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Learning and Teaching

In addition to my own teaching in oceanography, I lead workshops and do consulting on topics related to teaching and learning at university level. That means that I am constantly learning new things, and sometimes I blog about them. Usually I summarise articles, podcast episodes or conversations I found useful, post new slides I create, or share methods that I saw, heard about, or tried myself.

For all of you who don’t fancy wading though wave watching and kitchen oceanography blog posts in search of those posts on teaching and learning in higher education, here is an overview!

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In addition to my own teaching in oceanography, I lead workshops and do consulting on topics related to teaching and learning at university level. That means that I am constantly learning new things, and sometimes I blog about them. Usually I summarise articles, podcast episodes or conversations I found useful, post new slides I create, or share methods that I saw, heard about, or tried myself.

For all of you who don’t fancy wading though wave watching and kitchen oceanography blog posts in search of those posts on teaching and learning in higher education, here is an overview!

Continue reading

Solar eclipse!

The effort that went into today’s solar eclipse is nothing compared to the one in 2015, when we made it the topic of a workshop on how to use PBL in teaching (where the second session was happening exactly at the time of the solar eclipse, so we made it the topic of our case, which resulted in lots of different creative ways to actually watch it).

Today, we “just” relied on the protective glasses we had from last time, and — super cool idea that I first saw somewhere on Twitter — a colander, which gave us many mini suns, each with their own eclipses. #KitchenAstronomy!

Sadly, the pictures didn’t turn out so well — the edge is not sharp at all. But on a #WaveWatching blog, that’s actually not a bad thing: It just shows that light behaves like a wave and that even though it arrives in parallel rays at the colander, it spreads after going through the holes, thus blurring the edges. Diffraction is pretty awesome! And #WaveWatching is still the best way to learn about optics ;-)

A personal story about why I am reluctant to start a class with an intervention

The first lecture I attended as a student wasn’t actually a regular lecture, even though I did not know that at the time. It was an intervention.

Together with about a hundred or so new students, I sat nervously in a lecture theatre in the physics department. I had enrolled in physical oceanography, which was taught together with meteorology, geophysics and physics for the first two years. I didn’t know anyone. Since my dad worked at the same university, I was pretty familiar with how universities work in general (which later turned out to be a huuuge advantage). And I wasn’t nervous about starting university itself, that was just something one did after school. But I was nervous about physics. I had stopped taking physics classes in highschool as soon as that was possible, and I had only taken the minimum required maths (both probably more to do with the teachers than the subjects themselves, but it’s sometimes hard to distinuish). But now, in order to become an oceanographer, I knew I would have to study physics together with people who wanted to become physicists, and who had a much better starting position than I had. Oh well.

The lecture started out with the professor arriving late, and then without any contextualising or welcoming us, or acknowledging that this was our first day at university, just starting going through content that — for all I understood — could have been chinese. He was just standing with the back towards us, scribbling on a blackboard so fast that it was impossible to take notes, mumbling something, and I did not have the faintest clue what was going on. I don’t know for how long it went on, but it felt like forever, and in any case it was long enough for me to feel like I had absolutely no chance to ever succeed there. Then, the professor started making weird and sexist remarks, and I started tuning out. This was not how I was going to spend the next couple of years. Then, at some point, a student asked a question and was rudely dismissed. But then another student spoke up, and another. And at some point — surprise! — we were told that this had not been a real lecture, that the professor was just an older student pranking us, and that also the students speaking up were older students playing a role, and that the whole purpose was to show us that we would have to learn to speak up when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? In one of the recent iEarth teaching conversations, HC talked about something he had heard about how it was really helping students learn if they were given a really hard exercise right in the beginning. In that case, there wouldn’t be any “smart students” standing out and the not-as-smart students wouldn’t feel dumb, because everybody was equally lost (and the teacher would then help them through it to build confidence and grit and it would be all good, so it’s not the exact same story). But hearing about this triggered that memory of my first ever physics lecture, and I can feel the pit in my stomach now, 20 years later, thinking back to the feeling of definitely not belonging there, in that lecture theatre, in that department. Even though I had not thought about it in at least a decade, I don’t think it’s something I have ever fully gotten over, because even though this was meant as an intervention and the scenario was supposed to be much worse than anything we could ever possibly experience for real, there were many situations later on during my studies that were reminiscent of that experience. Only then, they were not pranks, and there was nobody there to resolve the situation for us, and clearly we hadn’t learned our lesson yet to resolve them ourselves. But each of those new situations seemed to confirm to me that at that very first day, I had been warned, and had ignored it, but that now was the time when I was going to be found out as not belonging. And this personal anecdote makes me feel really reluctant to start out a class with any kind of “intervention”.

P.S.: Looking back, what made me persist throughout all the physics and maths was a) that I REALLY wanted to become an oceanographer, so I just had to do what I had to do (and it turned out to be not as bad as I initially thought), and b) that there were two technicians, Rüdi and Manni, who always ran the experiments for the physics professors. They would be in the lecture theatre before the lectures started, setting up the experiments, and then clearing up after. And they were super friendly and approachable, and me and my friend and this one other guy started hanging out with them, asking them lots of questions, and learning more from them than from all the physics professors combined (or at least that was the case for me). And it’s for the first time today that I am putting together how important Rüdi und Manni were for me to feel like I did belong after all, maybe not to the people who wanted to be theoretical physicists like my friend, and for whom the mathematical derivations were enough (or made that much more sense that they didn’t feel the need for anything else, who knows?); but to a group of people who not only understood the phenomena, but in addition could show that they really existed in real life, could run demonstrations that the professors — despite all their theories — never dared touch. I had found my community, and even though it’s been 20 years and we’ve lost touch, maybe all my #KitchenOceanography goes back to those early experiences with Rüdi and Manni being the teachers the official teachers never were. Thank you! <3


Here are some recent #WaveWatching pics from my Instagram @fascinocean_kiel. Enjoy! :)

Isn’t it fascinating how some parts of the river reflect the sun and look much brighter, while others are darker, reflecting the trees? From those reflections we can see what the water surface must be like: fairly flat in the darker parts, with waves, i.e. sloping parts, in the bright Vs. In this case, it’s a coincidence that we see Vs: for wakes, we would have a ship or an animal at the V’s tip, and the V being the outer edge of a wake. In this case, there are obstacles on either side of the river, each disturbing the flow and forming a backwater wedge downstream. And then at some point, those wedges from either side of the river meet in the middle, forming the V.
The dark area inside the V is the area where where water is flowing fairly rapidly in the river. On the V, where we see the waves and thus rhe different reflection, the flow changes and becomes turbulent under the influence of the backwater wedges. It calms down again, the surface gets flatter, i.e. darker, and the rinse & repeat for the next V!

Nice waves from a dog jumping into the lake! The owner was very confused why I whipped out my phone when the dog jumped in, but then didn’t point it at the dog

Pretty garden pond! Would you have guessed that its surface area is less than 1m2?

Can you see where the surface area is exposed to the wind and the roughness is therefore high, and where it is sheltered and there are waves propagating in from the higher-wind areas, but no new waves being generated?

#WaveWatching: Wind & sheltering

For my dear friends, who are worrying because I didn’t post any #WaveWatching pics recently: I’m still here, and I’m still wave watching! :)

For example on my lunch time walk with F today: Isn’t this a beautiful pic of how waves build up over both time and distance if the wind is blowing continuously? In the far back, there are hardly any waves because the water is sheltered from the wind, and the water looks dark, because it’s reflecting the trees in the back. As we move away from the trees and onto the open lake, waves grow. We now see the sky reflected in the rougher parts, but in other parts we still see flat areas where there are smaller waves and we notice the reflection of the sky.

The closer we move to the foreground, i.e. downwind, the larger the waves become. Until there are pieces of wood floating in the water that suddenly shelter a small area! Notice how suddenly there are only “longer” waves moving into that area, but all smaller wavelengths disappear, because the wind forcing is gone?

MPOWIR webinar on “career pathways combining education with oceanography”

For all of you who prefer reading a short-ish blogpost over listening to a nervous Mirjam on a recorded video call on “Career pathways combining education with oceanography“: Read the post below to learn my personal story on the prompt “Many oceanographers find educational activities a rewarding part of their career, where education can range from outreach activities aimed at the general public, to undergraduate and graduate teaching, to training in research through internships and graduate advising. Here three oceanographers describe their experiences working in a variety of educational pathways.” That is the talk I wish I had heard many years ago… (But go watch the recording for Kristi Burkholder and Meg Tivey’s awesome contributions, that are very different from mine! You can always stop watching when I come on ;-))

As you see on my introductory slide (above), I stated there that I was an “oceanographer — science educator — science communicator”. And I want to tell you a little story about what that means.

When I am asked about “what I am”, my first response is that I am a physical oceanographer. And that is true — that is what my identity is all about. If you search for my name on the internet, you find two main keywords: One is #KitchenOceanography and the other is #WaveWatching. Those are two hashtags that I use to describe two hobbies of mine: #KitchenOceanography is about creating hands-on experiments that we can use in teaching and outreach to help us understand the ocean and climate system. #WaveWatching is another hobby — wherever I am, when I see water, I see waves, I have to understand what caused the waves, and then I usually take a picture and post it on social media. So I am an oceanographer. But depending on the context, I might also say that I am a science educator or a science communicator, or any combination of those three, and all of those claims are also true.

I started out on my journey into oceanography by doing a Master’s (equivalent) degree in physical oceanography, and then a PhD. After my PhD I went abroad for my postdoc. My postdoctoral work got published in a Nature Geoscience article on which I was the first author, which was quite positively received and got me invited to speak in many places. Over the next several years, I was involved in several super interesting research campaigns with colleagues from my postdoc days, went on research cruises and to the Coriolis rotating platform in France (a 13-m diameter rotating swimming pool!) to conduct tank experiments. The research we did in France resulted in a Nature article that was published last year. And then in January this year, I started as an adjunct associate professor in the oceanography group at the institution where I did my postdoc.

That’s the classical career so far, when we look at it through the oceanography lens.

But we could also use a different lens. During my PhD, I studied for a Master’s of Higher Education, so I learned and reflected a lot on university teaching. During my postdoc, 25% of my time were dedicated to teaching, and I was lucky enough to be responsible for the “introduction to oceanography” lecture as well as for other courses that dealt with either laboratory experiments or training students on research ships. I additionally taught block courses at other universities. I really enjoyed that part of my job very much, so when I left my postdoc position, I took a position as educational developer. I was not working directly in oceanography then, but the study courses I was responsible for were on shipbuilding and coastal engineering, so close enough that I still felt connected to the ocean. From that service position, I moved on to a research position again, but this time in educational research. And I have been working free-lance on educational projects for many years now.

I already told you that I am currently an adjunct associate professor in the physical oceanography group, and that’s true. The focus of my work, however, is not physical oceanography research, but it’s on education. I am part of a large “Center for Excellence in Education”, and I do educational design and I advise a PhD student and Master students on educational research with questions related to how students at university learn about oceanography.

So that’s the second, the education, lens.

But there is a third one, and that’s the science communication lens. And to me, this is really what made my career my career. When I was teaching so much during my postdoc, I started writing a blog called “Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching”. At the time, that was really not a well thought-out project. I had been using a lot of hands-on experiments in my teaching, and I had been sharing pictures of those on my facebook, and I was getting a lot of positive feedback and good discussions from my network. But as it turns out, facebook is not a great tool to organize your own thoughts, and I couldn’t find pictures and related discussions as easily as I had hoped. So really to organize my own thoughts better, I started the blog. And the blog is what started me out on this third stand, the “science communication” part of my identity. For the last 7 or so years, I have blogged about my “Adventures in Teaching and Oceanography” — sometimes describing hands-on experiments that people can use in teaching and outreach, sometimes reflecting on literature on science education or communication that I had read, sometimes showing interesting phenomena I came across on the beach, or on puddles in the street.

The blog is what made it possible for me to transition from oceanography into education, and also from educational research into science communication, because I had built a written portfolio of activities in all these fields. And my blogging and social media were partly inspired by what I was doing in different jobs at the time, but they always stayed focussed on the “Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching”.

About 2.5 years ago, I decided that I would take a part-time position as science communicator to pay my rent, and spend the rest of my free time on the fun projects that had developed both as hobbies and as freelance projects along the way, but without the pressure of having to make a living off of them. So I am currently the program manager of a large science communication project, on a 50% position.

When you search the internet for me these days, however, what you see most prominently are those two hashtags, #KitchenOceanography and #WaveWatching, and that I am someone who works on improving ocean science communication in university teaching and outreach. That is how I see myself, and that’s the image I cultivate through my blog and my social media. Because of that, I have stayed visible to many people at the institution where I did my postdoc, had the opportunity to work on many exciting projects with them while I was working other jobs, and was eventually offered this adjunct associate position. I’ve also been contacted by many people who have hired me to do projects with them or invited me to speak — like today here for MPOWIR.

I want to wrap this up by sharing with you my vision of my ideal job. When I imagine an ideal day, I am doing all the things I am currently doing. I live close to the sea and close to my family (and even though I haven’t talked about that, that definitely influenced my decisions along the way). In the ideal day, I develop hands-on experiments to teach oceanography with, I blog, I talk to my colleagues about their teaching, I work with students, sometimes I lead workshops. I could frame my life right now as “I’m working 50% on a job that is marginally related, and 20% as this, and 30% as that”. But I don’t, because I have this bigger vision for what I want to do and who I am, and that has helped me find my way through many twists and turns to where I am at now.

And now all the small things I do as a hobby, or freelance, or for different employers in different places, contribute to the big picture of my career in both oceanography and education, as an oceanographer, working on engaging others in the wonders of physical oceanography! :)

Watch the webinar below (if you must ;-))

My wave watching picture book for kids is out!

A wave watching book for beginners and those who appreciate the art and science of wave watching! Now available to order here or via any book store or online dealer that can find books using their ISBN :-)

I wrote this book such a long time ago (read about the process here and follow the linked posts in there), when my niece Line was still as small as I drew her in the book. It then took me forever to go from “oh, the proofs are here” to actually doing the small changes and publishing it.

Line is now quite a wave watcher in her own right, but I hope that this book can raise interest and support curiosity in many other kids (and adults!)