Anthropomotron 2.1.1 is Out!

October 29th, 2015

My now-yearly update to Anthropomotron should be rolling out on iOS, Android, and this website today! I spent a few weeks here and there getting the app updated for iOS9. While I was staring at the code, I added two new sources of stature estimation formulae from adult limb bone length. One, Sjøvold (1990), is one of my personal favorite sets of formulae as it was the first to use a global sample (making them ‘race-less’) and also use a form of the reduced major axis type of regression, which is less biased at the extremes compared to linear regression. Someone’s attempt to bring both of these innovations back to stature estimation a few years ago went down in flames, but we’ll always have Sjøvold.

Sjøvold, T. (1990). Estimation of stature from long bones utilizing the line of organic correlation. Human Evolution, 5(5), 431-447.

Skeletal Voltron: An Activity to Teach Introductory Human Osteology

August 12th, 2015

Possibly, Skeletal Voltron was the highlight of my summer class. I had thought of it back when I first heard that I could be teaching physical anthropology back in January, though it did not come to pass until the summer session.

The goal of Skeletal Voltron is to combine many ideas about teaching anthropology to liven up a topic that can be dry*. Kristina Killgrove (2014) has students draw or mold bones out of clay in order to experience their morphology. Megan McCullen (2010) has her students do a class-wide random mating event to learn the forces of evolution. From great ideas such as these, I thought it would be fun for the whole class to get together and embody a giant human skeleton outside. Each student would be in charge of bone, or part of the skeleton. While I had thought of having the students lay down to form the skeleton, I settled on having each student make a small poster of their assigned bone, held aloft by a stick like a picket sign so that it is visible. Everyone will then present their part and some memorized facts to the rest of the class. Here is what I did with the class to make Skeletal Voltron happen at its inaugural outing.


I went shopping for some crafting materials. Big Lots and dollar stores had all of the following for good prices**:

  • 35 14 x 22″ white poster boards: $7
  • 50 sticks (irregular bamboo sticks for gardening): $9
  • 3 sets of markers: $6
  • 1 roll of packing tape: $2

I asked the class to bring their own markers and other art supplies. Some brought extensive collections of markers to share, being non-traditional students with young children.

I also took some time to divide up the skeleton into as many parts as there are students in my class, 28. Some students were responsible for several bones, such as each half of the pelvis. With more students, I could break up each half of the pelvis into two or three parts for students to represent. There are many parts of the skeleton that could be consolidated or expanded to fit the size of the class.

The parts were further organized into sets of four related regions, to fit the teams I had made early in the semester. I wrote each set of four parts on a notecard, producing as many notecards as there were teams (seven). For example, these were the parts grouped for each team:

Cervical vertebrae
Thoracic vertebrae

Left femur
Right femur
Left tibia, fibula, and foot
Right tibia, fibula, and foot

Left humerus
Right humerus
Left radius, ulna, and hand
Right radius, ulna, and hand

Left pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Right pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Lumbar vertebrae
Sacrum and coccyx

Left true ribs
Right true ribs
Left false ribs
Right false ribs

Left scapula and clavicle
Right scapula and clavicle
Sternal body and xiphoid process

Right patella
Left patella
Hyoid bone
Inner ear bones

The Activity

Just before Skeletal Voltron, I gave my lecture on the human skeleton, moving from the cranium inferiorly to the feet. For each bone or part, I had a slide explaining its function and notable features. One side note: I found that asking for stories about breaking bones kept the class interested during this fact-heavy lecture. Lots of stories were told about clavicles, forearms, and ankles!

To start the activity, I showed the following video to set the mood:

Only the older students were familiar with Voltron. Others related the concept to Power Rangers. I had the class form their teams then asked a representative of each group to come up and pick up a notecard with their four skeletal parts. I explained theft of the activity. It seemed like the class wanted an example, so I sketched a quick mockup of a poster on the white board:

{ Ta-daa. }

{ Ta-daa. }

From there, the students had forty-five minutes to make their own sign based on their skeletal part. Some students kept working right up to the stop time, but I think a half-hour would work as well. I patrolled the class to answer questions and keep people working.

{ Hard at work. }

{ Hard at work. }

When time was up, I had the students all go outside with their creations. Since it was an evening class, it was dusk, but there was ample lighting in our part of campus. I indicated generally where the head and feet of Voltron should be on the ground and asked the class to find their place in the skeleton relative to each other. The completed Voltron in place, I started with the student who made a sign for the skull and asked her to explain the main features of that part. I then went down the skeleton, mimicking the earlier lecture, asking each student to talk a little about the bone they worked on. As the activity wrapped up, I had the class pose with their signs in class:



I heard in the end-of-course comments that the Skeletal Voltron activity was the highlight of the past six weeks. Maybe a third of the students kept their poster-on-a-stick. I had a great time seeing it come to life and I will definitely do it again in future classes.

Update (October 27, 2015)

I have had two more opportunities to do this activity and learned a few valuable lessons to make Skeletal Voltron go as smoothly as possible:

  • 30 minutes is the bare minimum time for devote towards making posters. I had to cut the time available in one of my classes to get caught up with the previous lecture. Some students declared that it was asking a lot to make a poster in a half hour and everyone seemed too rushed.
  • The sticks are actually important! I had not realized that cheap bamboo sticks were a seasonal item in the spring, so by the time my fall classes rolled around, I only had enough sticks for one of my two classes. The sticks were extremely valuable for making the posters visible when standing as a group outside in Voltron formation. The stickless group’s Voltron dissolved as students had to move around to see each other’s posters.


Killgrove, K. (2014, February 21). Hyoidkus – 17 syllables about the hyoid [Weblog post]. Powered By Osteons. Retrieved from

McCullen, M. (2010, September 18). Encouraging college students to mate randomly: teaching population genetics in the classroom [Weblog post]. Great Lakes Ethnohistorian. Retrieved from



*All puns definitely intended.

**The federal tax deduction for teaching supplies unfortunately does not extend to community college instructors. If it did, I would get at least Target-level supplies. Write your legislators!

How I’m Spending My Summer Vacation

July 30th, 2015

When I was making Powerpoint presentations for the summer class, I had to put them together in a hurry. For illustrations, I pulled from the Internet, but I did not like many of the ones that I had to use. Since I have a few weeks before the next class starts, I started making my own illustrations to replace the ones I liked the least. For example, I found this simple diagram showing how genotype relates to phenotype:


{ From }

The issue is that the illustration leaves out a critical part of the cause-and-effect: environmental conditions play a role in phenotype as well. For the lecture, I slapped together a quick edit to show this concept:

Genotype to Phenotype

{ Ta-daa }

Now, with a little more time, I made my own version that is tailored to a physical anthropology class:

Genotype Plus Environment

I used Affinity Designer, a new Mac vector graphics program, to make the illustration. I have used Illustrator before, but vector art is more unfamiliar to me than pixel art. It has been a good learning experience seeing what I can do in Designer!

So far, I have made a few simple illustrations. The genotype plus environment one is the most complex work so far. Drawing the double helix took several hours to get the fake depth right, since it is actually all two dimensional (well, with layers I guess, but not a true three-dimensional structure). The final DNA was the fourth one I made, using various techniques to draw the strands and base pairs to avoid any Escher-esque gaffes. I settled on having each curve (colored light or dark blue) be its own object, pasted end-to-end into a strand. The landscape and the sifaka took less than an hour each.

I have been uploading the illustrations to Wikimedia Commons. I like venues where it is basically impossible to be rejected! Maybe one day I’ll see my own illustration in some other work.

How I Spent My Summer Session

July 26th, 2015

My summer physical anthropology course has ended, so my summer vacation has officially started. I get a few weeks of relatively less work to think about how prior classes turned out and start improving on the next semester’s version. Here are a few quick notes and lessons based on my most recent class.

  • 5 Hour Energy Drink is my hero. I used it for my dissertation defense, knowing that I tap out at around 45 minutes during an oral exam. I still think that my defense was the best presentation I ever gave. Having a half bottle before my class kept me focused for my 4 hour summer lectures.
  • Addressing student concerns reminded me of an article about the two types of favor askers (Burkeman, 2010). While I only ask for something when I am reasonably sure that I will get it (the guesser type), there are also people who ask for favors just to see what he or she could get. That is totally fine, but I have to remember to keep in mind that a favor being asked of me may not be rooted in an actual need.
  • Asking about their favorite part of class, I was gratified to hear that the Skeletal Voltron activity was a hit. One of the full documentaries that I showed, Of Dolls & Murder, also got a few mentions.
  • There was a surprise when I asked students to vote on the most confusing lecture. I expected genetics and evolution to be ranked high, but most votes went to modern primates primate/human evolution. Maybe it was because those were the most recent lectures, or it was the volume of information being presented about unfamiliar topics.
  • One thing I have to work on is my leniency for student excuses for things. I tended to be very allowing in having students turn in assignments way pass the due date or missing class. There may be a personal issue involved as sometimes I feel in hindsight that I care more about late points and unexcused absences than the students care about those penalties themselves! I should keep letting the course rules do their thing in the future instead of relaxing them once the class starts.
  • I had enough extra credit opportunities to move up a full grade. I noticed that the students with the lowest scores did none of them, or did not come close to the full amount. The B to low A students were the ones who did the maximum number of assignments, generally resulting in an A. I had a very skewed distribution of grades due to this trend, with few Bs compared to As and Cs.

The next semester starts in a little under a month! I look forward to a normal semester schedule instead of a hectic summer.



Burkeman, O. (2010, May 7). Are you an asker or a guesser? [Web article]. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Marks, S. (Director). (2012). Of Dolls & Murder [Film].

Summer Nights

June 30th, 2015

I have passed the halfway point of my physical anthropology class, so it is a good time to check in with an update of my experiences!

First, hi class! I inadvertently blasted my site’s address on the projector screen when I was demoing Anthropomotron for my forensic anthropology lecture. This is a publicly-accessible site, of course, but I’ve never known of a student who was reading it while taking my class.

Teaching physical anthropology summer night class has indeed kept me very busy. Just as the class is learning the subject at a rapid pace, I have to keep up with course planning. Each week brings eight hours of class, which translates to around a hundred lecture slides! Using my own online course material as inspiration, I could make a lecture of fifty slides in three days, a pace that fits the schedule. On average, I spend a day making a slide outline of topics that makes sense, a day filling the slides with text, and the last day finding illustrations and videos. By the time I actually give the lecture, I’m usually already far into the next outline.

I do try to add activities to the class. One particular activity that I was looking forward to trying was Skeletal Voltron. I will detail this in its own post, but it involved students going outside to form a giant skeleton on the ground. I also had more typical activities such as discussions of articles. For the next class, I plan of having teams of students make posters about primates to present to each other. At the halfway point, and just after the first midterm, a short team project should keep the energy going.

Actually, I have been surprised by how attentive the class I’ve been. I’ve seen some zoned-out audiences in my time, but as I look out at my class, I see only a few sleepy faces. Especially surprising for a class that ends after 10 PM! I’ve been getting a lot of good questions and comments as well. Working off of what students say has been a fun exercise.

Alright, break is over. Prehistoric primates, australopithecines, Homo, and then it’s time for finals!

Cultural Anthropology Final Exam: ‘Dee-Now-Ment’

June 7th, 2015

And so the course comes to an end. Getting ready for the final, I greatly underestimated the time I needed to make the final exam. The previous exams went relatively smoothly: the first exam had fewer than fifteen questions and the second was mostly done in an hour and a half of nothing-else-to-do. The final was scheduled to be two hours, so I had originally planned a seventy multiple question exam (plus a few short answer). As I wrote the questions, I fell behind schedule and made the test fifty multiple choice questions instead, along with the short answer questions.

The final exam has a different purpose than the previous exams, so I structured it differently. The midterms have the dual role of evaluating students so far and reinforcing the information for further evaluating later. In this situation, mixing up the questions so that the exam jumps around the lectures makes sense. Asking questions out of the order in which the material was taught discourages students from memorizing the material as a sequence of events. Instead, the students hopefully make connections based on synthesizing the material. The final exam is the end of the course, so I did want to wrap up the experience of cultural anthropology as the students leave this topic for whatever is next. This is why I thought that asking the questions in order from lecture one to fourteen was appropriate. There is some continuity across lectures, so this order does make some sense epistemologically. (It was also less time-intensive to not mix up the questions after writing them).

As the students took the final, I was reading the book on teaching that I had mentioned earlier. I was too engrossed in the book because I looked up to see one of the students trying to clandestinely look at a smartphone! I had a few options on what to do about the cheating. Instead of busting the student, I gave a general class warning about having devices out, which seemed to have spooked him enough to stop. From then on, I also kept a closer eye on the test takers to make sure that nothing else was going on. I thanked the students as they turned in their exams, and then it was just me alone with the three posters, which no one had wanted to take with them.

After the exams were turned in, I went straight to the Datalink grading machine so I did not have to return to campus later. I had the exams fully graded that night. Overall the class did well! I went fairly easy on the attendance and participation grades, which helped everyone. I have some thoughts on how to tweak the grading system. I plan to have a blog post about lessons learned and thoughts on future improvements.

I have a summer night course starting next week, which I may document week-to-week depending on how much free time I have. I’m teaching physical anthropology on campus for the first time, so there are a lot of preparations to make. I did not consider how much material needs to be made for eight hours of class per week! There are also logistical issues to consider as I need to consider the class’s stamina, as well as my own. On the plus side, having taught the course online last semester gives me a slight advantage. Thank you for following along as I taught my first classroom lecture course! See you after… some time?

Cultural Anthropology Week 15: The Final Countdown

May 30th, 2015

The last lecture wraps the course material back around from globalization and applied anthropology back to the fundamentals of anthropological research. Like a good conclusion, the last lecture should not have any startling new materials, so I created it out of past slides. I took the most eye-catching and discussion-generating photos and overlaid the main points of each lecture. The result was a fairly dynamic trip down memory lane, if I do say so myself.

The process involved looking at all of the previous lectures. Like an old yearbook photo, the first lecture looks a bit cringeworthy to me now. Back then, I was slavishly following the textbook, cramming in ten slides just on the definition of culture. For the final lecture, culture was just ‘shared and learned beliefs and behaviors.’ I definitely have to redo the first lecture for the future, even though it got good comments from the students. I should at least make its style fall in line with the groove I got into by the fifth week. The first lecture did not even start with a fullscreen attention-getting image! It was just black text on a white background.

Class went well without any major concerns or regrets, though I ran into some technical difficulties at the start. In the excitement of going to the museum last week, I left my lecture thumb drive in class. I loaded up today’s lecture on another drive at home, but the classroom computer would not read it. Luckily, I had the slides with everything but the presenter’s notes uploaded on Blackboard! I signed in and downloaded that version to use. One shudders at what would have happened if I had kept uploading text-less slides to Blackboard as I did at the beginning of the semester.

I had made a final exam study guide to hand to the students. Learning from last time, I did not elaborate too much on it after passing it out. I then gave the final lecture, which mostly matched the study guide. During one of the breaks in the lecture, I was checking Facebook on my phone outside when I saw someone post a link talking about takanakuy, or ritualized Andean fist fighting. Held on Christmas, the event is a festival where people with grudges engaged in refereed combat to settle their differences and start anew for the next year. (Yes, the article on Facebook used Festivus as a reference point). I immediately went to the computer to find a good video and I showed it impromptu to my students after the break! Besides really rousing the class, it also had a lot of tie-ins to talking about rituals, social control, and the function of alcohol (which is the final glue used to mend the fences).

After lecture, I had the last team present their poster, since it was not ready last week. There was still the issue of poster grading. In my poster instructions, I had stated that there would be a peer component in which the team members would rate each other’s performance. Sensing some discord in at least two of the groups, I was not sure if that was the best idea anymore. Like past conundrums, I put it to the students: should they grade each other or not? The class was overwhelmingly against individual poster grades, possibly sensing some type of prisoner’s dilemma shenanigans. With that settled, I told them each team would get a shared grade based on the poster and everyone seemed pleased.

With that, it was time for the last end-of-class question. It was a simple “Which was your favorite lecture, and why?” Then, the last class was done. See you after… the final!

NPR: Will Your Job Be Done By a Machine?

May 27th, 2015

Seems like I’m safe, even though they automated getting a picture of me.


Cultural Anthropology Week 14: Field Trip!

May 21st, 2015

Ever since a student joked that we should go to the San Diego Museum of Man as a class, Week 14 was going to be special. In addition to the trip, the day also marks the end of the poster project that was started after spring break. The plan was simple: we will have the team poster session at the start of class and then go to the museum for a few hours.

Well, plans have had a way of not working out like I had imagined. The first issue, which was the result of last week’s lack of work during poster work time, was that only one poster arrived in class completely done. Another was brought to class unassembled and the third was missing in action. In my design for the project, the poster was supposed to be finished the week before, but none of the teams got that impression. For next time, I will emphasize that the poster is due before the presentation. I may have the posters turned in to me the week before, at least for a graded inspection, for example.

The second issue was that it was another rainy day in San Diego. As a result, many students missed the start of class due to traffic. (The freeways get packed at the slightest hint of rain). As we waited for more people to show up and for the second team to glue their text to the poster, I talked with the team that had their poster done. I did earn a lot of professor points as, right after a student joked that we should get breakfast on the way to the museum, I revealed that I brought mini cupcakes for the class.

When poster two was done, I started the presentations. The team with the newly-minted poster elected to go first. I had the other students gather around as the team went over what they found out about the culture they researched (the Basque of France and Spain). After their summary I tested their ability to think on their feet by asking a few light questions about their research. We then went to the next poster and heard their talk on the Ainu. Their poster had an interesting cyan color scheme, which I was told was due to the printer running out of ink!

At that point, the third team received a call from their missing teammate, who had the poster. It turned out that the student was hurriedly printing out the material at the library. Since it was time to leave for the museum I told the third team to have the poster ready for the next class.

It is school policy that I have nothing to do with field trip transportation so I drove to the Museum of Man alone. The rain had turned into a drizzle by then. Even on a rainy morning, Balboa Park, where that museum was located was packed with cars. By the time I found parking in one of the farther lots, most of the students were already at the museum. I handed out their extra credit assignment and they were off.

{ Museum of Man panorama. }

{ Museum of Man panorama… Museum of Manorama.}

Oh, right, the assignment. I made two assignments for the museum trip: a serious one about the Race: Are We So Different exhibit, and also a fun photo scavenger hunt for the rest of the museum. I had gone to the museum on a free Tuesday a few weeks ago to find inspiration for clues and wrote them up this past week. The task is for students to photograph what each clue was referring to, then upload the photo to a wiki page on Blackboard. The scavenger hunt was collaborative, so everyone gets all of the points for each clue that was correctly solved. You can download the assignment for your own purposes here!


{ Life-sized Gigantopithecus! }

The students went off to see the museum, clue sheets in hand. To my surprise, most of them moved in a pack. Since the team concept did not seem to take hold, most recently evidenced by the poster project, I expected the students to wander off on their own. For a while I stuck around near the entrance to wait for more students, but after a while, I went off on my own. I passed the pack of students a few times. After a while, at their urging, I went along with the pack. It was fun to see them try to figure out the clues as they went, and I did see the museum recently so there was not much for me to do on my own.

{ Statue of a garuda from Bali. My mention of Bali in every lecture became a running joke. }

{ Statue of a garuda from Bali. My mention of Bali in every lecture became a running joke. }

A few of the students paid extra to see the Instruments of Torture exhibit. I had never seen it, so I got a ticket as well. It was interesting and disturbing to see all of these torture implements and read about how they were used. It is astounding how the people in power invested so much in creative ways to injure and publicly humiliate in the Renaissance and colonial times. My favorite torture museum is still the Museo de la Inquisición in Lima, though, since the museum is actually in a location where they tortured people.

After seeing that exhibit, a few students cashed in their coffee drawing winnings. Over bubble tea and pho, we talked about our own experiences at the school and how the class went. I learned a lot about their lives away from school, the other seven times twenty-four, minus three hours of their lives. With lunch wrapped up and the sun shining, it was time to call the field trip a success.

Next week is the last class session before the final exam. On the agenda is the third poster, and a final lecture which will review everything we have learned about cultural anthropology. Sometime I will also have to work out what to do for the participation and attendance grades. It is pretty exciting that the semester is coming to a close! See you after class.

Cultural Anthropology Week 13: Not According to Plan

May 13th, 2015

Week 13 brings the last lecture with new material and more time to work on the poster. Well, that was the plan. Several complications got in the way. Unlucky 13!

First, as the semester winded down, I was worried about the surprise Dean class inspection I was told about. While I was visited by a professor a few weeks ago, I was told to expect two visits. With so few class sessions left, and one a field trip, I was did not want to cause a scheduling snafu with my bosses. Earlier in the semester, I submitted a form that stated when my lectures were going to be for the inspection, but the class schedule had changed by then.

Increasingly paranoid about an impending Dean visit, I rearranged the day’s schedule. It made more sense to do the lecture first, then have poster work time, but what if the Dean shows up in the second half of the day? Instead, I declared poster work time to be first in the morning, and then end with the lecture.

Complication two was that poster work time was lackluster. Only one of the three teams even brought the poster to work on, so that left two teams with nothing to do. The team with the poster left for the library to work on it, with instructions to return in an hour. Since the class then turned into hang-out time, I started browsing streaming videos that I could show instead. As I searched, one of the students actually went up to the board to have an impromptu game of hangman, which entertained the class for a little bit.

I ended up showing a video I saw a while ago, but had no time for. It was also a little weird. Someone during the religion and rite of passage lecture mentioned the Satere-Mawe practice of wearing mittens filled with bullet ants. A little bit later, one of the Youtubers I follow had a video of going to Brazil to experience the ritual (skippy62able, 2015).

The video showed how connected we are with today’s technology, so I thought it had a little connection to what we have been learning. It was also pretty interesting and funny.

After that, I went on a hunt for another video. On the Films Media Group site, I saw a film called The Himbas Are Shooting (Bardet, 2012). The Himba, one of the Namibian pastoralists, were actually on my mind because someone in the last lecture asked about their hair style in one of the slides. (This article [Styles, 2014] has great pictures of Himba hair. On a side note, I have noticed that the Daily Mail of all places have great articles of a cultural anthropological nature, with wonderful photos by Eric Lafforgue and Stephanie Ledoux).

The film turned out to be really charming and entertaining. It also tied into the lecture that day on applied anthropology since it was about giving traditionally underprivileged people a voice (the director, Solenn Bardet, appears to be an anthropologist in everything but professional training).

The plot of this film, which plays with documentary and fiction, is that the members of a Himba village want to make their own documentary to show what they think is important about their life. The result is a series of vignettes that could be real life, an acted-out scene, or both. The students watching in class noted the sense of humor that the Himba filmmakers exhibited. Across all of the lectures and films before, something about people that did not get across was that people are funny all over. Several times, there were parodies of western culture which hit home pretty solidly.

The film ended right when the lecture was scheduled to start. For some reason, the lecture did not garner as much interest as the previous lectures. Maybe moving the lecture to the last half of the class time sucked the energy out of the class. Or the reality of the upcoming poster deadline hit. In any case, watching a Bolivian rap video only got a bit of attention and an attempt to discuss the military application of anthropology did not really go anywhere.

After the class ended, I checked my school email. The Dean’s assistant emailed me back about the Dean visit I was so concerned about. The message: I misunderstood the procedure! The visit by the Dean was actually for my online class, and that was done. So basically I was worried about nothing the whole time.

While it was a drag to end the lectures on a low note, things are looking up for the remaining two classes. Next time we will be presenting the posters, which are probably being made as I write this. Then it is off to the museum! The last class will be a final review as I tie everything together. See you after the museum!


Bardet, S. (Director). (2012). The Himbas are shooting [Film]. Paris: Gédéon Programmes.

skippy62able (Username). (2015, April 6). L.A. BEAST vs the worst pain known to man (ft. LA FENIX) (warning: multiple man tears) [Video]. Retrieved from

Styles, R. (2014, April 18). That’s an unusual look! Namibia’s Himba tribeswomen sport incredible hairdos created using goat hair, butter and mud (but the married men have to cover up in turbans). Retrieved from