Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Science Education during the Covid Shutdown: The Barack and Joe Comedy Hour

Like most colleges and universities, Southeastern Oklahoma State University is shut down, while classes continue online. Those of us who were teaching entirely face-to-face (F2F, in educator jargonese) have had to scramble to figure out what to do.

One of the biggest hurdles is what to do in place of exams. Exams require security and supervision. “Online exams” are an invitation to cheating. There are all kinds of technological ways to help reduce this problem: “lockdown,” in which a student cannot browse the internet on the same computer while taking an exam; and video monitors to make sure they are not looking at answers within the range of the video monitor. Of course, students could always look things up on their phones, which they can keep out of video range.

A few students would cheat. I could already tell you their names. But I would have to impose measures on all of the students to keep a few of them from cheating. This would make the good students feel that I did not respect them. Instead, I decided to assign essay questions to the students in place of the exams. These are questions that are not easily copied from the internet (and if they try, I will catch them with the help of Dr. Google). In fact, in a few cases, I invite them to search online. For example, on the topic of pseudogenes in my general biology class, most and maybe all information online (even on YouTube) is very technical. I want them to give short, clear answers.

Each student will receive a subset of my master list of essay questions. That way, it is very unlikely for any two students to work together. Also, since they will not be on campus, they would be unlikely to work together. Or if they do, and they don’t use the same words in their answers, I know that their minds were activated.

In my general botany class, I had already assigned projects for them to do online, for (1) their carbon footprints, and how many trees it would take to compensate for that footprint, and (2) how much transpiration a tree carries out, and how much air-conditioning electricity it would take to equal the cooling power of a tree. These assignments will go on as scheduled.

In my systematic botany course, the students have to know how to recognize and distinguish Oklahoma plant species. Since I cannot do this in an exam situation, I will send them images from my own collection of trees, shrubs, vines, etc. that they need to identify, partial credit if they get close. If I show them an image of a slippery elm, and they write American elm, they get most of the credit; winged elm, maybe half credit or a little less; if they write sycamore (a mistake that has actually been made), no credit. This is how I will assess the recognition part.

(Do you know what tree this is?)

I wrote essay questions for the systematic botany students. But I decided to make it fun. I decided to use the Barack and Joe Comedy Hour approach, with special guest stars Mitch McConnell, Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, the Cherokee chief, and the man every farmer (and botanist) loves to hate, Michael Bloomberg. I wanted to share a few of them with you.

  • “Look at this cottonwood tree,” said Barack. “That isn’t a cottonwood,” said Joe. “But, it’s by a river and it has triangular leaves!” said Barack. “But look at the bark,” said Joe. What did Joe notice that Barack did not? (Don’t answer, “The bark, you idiot.” Tell me about the bark.)
  • I received a letter from Barack, which said, “Dear Dr. Rice. I am going through south central Oklahoma on a vacation trip. I heard there was a rare species of tree that grows along the Blue River. Could you kindly tell me what it is, where to find it, and what it looks like. Please give me enough detail so that I can tell it apart from all the other trees.” What should I tell him?
  • Barack and Joe were walking along the creek in Beavers Bend State Park. Being afraid of marijuana trip lines, they stayed on the trail. “I’m having trouble telling hornbeam from hophornbeam,” said Joe. “They’re so easy to tell apart, even a politician can do it!” said Barack. “How?” asked Joe. “You can tell them apart by their fruits and by their bark,” said the man who is retired and no longer needs to worry about leading the free world to the man who still wants to lead the free world. “How?” asked Joe. What answer did Barack give?
  • You’ve never seen a fight like two politicians arguing about how to tell a sweetgum from a sycamore. Joe told Barack three ways to tell them apart. What were they? Answer for each species. (There are actually more than three ways.)
  • “You’re standing in poison ivy,” Joe said to Barack. “Am not,” said Barack. “But it has three leaflets,” said Joe. “True,” said Barack, “but this is box elder.” “But box elder is a tree!” said Joe. “But these are little box elder saplings,” said Barack. How did Barack know they were box elder saplings and not poison ivy? He had at least two ways.
  • “Whar I come from,” said Mitch McConnell, “we know how to reckonize a southern red oak tree.” “But, Mitch,” said Joe, “that’s a northern red oak tree.” “Whah, one look at the lobes, bases, and undersides of the leaves and you can tell it’s a southern red oak,” said Mitch. How did Mitch know the tree was a southern red oak?
  • In retirement, former president George W. Bush decided he would get rich by planting a big plantation of persimmon trees. It was easy; just find some wild trees, dig up the clones growing around them, and plant the clones in an orchard. George waited twelve years, from 2008 to 2020, watching his trees grow. But they never produced fruits. Can you think of a reason for this? (The answer is not just “yes.” Explain.)
  • Former president Jimmy Carter smiled really big as he explained to Joe, “This here tree is a white ash.” “No,” said Joe. “It’s a hickory.” “No,” said Jimmy. “Look at the arrangement of the leaf scars on the stem. Not only that, but the leaf scars themselves look distinctive.” Jimmy smiled even bigger. What two items of information did he give to Joe?
  • “It doesn’t take any brains to be a botanist,” said Michael Bloomberg. “Any more than it does to be a farmer. All oak trees are alike.” He didn’t really say this, but if he had, I would have told him a thing or two. I would have controlled my anger, then told him how and where to find and recognize two rare and unusual oaks found in Oklahoma: Quercus incana, and Quercus durandii. What would I tell him?
  • “My grandpappy ruined his saw tryin’ to cut down this here bois-d’arc tree,” said the man. Joe, coming through Oklahoma on a campaign tour, said, “Oh, I thought that was a white mulberry tree.” “They is at least four ways you kin tell that this is a bois-d’arc and not a mulberry.” Indicate four ways. You have more than four to choose from.
  • “My ancestors were Cherokees,” said Elizabeth Warren. “Oh, really?” asked Chuck Hoskin, Jr., the new Cherokee chief. “Then maybe you know how to mix up the black drink that the warriors used before going to battle. But first, you have to know how to recognize a yaupon holly. Incidentally, there is a reason that scientists named it Ilex vomitoria.” He then told her how to recognize the shrub, and how it was different from other kinds of holly. How?
  • Your supervisor asks you how to tell a saltcedar from a red cedar. “It don’t matter,” you tell her. “We got to cut both of them down.” “But I still want you to know the difference,” she says. You are now on the spot. How do you answer?
  • Your task, to help prepare for the Cherokee National Holiday, is to go out in the forest and find some muscadine grape vines (Vitis rotundifolia) so the cooks can make some grape dumplings (http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/cherokee-grape-dumplings-medicine-for-happy-hearts/). Instead, you found some Vitis mustangensis by mistake. How could you have distinguished these two species and avoided this mistake?
  • Feather is a young woman who works with the Ethnobotany office of the Cherokee Nation. (No kidding, there is one.) She is passionate about restoring rivercane to its original habitats in Oklahoma. It has many cultural uses, not the least of which is making blowguns for darts. She has to know the difference between the native Arundinaria gigantea and the invasive Arundo donax. How can she tell the difference?
  • “I think the economy needs a great new fruit tree,” said Joe. “Something that grows in Oklahoma, is not already a domesticated tree, and tastes good. It would create a lot of jobs to grow them, harvest them, process them, sell them. Think of how many jobs could be created in Oklahoma!” “Joe,” said Barack, “Can’t you forget for just a minute that you are campaigning for president?” Which species (at least four to choose from) was Joe talking about? Would you invest in such an orchard? Why or why not?
  • A thief thought he dug up a bunch of Echinacea rootstocks from a protected native prairie. But when he got them back to the barn, his accomplice told him, “You idiot! These aren’t Echinacea! They’re Symphiotrichum!” What did the thieves want to do with the Echinacea, and how did the second man know it was Symphiotrichum instead?
  • “What a pretty fern,” said Bernie. “We have them in the great state of Vermont.” “We have them in Oklahoma, too,” said Tulsa mayor G. T. Bynum. “And it’s not a fern—it is Achillea millaefolium.” How can you tell Achillea is not a fern, even before the flowers (which ferns do not have) open?

 Hope you enjoy these examples. Creativity to the rescue during the pandemic.

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