Reasons for Reason

28 Jan

I’ll be guiding my students through an introductory exploration of the body’s resistance to disease tomorrow morning. Traditionally, I would start with the types of resistance, the layers of defense, and the components of nonspecific mechanisms before digging into adaptive immunity in a later lecture.  Last semester, however, I started with a conversation about risks to health-care workers due to contagious diseases.  We discussed aspects of risk evaluation, particularly complications of vaccines versus risk of serious illness.  The conversation was lively, and students appeared to internalize not only the information but also the process of analysis. They practiced assessing pros and cons and applying that to their career choices.  Some shared personal stories of family members who couldn’t tolerate vaccines, and we related that to the benefit of herd immunity, so they could see beyond the benefit/risk to a single individual.

I don’t think I’ll have any trouble coming up with examples of cases that crop up when people don’t get vaccinated. There was a local case here in east Texas of an other-wise healthy young man who almost died of complications of flu.  The measles cases in southern California are very recent, but we also had a cluster of cases in the Fort Worth area, centered at a church run by a pastor who was vocal in his opposition to vaccination.  The horrible deaths due to Ebola help remind us all of the ravages of epidemic diseases and the value of vaccination.

Knowing that I would be discussing this in class, I’ve been reading web posts on Ebola, measles, and influenza, but also Big Pharma, toxins in vaccines, and other conspiratorial secrets of mainstream medicine.  I think it’s important to focus on scientific reasoning from the get-go, but also to explore the basis of decision-making by people with limited understanding of physiology and medicine.  I’m dismayed by the uncivil language in many of the comments on web posts, but I read through them anyway, to see if I can glean common threads in the thought processes of people who proclaim their rejection of aspects of modern medicine.  Students in my class might be on the front line of discussions with people making such decisions in the near future, and I want them to be able to demonstrate clear thinking and rational decision making while recognizing the emotional basis of decision making in others. It’s not easy, when claims of competing ‘facts’ aren’t evaluated on their merits.

I remember reading an article on cultural anthropology that explored the ability of individuals to assess risk.  Basically, any tragedy that is personally witnessed is perceived to be a greater risk than any other potential – but unseen – problem, even if the odds of it happening again are quite small.  This is why the risk of dying of measles seems more remote than the possibility of developing autism.

So, I use valuable class time to reinforce and practice the processes of science.  I model and guide the application of logical reasoning to reliable evidence.  I teach students to evaluate sources as well as examine information.  And then, I hope they will use these skills in the real world, to make smart decisions on issues that impact the health of us all.

HAPS News: Primal Pictures-HAPS Scholarship Nominations DUE 2/3/15

25 Jan
A message from the ComCom

A message from the ComCom

In every class, there is at least one student who simply stands out from the rest.  S/he is enthusiastic, motivated, bright, and just gets fired up by learning about Anatomy and Physiology.  S/he is authentically interested in what you have to say and treats the learning experiences you offer as the amazing opportunities they really are.  These rare students often fuel you through each semester, and they truly make teaching the incredibly rewarding profession it is.

HAPS not only values its teaching members, but it values the students who HAPS-PP2-2inspire and fuel these fantastic teachers.  So if you have (or had) a student this year (2014-15) who is particularly exceptional, consider nominating her/him for the Primal Pictures-HAPS Scholarship.

The goal of this scholarship is to promote excellence in anatomy and physiology, encourage innovation and celebrate learning.  The winning student will receive a cash award of $1000, free entry to the Annual Conference in San Antonio, and up to $1100 for reimbursement of travel expenses.

Please consider nominating one of your best students for this award.


Instructors who nominate students must:
  • be teaching at an accredited institution in the US or Canada
  • have at least two years of Human A&P or Human Biology (broadly defined) teaching experience
  • have direct knowledge of the student being nominated and be able to explain why the nominee deserves this award.
Nominated undergraduate student must be:
  • a degree-seeking student enrolled full-time at an accredited higher education institution in the US or Canada during the 2014-2015 academic year
  • enrolled in at least one Human A&P or Human Biology course in the 2014-2015 academic year
  • a person who would benefit from attending the HAPS Annual Conference

Award recipients will receive their award at the HAPS Membership Meeting on May 25, 2015 and must be present to receive the award.

Resolution Review, and Looking Forward

21 Jan

I’m feeling kind of unsettled this month. After taking a break from blogging over the month-long year-end break, I’m finding it difficult to kick-start myself.  In preparing this post, I looked back at my resolutions – and I want to assure you, I’ve kept them as well as I can.  Although, I did have a student today ask if he should finish the “pre-lab 2″ assignment before or after attending lab 2.  It’s hard to know how much clearer I can make assignment titles.

I spent quite a bit of time over the holiday break refining my courses, particularly the online instructions.  I actually had a student tell me she was intimidated by how much she was going to have to wade through just to start the course.  I’m not sure how to fix that.  I remember when I started teaching microbiology lab, that my pre-lab briefs were pretty short.  As my experience increased, the length of my briefs did, too – I kept adding to the things that could go wrong, as students continued to find new ways to mess up the lab.  So now, I find myself adding to the instructions about how the course works, to the point (apparently) that students are overwhelmed by the instructions before they even get to the content.

So, I’ve decided to look for expert help.  I will ask our resident instructional designer to review my course orientations, and see if they can be streamlined – or if they are fine the way they are.  I”m reading about teaching and learning, which I’ll report on in future posts.

Most significantly, I’ve signed up for Valerie O’Loughlin’s HAPS-I course on educational research.  After thirty-plus years of being a professional educator, I suppose it’s high time I actually get some professional development on education.  I’m looking forward to creating a system of asking, and answering, questions about how my students learn and what I can do to facilitate their success.  Particularly as I am chair of the college’s General Education Committee, I feel compelled to collect meaningful information that measures parameters that matter, rather than just what is easy to quantify.

One of the best aspects of a HAPS-I course is the interaction with peers.  With a focus on a specific outcome, the quality of discourse can be amazing, and I’m looking forward to working with HAPS colleagues to explore aspects of metacognition and the scholarship of teaching.  I encourage you to join us – or to find some other avenue to enhance your scholarship of teaching.  Have a great spring semester!

Betsy Ott

HAPS Web 15- Partnering with the LifeSciTRC!

19 Jan
APS Life Science Teaching Resource Community

Access HAPS resources from the Life Science Teaching Resource Community directly from the HAPS website!

Welcome back from the holiday!  The Communications Committee (responsible for maintaining this blog) took a restful break and we’re fired up and ready for a new set of fun blog posts.

Not surprisingly, while the Communications Committee (fondly known as the ComCom) was enjoying good food, the rest of the HAPS leadership was hard at work maintaining this great organization.  True to the theme describing all the amazing resources HAPS has to offer its members, today’s post is about a new partnership garnered over the break.

HAPS works hard to provide its members with high quality teaching resources and the intention of this blog theme is to make sure HAPSters know what is available to them.  And true to form, instead of sitting back and admiring the good work that has been done, the HAPS leadership has been busy pursuing additional resources and conveniences for its membership.  This is evidenced by a recent addition to the HAPS website.

HAPS enjoys a strong partnership with the American Physiological Society (APS).  This is the society that maintains the Life Science Teaching Resource Community (formally known as the APS Archive of Teaching Resources),  which was featured in a series of HAPS blog posts last year.  HAPS has always been a partner with APS and has actively contributed resources to the LifeSciTRC.  For example, materials developed in HAPS-I courses have always been published in the LifeSciTRC.  However, in the last few weeks, HAPS Executive Director Peter English has taken this partnership a step further.  Peter put together a page within the HAPS website that explicitly brings together the materials from these HAPS-I courses since 2012!  The resources are organized into collections that put all course content in one easy to access link.

So check out this latest addition to the wealth of resources found on the HAPS website.

HAPS Web 14- The Histology Challenge

15 Dec
An archived imaged from an old histology challenge...

An archived imaged from an old histology challenge…

The HAPS Histology challenge, a fantastic benefit of  HAPS membership, was a the subject in an article on page 23 of the HAPS-EDucator’s Winter 2015 edition.  The abstract of the article states:

(The Histology Challenge) presents actual patient cases, in the form of photomicrographs of biopsy or surgical specimens, along with a “live” online discussion. Each case includes a series of questions designed to guide readers through the process of interpreting the photomicrographs, beginning with basic histology and progressing through the process of diagnosing the case. In this article, we review the history of the Histology Challenge, describe how it works, and describe some sample cases, to illustrate how they reinforce basic histology and introduce clinical applications. This article will also include suggestions for how these Histology Challenges can be used in A & P courses, and ways in which interested instructors can participate both in the online discussions and in production of future cases. 

The histology challenge serves many valuable functions for HAPSters and their students.  Some instructors use the challenge to beef up their own histology skills.  Others use the challenge to provide hands-on experiences for their students!  Either way, the challenge is a stimulating resource for HAPSters and their students.  So check out the Winter 2015 HAPS-EDucator and learn more about how you can take advantage of this fantastic benefit of being a HAPS member.

New Semester Resolutions

10 Dec

Okay, it’s that time in the semester when I have to force myself to focus on the positive – not on the desperate pleas for just half a point, or the snarky comments that I don’t know how to teach.

So, here is my list of New Semester Resolutions. I hope to actually keep these resolutions (unlike the ones I’ll make on Dec. 31).

1. I will make my course policies crystal clear. This will mean reading, and re-reading how I have the policies stated so they can’t be misinterpreted. Who knew that calling an assignment “practice” and including a message that “this is not for a grade” does not clearly state that completing the assignment is not mandatory? Seriously, it’s important to know that students don’t always read sentences the way we meant them to, and it’s just as important to write course policies clearly as it is to word-smith our test questions.

2. I will provide more small-stakes practice assignments. I will, of course, make sure that if they are mandatory, I will be quite explicit about that fact. My plan, only partially formed, is to have daily assignments (online, auto-graded) that are available only for 24 hours, to encourage students to check in online every day and recharge their content familiarity. I’ll drop enough of them to not penalize students who can’t get online every day (and to reduce complaints that I have to respond to). I’ll make them comprehensive, to help students review and rehearse the quickly-accumulating load of anatomical terms and physiological concepts.

3. I will post more short videos. Students apparently like to know that I am out here, telling them what they have to know, and apparently, sending emails and posting text announcements isn’t as effective as posting videos, according to course-end feedback. Teaching is a particularly human endeavor, so anything I can do to enhance that human contact will add intrinsic value to my online course communications, even for my face-to-face courses.

4. I will provide more choices in what students can complete for a grade. According to my course-end survey, the most valuable and popular course assignment is the discussion. Except that in the same survey, discussion is the least effective and least valuable assignment. Ditto for every other course assignment category. So, providing choices and allowing students to choose the type of assignment that resonates with them will be more likely to meet their needs. I’ve read recently that allowing student choice in assignment type increases engagement and satisfaction and can improve student outcomes.

5. I will provide feedback on student mastery. According to some of my students, my standards are unrealistically high and I expect too much out of them. This, from students who don’t answer the simple, direct questions I ask, and skip the easy and/or optional assignments. But, I can at least let them know whether the work they turn in meets standard expectations of college-level work. This is an opportunity to use the HAPS Outcomes, so students know it’s not just me that expects them to know this stuff.

6. I will try to remember that my course is not my students’ highest priority. This one is tough, so all I can resolve is to try. Students come to us with a mixed set of skills, and an assortment of competing claims on their time. I know that my course, while important to them, is not the most important priority for them, and I shouldn’t penalize them for not loving A&P the way I do.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions for other resolutions. What have you gleaned from your students this semester that motivates you to make changes for your spring courses?

HAPS Web 13- Primal Pictures Partners with HAPS…Again!

8 Dec


Primal Pictures and the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society are proud to be working together for the second year in a row to support and recognize an exceptional undergraduate A&P student in 2014-15. The goal of this collaboration is to promote excellence in anatomy and physiology, encourage innovation, and celebrate learning by rewarding an outstanding A&P student.

Primal has agreed to sponsor a cash award of $1000 for a deserving undergrad, as well as up to $1100 to reimburse travel expenses for the 2015 HAPS Annual Conference in San Antonio Texas!  In addition to this, the $350 Annual Conference fee will be waived.

Last year, this award went to an amazing undergrad, Dani Hall.  Dani has since taken on a leadership rolesin HAPS, by serving on the Communications Committee.

This is an excellent time of year to think about your best students and consider nominating one for this award.  All nominations are due by February 3, 2015.

Instructors who nominate students must:
  • be teaching at an accredited institution in the US or Canada
  • have at least two years of Human A&P or Human Biology (broadly defined) teaching experience
  • have direct knowledge of the student being nominated and be able to explain why the nominee deserves this award.

Nominated undergraduate student must be:

  • a degree-seeking student enrolled full-time at an accredited higher education institution in the US or Canada during the 2014-2015 academic year
  • enrolled in at least one Human A&P or Human Biology course in the 2014-2015 academic year.
  • a person who would benefit from attending the HAPS Annual Conference

Award recipients will receive their award at the HAPS Membership Meeting on May 25, 2015 and must be present.

HAPS Blog—We ate too much!

1 Dec
We ate the whole thing!

We ate the whole thing!

The HAPS blogging team ate too much during the holiday and will be taking the week off.  We’ll see you next week though, with more fun HAPS news!

HAPS Web 12- Travel Award Applications DUE Monday 12/1!

24 Nov
Skully in San Antonio

Are you planning to hang with the HAPSters in San Antonio? Apply for a scholarship now!

If you’re looking for financial assistance in getting to San Antonio in May, HAPS has your back.  There are four awards available to help you make it happen.

ALL of these applications are DUE by December 1, so get your things together and apply now!

The Sam Drogo Technology in the Classroom Award
This award is given to someone who demonstrates innovative use of technology to engage undergraduates in human anatomy and physiology. Two awards are available, both sponsored by ADInstruments.
Award: Awards up to $500 to attend the HAPS annual conference.

Robert Anthony Scholarship
This award is given to new instructors in A&P with the goal of helping new faculty network with seasoned professionals during their first five (5) years of teaching anatomy and physiology by attending the HAPS annual conference.
Award: Pays for registration fee at the annual conference.

Contingent Faculty Scholarship
This award is set up to encourage Contingent Faculty to network with seasoned professionals by attending the HAPS annual conference.
Award: Covers registration fee at the HAPS annual conference.

HAPS Graduate Student/Postdoctoral Travel Award
This award is given to graduate students or postdoctoral students who attend and present at the HAPS annual conference.
Award: $400 cash and annual conference registration fee is waived.


Lessons Learned from NABT

19 Nov

I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers last week (my excuse for not posting last Wednesday) in Cleveland. In addition to my first experience with “lake effect snow,” and a reception at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (with biology rock stars Sean Carroll and Neil Shubin), I profited from some great, focused workshops. One of the most amazing, because of its simplicity, was a short lesson on how to teach students to make the most of graphs.

You might think reading graphs is intuitively obvious to young students, and it probably was to those of us who went into science teaching. I’m guessing that if it had been difficult, we would all have gone into some other professional field.  So it might be difficult to explain something we do without working at it, and having a step-wise method to help students think about what graphing means is really helpful.  Having an approach that starts with what a student finds easy to do is a good way to engage them and retain their interest.  The technique I learned (presented by Cindy Gay, of Steamboat Springs HS in Colorado) was developed for an AP Biology workshop put on by BSCS.  The technique has three parts, which are easily summarized as identify, analyze, and caption.  The first step involves simply identifying (with arrows) parts of a graph that appear to have some significance. This can be something as simple as a line increasing, or the point at which a curve peaks.  The second step is to determine the meaning of the aspects identified in the first step.  This requires conscious examination of the axes, and thinking about what the graph means.  The last step is to write a title/caption that states the point of the graph and explains its significance.    As I said, this may seem simplistic and obvious to us, but I’m sure I have students who could benefit from developing a habit of identifying, analyzing, and captioning important graphs.

Several of the sessions at the meeting were sponsored by HHMI, including a debut of their latest educational video, on the evolutionary transition that led to humans.  (All resources are available by going to  That facet of human anatomy is another aspect that is intuitive to many but not all of us.  Teaching resources are being developed and will be available at no charge on the website. Resources developed in the last few years are already posted, and I encourage you to take a look if you haven’t ever visited the site.

These teaching resources point up the value of attending conferences; I hope you are all planning to attend the HAPS San Antonio conference next May, and regionals that are in your area. We’ve made a commitment to offer three regional meetings a year, so you should be able to attend at least one every year.  You might even consider presenting a workshop; you never know how the simplest of ideas will resonate with your colleagues!


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