CETL Podcast - Episode 21 - Rachel Bolus

Tony: Good afternoon, good afternoon CETL Podcast listeners. Tony Pellegrini here with our Teaching and Learning podcast series at Southern Utah University. Lucky to explore and investigate great teaching great learning opportunities that we enjoy here at Southern Utah University. For today's guest, we've got Rachel Bolus visiting with us today. She won an award last year from the Provost's office and I want to turn a moment or two over to Rachel and have you tell us a little about yourself would that be okay Rachel?

Rachel: Sure!

Tony: Thank you so much

Rachel: So I'm Rachel Bolus. I'm an assistant professor of Biology here. My area is Icology. I also teach general biology and ornithology, which is the science and study of birds. So, I also do a lot of research with students so we meet regularly and talk about research, grad school, and the culture of science. Last year I counted I had worked with about 20 students at some point or another with one of those issues. And we work collaboratively together too on a number of projects, mostly in the areas of animal communication and habitat selection. And then for the University I am very lucky to serve on the faculty senate, and I'm also the College of Science representative for the Cedar advisory board.

Tony: Oh boy, and leap tall buildings with a single bound. Rachel thank you so much for that overview. I am an old english teacher and so I've got to start with a question about your teaching philosophy. Do you have a philosophy? Could you share that with us? How did you come up with that philosophy? Is it an ever changing philosophy? I would love to hear your perspective.

Rachel: Yeah certainly the everchanging is the best way to talk about it and I kind of have to back up and say my philosophy about teaching philosophies because that's even everchanging. One thing is, I didn't really write one until I was well into grad school and I was thinking about applying to jobs because that's what you do. You need a teaching philosophy as part of your application. But then when I did it I said, "You know I really wish that I had been asked to write a learning philosophy as I was an undergrad, as I was just starting everything" because it seemed that thinking deeply about learning was really important in thinking deeply about teaching, and then having a philosophy about both of those gives kind of a road map for everything that you do, and adds value to both. I think a lot of the students that I see, and when I was a student, you have an underlying learning philosophy so you know what you hope to get out of your college degree but you may have never articulated that and I think that some of these philosophies you may have inherited from society and you haven't really thought deeply about it, so I think it's important to think a little bit deeply about what education means to you both as a learner and a teacher so what is the purpose of education, and then how does it  enrich our lives, how does it help us be citizens of a community, all the different facets of it. I think it helps us to become better learners to think about that a little more deeply. And mine's constantly changing, my teaching philosophy, because I feel like I'm still a learner myself, I still have plenty to learn about teaching. Part of my current teaching philosophy is to teach in a way to help all of my students achieve their goals even though there are lots of different kinds of goals they have, and I do this by considering their learning philosophies, their learning styles, and their different goals all together. And then another big part of my teaching philosophy relates to my view on education overall, so I don't feel like my job is to take knowledge from my head and put it into my students head, I think that it's important to teach them how to find, explore, analyze, create knowledge in different ways, because I feel like my job is to get the ball rolling, and that education is really what happens inside of the students in unique and personal ways. It's mostly about them, and I'm just a facilitator of that. I generally do cover a lot of topics in my classes, not because I expect them to memorize lots of facts, but so they can figure out what they're excited about. So I like to talk about inverts in great detail- and by that I mean invertebrate animals in great detail, really weird ones that live on the bottom of the seafloor to my gen bio students, think about things they haven't thought about, think about places they've never been, think about aspects of biology that may not be immediately apparent in their day to day life, and then they can find what it is that makes them really excited so they can dig in deeper. I kind of see it like a trailer to their knowledge journey in my classes. Also another thing is I try to teach students how to pay attention, so how to see the many birds that are outside your window, how to see the shape of a leaf on a tree. We walk by a lot of knowledge without even realizing it, and so I try in all my classes to teach students to kind of step back, pay attention and focus on things, so that's a big part of my philosophy as well. I'm currently reading a book that I wanted to share, it gave me a new idea for my teaching philosophy, which, like I said is evolving all the time, so the book is called Braiding SweetGrass and it's written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and she's also an Ecology professor, and she describes her in the biography as a mother, scientist, decorated ecology professor and enrolled member of the citizen Potawatomi group nation. So she takes all these different ways that she knows to intertwine these perspectives to explain how she can learn about plants, so it's not just one way, she thinks about plants in many different ways, and it's a really beautiful book so she talks about how she listens to the different sounds that rain makes on say a pine tree versus an oak tree, and it just blew me away to read that description. And she also helped me articulate this unspoken dot in my own teaching philosophy. So she has a chapter where she's out with her students, doing a lot of the things I do, like in boots in the mud, looking at the different living things and she said, "This is our work, to discover what we can give, isn't this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts, and how to use them for good in the world". And that just opened up a whole new pathway of thinking for me.

Tony: Oh, you've got me converted, you absolutely blew me away when you talked about the rain on different types of leaves. Oh my goodness, the rain that we had yesterday; hail storm on one side of town, a light chill on the other. We live in a wonderful world, don't we?

Rachel: We do!

Tony: You just have to enjoy it and keep learning about it. We're lifelong learners, and I'm very very grateful for that passion you share. Another thing that I wanted to comment on as well was your perspective about your philosophy changing. Yes, you're changing, the content that you teach is changing, students are changing, you have different students today than you had five or ten or fifteen years ago. But oh my goodness, what Covids done to us this year, changes we didn't even see coming.  Or at least I didn't see coming. You know with our environment and who knows what the future will bring, we've got to be flexible and able to change so we don't get bent out of shape. Um, refresh me, how long have you been teaching at SUU?

Rachel: Yeah I started in 2016, so this is the beginning of my fifth year at SUU.

Tony: Wonderful! As a five year teacher, what is it you love about teaching at SUU?

Rachel: Well teaching at SUU is a joy, and I've taught elsewhere as a grad student, and I enjoyed that there too but the beautiful thing about SUU is SUU honestly values teaching and learning. And because of this I fell like a lot of idealistic teachers that also really value teaching and learning have been drawn here and these teachers not only love to teach but they also like to improve their teaching as a community so we get to have a lot of fun trying to improve together so I really love my colleagues here and how excited they are, it's infectious, for teaching. I also feel like the students are drawn here for the same reason so if they value their education they're drawn here for this personalized high quality education and so this shared enthusiasm is a big part of why I love teaching at SUU.

Tony: And the students and teachers are just absolutely what it's about. I know we have such a beautiful campus but the personalities and the passions that our faculty and our students have are very profound. In your department can you talk to us for a moment or two about some of the contributions that you make to the knowledge base in your subject? You've got to be a part of a team over there aren't you?

Rachel: Yeah I am!

Tony: Talk to us about that team and what part you play in that.

Rachel: Sure, we have a great team and we're one of the largest departments on campus. We have lots of different corners of expertise. The great thing about biology is that it's huge, I mean it's the study of life so you can find many different ways to approach that. So, there are people that approach that from the cellular biology method, through physiology, and all the scales and about lots of topics that you can imagine so in my department I'm the ornithologist, which is the bird lady. Ornithology is the scientific study of birds, and if I were to describe myself as an ecologist, which is a little broader than just ornithology, I would describe myself as a behavioral ecologist which is where psychology and biology interface. A lot of my research is on the evolution of bird migration and bird song. And most of my research doesn't actually happen in a lab at all, it happens outside. So I'm outside catching birds, I'm outside measuring plants, or if I'm not outside I'm on a computer, so I do a lot of modeling and I actually program a lot. I do a lot of computer programming. So I have a master programming permit which means I can catch, identify and band birds. That means I have a lot of weird specific knowledge. For example you can figure out the age of a Pinyon Jay by looking at the color of the inside of its mouth, looking at how it's skull has grown up so I have these weird little knowledge bits. And then I also do a lot of computer programming. I can program in both R which is a statistical programming language used by biologists and also in Python. So, I use that a lot for statistics and modeling and to analyze the data. So, that's something I do with my colleagues as well, help with statistics and programming.

Tony: Exciting, it's great to be part of the team isn't it.

Rachel: Yes!

Tony: It really is. Can you talk to us maybe about some learning activities you do in class to help your learners acquire the concepts that you want them to acquire?

Rachel: Yeah so for my lectures I make sure not to talk for the whole time. I don't like to talk for 50 minutes, I can do it, I can talk for a long time.

Tony: You're doing great!

Rachel: Sure, but I like to make sure we do an activity every time. And this varies a lot so sometimes we'll take a little moment to write to get our thoughts together and write down a paragraph. People don't think of scientists as writers but we are. Writing is one of the most important things that we do to bring together all of our ideas. And so we take time to do that. Sometimes we do graph interpretation or hypothesis formation. Biologists don't just memorize facts from someone else we create facts all the time by learning about the world through science. So I teach them all the little ways to do that: how do we collect data, how do we analyze data, how do we be objective about that and we can do that in class a little bit as well. And as often as I can we use formulas and simulations to do that, to explore different models. So for example, we've used simulations to see how natural selection works, how genetic drift works, to predict how populations will grow over time based on their life history traits, so how many offspring they have and how often they grow. We even model disease transmission, we did that this week and it's obviously very pertinent to now, so how does disease spread from one individual or not. These are all important parts of ecology and evolution, which I teach.

Tony: I think more important for our future as well too.

Rachel: Yes

Tony: It's got to be a part of what we're doing in our lives as well.

Rachel: It is definitely! That model that created the curve that we keep talking about, that's one that we modeled in class this week, so we can understand why in the world is it a curve in the first place, so we've been playing with that this week.

Tony: Great, great questions. You mentioned this already but we live in such a beautiful world, such a beautiful environment here in Cedar. How do you connect your lessons to that beautiful world outside? It's got to be difficult for your learners, once again like you said let's get outside and see those- check out some of those birds! How do you do that?

Rachel: Yeah we there's several ways, so in class, I find ecology easy to connect to the real world. Sometimes I like to kid that ecology is the study of everything because it's a study of the effects of the non living world on the living world. And that sounds like everything to me. And so it's easy to connect your real world life to that because it connects to everything. It's the big part about ecology, and by big I mean large scale, not looking at tiny little molecules all the time but thinking about how those tiny little molecules have context, how it fits into the broader world. And so some of the things we cover in class include the water cycle, how water is used and conserved in Cedar City in particular. I have a whole lecture just about Cedar City water use. We also learn about the susceptible infectious recovery model that I just mentioned. So, how do you create the curve when talking about COVID-19 these are very relevant. I also like to make connections to medicine a lot. A lot of my students are pre-med and so some of them go in there and go "ecology, this isn't relevant to me" and actually it really is and not just because it's involved in your everyday life, things like water and disease. Also because when you take a topic from one area like ecology and apply it to medicine you can look at medicine in new ways. So if you think of not just killing a parasite in your body but thinking about using mutualisms with other microbes in your body to kill that parasite instead of just taking a medicine. If you think about it from a more ecological world view, you come up with new ways to view medicine as well. So I like to say that. So my labs, 2⁄3 of the labs I teach include field trips. So connecting the real world we go to the real world-not that you're not in the real world in a classroom- but we go out and we see what we're talking about. We measure and identify plants, we take soil samples, we catch insects, we find birds and we learn bird songs. Southern Utah is a great place to do this. And in my ecology lab itself we follow what's called the CURE model which is the course based undergraduate research experience. And that means the whole lab is built around a project we do collaboratively. So every student contributes data points. We end up with a huge data set that we can then crunch and we're doing that in systems here in southern Utah. And I do this in collaboration with Matt Hawthorne, because we both teach sections of this and so we have done one where we look at how urbanization affects bird species numbers we do projects where we see if we can predict based on soil characteristics and plant characteristics where you can find say a pinion pine across the landscapes. We have different projects that they do across the whole semester where they start the beginning of the project and go all the way through writing it out and presenting it as a collaborative group like real scientists would do it so we use real methods, real ways of thinking. Real science.

Tony: Absolutely wonderful. I just love your passion for all things nature. I can see how students would be fascinated to just come in and listen to you and listen to your passion as we have identified already we've got great learners here at SUU. They'll come in our classrooms they'll smile at us they'll nod their heads. Sometimes when they take their tests they don't do very well. They leave the classrooms and they must have got it. There were no frowns, they don't look quizzical at all but when they take the test it doesn't go so well. What are some methods- can you share some of the methods that you use to check for your students' understanding as you're teaching them.

Rachel: Yeah sure. One of my favorite ones is this assignment I started to do my first semester I read in the Chronicle and I was like, "Hey that sounds kind of cool I'll do it". But it's just basically having them do a reflection once a week. Each student is required to do a reflection that they just submit online. It only takes them five minutes and is very open ended. So they can- the only instruction is they have to think about something we learned that week and how it connects to their own life. They have to say, like, "This week we learned about disease, what does that have to do with my own life?"And they can do that by free writing, they can do that by writing poetry, they can do it by giving me photographs they took and explaining them. It's really open ended. They can do it however they want and it's a fun way to kind of get to know them a little more personally, especially for the quiet students who never talk in class. We'll talk this way through this reflection. And also every week I get 100 instant pieces of feedback, plus, depending on how many students I have that semester. And so every week I go through and read these. They don't take that long to read but I get this snapshot where I can know what they're thinking, what gets them excited, what they don't understand, and then I can go back the next time and immediately address all of those. So I can add more of what they're excited about. I can go over again what they don't quite understand and this is in the moment. So student evaluations happen way too late. I get this feedback after I can't do anything right, they're gone. And so this way every week I can adjust, and so I really like that. And they're fun to read, they have so much creativity. You can see how they're making connections. You can see how they're thinking about things deeply like they'll go and read other papers, and tell you what they learned and I think it's just a really fun way to interact.

Tony: And I think looking at- and I couldn't agree with you more- looking at the positive components like the glass half full. Oh my goodness by looking at those I can sense the passion your learners have and next time in class you can say "Oh I love that you're appreciating birds" I apologize I'm making it too simple but whatever it may be that you're teaching. Working on those positives is so much more motivating to learners than, "Oh my goodness you guys are not getting this, I've got to spoon feed you this". Or whatever you might do, not that you do but others might do, so I love that you have that positive nature. We've already mentioned that we have great students here, excellent students, what do you do with your learners, your students to help them support one another you know, you mentioned you have a lot of biology pre-med students. It can get pretty competitive out there for those grades in class. How do you help them support one another in each other's education?

Rachel: You know they can get competitive but I don't see it. They help each other all the time, they're always out there studying their O-Chem together and I don't know maybe at the end of the day they all want to be the one that wins but I don't know we have great students. I love our students. I mentioned before we have that collaborative data set class. So we try as often as we can to have them work together so if we have these daily assignments where they're doing a simulation that they don't do it by themselves that they're doing it together. Working through it together. And in the case of that ecology lab we have it so that they're working with up to 120 different collaborators in one semester. So they're really having to help each other out and make sure that they work together. Also I wanted to point out I have that research group. I've really enjoyed watching them grow together and help each other out. So we have right now I think 8 different projects that we are working on so each of those has a student leader but then they all end up helping each other out so if we need to go out and count pinyon juniper that weekend we're all going to show up and all do that. If we need to go measure bird songs and see how high and low they're singing they're all working together on that. And so the student leader might be the one who's heart is really in that project but they're all helping each other progress together and it's a lot of fun to work with them.

Tony: I couldn't agree with you more. Rachel, our time is up for today and I'm so grateful for your willingness to share your perspective and passion. Any last minute words of wisdom for your peers or future students that might be in your class?

Rachel: Um, I would say, I look forward to working with you, because that's the truth, I definitely do.

Tony: They're some great people to work with. Rachel, thank you. Friends that are listening please reach out to Rachel if you need more information or more support and I look forward to connecting with you across campus. Thanks Rachel, and thanks everyone else.

Rachel: Thank you, Tony!

Tony: Bye bye now!

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