Category Archives: Teaching

Complete Chaos (aka Student CURE Projects)

My students launch their CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) projects today!! I teach a 3rd year lab course and I think my CURE projects are special because I strategically on-purpose lead students through the most challenging part of doing science  (which is not project design).

In my experience as a scientist and as a teacher, the hardest and also best part of doing science is coming up with a decent question. We are all operating under various constraints of budget, time, expertise – but really, within those constraints – we an ask anything we like. The world is our oyster! My goal is to pass this joy (and challenge) on to my students.

We spend the first 5 weeks of the course learning some basic tools (field and bench). From there, my students are welcome to do whatever they want for term projects as long as it meets our course criteria (it’s safe and it’s feasible). That’s it. Although *technically* a BIOL course, we aren’t constrained. Most of my students are Combined Majors, so we happily support investigations into other sciences. Fun projects we have launching right now this minute as I type:

1. Is non-GMO rice really non-GMO? (This group is using primers specific for GMO rice to test a bunch of types)

2. How does hydrogen peroxide affect Tetrahymena growth? (This group wanted to look at H2O2 and then an antioxidant protective agent, but needed some baseline info on the oxidant first, so that’s what they’re giving the world.)

3. Which types of natural preservatives are most effective at preventing microbial growth in foods? (Testing lemon, garlic, and salt baked into a standard bread recipe)

4. Do fast-food burgers contain other types of meat? (Using primers for 7 meat species)

Live action shot from this group posted by request

5. What are these unknown mushrooms and how are they related? (using sequencing and phylogeny building)

6. If we synchronize cell division, can we time the stages of the cell cycle? (This group is using Tetrahymena)

It’s full on supervisory chaos these couple of weeks, but the excitement and learning of creating their own unconstrained research is worth it. Wish us luck!!

Fall is also for SUCCESS!

I have given several talks on ungrading and my approach this year. At every one, there is someone who asks about the course average.

I say 2 things.

1. My first semester of fully ungrading this course, the final course average was 1% lower than the previous traditionally graded term. (This is statistically insignificant, and also demonstrates that students are able to accurately assess themselves.)

2. The average in my course is close to 80%, and was so before ungrading.

Point #2 makes some people squirm, and I’m here for it. I ask – Why is that a problem? The common responses are: assuming that a course average needs to be a C, assuming that the course is too easy, assuming that grade inflation is a nebulous enemy we need to wage war against OR ELSE the whole academy is under dire threat of not being taken seriously.

To the first point, I set up my course so that every student has an opportunity to succeed well. If most of them are not succeeding well, that means I have done something wrong in the architecture of my course. To the second point, I have good data suggesting that students perceive that they work harder in this ungraded course than they do in other more prescribed labs. It does not escape my notice that this “hard work” stems a lot from making braver choices, which they are more likely to do since the advent of ungrading. Choosing to do a project with a novel approach or unknown liklihood of success automatically commits students to the extra mental labor of thinking through possible problems. To the final point, I suggest that this is exactly why we don’t need grades. (Many medical colleges do not grade, and neither do many smaller colleges. Nor does our K-9 public school system in BC). Grades are a recent advent that simply reflects the need to process a lot of students with minimal effort. (For a brief history of grades, I recommend Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) by Schniske and Tanner).

Ultimately I am OK with most of my students doing extremely well in my course. They have earned their high marks and I am increasingly convinced that they do a better job at articulating what theses marks mean than I do.


Fall is for Flailing at Something

Hi! I’m back after a break and ready to talk about teaching! Today I gave the Biology Departmental Seminar at Simon Fraser University, which was super fun and I have all kinds of conversations swirling in my head.

One of the most fun conversations was around trying a new thing in September. In the before times, I taught a variety of courses each year, which kept me humble and on my toes. However… one of the consequences of the pandemic years was that our students missed out on lab courses. As a consequence, I have taught the same lab course each term since 2020. It’s easy to settle in as an expert, which leads to the inevitable – “Didn’t I already teach you this??” – when new students ask the same old questions.

Last year I decided to commit to trying Something New in September. Last year I enrolled in Roller Pole (which is exactly what it sounds like) and this year I have taken up aerial silks. I am twice the age of the other students, and it’s physically scary. This experience reminds me weekly of what it feels like to be new at something – unsure, out of my comfort zone, and hoping for a supportive environment.


As we were sitting around the table this evening after the seminar, a wonderful colleague from SFU chimed in that she’s taken up painting for the same reason. She said – “I suck at painting” – which is exactly the point! We all suck at a thing the first time we try it – students included. I highly recommend joining students in trying Something New in the fall – it’s fun and humbling. In the wise words of Rani Ban, I support “Fresh Starts and Do-over All Year Long”.

My case against Clickers

I will admit that I’m generally suspicious of new technology … but am willing to give most things a try. When clickers came on the scene many years ago, I did try them for a term or two – but pretty quickly lost enthusiasm. Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of other teachers use clickers well, and I end up asking myself, “Why do I loathe these so much?” … While walking the dog this morning (which is where I do good pondering), I came up with at least a partial answer.

Celeste and her dog in matching black and white outfits.

(Bonus for our matching outfits)

I like posing complex problems in lectures, and I love the subsequent controlled chaos of student discussion/arguing/learning that ensues. Sometimes I just walk out of the class and get coffee while this is happening. I’m fine leaving, because this learning progress is not about me – and I think that’s where clickers rub me the wrong way. Taking that learning and asking students to display an answer so that … so I can be impressed by it?…  so they can competitively compare their learning to their peers?… None of this bodes well with my cooperative approach to learning. I put work in each term to encourage and teach students to become their own compass for their own learning. A piece of this is to articulate what they want to learn and why. A piece of this should not be “to impress Celeste” or “to out-compete everyone else”.

When problem solving happens in my classroom, we often take a long time dissecting solution(s) and different approaches, so avoiding clickers does not leave students stranded with no learning resolution. Instead, I think it keeps the focus on them as individuals with their own unique learning process.

A 1/2-Baked Plan to Ungrade a Very Large 1st Year Course

I have 2 full years of completely ungrading my 3rd year lab course, so I’ll start by saying I do feel like I can pull this off. However, I also do not underestimate the (fun and amazing) challenge of 1st year, nor do I forget the daunting un-doing of confidence that happens every October when our 1st year students go through their first round of midterms. Those of us in the biz of 1st year dread October because we know what’s coming. It is this, primarily, that I hope to usurp with ungrading in first year.

(If you are not from UBC, here’s some context: In the Faculty of Science, our first year students come in with high school averages well over 90%. Our incoming average is typically 95-97%. So every student sitting in a first year seat in our faculty is an excellent student, has been rewarded for whatever strategies they know work for them, and often define themselves this way. When midterms come back, the average is no longer 90% – not even close. Some first year courses see averages in the 70s, some as low as the 50s, depending on the year and the individual course. You can imagine how this might be traumatizing).

My plan comes in 2 parts, drawing from experience I have gained, and from advice from my amazing alternative grading colleagues. I also always try to uncomplicate things – so I hope it is simple. (There is nothing I hate worse than a spreadsheet with too many columns of trivial stuff.)

Part 1: Formative Fridays. (I need a better name). On 10 (of 13) Fridays, students will answer 1 problem based on the curriculum of that week. (This may happen on Mondays, from the curriculum of the previous week, but you get the idea). These problems will not be graded with points, but will instead by tiered (following Dr. Lindsay Masland’s tiered feedback protocol  ). A student could earn a ✅ emoji, signifying that the student has mastered that concept and can move along. (Mastered does not mean perfect. Minor errors like arithmetic or minor vocabulary are ok). They could also earn a ❤️ emoji, which means that they are on their way, but have not mastered this concept – there are some errors that need addressing. If a student is nowhere near mastering a concept, they will earn a ☕️, emoji. There will be 3 weeks of designated Formative Fridays where students get no new problem, but can instead re-try a previous week (different problem, same concept) to improve their emoji. From here, this portion will be contractual – ie/ “If you earn a total of 8 or more ✅, you will receive an A for this portion of the course”. This portion will be about 75% of their mark.

Part 2: This will combine personalized learning, self-assessment, and a creativity project. At the start of the term, each student will choose 1 individual tree to study all term. Each week they will blog (or post on the discussion board?) relating their tree to the curriculum of the week following a broad prompt. For example, when we study food webs, the prompt could be “How does your tree fit into a food web of the immediate biological community?“. From here, a student can be pointy or broad in their answer. They could focus in on one interaction and trace how much energy is going into a specific population of herbivores, or they could broadly estimate if their tree is a net carbon sink. The term project will be to combine all of their tree posts into a creativity project – some sort of story of their tree. The “final exam” would be a more directed version of the self-assessment that I use in the third year course. (Based on the cummulative project, students will be lead through each week and asked to justify their engagement with and mastery of the particular curricular items.) This will be about 25% of their mark. (Note: If a student does not have easy regular access to a tree, I do have a backup accessibility plan.)

As always – I appreciate any hot tips, suggestions, and feedback! Thank you for reading.

How to Build-Up a Little Community Pantry, a Memoir

A few months ago, my friend Pam responded to a study suggesting that 40% of our students are food insecure ( by suggesting that we start a Little Community Food Pantry. We launched our little pantry the same week in a small cabinet with a few things we brought from home and a few things we bought.

Our little pantry was utilized quickly and with gusto. We kept track of what most-used items were and we put a suggestion bag for anonymous feedback. These are our top 5 items:

1. Protein bars or granola bars (protein bars are the holy grail)

2. Ramen or other quick soups

3. Canned fish (tuna etc)

4. Fresh fruit (oranges and apples)

5. Other proteins, including shelf stable milks


Our suggestion box asked for more protein and quick things ✅. We also had many expressions of thanks.

Following our first successful week, we advertised to the community. Donations came in from faculty and staff and other students and use increased.

We had outgrown our little cupboard, so with the help of admin and staff, we secured a larger set of cabinets and moved down the hall.

One of my students who works for the AMS Food Bank helped me move into the  new pantry and she had some great advice, such as leaving the top shelf for duplicate items because the top shelf would be less accessible. Someone brought by menstrual supplies, which we now keep in one of the drawers. Another drawer is stocked with condiments and cutlery. This week we will be adding a microwave. This Little Community Pantry project has been a huge success all around. We are currently working on ways to accept monetary donations, recognizing that shopping is another chore for folks that would like to donate.

If you would like to donate to or access the pantry, it is on the second floor of the BioSciences building near the East Wing elevators.

Personalized Learning, Ungrading, and a Tree

Personalized learning is loosely defined as a customized educational approach. For me, personalized learning came hand-in-hand with Ungrading. As I was designing my Ungrading approach, it seemed true that I should extend power to the learners at the beginning of the learning cycle as well as at the end. (This project was wildly successful and I have kept both Ungrading and Personalized Learning in my third year lab course – I am currently finishing my second year of both). I am now thinking of how we can bring Ungrading to our first year courses, and I am once again considering how Personalized Learning fits into this puzzle.

Our first year biology course spans the breadth of ecology, evolution, and genetics. As much as I love my lab course, first year is my favourite! I am excited to be back in the world of first-year students. Here’s my idea: I am considering personalizing the course the first week by asking students to go outside and identify a tree that will be their own for the entire term. As we move through the curriculum, their Personalized Learning task would be to correlate concepts from lecture to their specific tree. (What organisms are living on your tree this week? Who are your tree’s closest relatives? What is happening in the soil around your tree? What microclimate is your tree providing? What adaptations does your tree have that helps it survive here? How does it reproduce? What kind of variation exists in the population? Etc.) With a broad prompt each week, students will be asked to set specific individual learning goals and journal their way through the term correlating curriculum with their tree. What I am considering is a creativity project highlighting this process as a final course submission. (In the past, I have done creativity projects with this course and they are generally beautifully done – I’ve received board games, children’s books, podcasts, movies, sculptures, etc. What I know is that students are motivated when they have their own agency and they work hard when they have the freedom to be creative.) This is a work in progress – stay tuned!

Embracing AI: A prologue to ChatGPT

Well, here we are just a few months into the ChatGPT world and I have to say – I kind of like it. As a science teacher, demonstrating the trying and testing new things essentially mimics what  science is fundamentally about in an effort to better understand our world. ChatGPT emerged in earnest just at the start of this term, and this is how I’ve used it in my class.

ChatGPT was full (overloaded?) during work hours at the start of the term. For our first introduction, I explained what these types of AI tools are. Some students had not yet heard of this emerging technology, and some were very interested. I asked ChatGPT to generate one paragraph on a topic tangential to, but not directly part the curriculum of our class. I pasted the response into a Google Doc that I shared with the class during lecture. The first 3 minutes were spent simply reading the paragraph. I then asked students to list on the Google Doc the things that they felt were done well. They felt the basic content was accurate. The writing style was good (solid paragraph). Then they listed things that were not done well. They thought it was very repetitive. They noticed that it lacked specific detail. They then live edited the paragraph and the result was a much better version.

Our second look at ChatGPT was to synthesize background information to use in one of our group projects. This followed a similar process to the above, with an expanded set of explicit information. I invited students to take these paragraphs and edit as they see fit, or to not use them at all. We decided that ChatGPT was a good tool and should be allowed for submissions, with acknowledgement. (This follows current guidelines of journals like Science and Nature, which do not allow AI as authors, but do allow acknowledgement). At this stage, we noticed that ChatGPT does not cite sources well or accurately. We specifically asked it to include 5 references. It did. I then asked it, “are these references real?” and it replied that they probably weren’t – but also advised on how to check if they were, which we thought was a nice touch. At this point, we proceed with caution. (It’s exact words were, “As an AI language model, I cannot browse the internet and check if these references exist or not. However, I generated those references based on my training data and knowledge, and they are based on real scientific articles and journals. If you want to check the validity of these references, you can search for them on Google Scholar or other academic databases.”)

My students are currently analyzing data – most are running ANOVA. This morning, I asked ChatGPT to run an ANOVA on a fake data set. Interestingly, it did a nice job – it told me what program it was using (R), and showed me the code as it was generating results. The narration along the way was quite good. At the end, I asked if it could graph the results for me. It replied “Certainly!” but then produced an image that I could not see.

We are just in the infancy of this new tool – very likely the problems we currently see will improve as AI advances. I’m excited for what this new era will bring – and I appreciate how it must have felt to mathematicians when calculators became widely available. Was there an immediate fear that no-one would learn math anymore? Where would we be today if calculators had been somehow permanently banned from higher education? As we move forward, this is the perfect opportunity to pause and remember that our students are not inherently out to game the system. They are here to learn and we should be partners in their efforts.

What does “falling behind” mean in teaching?

I gained my teaching training wheels in Science One, where we have no (or very little) curriculum tied to any other course. I spent well over a decade teaching almost exclusively in this program. Especially this time of term, when nerves are frazzled and snow days come unexpectedly, I would often hear colleagues frantically complain about “falling behind.” I honestly had no idea what this meant. Behind what?

When I teach lecture courses, I rarely plan anything specific beyond a week out.

How am I supposed to know in advance what student prior knowledge is? What they want to learn more about? What will interest them?

I don’t, and so I don’t plan much beyond some key targets until the topic bubbles up and we decide as a team (the students and I) where we want to go specifically. This “falling behind” is such an interesting statement that I’ve started probing. What do you mean by that, exactly? I’ve decided that “falling behind” falls into 2 camps:

1. The Story Tellers. Some folks have a clear epic novel to tell. (I’m in Science, so not a literal novel, but a big tale about the evolution of algae – for example – from beginning to current). I respect these story tellers. I want to sit in their classes and hear the tales. (On the same note, I’d like to remind these story tellers that it is their responsibility to figure out how to shorten their story in a meaningful way and “falling behind” is not an invite to cram a bunch of material in at the last second that is not absolutely essential to the story, and students won’t remember it anyway).

2. The “What is Everyone Else Doing” Teachers. These people are typically teaching a section in multi-section courses, or are teaching the same course multiple terms and have some vague sense of keeping up with someone else (or their own self from other terms.) To these folks, I would ask… why? Is there evidence that quickly sprinting through material is more beneficial to your students than pausing and covering something in depth? (This is a real question and a real discussion in teaching circles.) More commonly, I suspect this “falling behind” sadly means getting through material because it will appear on a pre-written exam. In this context, our exams become no better than any other standardized exams that teachers are forced to teach to at many levels of education.

I challenge us to do better.