Omeka for Instruction

omekalogoThe following post describes Omeka, a Web-based exhibition software application, and the how it was selected, installed on a local server, and is currently used at Johns Hopkins. Outside of Johns Hopkins these processes may serve as models. Alternatives to local hosting of Omeka are also outlined.

Omeka for Instruction

Years ago, our Dean, Winston Tabb, here in The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University requested we perform a survey and evaluation of open source Web-based exhibition software, the kind of software that might be a useful adjunct to our brick-and-mortar exhibitions.  This genre of software was, at the time, in a nascent stage.  Nevertheless, our survey and evaluation included now-mature software applications such as: Collective AccessOmekaOpen Exhibits;  and Pachyderm.  Each package was downloaded, installed, configured, and evaluated with respect to ease of installation, overall functionality, and prospect of sustainability. In the end, Omeka was our exhibition software package of choice.

What is Omeka?

Omeka is a Web-based exhibition software package written by historians for historians.  A product of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Omeka was created so that those with exhibit-worthy content — most notably, historians — could click their way to a visually pleasing Web-based exhibition without the need to learn HTML, Javascript, or CSS coding.  Omeka is more than just a Webpage with some images and text, though.  It is a multi-user, Web-based tool that includes facility for user account management, for installing and configuring a host of freely-available plugins, for activating and altering themes, for adding and cataloging content items, and for taking those items and creating structured exhibitions with them.

Our Services

Shortly after settling on Omeka as our software package of choice, we decided to install it with two different uses in mind.  First, we would install a central Omeka instance for use by the Exhibitions Committee of The Sheridan Libraries and University Museums.  This instance would enable librarians and curators to use Omeka as either an online addition to a regular brick-and-mortar exhibition or as the venue for fully online exhibitions.  As of this writing, this instance of Omeka was used in fall 2015 to host an online exhibition of materials related to the John Barth Exhibition held at the George Peabody LibraryJohnBarthExhibition.  Also as of this writing, it is the intent of the Exhibitions Committee to likewise use Omeka to supplement a forthcoming exhibition on Edgar Allan Poe, again to be hosted at the Peabody Library.

The second use of Omeka would be in the classroom.  For this, we set up a separate server and began offering each instructor interested in using Omeka his or her very own Omeka instance on a per course section basis.  In this way, each section of each course using Omeka gets its own, dedicated instance, and students from each course section are sandboxed with their fellows, free and able to work together with this remarkable software package.

Typically the way this has worked is that a professor contacts technologist and librarian Mark Cyzyk in The Sheridan Libraries or staff in the Center for Educational Resources  to request the use of Omeka.  Cyzyk then sets up an instance, generates student accounts, and comes to class at least once during the semester to train the students.  He sometimes is accompanied by a subject librarian or curator who addresses subject-specific topics such as where to find appropriate images/video/audio for use in exhibits, copyright and fair use issues, proper citation practice, etc.

Courses Using Omeka

Over the past five years, the following courses have used Omeka for instruction here at Johns Hopkins:

Spring 2012.  “Literary Archive.” AS.389.359 (01)  Gabrielle Dean
Spring 2012.  “Seeing Baltimore History: Race & Community.” AS.362.306 (01) Moira Hinderer
Fall 2012.  “Modernity on Display: Technology and Ideology in the Era of World War II.” AS.140.320 (01) Robert Kargon
Spring 2013. “American Literature on Display.” AS.389.360 (01) Gabrielle Dean
Spring 2014.  “Gender in Latin American History.” AS.100.232 (01)  Norah Andrews
Spring 2014.  “Guillaume de Machaut: Exploring Medieval Authorship in the Digital Age.” AS.212.678 (01) Tamsyn Rose-Steel
Spring 2015.  “Modernism in Baltimore: A Literary Archive.” AS.389.359 (01) Gabrielle Dean
Spring 2015.  “History of Modern Medicine.” AS.140.106 (01) Jeremy Green
Spring 2016.  “Art and Science in the Middle Ages.” AS.010.403 (01) Chris Lakey
Spring 2016.  “#Digital Blackness.” AS.362.332 (01) Kim Gallon
Spring 2016.  “The Virtual Museum.” AS.389.302 (01) Jennifer Kingsley
Spring 2016.  “History of Public Health in East Asia.” AS.140.146 (01)  Marta Hanson

Alternatives for Using Omeka

If you are not at Johns Hopkins, but are interested in using Omeka, you have two choices:  First, you can get your local IT shop to install it.  It is a PHP application that runs on the Apache Web server with the MySQL database on the backend, and it is fairly easy and straightforward to install and configure.  Second, the Omeka community offers both paid and free hosting services via the Website.  The free plan includes a single site, 500 MB of server space, 15 plugins, and 5 themes:  Plenty of functionality to get you started!

If you are at Johns Hopkins and are interested in using Omeka in one of your classes, please contact Mark Cyzyk,, in The Sheridan Libraries.


Mark Cyzyk, Scholarly Communication Architect
Sheridan Libraries and Museums

Image sources: Omeka Logo from; Lost in the Funhouse image © Sheridan Libraries and Museums


In Her Words: Alison Papadakis on Teaching

Five times a year the Center for Educational Resources publishes an e-newsletter that is distributed to Johns Hopkins University faculty in the schools of Arts & Sciences and Engineering. Most of the content is of local interest: “… [highlighting] resources that can enhance teaching or research or facilitate faculty administrative tasks.” A recurring feature is the Faculty Spotlight, in which a CER staff member interviews an instructor about their teaching interests. For the April 2016 edition, the interview was presented as a video rather than text. Because it is of general interest, I wanted to share it.

Alison Papadakis received an AB in Psychology from Princeton University, and an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from Duke University. She taught in the Department of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland from 2005 to 2014, before accepting a position as Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Clinical Psychological Studies in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She is also a licensed psychologist in the state of Maryland. Among her many awards are several that speak to her success as a teacher, advisor, and mentor: 2015-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, 2014-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Grant, and 2015 JHU Undergraduate Advising Award, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

At JHU Papadakis is teaching three undergraduate courses: Abnormal Psychology (enrollment 200), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 40), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 19), and Research Seminar in Clinical Psychology (enrollment 19). The large enrollment for Abnormal Psychology was a particular challenge for her after the small classes she taught at Loyola Maryland. As she notes in the video she sought ways of teaching much larger classes and keeping a conversational style and an environment that engages students. Papadakis also talks about ways in which she sets expectations for students and specific activities she uses in class.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Time for a Timeline

After the discussion at our April 1st Lunch and Learn: Faculty Conversations on Teaching on the topic Alternatives to the Research Paper, I was asked about applications for creating timelines. Fortunately there are some good options freely available.

Screenshot of TimelineJS timeline created by Time Magazine on the life of Nelson Mandela. Image of the African National Congress.TimelineJS, developed at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, uses a Google spreadsheet template to create media-rich timelines. Media from Twitter, Flicker, Vimeo, YouTube, Google Maps, Wikipedia, SoundCloud and other sources can be pulled into a TimelineJS. The resulting timeline can be easily embedded into a website. This is a great resource especially if your students are also using other Google applications, such as Google Sites to build a course or project website. There are good directions, a FAQ, and technical documentation offered on the website. Tech support is also offered via email. Here are some examples of timelines created with TimelineJS.

TimeToast may be the easiest to use of the three tools listed here, and the clean and clear interface is visually rich. Media is limited to images, although web links can be included, and a free account may have some advertising. A FAQ page will give you some direction. Examples of publicly posted timelines will give you an idea of the possibilities TimeToast offers. Information on paid plans is available. These allow collaboration with group creation and comment moderation, and are ad free.

Tiki-Toki Timeline is another web-based option with both free and paid versions. Tiki-Toki advertises its software as “…the only online timeline creator that allows you to view timelines in 3d on the web.” The free version is limited to the creation of one timeline with 200 points (called stories), and some of the features are limited. One potential disadvantage of the free version is that you can’t upload media from your computer, you must use images and other media from the web. A work-around would be to upload media to a website you’ve created, and grab the media from that source. You can embed YouTube and Vimeo videos. Examples can be found by scrolling down on the homepage of the website. You can also get information on the paid accounts, including one aimed at teachers. The FAQ page will help you get started.

For more suggestions, see the article Free Educational Technology: Top 10 Free Timeline Creation Tools for Teachers, by Christopher Pappas, November 4, 2014, updated November 2015.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Screenshot of TimelineJS timeline created by Time Magazine on the life of Nelson Mandela:

Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Research Paper

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, April 1, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fifth Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, the final event in the program for this academic year. Bill Leslie, Professor, History of Science, and Adam Sheingate, Associate Professor and Chair, Political Science, presented on Alternatives to the Research Paper.

Bill Leslie, who has been at Hopkins since 1981, teaches a number of different undergraduate and graduate courses. He has long been a proponent of finding alternate methods for students to present the results of their research. He pointed out that the key components for traditional humanities courses are to have students working with primary and secondary resources, analyzing their findings, thinking critically about the meaning, and using succinct, precise writing to convey the results. While a research paper is a long-established format for output of this work, there are many other ways for students to learn and practice these key skills.

Leslie mentioned specifically his course taught some years ago, “Monuments and Memory,” a study of the great monuments of Western culture, where as a final assignment, students created either real or virtual models of an imagined monument. Another example cited was “Science on Display,” a history of popular science examined through the study of exhibits in museums, botanical gardens, and science centers. In this course students created their own museums on a subject of interest to them and designed an exhibit that would be found in that museum.  The course used a web-based application developed by the Center for Educational Resources (CER) called the Interactive Map Tool, where the students could easily create web pages to showcase their museum exhibits. A new version of the Map Tool, called Reveal, has been used by Leslie more recently for student assignments in the course “Science and the City,” co-taught with Robert Kargon and Joris Mercelis, both faculty in the History of Science department.

Screenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” Home Page with Google Map.Currently Leslie is writing a history of Johns Hopkins University, a subject that brings together many of his scholarly interests. As part of this work he has offered a series of courses for undergraduates that draw from his research. For one course he had students write new or edit existing Wikipedia entries pertaining to Johns Hopkins [see: Wikipedia editing tutorial for a guide]. Students learned about responsible research, editing, and engaged in dialog with other Wikipedia editors. The history function of the wiki allowed Leslie to see exactly what changes the students had made and when. This proved to be of value in grading the students on their work.

ThisScreenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” showing page on the Abel Wolman House. spring Leslie is offering a course called “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.” With a small grant from the CER, Leslie is looking to teach narrative and visualization skills to his students; specifically, students are learning to build a narrative using images depicting the spaces that make up Johns Hopkins: laboratories, classrooms, campus spaces. The students started by learning how to read a single image and moved towards selecting a sequence of images to form a story. He has been working with CER staff to have the students combine Google Sites, Maps, and Drive to display the students’ research projects.

Sheingate assigns his students (class of 20) to groups of four. The students are introduced to the concepts of field observation, interviewing skills, and data collection in the classroom. He works with students to identify an appropriate place in Baltimore City for investigation of the food system—an urban farm, local grocery, soup kitchen, or farmers’ market. Student groups are expected to make several visits to their chosen site. Groups use Google Docs to facilitate their data collection, which also allows Sheingate to monitor their progress.

Sheingate uses Blackboard’s discussion board and has the students write reactions to the weekly reading assignments; this record becomes a collective resource for the class to draw on. Further, he breaks down the final project, which includes a group oral presentation and an individual paper, into assignments that are spread out through the semester. This prevents procrastination. He provides very specific guidelines for the oral presentations including elements that must be included such as data visualizations.

As the final component, each student submits an individual paper written in response to a precise prompt. The paper is based on the group’s work, but relies on the individual’s experience. This makes it less likely that students will be able to cheat or plagiarize. Sheingate provides students with guidelines for what is expected.

He also teaches a larger lecture course on rotation. He has the students in that course complete several small written assignments during the semester based on analyzing primary documents.

Sheingate pointed out that students coming into university today may not be as well-prepared as previously to write a long-form research paper. There are fewer college-level courses where they may be required to write. It’s important to think about how to teach our students to write in ways that will be helpful to their future careers. There are different kinds of writing that can be useful for students to practice, including op-ed pieces, briefs, and scholarly articles. Bringing in a writing coach/teacher to help students in a writing-intensive class might be useful. He emphasized the value of giving students a rubric for a writing assignment that can be returned to them with the graded work. This can act as a diagnostic tool if used early in the semester.

When a research paper is assigned, it is helpful to scaffold assignments to be due over the course of the semester—breaking them down into components (working with primary and secondary sources, preparing an annotated bibliography, writing an abstract) will help students focus on developing specific writing skills with feedback at each step.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, faculty suggested blogging, creating posters, and oral presentations as research paper alternatives they have used successfully.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images are screenshots of Bill Leslie’s students’ work in the course “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.”



How Do You Get Your Students to Do the Assigned Reading?

Female with glasses reading a textbook.Recently I had a discussion with faculty about reading assignments. The perennial problem? Faculty assign but students don’t read. The faculty I work with aren’t the only ones facing this problem. David Gooblar, They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again. [The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vitae, Pedagogy Unbound, September 24, 2014], starts off by citing research showing that on a given day in class 70% of the students will not have done the assigned reading. He dismisses the use of quizzes as punitive and time-consuming. What to do instead?

Gooblar suggests starting by making sure that the assigned reading is really necessary. Students prioritize their work and won’t bother with the reading if they feel it is not essential. Make sure that your required reading aligns with course objectives and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Show students that the reading is, indeed, necessary. At the end of class preview the upcoming reading assignment, explain how it fits into the material to be covered in the next class, and give the students some questions to consider as they do the reading.

Handouts created for the students can be useful, Gooblar writes. These can be specific to each reading assignment or more general to be used for all the readings. Questions posed in handouts help prepare students for in-class discussion. End by asking “What one question would you like me to answer in class about the reading?”  Instead of a quiz, create a questionnaire to gauge problems students are having with the reading. “By asking questions that point to the use you’ll make of the reading, you’ll underline the fact that the reading is indeed integral to the course. You’ll also provide yourself with useful information to guide your lecture or class discussion.” These questionnaires can be used to monitor students’ completion of the reading.

Finally, Gooblar advises making use of the information from the reading assignments in class without repeating it in detail. Why should students spend their time reading if you are going to tell them what they need to know? You want the reading to serve as a foundation for in-class discussion or use lecture time to build on the ideas presented in the reading.

A special report from Faculty Focus on Teaching offers 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned [Magna Publications, July 2010]. I’ve summarized the main point(s) of each one after the title, but the articles are all short, so it won’t take long to review the full report.

  • Enhancing Students’ Readiness to Learn: Being explicit with your students about expectations [concerning the reading assignments] and assessing their preparedness improves motivation and learning outcomes
  • What Textbook Reading Teaches Students: Make sure your students understand why you are assigning textbook readings and how it relates to other course content. Don’t repeat the exact information in class and thus make it easy for students to skip the reading.
  • Getting Students to Read: Design your course so that students must do the reading to do well. Create assignments that require more than passive reading, structuring these so that students must engage with and respond to the reading.
  • Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively: Suggestions in this article include giving explicit requirements, introducing the text in class, and offering students effective textbook study practices.
  • Still More on Developing Reading Skills: Quizzing is not an effective motivator for students to complete reading assignments and may encourage surface reading. Assignments, such as reading responses, that structure reading for the students work better.
  • Text Highlighting: Helping Students Understand What They Read: Have students bring highlighted/annotated/underlined texts to class and share their reasons for the markup. “In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.”
  • When Students Don’t Do the Reading: Students won’t read if they know that the material will be closely reviewed during lecture. Let students know that the reading is necessary background that will be referenced and built on.
  • Pre-Reading Strategies: Connecting Expert Understanding and Novice Learning: Examples of scaffolding or structuring the reading experience for students, especially underclassmen, by building a framework for topics, giving them reading strategies, making connections to the course content, identifying roadblocks to understanding, and uncovering the structure of the argument presented.
  • The Use of Reading Lists: The article looks at a British study on how students can be motivated to read outside of required texts for a course. The answer lies in taking time to develop student reading skills and raising interesting, challenging questions whose answers are to be found in the readings.
  • The Student-Accessible Reading List: Structured and discussion-specific lists (of non-required texts) with a limited number of readings are more accessible to students. Annotations direct students to readings that will be useful to them.
  • How to Get Your Students to Read What’s Assigned: The final article provides a nice summary of ideas. Introduce the textbook and encourage use of supplemental materials the textbook provides, identify discipline-specific terminology, have students mark-up readings, structure the reading by providing questions to be answered ahead of class, use the textbook in class to emphasize its importance, teach students to ask questions about the reading, link the reading to exams, and identify and work with students who need help with reading.

Faculty I talked with pointed out that students coming into colleges and universities today may be less prepared to take on reading assignments than in the past. In high schools today many students are being taught to the test and may be associating reading with learning facts, which often means reading on the surface without understanding the big picture. If you teach a course that relies heavily on reading assignments, consider taking time at the beginning of the semester to provide some in-class training on the best practices and strategies that your students should adopt. Have the students scan a text, skimming the abstract or first paragraphs and conclusion, noting the section headings, illustrations and or graphics. Based on this preview, have them frame several questions that they have about the content, before they do a thorough reading. Discuss the value of taking notes and what those notes should cover. Ask them what they highlight when they read and why. Remind your students that they should be bringing questions to class about their reading assignments.

If you have a solution that you’ve used to encourage students to do the reading, please share it with us in the comments.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source:


Using a Course Blog as a Class Ice-Breaker

In the fall of 2014 I taught a course, Stuff of Dreams: How Advances in Materials Science Shape the World, in the newly created Whiting School of Engineering’s Hopkins Engineering Applications & Research Tutorials (HEART) program. The program introduces undergraduates to engineering research in specific disciplines in a small class taught by advanced graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. The classes meet once a week for two hours for six weeks. The challenge of teaching these one credit, pass/fail courses with no requirement of the students beyond class attendance, is getting the students engaged.

Image showing the word Blogs dropping onto a sheet of cracked ice.The students in my class were freshman, sophomores, and one junior. Not all were engineers, there was one from the School of Public Health. The students had a mix of backgrounds, interests, ambitions. With a two hour class session, I did not want to lecture; I wanted the classes to be discussion based. With no requirements to do assignments, I had to rely on intrinsic motivation to get students to do reading outside of class and participate in discussion.  My first priority was getting them engaged by relating materials science to their interests. I thought I could use a blog to determine what they wanted to learn.

In general, blogging can be an effective way for students to respond to course readings or to work collaboratively in groups. Blogs can also be used to improve students’ writing along with developing their critical and analytical thinking skills. In this case, I used blogs as a way to get to know my students and their interests, specifically as those intersect with materials science.

Materials science is a very broad field. My research uses computational methods based on quantum chemistry not likely to be accessible to beginning students. Before the course started I polled the students using a Google survey to determine which social media platform they would be willing to use. Facebook and Twitter were among the choices that students rejected. I decided to use a blog based on their responses. There are a number of options for blogging platforms, including Blackboard, which offers both course and individual blogs. I used Blackboard for other course materials, but the blog tool didn’t have some features I wanted, including making the blog available to the public, so that it would stand as a record and could be referred to after the course ended. WordPress is a free, easy-to-use option.

I introduced the blog in the first class session, asking the students to spend up to an hour outside of class to pick an area of interest, then research and post two links to resources on their topic on the blog. The students were then asked to do enough background reading on their topic to give a five minute presentation in class at what I called a Wikipedia level. When the students presented in the second class, I used the links they had provided to teach them how to think critically about information on the web. There was a wide range of content collected, everything from Buzzfeed lists to high-level research articles in scholarly journals. I asked the class how they could evaluate the materials. What claims were being made? Were sources cited? Were those sources credible? It was a good way to educate the students on evaluating content for research purposes, something they need to know as they move forward in their education. In this course, I didn’t ask the students to go through the exercise a second time to find better or more appropriate materials, but in a more traditional course, this could be a two-part exercise.

For the second blog assignment, the students were asked to go through the posts made by their peers, read some of the articles, and comment on them. This helped the students get to know each other and to see where their interests in materials science aligned. They engaged by commenting on each other’s posts. Because the students were determining the topics for discussion in these first couple of weeks, it meant that I was teaching on my feet to some extent. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would have the students do just-in-time research, using their laptops or other mobile devices right there in class to figure it out.

The blog worked very well as an icebreaker, getting students interested in the course content and engaged in discussions. Student interaction outside of class was another challenge for me, with the course running only six weeks. The blog provided a way for students to continue their work outside of class in a collaborative way. As researchers and instructors our work doesn’t stop at 5:00 PM, neither should class discussion be confined to the time students spend in the classroom. When students are reading they can immediately post what they are thinking, and their peers can respond with comments. This was the case even with the limited use of blogging in my HEART class, but could be even more effective if used throughout a traditional course. I certainly will use a course blog in the future, and have students write more extensively, perhaps in response to assigned readings. I like the idea of having them do peer review of classmates’ posts. Students seem take pride in their writing, especially when it is open to the public and judged by their peers.

Being able to give formative feedback to students for the first assignment was a valuable teaching strategy. I think the students benefited from gaining an understanding of how to evaluate content on the web.

From my perspective there were no disadvantages to using a blog. WordPress was easy to set up and the students found it intuitive to use. That said, there is a need to think about how you set up the WordPress or other blog instance. It is important to organize the pages so that students are clear on where to post each assignment. You will also want to consider what aspects of the blog to make public if that is applicable. As the site administrator you can make these choices. On my blog only the assignments, posts, and my comments are visible to the public; to view and post comments, users have to be registered. This prevents spam comments, which can be a problem. The blog can be seen at


Anindya Roy,
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, JHU

Anindya Roy received his Ph.D. in 2011 from Rutgers University. As a computational physicist, Roy’s primary research focus is on understanding materials important for energy harvesting, storage and management, using calculations based on quantum chemistry. Besides materials research, he is interested in teaching at the undergraduate level, and understanding the pedagogical aspects of physics and engineering education.

Note: This post has appeared previously in our Innovative Instructor print series: and in interview form in the Center for Educational Resources February 2016 edition of Research & Teaching Tools.

Image source: CC Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

Teaching with Modeling and Simulations

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, March 4, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fourth Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching. For this session, Jeffrey Gray, Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Rachel Sangree, Lecturer in Civil Engineering, and Program Chair for Engineering for Professionals in Civil Engineering, discussed their experiences using modeling and simulations. Both Gray and Sangree had received Technology Fellowship Grants from the CER that enabled them to develop the models and simulations for courses they teach.

Illustration of beam bending simulation.Sangree [presentation slides] regularly teaches a course, Statics and Mechanics of Materials, with a lab component. The problem has been that “[w]hile they may have been listening, 130 Students from four engineering departments have a lot going on between the time they hear lecture material in class and write their lab reports related to the lecture material.” The labs are staggered in order to keep the number of students in each lab small, with the result being that some students are writing lab reports about content introduced in lecture three weeks earlier. Sangree’s solution was to create simulations of the labs (using Finite Element Models) and a recap of relevant lecture material, and provide these in Blackboard so that students can review the lab and the material needed to write their lab reports. She demonstrated the simulations for three lab exercises: beam bending, torsion, and the tension test, showing us the equipment used in lab and the simulations the students use to review the experiments. These simulations may be viewed if you download the pdf of the presentation slides. In the discussion that followed the presentations, Sangree emphasized that she views these simulations as a resource to improve student learning, and other faculty agreed that this approach and use of simulations had improved learning outcomes in their classes.

Gray [presentation slides] began by giving some background information on PyRosetta  of which he is a founder, and the Rosetta Commons. Rosetta is a community computing project for protein structure prediction. Gray describes PyRosetta as “…an interactive Python-based interface to the powerful Rosetta molecular modeling suite. It enables users to design their own custom molecular modeling algorithms using Rosetta sampling methods and energy functions.”

Illustration of PyRosetta model.Gray teaches Computational Protein Structure Prediction and Design, a course with 15-25 students, with a mix of graduate and upper-level undergraduate students. The course combines lecture sessions and hand-on workshops each week. The course objectives were described as: Students should be able to 1) explain, interpret or modify classic algorithms in structure prediction and design, 2) use standard tools to model biomolecules de novo or by homology, dock biomolecules, and design biomolecules, and 3) create new custom methods and algorithms for specific problems.

Two CER Technology Fellowship Grants have allowed Gray to create a workbook of pedagogical modules that uses PyRosetta to introduce students to structure prediction and design applications. The workbook ensures that the computational tools are available to the students on the first day of class. Gray reported that the workbook and accompanying videos are available and used world-wide, and he has gotten positive feedback from colleagues and the Rosetta community. Gray noted that the PyRosetta platform provides active, hands-on learning, and that engineering students can gain insight and creative advantages by making 3D structural models, exploring hypotheses, and designing improved molecules.

In the discussion following the presentation, Gray mentioned that his biggest challenge has been the varied backgrounds students have in coding skills. Other faculty agreed that core computational requirements are a complicated issue due to differences among the disciplines.

For those looking to integrate modeling and simulations into their classes, it was suggested that there are many resources available online.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the upcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Rachel Sangree and Jeffrey Gray.


Report on the JHU Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences

On January 11th and 12th Johns Hopkins University held its fourth Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. The event was part of a two-day symposium co-sponsored by the Science of Learning Institute and the Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI). The first day highlighted cognitive learning research; theLogo for the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative second day examined the practical application of techniques, programs, tools, and strategies that promote gateway science learning. The objective was to explore recent findings about how humans learn and pair those findings with the latest thinking on teaching strategies that work.  Four hundred people attended over the course of the two days; approximately 80% from Johns Hopkins University, with representation from all divisions and 20% from other universities, K-12 school systems, organizations, and companies. Videos of the presentations from the January 12th presentations are now available.

The GSI program included four guest speakers and three Johns Hopkins speakers. David Asai, Senior Director of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, argued persuasively for the impact of diversity and inclusion as essential to scientific excellence.  He said that while linear interventions (i.e., summer bridge activities, research experiences, remedial courses, and mentoring/advising programs) can be effective at times, they are not capable of scaling to support the exponential change needed to mobilize a diverse group of problem solvers prepared to address the difficult and complex problems of the 21st Century.  He asked audience participants to consider this:  “Rather than developing programs to ‘fix the student’ and measuring success by counting participants, how can we change the capacity of the institution to create an inclusive campus climate and leverage the strengths of diversity?” [video]

Sheri Sheppard, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, discussed learning objectives and course design in her presentation: Cooking up the modern undergraduate engineering education—learning objectives are a key ingredient [video].

Eileen Haase, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, discussed the development of the biomedical engineering design studio from the perspective of both active learning classroom space and curriculum [video]. Evidenced-based approaches to curriculum reform and assessment was the topic addressed by Melanie Cooper, the Lappan-Phillips Chair of Science Education at Michigan State University [video]. Tyrel McQueen, associate professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins talked about his experience with discovery-driven experiential learning in a report on the chemical structure and bonding laboratory, a new course developed for advanced freshman [video]. Also from Hopkins, Robert Leheny, professor of physics, spoke on his work in the development of an active-learning- based course in introductory physics [video].

Steven Luck, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, provided an informative and inspiring conclusion to the day with his presentation of the methods, benefits, challenges, and assessment recommendations for how to transform a traditional large lecture course into a hybrid format [video].

Also of interest may be the videos of the presentations from the Science of Learning Symposium on January 11, 2016. Speakers included: Ed Connor, Johns Hopkins University; Jason Eisner, Johns Hopkins University; Richard Huganir, Johns Hopkins University; Katherine Kinzler, University of Chicago; Bruce McCandliss, Stanford University; Elissa Newport, Georgetown University; Jonathan Plucker, University of Connecticut; Brenda Rapp, Johns Hopkins University; and Alan Yuille, Johns Hopkins University.


Kelly Clark, Program Manager
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative logo

Art History Teaching Resources: Not Just for Art Historians

Screenshot from Art History Teaching Resources website.The first week in February, I attended the annual College Art Association conference in Washington, DC and co-chaired a panel titled Rethinking Online Pedagogies for Art History. In an era where higher education teaching and learning are being re-examined, and our institutions are pushing faculty to adopt innovative instructional practices, instructors may find themselves at a loss. It’s great to hear about online teaching, flipped classrooms, exciting apps that will engage students, but how exactly does one go about implementing these new strategies? Our approach for the panel was to showcase ideas and tools for teaching art history by having the speakers introduce innovative approaches, with a focus on key takeaways that could be adapted to an individual’s teaching practices. The topics included using peer assessment, student authorship of course content, gaming, e-portfolios, using Omeka, Neatline, and Voicethread, building an app and a website for an onsite course, and a presentation from Art History Teaching Resources, AHTR.

The great thing about AHTR is that it is a resource that has value for art historians, instructors in other humanities disciplines and beyond.  Some of the content is general, for example, the Library of Pedagogy has descriptions of texts that will be applicable to those teaching in any humanities discipline, as well as general books on teaching practices. A section on Syllabi/Assignments/Rubrics includes models, templates, and advice that can be easily adapted to other subjects.

Scan the blog posts in the ATRH Weekly. Posts on Slow Teaching, Field Notes from an Experiment in Student-Centered Pedagogy, and Pedagogy through Observation caught my eye as being broad-based in their application. And finally, if you are interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) or want to know more about it, check out What is SoTL?, an article that will be informative whether you are in the humanities, social sciences, or STEM disciplines.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Screenshot from Art History Teaching Resources:

Clickers: Beyond the Basics

On Friday, February 5, the Center for Educational Resources hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching. For this session, three presenters discussed their experiences using clickers (classroom polling systems).

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.Leah Jager and Margaret Taub, are both Assistant Scientists and Lecturers who co-teach Public Health Biostatistics in the Department of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This is a required course for Public Health majors, and regularly sees enrollments of 170 plus students. The course focuses on quantitative methods used in public health research. Jager reported that many students feel intimidated by the math. There is no text book for the course, instead students watch short videos before class meetings.

Jager started the presentation, Clickers in Public Health Biostatiscs, with a hands-on demo where the audience used clickers to answer example questions. A basic use of clickers might include checking class attendance or taking a quick quiz on an assignment. Taub and Jager seek a dynamic classroom environment, using clickers to “provide fodder for interaction between students” and gaining formative assessment of student learning of new concepts being taught. In their teaching, clickers are used daily to promote problem solving and peer discussion. They start with “warm up questions” to review materials from previous classes, then move on to checking newly introduced concepts. Jager showed examples of poll results (these may be called results charts, plots, or histograms) and discussed how she and Taub would respond to situations where it was clear that many students understood concepts or not. When students are not clear on the answer to a question, the instructors have them pair up and discuss the question and their answers. The students re-vote, then Taub and Jager review the concept and correct answer. Even when it is apparent that most students understand the material, the instructors briefly review the question to be sure that no one is left behind.

Example of a case report form used to capture data in course survey. Cocoa Content in Chocolate Tasting Trial.Jager and Taub use clickers for data entry as well (see above), a practice that qualifies as beyond the basics. The JHU clicker system (i>clicker) is integrated with the JHU course management system, Blackboard. Using the survey tool in Blackboard as a data recording form allows the instructors to record student responses question by question. It then takes minimal effort to output a spreadsheet with data that can be shared with the class and used for exercises and assignments.

Emily Fisher, Director, Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer, Department of Biology, uses clickers in her classes (Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetics). Her presentation, Clickers Beyond the Basics.  Fisher began with a discussion of what she considered to be basic use. Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a basic use case scenario.This would include a question at the beginning of class to gauge understanding of a pre-class assignment, a formative assessment question midway through class, and a question at the end of class to “place today’s topic in the bigger picture.” This use encourages students to attend class (if answers count toward grade) and acts as a means to “reset the attention span clock.”

Going beyond the basics Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a beyond the basics use. Fisher uses clickers throughout the class period to help students evaluate data, understand how biological systems work, and engage in higher level critical thinking by engaging in complex problem solving. She also uses the questions to identify student misconceptions. Using student responses and gauging the results charts allows her to make sure that students don’t get lost as she works through building a model for problem solving. Fisher led the audience through a series of slides (see presentation) demonstrating her process.

Fisher noted that using clickers for teaching higher level problem solving takes time to implement but is worthwhile. She explains to students at the beginning of each course how and why she is using clickers in order to ensure buy-in. By developing a model, students get a preview for the type of thinking that will be required to answer exam questions. Students get to practice in class by articulating answers to peers. Fisher has found that the process motivates student engagement, breaks up the lecture structure with active learning, and allows students to see real-world situations.

In the discussion that followed, faculty attendees expressed concern about the amount of time that clicker questions take away from content delivery. Advice from clicker users was to move some content to videos and outside of class assignments. Quizzing can be used to motivate students to complete this coursework.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the upcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Leah Jager, Margaret Taub, and Emily Fisher.