Old dog, meet new trick

I’m a little scared to estimate the following number: how many times I’ve welcomed students to the first class of the term. It’s around 40, I think. Over the years, I’ve changed what I say and do in that first class. I used to spend a lot of time going over all the details of the syllabus. Yawn. After working with instructors via the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at UBC and the Center for Teaching Development at UC San Diego, and reading these great resources, First Day of Class and Motivating Learning (both PDFs from the CWSEI), I do things differently now.

Sampo Icebreaker cruise - Kemi, Finland

Yesterday, I tried something new in my teaching and learning class, The College Classroom. For the first time ever (for me), I did an “ice breaker” activity. You know, one of those activities where the students get to know each other. I want to describe why it took me so long to do it, what I think ice breakers can (should?) do, and what I actually did yesterday.

Ice-breaker activities make me uncomfortable. I don’t like striking up conversations with strangers, in class or anywhere. I’d rather stay quiet and anonymous. And so, I never asked my students to do it.

The educator in me knows, however, that there are incredible benefits to working and learning with others. So called “social constructivism” says students need to construct their own knowledge based on their own backgrounds, skills, experiences, and motivations and that construction is a whole lot easier when you do with your peers. It’s the basis for peer instruction, the activity where the instructor poses a conceptually challenging, multiple-choice questions, students think about it and vote with a clicker, discuss their understanding with their peers, in some cases vote again, and then participate in an instructor-moderated, class-wide discussion. Peer instruction is something I use in The College Classroom (and also something I teach in The College Classroom. Sometimes that gets confusing.)

I’m also keenly aware, through my association with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network, of the importance of learning communities. I want my classroom to be a learning community where people of different backgrounds and interests can come together to learn. Sparking and then maintaining that learning community is one of my responsibilities as the instructor.

Okay, the pieces are starting to come together now: social constructivism, peer instruction, sparking a learning community, the first day of class, motivating learning,…

Aha! Let’s start the class with an icebreaker activity. Not some forced and awkward activity that makes people uncomfortable. Let’s do something that’s relevant to the class and initiates the kinds of interactions I want to choreograph in every class that follows.

Here’s a slide from near the beginning of my first day’s slidedeck:

The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.
The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.

And here’s what happened: the room erupted in conversation. It was seriously loud. Okay, going great, going great, uh-oh conversations are dying off, time to do something Peter, what are you going to do Peter to make this useful, do it now before you lose them, do it now, Do It Now, DO IT NOW.

I asked for people to share a few of their stories. Good experiences and bad. I wrapped up the discussion by highlighting all the different factors that made those experiences memorable, factors like

  • student motivation
  • the instructor’s enthusiasm
  • the instructor’s skill as a teacher
  • the relationship between the student and the instructor

These are what I — we — will teach and learn in this course, and also how we’ll teach and learn in this course.

So, I’m converted. I’ll do icebreakers from now on. But not just any ol’ icebreaker. It’s got to be something that’s relevant to the class and with a purpose other than getting students to introduce themselves. It shouldn’t be this awkward, uncomfortable, artificial interaction but rather, something the students will continue to experience in every class that follows.

What about you? Do you run icebreaker activities in your class? What do you do (and why?)

Regrets? Yes. And no.

My trek from geeky highschool student to Associate Director at the Center for Teaching Development at the University of California, San Diego has definitely followed the alternative academic career path.

You Choose Your Path

When I finished my Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I jumped off the tenure track to teach math at a 2-year college in Vancouver.  A few years later, I stepped halfway back into the Ivory Towers when I split my time between teaching introductory astronomy (#astro101) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC and being the resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (aka, the Planetarium) in Vancouver. I eventually ended up full-time in Physics and Astronomy at UBC, not on the tenure track but as a Science Teaching and Learning Fellow in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. (Is there an adverb-form for gobsmacked or mind-blown? Oh well…) Gobsmackedly, I was in the office across the hall from where I’d first met my M.Sc. supervisor, Bill Unruh, some 18 years earlier. Now, I’m a faculty member in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD, with the rank of Academic Coordinator.

Never have I been on the tenure track. Never have I been able to put “Professor” on my business cards.

And because of that, I have one regret (one is enough for this post): I’ve never felt the satisfaction and pride of having a graduate student. Because that’s what professors do, to move their disciplines forward. It’s their shoulders that the grad students stand upon to see further. When I hear from colleagues about the success of their students, I feel a wave of regret.

This summer that wave  was reduced to a twinge.

Part of my job at UCSD is to teach a class called The College Classroom about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. Some of the graduate students become Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars (SGTSs) and teach a course in the Summer session. As part of our ongoing support, I observe each SGTS’s class 2 weeks into the 5-week marathon and give them some formative feedback.

And it was there, sitting in the back of those classes, that my wave of regret was reduced to a twinge. This summer, I witnessed first-time-ever instructors

  • running flawless peer instruction with clickers
  • drawing out students’ preconceptions and immediately integrating them into the lesson
  • creating a supportive learning environment where students feel free to discuss their personal, sometime quite, experiences
  • make every single one of the 5o students  in the room feel like they have a critical contribution to make to the class
  • ask the perfect question to ignite a conversation that experts in the field would have

Sometimes I sat there thinking, “Seriously? How did she know to do that? Awe. Some.”

Can I take all the credit? No, of course not, no more than a supervisor can take all the credit for grad student producing a succesful thesis. But I definitely had a role to play and, man, does it feel good.

And, so, what about my circuitous trek through higher ed? No regrets.



If you find yourself on a alternative academic path or you’re approaching the fork between tenure-track and not tenure-track, get on Twitter and follow the #altac hashtag. There are many others like you struggling with the same decisions you’re making.

Welcome, Science Borealis!

ScienceBorealis_badgeFirst, a big thanks to Science Borealis for highlighting my blog as today’s #cdnsciblog. I’m flattered to be in their company and happy to contribute.

I write mostly about teaching and learning science at the university level. This blog started as a way for me to archive interesting things I’d seen or done while working in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC. It was for me, so I wouldn’t have to rely on my fading memory and chicken-scratch notes. Then other people started reading it, and leaving comments. Wow! There’s a community out there!

I’m hoping to combine my passions for science education and science communication at the next Science Online Together meeting, February 26 – March 1, 2014 in in Raleigh, NC. If everything goes as planned (c’mon, program committee, you really like my proposal, right?) I’ll meet you there!

And just in case you’re wondering about my Twitter handle, @polarisdotca: that’s Polaris, the North Star for my love of astronomy, and “dot ca” to let everyone know I’m proudly Canadian. Strangely enough, dot CA also work here in my new home, San Diego, California.

Thanks for dropping in. And again, to the Science Borealis team for igniting this community.