Group Notes: A Failed Experiment

June 19th, 2017

The end-of-semester is a good time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work in the most recent semester. One initiative that fell completely flat was an attempt to have students take notes as a group.

A little before the start of the semester, I heard about a tweet series by Stephanie McKellop describing how the students in her class took notes in a collaborative Google Doc. There are several advantages to this method of note taking compared to the usual everyone-for-themselves. A group can catch all of the details in lecture. Students can ask questions amongst themselves. There is also a heightened sense of the classroom as a community.

I was extremely inspired to make group notes a thing. I made Google Docs for each of my sections and told my students about them in the first week of class. Then… nothing. I ended the semester with three blank documents. Since none of the three sections participated, I believe that there is something wrong with my implementation of the class notes. Maybe it has to be organically started by the students. Class notes is going to take a hiatus as I think of ways to improve it so students will use it.

Bean Pong, Spring 2017

June 13th, 2017

A while ago I dreamed up playing a version of beer pong as a final review activity. With each semester that has passed, I have adapted the game to various class sizes. This semester was my second with a class of over 50 students and I have arrived at a set of rules that made such a large number of participants work.

The first time with a large class did not end up well for one big reason: one was that there were too many teams (12-13) for a 70 minute tournament. This semester, I simply combined the teams, so two random teams played another two random teams in each game. To pseudo-randomize the team pairings, I pre-wrote each team name on a notecard and drew from that stack before each game.

There were also some rules that slowed the game down. At first, a question was only asked if a student made the ball in a cup. For a matchup of two less-agile teams, the there were sometimes over ten tosses before someone made it. On-the-fly with suggestions from the boredoming crowd, I changed the rules mid-game so that if a student missed, then that student had to read the other team a question. This kept the pace of questions the same as ball tosses. Another rule that made the game slow was that I had students play to five. Playing to three instead gives students a chance to participate and keeps the tournament moving.

Here are the updated rules that speed up the game for a large class:


  1. Arrange Solo-brand red cups in two triangles of ten cups on both ends of a long table. Desks or chairs can be added to extend the tossing distance. The triangles are arranged like arrows pointing towards each other (medially).
  2. Add beans to around a quarter full of each to act as weights. Two pounds of beans is a good minimum amount.
  3. Place a quiz question in each cup. Or, for faster setup, divide questions in half and place them in piles at each end.
  4. Have student form in around 8 teams. Teams of not-divisible-by-four numbers can give losing teams a chance to play to keep them in the tournament.
  5. Have each team come up with a name and write it on a notecard.

Game Rules

  1. Shuffle and draw from the notecards to determine who plays first.
  2. Decide which team throws first. This could be done with a coin toss, rock-paper-scissors, or a warmup question.
  3. The tossing team tosses 1 ping pong ball towards the other end of the table with the goal of landing it inside a cup. If the ball misses, the tossing team asks the cup team a question from their pile.
  4. If the ball hits, the cup team reads the question from their pile to the tossing team. If the tossing team cannot answer, or answers incorrectly, the turn goes to the other team.
  5. If the tossing team answers the question correctly, they score a point. The turn goes to the other team to toss  (to discourage shutouts).
  6. Teams play to three points.

One last change was that I decided on “Bean Pong” as a catchier name than “Beer(less) Pong.” It’s shorter.

My original post advised that class sizes of over thirty were not playable. With some actual game hosting experience and suggestions from various people, I think I have settled on a good setup that works for around fifty students.

Oh, I mentioned in another post how I teach in the Small Theater of MiraCosta College. The stage setup was amazing for this game. I had the cups set up on a table behind the projector screen. I had a student work the stage lights from the control room as I raised the screen and played “Get Ready for This” by 2 Unlimited.

{ Caption: Not ready for this. }

{ Caption: Not ready for this. }

Secret Summer Craft Project, part 4

June 5th, 2017

This is the last part of my 3D printing saga. Recall that I first dabbled in 3D printing to get a Homo naledi skull replica for the anthropology department at Grossmont College. While work on that area went on its own path, I used 3D printing for my own goals. My personal projects wrapped up before the Homo naledi skull since the latter project was far larger and more complicated than the busts that I made. I am happy that the work on the H. naledi skull reached its own happy end with the production of two life-sized replicas.

When we left the Homo naledi replica story, I had sent the hollowed 3D file off to a local printer whom I found on the 3D Hubs site. The skull has a lot of fine details and irregularities that demanded a lot of 3D printing expertise. Browsing the local printers, I found one whom I could trust to get the print done without giving up. The printer I chose was Brother Robot, or Calramon Mabalot. He is a ten-year-old who built his first printer two years prior and has made very detailed 3D selfies of customers, an articulated prosthetic hand, and quadcopters.

Brother Robot eagerly took the challenge and worked through many obstacles in producing the Homo naledi skull. Reduced-scale prototypes showed that the model was stable, but the full-sized version encountered several false starts due to printer issues (remember what I said about current 3D printing technology).

{ Caption: First print attempt, showing the breakaway support structure inside and out. Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: First print attempt, showing the breakaway support structure inside and out. Photo by Brother Robot. }

One promising attempt hit a snag common to printers of all types: running out of material right before completion!

{ Caption: Almost there! Aaaand, out of filament. Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: Almost there! Aaaand, out of filament. I here this one is now a pencil cup. Photo by Brother Robot. }

Brother Robot eventually used the Homo naledi print to christen a new advanced printer that he had built, and it worked perfectly.

{ Caption: Success! Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: Success! Photo by Brother Robot. }

The end of a 3D Hubs transaction usually involves picking up the print at the printer’s doorstep without ever meeting in person, but that seemed like an ignominious end for such a demanding project. We thought a better conclusion would be to show the classroom where the replica would be used, along with the other pieces that we have. Calramon documented his visit on his Twitter:

{ Caption: Sorry for the ageism! Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: Sorry for the ageism! Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: Showing the 3D print's fellow replicas. Photo by Brother Robot. }

{ Caption: Showing the 3D print’s fellow replicas. Photo by Brother Robot. }

As the end of my 3D printing adventure (for now), I was delighted with everything at the end. I made a few busts for me and some friends, and educational replicas for one of my colleges. I look forward to a time when 3D printing will be as easy and convenient as printing a photograph today. I am very thankful for those who have taken the plunge into this hobby today for the effort they put into this demanding craft.

{ Caption: H. naledi skull (center) in the replica cabinet. }

{ Caption: H. naledi skull (center) in the replica cabinet. }

Spring Teaching Changes

February 13th, 2017

The spring semester of 2017 brought a large sweeping change and many more minor changes than I had planned. To get the big change out of the way: I was hired to teach physical anthropology at another community college in San Diego County! MiraCosta College is a charming and innovative campus located in Oceanside. As someone who has been ‘inlandsy,’ spending more time nearer to the coast has been an experience by itself.

Getting used to working at two campuses has been a challenge. One school started a week earlier than the other, so the course schedules are always staggered. I am currently at the end of week two at one school and week three at the other and I have already gotten confused about what I am supposed to do when and where a few times. Besides the timing, differences between schools also force my two classes to be different. I had not realized how my teaching plays off of the classroom I have been using until its features are no longer around. The physical anthropology classroom I am used to has a broad set of fossil replicas (hopefully joined soon by a Homo naledi skull!) and a real human skeleton.  The rolling-desks allow students to face each other during group work.

{ Classroom fit for both lecture and group work. }

{ Classroom fit for both lecture and group work. }

My new classroom is a bit different because it is a general purpose lecture hall. It is also nicknamed the “little theater” for obvious reasons:

{ Room suitable for introducing the newest iPhone. }

{ Room suitable for introducing the newest iPhone. }

While a gorgeous space, it lacks the comforts I was used to. The immovable rows of seats mean that group work is harder to do. The whiteboards are dimly lit if the lights around the projector screen are turned off. Backstage (literally!), the computer controlling the projector cannot extend the display to show me my presenter notes during the slideshow. I also had to BYO-laser pointer. As I stand at the lectern, the computer monitor is just off stage to my left, so speaking while working the computer has me looking awkwardly away from the students. Despite these challenges, I do appreciate such a large and attractive venue for my class. I am finding that I may not need as many presenter’s notes as I did in previous semesters, though I have occasionally consulted them on my iPad at the lectern when I knew I was forgetting something. My laser pointer/remote gives me a lot more freedom of movement than I am used to. Instead of returning to the lectern to change slides out of habit, I am training myself to use the remote instead.

While teaching at Grossmont is business as usual in comparison, I did make changes affecting my course there as well. One concerns the coffee drawing that I use as a way to learn more about my students and consult them about the class. I had a process of having students voluntarily enter the drawing by providing an alias before, but it caused problems while addressing a non-existent privacy issue (names by themselves are not protected information). Some students did not understand the drawing or the reason for an alias, and so missed out on this activity by not participating out of confusion. Less than half of the class participated in other semesters. Reconnecting with Marian Diamond’s masterful lectures to see how she ran her drawing, I ended up adding all of my student’s names to the wheel. Since everyone in class is now an entrant, I have already noticed a lot more excitement during the drawing each week.

Speaking of changes brought about by a deeper understanding of relevant law, I learned that my California community colleges cannot grade based on attendance. The current interpretation of this section is that a student can still be dropped for excessive absences, grades can no longer be affected. I have had a contentious relationship with my own attendance policy, so abolishing it was a natural step. I could have also trucked on through until someone stopped me, but what kind of example of authority would that be? Since I still track attendance to see if a student has dropped off the radar, I will see if attendance levels change with the different policies.

One continuing change that affects my courses at both colleges is my tuning of my lecture slides. Last semester, I had students in several sections who had a hard time keeping up with the pace of my presentation. On my end, I realized that some of the slides are less polished than others: instead of just the most important words, some bullet points were full sentences. ‘Weasel’ words also took up a lot of space. I have been going through the slides to make sure that text are in clear digestible pieces. I have always prided myself in my slide layouts, so I hope this review makes them even better.

As I work with two campuses, I have made several policy changes and a general tuning of my lectures. While each change could be altered or even reversed in the future, my goal is that each semester is a little better than the last. There is one other change this semester sparked by my work across campuses: the move from Blackboard to Canvas as my learning management system of choice. There is a lot to say on this subject, so look for more on this soon.

Secret Summer Craft Project, part 3

February 6th, 2017

In the last two parts, I related how I stumbled into 3D modeling and printing over the summer. I had two projects, a Homo naledi skull and some busts of my comic character for my friends. While the former was being printed, the latter kept growing in scope. Instead of one stock bust, I made four different looks. They are:

Goggles on, mouth closed (prototype, busts 2-4)
Goggles on, mouth open (busts 5 and 6)
Goggles off, mouth open (busts 7 and 8)
Goggles off, mouth closed

The last one… is pretty boring. I changed it instead to:

Goggles off, tongue out (busts 9 and 10)

I had ten busts to print total: four of the first variant and two of each other version. Looking around on 3D Hubs, I found a printer in the listings nearby who had some previous work with organic designs. I ordered one print of the first variant just to see what it would look like. This became the prototype, and the one I kept for myself.

{ Prototype bust with hair flippy attached. }

{ Prototype bust with hair flippy attached. }

The shape of the hair posed some challenges with overhangs and supports. The tips of the hair were too small, so they snapped off along with the supports. Unexpected, but I liked the effect and the randomness of it. I had another three busts printed this way, but a drawback with this type of printing became too problematic to ignore: the bust was just not stable enough as it was being printed. Each print took several attempts to print without falling apart at the chin and hair tips level. A lot of plastic was wasted, which made the process more expensive.

The printer recommended printing the bust upside down so the hair sections could support themselves as they are built up in space. I had two printed this way (busts 3 and 4), but they came back looking rougher than the first prints. More of the bust needed support, even though the structure was more stable this way. As a result of the orientation, there were more rough patches on the bust. The rough sections were also located at highly visible areas – the top of the head and shoulders, rather than on the underside of the chin and hair.

{ Photo comparing scalps of bust 2 printed right-side up (center), and busts 3 and 4 printed upside-down (left and right). Lots of work would be needed to get closer to the look of bust 2! }

{ Photo comparing scalps of bust 2 printed right-side up (center), and busts 3 and 4 printed upside-down (left and right). Lots of work would be needed to get closer to the look of bust 2! }

I looked for another solution for the busts left to print. A guide on 3D Hubs used a simple example, but had a good solution for reducing the amount of support: cut the bust into front and back halves and print those separately, then glue them together. The printer and I used this idea for busts five, six, nine, and ten. Lastly, busts seven and eight were printed right side up in a different type of plastic (ABS instead of PLA).

{ Front and back halves just before gluing with super glue. I considered just shipping them as bookends. }

{ Bust 5: Front and back halves just before gluing with super glue. I considered just shipping them as bookends. }

At the end of the printing phase, I had six busts that looked good, two that had to be smoothed, and four that had to be glued. As my previous post and other work presented on this site suggests, I am more of a digital art than traditional art type of person. I experimented with various ways of smoothing and filling the rough sections of each bust, to a good amateur level. I also primed and spray painted a several of the busts to give them slightly differently looks than the plain plastic. My original plan in May was to paint the busts with comic-accurate colors, but it was already past Christmas at this stage! When they were all done, I lined them up for group photos:

{ Group photo of some of the finished busts. From left to right: bust 2, 5, 7, 9. The hair flippy for bust 7 had to be painted to match the ivory color. Luckily, my mom painted a fence in the yard a very similar color. }

{ Group photo of some of the finished busts. From left to right: bust 2, 5, 7, 9. The hair flippies for bust 7 and 8 (identical and not pictured) had to be painted to match the ivory color. Luckily, my mom painted a fence in her yard a very similar color. }

{ Group photo of busts 3, 4, 6 and 10. These were the ones that were spray painted. }

{ Group photo of busts 3, 4, 6 and 10. 3 and 4 had the rough scalps from being printed upside down. Filling with Bondo and sanding made them less noticeable. These four busts were the ones that were spray painted. }

With the busts completed and the Homo naledi skull in progress, my 3D printing projects are nearly wrapped up. I had a great time picking up another hobby. As I work on the comic more, having the bust helped standardize the character’s look. I don’t know about more 3D printing, though. At this stage of technology, 3D printing still has too many uncertainties. Maybe years from now 3D printing will be as easy as paper printing is today. Who knows what I would dream up to do by then?

Secret Summer Craft Project, part 2

January 22nd, 2017

In Part 1, I talked about wanting to make a 3D printed Homo naledi skull for my department and how it led me into yet another hobby. I had a lot more summer to go after getting my feet wet with 3D modeling and printing. What else could I do to occupy my time? The breaks in the school year are typically when I work on my super– comic hero comic. Sculptris and Meshmixer called out to me, though, as I really enjoyed the challenge of sculpting polygons on my computer. While I really should have worked on the actual comic more, I thought a good compromise for my time was to make a 3D printed bust of the main character.

So began a fun project that would take months to finish. With the H. naledi project, there was very little sculpting to do: if anything, I had to make sure I did not unintentionally change the shape with my actions. For the bust, I had to learn how to turn an idea or a flat image into a three dimensional shape. What would look great at one angle would look completely off from another. I was also unfamiliar with the many tools in the software and had to go through a lot of experimentation to get the feel of each of one. I started with drawings of the front and side views, making a token effort to make them match.

{ Crude sketch I worked from. }

{ Crude sketch I worked from. }

Then I started with a lump of virtual clay and poked it with the mouse and Wacom stylus. Playing to the side were Youtube tutorial videos on 3D character sculpting, sometimes focused on what I was working on (e.g., eyes, mouth). Digital sculpting was very relaxing and interesting, which helped the time pass. After a few weeks, when I had the model looking good enough, I sent the file out to someone on 3Dhubs to have it printed. It worked!

{ First completed version of the head. }

{ First completed version of the head. }

{ Bust prototype 1 with Lego Stormtrooper for scale. }

{ Bust prototype 1 with Lego Stormtrooper for scale. }


Note: work on a 3D print does not have to end with the creation of the object. There are various ways to make it look even nicer. For the first bust, I exposed it to acetone vapor in a glass jar to smooth out the layers and give the print a shine:

I mentioned in Part 1 that 3D printers were picky. One example is that printers need shapes to be at certain angles since the printer cannot print in mid-air. On the bust, one bad angle is the ‘hair flippy’ that sticks out the front of Keeley’s forehead. A solution to this overhang is to print a temporary support structure under it, but removing the supports leave scars on the print. That was why the printed hair flippy looks slighter and more jagged than the one in the 3D model. I made a second print, just the head, with that piece no long sticking out, but lying against the forehead.

{ Hair flippy 2, printed in red just to see what that's like. }

{ Hair flippy 2, printed in red just to see what that’s like. }

I did not like either solution, but read about how models could be printed in separate pieces that are joined after printing. Making the hair flippy separate and including a peg on it that matches a hole built into the forehead was what I needed. Making a peg and hole fit in a 3d print was not as simple as it seemed but I made it work by making the hole a half millimeter larger than the peg.

{ Hair flippy as a separate piece, with peg that goes into a hole in the hairline. }

Since I enjoyed the trinkets I had made, I had the idea of making more to give out as Christmastime presents for friends who were especially supportive of the comic. But, since I had months of summer left and the winter holidays were so far away, what if I made different versions of the bust so my friends would not all be receiving the same thing? For example, I could make different facial expressions and have one version with goggles and the other with eyes. I spent the rest of the summer remaking the bust head, neck, and body so that they are modular and could be swapped around in software then merged together into one mass. I then made a different head, which had the mouth closed instead of open. The open mouth got an upgrade too as I made rudimentary teeth and a tongue for slightly more realism. While just a pink half circle would do for the comic, it looked odd in 3D.

{ Bust in Meshmixer almost ready for printing. The hair flippy would be printed en masse separately. }

{ Bust in Meshmixer almost ready for printing, with hair flippy positioned in the head hole. The hair flippy would be printed en masse separately. }

As summer ended, I had a lot of variants in progress, ready for some work over Thanksgiving break and after the fall semester ended. The printing of the gift busts and the post-printing work will be detailed in the next part.

Secret Summer Craft Project, part 1

January 10th, 2017

Now that the winter holidays have passed, I can finally reveal what I have been doing since the summer. What started as one project for my school turned into making things for fun for some friends. To preserve the surprise, only my family knew what was going on.

It started over the summer as the spring 2016 semester wrapped up. I left school with a thought in my head from the department chair: there was some funding to be had for any school-related projects. What could I ask for? The skeletal print-outs from eFossils was done already and only cost some glue sticks and fixative. Thinking bigger, I remember an article I read about the 3D printing of the skull of Homo naledi, a recently discovered fossil hominin. I was fortunate enough to teach in a classroom that has a cabinet of fossil replicas, and H. naledi would be a great addition. With the goal of having a replica made, I started researching the 3D printing process.

3D printing is a developing technology where objects are constructed using a stream of melted plastic that is computer-controlled, similar to a precise hot glue gun. The state of 3D printers now is similar to what consumer paper printers were like over twenty years ago: expensive, picky, and unreliable. A printer would have been too costly for me or the department (I imagine… I didn’t ask), but there is a service named 3D Hubs that connects people who want things 3D printed with those who have 3D printers. The file for the skull is freely available at Duke University’s MorphoSource, but it is a raw scan with far more detail than what a typical printer would deal with: enough to bring my hefty computer to a crawl. My aim then was to learn enough 3D software to work with the Homo naledi skull file so it is as easy to print for whomever I commission.

{ At over 6 million polygons, the wireframe view of the raw file is all wires. }

{ At over 6 million polygons, the wireframe view of the raw file is all wires. }

I settled first on Sculptris, but found out that it was no longer being developed. I then moved on to Meshmixer. My goals with the software were to pare down the number of polygons so that it is not more detailed than what a printer could print. 3D Hubs would also not accept the raw file size of 350MB. For my department’s sake, I also wanted to hollow out the model to reduce the volume of plastic and the cost needed to print it. Meshmixer was especially helpful since it has a hollowing function with a lot of flexibility. There were also functions that intelligently reduced the number of polygons for lower detailed regions, leaving a much smaller file size of 45MB. Even with the work done to manipulate the scan, the skull would be a challenging print due to its irregular shape and large size. After doing the best I could to the best of my novice ability, I sent the model file to a local printer to make.

{ I reduced the polygons to around 500,000. No visible detail lost with the print, hopefully. }

{ I reduced the polygons to around 500,000. No visible detail lost with the print, hopefully. }

The cost ended up at around $95 (without hollowing, it would have been $300). The rest of the Homo naledi replica story will be told another time, as it is still being printed, but working on this project just got me started on 3d modeling and printing. In the next part, I will talk about where I took my new interest!

{ Inferior view of the hole I made in the foramen magnum (where the spinal cord connects to the brain) showing the hollow interior. The interior was calculated in Meshmixer and does not reflect the actual fossil's appearance. It makes the 3D print 30% cheaper, though. }

{ Inferior view of the hole I made in the foramen magnum (where the spinal cord connects to the brain) showing the hollow interior. The interior was calculated in Meshmixer and does not reflect the actual fossil’s appearance. It makes the 3D print 30% cheaper, though. }

Toast the New Year with Some Haterade

January 2nd, 2017

There is a feeling I have kept to myself for years, because I have never heard of a similar feeling in someone else.  Also, the feeling is rooted in hate, which is generally regarded negatively. It is not pure hate, though, since the feeling has led to positive life changes and fuels a lot of my ambitions. I call it: hatespiration.

An explanation starts a long time ago, in my undergraduate years. I had my share of bad anthropology professors who made students dislike learning and drove potential future anthropologists into other fields. As a former biology major, I had already been driven from one field into anthropology already, so it was disheartening to see poor teaching in my new home. I knew that I could do a better job if given the chance, and if I was right, I could have a real impact on anthropology and the community. The wonderful professors I have met taught me how to be a good instructor, but the terrible ones really lit the fire for me to want to be good.

Sidenote: I also got into making comics due to hatespiration: at the same time that I was underwhelmed by the worse professors I experienced, I also thought that I could make better comics than what was in the local paper. Thus, a hobby was born that continues even after the hatespiration has faded into the past and I found great positive inspirations to learn from.

Sidenote 2: Now I keep my distance from who I consider to be bad professors, so you’re safe. Maybe. 😉

Why bring this up now? In a tumultuous 2016, I think my relationship with hatespiration has become relevant and it is time to try explaining it and give it a fun name. The results of the presidential election in the United States left many anthropologists reeling as the candidate running on a platform of ignorance and hate became the victor. (That brand of hate tears down the innocent for personal gratification.) As anthropologists have dedicated their lives toward knowledge of humanity and the dispelling of misconceptions, the realization that there is still a lot of ignorance out there is disheartening. I think this turn of events is a mixed blessing, though. It is harder to fight against something when it is hidden, and after the victories of the past decades, there are fewer clear objectives that those fighting racial inequality can focus on. Anthropologists teaching the cultural basis of racial inequality might have felt overconfident that their message was getting out there as dissent was driven underground. The election brought racism back into the open so we now know that we have a lot to do still. It is time to be hatespired by the world around us and really aim to change it.

Hatespiration in our time extends past just the social science professors. The past few years have brought up a lot of understandable anger and resentment regarding the inequality seen in our institutions. While protests have a role in producing positive social change, a plan with more tangible effects is to tap into hatespiration and become part of the system that needs to improve. We need great people to become teachers, police officers, lawyers, politicians, and journalists. While there are already heroes in all of these fields, we really need more of best to overwhelm the worst of them. If we get new great people into these positions, all of the the problems in our society will be addressed.

My path to where I am today had strange detours and influences. I find myself trying to spread knowledge and understanding in a world that rejects it. We who want to see good people of all backgrounds succeed need to keep fighting against the injustice in the world. If you have a strategy or career path already, keep working on that. If you are still at crossroads, it may be time to find the one you will be best at. Be hatespired, inspired, whateverspired: just get out there and be good.

Fall Teaching Changes, part 2

November 21st, 2016

James Lang’s Small Teaching (2016) approaches improving one’s classes not with sweeping changes, but by making tweaks to the existing program. The book is divided into three areas of improvement: knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. The section on understanding got my attention the most, and I made a few focused changes this semester with Lang’s advice in mind. He divided the improvement of understanding into three sub areas of change: connecting, practice, and self-explaining. I will go over how my changes fit into each of these actions.

Forming connections across the course material is something that is crucial to an introductory physical anthropology, since it covers a wide variety of topics, from biological evolution to genetics to human osteology to forensic anthropology to modern primates to human evolution, they are all connected by the same pool of knowledge and scientific methodology. I made a more concerted effort to point out these connections in lecture, and spread out the use of key terms across many weeks of class. For example, I know that a lot of the illustrations in the end of the course use facial reconstruction to estimate what fossil hominins looked like in life. I then plant the first mention of this method in the middle of the course when we talk about forensic anthropology.

As I learn more myself, I see more of these connections that I can make. For example, at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I learned that naturalist Blumenbach was the first person to formally describe a chimpanzee. I could then bring this fact up in the modern primates lecture, which is weeks after the introduction to Blumenbach in the lecture on the history of race. One gratifying result of this interweaving of lecture topics is that students then make connections that I do not mention, or have not considered. For example, when linking the explanation of how the ancestors of Darwin’s finches ended up in the Galapagos Islands (Lecture 3) with the explanation of how the ancestors of lemurs ended up in Madagascar (Lecture 18), a student chimed in that these are both examples of genetic drift (Lecture 6).

While forming connections was something I intensified from previous semesters, promoting practice was a new activity. The aim of increasing practice is to make the students more comfortable with approaching problems from a reasoned and effective angle. For a lecture course with exams as a large portion of the course, increasing familiarity with solving test questions became my goal. Too frequently, I see students give up on a test without really thinking through the problem. Sometimes they admit defeat and turn it in when they still have upwards of forty minutes left to try.

My latest attempt to encourage students to really take the time to address tough questions is to work through an example multiple choice question at the start of almost every lecture. I also wanted to get the students thinking about solving a question on material that they have not learned. My idea was to show a harder question immediately before the lecture that gives its solution. This Pre-Lecture Question had a rocky start as I tried to integrate it into my existing lectures. The first attempts disrupted the flow I have been used to. I found it best to show the question with around five minutes before class starts. Once the lecture gets going, I talk about the previous pre-lecture question and how to solve it after the class announcements. The new pre-lecture question then reappears at the end of my class, when I have a short writing exercise. As the semester has progressed, the pre-lecture question worked its way into the schedule. Still, as I have to make a new question for every lecture in this initial run, I forget to do it roughly half the time.

Both highlighting links across lectures and explaining multiple choice questions have been received well by my classes. I will keep working with them to get them even more embedded into the rest of the course. Next time: a report on my success using the mobile quiz game Kahoot! as a midterm review exercise. Or maybe a little on the recent U.S. presidential election and its ramifications.



Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.

Fall Teaching Changes, part 1

September 12th, 2016

Now that we are a few weeks into the semester, I have a little time to reflect on how my course has changed. I have tweaked the Introduction to Physical Anthropology course in a few ways to further make the experience for students more comprehensive and ultimately more memorable. Two of these ideas were started when I was teaching a six-week course over the summer, but refined a little more:

  • A Related Media page accessible from Blackboard. Rather than use Blackboard’s system (as the school is switching to Canvas anyway), I set up a Google Doc that has an organized list of online media related to each class topic. The most frequent sources of these media are SciShow episodes on Youtube and BBC documentaries on Netflix. A future change may be to move to a spreadsheet format for its sorting ability, though this might look more sterile and actually less inviting for students.
  • A professional Twitter feed, accessible from that site or viewable in Blackboard. This change solved a nagging problem for me: I see a lot of interesting articles online that are directly related to class topics, but I can only share so many in Blackboard announcements and at the beginning of class. While I still share some choice discoveries in these places, now I have a place to share the many other links I find. I had several followers of the Twitter feed during the summer session, but only a handful across my three classes now. I never mentioned the feed to my summer course and I have not brought it up to my current classes. Perhaps the greater focus on Blackboard allowed more online students to find it on their own.

One unexpected wrinkle that came up during the implementation of the Twitter feed was the dilemma of whether I should follow my student followers back. In general Twitter subculture, following back would be the polite thing to do, but I chose not to do so to keep some distance from my students’ personal lives.

Another complication of this Twitter account changed a secondary goal I had at the start: to give reminders for class deadlines. This idea became unusable because my three classes this semester do not go by the same schedule: I have Monday-Wednesday classes and Tuesday-Thursday classes. Also, the Labor Day holiday threw these two schedules out of sync, so the Tuesday class is first new lecture I give each week. Tweeting deadlines for these two class setups would probably cause mass confusion with me and my students, so I opted to save deadline reminders for in-class and twice weekly emails. While this systems works, it means that the Twitter feed is more for fun and not as critical for students to view.

Next time, I will bring up some other changes I have made that were inspired by reading Small Teaching by James Lang (2016), a very rewarding and inspirational book.



Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.