Bee Byte: Agapostemon texanus

Male Agapostemon texanus
Male Agapostemon texanus

 

Generalist. Widespread. Solitary.

 

 

Map made via Discoverlife
Map made via Discoverlife

 

 

Name: ‘The Green Sweat Bee’ (there are several)

Family: Halicitinae (with: other sweat bees, alkali bees)

States: Most likely all except Hawaii and Alaska

 

Agapostemon texanus belongs to one of North America’s most striking genera – all Agapostemon males and females have beautiful, metallic blue/green coloration. Males and females of Agapostemon species look very different (a phenomena called sexual dimorphism). Male abdomens are yellow-and-black/brown striped while female abdomens are consistently metallic and blue-green.

Abdomen of female Agapostemon texanus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
Abdomen of female Agapostemon texanus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)

Of all the AgapostemonA. texanus is the most widespread, appearing from Costa Rica to Southern Canada. In the US, it is most common west of the Mississippi River. A. texanus has two generations a year, with mostly males active in the early fall and mostly females hibernating through the winter and active in spring and early summer (this split is due to a unique system called haplodiploidy).

Female A. texanus are strictly solitary, though females of closely-related species (like A. radiatus) have been found to make all their nests together in one area (called an aggregation) or potentially even use singular nests communally (A. nastus).

Agapostemon texanus (public domain image, Alejandro Santillana as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
male Agapostemon texanus (public domain image, Alejandro Santillana as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)

A. texanus nest in the soil, creating long tunnels by digging. Females search for dark spots under pebbles or leaves to construct the entrance to the nests, making nests hard to spot by parasites. Females leave their nest open during the day as they forage on a variety of flowers (A. texanus are generalists) before closing the nest entrance in the late afternoon/early evening by pushing soil up from inside the main tunnel to close the door for the night. High security area!

Nests tunnels have been found up to 150 cms deep (nearly five feet!).

Sources and Further Reading (first is freely available and has a great drawing of an A. texanus nest!):

Roberts, R (1973). Bees of Northwestern America: Agapostemon (Hymenoptera: Halictidae). Technical Bulletin of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Oregon State University, 125: 1-23.

Eickwort, G (1981). Aspects of the Nesting Biology of Five Nearctic Species of Agapostemon (Hymenoptera: Halictidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 54: 337-51.

Porter, C (1983). Ecological Notes on Lower Rio Grande Valley Augochloropsis and Agapostemon (Hymenoptera: Halictidae). The Florida Entomologist, 66: 344-53.

Waddington, K (1979). Flight patterns of Three Species of Sweat Bees (Halictidae) Foraging at Convolvulus arvensis. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 52: 751-8.

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Bee Byte: Are All Bees Social?

BeeByteLogoThink quick: Bee!

For most of us, a highly social hive of buzzing honey bees come to mind. But this is actually only a tiny sliver of the social structural pie. Here are some (but not all) other types of organization:

Solitary: Most bees are solitary, where a single female makes her nest alone. Solitary bees lay their eggs in small cells on top of a bed of food – the egg later hatches and feeds itself. Adults typically emerge from their cells around the same time, forage, lay their eggs, and then die while larvae/pupae wait underground for the next appropriate ’emergence’ season. This means adult generations do not overlap.

Gregarious nesters: These bees often appear social, as many solitary females will nest individually, but nearby one another, in ‘aggregations’.

Communal nesters: This is when multiple solitary females all share one nest, but lay their own eggs in individual cells within that nest.

Facultatively social: These species can be solitary or social, depending on environmental cues. In one species, Ceratina australensis, two sisters will sometimes form a colony together instead of nesting alone, with one foraging and reproducing and the other acting solely as a guard.

Primitively eusocial: Here, there are reproducing ‘queens’ and nonreproducing (but not sterile) ‘workers’. Queens and workers generally look similar, and workers can sometimes replace queens.

Photo credit: Meghan Barrett Apis mellifera, the Honey Bee
Photo credit: Meghan Barrett
Apis mellifera, the Honey Bee

Advanced eusocial: The honey bee colony: reproducing queens, nonreproducing, functionally sterile workers. Workers and queens do not look similar. The workers care for the queen’s young, and there are overlapping generations of adults.

Additional sources:

Wikipedia has a great chart (bottom of page) showing the differences between terms used to describe sociality, including: Eusocial, Semisocial, Subsocial,and Quasisocial.

This paper discusses some theory on the evolution of eusociality.

This paper addresses how advanced eusociality may have arisen through other types of sociality.

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Grant Writing: Are You Listening?

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Photo by Fredrik Rubensson entitled ‘diary writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Grant writing is a new thing for me, so you should take all my advice with a grain of salt – but this is one piece I think might be worth considering. Grant writing isn’t really a big, scary exercise in writing and self-promotion (well, I mean, it is that too) but more importantly it’s an exercise in listening.

But who are we listening to? To answer this, we must think about who are we in conversation with as we write our grants. There can be several answers to this question – and several audiences for you to consider.

  1. The Grant Reviewers – Imagine you have to sit down and look over hundreds of applications from, mostly, similarly qualified candidates. What would make some stand out? It isn’t likely to be that one extra paper you published – it’s more likely to be that your application was enjoyable and easy to read. When the pages fly by and your story is interesting, you’ll leave the reviewers with a far more positive impression of you, and your science. So spend lots of time perfecting the readability of your writing – the reviewers will thank you.
  2. The Grant-granting Agency – I work as an assistant poetry editor for a literary magazine – in some ways we are a ‘granting agency’ in that we grant author’s work publication in our journal. Nothing is more irritating than reading work that doesn’t fit the stated goals of our magazine! Granting agencies likely feel the same way – if your work doesn’t fit the criteria, or address the points in the application instructions clearly, it doesn’t matter how amazing you are, you simply haven’t demonstrated you deserve this grant. Pay close attention to the wording used in the application for who they are looking to give this money to – and then use that same language to describe yourself and your work, so it’s easy to spot how you fit the bill.
  3. Your Critics – Another creative writing tidbit is the idea of workshops; you bring in a piece of writing and distribute it to your peers, who read it and comment on it – telling you what worked and what didn’t. You usually end up with 15 copies of your work that all say slightly different things… but have some common underlying thread. Apply the same principles to your grant – send it to lots of people, those with and without experience in your field or with you/your projects, etc. The suggestions they send back will vary and you absolutely should not take every suggestion, but look for the underlying themes. Are certain sections unclear? Do you need to reorganize so your question is broader and has more impact on your field? Is the tone bogging the piece down? Listen to what your critics are saying underneath their suggestions to get to some of the real issues with the piece.
  4. Your Cheerleader – Grant writing, maybe because it’s new or maybe because I have some serious impostor syndrome, is some hard stuff. I have to catch myself from making all kinds of qualifying, humbling statements like ‘this was a pretty big paper’ (since grant writing is all about acknowledging your accomplishments). So make sure you have a cheerleader – preferably somebody in your field but not your adviser who can tell you that you are GRRRRRREAT. It could be your mom, but would you really believe her? Find that one professional who can make you feel like others in your field recognize how awesome you are – and then read their email while listening to that ‘New Avengers’ song from ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. I promise, you’ll feel ten feet tall after and swagger like you’re Iron Man.
  5. Yourself – If you can’t represent yourself in the grant application, you don’t deserve to get it – whoever you represented does. No matter everyone else’s suggestions, edits, comments, and concerns, make sure before you submit that the grant still sounds like you. No one knows your smarts, skills, achievements, creativity, humor, etc like you do – so always read that last draft with yourself in mind.

Listening is hard and takes practice – pulling out the ‘underlying concerns’ in a critic’s piece or identifying what to do to make your narrative read more easily can be difficult. Not receiving a grant isn’t actually always about you and your qualifications – there are so many nuanced reasons, especially when there’s so little money to give out and such competitive pools of applicants (that you’re a part of!). Put your best application forward, then back away from the result – and be prepared to try again.

Each day, a new day.

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Biopoetics: Input Segregation

Photo entitled 'Ant communication' by Dzipi (CC BY-SA 2.0; link through photo)
Photo entitled ‘Ant communication’ by Dzipi (CC BY-SA 2.0; link through photo)

A huge thank you to, first, Palaver Magazine for publishing this piece here on page 79, and then for Poetry in Data for also publishing this piece here (you can listen to the poem here). I must also acknowledge Dr. Wulfila Gronenberg, as this is a found poem sourced from his 1999 paper: Modality-Specific Segregation of Input to Ant Mushroom Bodies. All of the words in this poem were found in the various sections of Dr. Gronenberg’s paper and – as is the case with all found poetry – it is the essence of the source that provides the true poetic inspiration.

This paper is the foundation for my work in ant neuroanatomy (paper forthcoming, stay tuned!). There is a section of the ant brain called the mushroom bodies, which is known to be involved in learning and memory (among other complex behaviors). There are two regions (the lip and collar) which receive input from different peripheral processing lobes: the optic lobe (which processes visual information and inputs to the collar) and the antennal lobe (which processes chemo-sensory information and inputs to the lip). This study by Gronenberg compared the size and structure of the mushroom bodies across several species of ants, wasps, and different genders of ants (which have vastly different behaviors over their lives).

Based on the differences in mushroom body size between the species, Gronenberg was able to tie individual variation to species-specific behaviors and living conditions. One example would be variation in the role of vision in the ants’ lives. Ant species with reduced eyes had reduced optic lobes and mushroom body ‘collar’ regions (a region we know to be associated with the input of visual information). If you don’t have large eyes, you likely aren’t processing much visual information – so you won’t need large brain regions to deal with vision.

The collar regions of males were found, across many species, to be much larger than that of female workers; male ants fly through the air to find females and mate, giving vision a critical role in their behaviors as compared to grounded, sometimes subterranean female workers of the same species.

Gronenberg showed there was a common design among Hymenopteran (ants, bees, and wasps) mushroom bodies, as well – making this one of the earliest studies to look into mushroom bodies outside of honey bees and Drosophila flies.

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Bee Byte: Can you #WildID a Bee?

BeeByteLogoOn Twitter, nature-lovers will send scientists photos of an animal asking for a #WildID – or species identification. But can you #WildID a bee?

The answer: sometimes yes (but usually no).

 

Often bees of the same genera will look very similar (for example these two different species of male Agapostemon):

Agapostemon splendens (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Agapostemon splendens (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
Agapostemon angelicus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Agapostemon angelicus (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of Insects Unlocked’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sometimes, two bees of the same species will look very different (like the abdominal coloration of these two female Augochloropsis metallica):

Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of 'Insects Unlocked')
Augochloropsis metallica (public domain image, Lexi Roberts as part of ‘Insects Unlocked’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This makes telling a bee’s species from a photo very difficult; sometimes the features an entomologist must look at to ID a species are hidden under hairs, or even involve dissecting the bee.

However, sometimes a photo with location data can tell us everything we need to know to #WildID – some species have very distinctive features (especially when we know where the photo was taken, and thus what species are in that range). For example the triangle of black on the thorax of Bombus franklini (featured here), combined with information about the bee’s range, can be used to ID B. franklini with relative certainty. Sometimes even the time or flower a bee was spotted on can help #IDthatBee – if it is an early dawn forager, or a pollen-specialist that only visits a specific species.

Don’t be afraid to #WildID your next bee photo – even if the experts can’t get the species, often the next best thing (genera) can be ascertained with a glance. Check out Bees in Your Backyard to try your hand at IDing to genera, yourself!

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Bee Byte: Bombus franklini

BeeByteLogo

 

Endangered. Social. Narrow Range.

 

Map made via DiscoverLife; modified to most closely resemble Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla (2014)
Map made via DiscoverLife; modified to most closely resemble Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla (2014)Status: Critically Endangered, last recorded by Robbin Thorp in 2006

Status: Critically Endangered, last recorded in 2006 by Dr. Robbin Thorp

Name: Franklin Bumble bee

Family: Apidae (with: honey bees, carpenter bees)

States: Oregon and California

B. franklini has experienced a sharp decline since 1998, and has not been spotted in the wild for over a decade, earning itself a spot on the critically endangered species list and a spot as the Bee Bytes mascot. It also has one of the most narrow distributions for a bumble bee in the world.

The yellow half of the thorax (closer to the head) with an inverse U shape in black can be used to differentiate it from the similar looking B. occidentalis. 

Photo credited to Dr. Robbin Thorp
Photo credited to Dr. Robbin Thorp

Like other bumble bees, B. franklini are social; they live in colonies with a queen, who reproduces, and her daughters, who gather nectar and pollen. The colony does not overwinter.

B. franklini are generalists, meaning they can use a variety of flowers for food; like all bumble bees, they are buzz pollinators, vibrating at a high frequency to dislodge pollen from the flowers’ anthers.

A potential cause of B. franklini decline is the fungal pathogen Nosema bombi, which has been found with increasing prevalence on museum specimen from declining populations. It is possible exotic strains were introduced from Europe, due to the American agricultural industry’s use of bumble bees reared in Europe to pollinate crops.

These bees are ground-nesters, thought to live in abandoned rodent burrows in grassy meadows. A paucity of research on B. franklini means little is known about the species, making conservation efforts more difficult.

More resources on the species and its decline:

NPR: The Bumblebee Hunter

ICUN Redlist Entry

Test of the invasive pathogen hypothesis of bumble bee decline in North America

Evidence for decline in eastern North American bumblebees (Hymenoptera: Apidae), with special focus on Bombus affinis Cresson

Bumblebees of North America: An Identification Guide by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson, Sheila Colla (2014; Princeton University Press).

 

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Caste Differences in Wasp Brains

Brain section within this photo credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Brain section within this photo credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

My first co-author published paper came out this summer in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and I’m (no surprise) very excited. The paper, the foundation for the kind of work I want to do in my PhD, is titled: Caste Differences in the Mushroom Bodies of Swarm-Founding Paper Wasps: Implications for Brain Plasticity and Brain Evolution (Vespidae, Epiponini), authored by Sean O’Donnell, Susan J Bulova, Sara De Leon, Meghan Barrett, and Katherine Fiocca. If you haven’t left me after the long title, that’s a good sign – let’s take a quick jog back to our eusocial basics!

A eusocial colony has several different types of individuals (called castes) which perform different tasks in the colony. In the most advanced colonies, reproducing Queens complete few tasks besides laying eggs; they rarely leave their nests, have extensive social contact with workers, and do not gather food. In contrast, female Workers don’t reproduce, complete a variety of tasks inside and outside of the nest (gathering food, feeding larvae, maintaining the nest, defense), and often act alone. It would be hard for these two groups to act more differently!

In theory, we could see how some of these tasks could differ in the demands they place on the animal’s brain. For example, flying outside and searching for food while avoiding predators might require larger regions of the brain in charge of processing visual information (called optic lobes) when compared to sitting in a dark nest all day, laying eggs.

And this is where a key ecological theory comes in – called Neuroecology Theory. This theory predicts that, because brain tissue (like all tissue) is costly to produce and maintain, evolutionarily successful organisms won’t invest willy-nilly in brain tissue they don’t need since those resources can be spent elsewhere. Instead they will invest more in regions of the brain that help them deal with the cognitive demands their environment presents – for the flying wasp, this is the optic lobes.

Imagine we are building a two story house in a flood plain. Sure, we could invest in fire-resistant materials, nuclear-grade shutters, and the kinds of steel they use to make sky-scrapers sway just right in the wind. But if we have a limited amount of money, or resources, we know we will be most successful if we address the most pressing demand of our environment and build a house on stilts, to withstand floods.

The ‘mushroom bodies’ are one area of a wasp brain, involved in learning, memory, and integrating information from the various senses. Previous to our study, scientists have shown that the relative size of the mushroom bodies (mushroom body volume as compared to total brain volume) increases with foraging behavior, the job of the workers. But scientists had also shown that maintaining social dominance via aggressive social interactions can have positive relative mushroom body size effects. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle:

Do queens, with their limited task repertoire but high social dominance, or workers, with their many tasks but decreased social demand, have larger relative mushroom bodies?

Histological section and photo credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Histological section and photo credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

To answer this, we sliced wasp brains at a thickness of 14 microns – or 1/7 the thickness of a sheet of paper (see left). After setting the slices on glass slides, we stained the brain tissue a deep blue and photographed each slice – allowing us to measure the area of each region of the brain every 14 microns. By stacking all the slices on top of one another, we get a complete 3D image of the brain – and thus the volume of each of the pieces, since we know the thickness of our slices! Then, we could compare the relative volumes of our mushroom bodies in queens and workers of several different eusocial wasp species. You can see a 3D brain below.

Brain reconstruction credited to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Brain reconstruction credited to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

 

Figure credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Figure credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

So what did we find? In a nutshell:

  1. for 13/16 species, Queens had greater relative mushroom body sizes than their workers
  2. species with larger colony sizes saw larger differences in the relative mushroom body sizes of their queens and workers

These results are consistent with the idea that maintaining social dominance increases relative mushroom body investment – and adds the additional caveat that it seems to increase investment more than foraging.

 

The fact that larger colonies saw larger queen-worker differences in mushroom body investment may be a result of increasing ‘caste specialization’ – this is the idea that, as colonies get larger, the gap in work performed by the queen and the workers gets larger as well.

This is just one kind of question we can answer using histological techniques – we can also look at the effects of light, sociality and other behaviors, disease, body size, etc. on animal brains. All of this gives us a better understanding of how evolution works, and how different brain region sizes are selected for – or against – in different conditions.

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Introducing “Bee Bytes”!

BeeByteLogo
Welcome to Bee Bytes, a #scicomm project to introduce bees to the public!

What is Bee Bytes?

Bee Bytes will be a weekly to biweekly series on my blog, where I write “bite-sized” posts about an invasive or native bee species in the United States, describing its distribution, taxonomic relationship, and a few fun facts in brief! Each post will be 256 words or less – the number of unique characters you can represent with just one ‘byte’ (and exactly as long as this post). The end will have extra resources, in case you want to look for more about your favorite bees.

I don’t get it, why bytes?

A byte is used to encode a single text-character in a computer; my ‘bee bytes’ will be used to encode a single bee in your memory!

Where can I find these bytes?

For now, get your Bee Bytes fix here on my blog; in the future, I’m hoping to make a ‘trading card style’ website where you can search the deck for your favorite bees. That can be an after-quals project.

How long will you be doing Bee Bytes?

With 4000+ species in the United States, I can write for the next 77 years or so before I cover every species we’ve got! By that time, we’ll have so much new information I might even have to start over!

4000 species? Aren’t you byte-ing off more than you can chew?

Listen, bugger – you can buzz right off with that negativity.

Sorry.

Why?

Check out this link for the impetus behind ‘Bee Bytes’.

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Year One Celebration

Photo credit: Steve Buchmann (http://stephenbuchmann.com/)
Photo credit: Steve Buchmann (http://stephenbuchmann.com/)

Year one of my PhD program is officially over and, with the advent of the fall semester, I would like to celebrate the things that I’ve achieved in just one year. In some ways, this blog has functioned as my ‘praise journal’ – the technique I wrote about in this blog post about overcoming impostor syndrome. This past year has been very hard – a PhD is about growing as a scientist, which (it turns out) means more than just learning science; it means learning to think and work differently. This growing process is hard – my perfectionism, anxiety, and workaholism have been dangerous company to keep as my PhD has progressed. But each graduate student has their own areas of personal growth where they will be challenged during their graduate career.

This past year I’ve accomplished the following scientific things:

  1. Taken six classes, and many online workshops
  2. Taught two classes
  3. Gathered brain data on over 160 specimen and counting, including spiders, ants, termites, and wasps – and helped finish three full projects for my lab, one of which is already published
  4. Gathered microbial community data for another lab that will result in an eventual publication for them
  5. Started working on an additional four projects for my lab, with exciting results incoming!
  6. Made a poster on ant pesticides with my STAR mentee!
  7. Began developing a pretty fantastic thesis proposal, if I do say so myself #justbeethings
  8. Co-author on my first published paper (this one was big enough that it deserved to be mentioned twice)
  9. Presented at two scientific conferences
  10. Received two travel awards
  11. Attended the Bee Course, 2017!
  12. Mentored over 400 student hours between six different undergraduate students
  13. Was the only Biology student to win the College of the Arts and Sciences TA Excellence Award
  14. Elected to several biology leadership roles and accepted for science outreach positions
  15. Had my #scicomm accepted for publication at Buzz Hoot Roar, The Female Scientist, and more

All in all, it was a scientifically successful first year, all while I dealt with a lot of personal adjustments and challenges. What started out slow and scary, has built to something incredible – it’s easy to see, when it’s all in one list, how much there is to be proud of from this first twelve months of my journey. Here’s to many, but not too many, more!

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The Evidence that Scientists Don’t Believe

Scientists are big on evidence; after all, we’ve each been trained (in our own highly specialized field) to accept nothing unless evidence shows – beyond a very high statistical cut off – that the particular thing in question is likely a real phenomena. And even then, we are trained to say that the evidence ‘supports’ that particular phenomena, not that it ‘proves’ it. All of this shows that we should have a very high threshold for skepticism, and a huge disapproval of ‘anecdata’ – that is, the ‘data’ of our personal experiences, not supported by evidence.

Scientists abhor when the general population ignores the overwhelming evidence on the safety and importance of vaccinations, the reality of human-caused climate change, or the mechanisms of evolution. But when it comes to research on education, evidence shows that scientists are the new climate-deniers (Terry McGlynn put in nicely here). In fact, even when scientists want to be better instructors, they resort to anecdata (e.g. “I saw my students become more engaged in the classroom when I switched to case studies”) and not the extensive literature that may document a similar trend (Andrews and Lemons 2015).

In my mind, it isn’t a tragedy when instructors are choosing to switch to evidence-supported, effective teaching methods based on personal experiences. This is roughly the equivalent of someone saying, “In my experience, the weather has gotten hotter every year that this coal plant has been in operation near my house – so I’m going to switch entirely to renewables.” Sure, you wish they looked at the papers showing the real evidence about climate change – but the net outcome of this scenario is uninformed, yet ultimately positive, action being taken.

But it is a tragedy when instructors are using anecdata to switch to practices that are not supported by the evidence, wasting valuable time and educational resources, and when instructors use personal experience to justify sticking with lecturing and other methods that have been shown to be ineffective at increasing student learning when compared with active learning strategies (Freeman et al 2014). It is not a tragedy for the instructors, but for the students – who are 1.5x more likely to fail when teachers use traditional lecture styles as compared to active learning.

Oftentimes, scientists are compelled to ignore the education literature because it seems ‘unscientific’ – there are too many uncontrolled elements, or the research uses qualitative or observational data instead of quantitative data (which wouldn’t fly in the peer-reviewed journals many of these scientists are publishing in). In reality, we’ve each simply gotten comfortable with the specific issues that plague our fields and methods – no biology or even physics study is perfectly controlled (though math might be able to make some claims towards perfection), yet we still recognize the validity of a statistically significant result! The goal of experimentation is never perfection – otherwise we would never be able to say anything conclusive about our world.

In regard to qualitative data, many of the first naturalists simply sat and observed their quarry – yet still came up with important, reproducible results about the natural world that later scientists relied on and replicated when better or different techniques became available. Just like in chemistry, biology, or physics, it’s the accumulated results of multiple independent and peer-reviewed education studies that should be considered as a guiding light, not any single piece of work or classroom; the strength of qualitative data grows through repeated observation, just as that of quantitative data does. And oh boy is there a large body of evidence for many active learning strategies!

An additional problem is that some ‘revolutionary’ new teaching practices that are promoted are not necessarily evidence-driven, leading to well-meaning and hard-working teachers getting duped into using unsupported teaching practices. Ever heard of ‘learning styles’ or been asked some variation of: ‘are you a visual, verbal, or kinetic learner?’ I’m guessing most of us have.

Yet there’s not much (any?) evidence out there showing that matching your ‘presentation style’ to a student’s self-reported ‘learning style’ actually increases student learning. Despite the lack of evidence (reviewed nicely by Pashler et al 2008), learning style curriculum and self-assessments are all over the educational sphere, and have invaded the ‘mainstream’ understanding of how people learn – to the point that learning styles are accepted as evidence-based, even when they are not. In fact, approaching people with the idea that learning styles are not supported by evidence is often met with shock – and denial. Sentences like ‘Well, I just know I’m a visual learner’ abound – for many of the reasons pointed out in the Pashler et al 2008 report. Tons of academic resources are being wasted as money and time are being poured into learning styles classroom work – and none of it is effective or supported by evidence.

Me, teaching as a grad student, getting ready for some active learning wisdom to be imparted.
Me, teaching as a grad student, getting ready for some active learning wisdom to be imparted.

So what are some evidence-based teaching approaches? Active learning strategies like Peer-Led-Team-Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Process-Oriented-Guided-Inquiry Learning, and more have been shown in a variety of contexts to improve student learning outcomes among other metrics (Eberlein et al 2008). Despite the fact that we’ve known about these techniques for centuries, we’re still waiting for the denial-ism to quit and for scientists to start implementing these evidence-based teaching techniques in their classrooms. In future posts, I’ll talk more about these techniques, the research behind them, how to use them, and how to start using them (yes, these are different).

It’s time to put our scientific mindset to task, stop the anecdata, and focus on the evidence: evidence based active learning is the future of STEM education.

References:

Andrews T, Lemon P (2015). It’s Personal: Biology Instructors Prioritize Personal Evidence over Empirical Evidence in Teaching Decisions. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 14, 1-18.

Eberlein T, Kampmeier J, Minderhout V, Moog R, Platt T, Varma-Nelson P, White H (2008). Pedagogies of Engagement in Science: Comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36, 262-73.

Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111, 8410-5.

Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D, Bjork R (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Pyschological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-19.

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