Think like an expert: teaching kids to see the big picture, Part 1

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently enrolled in a(n awesome) physics class.  On the first day, our professor showed us this photograph:

Take a look… what do you see?

At first, it looks like a sea of random dots.  However, when you look at it more closely, in the center of the frame is the outline of a dalmatian, surrounded by leaves along a road.

This, our professor said, is seeing like an expert – taking in a whole system of dots, like equations, theorems, specific experiments, and seeing the larger pattern that unites them all.  This image can never be unseen – it becomes an internalized part of your way of seeing the world.

Students, on the other hand, come to our specific disciplines and typically try to memorize as many dots as possible.  They create mnemonics to make certain clusters of dots more recognizable, practice finding dots quickly over and over before an exam, and crate long study guides covered in every possible iteration of dots to prepare for any kind of question we might throw at them.

Ultimately, our goal as teachers is to help our students see science like an expert.  Instead of partitioning body systems into concrete boxes, we hope students will understand them intuitively as interacting in a larger system aimed at homeostasis.  Instead of thinking of Newtonian physics with a series of equations, we encourage students to develop intuition about particular phenomena, based in science rather than their naive conceptions.  When approaching a calculation, we hope students will think first of what magnitude they expect their answer to be before applying an equation into the mix.

I have been blown away by how clearly this has been taught in my physics course, which uses the Physics by Inquiry curriculum developed by Lillian McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington.  Our two-week intensive has covered the topics of basic electrical circuits and the phases of the Moon – both topics that I have taught in the past – and breaks down those topics into student-led, direct inquiry lessons that build models from the ground up.

Instead of starting with equations, the curriculum encourages students to create an intuition about phenomena that rises out of observed patterns in their data.  Starting with something as simple as creating a complete circuit with a battery, a single wire, and a light bulb (Guess what? There’s 4 different ways to do it!), the curriculum builds an intuitive, qualitative model of electrical current and voltage.  Only after the groundwork is laid and set – a good 30+ hours of instructional time into the unit – does anything like Ohm’s law enter into play.  By then, it’s almost a given!

I cannot recommend this curriculum enough.  Even going through one of the units yourself is an eye-opening experience for any science teacher.

After completing this course, with its many “aha” moments in both teaching and physics, I have been energized to dig into the literature and see what other curriculum planning tools and constructed curricula exist for teaching science effectively.  Specifically, as someone teaching human biology for the first time, I wonder how these same research tools could be applied to teaching that much less mathematical and systematic discipline.  More on what I’ve dug up from the MSU library in future posts!

On spatial reasoning & the gender gap in STEM

I’m taking a physics course right now that is reminding me, repeatedly, that I have strong spatial reasoning skills compared with many other people.  Now, I’m not writing this to brag – I’m writing it because it has made this physics class much easier for me than many other students, despite having less formal training in physics than many other students, all of whom are science teachers.  I feel included in the community of the class by virtue of my ability to move shapes in my head, and quickly assign scientific meaning to visual structures both in my head and on paper.

When I was growing up as a female child, my mother knew how much a lack of spatial reasoning set her back in science and math.  She asked my grandmother, one of my primary caretakers as a kid and a retired math teacher, to train me to do spatial reasoning and logic.  We practiced different kinds of puzzles, games, and geometry problems that required my developing brain to manipulate shapes and determine how things worked together spatially.  Though it’s impossible to say for sure, I believe this early training had a huge influence on my spatial abilities as an adult.

Fast forward to today, and research is supporting that practicing spatial reasoning tasks can improve spatial reasoning skills – one of the persistent gaps between men and women in STEM training programs.  I first came across this finding at the Women in STEM Knowledge Center, whose Engineering Inclusive Teaching program provides resources to engineering faculty about creating more inclusive STEM classrooms.  One of their webinars focused on a group of undergraduate engineering students at University of Colorado, Boulder that took a 1-credit spatial reasoning course in their first year in the program.  Before taking the class, 88% of men and 68% of women passed a spatial reasoning pre-test.  After the workshop, that gap closed to 99% of men and 96% of women.  Similar results were seen for international students vs. domestic students: before the class, only 61% of international students passed while 85% of domestic students did.  Afterwards, this closed to 92% vs. 99%.

Turns out this is not an isolated finding.  Many peer-reviewed articles have uncovered similar results: that spatial reasoning is an essential skill in engineering that has a persistent gender gap, but that it is highly teachable.  I love this quote from a KQED piece on the topic:

“Spatial skills are an early indicator of later achievement in mathematics, they “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers, and they are more predictive of future creativity and innovation than math scores. In fact, a review of 50 years of research shows that spatial skills have a “robust influence” on STEM domains.

However, women generally score lower than men on tests of spatial reasoning — particularly measures of spatial visualization and mental rotation. Some researchers point to evolution as the culprit, while others have tied the discrepancies to hormone levels or brain structure.  As one researcher put it, “Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood.”

Sheryl Sorby said she’s not interested in arguing about why the gap exists because training and practice can close it.”

As a trans person and a person assigned female at birth, I too am tired of science trying to put meaning onto a difference between groups as a result of hormones, chromosomes, or evolution when results turn out to be changeable.  Let’s do something about this gap rather than trying to justify it!

I brought this finding up to my physics professor, who was putting himself down for putting a very challenging spatial reasoning question on our mid-term exam.  I suggested that with more practice, more students would have been able to succeed.  Unsurprisingly, his response was initially one of disbelief.  His mindset was based in the idea that spatial reasoning skills are fixed – that “art,” “drawing,” and “visualization” are either talents you are born with, or are doomed to never have.

However, just like in athletics, training has shown to improve students’ spatial reasoning abilities overall. Not all students will become star visualizers, in the same way that not all students will become track stars if they start running every day.  However, we can all become more “fit” in our spatial reasoning through concerted effort and practice.

With these findings in mind, I am trying to collect good websites that have spatial reasoning practice for my students.  At times, I plan to make it required – as Dr. Cheryan pointed out, this is the only way to guarantee equitable impact – but I also plan to have it as an option for kids who are finished with their work to do something that is productive, challenging, and fun.  Have one to add?  Leave it in the comments!

  • 3D logic cube. Match the same-color squares to complete each level.
  • Interlocked – one of my personal favorites.  Rotate pieces, which are partially visible, to unlock the connections between them.  Lots of spatial reasoning here!
  • Tetrical – a 3D tetris game.  Challenging but fun! An easier, untimed version: Puzz3D
  • Blueprint – rotate a blueprint until you find the correct picture.
  • Shape fold – an easy tangrams-like game that involves rotating 2D shapes
  • Shape inlay – ultimate tangrams.  I could play this for hours
  • Fit it quick – mini-tetris
  • Magnets – a game I have already played for hours, and single-handedly helped me decide I shouldn’t be in research, because I found it too tempting by comparison. (Be forewarned, this is more an indication of how much I disliked research than how good the game is… and it’s impossible to get past level 5, as far as I can tell 🙂 )

Teaching human biology with case studies

It’s been an exciting summer, filled with lots of professional and personal development opportunities.  I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks summarizing some of the exciting new tools I’ve gathered in my time in the Master’s of Science in Science Education (MSSE) program at Montana State University during our summer semester.

One class that I was particularly excited about was “Teaching Anatomy & Physiology using Case Studies.”  The course focused on case studies as a form of minds-on learning that fits particularly well in an A&P setting.  As I shift from a primarily physical science focus to human biology, the inquiry format that I have used in past years no longer applies in the same way.  (Handing four kids a gerbil and saying, “Figure out how it works!” is hardly an reasonable – or ethical – task!)

Case studies provide students with a similar guided-inquiry environment where they are piecing together information into a meaningful story about a particular body system or phenomenon.  By using topics that are super-relevant to students, like caffeine consumption, athletic doping, or the Paleo diet, cases create engagement and relevance to human biology.  Cases also make it easy to integrate human society into everyday topics, including class, race, and identity – in ways that make teaching more powerful and effective without removing content.  I consider case studies a key tool in social justice science education.

Part of the class was participating in online case studies with our classmates.  In the process, I learned a great deal about human body systems, but I learned even more from observing our professor ask really strong, probing questions in discussion.  Her questions were well-timed, and pushed our understanding to the next level without getting off-topic.  Asking good questions is something I am always honing in my teaching craft, so I was grateful to be a part of that process.

As the final project, I wrote my own case study, which I wanted to share publicly so that others can use it.  It focuses on the allergic response as a lens to how the immune system works.  If you do use it, please let me know how it goes and what you changed!  Please forgive a handful of late-night typos 🙂

Do you teach using case studies?  What would you want to create a case study about?  What other ways exist for inquiry processes to fit into a human biology curriculum?  Share your ideas in the comments!

BONUS: In searching for content related to science teaching using case studies, I found a collection of case studies focused on diversity and inclusion to use in faculty & staff trainings, and a collection of cases where teachers are improving their science teaching.  Enjoy!

Readings and Resources from the past few weeks

Greetings!  I’m hoping to post some more content soon, but thought I’d put up a few articles/resources I’ve been looking through the past few weeks related to diversity, equity, and STEM education.

An Anatomical Model of Diversity This is something I have been thinking about a lot as I prepare to teach anatomy next year – the dearth, or absolute absence, of dark-skinned models in anatomical diagrams.  There are also essentially no anatomical diagrams that represent intersex and transgender people in a non-voyeuristic way.  A friend of mine is slowly starting up a push to create more PoC- and trans-centered anatomy and sex education resources… if you have any resources on this topic, or are interested in collaborating, please let me know!!

Parable of the Polygons An interesting mathematical model that can demonstrate how casual and slight racism can lead to drastic segregation.  I think this would work really well with middle school students.

Engineering Inclusive Teaching This resource provides guidelines for creating an inclusive teaching environment, especially for women and international students in the engineering classroom.  Lots of free webinars, handouts, and ideas… I highly recommend it, even if you don’t teach engineering!

9 Ways to Make Social Justice Less Elitist This simple article provides some great reminders/guidelines about the ways that social justice language can be just as exclusive and off-putting as not including that language at all.

Enjoy, and… happy almost-Friday!

Not All Fields Created Equal: an evening with Sapna Cheryan, PhD

This evening, I had the pleasure of learning more about the gender gap in STEM from Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington focused on interrogating the STEM fields with the largest gaps in gender parity: computer science, engineering, and physics.  Her talk was sponsored by the Evergreen School and was geared primarily towards K-12 teachers and parents.

Dr. Cheryan focused on two factors that make a particular field unwelcoming to women: masculine culture and insufficient early experience with those particular fields.  The former is a combination of beliefs, norms, structures, and interactions that cause women to feel a lower sense of belonging in a particular institution or field.  The latter focused on ways that early training is biased against equal exposure and skill-building across STEM fields, leading to unequal outcomes.

One of the most striking findings Dr. Cheryan shared had to do with the effect of physical space on how welcomed and interested students were in a particular course.  One study she cited asked high school students about their interest in taking a hypothetical computer science course being offered.  Students in the two experimental groups had the same class described to them – it had a male teacher, met a certain number of times per week, and focused on the same amount and rigor of content.  The only difference between the classes was the physical space the class met in.  One class met in a stereotypically “geeky” classroom, with Star Trek ephemera, visible electronics equipment, and action figures present in the classroom (left image, University of Washington).  The other classroom offered was a more neutral space, with plants, art pieces, and water bottles around the classroom (right image, University of Washington).

How much of a difference can a physical space make?  As it turns out, quite a lot!  When asked about their interest in taking the course, students seeing a stereotypical classroom showed typical gender disparity in their interest.  When viewing the neutral, non-stereotypical classroom with the plants and water bottles – that gap in interest disappeared.

Moreover, students sense of belonging in the course showed a similar trend.  This led Dr. Cheryan and her team to coin a term for this: ambient belonging.  She defined ambient belonging as how one senses a “fit with the material components of an environment and with the people who are imagined to occupy that environment.”

This concept of ambient belonging struck a chord for me personally and for many in the audience.  Spaces reflect those they are designed for, whether that be literal physical access for people with disabilities, comfort by seeing images of people with shared identities for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks, or the way that objects can invite a particular set of cultural norms, be that Star Trek figurines or exercise equipment.

One listener invited those attending the talk to think about ways that we can teach our kids and students to observe their sense of ambient belonging and use that awareness as a tool of empowerment.

I am inspired to bring this to the leadership at my school, where we are in the process of planning and building a new middle school building.  I also feel challenged to think about the ways my classroom may be a more or less welcoming space to specific students based on their identity, values, and socialization.

When discussing insufficient early experience in computer science, physics, and engineering, Dr. Charyan discussed the advantages of requiring those types of courses instead of making them optional.  When students are not required to take classes in a particular STEM field, students who don’t see themselves reflected in the work of those fields based on stereotypes or their own conceptions often opt out.  They are not exposed to the real work of the discipline, nor are they able to develop the groundwork for further learning if they were to discover an interest later in their education.  This is certainly true at my school, where computer science and physics are both electives, and no explicit engineering course is consistently offered.


As the conclusion to her talk, Dr. Charyan gave advice that she would give to her own high school, a STEM-focused research school at the University of Indiana.  Of the suggestions she provided, the one that struck me most was the last – send students to colleges with good cultures within STEM.

I attended a small private liberal arts college well-known for being a hotbed of social activism from its very founding.  Yet when I studied Economics as an undergrad, an out queer person and a person perceived as female in an overwhelmingly cis male department, I found very little empathy or acknowledgement from faculty that I was in a challenging position.  The one tenured female faculty member in the department gave me the same advice she had been given, that had enabled her to survive in a cutthroat, male-dominated field – suck it up.  No acknowledgement of the challenges of the culture, no conversation about disparities was ever posed as even a possibility, even in one-on-one interactions with faculty.

It can be easy to say that in order for students to survive in the broader world, they need to be prepared for the reality of white masculine culture and the disparities faced by women, people of color, and people with disabilities in STEM fields.  It is crystal clear, however, that this focus on “toughing up” is not only ineffective, it sets talented future scientists on the path to burnout and failure.  Identifying healthy, equity-focused school cultures and sending our students to those institutions is the solution to success, not telling them to suck it up and learn to live among the powerful.  Instead, taking that biased “reality” and queering it to our own ends is one step on the path to equity.

Science Characters, Part 3: Reflections

Doing this identity-related work with my students was completely transformative for me as a teacher.  An incredible amount of effort went into not only the preparation for each lesson, but also the day-to-day reality of discussing challenging and often-taboo topics with students like race, ability, and class.  Being fully present and engaging in that kind of discourse was exhausting, but it also brought our community closer together.

Part of what inspired me to do this project was an article I read in Quartz magazine, “There’s a way to get girls to stick with science–and no, it’s not more female role models.”  A female science journalist, Shannon Palus, writes about the discrimination and lack of welcome she and others have experienced when trying to go into scientific research, and how role models or pink-ified experiments don’t change that discrimination from having an impact on women’s day-to-day experience in STEM fields.  The solution?

“In a study of 7,505 high school students, Geoff Potvin, a researcher at Florida International University, measured the effect of a handful of common interventions on students’ interest in physics: single-sex classes; having role models including women physics teachers, women guest speakers, and women who made contributions to the field; and discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. Of these efforts, only the last one succeeded in making high-school women more interested in pursuing a career in the physical sciences.”

Talking about it.  Being open about the fact that discrimination exists, that it is pervasive, and that it is surmountable – but certainly not over – was the only intervention that Potvin found to be effective in making women more interested in pursuing a career in physical sciences.  Ultimately, that was one of the major goals of implementing this project in my class, and I think I succeeded in having those conversations and putting discrimination out in the open as a topic for interrogation and reflection.

I was lucky enough to have teachers who were willing to have hard conversations about sexism, racism, and heternormativity when I was in high school.  I thought of them often as I entered these discussions with my own students, each of which was completely different and vulnerable and scary. I doubt my high school teachers had many role models that showed them how to navigate the waters as teachers and advocates for social justice.  I admire their bravery so much more in retrospect, and it gave me hope that the work I am doing now will have a real impact on the lives of my students.

There were a lot of unexpected benefits that emerged as a result of doing this project.

  • Students with a strong sense of justice had an opportunity to really shine.  Many of the kids who did the best job articulating how racism, sexism, and other discrimination operates in the world and affects STEM outcomes were students that hadn’t found great connections in my class in the past.
  • Students learned a LOT about different kinds of STEM careers while doing their research.  If you had asked my students beforehand what a virologist or a neurobiologist were, they would have had no idea – but after reading through and hearing about different scientists’ stories, they are much more aware of the diversity of STEM careers available in the world!  In particular, students got very excited about nanotechnology, roboticists, and different forms of medicine that they had not been aware of before.
  • As a queer and trans* person, I gained scientific role models that share my identity, something that I had never had the opportunity to study before.  I found it a very emotional and opening process to read about the stories of other people in STEM who have overcome the stigma facing folks like us – especially trans* folks, whose lives can literally be put on the line for being open about our experiences.
  • Students easily connected issues facing underrepresented groups in STEM to their own experiences of being students and young people in our society.  We had many candid conversations about the relationship between students and adults at our school, and how that is related to how power operates in the world more generally.  They had lots of questions about how to address injustice when it is coming from teachers and other adults – and it led to some cool initiatives and conversations with those adults in our community.  These things continue to come up, and I hope this opened a pathway for kids to express when and how they are uncomfortable with how things are being run in a particular classroom or space.

I really loved doing this work, and hope that after reading about it you will try something similar in your own work as educators, parents, and mentors of children.  I never could have imagined the impact this had on me and my classroom – and this is really work that has to be done one classroom at a time.

Doing something similar?  Want to chat?  Feel like engaging with this more deeply?  Please please reach out – you can email me at

SC quick links:  Part IPart IIInspiration project

Science Characters, Part 2: Learning and sharing STEM stories

In addition to studying the implications of how socialization and institutional bias affect outcomes in STEM fields, students were asked to choose a particular scientist, engineer, or mathematician to study and share out their story to the broader school community.

To help students identify people whose stories are lesser-known, as well as encourage them to think outside the usual boxes of who makes an underrepresented scientist, I made a list of scientists they could study, linked to here.  When making the list, I prioritized a couple of factors:

  • I prioritized people who are still living, so that students could reach out to them if they wanted to, as well as understand that scientists are still doing important and groundbreaking work even today.
  • Within each underrepresented group, I made sure each list was less than 50% cisgender men.  There is no list of women who don’t have a different identity from the list, even though women continue to be underrepresented in most STEM fields.
  • These lists are by no means comprehensive (and there is no way that I could make them so!!).  I tried to give my students a rich, diverse, but manageable group of people to choose from when doing their project.

Students’ projects were awesome.  They created a 3-5 minute presentation for the class, as well as a small poster that could be put up around the school.  The rubric I used to grade them asked them to not only learn about the scientist’s life and story, but also examine the character traits that helped them succeed.  I used the VIA Classification of Character Strengths tool to help kids identify the specific ways that their chosen STEM innovator met success.  The goal was for students to be able to identify specific ways that any person could succeed in STEM, regardless of their identity or inherent ability.

Here is a bulletin board that shows off students’ work.  (My curation notes here.)  You can tell that students took this project seriously and put in their best effort to share their scientists’ stories!


SC quick links: Part IPart IIIInspiration project

Science Characters, Part 1: Who Does Science Changes What Science Does

This post outlines a unit I did with 6th grade students at an independent school about the intersections of identity and STEM.  It is built off of the work Moses Rifkin does with his 12th grade physics students at University Prep – read more about his work/experiences here (Part 1 of 4)!

The 6th grade curriculum I inherited included one brief unit about the history of science, which covered the main scientists credited with different models of the atom.  Students learned about 5 different models of the atom, 4 of which were named after DWGs (dead white guys).  They acted out their research about those atoms in skits that mostly perpetuated misconceptions about both who does science (DWGs) and how science is done (in a 5-minute period of time, with no obstacles to progress, by DWGs in lab coats).

This year, I wanted a change.  Inspired by Rifkin’s work and the work of many inspiring scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from groups underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), I set out to create a unit that would simultaneously give kids more role models that weren’t DWGs in STEM and give them a clearer picture of how science works in real time.

“Science Characters” was a project in two parts.  One part was students learning about how socialization and institutional bias, among other factors, lead to inequalities in different groups’ representation in STEM.  The other was students doing individual research on someone in STEM who is from an underrepresented group and share out their work with the broader community.  When I say underrepresented group, I mean any group that, as a result of lack of privilege and power, is less-represented in STEM fields than in the broader U.S. working-age population.  In this project, I focused specifically on people with disabilities, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women, though there are many groups that find themselves on the margin in STEM.

Before the unit began, as a part of a larger in-class survey, I asked students a few questions about science careers and to list three scientists they could think of off the top of their heads.  Here are the results from that survey (excluding kids’ friends and family, whose identities are unknown): 95.5% were white, 4.5% people of color; 81.8% were men, 8.2% were women, and 0% were non-binary identified; 90.9% were presumably straight & cisgender, 9.1% were out as LGBT and/or Q; and 97.7% were able-bodied, 2.3% were people with disabilities.

This created a great launching point for our class conversation about why certain groups come to mind quickly when thinking about “a scientist.”  On the first day of the unit, I talked about this with statistics about who is in the STEM workforce compared with the U.S. workforce as a whole.  I also shared my own personal story in STEM/academia in general.  As a trans person, I started my work in STEM perceived as a woman; now that I am seen as male, I get much more respect from my colleagues and especially my students.  I also talked about my experience as a white, able-bodied, college-educated person in STEM, and the privilege that comes along with those identities.  Here’s a link to the slides I used in case you want to create something similar.

Later that week, I asked kids to have a discussion in class about some of the reasons they thought certain groups continue to be underrepresented in STEM, even in 2016. It’s important that we had strong class norms going into the unit – speak from your own experience, assume good intentions/at with good intentions, and impact and intention are not the same.  Kids were reminded of these again and again – and as a facilitator, it was important to help guide conversations towards these goals.  Practicing talking as a group respectfully about things like race, ability, and gender explicitly was really helpful for future conversations about specific strategies to work towards greater equality, and kids had lots of incredible stories and insights to share.

The next week, kids were asked to watch this TED Talk: “The Future of STEM Depends on Diversity” by Nicole Cabrera Salazar.  She uses many examples that really spoke to kids and stuck with them. Cabrera Salazar breaks down the issues facing underrepresented groups when entering STEM into two broad categories: 1. Institutional bias, which comes from bias being magnified by larger structures like corporations and schools, and 2. Socialization, which comes from interactions with elders and peers and how one is encouraged (or discouraged) to act as a scientist.

From this, I led one lesson on how we can address each issue.  For institutional bias, I gave kids examples of how folks in STEM have challenged broader structures of inequality by thinking innovatively and using diverse strategies.  These organizations, mostly located in Seattle where I teach, are summarized in these slides/articles that I had kids read about in groups and then present out to the class.

For addressing socialization, I used the Speak Up! curriculum from Teaching Tolerance (including these videos that were originally meant for teachers but are great for use in the classroom) in giving kids tools to address hurtful and limiting comments they might hear from peers or even teachers.  This led to many fruitful conversations about productive responses to others’ biased ideas, and many kids were brainstorming using real-world examples.  This is a highly pertinent and challenging topic in middle school; I feel like I could teach this every week from a different angle and it would be productive and useful.

SC quick links:  Part IIPart III