seminars surely sends a signal to their students that attendance is not that important.
It sends an important signal to the administration that funds the seminar series. Every single seminar series struggles with funding to invite external speakers and, if a strong case can be made that your seminar series is well attended, then it is a much stronger case for funding.

So, put that seminar series in your calendar. Don’t ever schedule anything else for that slot. Assume you can’t use that hour for anything else. Just go. You will see cool research. You will get new ideas for research and teaching. The seminar speaker will appreciate it. The host will appreciate it – and reciprocate for your invitees. The grad students will see that seminar attendance is important and expected. Everyone benefits – and all you “lose” is an hour a week when you would otherwise have spent half of it just tweeting anyway.
If the seminar sucks, sneak out early and apologize later for that other obligation you had. If you are bored, discretely look at your facebook feed on your phone. If you are tired, take a nap. These imperfections are much less irksome than skipping the whole thing. Your seminar series needs you; and your department, your colleagues, your students, and you all need your department’s seminar series.

1. Some obviously good reasons to not attend seminars include not being in town, fixed family obligations (day care closing times, hockey practice starting times, etc.), medical problems (e.g., a broken leg), a conflicting class or lab, and the like.
2. This post is not intended as a dis of my department, where seminar attendance is kind of middle of the road, nor of particular people in my department (sometimes I miss too without a good reason).
3. Many places have many seminar series you could attend and I agree that it would perhaps not be optimal to attend them all. Pick a one or two to ALWAYS attend and attend the others more haphazardly if necessary.
4. This post is equally directed at profs, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.