Field Blog

Wild Davis: Revisiting Campus Research Programs

Last Thursday marked the final group project week in the Wild Davis class! Following this week, students will be working on their individual projects, culminating in a paper and presentation over a campus ecological interaction they find interesting. Also, I missed posting about our wasp gall day a few weeks ago, so I’m including a latergram of that exercise here, too. Both of these exercises related to published research that has been done on the UC Davis campus, which provided the students with a background of data on the system we were observing.

Impacts of Wasp Gall on Herbivory of Oak Trees

The valley oak trees along the Arboretum sport numerous galls (commonly called ‘oak apples’) created by Andricus quercuscalifornicus, a gall-forming wasp, which lays its eggs in twigs of the oak trees. As the eggs develop into larvae, they elicit the development of galls which house and feed the larvae until they are mature and tunnel out of the gall. While the larvae are developing, the galls are reddish-green and resemble small apples (hence their nickname); however, once the mature wasps leave the gall, it dries out (‘senesces’ in scientific terms) and remains on the tree for several years before eventually falling to the ground and decomposing. Consequently, a given tree may carry hundreds of galls at various stages of development and senescence.

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In March of 2013, the EVE 180 class (Experimental Ecology and Evolution in the Field) performed an experiment on valley oak trees in the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve in which they documented arthropod communities prior to and following experimental removal of senesced galls from trees. The team removed over 5,000 galls from 52 different trees and found that gall removal resulted in a 59% increase in density of herbivorous arthropods. This difference was driven by the fact that senesced wasp galls are frequently occupied by Salticid spiders (my favorite! so cute!), which in turn reduce the arthropod community (and alter its composition) through their own predation. The study was later published in the journal Ecology, and is a great example of research opportunities for undergraduates at UC Davis.

Our class studied a different population of valley oaks – those occupying the Valley Oak Grove in the Arboretum. Instead of removing the galls and tracking changes in arthropod density through time, we observed gall density and arthropod density per tree. Students worked in pairs to count and identify arthropod communities on the trees, and to estimate the quantity of herbivore damage to leaves. We were also interested in whether trees near the waterway in the Arboretum contained more galls than those further away (since anecdotally, this appeared to be the case). While we didn’t find any strong correlations between oak galls and arthropod densities, leaf damage, or proximity to the waterway, we did find an impressive diversity of herbivorous and parasitic activity on the trees, and even some evidence of spider presence on senesced galls. One of the things I enjoyed about this session was seeing the quantity of parasitism and herbivore damage that an individual tree can sustain without it being obvious to a casual observer. My personal favorite was a leaf found by Isabelle Gilchrist, which had sustained leaf gall damage that altered the growth of the primary vein, compromising the entire size and shape of the leaf.

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Tracking Native and Introduced Turtle Populations in the Arboretum Waterway

Our last week focused on finding, identifying, and documenting the behavior of turtles in the Arboretum waterway. Though a number of species have been found in the waterway over the years, only two are common: the native western pond turtle, Emys marmorata, and the red-eared slider Trachemys scripta elegans, introduced to the waterway via release of unwanted pet turtles. I love turtles, and I spent probably more time than was strictly necessary doing recon (wandering the Arboretum with my long-lens SLR) for this exercise, which means I have a *lot* of adorable turtle photos.

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Our goals for the class exercise were to track how many turtles we saw of each species (and what this might mean for their relative population sizes) and whether or not there were differences in the types of basking perches they chose (which might indicate competition between the two species). Turtles present a few particular problems for this kind of project. First, given the clarity of the water in the Arboretum, we can only really observe turtles that are basking, or swimming near the surface. Second, the two species can be difficult to distinguish, especially from afar. Third, basking turtles tend not to…. do much… which can make 3-hour class observations somewhat boring.

I countered these problems by 1) extensive recon (cute turtle photos!!) to identify the areas of the waterway where we are most likely to find turtles basking and swimming, 2) a crash course in turtle ID for the Wild Davis students, and 3) a short-term ethogram (behavioral table) based primarily around choice of basking habitat and “turtle plops,” which represented the ‘disturbability’ of the turtles (when they abandon their basking habitat due to human or other turtle interference).

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Turtle plop!

This exercise would have been impossible without the generous equipment loans of Santiago Ramirez, who let me borrow binoculars without a neck strap (the trust level!), Marcel Rejmanek, who might not even know I have his two pairs of binoculars, and Gail Patricelli, who handed me her THREE THOUSAND DOLLAR sighting scope and tripod with a casual “Don’t break it!” and a chuckle. I continue to be impressed by and proud of the generosity and collaborative nature of my colleagues. Gail’s sighting scope was perfect for the lake section of the waterway, which is the widest, and also where turtles like to bask on the cement embankment, out of view of the path on their own side, and the furthest possible distance from viewing on the opposite path. The photos below show the same Emys through my zoom lens SLR (which at any other part of the waterway is more than sufficient) and through Gail’s sighting scope. I also want to say a special thanks to Robyn Screen and Bob Thomson (both now at University of Hawai’i, Mānoa) who have studied these turtles (see links to studies below) and who could provide input on basking locations, turtle ID, and general fun facts about the turtles and their history.

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We found fewer turtles during class than on any of my recon visits, and particularly fewer native Emys. Still, we could do some good observations. We noted few differences in behavior or basking preference between the two species, though we observed more Trachemys in the water, and mostly only saw the Emys basking. We also noted that the juvenile turtles we saw (including the teensiest turtle I have ever found!) were all Trachemys – which might suggest this species recruits offspring better than Emys. Fortunately, on my recon trips, I saw numerous juvenile Emys, so the native turtles are also recruiting, although perhaps not as much as the Trachemys.

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After our observations, the students had a number of questions about the interactions between invasive and native turtles. Even if they have similar basking habitats, could the Trachemys outcompete Emys for food? With seeing so few juvenile Emys and so many  juvenile Trachemys, should we be worried about the native turtles’ population size? What could we do, in management terms, to remove the Trachemys from the waterway? How can we prevent more non-native turtle species from being introduced to the waterway?

Fortunately, some of the research done on the turtles has looked at a few of these questions. A 2003 study by Spinks et al quantified population sizes of the native Emys and nine other introduced species, finding that the Emys population had declined by 40% throughout the study period of six years. “Headstarting” the turtles (rearing juveniles in captivity and then releasing them to the waterway) did improve population sizes, but does not address the root causes of decline. A study by Lambert et al in 2013 did find differences in basking habitat, which recommended management practices the Arboretum could undertake to provide more spaces for Emys (namely areas with low human presence, steep slopes, shallow water, and a concrete basking substrate). Another study currently under review by Lambert et al tracked the effect of Trachemys removal from the waterway on Emys basking preference. The team removed nearly 200 Trachemys turtles and then observed Emys behavior in response to this reduction in competition. Interestingly, the Emys primarily used the same basking locations they had used previously (abandoning some basking sites, but not expanding into others). This study also documented a pronounced east-west gradient in basking preference, with Trachemys primarily occupying the eastern end of the waterway and Emys more prevalent in the western end. It is worth noting here that our turtle observations were primarily in the western end of the waterway, where this study would have predicted our observations to include more Emys. These studies might lead us to some concern about the future of the native Emys turtles, but another study assessing population structure throughout the Sacramento Basin provides some hope. In 2010, Thomson et al reported relative distributions of Trachemys and Emys, finding that while the introduced Trachemys are present throughout the basin, they are concentrated in more urban areas with high human traffic (like the UC Davis Arboretum waterway) and are far less common throughout portions of the Emys range with less human impact, where the native turtles can still be found in abundance. Still, Emys marmorata is still listed as a Species of Special Concern in California, making continued observations of these populations important.

Wild Davis III: Evening Observations

*This post is a part of the Wild Davis course at UC Davis in which students must complete three timed observations of an urban habitat within the UC Davis campus or Davis city limits. As an instructor for this course, I joined the students in this exercise in order to provide a public example of the types of work the students do in this class. For more information on the course, you can read about my morning and mid-day observations, follow #wilddavis on Instagram and Twitter, and check out my posts on our in-class activities!*

The students’ evening observations are to occur near dusk, sometime between 6 and 8 pm, in the same location as their morning and mid-day observations. One of the goals of this exercise is to illustrate how variable a single location can be in activity level, diversity of organisms, etc throughout the diurnal period. They have now followed their chosen location from dawn, through noon, and into evening (we don’t ask them to do a mid-night observation, although that would also be interesting!). I completed my evening observation at the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer earlier this week and this afternoon in class the students will discuss their experiences at their own locations.

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The stream

I want to be present for sunset, which is at the very end of our observation window, so I bike out to the spot about 7:15 pm. It is still fairly warm when I leave the house, and I have just been on the treadmill for an hour, so the cool breeze feels refreshing and I leave in a tank top and shorts. I soon regret this decision. I am still getting used to how much the temperatures cool at night here. In both Kansas and Hawai’i (where I have lived previously), the temperature didn’t drop so drastically when the sun set and so I’m rarely prepared for that, here.

As I bike out to my observation bench, I take special note of the stream. With the exception of my mid-day observation (when it was bone dry), I have always seen a decent amount of water in this stream, and once enjoyed a chorus of evening frog calls from the overlooking bridge. Today there is some standing water, not enough for an actual flowing stream, and no frogs.

All along the path as I bike to the bench I hear crickets chirping along the edge of the gravel. I used to be deathly afraid of crickets, especially the large, shiny black ones that you’d find in back corners of the basement. I have never cared for crickets, but I distinctly remember when it became a legit phobia. One summer, when I was 9 or 10, my family helped my grandmother clean out her rural Iowa farmhouse and my job was to clear the garage of all the crickets, dead from the powdered insecticide she had laid down around the garage. Mostly, this meant sweeping up massive piles of dead cricket bodies; however, the powder along the garage door itself had melted in the summer sun and caked the dead crickets to the cement, so those had to be scrubbed off with a stiff brush. In retrospect, scrubbing insecticide-covered crickets by hand without any sort of protective equipment (not even gloves!) was probably a poor idea, but this was the early 90s in the rural midwest and I guess we didn’t think of that. Anyhow, I ended that part with my hands covered in mutilated and severed cricket parts, but they were at least dead. I was nearly finished and sweeping out the last of the dead bodies from a back corner of the garage when I bumped a board leaning against the wall with the backswing of my broom. It fell to the side and behind it six *living* crickets clung to the wall. My back was to a large unmovable tool bench, so getting away from the crickets required me to first take a step towards them, which I was certain would cause all six of the crickets to leap onto me and I would simply die of a heart attack. I froze; I tried to call for help and all that came out was a little gaspy squeak. I stood there without even blinking for what felt like an hour, but was probably more like 2 or 3 minutes, desperately clutching my broom and certain that if I even inhaled too deeply all the crickets would jump on me (which, again, would cause certain instant death by heart attack). My grandmother came to check if I had finished, saw me frozen in terror and said “Oh good! You found some more!” and casually walked over and pinched all the crickets’ heads between her fingers. I was close enough to hear them squelch.

In Kansas, we also had cave crickets (which my sister still calls “creepy spider crickets” due to their unusually long spider-like legs). In college, I once found a cave cricket in my apartment and threw textbooks at it from across the room until I smashed it. I distinctly recall that it was my massive Campbell Biology textbook (6th edition!) that finally did it in. It was so big it left a stain on my carpet, which I did not discover for three days – I left it under the textbook that long just to ensure it was really, *really* dead. But then I moved to Hawai’i and realized that compared to the giant Scolopendra centipedes (and their painful stings) and the flying 3-inch-long American cockroaches (commonly called B-52s in Hawaii, after the Cold War era bomber), crickets aren’t so bad, I guess.

I guess…

Anyway, all the crickets stayed in the cover of the grass along the path, so I could enjoy their chirping song without being creeped out. I do think their chirps are kind of lovely, so I’m trying to focus on that aspect of their biology and not recall cricket legs and pink pesticide powder all over my hands or the squelch of their heads in my grandmother’s fingers. I make a mental note to look up if California has cave crickets, as all my textbooks live on campus now, so I have insufficient ammunition against them at home.

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Sunset from my bench

Sitting on my bench, I am facing the setting sun, which casts a nice golden hue over the landscape. People mistakenly think that dawn and dusk are very similar. Dawn is a grayish blue, with a cool crisp quietness. Dusk is gold, warmer both in temperature and hue and striped by long shadows. I enjoy them both, in very different ways. I love the hopefulness of dawn, the inhalation of a new day and all its opportunities. Our last year in Hawai’i, my husband and I eschewed the late-night parties of New Year’s Eve and instead ushered in 2017 with a dawn hike to Makapu’u to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. It was the perfect start to the year, and one that we plan to continue for future new year’s days. I also love the calm restfulness of dusk, which feels like a long exhale into night. Everything (or at least the diurnal things) are finishing up their last tasks and tucking themselves away for the night, cozy and quiet. I now kind of wish we *had* asked the students to do a mid-night observation, to see activity of the nocturnal crowd. A 1:00 am observation, however, is probably a cruel and unusual assignment.

There are fewer animals out now than in the mid-day. I hear a number of red winged black birds – which it turns out was the unusual call I heard on my morning observation. There are a whole flock of them milling about the trees in my corner and across the golf course, though eventually most of them take off in a cacophony of wings and squawks and my corner becomes mostly quiet.

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The lilac bush is done blooming and has begun setting fruit, as has the Isomeris, which now resembles its common name of bladder pod. Consequently, I see no pollinators of any kind. I do see more humans on this visit than I have seen on the others – ten in total, with two dogs. They are mostly in pairs, and walking casually (as opposed to the morning joggers) and so they are louder, talking animatedly with one another as they pass my bench.

As the sun sets, the crickets quiet down and all I can hear is the soft rustle of the grass in the breeze. The breeze itself is cool, and after my workout I am evaporatively cooling more than I wish, but the last rays of the sun are still warm between the gusts of the breeze. I will be chilled through by the time I get home, but there is a hot shower and a snuggly kitten waiting for me there, so I don’t mind.

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Besides the redwings, I see only two other birds. One is a hummingbird, which I don’t get a very close look at, but after consulting my guidebook I’m pretty sure is a black-chinned. The other is a beautiful white-tailed kite, which I get to watch perform its characteristic hovering hunting behavior. It must not see anything it wants, though, because after a few minutes (and a couple dozen photos), it soars off without diving for a kill. It is beautiful to watch though, and I’m excited I happened to see it.

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I do not, sadly, see any burrowing owls. It is quite possible that my presence itself has prevented this, if they are easily disturbed into hiding. Still, the kite was an unexpected treat, and overall I have really enjoyed these observations. Sharon and I emphasized to the students some of the studies showing the effects of nature on cognitive function and mental health, and I have definitely experienced that on these observations. I might make a bike ride through the buffer, and a half hour or so on ‘my’ bench a regular routine. It’s also a nice practice exercise for my wildlife/landscape photography skills.

This afternoon in class, I’ll get to hear the students’ final observations. I’m curious if the more urban sites are very active during the evening, or if they are more like the morning observations. I do not generally stay on campus very late, though I know classes go well into the evening, so there may still be many people around campus at 8 pm. Regardless, I hope my students have also gotten to see something unexpected and interesting and I hope they found value in this exercise overall.

Wild Davis Gets Myrmecological!

Myrmecology: (mərməˈkäləjē) the branch of entomology that deals with ants. From the Greek myrmēx, or myrmēk, meaning ‘ant’

This week the Wild Davis course got to learn a fun new scientific word AND perform bait-trap surveys of ant populations in the southwest end of the Arboretum (near the White Flower Garden Gazebo). Our study questions related to bait preference and diversity of ant species in the area, particularly the diversity of native and introduced/invasive ant species. Sharon set out traps prior to class using peanut butter, pecan sandies, and canned tuna as bait. To help us with identification, we enlisted the aid of the wonderful and abundantly-knowledgeable Phil Ward in the Entomology Department here at UC Davis*.

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One of our bait traps containing (L-R) pecan sandies, peanut butter, and canned tuna. The flag and note cards are for location identification

Our study consisted of two parts: first, observe the abundances and diversity of ants on the different baits, noting environmental factors of the bait locations to determine what sorts of habitats recruit more ants to the bait; second, collect ants of each species we find for contribution to the Citizen Science project School of Ants, started by Phil’s former student Dr. Andrea Lucky. School of Ants uses student- and community- collected ants to track distributions of ant species across the entire United States. All you have to do is collect ants and mail them to Dr. Lucky at the University of Florida for identification!

The first part of our study ran into a little problem. It turns out that ants are not the only organisms in the Arboretum that are attracted to peanut butter, cookies, and tuna. Many of our bait traps (particularly those in the sun, which were more exposed and visible) were raided by scrub jays, mallards, ground squirrels, and even other insects. The ants preferred the shady baits, so we got a good selection anyhow.

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Our baits (which were within the landscaped beds and lawns around the gazebo) produced three species of ant:

  • the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile): a small, thin, grayish-brown ant native to (take a guess!) Argentina and other parts of south America. They were first found in California in the early 1900s (likely introduced through nursery plants) and are known for their aggression towards native species, frequently driving them to extinction. They prefer irrigated areas (like watered lawns and flower beds!) and so are common throughout the managed parts of the Arboretum.
  • the Pavement ant (Tetramorium immigrans): native to central Europe and also introduced in California, this ant is one of the most commonly found introduced ants in North America and gets its common name from his preference for urban habitat (including roadsides, pavement cracks, and buildings).
  • the Winter Honey ant (Prenolepis imparis): a common native California ant; one of the few native species that can persist in areas taken over by Argentine ants, likely due to differences in diurnal activity. These ants build deep underground nests and forage during times of year that are cooler than when most other ants are active (hence their common name of ‘winter’), meaning they compete less directly with other species, like the Argentine ant.

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As you can see in the photos, we found ants on all types of baits. They appeared to slightly prefer the cookies first, the peanut butter second, and the tuna third, though if we found ants at one bait in the location, we often found them at all three (assuming all three baits were unraided by other organisms).

Dr. Ward had brought along a pooter (that’s a real scientific tool for collecting ants. I did not make up the name) to help us easily collect ants off the bait. A pooter is a length of flexible rubber tubing with a filter about an inch from one end. You put that end near the ant to be collected, put your mouth on the other and and inhale. The ant is sucked up, caught by the filter (so you don’t inhale it) and you can trap it there with your thumb long enough to drop it into a baggie. Dr. Ward collected (pooted?) samples of each species of ant we found on the baits using this method. This was easily the most entertaining portion of the class.

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Near the gazebo is a less managed area of Arboretum land that houses a variety of native species. Since this area is not irrigated, it is too dry for the Argentine ants and provides a refuge for native species. Dr. Ward walked us through this area, showing us how to identify nests and individuals of different native species. We found evidence (nests or actual ants) of three additional native species:

  • Pheidole californica: this native ant is one of several species of seed-collecting ants. There were many of their nests visible along the path we walked, though in the heat of the afternoon, no actual ants were visible. If you look closely at the photo of the nest below, you will see that the orange pieces of the nest are actually small seeds harvested by the ants from nearby plants.
  •  the field ant (Formica moki): the nest of this species was spotted by yours truly (but who’s counting? :-D), with many workers running around. And I do mean running! A clear photo was rather difficult
  • the velvety tree ant (Liometopum occidnetale): this native ant was my particular favorite, nesting in an oak tree and scurrying over the entire trunk. The ants also have a particular smell – something akin to spoiled milk or vinegar. This ant also has an interesting ecology, with several other insect species in symbiosis either as parasites, mimics, or co-inhabitors of the nest. If the velvety tree ant is lost (for example, due to invasion by Argentine ants), their symbionts are also at risk.

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Dr. Ward again used the pooter to collect ants of each of the native species we found. Formica moki ants produce formic acid, which Dr. Ward got a coughing lungfull of when he collected them – a generous sacrifice in the name of citizen science!

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This class period may have been my favorite thus far in the Wild Davis class. It was a great chance to show the students the diversity and ecological importance of a group of organisms that are often overlooked, and a great chance to showcase the depth and breadth of knowledge that students have access to in their professors here on campus. Sharon and I are grateful to Dr. Ward for his contribution to this making this session such a success, and we look forward to contributing the specimens he collected to the School of Ants database!

*all ant information presented here is reproduced from Dr. Ward’s conversations with the Wild Davis students, from the Ant Guide Dr. Ward developed for the Arboretum, or from Dr. Ward’s research page and links therein.

Wild Davis II: Mid-Day Observation

**This post is a part of the Wild Davis course at UC Davis in which students must complete three timed observations of an urban habitat within the UC Davis campus or Davis city limits. As an instructor for this course, I joined the students in this exercise in order to provide a public example of the types of work the students do in this class. For more information on the course, you can read about my morning observation, follow #wilddavis on Instagram and Twitter, and check back here for more posts throughout the quarter!**

The second observations for the Wild Davis class are to occur at mid day (between 11 am and 1 pm), in the same location as the morning observations. I did my observation on Sunday April 22nd, as I can’t get away from work over the lunch hour on weekdays, and it seemed fitting to do an ecological observation exercise on Earth Day.

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The city mowed along the path since I was here last week, which at first has me concerned for the bunnies and ground squirrels, but as you can see in the photo, only a narrow strip next to the path has been mowed, and much grassy cover remains.

I realize as I’m biking to my bench that I have only walked this path in the evening, around sunset, and last week at dawn. In the daylight, I’m surprised at how much closer the housing development and golf course seem. I expect both the path and the golf course to be heavily trafficked on a warm Sunday afternoon, but I see only seven people along the path (not much more than I saw on the morning observation), though this time most folks have their dog with them. The golf course is a bit busier – I see three groups go by – but they are far enough away that I can’t hear them, with the exception of a single “Woo!!” that echoes its way to my bench after what must have been a particularly nice shot.

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the path on the right, with the golf course on the left

It is warm and sunny today, a much more enjoyable environment than the chilly, foggy morning observation (I’m wearing a tank top and capris instead of a hoodie and two pairs of sweatpants). There is a slight warm breeze, which keeps me from getting too hot, even in the full sun. I close my eyes and inhale, but all I can smell is the sunscreen I applied before I biked out here. I have to get really close to even the lilacs before I can smell them over my own scent.

I don’t hear as many human noises as I did in the morning. I can’t hear the highway traffic, and the golf grounds crews aren’t working this late in the day. I do hear two jumbo jets that fly almost directly over me, heading south. This surprises me, since I have not noticed jets overhead anywhere else in town, but perhaps I just haven’t been paying attention.

I am also surprised by the lack of water in the little creek. In the few times I have been down this path, it has always had a decent amount of water in it, but today, it is completely dry. Just two weeks ago, my husband and I stood here at dusk and listened to a chorus of little frogs, and I wonder where they have gone to now. Perhaps to one of the water features in the golf course. I wonder now how ephemeral this stream is, and I make a point to check it on my evening visit in another week.

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No chorus of frogs in the dry streambed…

The animal activity is also different from my morning observation. I see no sparrows, and no bunnies. There are two ground squirrels perched on the fence about 15 feet apart periodically barking at each other through my entire 45 minutes. It is meant to be intimidating, but comes off pretty adorable to my ears.

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There are many birds, but not the sparrows I saw in the morning. Today, they are mostly mockingbirds, chattering noisily at each other and at me from nearly every tree. I hear the bees too – they are buzzing about the lilacs and the purple flowers growing close along the path. On the lilacs, I see a few honeybees, bumblebees, a hover fly, and a beautiful metallic green bottle fly. I think this is a lot of activity until I wander down to the Isomeris a few feet further down the path. There are so many individuals of so many species that I capture four or five apiece in the frame of my camera lens. Once, I even get two different pollinators on the exact same flower. I see a few butterflies this time, too, though all but one flutter by before I can be sure what they are. One is small and white, another medium sized and black, and the last is a western tiger swallowtail. As I’m scampering about to get a better look at the them, I startle a fence lizard out of an oak tree. I get very excited about this, since he is the first herpetofauna I’ve found on these observations. He stares at me without moving until I creep forward to get a picture and then he races back up his tree.

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The past few years, I’ve been dabbling in wildlife and landscape photography and pollination is hands-down my favorite thing to photograph. I enjoy the beauty and tiny-ness of the flowers and insects and the mutualism of the relationship. It is also a strange reproductive strategy when you think about it; to convince another living thing to carry your gametes to your mate. I don’t want to spend my entire observation staring at pollinators through the lens of my camera, so I make myself wait until the end of the 45 minutes to take most of my photos. Honestly, you could leave me with a camera in a wildflower meadow full of pollinators for hours (days?) and I’d be happy. I (mostly by accident) get a nice shot of a tiny little native bee with two massive Apis honeybees in the background on the Isomeris. Most folks love the honeybees, and they are certainly beautiful and an important ecological player. They are also introduced, from Europe, and can negatively impact populations of native bees (ex. bumble bees) which are also important pollinators of native and crop plant species, so much so that the Integrated Crop Pollination Project recommends (among other things) establishing wildflower corridors around crop fields to attract a diverse array of native pollinators in addition to managed and wild Apis hives. As beautiful as they are, I can’t help but notice how massive the Apis are compared to the native bees, which makes the native bees seem delicate and vulnerable by comparison. In the photos below, you can see how the honeybees bury their whole body in the flower while the tiny Lasioglossum perches precariously on the end of one anther. I don’t know the native California bees very well yet, so when I get back from my observation, I send a couple pictures to Neal Williams, an entomologist here at UCD who studies native pollinator ecology and he responds within hours with a genus-level ID for each one, and an offer to ID to species-level anything we can catch and bring it to him. One thing I love about academia is how total strangers will lend you their expertise at a moment’s notice – we are all lifelong learners and total nerds here, and we love sharing it.

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In class this week, the students will share their own mid-day observations. For the morning observations, I was impressed at the diversity of locations the students chose. They observed a variety of spots in the arboretum, an urban green space near a housing development, tucked-away corners of campus between lecture halls, managed campus gardens, etc etc. I look forward to hearing how different their mid-day observations were from the morning observations, particularly for those that chose campus locations that were mostly empty prior to 8 am in the morning. These sites will likely be very different in the hustle and bustle of the regular campus afternoon. And in two weeks, we will have the evening observations, when I will (fingers crossed!) perhaps get to see my burrowing owls.

 

Wild Davis Urban Ecology Scavenger Hunts

For the Wild Davis course, students will have to come up with an ecological research or natural history focused individual project. This week’s class exercise is a scavenger hunt brainstorming session to help them develop possible project ideas. Below are the scavenger hunt ‘items’ and what each of the groups (including Sharon and I!) ‘collected.’

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The squirrels were a common feature of many interactions

1. Mutualistic Interactions
– a hover fly pollinating a matilija poppy
– butterflies pollinating flowers
– ladybugs eating aphids off plants
Many of the mutualistic interactions we observed involved humans:
– a person with a guide dog
– Anne’s favorite man feeding his stray cat

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Hover fly and a matilija poppy

2. Non-Mutualistic Interactions
– herbivory by a duck
– ducks competing for food
– wasp galls on oak trees
– spider capturing prey on a web
– pathogens on plants
– squirrels digging up cached acorns

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wasp galls on campus valley oaks (photo by Sharon Strauss)

3. Interactions Between Humans and Animals
– squirrels ‘begging’ for food from humans
– horses housed at the equestrian center on campus
– humans feeding animals, including ducks and squirrels

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The squirrels on campus are really well fed.

4. Interactions Between Humans and Plants
– humans enjoying the shade of a large tree
– people taking pictures of flowers and animals
– Picnic Day tree signs, promoting value of trees

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These signs were hung up around campus for Picnic Day, they included stats on how much CO2 trees use, how long they live, and resources they require

5. Interactions Between Animals and Human-Made Objects
– a scrub jay perching on a signpost
– nest on the corner of a building
– squirrels hanging out on a trash can
– turtles basking on the cement retainers in the arboretum

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A phoebe uses the cement retaining wall as a vantage point for hunting

6. Interactions Between Plants and Human-Made Objects
– ivy on the wall of the Silo and the columns in front of Shields Library
– plants growing in the gutters of buildings
– redwood roots breaking through sidewalk
– trees in the arboretum with ID tags

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ivy growing on the Silo

7. Evidence of an Animal (but not the animal itself)
– a duck feather on the ground
– squirrel nest
– spiderwebs with no spider
–  various types of bird poo. There was a vigorous discussion on the visual identity of duck and songbird poo, with the latter being described as “high-velocity splatter”

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8. Interactions Involving Detritivores
– an earthworm in the leaf litter of the redwood grove
– roly poly in the soil
– mushrooms growing under a tree

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an earthworm in the redwood grove at the arboretum

9. Interactions Involving Invertebrates
– a hover fly pollinating a heuchera
– a spider building a web on a tree branch
– aphids on plants

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this plant is overrun with aphids (photo by Isabelle Gilchrist)

10. Interactions Involving a Plant that is NOT an Angiosperm or a Gymnosperm
– competition  between maidenhair fern and various angiosperms
– ferns in the redwood grove

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11. Interactions Involving an Organism that is NOT a Plant or an Animal
– fungal burl on tree
– fungus on the columns at Shields Library
– mushrooms in the redwood grove

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photo by Sharon Strauss

12. Interactions Between Organisms and Abiotic Aspects of the Environment
– seeds floating on the breeze
– butterflies floating on breeze
– ducks swimming in the waterway at the arboretum
– turtles basking on the cement retainers in the arboretum

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I didn’t technically get a shot of a seed on the breeze, but these ones were about to go!

 

Wild Davis I: Morning Observations

**This post is a part of the Wild Davis course at UC Davis in which students must complete three timed observations of an urban habitat within the UC Davis campus or Davis city limits. As an instructor for this course, I joined the students in this exercise in order to provide a public example of the types of work the students do in this class. For more information on the course, you can follow #wilddavis on Instagram and Twitter, and check back here for more posts throughout the quarter!**

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the entrance to the trail, off Covell Blvd

I choose to do my timed observations at the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer, a 38-acre habitat corridor and walking trail located in north Davis conveniently near to my house. The buffer provides natural space around and between housing developments, the Wildhorse golf club, and the agricultural fields that abut town. In particular, it is sensitive habitat for a colony of burrowing owls, which I very much want to see. Since I have walked this path before, I know there is a small bench near the strip of burrowing owl habitat (or at least near the sign that says this is the area) where the path takes a left turn around the golf course and I choose this spot for my observations. The morning observations are supposed to occur between 6 and 8 am, and I get to my bench at about 6:15 on Tuesday morning.

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The buffer path marked in yellow, and the location of my bench shown with a yellow star (map from DavisWiki)

It is cold this morning – just cold enough that I can see my breath – and damp from a fog that is rising. I bundled up for the bike ride to the buffer – having moved here from Hawai’i, I am not at all metabolically prepared for sitting on a stone bench on a chilly morning. I’m wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, gloves, earmuffs, and two pairs of sweatpants; and I brought a thermos of hot coffee. Even through two pairs of sweatpants, the stone bench is too cold to sit on for long, so I meander around this section of the path.

From my bench, I can see quite a bit of the path, which was mostly empty this early on a cold weekday morning, though I did see 6 people either walking or jogging the path during my observation. I can see the Wildhorse housing development in the distance and the rolling hills of what I’m pretty sure is Hole 4 of the golf course. Behind me is a small patch of meadow, bordered by a wire fence that marks the edge of the buffer, and beyond that, an orchard. I can smell the smoke of a fireplace, and I can hear distant traffic and the mower and leaf blowers of a lawn crew in the golf course. A couple times I hear the whistle of a train a ways off.

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Once the lawn crew moves on, I hear the sparrows twittering to each other as they flit around the bushes. They are the busiest little bees this early in the morning, as it is too early for the actual bees. They will come near to me if I stand still, but even just a turn of my head sends them clamoring back to the safety of the redbuds. My spot is mostly grassy, but there are a few lilac bushes (in full bloom), a few redbud trees (mostly free of their buds now and just leafy green), and a few oak trees sporting some wasp galls. I notice that one of the redbud trees has green flagging ribbon tied to one branch, and two of the oak trees and a lilac bush have yellow flags planted at their bases. I wonder what these flags mean – perhaps the oak trees are under observation for their galls, although I see nothing unusual about the lilac bush and redbud tree that are also flagged.

As I biked in, I flushed a few rabbits from the path, but I see none in my area throughout the observation. I do see a hawk, being harried out of the golf course by a gull that repeatedly divebombs the hawk, even after it has fled to the orchard. The hawk forages for a bit in the orchard until the gull leaves and then makes his way back over the golf course. I see him going back and forth between the two, suggesting his hunting is easier in the managed landscapes than in the overgrown cover of the buffer. No wonder the bunnies and the sparrows like it here.

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Sunrise

Most of the people I see along the path come after the sun has just risen, a little before 7 am. They all say good morning, and one woman stops to chat about the weather. I wonder what they think of my presence here – I know how odd I must look. Given my cruiser bicycle, my thermos of coffee, my bulky double sweatpants (the outer pair of which are my husband’s plaid flannel sleep pants), and my note taking, I am clearly not here for exercise as they all are. Every person I see is white, and I wonder if they would smile and greet me if, instead of a 30-something white woman in oversize sweatpants and hoodie loitering about a back section of the path, I was a black teenager doing the exact same thing. To my knowledge, Davis is a safe town for everyone, but I wonder anyway. I am reminded of an essay by Evelyn White titled Black Women and the Wilderness, in which she fears the danger of being in the wild – not the fear of accidents or wild animals, but the fear of other humans and what they might do when you are out alone in the wilderness. I feel safe in this corner of the buffer, alone with the sparrows, as I have felt safe in most natural places all my life, and I wonder how much of that feeling is the privilege of being white.

“While the river’s roar gave me a certain comfort and my heart warmed when I gazed at the sun-dappled trees out of a classroom window, I didn’t want to get closer. I was certain that if I ventured outside to admire a meadow or to feel the cool ripples in a stream, I’d be taunted, attacked, raped, maybe even murdered because of the color of my skin.” ~Evelyn White

I finish my coffee just as my 45 minutes is up. As I bike back out of the buffer zone, a barn owl takes flight from the meadow to my right. For one instant, I think it is a burrowing owl and I get excited – but it is a barn owl, though I like them, too. I hear an unusual bird call from a tree near the trail’s entrance. I don’t recognize it, and I can’t seem to find the bird that is making it, despite the fact that the tree doesn’t have that many leaves. I’m reminded of another essay, this one by Annie Dillard, titled “Seeing” and found in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Specialists can find the most incredibly well-hidden things,” she states, separating her ability at ‘seeing’ from that of the ‘specialists’. I keep meaning to mention this essay to the students in the Wild Davis course – don’t worry if you’re not good at seeing things right away (or ever), even ‘specialists’ struggle. I record the call so I can try to ID it later.

“I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.” ~Annie Dillard

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll get to hear about the students observations. We let them choose a place without any oversight, so I have no idea what types of locations they have chosen. I hope they saw, heard, smelled, felt something interesting. I hope they felt safe alone there at dawn. I hope they avoided distracting themselves with technology (as I did, mostly, with the exception of taking some photos). I hope their choices reflect the variety of habitats in and around the UCD campus. I hope each student’s experience is unique in some way and that they value sharing it with their classmates (and hearing about their classmates’ experiences). I hope they enjoyed it and that they saw whatever habitat they chose in a way they hadn’t seen it before.

NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy List: COMPLETED!

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I *may* have gotten a little carried away at the library

Reading has always been one of my favorite activities. I honestly think the ability to read might be the skill I value most, even though it’s (fortunately) a super common skill.  As a little girl growing up in Kansas, I loved how books could transport me anywhere, and anywhen. Nowhere is that more true than in the sci fi and fantasy genres, where you can push beyond even the limits of the laws of physics and the space-time continuum.

In the summer of 2014, as I was cranking into my post-doctoral position at Kansas State University, I stumbled across NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. I was new to both genres – a couple years prior, I had made it most of the way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and by the fourth book had given up on the life expectancy of any character whose story arc I enjoyed. I lamented my dissatisfaction with the series to a number of my friends who read fantasy regularly – what I wanted wasn’t Martin’s medieval war story with a side of dragon (#sorrynotsorry), I wanted something with more *actual* fantasy. Every person had the same response: then you should read the Wheel of Time. I spent the last year of my doctoral program wallowing through Jordan’s 14-book, ~12,000-page series, which was actually a nice mental break from the 5-chapter, 215-page hellscape that was my dissertation.

Regardless, once I found the list, it perfectly fit the combination of my voracious reading habit and my anal retentive love of crossing things off lists.

In the time I’ve been working on the list, a lot of people has asked me the following questions:

How was the list compiled?

All of NPR’s Top 100 lists are compiled in roughly the same way. For this list, NPR readers nominated over 5,000 titles, which were then reviewed by a panel of experts and culled to a finalist list, which was then opened to an online poll that received over 60,000 votes. The 100 books receiving the most votes made the final list. The books are ranked in order of most to least votes; from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (receiving 29,701 votes) to C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (receiving 1,452 votes).

Before you freak out that your favorite book or series isn’t on the list, it’s worth noting that this list intentionally excluded young adult and horror/thriller novels, both of which now have their own Top 100 Lists.

Since this is essentially a popularity contests, there are a number of criticisms that can be levied, the most frustrating (in my opinion) being the dearth of diversity in authorship. The list is overwhelmingly white male, which is also true of both genres generally. The top ranked book by a woman is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at #20, and while many male authors have multiple entries on the list (including Tolkein, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Stephenson, Gaiman, Vonnegut, King, Orwell, Sanderson, Clarke, Pratchett, Wells, Niven, and Verne), only one female author appears more than once (LeGuin).

Seriously? A HUNDRED books? Did you actually read them all?

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My cat even read some of them with me.

Yes, and no. Many of the books on the list are actually a series, so the list totals ~320 individual books.

I had previously read ~10 of them (including two of the heftier series Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s Wheel of Time) and I did not reread those. Two of the list are graphic novels (Moore’s The Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series) which I skipped because I don’t care for graphic novels. I also let myself out of a series if I truly hated it and had read a significant portion of it to give it a fair chance. I did not complete Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for the aforementioned reasons. I also did not finish Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because it is literally 40 books long; I read the first dozen or so and then could not stand any more terrible puns or juvenile plot lines based around gender stereotypes and I simply could not bring myself to interlibrary loan a book titled The Color of Her Panties.

Other than those few exceptions, I read everything on the list. Totaling over 250 books.

Geez, how long did it take?

Almost exactly four years. I did also intersperse some books that weren’t from the list, but not many.

I’m interested in sci fi and fantasy, but I don’t want to read the whole list. What do you recommend?

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Winter break 2014: a few books from the list, a couple extras on Hawaiian history, and a little kir royale on the side

This is hard, because it depends so much on preference, and because my opinions of the books are probably influenced by the order in which I read them since I had read so little sci fi and fantasy prior. But with those caveats, here are my personal top 10, in the order in which they appear on the list:

(I promise there are no spoilers in these descriptions, everything I discuss here are either general themes/topics or plot info you learn in the first couple chapters)

8) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy: just read everything by Asimov. Foundation is great, I, Robot is greatthe robot novels (of which only Caves of Steel is on the list) are all great. Just really, read everything he ever wrote. They are fantastic on their own, and also frequently referenced throughout other sci fi works.

20) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If you went to high school in America, it is highly unlikely that you have not read this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it since high school, read it again. Shelley’s monster is a far cry from the green-skinned, knob-necked zombie of pop culture and her portrayal of the monster’s ostracism by society and Frankenstein’s guilt over his creation are powerful and timeless. The story behind her own life and the writing of the book just make it all the more fascinating.

23) Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: I’m a little conflicted with Stephen King. He’s a fantastic character writer and I often feel like the fantasy and horror aspects of his novels detract from the quality of his character development. The Dark Tower is no exception – you have a fabulous blending of four characters who are so different that you would never expect them to work well together (and yet they are the perfect ka-tet), but shit gets weird fast. It’s a long series, and if you make it through Song of Susannah, you’ll be wondering what brain trauma King went through as a child that would account for his plot lines, but at least read through Wizard and Glass because Roland is a fabulous story teller.

27) Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: this book is halfway between a collection of short stories and an actual novel. Each chapter is a separate time slice in human colonization of Mars, and as the reader you kind of ‘play God’ by knowing all the back history of previous chapters that current characters don’t know. I was hard-pressed to pick only one of Bradbury’s several entries on the list, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. The Illustrated Man (another collection of short stories) is also good, and Something Wicked This Way Comes has some of the most poetic writing I’ve read.

43) Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy: one of the frustrations I frequently ran into with fantasy series were that there was little internal logic to how the magic worked (it seemed anyone, no matter their ability, could always just dig deeper in a time of real need and do just about anything). In Mistborn, not only is Sanderson’s storytelling fantastic, but the structure of the magic is really specific and clearly defined, and the cleverness comes in how it is used. The storyline is also far less predictable than a lot of the fantasy series on the list. I felt like most of them were protagonist (frequently an orphan) finds magical ability, then maybe love, fights evil, rides off into the sunset, blah blah blah. This is one of the few series where I found the ending surprising without just being a contrived last-minute plot twist.

54) Max Brooks’ World War Z: I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it does the book justice. The book is split into a bunch of small sections following numerous individuals’ experiences with the zombie outbreak – regular people, government officials, doctors and scientists trying to understand the ‘infection’, etc etc. I was struck by the realistic feeling to most of the stories – like, I’m pretty sure this is what would actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred.

77) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Series: Ok, full disclosure, this series has some rather graphic S&M scenes. And, I don’t mean 50-Shades-Of-Gray-my-inner-goddess-is-moaning kind of crap, I mean real violence. The up side is it’s all 100% consensual, since this society takes the religious precept “Love as thou wilt” remarkably literally. I really enjoyed following a strong female protagonist navigating her own sexuality and trust issues, and the series’ discussions of morality in love, sex, and loyalty/betrayal and how these interweave with religious and societal norms.

83) Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: This was probably my favorite entry on the whole list. It’s a 10-book series that follows The Culture, a society of numerous intelligent and sentient species (humanoid and non) and artificial intelligences that interact with other ‘less advanced’ societies. Each of the books follows different characters and occurs on different planets and in different time periods, which means they need not be read in any particular order and most can be read as a stand-alone book. I really enjoyed the theme throughout the series of the impact of ‘benevolent’ manipulation by The Culture on other societies and on individual agents of The Culture. Also, the AIs that control spaceships are so advanced that they have individual personalities, which means that the ships are plot-driving characters and have their own social interactions/norms. Not all the books have quite the same tone, which makes it not feel as repetitive as other long series, and many of them are written with a wittiness that makes even the longer novels easy to read. If you’re not ready to commit to the full series, I recommend starting with Consider Phlebas (which occurs during the Culture-Idiran war) followed by Look to Windward, which discusses the impacts of that war 800 years later.

92) Robin McKinley’s Sunshine: this is McKinley’s only entry on the list, as much of her work is young adult or children’s fiction. I really enjoyed Sunshine, though if I’m being totally honest, I’m including her in my top 10 more for body of work as a whole and not just this novel. You should also read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown and Dragonhaven and Pegasus.

3) Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series and 100) C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy: really, what I loved in these two were the second and third books in Card’s series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) and the first of Lewis’ trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet). These deal with the behavior of human individuals and societies when faced with newly discovered intelligent, sentient species and the danger of cultural misunderstandings, especially in the face of xenophobia. Card’s series also delves into inter-planetary ecology. Discovering intelligent life was a common theme in the sci fi entries, but I thought these two addressed it best.

An aside for books about war

Many novels in both genres focus on war, to the point that I am now really sick of reading about war, especially in fantasy where it’s mostly hand-to-hand combat with lots of beheading and disembowelment… There were some noteworthy ones, however, which didn’t quite rise to my top 10, but were still thought-provoking.

56) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 74) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: I accidentally read these two back-to-back and found them to have interesting similarity, even though they’re rather different. Both follow an individual soldier throughout his career and both focus on how war and general life in the military separate soldiers from the civilians they protect. The Forever War focuses on social and temporal separation as the protagonist accrues time dilation while traveling to battles throughout the galaxy. Old Man’s War focuses on biological separation through the development of genetically engineered super-soldiers and trends more towards the question of what it means to be human.

81) Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series: this is another hefty series – 10 books at 1000+ pages each. It actually has a lot in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – countless characters that you cannot possibly keep track of, numerous political factions all fighting over the same area for different reasons, and no one’s safe from death (but even dead, they might not really be gone). It’s better than Game of Thrones in my opinion, though because the characters are a lot more diverse and the cultures they represent are more richly developed and there’s a thread of humor woven through that keeps it from being too terribly depressing.

So…. what are you going to read now?

Oh, so many things! There’s The Guardian’s dystopian novels that reflect today’s socio-political climate, there’s The Guardian’s five best climate change novels, there’s NPR’s  novels for understanding Trump’s election, there’s every book Obama recommended during his eight years in office, and there’s Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list of feminist writings. That sentence maybe came off more political than I intended, but I’ve been stuck in sci fi and fantasy for four years now, and I feel like I need to reconnect with the real world. I also have plans to slog through James Joyce’s Ulysses with a friend with whom I previously slogged through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so maybe I should just round out the Top 10 Most Difficult Novels.

I just love books. And lists.

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The final four! Small Gods was the official last book.

The Value of Service Learning

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My first service learning; with an ‘a’ali’i at Ka’ala kipuka, Fall 2014

The University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu puts a strong emphasis on service learning as part of our student’s educational experience. Numerous courses at UHWO contain a service learning component linked to course content, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) coordinates university-wide events, and students who complete at least 30 hours of service learning during their coursework are recognized with a certificate of accomplishment at graduation. In my intro biology and botany courses, our service learning takes the form of native plant propagation and ecological restoration at two sites on the west side of O’ahu, coupled with a reflection paper in which students are expected to discuss if and how they value service learning as part of their educational experience at UHWO. In this post, I’ll reflect on the value of service learning from the instructor’s perspective.

The CCESL statement on service learning describes the purpose of the service learning experience and the benefits the university believes it provides for students. CCESL states that “In service learning abstract ideas and theories become concrete as they are used to make our world a better place.” I view it more as the opposite, actually – in biology classes, we deal so much with concrete facts and in the service learning we get a chance to look at the messiness of the real world; particularly how to deal with large-scale environmental problems like invasive organisms and climate change in the context of two very different habitats.

My students work at two sites on the west side of O’ahu: Kalaeloa Heritage Park and Piliokahe (aka ‘Tracks’) Beach Park. While the work we do at both sites is similar (remove invasive plants and replace with native and endemic vegetation), the sites themselves have very different histories and present very different problems for successful restoration. I believe our restoration at Kalaeloa represents honoring Hawaii’s past while our restoration at Piliokahe represents the struggles Hawai’i faces now and in the future.

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upright stones mark the Kualaka’i Trail

Kalaeloa Heritage Park is a 77-acre archeological park containing 177 documented cultural features of Tahitian origin. When students visit the park, Shad Kane (the park’s director) gives them a tour of the 3-acre section that will eventually be an educational park open to the public. Our role is to restore the vegetation of the park to the native plants which would have occupied the area when it was inhabited. Shad emphasizes to the students that this village was one of farmers, fishers, and gatherers (not chiefs or kahunas), and that the people who lived here faced the constant struggle of subsisting off the land. The Kualaka’i trail, which crosses the park, connected upland farming villages with coastal fishing communities and was a feature of maps drawn in 1825 from off-shore surveys performed by Royal Navy Lt. Malden of the HMS Blonde. The park now abuts the Kalaeloa Airport and both the airport land and the park were formerly part of the Naval Air Station Barber’s Point which closed in the 1990s. The park contains the remains of an airplane that crashed during a training exercise in 1949, killing the three pilots on board (the park plans to erect a memorial in their honor next to the wreckage). In this way, Kalaeloa Heritage Park embodies many stages of Hawaii’s past, from Polynesian inhabitants prior to Western contact to recent relationships between civilian and military presences. The park is protected by a fence, and Shad and his crew care for our native plantings and support our removal of invasive species. Once it is open to the public, entrance fees will continue to support the maintenance and care of the park, which will educate visitors on Hawaii’s sociopolitical and environmental history.

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Piliokahe Beach Park is a very different place. The park is open to the public and abuts Farrington Highway in Nānākuli. It is managed by the Honolulu Parks and Rec Department and is an off-the-beaten-path tourist spot (our Saturday-morning restorations regularly run into wedding parties). Unlike Kalaeloa, this park is not protected by any fences, though recently Bruce has posted signs informing visitors that restoration work is occurring on the dune. Our plantings at Piliokahe Beach are vulnerable to many of the social and environmental problems facing Hawai’i generally, such as human apathy and ignorance of environmental issues, homelessness, and climate change. Malama Learning Center initially started restoration work here, with the goal of progressing down the dune front away from the primary beachgoers’ area. In the several semesters I have participated here, our progress has stalled out on two regions which repeatedly face destruction. One semester, a homeless man removed all of the rock rings protecting our plants and placed his multi-tent camp on top of our plantings. The next semester, nearly all of our plants were killed by an unusually hot and dry summer and significant erosion of the dune front. The primary invasive plant on the dune is buffel grass, which takes over again almost as quickly as we can remove it. Buffel grass is particularly helped by the proximity to the highway – one tossed cigarette can start even a small fire that will kill the native plants (which are not adapted to fire), and clear the way for buffel grass (which is resistant to fire) to recolonize large areas.

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Seed pods on pohinahina

At Kalaeloa, the naio we planted my first semester are already shoulder-high on me. Many of the species we’ve planted are now reseeding themselves and every time I visit, the park is visibly more lush with native plants. I even once saw an endemic picture-wing fly on a wili wili tree. I can walk around Kalaeloa and remember the individual plants and even which of my students planted it. Almost nothing has died. At Piliokahe I know where we planted on the dune, but I struggle to identify our individual plants. The shape of the dune front changes and I can’t always tell if the new plants we planted there died or were washed out, or still struggling amongst the returning buffel grass. It’s a harsher ecosystem all around; even the plants that survive aren’t showing the robust vitality that the plants at Kalaeloa exhibit. Still, we’re making progress. The sections of the dune where we planted when I first started are slowly overgrowing with pohuehue, pohinahina, and ‘akulikuli, and this semester, I noticed some of the pohinahina setting seed.

For these reasons, the restoration at Kalaeloa feels more successful than at Piliokahe, although the struggle at Piliokahe resonates more strongly with me. It’s easy for people to understand the value of preserving what little remains of the past; it’s harder to convince them to preserve what little remains of the present. This dichotomy is visible even in my students’ reflection papers. Students often comment on looking forward to taking their families to Kalaeloa to learn about the cultural features and show off their contribution to the park’s restoration. Piliokahe is a public beach, and any one of the students could revisit the dune at any time to show their families or observe the progress of the plants, and yet to my knowledge, only one student has done so.

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Naio at Kalaeloa, planted Fall 2014, photographed Fall 2016

Which brings me back to the point of this for the students’ educational experience. CCESL states that “Service opportunities provided by faculty in their courses engage students in active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning experiences that meet community needs while deepening and expanding classroom learning objectives… Research has shown that students who participate in focused service learning in a course retain information better and have a deeper understanding of course material.” My students probably don’t see a connection to learning objectives or course content yet, for two reasons:

1) We haven’t gotten to the most relevant content yet. The semester ends with the chapters on ecology, including invasion ecology and sustainability and conservation. When we went to Kalaeloa Heritage Park, we were still covering like, properties of water or something, which was not obviously directly related. The students will get the content in class after we’ve done the service learning, and right before the papers are due (see how I worked that out?! :-D)

2) The service learning relates most strongly to an unwritten learning objective for the class; an unwritten learning objective for college generally, I would argue: by the time students complete their degrees at UHWO (regardless of their major) they should be functional, contributing citizens. They should be informed voters, caring members of their community, have identified social causes important to them and support these causes with their time and/or money. In short, they should give a shit. About something; about anything, really. UHWO doesn’t have a biology major, so I recognize that few (none?) of my students love biology like I do. That’s fine. Love something. One of the things I hope my students see before they’re done here is that your grades, your GPA, your class rank don’t matter. I mean, they “matter” in that they determine if you get credit for the class, keep your scholarship or whatever, but they don’t matter in the real world. The purpose of college isn’t to get A’s or be valedictorian or graduate magna cum laude – the purpose of college is to be an informed, caring, and contributing member of society. If you figure that out, you’ll probably also get A’s, and you might be valedictorian, and you might graduate magna cum laude. But those things are not the end goal.

One of my students this semester commented in her reflection paper draft that the overall point of service learning is to do something that matters, because so many people never feel that they’ve done something of real value. She argued that service learning should be emphasized more in high school because not everyone goes to college. While I agree,  I also find that college is a good time for this kind of work because so many of my students are on the cusp of adulthood. They’re newly living outside their parents’ influence (or maybe longing to do so). They’re starting to get ‘real’ jobs and some are beginning to settle down and start families of their own. They’re maybe in different places, but they’re all on that continuum working their way from child towards adult. High school is weird in that you’re not really a kid anymore, but you’re definitely not an adult either, and I think the concept of being a ‘contributing member of society’ isn’t really on your radar at that age. The college years (whether or not you are in college when they occur) are formative for adult-hood, for shaping the way you will view the world from here on out. This is particularly relevant in science classes, where we emphasize building evidence-based perspectives. Don’t just regurgitate your parents’ opinions, or your textbooks’ definitions, or your professor’s soap box rant in class (What? Doesn’t everybody do that…?). In college, you should learn to read, to evaluate, to think for yourself.  And if, in the meantime, we your professors can get you to care about something now (I mean really get you passionate about it), it will stick with you when real adulthood descends. Trust me, that’s exactly what happened to all of your professors when we were in college – and here we still are.

The professors are not “required” to go to the service learnings. In some classes, the students choose and coordinate their own service opportunities, and few professors attend the university-coordinated events. I go to all of the service learning events with my students; not to keep tabs on them, or take attendance, or whatever, but because I enjoy it. I see the difference we’re making, even in just a few semesters, at both of these sites and I know that our work there matters. I’m proud of my students, and I hope they’re proud of themselves, too.

Hawaiian Plant Propagation, Spring 2017

It’s that time of the semester again! Namely, the time when Bruce Koebele, our resident propagation expert and service-learning coordinator, visits all of my classes and instructs all my students on planting and caring for a cutting of a native Hawaiian plant. The students will care for their cutting for most of the semester and then plant them at Piliokahe Beach in April. Across all my sections this semester, I have 60 students – a small army of propagators and habitat restorers – and I look forward to the impact a group this size will have on our two restoration sites.

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I enjoy starting the students off early on the propagation. It gives them as much time as possible with their plants, and shows them right away that this class will be different – on the *second day* we’re eschewing the normal class structure (which I tell them I do all semester, but I’m never sure they believe me at first) and literally getting our hands dirty (or not literally, since we’re using potting media and not dirt). It also lets me unleash my dorky side, since I always love the little trays of baby cuttings waiting to be potted. They just look so hopeful, and ready for their new adventure.

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Bruce walks the students through the different techniques of propagating plants, and the steps he has done prior to class. What are the pros and cons of propagating from cuttings versus from seeds? How do you collect seeds or cuttings? How do you ensure the plants you propagate are healthy and will survive in their new home? This semester, Bruce collected cuttings from native populations of each species growing on the eastern coast of O’ahu. This location will bring some genetic diversity to the population at Piliokahe (which is on the western coast), which will help the long-term survival of the population. Bruce also brings potting media that has been sterilized, to prevent infection in the delicate cuttings. And at this point, the cuttings have no roots, so students dip each cutting in a rooting hormone to promote root development as rapidly as possible. Since we’re scientists, we also collect data on the cuttings: students measure the height and leaf number for the cutting upon planting, and then track it throughout the semester. Investment in stem and leaf growth is one indication that the cuttings roots are developing sufficiently to support above-ground growth.

This semester, I’m propagating a plant (or two!) with each class. Left-to-right in the picture below are my pā’ū-o-Hi’iaka, nehe, ‘uhaloa, and pohuehue. So far, only the pohuehue is named – Charlie Brown (for what I hope are obvious reasons).

I strongly encourage the students to name their plants. Naming has a practical goal of helping the students remember to care for the plant… But also, naming the plant encourages the students to identify and interact with it as another living thing. Naming also has importance culturally – Bruce reminds the students that Hawaiian culture believes naming something instills it with your mana (power, or life force).

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My plants ❤

Currently, all of the plants are living on campus for a week or so, just to make sure they get off on the right foot (or root). Then the plants will journey home with the students until their planting at Piliokahe. Check back here for more details in late March when all our cuttings return for their final check-up!

Looking to the future, learning from the past

Every semester, students evaluate their professors and their courses. At the University of Hawai’i, this is done through an online system called eCAFE. UH West O’ahu provides new faculty with suggestions from other faculty on how to get students to fill out the surveys. Many are what you would expect – provide class time for completing surveys, offer extra credit incentives, etc. One professors commented that every semester, they post their evaluations online and respond to student comments (especially the critical ones) – this shows students that their comments are read and considered, and it provides new students a chance to see what previous students have thought of this instructor and course. Since this was my first time teaching the large introductory Biol 171/172 sections at UH Mānoa, and since I may be returning in the Fall 2017 to teach the same courses, I decided to do the same.

You can read the full student responses for Biol 171 and Biol 172, and/or scroll through my summaries and responses below. Since the courses and the responses were rather similar, my descriptions below are summarized across both courses. Anything in italics is a direct quote of a student comment, followed by the course that student took in parentheses.

Humble Brag
I’ll start with a number of individual student comments which I found particularly amusing or meaningful. These are admittedly all cherry-picked; the most positive and articulate comments, hence the humble brag…

She made boring topics very interesting to listen to and learn about. (Biol 171) and Made plants sorta fun (which in and of itself is a hard task). (Biol 172) Thanks! I think…?

I liked the plant portion of the class best. (Biol 172)  YES! I converted one!!!! #botanistsunite

thank you for making me feel like I’m learning in a small classroom environment when it’s a huge lecture! (Biol 172) This was what I worried most about going into this semester, and the several comments like this made me feel I succeeded on that front.

I enjoyed how passionate how (sic) Laci was about the subject of biology. I also liked the atmosphere of the class, she does not make you afraid to give your answer even if it is not correct. (Biol 171). I want every student to feel this way, in every class, for the rest of my career. Science isn’t about having right answers, it’s about the process of getting to them. Never be afraid to be wrong.

This class was in the morning and professor Laci made the class so much more bearable with her nerdy quirks, insightful explanations, and interactive discussions. (Biol 171) Sometimes I think my nerdy quirks are my most effective teaching tool. That’s not at all a joke.

Loved this class! I know more about animal copulation and defecation than I ever thought I’d need to–and watching Finding Nemo will never be the same. Those are all wins in my book. #marthasmom (Biol 172) #yourewelcome

I felt very secure in her knowledge of the material and this facilitated a trust-based learning environment. She was also freaking hilarious and that doesn’t hurt either. (Biol 172) I never thought ‘trust-based learning environment’ and ‘freaking hilarious’ would end up in the same comment….

I really super enjoyed this course, and felt that Dr. Gerhart-Barley actually cared about our success in the class (which is something I can’t say about a lot of my professors this semester). (Biol 172) I get at least one comment like this ever semester and it always saddens me. Do that many professors really not enjoy teaching or care about the success of their students?

These next three almost make me tear up:
Dr. Gerhart taught with such passion, love, and care. She has truly left an impact in my life and I hope that she continues to do this for as long as she teaches. (Biol 172)

She really gave me a different perspective and outlook on not only biology, but life. (Biol 171)

i can tell this class means something to you and because of you it means something to me too. (Biol 172)

And the best in both classes:
She. Is. Flawless (Biol 171) and You’re perfect (Biol 172) awwww, shucks….

Me, Myself, and I
When the history of discoveries were taught with such passion, they became unforgettable. The content may have been difficult but it was very enjoyable to learn. (Biol 171)

I generally get positive results from the students about their interactions with me as an individual. I wondered how that would translate from my smaller (24 student) sections at UHWO to the 250+ students in 171 and 172 at UHM. It must have translated well because the vast majority of students commented on my enthusiasm and engaging lecture style, how much they enjoyed my personal stories, etc etc. For example, when asked what they liked best about the class, one student said The best part of the course was the interactions between the professor and the students. She did well to communicate with examples from her lifestyle and our lifestyles. (Biol 171) and another said  I love anything that sparked her passion the most, especially plants, because she got even more enthusiastic than usual and it was adorable. (Biol 172) and another said She made class fun but also thought provoking. (Biol 172) and another said Please never change your teaching style. You’re a perfect example of a how a professor should operate in a classroom. (Biol 172) and another said I enjoyed the enthusiasm that Laci brought to her lectures and to the classroom in general. She was always in a great mood, very engaging, and relatable to the students. You could tell she was passionate about the subject material as well as the success of her students. (Biol 171) and another said Laci Gerhart Barley made this class interesting and exciting. She is very easy to talk to and helpful without making the class easy. She has a great balance of being friendly and helpful, while also keeping the class a challenge. She makes students think and understand the material rather than just memorize vocabulary. This was so far my favorite class at UH Manoa (Biol 171).

One comment I particularly enjoyed:

I loved that you always had time for your students when we needed help outside of class and that you would always ask if we had questions and if we understood everything even when we didn’t respond. I really loved that you kept asking if we got it fully before moving on. (Biol 171) I’ve had students tease me about how often I say ‘Does that make sense?’ and in this class, they teased me about expecting a verbal response, but I appreciate their feedback in the moment (not later on an exam or homework) on how clear I’m being. Just asking that question makes their faces tell me the answer even if their voices don’t.

In fact, the only negative thing students said about me as an individual is that I sometimes should slow down in the lectures. They’re totally right – I talk faster the more excited I get. I’ve been working on slowing down for pretty much my whole professional life.

Preparing for Exams
The students overwhelmingly requested study guides (or practice exams). I have tried a number of ways to better guide student preparation for exams in the past. When I provided practice exams to my smaller sections at UHWO, they were a lot of effort on my part (you are writing two exams, and they need to be similar enough that completing one prepares you for the other, but different enough that they aren’t essentially the same) and no one did them. I switched to a study guide of a bullet-pointed list of terms, topics, and concepts and was impressed at the number of students that used the study guide, and did so effectively.
At UHM, I decided to piecemeal the standard study guide as learning objectives for each lecture – this way the students know for each chapter what they should be studying as we go, and don’t have to wait for a study guide closer to the exam. I explicitly stated this in class on about half the lectures and repeatedly reminded students who asked how to study for the exams throughout the semester. Only a few students commented on the learning objectives, and they alternately found them very helpful or too vague to usefully guide studying. Regardless, I could easily provide students in the future with a bullet-pointed list to guide their studying, though I’m not confident it will improve performance.

Exams Themselves
My exams for both courses consisted of 50 multiple choice questions (to be completed in a 50-minute class). Many students requested shorter exams, more exams covering less material, easier questions (ha ha), or inclusion of short-answer/essay questions. I spent many hours prior to the course weighing various options for the structure of the exams, and came to this decision not lightly or happily. While students frequently view multiple choice questions as easier, they can actually be much harder, as students frequently talk themselves out of the right answer. Also, writing good multiple choice questions that are not absurdly hard or painfully easy and get at complex topics can be difficult. They lend themselves a lot more easily to straight definitions or simpler concepts than critical thinking skills. This was especially troubling to me since the vast majority of their grades came from exams (which also frustrated many students).
Exams for my smaller sections are entirely essay, short answer, and a bit of matching or diagram labeling. In a class of 24, that format is manageable; however, this semester, I had over 520 students across 171 and 172, and only a part-time grading assistant for 171 (and no help for 172). I talked with many of my colleagues who teach larger courses about options for getting out of multiple choice questions, and including assignments other than exams without burying myself under a mountain of grading. In the end, I was wary of committing myself to a grading structure I couldn’t maintain, and instead chose to keep the same grade and exam structure that past instructors of these two sections have used.

Lectures and Activities
I better understood the matieral (sic) when we did hands on learning. I believe that the handout she gave us were very effective as they made us communicate with one another to understand the topic. (Biol 171)

I enjoyed the interactive discussions that took place in class. I appreciated her desire to stray from the traditional lecture class setting because I feel it personally helped me grasp the concepts taught in class by being able to apply it in discussion. (Biol 171)

Most of the class periods were fairly standard lectures, interspersed with iClicker (multiple choice) and open-ended discussion questions. I also sprinkled in a number of what I called Applying Concepts days – these were opportunities for us to catch up if we got behind on material, focus on local or historical issues (such as medical ethics or the ecological restoration of Kaho’olawe following its use as a military bombing range), or to do in-class group activities. Many 171 students really enjoyed the group activities and requested more of them. The 172 students were a bit more mixed. For example, this student comment, which I find kind of amusing: I didn’t like the interactive assignments, even though it was fun, I personally would have rather had a lecture. (Biol 172) I’m sorry you had fun, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…
I believe this difference is because of the content of the activities. In 171, they focused more on practicing particular skills – using Punnett squares to predict offspring genotypes/phenotypes, reading a codon table to determine the amino acid chain produced by a particular stretch of DNA, building a phylogenetic tree, etc. These were skills the students would need in order to answer exam questions, and it gave them the time to practice them beforehand with feedback (and I explicitly framed the exercises to them using this reasoning). The activities in 172 were focused more on applying class concepts to real world problems – effectiveness (or lack thereof) of genetically modified rice to solve nutritional deficiencies in third world countries, the relative merits and dangers of fad diets, etc etc. While I personally found these exercises more interesting, they are less obviously related to course content and showed up less frequently on exams, and therefor were less relevant to the students.
Regardless, the students seemed to overall enjoy the lecture style and the class structure generally. One student comment sums this up nicely: Her current teaching style is extremely effective. The combination of powerpoint lectures and in class activities are helpful in understanding the chapters and topics of this course. She breaks down the topics so that even people who know nothing about biology can understand. (Biol 171) The only mild exception to this was my debate to post my lectures online, and whether to do it prior to or after lecture. I want to share my lectures for students to study from later, but I know it encourages skipping. Also, I don’t want students to be able to see ahead to a point I’m building or a question I’m asking (hence waiting till after class to post them). I split the middle by posting my lectures prior to class, but removing answers to questions or spoilers to a story/example. Students disliked this; however, I will continue to do it because not coming to class means you don’t get all the information.

Homework on MasteringBiology
We use the standard Campbell’s Biology through Pearson, along with online homework assignments through MasteringBiology. I made the homework assignments not formally due until the exam date, though I strongly encouraged the students to complete them prior to the lecture to be prepared for that day’s content. A number of students requested the deadlines be prior to lecture, to which my general comment is that the homework is posted from day one and you can set your own earlier deadlines for completion if you like. Many students completed the homework early to stay up on material, while others chose to use it as a study guide before the exam. This one I will not change, simply because I would spend every morning responding to students who missed the homework deadline and want an extension. I already had many of those with the deadlines on the exams.
I also make the homework completion-based instead of grading for correct answers. Philosophically, I want to focus more on the process of thinking and learning and not just the right answer. I believe completion-based homework lowers the stress (especially since MasteringBiology takes off points for using hints or other aids provided by the system) and encourages the students to think through concept for themselves and learn from their mistakes or misconceptions (especially since MasteringBiology provides feedback on why wrong answers are wrong, or other information backing up the correct answer). The few students that commented on this seemed to agree: The fact that the mastering biology assignments were graded on completion made the assignments less stressful yet extremely helpful. The fact that she focuses more on knowledge and understanding rather than getting the answer right away. (Biol 171)

The Future
So, in summary, what will I do differently next time I teach these courses? Overall, I will probably keep a similar structure since my comments were overall quite positive. I’ll keep my ‘nerdy quirks’ and ‘adorable’ love of plants (as if I could get rid of them). I’ll keep posting my lecture slides and I’ll keep removing the answers and spoilers – students can add them in themselves during class. I’ll keep the completion-based homework with exam due dates (but remind students frequently they can do them early). I’ll keep all the activities in 171, and maybe add in some more. I’ll reevaluate the ones in 172; maybe I’ll make them more skill-oriented, or find a way to integrate them better with the rest of the course material (and the exams). I’ll try giving them a study guide and see if anyone uses or appreciates it. I will once again agonize over the reliance on multiple choice exams for the bulk of the grade and consider all the options I can find for getting around that. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be on that front, but I’m hopeful that I can find a structure that eases the exam anxiety for students without overloading myself on grading.