Episode 3: Learning Science Through Drawing with Stephen Thomas
5:01PM Mar 15, 2021
Hey, Steven, how's it going?
I'm good. How are you doing? Dan,
not too bad. Hey, thanks for being with us today, we're going to continue our conversation about value in innovation. And to start off, I wanted to ask you, outside of an educational context, when you hear the word value, what are some of the things that you think about?
I think about, what are you willing to put your time into? Like? What are you willing to stand up for? go the extra mile. Totally putting out a lot of cliches here.
Pretend you're I don't know, maybe you're going to the store, and you're looking for the new sweater.
Right? I mean, those are the characteristics that you're looking for, that you put weight behind. I think of I mean, mostly, when I think about value, I think about the personal investment that you are, that that the items or the characteristics have for you. So I actually I really, to me, this just drives home the idea of the the personal and local rather than the global. The global peace, it's the connection to the individual.
Yeah, I really like that, that personal investment. So how do you how do you measure that?
Well, I, with many of the phrases I use, you could do it, but based on energy, like the amount of energy that you're willing to, that you'd have put towards something. You know, and similarly, if you haven't spelled out your values or thought about them, then you are kind of potentially valuing things that you don't inherently value. Right. So you might be investing in and backing and you know, and things that you don't actually, you haven't aligned within yourself, or you haven't actually thought of, so I can see effort being one easy way to kind of measure value. Right, which could be time, or it could be intensity, maybe.
Yeah, I, well, we could spend all day about valuing things we might not value. But I think there's a lot, there's a lot of insight in there and how we measure that really, really key. And if we've never thought of that, you're right, we could be in spaces that we're putting a lot of things that look like we value right on something when it might not be a value. So obviously, we're here with LLC. So we're thinking about this as an educational context, what sort of ties Do you see with some of those hallmarks you just gave us?
Well, so thinking about it from an educational perspective, I guess, there is a, a, maybe an, a, an easy connection between objectives or outcomes from a course. And the assumption that that's what you as the instructor value, or some institution values. And I think it's also a kind of implicit plea to students to value those things as well. And right, I think we run into issues when we have those assumptions that students will value those things. And so like thinking about, like, Universal Design for Learning, you know, there's a one of the things that the, it's kind of the main pillars is this diversity and engagement. And so, thinking about how your content may be valued differently, is one of the ways that you can increase engagement more broadly. Right. So I think that there are a few mechanisms in there that are definitely relying on values and trying to align how students and and instructors are laying out values. And I guess you could also then tie it to authentic learning, right, where as the instructor, you're trying to tie the values and experiences of students to an industry or to direct link to the quote unquote, real world. Yeah,
yeah. And I really like what you said in the very beginning to where you talked about that this level of personal investment. And I think that's, I think what you're kind of talking about now you're using all the educational buzzwords, which is really great, great. Not great, not great. We all understand it. But that creating something that students feel personally invested. Yeah, I think is one of the things we've been looking at. So we're here with the innovation studio, and we're trying to take this year to think back on what is innovation really. And I think in a lot of spaces, we talk about the value of innovation, like it's got to be innovative, like that's a high value, or one of our metrics for success, right? But we're trying to deconstruct it, because innovation really is about value within creating new value, reassigning value. And so we're almost kind of deconstructing it. And in the process, we have to reconstruct this notion of value, right. And so I think it'd be really cool to hear about some some things that you are working on. Now, I know you're preparing a course for next year, maybe you could give us a brief overview of the course, and maybe a little bit into how you have been exploring what you would perceive to be the values in this course for your student, right.
So I am, I am developing a new course, for summer. And it's called drawing to learn biology. And it's a science course for non scientists. And we have a set of competencies that our center is trying to get across. But I think this is me trying to actually live out a few values that I've been thinking about, actually, for a few years. So I'll say first off, like the courses is what it looks like is it's an online course, where the entire course is having students go out and do both nature journaling, as well as drawings that help with visual model based reasoning. So they might do, you know, concept mapping or models, like, excuse me, an environmental science, there's like a poet model, where you're mapping out like the people and the organizations and environment and technology, and then you see how they interplay, right. And so it's basically getting them to go through this process of creating visuals, which is, in many ways, like creating metaphors, which really helps them to synthesize information, to synthesize information and to, you know, recast the information in a different way. And so it engages them on lots of pieces. But to me, the, the value that it really resonates with is this idea of a personal experience. And having students think about the personal value of doing this type of work. And so, you know, some of the exercises are having them do drawings, which makes them slow down and do observation, which I think in science, a lot of times we don't do, like we just skip to the data analysis or the data collection. And, and so this is, in my mind, this idea of just kind of being able to be quiet, and to look and to kind of hone those skills in a journal fashion, and something that's incredibly personal. And so to me, like one of the things that I've been thinking about a lot for years, it's like this drive, to put yourself into a global market, or to always be actually kind of trying to pitch the new innovation. When really, I think it's actually more about the personal. So the idea is that this idea of being innovative is really about understanding your own kind of personal mix of all of the skills and all of your knowledge and how that can play out in a, you know, in a new way for other people, but it actually just makes sense to the person who's actually doing it and so Yeah, so to me, it's kind of this shift of thinking about the innovation, as being something you just turn on, as opposed to, it's something that you kind of find within yourself. And to me like this drawing in science piece is new. It's not new, it's, it's something that like I've been very interested in, but it's like a new form for me to take in my teaching. It makes sense for me, because I have done freelance illustration, and done, you know, art science overlaps and things like that. But it's taking this new form for me, and it taking a new form for a class. Right? So I'm trying to work out what does assessment look like in this case, and so there might be some innovative things that come out. or there might be a new approach of technology where you're able to better translate a sketchbook into a digital file for students to share and discuss. So, you know, like, there are potential innovations in that. But they're kind of wrapped around this personal journey of how do you use the arts to and the sciences in a very personal way that you can then build off of? Yeah,
I think that's really interesting. So, so to clarify, it's a drawing for learning biology, but it's for non science.
That's right. Well, and
it's also for non artists.
Yes. Right. Yes, totally. And so what's funny is, at first, I was like, Oh, this could be really appealing to all those people who have fear of science. And then about halfway through the planning, I was like, Oh, no, I'm just adding those who have fear of drawing and as well. So,
so no, one's an expert on anything coming out what is gonna
be like one big ball of anxiety? That's awesome.
But I think is I'm trying to, to kind of assess what what your value. So obviously, the drawing is important. It's part of who you are, the science is important. It's part of who you are, too. And you want to pass this along to the students. But this, this really interesting value of slowing down and reflecting. Is that something? Do you have a strong personal practice? And this? Or is this class maybe a way to, like, almost kind of dreaming? Like, I'll be really cool if I did this a little.
While I would say that, okay, we're in kind of unfamiliar territory that I haven't thought of that aspect, specifically. But I would say that it does resonate with me as an individual and that normally, I view myself as a slow thinker. And so like, many times, I feel like things are just thrown at me. And I have to, like, create a bubble in order to like, have a moment to think about something in order to be productive, or be useful and whatever context and so I do think that there's something about that, in this course, where it is. And honestly, like, I, I'd be lying if I didn't say like the pandemic didn't have like this component of wanting students to have a moment in nature, or, you know, it can even be urban ecology. Right. So just being outside. So like, I am interested in this aspect of being in an online course, but not being online. And, you know, maybe harkens back to correspondence courses, but it just is interesting, I think of like how do you nurture a student, and in this case, I think nurturing would be not having them be on zoom, to be outside to have a moment to actually observe nature. And so not that it won't have meaning in a normal year, but I think it might have extra meaning. And in a pandemic year.
Yeah, very much so. And so thinking about some of the tools, so again, I think we've established the value really well. And you and I have talked a little bit, obviously about, hey, what what kind of cool tools can we use to, to do this journaling in an online in an online, asynchronous sort of way? And we've, we've come up with some ideas, but maybe you could maybe branch out a little bit. So what are you looking and maybe in terms of this slow reflection part too is that a component of a tool that you're looking for? Or an approach to journaling? How do you help facilitate that?
Yeah. So I would say that most of the tools that I've looked at are how to connect student images to other students for peer review, and editing and thinking, so because I, yeah, because I think most of the digital tools are really about speed and efficiency. And so they don't necessarily lend themselves to like, maybe more contemplation or, you know, things like that. So I haven't really been looking at them for production, although like thinking about giving students options of like, you know, you can do a digital book, or you can do, like, there's lots of pieces in me that, yes, I'm going to give you lots of options, but inherently, I'm actually really interested in them having a physical book. And I know, there's probably some technology people out there who are cringing being like, why they could use an iPad just as well. And believe me, I'm right there with you. But in thinking about this personal and slow and kind of contemplative peace, there is something about like the physicality of materials that like, even as a person who loves technology, and I love my iPad, and drawing on my iPad, like nobody's business. But honestly, there is something about like, the scrape of a pencil on paper. And, and actually, one of the things that I'm playing with now is, you know, potentially doing foldings in the notebook, you know, like where you helped to scaffold. Like, one of the things I'm thinking about is like, students have a hard time thinking about evidence, and claims and reasoning. So they get the evidence in the claims, but they don't get the reasoning piece and the importance of that. And so I'm thinking about how to do like a folding, couple folding pages where it helps to scaffold the idea of claims and evidence, and then having them think about reasoning connecting the two. And so anyway, there's something about the physicality and the manipulation of it that I'm hoping to also leverage. And so like, Yes, I should say,
yes, no, but I think there's something right there,
folding paper can be innovation.
Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly.
Great. I think we get caught up sometimes. And in me personally, to this happens that when we think, Oh, I have to come up with something innovative. It has to be innovative on a global scale. No one has ever done this before.
When in fact, it, it can be, as you've said, a couple of times this personal or local context, hey, it's not something I've done before. It's not something that I've done with my students. So this is actually innovative here in this Yes.
Yeah. And, okay, so to me, that's actually another benefit. And this is actually like a personal thing. Like, one of the issues that I have with both science and art is this pressure of being able to be innovative at the scale of being able to contribute to science with a big ass knowledge, body of knowledge and art with a big a, you know, and this idea that you as opposed to, yeah, as opposed to this personal journey of like, of learning at the same time that your students are learning, right? I mean, I think that that's the piece that both feeds, your desire to be innovative, as well as, you know, continues along that journey. So to me, like, as soon as I turn it personal, I don't worry about like, how others will perceive this. Because this is actually like my own journey. And so like, I that's why I have kind of like, gone to this idea of the personal as being more the better focus for me, because that's what actually allows me to move forward. Because if I think of it on a larger scale, I actually shut down and I'm like, I can never do anything innovative and why bother? So, yeah, no,
it's focusing on Stephen with the big s, right.
That's right. But I think That is what drives innovation, largely if when you're focused on the personal, and then all of a sudden, that makes sense in a global context, right? Sometimes we set off to do the big things. And sometimes it's just the small things. And they end up being big later. Right. All right, man, we had no clue.
So you mentioned a little bit in the beginning about assessment. And I think this is always one of the hard, hard things to do is how do we assess maybe some of those values? So obviously, you, your classes, kind of your values embodied in this place, and students come to it. So how do you? How do you measure? Like, do they value the same things that that you do? do different things? How are you planning on, on assessing some of that?
I'm assessing it partly, through, it's not about meeting specific. Like, they're not graded on matching my values. They're graded on trying my values, right? So it actually the values, I mean, the values are embodied in the information and challenges that I laid out for them. But mostly, I actually don't care how they're applying. So the thing is, like, I'm not trying to meet specific learning outcomes with regards to, like, students need to know all of the components of climate change. It's actually more like, they know how to reason and they know how to find evidence based information to root their arguments in right. And so like, I think I'm freed up, like, so I don't care necessarily if they walk away with specific information, but that they actually have skills that they can represent in their, in their drawings. Right. And so, you know, it's not all drawings actually. I'm building off of john Muir laws book on how to teach me. Can you hear me? Yeah, okay, sorry. I'm building off of john Muir loss, and Emily librarians book on how to teach nature journaling. You know, and they have a whole section in there about, you know, that is not just drawing, it's also writing and also including numbers and, and interpretation of numbers, right. So, you know, building off of their work. And so like, I think that those are the kinds of things they just have to show me, right, that they are engaging in those questions, and that they're backing up their, their, their claims with evidence and reasoning. So I think I'm not going to be grading them specifically on those values. But I think what's interesting is that I'm also incorporating some concepts by Joe Feldman on is grading for equity. Here's a grading for equity book, which is new to me, basically, he has a bunch of research and philosophies about how our grading schemes may not be equitable. And they may have some inherent bias built into them. So I'm trying to take some of those concepts and tie them in to make sure that my assignments are measuring the learning that's going on, and not necessarily just about, you know, participation or things like that. So it's actually this weird balance of like, trying to map out their learning piece, but not have it be about participation. And yet, their participation is needed. I don't know, I haven't worked out peace out yet. But I tried to weave in these different components that I really believe in. And I find interesting, so.
So that was probably super No, that's, that's the hard. That's the wicked problem we have, right? Where we do have to assign grades. We do live in that system. And I see you're valuing some things that are really hard, or that gradable and an easy sense. Cool, Steven? Well, thank you so much for sharing with us today. I would have just one final question kind of looking towards the future. What advice might you have for someone else who's kind of looking at trying to implement some of their values? Whether it's in creating a course or an instructional design and program development? What would what would you say to someone else who's who's starting on this journey or continuing on this journey?
So I think what's a little bit challenging about that is what I've been in front of benefited from is trying to release fear of like, what my colleagues would feel, or how they would interpret it. And the thing about that is that, you know, in some ways, it comes from a privileged piece of like, how much security do you have in order to really explore space? And, and ideas? And so I know that not everyone has those, those freedoms and so to me, like, it's hard, because I would say that the thing that limits me the most is fear. And, and so if you can, and it is actually, I mean, you have to evaluate your own environment to know like, how much space you have in order to explore. But But do that? And then don't let fear guide you do? You don't I mean, so it's, it's one thing, I think those are two steps, like figuring out what space you have to explore. So I'll say like, early in my career, one of the things I was trying to help students with with subject anxiety and science. And so like, I tried, like, what does it look like to have comics as a mode for reducing subject anxiety, so where students might engage more with the material and actually learn more, but it has this, this, this look and feel that is not? An I'm going to say this rigorous, right, so I really hate that word in academia, but that's what it looks like. But it still had the effect. And so like, you know, I was able to show with data, that there were really positive effects. But I really worried about how my colleagues would view my, my work. And so I think that, to me, that's, you know, just an example of like, how fear could actually lend you to lead you to not go and explore that space. But in the end, it had all of these positive effects on students. And so it's like, you know, again, what do you value? Do you value? How your colleagues view you? And I know it's a balance? Or do you value being effect with students?
So? Yeah, sorry, I know, that was a Probably not. I don't have like a simple answer for that. But I do feel like
a lot of people have very innovative ideas about how to do things, but the, the, the structure, and it's not, it's not inconsequential, like figuring out how a new approach fits into very established approaches is not is not easy. And I would say it also has a student cost, you know, the fact that students have to navigate a new system, and they also have to trust that you are not just putting them through these hurdles for because you think it's fun and cool. And they're gonna have to bear the brunt of getting a bad grade. And it's non traditional class.
Because you're being innovative. Right?
Yeah. Right. Nothing.
I mean, it comes at a cost. Interesting. Cool. Yeah. Well, I would always say, especially for anyone in those contexts, where you don't have the freedom to completely develop something on a large scale. Always start small. Totally one lesson, one module one day. You how it goes and build from there.
Yeah, totally. Yes, that's a great piece of advice. One I find difficult because when I'm trying to create matching curriculum, I'm always like, Oh, I must have a full. Yeah, I think that's probably something I could learn. So thanks, Dan.
Yeah, of course, I taught Spanish for a really long time and the the curriculum I was working with and the program was a lot more limited. So my ability to innovate, quote, unquote, or bring this new value was very constrained from the outside, so I kind of
started with a lesson
and I'd start with one day or 20 minutes out of a day even, okay, we're gonna do this one, try one thing and try to kind of start testing it out and then be able to bring it to other people and say, hey, I've done this for a long time. This works this way. Yeah, it's a it's a battle. So that's a great,
I think that's it. I mean, because there are so many people who are working within established systems. Yeah, yeah. I think that that's a great piece of advice.
Cool. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for for sharing your values with us today. It's been a pleasure talking with you. I'm probably gonna chat with you later and see if I can sit in on your class this summer. I'm not a scientist or an artist. I think I'm the perfect candidate.
Perfect. You have to let me know how much you're dreading and fearing each exercise. We'll use that as actually our measure.
Yeah, we could have this like dread meter of dance stands over here that students can see. That'd be our Trego score. Score. That sounds very scientific. Doesn't
it does, doesn't it?
I think we can do it. Awesome. Cool. Thanks so much.