21 October 2014

Student motivation, AKA Please take my class.

My current homework for Software Carpentry instructor training is to think about a time when I lost my motivation to learn. I posted my response to the SWC blog, where you can also poke around a see other folks' stories (click on the "Motivation" tag).

The other part of our homework is to work on a three-minute pitch to motivate students to learn a particular topic. The timing of this assignment is fortuitous, as I'm also promoting the bioinformatics class I'm teaching next spring as well as an undergraduate minor in bioinformatics and genomics. I took to twitter with my attempts at persuasion:

Disclaimer: I am not planning on physically harming students if they have a different shell preference than bash, and I don't particularly dislike perl. I'm really just rather fond of word games.

A few other folks chipped in with their own token words of wisdom:

It's not surprising that my motivation for getting students to take bioinformatics differs from their reasons for enrolling. I am personally passionate about teaching next semester because I think I can help students be better scientists and thinkers. I'm hoping to convince them that it will help them be more marketable (taking additional biology and computer science classes will certainly accomplish that). 

At times, these persuasive attempts seem like fighting a rather uphill battle. Convincing students to take extra classes that bridge boundaries between different types of knowledge is difficult, especially when students who might be interested are already quite overwhelmed by courses required for their major. I come across lots of folks who are intimidated by large datasets or using a command line interface. 

I spend a lot of time talking to folks about my experiences, and how I'm planning on teaching. 
Here are my talking points in encouraging folks to step up to the plate and learn some bioinformatics, from the perspective of a biology student who has little computation experience: 
  1. You can do this. Not too long ago, I was in your shoes. I didn't know a lot about computers, how they worked, or how I could use them to answer questions. I don't have a ton of formal training in computer science, and my degrees are all in biology. Writing computer scripts may seem really different from other things you've studied, but...
  2. Learning a little can be very powerful. Learning to work on the command line and write computer scripts will take work. You will be surprised, however, at how many tedious, mundane tasks you can accomplish much more quickly and efficiently with a little bit of shell scripting. Better yet...
  3. These skills are transferrable. You may not end up working in a job where you need to assemble genomes or build phylogenetic trees. It is possible, though, that you'll need to manage large numbers of files or answer questions about large data sets. You can apply these skills to lots of other practical tasks, but in addition...
  4. The topics are interesting. Technological advances are producing genomic and other large-scale biological datasets at an unprecedented rate. The applications of these data include empirical research, agriculture, and medicine. 
At the very least, I hope to convince students the first point is true. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing students declare, "I can't do that." A student saying "That's too hard" is a student who's hit a motivational brick wall, and can't even ask themselves whether it might be beneficial for them (or, heaven forbid, that they might enjoy it!). If they can do that, hopefully one of the last three points will be appealing.

On the other hand, I'm still trying to figure out effective ways to appeal to computer science students. The fourth point above definitely still applies, and they can arguably improve (or at least broaden) their job prospects by gaining some understanding of biology. More importantly, they can learn to answer hypothesis-driven questions, which seems to be less of a focus in their curriculum than in biology. 

As always, this is a work in progress. What am I missing? I'm planning a few mini-workshops on for students (graduate and undergraduate) on campus, which will certainly allow me more opportunity to pinpoint more effective pitches. These students are not motivated by the same factors that convinced me to pursue higher education, and bioinformatics for research. I need to find out what they need. However, I struggle with how much I should cater to student interests. That, however, is part of a broader discussion about the purview of higher education, and is perhaps left to another post.


IB said...

Don't assume that computer science students will already be taught those things. I got my BA in CS quite a while ago and from a different University, but nobody ever took the time to actually teach us anything as plebian as shell scripting. Look into the CS curriculum and see if that's the case.

Kate Hertweck said...

I think you're right...I worry too much about students being bored, when I should be thinking more about how to integrate knowledge from different areas (i.e., "You know how to do some coding, let's talk about how to script these tasks to work for these particular data"). Thanks!