I Sorta Like Sorting

Karen3On rainy days when I was a little girl, my dear mom, no doubt at the end of her patience with the busy and inquisitive child that I was, would sometimes allow me access to her button box. She was a talented and frugal seamstress, and she kept a dazzling stash of buttons, most harvested from discarded garments, in a fancy fruitcake tin. I loved to sit on the floor and sort the buttons into stacks by shape and color. Maybe it’s a genetic trait. A favorite aunt, a notoriously demanding nursing instructor, once told me that her ideal job would be sorting oranges. Buttons

Sorting is a skill that can help you succeed in the game of school. Once you start to figure out what goes with what, memorizing facts and writing papers gets a lot easier. Establishing how to sort things has made many scientists’ reputations…just ask Linnaeus. Sadly, some students’ childhoods must have lacked a button box, because they struggle with sorting tasks.

It doesn’t help that we apply intimidating labels, like “dichotomous keys,” to tasks that are basically just sorting, and simple sorting at that. For example, identifying an unknown bacteria with a dichotomous key boils down to plain old sorting. It just looks scary when depicted like this:dichotomouskey

What’s a teacher to do? I like to lead students from what they know to what they don’t by taking small steps. Many of them are familiar with the game “Guess Who?,” so I dragged ours from the depths of the family game closet. Two willing students played a round that lasted less than a minute, identifying the culprit after only five yes/no questions.guesswho

Then I showed them a silly example from mental_floss magazine, including this one:presidents

Next, they worked in pairs to quickly complete a nuts-and-bolts sorting task using a dichotomous key I found on the internet:


Finally, they were ready to see how a multi-test identification for bacteria is basically just a fancy, colorful dichotomous key, a bit like having a group of tiny elves in a tube answering a series of yes/no questions for you while you sleep. What could be more fun?enterotube

If you have anything that needs sorting, give me a call…happy to help.


Brian picA bright student and exceptional writer came through one of my classes, but she had no idea at first where she was on the map. She said that none of her high school teachers ever engaged her about her aptitude and performance. This means that grades did not tell the story since a student can make an A in a string of English classes but still have unanswered questions.

This does not imply blame toward high school teachers, not at all. Classes can be large, with student behavior a constant challenge. Teachers may have to put out fires continually while trying to maintain an orderly classroom. Then too, some students are shy, non-assertive, or show no signs of blooming.grades

This is not to bash grades; they are a necessary evil. Considered as a measurement in the moment, grades might be seen in a purely objective light; but students, families, and institutions often put various kinds of spin on grades.

When I was young, the first pressures about grades were parental. After my father took off never to return, when I was in the fifth grade, slippage concerning grades might have occurred except that friendly competition formed in the classroom. It is hard to resist a fellow student’s question, “What did you get on the test?” This was a good thing since my mother had refreshed her elementary school teaching certificate, and with four kids was weary of body at the end of a day. She could only cheer us on so much.

armwrestleIn high school, a competitive friend came along. We played chess, pool, guitars, and sports. All of this was very competitive—heads on with one thing after another, including the classroom. His parents were very particular about education, so the atmosphere of education hovered over everyone who came over. Fortunately, competition was friendly, likely with a tad of goading now and then, though all I remember is that my friend constantly pressed me to do my best.

For a season in college, studies got bumped down in priority. Living in a dorm 600 miles from home, it took time for the craziness to settle down. Early on, it was just not cool to study too much.

In later years, grades have communicated two perspectives. Grades are grades, and the world runs on competition and comparison. However, it is a fine thing to arrive at comparing one’s self more with personal possibilities and not so much with others. Many intangibles come into play like effort, energy, persistence, and strategy.

Life is lived mostly without grades. Yes, grades are on those transcripts—as they should be. Of more importance, however, are the choices about what to learn that one makes over the years. Out the vast sea of knowledge come the particular magnets that draw me the individual and you the individual.Mikhail-Baryshnikov-Quote-Lg

Early in life, it feels normal to gravitate toward what represents a certain earning power. Later on, learning evolves toward what draws us. Attraction woos a person to pick up that certain book or magazine, to watch that particular documentary, and to visit that kind of museum.

The ideal is for occupation and learning interests to be one and the same. That does not always happen, but it can, either early or late in the land of the free.

Ending on an Up Note: Puppy Love

Admission of bias: I adore Julep, my PWC (Pembroke Welsh Corgi, for the cuteness-deprived). I’ve learned a lot from that little dog during our six years together, including the value of humor and surprise in improving my attitude. It may not be practical to unleash a wagonload of puppies on your class when you see your students’ eyes glazing over. Still, with a bit of creative thought, you can probably come up with a way to up the pleasureinlearning quotient by adding a touch of humor and surprise. For evidence of efficacy, watch this:

Enjoy your weekend.

Handing Them Their Lives

Karen3I recently began teaching medical microbiology, a challenging but intensely rewarding class. The students in the class are mostly those I’ve now had for three terms, and they’re the cream of the crop. I tease them about being “border collies,” always ready to work and apt to get into trouble if I don’t find interesting things for them to do. They love the hands-on nature of the class, and their skill set has expanded at a remarkable rate. They quickly mastered the techniques for preparing bacterial smears and examining them under the daunting “oil immersion” lens of their microscopes. The first day that they tried this, one student jubilantly hollered, “I FOUND something!”

We decided to attempt observation of living organisms by a technique called “hanging drop.” I concocted couple of different jars of nasty liquids (“effusions,” to the sciencey folks), and we went hunting for microbes. Many of the little critters swim fast, and students were challenged to show their colleagues and me their dashing discoveries. Several students reported telling their family members about what they had observed. amoebaproteus450

All this reminded me of what is possibly my favorite passage of prose in the entire English language, taken from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Probably because Dillard’s experience was so similar to my own, I know it almost by heart:

“Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba.  The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park: it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was a blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.”

Dillard then recounts how she ran upstairs to urge her parents to come view her find. “Chance of a lifetime” in her estimation. But her mother, while pleased for her, declined to join her in her basement lab. As Annie returned to the basement, she had an epiphany:

“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine.  She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”

microscopeHow very fortunate I am to be able to share “my private passion for the thing itself” with a group of students who seem to share that passion. The quote at the end of my campus email is from Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters. Could anything be more fun?”

When Would I Ever Use This?

Building SkillsOne of the essential skills for any worker is being able to apply the knowledge previously gained in an educational venue, like our college, to a practical problem. In medical education, a student who’s at the top of the class when tested on didactic material may struggle to transfer that information to a clinical situation. All that hard-earned knowledge isn’t much use if you can’t apply it to a living person’s medical situation.

A few days ago, I emailed colleague Pat Riley, an expert in helping students transfer math skills to useful real-world applications. I had been struggling to help my students see the advantage of using logarithms to plot bacterial growth, so I turned to Pat for help. After graciously providing some great suggestions, he shared an example of using math skills in his own kitchen:


For those of us who “don’t do math,” we offer this refresher on scatter plots from this site Math Is Fun.  A finished scatter plot might look something like this:


By the way, Pat and I agree that the broccoli is yummy. Here’s a plug for the product:steamfresh-ranch-broccoli