Sunday, March 22, 2015

Second Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, part one

The first Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip, May-June 2013, was so successful that Gordon Eggleton and I tried it again. This time, we were fortunate enough to have the generous financial and administrative support of the Oklahoma Scholar Leadership Enrichment Program (OSLEP), which means that Gordon and I did not have to publicize the trip and that we got paid a lot more this time than the first time. In 2013, Gordon and I had to do everything: make all the arrangements for food and accommodations, and drive the vans, as well as delivering the content itself. This time, the Director (Karl Rambo) and the Administrative Assistant (Jeri Smalley) took care of all of that, including driving the vans. To me and Gordon this felt like a luxury. Last but not least, the 2013 trip was right during the worst tornado in recent Oklahoma history. This time, we just got a little bit of rain. You can read about the 2013 trip in these entries: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

The OSLEP program started about forty years ago. It is a higher education program that is independent of all the colleges and universities in Oklahoma, though it is housed at OU. It has an entirely separate budget line. Its purpose is to encourage top college students in Oklahoma to take elective classes outside of their majors, classes that will challenge them to think and be creative and to deal with important subjects from a multidisciplinary perspective. Therefore, students from any major can take any course. Students from all over Oklahoma participate; in my class, students came from seven different universities in Oklahoma, including one student from my own campus but whom I had never met. While most of the students were from the sciences (biology and anthropology), I had students from business, computer science, creative writing, and even an aspiring professional trombone player. The students receive three upper-division credits from OSLEP courses. The program brings in notable scholars from all over the country as instructors. For example, May Berenbaum, perhaps the top entomologist in America, taught one of the courses. OSLEP has its choice of top instructors, and are not limited to Oklahoma; Gordon and I were therefore honored to have been chosen to lead an OSLEP course. OSLEP is a high quality program, and if anyone outside of Oklahoma doubts the quality of our education, they need only to learn about it (see here).

Students in these courses do creative work rather than take tests. In the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip course, students did the following projects:

  • Pre-class assignment questions, based on a textbook (actually, on a PDF of my revised Encyclopedia of Evolution)
  • Group projects in biogeography
  • Short reports about endogenous viruses and pseudogenes
  • Individual presentations about a geological period
  • A course journal with notes and photos from field trips

The course lasted about four days (Monday late morning to Friday noon), two of which days were field trips. I will tell about the field trips in upcoming entries. The class was at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station on the north shore of beautiful Lake Texoma. Because most of the students did not have their own transportation, and because there is almost no “entertainment” anywhere close to the station, our experience was exactly like being on a retreat. All leaders and students were friendly, positive (as well as brilliant) people.

As pretty much everyone now expects, I began the course Monday morning by showing up as Charles Darwin and saying “May you look this good when you are 206 years old,” then telling them how fortunate they were to have so much more evidence that supports evolutionary science than Darwin did when he was alive. Monday afternoon was pretty much the entire lecture part of the course. I went over their pre-class study questions. Since they had written answers already, my overview was brief and consisted mostly of photographs for us to discuss. Gordon went over some basics of the geological features that they would see, especially what an anticline is.

At the last minute, I realized that the students needed something more than class, so I jumped up and went outside to find a nice sidewalk. I found one, right next to the classroom, that was exactly 50 of my little paces long. I paced it off as a timeline of Earth history, then brought the students out to walk it. The first few paces were the Earth cooling down and the oceans forming. Then, after life began, I took them on the next 32 paces when the highest life forms were bacteria. (“Bacteria!” we kept saying as we walked along.) Then, about 16 paces before the end, we discussed the endosymbiotic origin of eukaryotes. They were nearly at the end of the sidewalk—only eight more paces to go—before the Cambrian Explosion, and there was barely room for me to stand on the part of the sidewalk that represented the time after the extinction of the dinosaurs. There was a crack in the sidewalk in which a coat of paint would represent all of civilization, and in which their lives would be a microscopic layer of molecules.

The evenings, and Wednesday late afternoon, were available for the students to prepare their powerpoint presentations. The basis on which the quality of the work was to be judged was how informative and interesting it was to the rest of the class. That is, how well they taught each other.

The students decided to be creative. After all, it was Spring Break! Even getting three credits is not worth having a dull Spring Break. Their final presentation PowerPoints included some creative ones. One student created a pantheon out of the major animal and plant species, and another explained the Triassic (when the Earth was recovering from The Permian extinction) from the viewpoint of a “lonely Coelophysis.” (“All of my friends are dead…well, 95 percent of them…”) One of the students said she might do some kind of interpretive dance in her presentation, but in the end it was just a PowerPoint.

Impromptu discussions could and did come up. For example, when we discussed a certain endogenous retrovirus that sometimes got activated during cancer, we wondered whether this retrovirus might be a contributing factor to the cancer. The students quickly spotted the conflation of correlation with causation. I mentioned Kenneth Boulding’s Utterly Dismal Theorem as an example of misattributing causation. The director, Karl Rambo, a cultural anthropologist, was able to help us understand this better.

Finally, one rewarding part of the course for me was the chance to meet with colleagues. I was glad to talk to Karl about creative ways of getting faculty to exchange ideas with one another. This is something that does not happen much because faculty people are too busy to do this anymore. I was glad to talk with Gordon also, whom I seldom see except when we are working on this road trip together. Finally, Ken Hobson from OU was spending some time at the station, and it is always fun to chat with Ken.

I hope that the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip becomes a recurring course in the OSLEP program. With fifteen students, we had just the right number for good class dynamics and to almost exactly fill two vans. We all agreed that it was one of the best Spring Breaks we ever had.

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