Thursday, September 22, 2011

on education, and this profession of mine.

it is of course not giving you a durian every day,
for when I am gone, how would you get your durian?
it is better to teach you to pick and open a durian
so that in my absence, you can still enjoy your own durians
still, that's no enough, for what happens when you
too are gone? who will provide durians for the world?
Hence, I need to teach you to open durians, and then
guide you to teach others too.
And how would I know that I've done my part?
--only when you aspire to teach others better
   than I've taught you.

KEY: we don't just make excellent students out of our students, we need to make great and willing teachers out of them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

early days of local teaching Part 1.

My life as a university lecturer in Malaysia started last week.

It's been quite a ride so far.

My class began with too many students, like 25% more than the maximum number allowed. After my first lecture, the number dwindled down to a dramatic 50% of initial registration. Of that 50%, half were students who registered after the 1st lecture due to the sudden availability of vacancies. That means of the initial students who registered, only 25% remained after having a 2-hour session with me. Then overnight the number went up again to reach the max cap, only to drop within a few days.

Currently, my class size is <50% of the initial. All the first-year students left, and I pity the only guy in the class--he had like 15 other XYs in the class just a week ago. Then again, he's in an enviable position...the lone guy in a class of girls.

I am not complaining. This is the class size that I love to work with, and for all purposes it is often the ideal class size. Small enough to pay ample attention to every student, and big enough to do group projects of various kinds.

I am however, kind of sad that I failed to convince more students to stay in the class. I can't tell why the students who left did so because I couldn't pull them back for a survey. If I have to guess, and because I am not stupid, these would be intelligent guesses, I would say that they were 1. unconvinced that I will deliver what I promised; 2. uncomfortable with my question-based learning/teaching; 3. unwilling to suffer a course conducted almost completely in English; 4. time-conflicts with the class.

I can't do anything about the last factor, but I tried my best to make the 1st to 3rd factors invalid. Over the past 10 days, I have given so many motivational talks that I am quite sick of myself already haha.

What's a college education? Speaking from experience, I believe that whatever we are supposed to acquire in college/university, memorization of facts and data is DEFINITELY NOT it. On the other hand, one should strive to learn to connect the dots to lines, cross lines to make webs and fold webs to build structures. In college, one must acquire the skills to communicate effectively. Communicate your ideas and your questions, and not just to your peers but also to anyone, everyone.

Just today alone I told my students thrice in a row to challenge themselves by teaching what they have learned to another person, be it a roommate, sibling, lover or parent. I looked at them in the eyes (my two eyes quickly but strongly scanning theirs) and told them in my "when I say 1+1 =2 that means it equals 2" voice that if they can't teach it, they haven't learned it.

Although I must admit that having lost >50% of the initial class size prompted me to question my teaching philosophy and teaching methods. In this case, only one question mattered.

"Is this good for the students?"

*to be continued...*

Saturday, September 3, 2011

a disguised wolf

Since I got back from California, all my time at work has been spent preparing the lecture materials for my upcoming course. It was fun 'relearning' entomology but I really dislike sitting in the office. After a week, I was beginning to feel deflated.

I needed something else.
I looked at the books in the cabinet across from my desk. Excellent selection--animal behaviour, R, philosophy of science, teaching methods, environmental history, parasite ecology, insect mythology etc. I would love to read them, yet I really needed to get my lecture materials set up first.

I thought of the two undergraduate students whom I will be mentoring for their final year projects. Sadly for them, I have no funding for any projects. In fact I wouldn't even say I have any solid project in hand for them. I had to think of something. That something needs to fulfill only four criteria:
1. It is of interest to both them and me
2. It is publishable in a journal of good standing.
3. It fits within their schedule
4. It will lead to further studies (my future work)

My mind began to do the waggle dance, from cabbage to diamondback moth to competition to beet armyworm to... to... you know, this and that. Scribbled lines on a piece of paper and happily inserted it into the same envelope with the rest of the final year project information.


The best boost of the day has yet to come.

We have a scale insect problem on of our plants in the garden. Out of the blue, scale insects infested the plant, literally covering it in white fluff. As the scale insects stay protected and hidden under their white fluff cover, they sap the plant vigour away. Some ants tend to the scale insects too, getting paid in honeydew excreted from the scale insects in return for their bodyguard services. Mom and dad (and grandma recently) were complaining about these scale insects. I told them I don't know what to do because I couldn't find a single ladybug in our garden to eat those scale insects.

Lo and behold, guess what I found today on the plant? Small white beads on stalks on the plant. Like the picture below.

My first thought? Lacewing eggs! I know that lacewings lay their eggs on stalks, a strategy that protects their eggs from predators by preventing easy access. Lacewings are known predators of scale insects, vicious ones too. Excitedly, I began to scan the plant for lacewings.

I found more eggs. Even if I didn't find any lacewing larvae, I knew that there would be some a few days later when the eggs hatch.

I wondered how would the lacewing larvae look like? How big? I needed a search image. I recalled that some lacewing larvae have a cool strategy to prey on the scale insects while avoiding the nasty attention of the protective ants--the larvae cover themselves in a layer of white fluff too. The title of the article was "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing". So aptly named :).  It was mentioned in Thomas Eisner's book "For Love of Insects" too.

Could these lacewing larvae be utilizing the same strategy, and that I needed to look for disguised lacewing larvae?

Wait..that scale insect was moving faster than the usual scale insect! Hmm...I scrutinized it, and yes, it was behaving weirdly for a scale insect--moving a lot instead of staying put and feeding. I grabbed my small microscope-eyepiece (kept it from Davis...knew it would come in handy one day!) and checked the suspicious scale insect.

Ha! Oligopod larvae, body form like that of a typical lacewing larva. Without doubt I must be looking at a lacewing larva with white fluff on its back.

 The insect on the center of the fruit was a scale insect, whereas the white fluff to its upper right corner was the lacewing larva (hidden under the white fluff).

The scale insect was on the center of the fruit, with the lacewing larva to its lower left (white fluff). You can see a lacewing egg on a stalk on the fruit (lower left).

Lacewing larva hidden under the white fluff. You can see that it's radically different from the scale insect. This was the 'wolf' in a sheep's clothing!

I never thought that I would see one of these disguised lacewing larva, and yet here they were, in my garden! I was very excited. Eager to check on the population dynamics of the scale insects and the lacewing larvae on the plant over the next two weeks.

Such is the wonder and beauty of nature--you can see it as long as you care to look.