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2015 June 19

Teaching as public speaking

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:57
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“Dean Dad” recently wrote a post Confessions of a Community College Dean: When Public Speaking Works Best, in which he talked about the advantages of improvised talks over highly prepared ones:

My best moments as a speaker have consisted of a layer of improvisation on top of a prepared framework. The words were substantially ad-libbed, but in a context that had been thought through in advance. Having the safety net of a clear framework, the knowledge of where I was going, and the security of knowing that the worst that could happen wouldn’t do permanent damage, made it possible to follow the muse of the moment. I could improvise knowing the direction I wanted to go, and having faith that I’d get there one way or the other.

That is my usual modus operandi for giving talks or class lectures. I start by figuring out what I want to cover and (sometimes) in what order, and make sure I understand the material thoroughly.  There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to give lectures on material I’m not completely comfortable with, and the results are not really satisfactory.  I know that there are people who can give scripted lectures from prepared PowerPoint slides on stuff they don’t really understand, but I can’t—I have to have the stuff really solid in my head. (Which is not to say that I never pass on mis-information—I have sometimes realized after further study that I’ve been teaching a simplification that is incorrect.)

My best classes usually have no more than about 5 words of lecture notes, reminding me of the topic of the day—the entire performance is improvised off of those notes, together with lots of “audience participation”—getting the students to ask questions and come up with partial solutions.  Such talks do not use prepared slides, but blackboard/whiteboard or live coding (for programs like gnuplot, where the concepts really rely on seeing what the program does with various scripts).  I also get a lot of digressions in the best classes, when students ask about what really interests them, rather than what I have prepared.  If the digressions are valuable and I know enough to go in that direction, I’ll take them.  If I don’t know enough, I’ll usually put the students off until the next lecture, so that I have time to do some reading.

I have, once, given a talk with a carefully written-out script (see Video of Designing Courses talk), when I had a very short time slot to present a large amount of material. The results were OK, but not as good as the longer, slower improvisational presentation I use in classes.

2014 April 20

Designing courses to teach design—draft 4

Today I tried practicing my talk for Wednesday with my son as an audience (I figured I could get some useful feedback from him based on his years of theater experience). He asked me a number of good questions about my audience and what effect I wanted to have on them (the same sort of questions I ask my students, but often have difficulty applying myself). He gave me some good advice about changing the tone of my talk, making it more conversational and less lecturing.  (I’m good at that in my usual improvisational lecture style, but I know that I couldn’t keep to time if I tried to be extemporaneous with this material.)

After getting his suggestions, I rewrote the talk and delivered it to him again.  It runs about 9 minutes, and my target is “under 10 minutes”, so I think the length is about right. I welcome suggestions from my readers also—the talk isn’t until Wednesday, so I may have time to make more revisions.

Because of the time constraints, I’m going to read my talk—something I’ve never done before, so forgive me if the presentation is a bit awkward.

I want to talk to you today about two courses I created in the past two years. These courses were in part a reaction against the University pressure to create MOOCs. University education is not supposed to be mega-lecture courses, but students getting detailed feedback on their work from experts.

The courses I’m talking about are not easy, cheap fixes (like was claimed for MOOCs)—they are high-contact, hands-on courses, which take a lot of time to create and teach, and so are expensive to offer.

Designing the courses started from goals and constraints: “what problem was I trying to solve?” and “what resources were available?”

The two problems I was trying to solve were in the bioengineering curriculum:

  • students weren’t getting enough engineering design practice (and that mostly in the senior year, which is much too late) and
  • too many students were selecting the biomolecular concentration, where we were exceeding our capacity for senior capstone and senior thesis projects.  The other concentrations were under-enrolled.

The main constraints were that

  • there was no room in the curriculum for adding more required courses,
  • there were no resources for new lab space or equipment, and
  • all existing engineering design courses had huge prerequisite chains.

Because I couldn’t ask someone else to create and teach a new course, the content had to be something I already knew or could learn quickly. So, no wet labs!

The first course I’ll talk about is a replacement for the previously required EE 101 circuits course. The EE course is a theory class that prepares students to do design in later courses—but most bioengineering students never take those later courses, so were getting prepared for something they didn’t do. (That’s a general problem in the bioengineering program—“creeping prerequistism” in the 8 or 9 departments providing courses results in the students always preparing to do stuff, and not getting to the doing until senior year.)

The goal of the new Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course is to have students design and build simple amplifiers to interface biosensors to computers. We work with a range of sensors from easy ones like thermistors, microphones, and phototransistors to more difficult ones like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors.

The goal is for students to do design in every lab, even the first one where they know almost no electronics, and to write detailed design reports on each lab—not fill-in-the-blank worksheets, like they get in other intro labs.

The course was designed around the weekly design projects, not around topics that must be covered. Themes emerged only after the design projects were selected—the class comes back again and again to variations on voltage dividers, complex impedance, and op amps with negative feedback.

There wasn’t a textbook available that covered things the way I wanted, so the students use free online materials instead. The savings on textbooks is used to justify a lab fee of  about $130 for tools and parts. They don’t get just a few parts, but 20 each of 64 different sizes of resistors and 10 each of 25 different sizes of capacitors, along with a microprocessor board and lots of other tools and parts. I don’t want their designs to be multiple-choice questions (“there are only 5 resistors in the kit—so one of them must be the right answer”).

Coming up with usable design exercises was hard—I tried lots of them at home, rejecting some as too hard, some as too easy, and tweaking others until they seemed feasible. I even designed three different custom printed circuit boards for the course: a board for pressure sensors, a hysteresis oscillator for soldering practice, and a prototyping board for their two instrumentation-amplifier projects. (pass boards around)

By the way, PC board design has gotten very cheap—I used free tools for doing the design, and the boards themselves cost only 50¢ to $1—it would have cost thousands to have done custom boards like this when I was first hired at UCSC.

Developing a hands-on course like this is not quick—creating the course took me almost 6 months of full-time effort!—so we’re probably not going to see huge numbers of such courses being started. But they’re worth it!

To make it somewhat easier for someone who wants to create a similar course, I posted all my notes on designing the course on my blog—over 100 blog posts before class even started! There are now around 240 posts (the URL is on the quarter-page handout, along with the URL for the course syllabus and lab assignments).

The course was prototyped last year as BME 194+194F “Group Tutorial” before being submitted to CEP for approval. Incidentally, I highly recommend prototyping before submitting the paperwork for new courses—there were a lot of changes that came out of the prototype run. For example, the lab time was increased from 3 hours to 6 hours a week.

That change has a high cost—not only am I spending over 10 hours a week of direct classroom and lab time, but I’m spending every weekend this quarter rewriting all the lab handouts—splitting the material between the lab times and adding at-home or in-class design exercises between the two parts. Even with the extra lab time, some labs ran over this quarter, so I’ve got still more tweaking to do for next year.

It isn’t just the design of a new course that is expensive—each time the course is offered takes a lot of faculty time. In addition to the 10 hours a week of direct contact, I have office hours, grading, prep time for both labs and lectures, and rewriting the lab handouts.  If I have 2 lab sections next year, I’ll have 16 hours a week of direct contact. Just providing feedback on the 5–10-page weekly design reports takes about 15 minutes per student per week (half an hour per report).

But enough about the circuits course.

The other course I want to talk about is one I created last quarter: a new freshman design seminar in conjunction with the student Biomedical Engineering Society. This course has no prereqs, is only 2 units, and does not count towards any major or campus requirements (it might get a “Collaborative Endeavor” gen-ed code).
I’d not taught a freshman class in over a decade, having taught mainly seniors and grad students, so I had no idea what skills and interests the students would bring to the class. With no prereqs for the course, I couldn’t assume that students had any relevant skills, though it turned out that all this year’s students had had biology, chemistry, and at least conceptual physics in high school.

Because I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t choose the projects ahead of time, but tried to adapt the course on the fly to what the students could do and what they wanted to do.  (They wanted to do more than they could do in the time available, of course.)

I did try out three or four projects ahead of time, looking for design projects with a low entry barrier. But all the projects I tried assumed some computer programming skills, and only one student had ever done any computer programming—a big hole in California high school education.  Even more concerning for engineering majors is that only a few had any experience building anything. (AP physics classes were the most common exposure to building something.)

On the first-day survey the students indicated an interest in learning some programming and electronics, so we did a little programming with an Arduino microcontroller board—I’ll try to up that content next year, adding some more electronics.

The class started with generic design concepts using a photospectrometer as an example. The concepts include such basics as specifying design goals and constraints, dividing a problem into subproblems, interface specification, and iterative design. The photospectrometer turned out to be too complex and unfamiliar to students, and I’ll probably start with a simpler design (perhaps a colorimeter) next year, and have the students design, build, and program it before they start on their own projects.

One positive thing—the course had more women than men, and at the end of the course they indicated that the course had made them more likely to continue in engineering!

I could go on all afternoon about these courses, but I’m running out of time, so I’ll leave you with these take-away messages:

  • The value of University education is in doing things and getting detailed feedback from experts, not sitting in lectures.
  • Students should be solving real problems with multiple solutions, not fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice toy exercises.
  • Hands-on courses require a lot of time from the professors, both to create and to run, and so they are expensive to offer.
  • Failure to teach such courses, though, makes a University education no longer worthy of the name.

UPDATE 2014 May 2: video available online (as a 784 Mbyte downloadable .mov file) from So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC? April 23, 2014. I was the second of six speakers.


2011 October 15

Teaching voice projection

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:41
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I am fairly well-known in my department and among colleagues in my field as having a loud voice when needed (and perhaps sometimes when not needed).  I have no trouble filling a lecture hall with my voice—even ones with rather poor acoustics, like the one at the Palazzo dei Congressi in Ravenna, where I gave a talk in September.  At small conferences, I’m often called on to gather people back into session, since there is usually no public address system in the hallways or outdoors.

I have attempted to teach the grad students in my department how to speak loudly, as I have found it a very useful skill.  Even if students are only half as loud as me, it can make a big difference in how well they can be heard giving research presentations and when teaching.  Even as students, being audible to the rest of the class in class discussions is a useful skill. (UPDATE: Previous posts on how I teach speaking loudly: Speaking loudly 1Speaking loudly 2.)

Unfortunately, I’ve never had any formal training in speaking loudly, so I’ve had to rely on little bits of advice I’ve picked up over the years: belly breathing, relaxing one’s throat, using the lower end of one’s pitch range, opening one’s mouth, facing the audience, and listening for the echo of one’s voice off the room walls (“room-filling voice”).  After passing on these snippets of information, I do a one-time exercise where we all go out into the woods and practice speaking at about a 60′ (20m) distance.  Although the exercise shows that most students have the ability to be loud enough, it is mainly a diagnostic exercise to find out who needs to practice being louder.  Unfortunately, the students who most need to practice speaking louder are the ones least likely to do so on their own.  (I usually end that exercise by having a contest with whoever in the class was the loudest, to see who can be heard from the furthest away.  I have twice had students who were as loud or louder.  One was an amateur actor with something like 20 years of stage experience, and the other had worked as a town crier at Dickens Faire.)

Today I did a little searching on the web to see if anyone had put together a more formal presentation of the proper pedagogy for teaching voice projection.  If figured that drama teachers around the world must have developed methods, and some must have published them.

I found surprisingly little, though I did not do a very thorough search.  There is one paper that looks promising:

Debra M. Hardison, Chayawan Sonchaeng, Theatre voice training and technology in teaching oral skills: Integrating the components of a speech event, System, Volume 33, Issue 4, December 2005, Pages 593-608, ISSN 0346-251X, doi:10.1016/j.system.2005.02.001.

Unfortunately, that article is hidden behind a pay wall, but it is available at any University of California library, since UC subscribes to System.  The 16-page paper seems rather wordy, and I’ve not had time to read it yet (I’m overdue on reviewing some NSF proposals, which at 130 pages each are rather slow slogging). The article does have a series of quite specific exercises, which look like they would take a few hours to do completely.  They could form the basis for a one-day workshop—I think I’d be willing to do that this year if students wanted it, even though I’m on sabbatical.

2011 April 30

Speaking loudly

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:16
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Every fall I teach a course for new graduate students that has some boring name involving research and teaching, but I informally refer to the class as “How to be a graduate student”.  We do many different things in the course, including required training on discrimination and sexual harassment, lab safety training, learning how to use LaTeX  and BibTeX, preparing fellowship applications, practicing classroom delivery (presenting techniques from Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion), discussing research ethics and different academic cultures about co-authorship, TA rights and responsibilities, the role of the TA union, and so forth.

One of the more idiosyncratic exercises involves speaking loudly. Not yelling or screaming, but speaking loudly and clearly. I’ve posted about speaking loudly before, but I got a query by e-mail about exactly what I teach in the exercise, so I thought I’d go over it again.

I introduce the exercise with complaints about speakers who mumble at conferences and point out how ludicrous it is that many people seem to require microphones even in small rooms with good acoustics. I teach them how to work with a lapel microphone (not turning their heads relative to their shoulders, but keeping a constant distance from mouth to mic) and the various failure modes of electronically amplified speaking.

I then teach them about using the low pitch end of their vocal range (relaxed vocal cords), opening their mouths, and  breathing deeply from the diaphragm. Facing the audience is also important, both for keeping the audience’s attention and for optimal sound transmission (it also benefits the lip-readers, if any). I also tell them about judging their volume by the reflected echos off the classroom walls (room-filling voice). This mini-lesson on voice projection would not be adequate for theater arts students, who have a professional interest in getting nuance conveyed at volume (I don’t talk about stage whispers, for example), but it is adequate for grad students who will be giving conference presentations and may end up as professors or giving industrial training talks.

Near the end of class, we go outside into the redwoods to practice, where there are no echoes, and they have to use a louder voice than they will ever need in classrooms or conference venues. I suggest that people do an extemporaneous or memorized spiel, rather than trying to read something, since reading results in a lot of students looking down, pausing unnaturally, and mumbling.

There is usually one student in the class with a strong voice, and I then challenge that student to a contest where we go further away from the class and see who can remain intelligible at the greatest distance.  I have twice had students who were as loud or louder than me, both older students who had some previous training in projection (one had been an avid amateur actor for decades and had done classroom teaching).

I have not been entirely successful in getting students to speak clearly and loudly in all their later talks, but they are aware that it is important. We give them lots of opportunities for feedback on their presentation skills (including recording the lab rotation talks, so that the students can go over their presentations alone, with friends, or with their advisers to look for ways to improve the presentation). By the time they finish their grad training (giving at least 3 lab rotation talks, an advancement to candidacy talk, and a thesis defense) most have gotten pretty good at delivering research talks.  Classroom skills tend to be less developed, as not all our PhD students have the opportunity to be TAs and even our TAs do not do much lecturing, usually running labs or moderating discussions in bio-ethics classes.

2010 October 8

Speaking loudly

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:19
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Over the years, I have gotten very tired of going to conferences and having to listen to speakers who mumble into microphones, or use lapel mikes and turn their heads so that the mike cuts in and out, or wave around game-show-host microphones. In many of these conferences, the acoustics in the room are fine, and no microphone is needed. Particularly bad examples happened at our faculty retreat this year.

To keep grad students in our program from being this sort of embarrassing speaker, our program insists on frequent practice of their speaking skills. We require PhD students to do 3 lab rotations, giving a 10-minute talk at the end of each; we require all grad students to give a 2-minute elevator talk each fall; we require public presentation of both the thesis proposal and the thesis defense (usually for an audience of 20–40 students and faculty); and we require an annual presentation in some other forum (a conference, the campus grad research symposium, engineering review day, … ).

To get students started out right, every fall I teach a “how to be a graduate student class”. This class includes a brief lesson in speaking loudly enough to be heard, followed by practice. The practice session happens out in the woods, where we won’t disturb classes, and where there are no walls to reflect weak voices. Each student is sent 100 feet (30 m) up the path and required to recite or read something (their choice). Students get feedback on whether they are audible, and suggestions for improving their volume and intonation. If anyone is particularly quiet, they are urged to practice more on their own. If anyone is particularly loud, we have a contest between that student and me to see how far away we can go from the group and still be understandable.

Last year, for the first time, there was a student audible for further than I was. This year I was doing a bit better, and the loudest student and I were tied. We managed to be fairly clear from about 500 feet, but 600 feet and around the bend in the path so that trees blocked the direct sound was too distorted. The student who was successful this year had training as an actor, and had the further advantage of a naturally deep voice, which is usually more comprehensible at loud volume than a higher-pitched voice.

Although few students will ever have the need for full volume, it is good for them to practice using a bit more volume than they expect to need, so that they can fill a classroom with their voices for a full lecture without strain, and without the crutch of unreliable electronic aids. It also helps them ask questions in class and research seminars so that everyone can hear the question, greatly improving the flow of discussions.

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