A month has now passed since the close of the Fall Semester or Michaelmas Term, depending upon your vernacular. Over the last four months I coordinated three courses:

  1. Genetics & Molecular Biology, part of the DMV undergraduate programme.
  2. Advanced Topics in Microbiomes, a graduate course in the Veterinary Medical Sciences (VMS) programme.
  3. Helminthology, another graduate course in VMS.

With the new semester well underway, I thought that a little introspection would be worthwhile. How well did I think each course went? What did I do right? What could be improved upon? And what completely failed? I am able to include informal feedback from students, but the official feedback is withheld until the end of the academic year. Despite, this being an exercise in self-reflection (brooding?), I am at heart, mouth and deed an extravert. Hence, I thought I’d share…
I’m going to start with the Helminthology course, because we tried to go beyond what seems to be the standard for a graduate course.

The University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) has (unwittingly?) built up research strength in helminthology (parasitic worms) covering Wildlife Ecology ( Susan Kutz, Ale Massolo), Pathology (Padraig Duignan), Molecular Biology (John Gilleard) and Genomics (my goodself). Further, Biological Sciences has Constance Finney and Medicine has Derek McKay, both immunologists working with helminths. Graduate students training in our labs leave knowing (hopefully) a lot about the specific field of study and on the specific species upon which they focused. However, what has been absent is a wider view on field. Is it not important that my students understand the ecosystems which interact with the genomes they’re sequencing? Shouldn’t ecologists know more about how the host tries to expel the helminth and how the helminth fights back? We thought so.

A total of nine graduate students and three postdocs took this course, making it the most populous elective graduate course in the Veterinary Medical Sciences programme.

Course Structure
Each week a different topic was covered, see below. A instructor-led lecture on the Monday was followed by a student-led workshop on Friday.

Topic Instructor
Ecosystems & helminths Andrew Dobson (Princeton) with Susan Kutz
The impact of climate change and helminths of wildlife Peter Molnar (Princeton) with Susan Kutz
Helminth morphology Mani Lejeune
Helminths of livestock John Gilleard
Drug resistance John Gilleard
Helminths of humans James Wasmuth
Genomics James Wasmuth
Host immune response Constance Finney
Immunoregulation by helminths Constance Finney

The lecture component was left up to each instructor; I’ll comment on my two lectures in another post. The student-led workshop were given a basic structure. It was important that students read the primary literature around each topic. However, we wanted to go beyond the traditional journal club presentations, in which one person presents a paper with powerpoint and the others may (or may not) ask questions. The structure we adopted was based on a recommendation by Mani Lejeune. Briefly, each week:

  • All students were expected to read both papers
  • Two students were assigned as moderators

A moderator’s job was to summarise the papers and then promote discussion among all those in attendance. Each student was assigned two sessions and when possible, the topics were outside his/her research focus. The PI for each topic was present during the discussion. My briefly guidelines were that PIs remain in the background and participate when asked a question or when prudent to do so.
After the discussion sessions, the moderators were then charged with writing a blog post each: http://ucvmhelminthology.wordpress.com/. They could decide between themselves how they wanted to split it up. They were also encouraged to go beyond a description of the paper and incorporate discussion points from the class. The students were also to set-up and administer the blog.
As it’s a course, the students needed to be awarded a grade. Each instructor scored the students’ participation in class, which was 50% of the grade and I reviewed the blog posts which accounted for the other 50%.

So… how did it go?
From a PI point-of-view, the course seems a success and we hope to run it again in 2015. I know, I know, you want to know that the students thought. Once I get the official anonymous feedback, I’ll share the love. As this may not be until the summer, I ran a one hour feedback session with the attendees.

What they liked:

  • The breadth of topics
  • Discussing the papers
  • The idea of writing the blog posts

What they didn’t like:

  • Not enough genomics
  • Writing a blog post outside their comfort-zone
  • The time spent writing the blog posts

I’m happy that the students enjoyed the structure of the course. I has been apprehensive of how the discussion sessions would pan out. After a slow start, all of the students got involved, some excellently so.

I’ve spent some time dwelling on their reservations towards writing blog posts. Among the PIs, we felt it important that they write more and embrace a form of communication that’s increasingly popular, if not commonplace in science literacy. Also, I thought that the blog posts were great. Check ’em out: http://ucvmhelminthology.wordpress.com/. Therefore, I was initially disappointed by the feedback. Now, I feel that there were two core problems: 1) Blogging is new to them, 2) they were being graded. While, I do not believe the tail should wag the dog, I will probably make some changes for the next running of the course:

  • Award a pass/fail for the blog – if they write something, they pass.
  • Allow the students to write one a topic of their choosing, rather than assigning all of the topics.

I asked the students and postdocs if they wanted to carry on contributing to the blog and there was nodding of heads. I asked if they would try and spend 90mins each month, writing about an aspect of helminthology they found interesting. That’s not much time and I hope that some of the students can embrace the opportunity. I look forward to reading and learning…

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