Interviews with WIC Seminar Alumni: Nate Kirk

By Ruth Sylvester, WIC Intern

Nate Kirk is a course instructor in the Department of Integrative Biology. He teaches two WIC classes: Field methods in marine ecology and critical thinking and communication in the life sciences. Broadly speaking, he is a molecular ecologist that is interested in coral symbioses ranging from mutualism (where both partners benefit) to parasitism. He is also interested in the incorporation of educational best practices to increase equity and inclusion in the classroom.

Ruth Sylvester interviews WIC Seminar 2017 Alumni, Nate Kirk about teaching a WIC course.

Q: How has it been to teach the Marine Ecology class as a WIC class?

A: I have had the pleasure to teach Field methods in marine ecology 4 times now. Twice before it became a WIC and twice after. Prior to the redesign of the course (by another faculty member, Su Sponaugle, also a WIC alum), the focus was on the process of science. Starting with broad questions students were challenged to design experiments, collect and analyze data, and finally write up their results. With the WIC designation, the writing process has taken the forefront. There are many opportunities to practice scientific writing in class and for homework. Multiple drafts coupled with peer review has made the generation of text a larger focus. The writing process has nicely supplemented the experimental design and they are largely complementary pieces to help students advance their science.

Q: How do you approach informal writing activities in your WIC class?

A: The overall goal is to draft of cohesive, concise, and precise primary research article that could be submitted to the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. However, the dry and technical writing style is hard to start writing. To help students revise for conciseness and precision of words, editing exercises are frequently done on their own work and in exemplars. I have also introduced the practice of reflection in writing. I frequently have students answer questions related to their work on index cards (writing microthemes) as part of the typical daily routine. Likewise, I have students write in class process memos to accompany all submitted work (complete drafts and finished papers). This reflective work allows the student to explain what went well and what they struggled with in their writing. I find reading this memo to be refreshing and it allows me to mentally prepare my lens for evaluating their work. I also have students practice numerous brainstorming techniques that I obtained from the WIC training.

Q: What are your tips for helping students do peer review in your discipline?

A: The hardest thing is often facing a blank piece of paper. Writing perfect sentences, although enviable, is often not plausible or productive. It is better to draft and revise than to write the final draft. Starting with an outline of topic sentences can also make or break the flow and logic of the presented data. Starting with topic sentences is a great way to generate an outline and provide structure for the argument that will be advanced in the paper.

Q: What is your process for designing rubrics for WIC?

A: I have been lucky enough to work with other faculty members teaching similar classes who were willing to share notes and their rubrics. I am indebted to Devon Quick, Andrew Bouwma, Meta Landys, and Lori Kayes for their materials and inspiration. Now that I have several working drafts of rubrics for various assignments, I generally modify existed elements and criteria. When starting from scratch, I try to identify the most important elements of the work (e.g. accuracy, content, style, etc) and try to image 3-4 categories ranging from what would a perfect paper look like to what would a misfire look like. I try to be very concise and precise in meaning so that it is obvious why a student received the score they did. Iteration, personal reflection, and student feedback help with refinement.

Q: How has your experience teaching WIC influenced your teaching methodology as a whole?

A: There are several general pieces of advice that I have incorporated from the WIC training in non-WIC classes. 1) Titles of assignments matter. I used to call my assignments “final paper”, “Homework #1”, and  “OpEd”. These assignments are now called: “Writing your grant proposal”, “Revising for clarity and content” and “Finding your voice: Writing a letter in support of your position” 2) I agree with the idea of writing in class to retain information. It also keeps students active in the classroom. I now incorporate the write and pass in each non-WIC class to demonstrate its power as a study tool with a group. 3) I now use minimal marking instead of fully explaining the loss of points on exams. This has facilitated more interesting dialogue between students as they try to determine what may have gone askew. I also try to find positive, useful and constructive comments to write. I used to write “well done!” on papers quite a bit, but now I try to explain what was good. I also frame all criticism in a positive light.

Q: What are your favorite things about teaching in your discipline?

A: I have always loved biology. After all, it is the study of “life”! There are few better topics than life in my very humble opinion. It is also a familiar topic to many people and I love helping people find connections to patterns that they have observed to biological principles that we cover. I also enjoy that many of the questions that students pose are novel in the field. Despite all of our advances, there is so much that we don’t know about our field.



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