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Elise Lauterbur Q&A: From Statistics to Field Methods, Designing Courses Around Active Learning

STONY BROOK, NY -- Elise Lauterbur, a PhD candidate in Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution, uses computational and genomic techniques to study adaptation and demographic changes in at-risk species. Her dissertation examines how bamboo lemurs survive the cyanide in the bamboo they eat and how this affects the way population genetics models apply to endangered species. Her fieldwork experiences include collecting urine samples from wild bamboo lemurs in Madagascar and analyzing the mating choices of the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

In the following interview Lauterbur discusses her diverse learning and teaching experiences, from the traditional college classroom to the rainforest in Madagascar, with Francisco Delgado.

Francisco Delgado: You co-developed and have instructed an introduction to statistics course for doctoral students in the science education program -- can you walk us through the development process for this course? What inspired you to help create it?

Elise Lauterbur: I didn’t have any formal statistics training until I started my PhD at Stony Brook, so I can remember what it’s like not to have a good understanding of statistics, how statistical tests work, what they mean, or how to interpret them in academic writing. And I can also remember what it feels like to have that world open up in front of you, to finally be able to understand what’s going on behind the scenes of the statistical tests that allow us to interpret our scientific data. That’s why, when the opportunity came up to develop and teach this course, I jumped at it. I wanted to share that experience with other students.

I worked with Michael Schrimpf and Catie Foley, two other PhD students in my department who also have an interest in teaching and statistics. There were two runs of the course. Michael and Catie taught one at Stony Brook, and I taught one at Stony Brook Manhattan. We had recently taken a course on biology education research from Dr. Ross Nehm, and developing this statistics course together allowed us to apply what we had learned. This was a short course, a few hours a day for two weeks, so there was a lot to pack in, but we didn’t want to just throw information at students and hope they picked it up.

Our goal was to give students the tools they would need for the future. We wanted them to be able to understand and apply statistical concepts. We did a lot of research to figure out what would be the important statistical concepts to provide a foundation for statistical understanding. We designed the first half of the course to provide that conceptual foundation. These were things such as the nature of statistical distributions, p-values, and confidence intervals, and how they fit with real-world data. The second half of the course provided the tools to perform statistical tests – a handful of the most common tests (t-tests, chi-squared tests, ANOVAs, etc.), how and why they work, and practice with the program SPSS to be able to do them. We finished the course with an assignment for the students to ask and answer a statistical question on their own data.

Francisco Delgado: That seems like a great way to get students to review and think further about their own course work! Sticking with this topic of student engagement, I understand that in your capacity as a teaching assistant for  Conservation Biology (BIO 336/BEE 572), you engage students using active learning techniques. Could you talk a bit more about what these active learning techniques are? What are some if the benefits to this teaching methodology?

Elise Lauterbur: Traditional teaching methods, going back to medieval Europe and even ancient Mesopotamia, involve the instructor lecturing to the course. This is a good way of conveying a lot of information quickly, but does not really promote learning – gaining and retaining knowledge and skills, developing familiarity, and the ability to use and apply them.

Active learning gets the students involved in their own learning. It helps them to get to the point of using and applying information and concepts. In practice, this means less lecture, more hands- and brain-on activities. Fewer facts, more concepts. People learn better when they talk to each other and engage with the information, so this involves a lot of group work. That also gives students who are stronger in one area the opportunity to examine and strengthen their understanding by helping their colleagues, and it gives other students the opportunity to get help and explanations from someone who hasn’t yet forgotten what it’s like not to know something (the “curse of knowledge.”)

I was first exposed to and became interested in these concepts when my partner was getting his master’s degree in education. But it wasn’t until I started TAing for conservation biology for Dr. Liliana Dávalos, who has designed the entire course around these ideas, that I finally got to apply them and really understand how they work and the difference they can make. Starting with this course, in which Liliana gave me a lot of latitude to design and implement my ideas, I have developed further courses in this way (including the statistics course, as well as some of the study abroad Madagascar courses and an upcoming R workshop). The most important part of learning is understanding concepts, not reciting facts, and I have structured my teaching around this.

The biggest benefits to this kind of teaching are the emphasis it can put on conceptual learning, the documented increase in learning and retention of the material, and it’s fun! Next fall I will be instructing conservation biology myself, and I look forward to working with more students in this course.

Francisco Delgado: Tell me more about teaching field methods in the rainforest – what is most rewarding about these types of experiences?

Elise Lauterbur: Madagascar is a wonderful and rewarding place. In many ways it’s a different world from where most of us grew up. It is among the poorest countries in the world, and most people live on less than a dollar a day. Life there is different and difficult, but people are people. And the students who take the leap and come to Madagascar see that. They see people living their lives; they see the incredible biodiversity of the island, and they see the struggles in the interaction between them. Which means as their instructor, I get to see the students’ perspectives on the world change. To help guide someone as they incorporate life-changing experiences into their worldviews and make life-long friendships with people on the other side of the world from where they grew up is a truly rewarding experience.

The field methods courses are the most fun for me to teach there, though I’ve also done courses in biodiversity, primate behavior, and supervised independent student research projects. My favorite part of my own research is getting to spend time in the forest watching the animals that fascinate me. Sharing it with students is great, showing them how to take data on behaviors or get biological samples (urine or feces). I wish more people had the chance to just sit down and watch animals interact with each other and their environment. It doesn’t have to be something exotic though. Watching squirrels in the park or birds at a backyard feeder is pretty fun too!

Many of our study abroad students come back to Madagascar at some point, whether it’s for graduate research, starting a non-profit to help the environment or people, or working in another capacity. In January of 2016 we had the first experiential learning course, a one-month long internship. We had eight excellent students who did projects ranging from shadowing the Centre ValBio health team and working with the Centre ValBio education team to prepare reports on their new 4th grade education program to collecting data on the success of the long-term reforestation project. A student who interned with the health team has already decided that when he becomes a physician assistant, he will go back to Madagascar to volunteer his skills.

Francisco Delgado: Sounds like a pretty successful endeavor! Switching gears: what type of challenges have you faced as an instructor or teaching assistant at Stony Brook? What strategies have you used to overcome them?

Elise Lauterbur: The biggest challenge was learning how to deal with the wide disparity in academic backgrounds that students here have. I went into my first semester of TAing assuming that everyone in a 300-level course would be in pretty much the same place, academically. It took me a long time to realize that some students were having trouble solving equations relating to a basic model in population genetics, the Hardy-Weinberg equation, not necessarily because they didn’t grasp the concept that allele frequencies in a population change over time, but because they weren’t comfortable with the concept of a proportion. Or because they didn’t understand what a subscript signifies in an equation.

I tried rephrasing in many different ways; I tried different examples; I spent hours going over things with students outside of class, but it wasn’t until a very brave student asked “What do those small numbers under the letters in the equation mean?” that I realized that it wasn’t the way I was trying to present the concept I wanted to teach that was missing the mark, it was that I was overlooking that students were missing a fundamental piece required to understand my explanations.

Now I look for those missing fundamental pieces whenever I can. They’re not easy to find, and they’re not always what you expect them to be, but it’s so important. They’re so often missed when the goal of a course is to stuff a bunch of facts in a student’s head, but they can present huge stumbling blocks when the student needs to apply that knowledge.

I have tried to overcome some of these challenges in a few different ways. One that was particularly successful was developing a peer tutoring program. I matched struggling students up with students who were excelling in the course, giving students the option to participate on a completely volunteer basis. I then had both tutors and tutees check in with me independently on a regular basis so I could keep track of the progress of the tutoring from both sides. In the end, both groups of students felt they benefited, and I saw improvements in the tutees’ grasp of the material.

Francisco Delgado: What are some ways that your teaching has helped you develop your own research projects?

Elise Lauterbur: Teaching really makes you think about concepts you thought you knew, and the background to them. I was developing my thesis proposal when I first started TAing for conservation biology, and it definitely had an influence. For instance, we teach some basic concepts in population genetics and how they can be applied to understand populations of conservation concern. But those basic concepts make some important assumptions that make the math possible – that the populations are large and unchanging in size. I learned these assumptions in college but didn’t think much about them then. It was only when I was teaching them, had to explain them to students, that I sat down and thought about it. How much influence does a violation of those assumptions – as in endangered species with very small or declining populations – have on how well we can use these concepts to understand what’s going on in endangered populations?

Francisco Delgado: Lastly, do you have any advice for graduate students new to teaching?

Elise Lauterbur: Teaching is a lot of work. But as for most things, you get out of it what you put in. Spend time getting to know your students, what their backgrounds and interests are. When you see that lightbulb moment – when something finally clicks for a student, and they tell you it was your explanations or examples that helped them reach that point – it’s really rewarding. And you’re not going to get that with most students unless you put in the effort to understand where they’re coming from and where they want to go.

Francisco Delgado: Thank you so much, Elise!

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.   

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