Summer updates by Vishu Guttal: Teaching, travel, and talks

Its time for updates again!  Let me start with myself and will post separately on what students have been upto.

Teaching: In the Jan-April term, I taught the course EC 201, the introductory course on Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology. This was the fourth time that I was teaching this course, but one thing had been bothering me a lot: the course was becoming increasingly inaccessible to biology students (in particular, our own CES phd students). The reason was that once UG students of IISc who had much better math background began to take my course as an elective, the mathematical level of the course became too difficult for CES PhD students many of who come from Masters in Zoology/Botany/Wildlife biology programs where the emphasis on math is minimal to zero. I did not want to miss out either on the UG students so that they are exposed to cool ideas of mathematical ecology or the CES phd students who ought know basics of theoretical ecology. Based on various suggestions, I tried this new solution: which is to let UG students take my course only on alternate years.

So this year, I restricted the class to biology majors who have had little exposure to mathematics. The UG students of IISc were requested not to take the course this year (and they kindly obliged). I thought that this really helped the biology background students to learn at their pace — and they did really well. So I am going to keep this format for the future. Even years: the course is open for all. Odd years, the course is open only for non-math background students.

Travel:  In the second week of June, I went to visit my collaborator Dr Sonia Kefi at Montpellier, France to initiate collaboration on our Indo-French grant from IFCAM. We started off great on a project on spatial pattern formation that will be led by a member of Sonia’s group. Sonia and her team members will visit Bangalore in December and we hope to keep this on for several years!

Popular talk: I gave a couple of popular talks/workshops this summer. One was at Christ University, as a part of the initiative by National Network for Mathematical and Computational Biology (NNMCB) to reach out to local colleges and universities. I spoke about evolution and collective movement in animal groups.

Workshop: I then gave a set of lectures at NCBS at the Monsoon School on the Physics of Life. The audience here were basically a bunch of highly motivated kids from various parts of the country studying physics, math or engineering. The idea was to expose them to biology through the lens of mathematics. I started off showing a graph from Ives et al 2008 paper on how midge populations change over time, and how can we construct a mathematical theory of the same. At the end of four hours, students learnt all the way from building simple model of exponential growth to logistic models to constructing bifurcation diagrams for a consumer-resource model. They were all super delighted when they found that even small changes in external factors can lead to large changes in populations; mathematically, this is captured by saddle node bifurcations.

An ecology course at IISc from Aug-Nov 2013 for anyone interested

I will be offerring a course at IISc on the basics of ecology though the lens of mathematics. The details are as follows. Feel free to spread the word to those interested:
Course title: Ecology through numbers
Instructor: Dr. Vishwesha Guttal, Assistant Professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc (Website: https://teelabiisc.wordpress.com/).
Class hours: Monday 6pm – 8pm. Wednesday: Computer lab hours to be decided.
Start-end dates: Aug 2013 to Nov 2013 (approximate).
About the course: Ecology is often understood to involve only field work. The aim of this course is to show how simple mathematics has played a central role in ecology. Syllabus includes how to develop simple mathematical Models in ecology; Models of population dynamics; Chaotic dynamics; Predator-prey cycles; Tragedy of the commons, etc.
Intended audience: Anyone outside the regular IISc academics with keen interest to learn ecology. CCE is a centre at IISc has been offerring regular semester long courses over years in the evening hours so that working professionals, scientists, conservation enthusiasts, engineers, amateur naturalists – pretty much anyone with a bachelor’s degree – is able to attend the course.
For more details on the CCE and its objectives, visit this webpage:
http://cce.iisc.ernet.in/Proficience/index.php

Eligibility: BE/B Tech./M.Tech in any disciplines, Or masters (M.Sc., MA, M.com) in any discipline.
Pre-requisites: Math at the level of High School (Basic calculus) and some Programming experience would be helpful, but not, MUST.
Course-fee: Rs 7000 for the entire semester. Please see the website for details of application procedure and how to make the payment (dont forget to check terms and conditions regarding fee payment):
Any questions regarding course content, etc can be sent to me at vishwesha.guttal@gmail.com
For queries regarding procedure to enrol, etc, please contact the CCE office admin directly.

Comments on MOOCs

Last month, Swaha Sahoo, a journalist based in London wrote to me asking for my opinion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). She had gotten to know that in CES, we had informally recommended students to take some online courses on Stats and Math to complement their coursework that we offer.

Here is the article titled “Students flock to MOOCs to complement their studies”. It quotes a number of people from India on the value of MOOCs. I think she has used my comments aptly in the article, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Here is the full text of what she asked and what I wrote (warning, its very long!):

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Swaha: I read in one of the blogs that the Department of Ecological Sciences at IISc was thinking of recommending certain MOOC to students. I was wondering if this has been taken forward.

My response: I was the one in my department (Centre for Ecological Sciences) who suggested that we could recommend certain MOOC to students. But let us understand the context. We get students with very good biology/ecology background, and are highly passionate about research in ecology. However, like any other biology student in India, they probably stopped taking any math courses since their high school. But quantitative skills like basic statistics, math and programming is now almost surely needed for any ecology researcher. Although we do teach quantitative skills in our department, I believe quality of the class and learning can go up substantially if students can revise their basic math skills and perhaps add a bit more to it.

For this, we do not have the bandwidth needed to offer more courses. So we plan to recommend students to take certain MOOCs. To make learning more effective, and to ensure students don’t drop the MOOC (note that MOOCs have high attrition rates), we are thinking is to have local mentors/TAs who can clarify questions of students. So interactions are essential while MOOC provide basic materials to get things going. We may try this approach in the coming year in our department.

Swaha: Secondly, it would be great to get your perspectives on the potential for MOOC in India. Some of the areas I want to discuss are1. What is the potential for MOOC in India and can we leverage this to the benefit of thousands of Indian students?

My response: I have absolutely no doubt that there is a massive potential for MOOC in India and it can benefit of millions of Indian students. But, there is a big IF; this potential can be realized ONLY IF we do it the right way.

Let me first remark about the potential for MOOCs in India. As is well known, the state of higher education in India, except for a few colleges, is abysmal. Indian students deserve higher quality education but that requires good, motivating and inspiring teachers. We can not manufacture teachers overnight, but what we can potentially do is to bring a few great teachers, which I am sure we do have, to students through MOOCs.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Lets recall that NPTEL, an Indian MOOC where courses are taught by excellent professors from IITs and IISc, was conceived and started several years before the now famous UDACITY or Coursera came into picture. How many students take courses offerred through NPTEL? How successful have they been in achieving their goals? I do not have data on these aspects but what I do know is that just recording videos and putting them online will hardly work. In particular, I do not think just recording courses the way it is taught in IITs or IISc will work, because students who really need online education come from very different backgrounds and preparations.

This is not meant to be a review of NPTEL, but we need to understand what to students really want. Apart from understanding students’ needs, videos need to be lot more interactive, and engaging.The main point I want to convey is yes, there is potential for MOOC but only if it is done in the right way. I do not know what exactly is that!  But we need to keep trying various methods, understand the audience, improve teaching methods, make it as interactive as possible within the limitations of MOOCs, and of course evolve the MOOC based on the feedback.

Swaha: 2. Will MOOC replace physical, face-to-face interaction or complement it? Do you see a scenario where MOOC is taken seriously by universities and students successfully completing courses are given credits?

My response: MOOC can never replace physical face-to-face teaching and interactions. If teaching were all about delivering a set of instructions, or providing a recipe, then yes, MOOCs can rule. But teaching is less about transferring information or providing instructions, but more about learning. There is more evidence from research than ever that a typical lecture delivering style of classroom, even with a teacher, is hardly an effective way of learning. What we need are interactive classrooms, where students discuss new concepts among both themselves and with the teacher and this can provide an atmosphere of discovery and learning. I dont see how MOOC can provide such an environment. Of course, I have not even started on courses needing experimental work – where MOOC have no place at all.

There are some areas where MOOCs can, in a limited way, reduce need for direct teaching. Some examples that come to my mind are if a working professional wants to learn elementary computer programming but has no time to attend a full time class.    As a scientist, if I want to basic introduction to a subject I am not familiar with – I would look for a good MOOC. As a student attending a university with not the best education or teacher, one may look for a MOOC to complement his/her course work.

Swaha: 3. What does it mean for a teacher?

My response: As explained in my previous answer, MOOC can never take away need for a teacher. Perhaps, if there are really high quality MOOCs on a subject that a teacher teaching, that teacher may need to put better effort to provide a good quality classroom environment ensure students come to the class! But my view is that even an average classroom face-to-face teaching can be better than high quality MOOC. Of course, in an Indian context, even an average teaching quality is absent in most colleges and Universities.

Swaha: 4. Will it democratise higher education in the country and be accepted by students as a valuable addition if not alternative to a formal degree?  

My response: I very much hope it will! Let me close by saying that we should try MOOC in India, in as many different ways as possible and by understanding needs of students. We need to continuously evaluate the success and the failure, and adapt accordingly.

Summary of course evaluation on Theoretical ecology course (EC 201) in Jan – April 2013 semester (Updated)

Like last year, I took students’ opinion/evaluation of my course. Unlike last year, this year the course was taught for the complete semester, allowing us to cover more topics and do better on projects. Before I go onto summarizing the course evaluation, here was the composition of the class:

* Undergraduate students: 10 (Nine of them from IISc and in their 4th semester; they were taking electives for the first time. Of the 9, six were from Math major, 2 from Biology major and 1 from Physics major. One UG student was an international visitor – from France – with computer science major).

* PG Students: 7 (4 CES PhD Students; 2 NCBS PhD Students and 1 M.E student from Chemical engineering).

* [UPDATE]: Auditing Students: I entirely forgot to add that there were roughly 6-10 students who audited the course; most of them fron non-math background. They were equally active in the class, in doing (most of) class assignments, etc.

Clearly, having 10 UG students was a major surprise but the overall mixture added lot of value to the class by allowing a diversity of perspectives and skills. Writing more about this requires a separate post! So, let me move onto the summary of course evaluation by students.

1) How do students self-evaluate their understanding of various components of the course? Course_understanding_EC201_2013Clearly, on an average the distribution peaks at “Good” and “Very Good”, which is great! Compared to last year, the distribution has moved towards “Very good”. More specifically, topics that were mostly rated as “Good” (Discrete population dynamics, continuous population dynamics and stability analysis) have now moved towards “Very good”.

However, the topics where I need to improve (so that students self-evaluate with higher scores!) are the topics I added this year, so I was teaching them for the first time. The reasons seem quite obvious! These are evolutionary dynamics and two-species interactions.

2) How good was the coverage of topics? Course_coverage_EC201_2013A very nice distribution that peaks at around “Adequate”. But with a clear right-skewed distribution, suggesting that most students wanted me to cover more of pretty much most of the topics – which is not possible given the time constraints. Here is what one of the students commented about this question:

the options given r not good, like a little more detail is always Helpful!! Adequate with respect to what?? w.r.t exams or w.r.t interest in the topic?? 😛 ( dnt mind!! 🙂 )

I thought that was a very good point, and that is clearly reflected in the average response of students. The response is exactly same as the previous years where the average response was that more details are needed on many topics! The best I could take away from the above plot is that more on two-species interactions and evolutionary dynamics would be appreciated. Anyway, the same student also said:

Coverage and depth both wer (sic) nice, as most of the times it went according to the students! It was good!

How should I rephrase the question next time, or should I entirely skip this altogether?

3) In general, the ratings on lecture notes and quality of teaching were pretty good (both above 4.25 on a scale of 5). Compared to last year, both have improved. In particular, I had hardly given any lecture notes last year. This year, we recorded all classes and they were available on the course website – typically within a week of the class. Lecture notes were prepared based on transcribing the videos and also posted on the website. I had employed two TA’s specifically for these purposes and they did a splendid job, I think. Although I don’t know if anyone really used these resources, we had made our effort.

Work load was rated at 3.58 – but I dont know what that means. Again poor phrasing of question (the options ranged from “Very poor” to “Very good”). I can make sense of “Very good” but what does average workload mean? Did students want more workload, or less workload? Last year, they explicitly said less workload would be better. Although it’s hard to imagine students asking for more work load, I think I can expect something counterintuitive from this class ;-).

4) What other topics would you have liked to learn?

Most commenters perhaps realized that it is difficult to cover more topics in the semester. But two suggestions that one student had was to include meta-population dynamics and island biogeography models. Great suggestions, even if I can not cover them in a class, I should consider doing a workshop at ces.

A very useful suggestion is to talk about interesting history behind mathematical models and concepts. I will try this next year, after learning myself more about them.

5) General comments to improve the class further: 

A common point that came in 4 of five comments was that

Mathematics is clearly very important for this course.

and since ecology students come with not much math background (some may have taken their last math course in their 10th class),

some fundamental Mathematics [and programming] classes would be useful for non-math students.

We did have TAs teach basic pre-requisite math in the course. But I suspect a full fledged course on math and programming prior to this course would make a difference to many ecology students. Unfortunately, there is no bandwidth in the CES, as of now, to add a new course.

Class room programming sessions cannot be called a success as not all students were well versed with the R language. …  Atleast 2 classes of basic R is mandatory to be freely usable even during exams.

I don’t know how to resolve the above problem on programming language. I thought that TAs did do tutorials on R – at least in some rudimentary way and were usually available during programming sessions to help students. And many students as far as I can tell did well in those sessions. No doubt it needs to be better done.  I Another related point was that

But probably due to a skewed structure of the class where majority of students have a strong mathematical background, the purpose of the course for ecology students ( who usually don’t have a strong mathematics foundation) tends to get lost.

I really hope that was not the case! If this course were really to be taught only to those with strong math skills, it would take a very different trajectory (and not necessarily a good one). I think having this extreme set of students added a great value to the course.

One possibility that some faculty at CES have been thinking is to make an online basic math and an R programming course (such as those from udacity or corsera taken in the Aug-Dec semester) a pre-requisite for my course (in Jan-April sem). Going through online classes can get boring, so we should assign some TAs and mentors so that there will also be some discussion sessions to clarify doubts and to ensure there is no attrition.  One thing that we have decided in our department now is that my colleague Kavita Isvaran’s course on Quantitative Ecology 1 will be offerred in the Aug semester from 2014. This course covers some stats and programming could also help students when they take my course. 

maths and ecology students should be assessed separately.

I have thought a bit about this since the beginning of the course but am unable to justify separate grading schemes. One way to think about this was that if a math student were to go and take a hard core biology course, would he/she be graded differently? Most likely not. Even within this course, standards of ecology were maintained same for both math and non-math students. Anyway, something worth thinking again but for the next year. Despite all these issues, I found non-math students who had very little math and programming experience did exceptionally well in the course.

Here is one other critical and very useful comment:

 Projects, I feel were not graded very satisfactorily. At the least the student should know the categories upon which the project was graded upon so that in the bare minimum, even if he/she gets a not so good grade he/she will at the least know how to do/present a project in futureby correcting appropriately.

Good point  about project grading. I am usually very careful in mentioning something like how grading is done, but as the course progressed, it slipped out of my mind to remind students about how things are graded in ase of projects. But point taken.

Its always good to end with a positive light-hearted comment:

Prof, TA’s, AC in the room, and cookies in the break..everything is Very nice!! 🙂 really liked and enjoyed the course!! 🙂 and I really appreciate the way the class was handled by prof, I mean extreme Bio n extreme maths people at same time!!! :O 😀

Thanks to all students for being part of the course! Special thanks to TAs Sabiha, Jaideep, Sumithra and Nitin for fantastic help that you all offerred throughout the course.

Finding the longest day with school children

I wrote this article a while ago for a school souvenir. I got delayed in posting it here since I wanted to put a picture of the plot of duration of the day that students came up with. I still don’t have the picture, but I decided to post it and update it with the picture whenever it is available. Click here for the pdf of the article.

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Date: 21st Dec 2012.

During the year 2011-12, I interacted with students of Purnapramati [1] only once or twice, but I really enjoyed my time with them. I wanted to interact children more regularly this year. So, after discussing with Indumathi akka [2], the science teacher of the school, we thought it would be nice to work on a short-term project where students get some hands-on experience of learning science. Exactly six months ago, on 21st of June 2012, I began interacting with students of 5th class of Purnapramati.

As I kept thinking what could be a feasible short-term yet interesting thing that primary kids can do, I was already in the class and I began my interaction by exchanging greetings. But the answer was elusive until our interactions gained some momentum.

I asked students, “Is today any special day?”. The answer came almost immediately when one student said “Today is summer solstice”.

I then asked the student back, “I have never heard of that. What does that mean?”

One other student laughed and said, “Don’t you know, it is the longest day of the year”.

“May be, but how do you know about this fact?”, I asked.

“We learnt in the class. Our teacher told us”, came a response from one corner.

“How did your teacher know about that?”. I continued my questions.

“From her teacher” was one answer while the other student said “From our text book”.

“How did your teacher’s teacher or even the text book writer knew that 21st June is the longest day in the year?”.

Although I immediately heard the answer “From their teachers”, it was already clear to some students that I was going to ask “How did that teacher come to know?”

After teasing their minds for a bit, I got the answer I was waiting to hear when I one student said “someone must have measured length of day all throughout the year and found it out”.

I then told students, what if your teacher had never told you that June 21st is the summer solstice? If our challenge is to find it out yourself, how will you do it?

I got to hear a lot of creative and courageous solutions which ranged from how they will wake up and note down sunrise time and also sunset time every day. When I asked how can they see precise time of sunrise or sunset if there is a huge building next to their home, some volunteered to go to mountains and deserts where one can see horizon to horizon. Some even thought of setting up automatic devices that will record sunrise and sunset times automatically.

Finally, we all agreed to take a short-cut given difficulties of going out of home to a desert or even that of waking every morning without fail. The short-cut, as suggested by students themselves, was to look at the newspaper (or panchanga) everyday and note down sunrise and sunset times.

Once the concept for the project was ready, it was time for implementation and that took nearly three to four months, working on this at a frequency of twice a month (sometimes even less).  For this class of 12, each student was assigned a specific month and was asked to note down sunrise-sunset time from newspaper collection at their home. Based on that they calculated daytime duration (which they learnt in the process of our project). They also learnt how to use graph sheets and produced nice plots of duration of daytime for each day of their month.

When they finally put together all those data mostly on their own with occasional help from Indumathi akka (science teacher) and myself, we were all extremely fascinated to see the oscillating pattern of duration of the day. Students immediately went back to the original motive of our project, and found based on their own analysis that the duration of the day was maximum for about 10 days towards last two weeks of June. So it was not one day when it was maximum, but for 10 days!

It was probably in all students’ mind as to why does everyone say June 21st as the longest day of the year when there are 10 days that are longest. But they had figured the reason discussing among themselves; they had data of sunrise-sunset only up to minutes accuracy. To find which day of among those 10 days were longest, they said they would need data of sunrise-sunset time unto seconds, or even milliseconds.

While it is clear what students learnt from this exercise, it was also extremely interesting to interact with students, answer their amusing and intelligent questions. It was also revealing to me to learn finer details of such simple facts, which we all take for granted.

[1] Important Disclosure: The school is founded by close relatives and friends. You can learn more about it by visiting the website: www.purnapramati.in

 [2] Teachers are affectionately called akka (meaning sister) or anna (meaning brother) in this school.

Summary of feedback on Jan 2012 module on Theoretical Ecology

I should have written this really long ago, but finally I get to do this.

Although teaching evaluations where students get to grade teachers are a norm at most places in the world and also in India (like IITs), here at IISc there is no formal evaluation of our teaching. So many of us informally collect anonymous feedback from students. For the half-a-semester module on Theoretical Ecology that I taught in Jan 2012 semester, one of the students (Karpagam Chelliah) helped me set up a survey online and got responses to questions I had set up. With my full semester course on Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology set to start next week, I thought this is a good time to see those feedback again. Here is what I found:

1) First of all, should the half-semester module on theoretical ecology be converted to a full semester course?

Overwhelming feeling among many of my colleagues was that, yes, it should be. I was not so sure, until I saw results of the survey.

All the students who took the survey (total 13) said we should have a full semester course!

2) Now to some details, as to how students self-rate their understanding and how well were the topics covered.

I was able to cover two basic topics, (a) single species population dynamics and (b) random walks and its application to animal movement. In this survey I  subdivided these two broad topics to overall 6 components: (i) Discrete population models (ii) Continuous population models (iii) Stability analysis (iv) Random walks and animal movement (v) Programming and (vi) Overall course.  Student had to rate their understanding for each of the above components, and how well/detailed each of the topics were covered.

This first chart below shows how students self-evaluated their understanding of various components of the course. Y-axis represents percentage of students who gave that rating.

Here, bars on the left side means I should be concerned, and work harder to improve those aspects. Two components that I did no teach well are stability analysis and programming, the math and the computing parts of the course!

This next chart on the right (where a central peak is the ideal response I would like to see) supports the same view with quite a few students suggesting that I covered less than adequate on both stability analysis and programming.

As a corrective measure, I plan to have one week exclusively dedicated to programming. I should also have more discussion, worked examples and assignment questions on stability analysis which is an extremely fundamental and useful tool for ecologists.

3) I had asked for general critical comments on the course. As you can imagine they are very helpful and here is a summary:

What was good:

It seems students liked discussions we used to have in the class. One student said  “The course encapsulated modelling really well and helped banish some fears of the same.” That was precisely the goal of this course, so it was glad to see that the course achieved that goal to some extent (although its only one data point!).

Some particularly liked how I used to recap ideas from previous classes before going onto what next (I learnt this from some of my teachers because those were the only classes I could understand well). Some thought there was enough scope for thinking independently in the course and that assignments were “thought provoking“. But as you see below, there is lot to improve as well.

What needs improvement:

Assignments and Workload: Four students (that’s 25% of the class) commented that workload was too much for half-a-sem course. On the other hand, one student thought many calculations done in class could be moved to assignments so that we can discuss more in the class.  One student said “please give adequate reading material. Even though I understood what was being done in class, I forgot everything upon coming back home”!

Clearly, balancing these contrasting needs of reducing workload while increasing reading/assignments is not going to be easy! One student had a suggestion that short and frequent assignments could be more useful – I think this may satisfy both sort of students and this is what I am planning in the coming semester.

Other suggestions were to include empirical data with models, how to validate models and how models can be helpful with conservation. This is not easy given time constraints, but I can try with one or two examples from my own research work. One student said course should be better structured, and I entirely agree with that because I know how haphazard my preparation was especially with respect to assignment and reading materials.

One other important point was that some math and programming background can enormously help this course. Our biological sciences division does offer a basic course on Math and Stat but it is offered in the same semester as this course. It would be ideal if students come prepared with math and programming in Aug semester for two quantitative ecology courses in Jan (the other one being highly sought course taught by my colleague Kavita Isvaran on Quantitative Ecology: Research Design and Statistical Inference).

4) What other topics should be covered if its a full semester course?

Almost all respondents said “Evolution” (more specifically, evolutionary dynamics, ESS and Game theory, population genetics, etc). There were also suggestions on predator-prey dynamics, host-pathogen dynamics, more on chaos and animal movement, etc. Clearly, evolution is the winner and I plan to teach this for 4-5 weeks. I also plan to teach structured models and spatially explicit models in ecology. This may come at the cost of studying more classic models like competition and predation, but I feel that with the kind of background that this course offers, students should be able to pick up a text book and read it on their own.

What do you think? What topics should a basic theoretical ecology course cover given that students basically come with no math/programming background?

Jan-April 2013: Course on Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology

I will be teaching a course on Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology (EC 201) in the coming semester, Jan-April 2013. I am very excited about this because this is the first time I will be teaching a full-semester course. I did teach half-a-sem course in Jan 2012 semester on Quantitative Ecology where I taught a module on theoretical ecology (my colleague Kavita Isvaran covered Statistics). That experience was invaluable and got very useful feedback from students on how they liked the course, and what can be improved.

Watch this space for more updates.  Tentatively, we will have our first class on one of the days on Jan 2-4.