Thursday, May 13, 2010

The world of conferences

I also had the opportunity to attend a conference this week, the 5th annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, held at the Universite Laval. It was a well organized conference with a lot of energy and some very interesting talks and posters. Quebec City served as a wonderful setting for the conference and I was impressed by how the conference was truly bilingual. I was also impressed by vieux Quebec and the beauty of the St.Lawrence.

This was my first "real" conference and hence my first "real" presentation. I was eager (and a little nervous) to present my MSc research thus far. My presentation was entitled "Zooplankton metacommunity responses to climate change in the subarctic" (A.Winegardner and K. Cottenie) and was presented in the Conservation and Climate Change session. The main take home messages for this presentation (and really our work on this project thus far) are:

- salinity of coastal freshwater systems along the coast of Hudson Bay is increasing.

- this increase may exceed tolerated limits of salinity in many zooplankton species.

- salt addition during a field experiment did not have the expected effect of changing zooplankton community composition in either isolated or potentially connected rock pools.

- salinity may not be the most important environmental driver in this metacommunity. Rather pool hydroperiod, connectivty and resting egg dynamics may be important either alone or in concert.

- this study is one of the first to apply the metacommunity concept to an issue of climate change.

Students and faculty from the Integrative Biology department and School of Environmental Science at Guelph contributed about 10-12 presentations and posters at this conference. This along with the sheer number of student presentations made for a very supportive environment. My talk was not the only from Guelph with a Churchill focus. Nick and Ola from the Gregory Lab presented their research on genome size of Churchill area and low arctic crustaceans and molluscs respectively. Once I got my talk out of the way I was able to attend many interesting presentations. I was especially intrigued by several presentations on metacommunity dynamics, connectivity, network theory and fragmentation by students and post-docs from the Gonzalez lab at McGill University.

The conference also included a student workshop on science communication and the media. Jim Handman, executive producer of the CBC radio show "Quirks and Quarks" spoke about how the media often interprets the majority of science as falling into 1 of 3 categories:
- an oddity (think wierd science)
- a threat (ex. honeybee Colony Collpase Disorder, nuclear weapons, big pharma)
- a cure (every newspaper wants to be the one to run the headline "Scientist cures cancer")

But the problem with this is science is not black and white or neatly categorized like this. And the headline "Scientist cures cancer" is probably more accurately read as (example from Handman) "Scientists and numerous collaborators, graduate students and undergraduate summer students find some statistically significant evidence that treatment X results in marginally reduced levels of Y in subpopulation A when all other variables are controlled." This reminded me that uncertainty is one of the exciting things about science and that even though I haven't sorted out what all my experimental results mean yet, there are tons of possible explanations out there.

I'm looking forward to future conferences and especially to the CSEE's 2011 conference which will be held in Banff.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Out with rote learning

Tom Nudds and I co-taught community ecology for the first time together last semester (and Amanda was one of our wonderful TAs). Despite our differences ;-), we share a very similar teaching philosophy. And as a result of some crazy ideas, we decided to completely remodel community ecology. Tom's rallying cry:
Out with rote learning
To implement this, we cut out all "normal" aspects of grading in our course, and instead we implemented 3 research projects in a problem-based learning framework. In addition to learning students how to improve their critical thinking skills, we also wanted them to appreciate the importance of uncertainty, scientific method, group work, and competition among ideas, all while we teach them something about community ecology. Tom's second rallying cry:
Context-dependent content
Our primary pedagogical tool was a novel combination of:

  • grading the assignments with a very explicit but flexible grading rubric that is essentially a language ladder, or a combination of some qualitative and quantitative milestones for obtaining a certain grade
  • providing feedback to the students by making them compare their own group project with the 3 best projects from the class
  • a very explicit method of evaluating the group work process by assessing the individual contributions to the final project
Since we thought that this experiment was very successful, we decided to present this method and its results at the Guelph Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference. The two key slides from our presentation are the results of our experiment.

The grades for the written reports increased from the first assignment (70%) to the last assignment (77%), while the grading rubric and the bar was the same (except for some details related to the differences in the actual problems studied) in all three assignment (so we did not make the assignments easier).

We also could distinguish between strong students that consistently had high grades (left side of first principal component) versus students with consistently low grades (right side of the first principal component), despite the group work of all gradings. In addition, this figure also shows that the learning aspect happened after the first assignment (all the arrows with RP1 in their labels), because the grades for this assignment were not correlated with the other grades. 

We also discussed how we will address the problems that we encountered during this course: how to organize and approach the lecture times, and how to encourage the group work and objective peer evaluations, but that will be for another blog.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Some pre fieldwork fieldwork

Today Brittany and I took a walk over to the Arboretum to sample some of the temporary and man-made ponds, as part of an ongoing metacommunity study. With the warm spring we've been having, the zooplankton are in full swing, rivalling the communities we found in Churchill last year in August!
Here Brittany is marvelling at the zooplankton and many aquatic insects:

Notice the tea-coloured water, it is stained by tannins leaching from the fallen leaves and detritus.

We had some visitors while sampling...

This goose seemed particularly interested in our sampling efforts. Stay tuned for more posts on fieldwork, as the Planktoneers get ready to return to Churchill. It has been almost a year since we were up there...good thing we went sampling today, need to get our pond legs and net arms ready!