By the end of the semester, I figured that there were 15 of us preparing each week; each of us read 2 things and considered them for the site each week; and did this for 15 weeks. There was surely some overlap, but there was also some effort above and beyond by many of the students, and that math works out to a synthesis of hundreds of sources on this site.

Surely, that is worth getting a dozen-and-a-half donuts from Ike & Jane?

Altogether a fun semester. I think we all learned some good things, and although I put in more time than I often would for a typical seminar class, it was actually much easier and the discussion typically went well (that is where the prep time usually goes: make sure you are ready for the days when nobody has anything to contribute, because the paper is dull or overcomplicated).

If I were to do it again, I think first of all it would help showing the next group of students that this is what a dozen or so students can do in one semester. I would also start out the semester with a little better guidance on critical reading of the literature. Not just how to be a more skeptical reader, but how to recognize when a paper is hard to read NOT because of your (reader) ignorance, but because some technical writing is bad writing!

I would be more cautious about jargon-filled papers, and focus on the papers that guide us toward the most essential results. However, the students said one of the most important things about the class was having some value put on reading that they determined themselves was important. I think one of the most promising components of teaching through a collaborative project like this is that the students can take charge of what they are learning; they may even take the class in a direction that surprises the instructor.


If I were to apply this to the kind of course where exams are given, for example, you could think about the students synthesizing lecture and reading material in a wiki, and their synthesis and examples could emphasize or even move that class resource in a direction not discussed in class - like if I lectured on statistical tests of neutrality, and they found examples that were used in studying speciation in eels - then exam questions could come from the resource that the students had generated, and so they would in a sense be writing their own exams. Is that crazy?


Semester Goes Fast

We are halfway through this experiment. The discussion with students has been fantastic, and they are covering the topic well (while juggling other classes, including dealing with my slightly-tougher-than-I-intended midterm in the Evolution lecture course...). However we continue to struggle with removing the personal barriers of information that students (all people, really) are accustomed to when they are being held responsible for that information. The students tend to only edit within a page of their own making on the topic they are focused on, and I'm having to encourage them to cross-link, to blend, to see when topics are actually intermingling or need to reach out further. And, really, this is a microcosmic view of how science tends to work, unfortunately! What is intriguing about a class like this is that even a biologist like myself is having to stretch a bit to understand how different studies are done, how they affect our understanding of what will happen to marine species under conditions of climate change, and even how much to trust the different models of proposed climate change.

One of my graduate students recently added to her dissertation proposal the idea that contributing to sites like Wikipedia is a form of outreach. Not only would I back her up on this, but it is good for our own particular science (or field of study) as well. While any general, openly-edited resource will have some question marks about some of its information (not really any different from peer-reviewed work, see the paper by Fang et al linked below), as we interact with these bigger databases and resources, everything from Wikipedia to GenBank to Encyclopedia of Life or GBIF, we have to address how our own work interfaces with these larger bodies of information, and sometimes - shockingly! - we might learn something or come up with a new idea.

Download file "Fang-etal-2012.pdf"


Epistemic Organization

It is easy to take Wikipedia for granted at this point in mid-2012: it is a thriving repository of information that started in 2001 and (as of right now) has over four million articles in English. Adding pages is relatively easy, and the community edits and links and updates these pages as necessary. How does such a resource begin, though? The oldest entries and edits in the nascent Wikipedia, in January 2001, were apparently entries including simple lists of female tennis players and a short entry on the American philosopher William Alston. Those two entries are probably not related by logic, but by the users of Wikipedia at the time (very few!).

So, as the brave students of GENE 3000H at the University of Georgia undertake generating the resource found here, we have a similar problem but on a more focused subject: how evolution intersects with climate change. The first paper was assigned last week, and although today's discussion proceeded as usual with a small class of bright students (mostly call-and-response between professor and students; I'm trying to encourage more cross-talk and bickering), there were only 2 entries from students on the wiki this morning. One was an orphaned page on migration, one was a summary of another paper a student had read. Good effort, but not yet useful. How do we start?

This was what we asked ourselves as we started discussion of today's paper, an excellent one on how terrestrial and marine ectotherms track temperature change. Should we restate the goals of this class in a clear way? And what is the most salient thing we learn from this paper, so that it can be the point of nucleation for a much larger creation? We answered these questions in class, and then I realized another barrier to getting things started, something all of us scientists can recognize. Even if the task of editing the wiki and adding a single sentence is extremely easy, taking less than 30 seconds, to tell a group of 15 people to do that means it is nobody's individual responsibility, and thus it doesn't get done.

Thus at the end of class two brave volunteers were assigned the task of seeding the wiki with these two things: a statement of purpose, and what we learned today. Five hours later, I checked in and love what I see! By the time I'm done writing this blog post there will probably be more development, because already students are re-organizing, providing links, adding content, fleshing this sucker out! Remember, I'm not steering this ship. These undergraduate students, most of whom have only had exposure to evolutionary biology through introductory biology courses and five lectures of my 200-person class; exposure to climate change biology only through mainstream media; and exposure to marine biology only as trips to the beach....are putting together a resource that I think is not just going to be interesting to me, but a useful resource for all of us interested in the topic (as well as potentially an exploration of wikis as a teaching tool).

So, I've asked the SeaMonster folks to link you in our direction so you can watch the experiment unfold. You can't edit the wiki; only my class can do that, it is a closed community in that regard. However, comments or suggestions are welcome (but will be moderated), and I'll try to come back to SeaMonster later in the semester to update everybody on how it is going. A wiki can't save the world, but maybe... just maybe... it will help guide me toward some ideas for my next grant proposal :)


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Getting Started

Today will be the second meeting of our Honors Evolution class. We started off discussing the (loose!) structure of the class, and today we'll discuss Bill McKibben's excellent piece in Rolling Stone regarding the fossil fuel industry and the inevitability of significant climate change, along with the initial white paper developed by the ECCO workgroup pulled together by NSF in 2009. Here is where the rubber meets the road: starting today, the class will be reading papers related to how evolution affects the response trajectory of species as their environment changes rapidly, and hopefully we'll be building an interesting and useful resource here on this webpage. Stay tuned!