April [00:00:00] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer, and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's interactive virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university. This podcast is our space to share time with you and introduce you to a few of the innovative and inspiring science educators we meet as we, together, go about our mission of empowering the next generation to change the world. Welcome to Episode 23. In this episode, we're thrilled to be joined by Bonnie Nieves, a biology teacher at Nipmuc Regional High School in Massachusetts and author of Be Awesome on Purpose, a book that invites us along on her journey as a teacher who improves her students’ learning outcomes by using some very unique tools: her own motivation, reflection, and empathy. And with that introduction, let’s get our conversation started. Welcome to the podcast, Bonnie.
SJ Boulton [00:01:33] So, Bonnie, welcome to The Labster Podcast. I loved reading your book. I absolutely loved it. And it was a really fascinating story. And I found myself wondering what prompted you to write it all down and actually have it published. What was the motivation behind that and who was it you were trying to reach?
Bonnie Nieves [00:01:52] So I was talking to or I was in typically having conversations with the EduMatch people and that's just like a group of people that I connected with back in 2017, I think, and it was just through Twitter and Vox. So we were having conversations and Sarah Thomas, Dr. Sarah Thomas, who is the founder of EduMatch, is always saying everyone has a story and everyone's story is worth sharing. And she told me one day that all of the stories that I tell are worth publishing. And I said, That's ridiculous because my journey is not so different from everyone else's. And from that I found two things. There are people whose journeys are very similar to mine, and those people enjoy hearing it because it builds a sense of camaraderie. And there are other people whose journey is very different than mine who see another point of view.
SJ Boulton [00:03:33] It's really interesting. So we've spoken before, and I'm really interested to hear a little bit more about how you feel and why you feel this book really supported people like you. What was it that kind of ... what feedback have you received that people have taken away from it or that they feel was useful? Why have you maybe struck a chord the most with your readers?
Bonnie Nieves [00:04:00] Mm. I would say that there are, I don't know about the most, but the feedback that I typically get is from the introduction. When people say, 'Oh my gosh, I did the same thing. I used to pretend to be a teacher and I was so disenchanted with the teaching profession just like you'. And it's nice to see that it's okay. And especially now, I think now more than ever, when there's so much social media presence with educators and people just openly saying this profession is not what I thought it was going to be, and they're so much more involved in it. So there are people that can identify with that, like it's okay to feel overwhelmed and to just stand back and say, 'no, it does not have to be the way it is.' And even if I just change it in my classroom first, I am going to feel more confident about what I do.
SJ Boulton [00:09:15] Your book, Be Awesome on Purpose - fantastic title, by the way, it really takes us through the steps you went through while you were testing stuff out, testing out your classroom policies, testing your approaches and what would work best for your students. And we're both scientists. And as I was reading your book, it really felt like you were using the science, you were applying the scientific method when you were just doing things. Is that is that what you did? Is that how you experienced it?
Bonnie Nieves [00:09:44] 100%. I, I did the action research. I had my comparisons between my classroom and another person's classroom and their like feedback on how they felt about their course, their test scores on the state standardized tests and on our classroom assessments. And as I started to move away from doing traditional multiple-choice assessments towards more project-based, I still took the target content standards and compared them to my project-based course and another multiple-choice course, and did as close as I could to item-for-item, or standard-for-standard, comparisons to the hands-on learning with no homework and student-driven versus teacher-driven with traditional homework and traditional tests. So and then I presented it to my colleagues at department meetings and professional developments.
SJ Boulton [00:10:54] Good on you. I'm getting a little bit like a pride feeling. Good for you showing it off! I have a clarifying question. The teachers you were comparing with, were they within your own school or were they part of your wider educational network?
Bonnie Nieves [00:11:09] They were at my school. So these were students that had very similar experiences.
SJ Boulton [00:11:15] Okay, great. And potentially a controversial question, but how did your colleagues feel when you started seeing the results that you did?
Bonnie Nieves [00:11:23] Actually they were saying things like, 'wow, that's really neat, except I don't know how to do that'. Like, I can't really I can't release that responsibility onto the students because I don't feel as though I'd be able to support that.
SJ Boulton [00:11:40] Really. That's really Interesting. That's a teacher confidence thing.
Bonnie Nieves [00:11:44] It is. It's the, like the efficacy. You just have to really let go. And it's hard to be able to say to yourself, I need to create a condition where these students will just figure this out. I know it will take longer and it will be worth it. And resist the urge to keep interjecting all the time.
SJ Boulton [00:12:16] So there's a little passage in your book that really drove exactly the point that you've just made that really drove that point home. And it's this part it's, "Perhaps it's because of my science background that I'm so comfortable with, see, and unexpected results and using them to move forward. When things don't go according to plan, it just means there were options that we didn't anticipate. Sometimes they were better than expected, and sometimes we have to shift our perspective and reframe our thinking. Sometimes my most effective lessons have been the ones that didn't go as planned. And it's okay to say to yourself 'that was unexpected' and see it as a learning opportunity." To me, that passage, like it really echoes the sentiment that you've just expressed, that how scary for a teacher to go into a room and be like, I'm not sure how this is going to turn out. Yeah, I love that passage.
Bonnie Nieves [00:13:11] Yeah, and I still do it right? I still do. As a matter of fact, in one of the tabs open on my computer right now, I'm setting up an inquiry lesson on leukemia. Where my students in high school, they're 10th graders, have only ever had one biology course up to now, and they're in my anatomy, and I'm just going to give them a few different videos on patient stories with leukemia and their treatment and point them in the direction of the research and see what they figure out, and if they can make the connection between the skeletal system and the immune system and how important cell biology really is to things that they don't realize.
SJ Boulton [00:14:16] That's so interesting. And I have a question, and I'm sorry if it's a little bit awkward, but I'm really curious. I think this is a really beautiful and elegant way to engage a cohort of students with self-directed learning, personal investigation, and hopefully intrinsically motivated, curiosity-driven learning, actually going and doing it. What is the goal that you set the students in order to get them to perform in the way that you're looking for without telling them the answer? How do you frame those goals in your learning?
Bonnie Nieves [00:14:52] So I say things like 'By the end of this unit, you will be able to explain why understanding cell biology is important for everyone. And I give them little, individual lesson targets along the way.
SJ Boulton [00:15:21] OK, so the objectives are broken down as you go through the course.
Bonnie Nieves [00:15:23] Yes. So, it will keep them on the same path. And some kids just veer off and they follow their curiosity, and it's good. At this point, now that I've been doing this type of teaching for so long, I can just let a kid veer off on a path that I know is going to lead nowhere. But if I shut them down, then they would shut down also. So I just let them go off and investigate something to figure out that that was the wrong way to go, but that whatever they learne down that path is going to be valuable later.
SJ Boulton [00:16:01] They've still learned something and it may tie back in later.
Bonnie Nieves [00:16:04] Yeah. And it almost definitely does. I mean, it might take longer than you would think, but it does definitely connect back. But the daily objectives are the important thing.
SJ Boulton [00:16:19] Okay. So keeping on trajectory with little course adjustments all the way through rather than setting one big objective for the entire course and not course correcting as you go.
Bonnie Nieves [00:16:29] Yeah, there are some kids that can do that. Like right now I have one student in mind in particular that will just run with it and he has a science family at home. Right. This is what they talk about at dinner time. So he's already way ahead with his background knowledge on any type of cell biology or application. So I can differentiate and let that student go off on his own research tangent and possibly even come back and teach the other students some things that would be cool.
SJ Boulton [00:17:17] We're going to end up in territory - April, we need we need a third podcast, I'm just saying. But the thing that you were triggering for me there while I was listening to you relate this particular example of the student that seems to have a lot of science capital already is this idea of ownership of learning. And I know there's a story that you like to relate from your book. And I was wondering, would you share the bathroom story with our listeners?
Bonnie Nieves [00:17:48] Oh, my gosh. Yes. So I was just talking about this. I had a conversation at my department meeting last week about this. Okay, so the bathroom story is I was noticing that there were just a lot of students going to the bathroom and I, I get aggravated. I hate to use that word, but it's true. When I'm when I am trying to talk to students, especially back when I was new and a kid would raise their hand and I'm thinking, 'oh, it's a question. I can't wait to hear what their question is, I'm so excited' and they'd say ''Can I go to the bathroom?' Like, you're kidding. You're kidding.
SJ Boulton [00:18:34] Are you kidding me? Yeah, but we can't say that.
Bonnie Nieves [00:18:37] I know, but it's like when you're like trying to tie a knot in a balloon and you let it go. That's the deflated feeling I get every time a kid raises their hand and says, 'Can I go to the bathroom?', Like, 'Sure, go ahead, but I thought it was a science question'. But that's okay. And so I started saying, you know what? I'm just going to tell the kids, you don't have to raise your hand. Just here's a sign out sheet, sign out. And the only rule is you cannot go if there is already someone out. You have to wait until they sign back in and then you can go. And I noticed that the only time or the majority of times kids were saying go was when I was the person doing the talking. And when they were working independently, almost no one signed up to go to the bathroom.
SJ Boulton [00:19:33] Interesting. So you had a little bathroom log?
Bonnie Nieves [00:19:35] Yes.
SJ Boulton [00:19:36] That you could marry up to the activity in the class? Oh, I love it.
Bonnie Nieves [00:19:38] Yeah. And I and I thought, you know what? I've got to swallow my pride here and just know that they're not that into me.
SJ Boulton [00:19:47] But what a way to put it. They're just not that into me.
Bonnie Nieves [00:19:51] Yeah, Yeah, they can just completely engage on their own with their friends. And as long as they're having some academic discourse and they're engaged in something that's meaningful, who am I to interrupt that? So I started decreasing my talking time, and now it's to the point where the kids come in at the beginning of the year. Again, I get new kids every year, and the agenda is on the board. And I just tell them, 'this is your objective for today. Here's the plan for you to do it'. And I preview the plan with them if it's a new activity that they're unfamiliar with. And then I stop talking and I just walk around and interact with students at an individual level. And it's now. So at this point of the year, when we're at half-year, it's to the point where they read the agenda for themselves. They're familiar with the activities that we use routinely and they move at their own pace and they do their own thing. And I almost never talk to the class as a whole anymore.
SJ Boulton [00:21:17] I know you just mentioned you're at the halfway point there. Does it take a little while for them to settle in and become comfortable with this mode of teaching?
Bonnie Nieves [00:21:26] Yes, because there are some students that are really just intrinsically motivated, and there are the students who are not, who like to have the teacher be the person that bestows knowledge upon them because they don't feel empowered to be able to do that themselves. And a way that I experimented with that was I did this thing, and I still do it occasionally for certain types of content, I do Notes Your Way. So, 'If you'd like, I will sit down with you or a group of students and explain all of this information bit by bit, or you have the option to take the notes in text or watch videos and gather that knowledge yourself. And then we'll have conversations to see whether or not everyone in the room understands the thing that we were trying to learn. And eventually, all of the students moved to the moving at their own pace, getting information their own way. But it takes a while.
SJ Boulton [00:22:54] Cool. So you mentioned Notes Your Way being like a preferred technique. And I am almost certain that by this point, a lot of our listeners are going to be wondering what are the teaching tools and techniques you found to be most successful and which are the ones that really get your biology students to engage? Could you share a few other tools and techniques?
Bonnie Nieves [00:23:16] Yes, The most successful are hands-on, hands-on and modeling. Without a doubt. Even if it's just putting ideas on index cards and having them do matching games, it can be that simple. The laboratories, the lab experiences where kids can actually use tools of science, that makes them feel so important. Even microscopes, which for biologists is like, 'Oh my gosh, my I know my eyes are going to hurt.' This is what I'm thinking when I see a microscope like, Oh my God, it's going to be so frustrating.'.
SJ Boulton [00:24:00] But not when you're 13 or 14 and you've never used one before.
Bonnie Nieves [00:24:03] Yes! And so it's really refreshing to say, oh, you know what? That really is a cool thing. Like for me as an adult, that's a cool thing that I can do. And there are people in the world who can't do that. There are people in my household that can't do that. And so, experiencing it through a student's eyes where it's the coolest tool and they get excited about using the things that we feel are very mundane. There are just so many, hands-on, but then of course, there's the Labster type that are virtually hands-on, where it's a lot easier to manage for me as a teacher because I don't have the concerns of liquids spilling or glass breaking and students moving about because they're stationary but still active.
SJ Boulton [00:25:12] Question out of curiosity, do you - and it might be that there isn't - but do you find that there's a transition between virtual to in-person hands-on? Do you use one at the beginning of the course and one afterwards? Or do you just kind of mix and match across the whole course?
Bonnie Nieves [00:25:30] I mix and match. And it's because, like, right now we use Labster once a week or once per rotation. We have a seven-day rotation, and so one time out of that rotation is scheduled all year to be Labster simulations. The way that I set them up is like before we use pipettes, they'll do the virtual one just to be familiar with what things are, you know, so I can say, 'you need a P200 not a P 20.' And kids will go, 'Oh, yeah, okay, I know what that is' because they've already done this simulation.
SJ Boulton [00:26:17] Okay, So you don't have to use precious lab time to do a very banal explanation they can get elsewhere. Right, optimization, familiarization, got it. That makes sense. Okay, I understand. I feel like there's almost a little threshold concept in that of remembering the wonder of these very basic pieces of equipment and sometimes we maybe write them off as 'oh, it's just microscopes, like it's boring. When in fact, it's not. It's really cool.
Bonnie Nieves [00:26:47] Yeah. And their eyes just light right up. Even, even now when we're at the half-year. Pre-made slides are just so exciting to them. It's amazing and wonderful.
SJ Boulton [00:29:33] I'm with you. That kind of curiosity-driven, investigative, slightly project-based activity can be really valuable, and I'm glad Labster can help with like the little pieces around, you know, what size pipette is which and what does that P mean? All that kind of stuff.
Bonnie Nieves [00:29:47] Yeah. And really, it's more than just little things. Even just thinking about the simulations is not even giving the proper credit to the lab report and the ability to take the images out of the Labster simulations and apply them to what they're learning and insert that into the lab report that they write and the analysis questions and the theory pages. There is a reason why I'm here talking to you, besides that you're an amazingly cool person, but the thing that got us together was like my love of Labster and how useful it is and how really thoughtfully written and created everything is, so credit to you for that.
SJ Boulton [00:30:44] Oh Dr. One will be so proud to hear that feedback. She really will.
April [00:30:46] We’ll continue with Part Two of our conversation with Bonnie Nieves in our next episode. Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. We invite you to send us your feedback at April at Labster dot com. Until next time, keep teaching and keep learning.