Toggerson’s Syllabus Used as Example of Inclusive Syllabus

Kirsten Helmer of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Teaching and Learning has developed a asynchronous webinar on inclusive syllabus design at: I was exposed to similar content as part of my TIDE (Teaching for Inclusion Diversity and Equity) Fellowship and found it to be quite transformative. I highly recommend anyone designing a syllabus to give it a look. I am honored that my syllabi (both pre- and post-transition to remote) are given as examples.

Vevox as an interesting classroom tool

At the end of the Physics 132 course there is a lot of synthesis. The course centers around two fundamental questions: “What is an electron?” and “What is light?” Over the course of the semester, student explore these two ideas from several different directions with the goal of developing a holistic and multifaceted picture by the end of the semester. Along the way, we as a class encounter additional ideas: electric field, electric potential, and magnetic field.

Today, on the last day of class, I typically have students write everything they can think of about these two fundamental questions on small whiteboards and hold them up for me to see. Obviously, under the current circumstances, that is not possible. Enter the word cloud. Obviously, I had seen these all over the web, but I was first exposed to them in a pedagogical context through my TIDE Ambassadorship. In that experience, word clouds were presented as a nice addition to syllabi to make them more inclusive by presenting the objectives of the course in an alternative way. After adding them to my own syllabi, I got to thinking about other ways that these graphics could be used in the classroom.

Was there a way to have students construct a word cloud collaboratively that summarized the course? Vevox provides a method. In this free-to-students platform, anyone can create a word-cloud question even with the free account for up to 100 attendees. Due to the pandemic, Vevox is allowing all educators free access to a premium plan that allows up to 1500 attendees (clearly key for me!). Students simply go to and enter the meeting ID. The polls integrate seamlessly with PowerPoint through a plugin. I then asked students “Define an electron! Anything you can think of is good.
Words, equations, you name it. Think across all our units.
Remember to use a “-” instead of a space.” The question then opened on their devices and they were given two minutes to write as many things as they could think of. The result was the following word cloud.

The word cloud generated by my students collectively through the vevox platform.

You can see that most of the key components are there and we were able to discuss an lingering misconceptions. The students, in my view, successfully summarized the course – a much more active technique than just me doing it via lecture. This is a cool platform that actually works better for large classes! In a larger class, there is more probability that students will repeatedly say the same, correct, key points. I will almost definitely be using this more in the future.

Data Modeling Lab Based on COVID-19 for IPLS Students

When UMass-Amherst decided to go to remote learning after spring break, I needed one more lab for my Physics 132 – IPLS II course. This course has a traditional setup where the lab is run semi-autonomously from the “lecture” portion of the course. For the last two iterations, however, the lab has been run with a different focus based on data analysis. Thus, a lab focused on understanding the exponential growth patterns and fitting the parameters fit well with our education objectives and could be done with publicly available data.

While this may not be “physics” per se, I think that such a lab makes sense:

  • It uses all of the skills our students have been developing over the course of the semester.
  • It is topical.
  • It is probably of interest to the predominately life-science students who comprise the student population of 132.
  • It will hopefully help students see that the skills they learned in physics lab are not unique to physics, but instead valuable to all of science.

The lab we gave to students can be found here as as pdf. Feel free to use etc. If you are an instructor and would like access to the full suite of materials including the data we used, the solutions, and rubric, please complete this form and we will get them to you.

Remote version of Physics 132 in response to COVID-19

TL;DR: My syllabus addendum for the second half of the semester can be found at this link. For comparison and reference, the original syllabus is at this link. (I hate it when people bury the information you really need behind a bunch of stuff. Recipe websites, I am looking at you! I don’t want your entire life story.)

March 9-13: what a week before spring break! At the beginning of the week, things were very much up in the air. By Wednesday morning the other four colleges in the 5-College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith) had all closed for the semester, with UMass still undecided. Then, mid-day on Wednesday, we found out (via the Boston Globe!) that UMass would be doing remote learning for essentially all undergraduate courses for the two weeks after spring break until April 3. By Friday, it was announced that all courses (including graduate courses) were to go remote until the end of the semester and all faculty were to avoid campus as much as possible.

How to teach a two sections of a team-based learning class with a total enrollment of 458 remotely? Moreover, what about those students who may not have internet off campus, are in time-zones with 11 hour time differences, or now have new additional responsibilities? One of the things you quickly learn about teaching large courses: minimizing special cases is key. You simply cannot deal with each student individually. There are simply not enough hours in the week. You must find systems that work for most people giving you the bandwidth to deal with the individual students who most need your attention.

In my class, the material that can be placed into short videos already has: those videos form my prep homework. Replacing class with a series of video lectures and online homework would rob my students of yet one more community they have; I know for a fact that some of the teams in my course have become quite close. I cannot rob them of that right now.

So how to do this while at the same time acknowledging that many of my students are working under less-than-ideal circumstances? A combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. There are a few small carrots to attending the synchronous modes, but no punishments for not being able to attend them. This encourages students to attend the synchronous modes if they can, but allows for other options for those who cannot. Finally, I thought a “syllabus” was important, I want to be as clear to my students as I can to try to put their minds at ease.

We will see how this goes.

Pretending to be a biologist for a day!

This past Saturday, Brokk Toggerson participated in the ASBMB Northeast Catalyst Conversations for 2020 at UMass Amherst as a panelist talking about OER. In particular, about the gradual transition from OpenStax to, a stack of pdfs, to the custom books we have now developed. The biggest hurdle to many faculty is, as it was for us, the online homework systems. Our experience with EdFinity seemed well received.

In addition to being on a panel, it was interesting to see some work from the biology DBER community as well. Some interesting ideas over lunch with Sarah G. Prescott, an Associate Professor from UNH Manchester, resulted in some ideas about how to better implement Twitter in the classroom. This was tried in 132 a few years ago, without much success. The students found the assignments to be “busy work” and there were significant technical challenges getting everyone setup. However, the motivation for the assignments, encouraging students to find applications of physics in their everyday lives or fields of study is still important. Prof Prescott’s main ideas were:

  • Make each assignment relevant or don’t do it (obvious but always good advice!)
  • Make the first few assignments simply about engaging with academic Twitter. This will make the entire activity more relevant to them as they can see how this can benefit them.
  • Have screen captures etc. about how to get setup, including how to make a dummy account.
  • Make students turn-in a screen shot. Again, a video on how to do this may be needed, but these are much easier to grade than us finding students’ posts on Twitter!
  • Grade using a mastery model: they must include everything or no points. This is easy to grade and scales well. A few drops ensures that this does not negatively impact anyone’s grade.
  • Finally make the the technical use of Twitter part of the assignments: threads, hashtags, etc.

Definitely something to think about going forward. Always fun to see how other disciplines do things!