To be perfectly frank, I think bioinformatics and the problems most of us are interested in are pretty abstract. Worse, they’re pretty boring. Try going to a party and talk about the latest greatest way of assembling a genome. Try going to your kids school and tell them about why you think we should or shouldn’t use a 3% cutoff to define a bacterial OTU. You might bring some caffeine pills with you. So what makes bioinformatics, computer science, and math interesting? Cool examples.

Let me back up. I’m a member of the University of Michigan’s Senate Assembly. Normally this means that once a month I get to hear some interesting policy discussions while eating cheese and crackers. At the November session we were discussing the relationship between the Athletic Department and the rest of campus and the safeguards that are in place to make sure that we don’t turn into UNC. One of the Senate Assembly members indicated that he was teaching a course on the culture of basketball and had a number of athletes in his class. Predictably, a professor from a science department asked how this was tolerated. Thankfully, someone told the scientist he was out of line, but not before the basketball prof could make an important point. The point of the course is to use an accessible topic (basketball) to address a set of topics that can be abstract to many people: race, ethnicity, gender, storytelling, etc. We quickly moved on and agreed that we don’t want to review each course’s syllabus. The bigger point is that there are many ways at a university to teach these themes and there should be an opportunity to learn about culture through sports, about history through Rock and Roll, and statistics from baseball.

This argument for the course makes perfect sense to me. I would love to learn about race, ethnicity, gender, etc. through the lense of sports. I have no skills, but I generally like sports and find they’re a pretty fun topic to discuss because we get that they’re games and generate a lot of interesting First World Problems. On my bookshelf right now I have a copy of Baseball Hacks, which I poured over to learn more about probability, R, markov models, SQL, and general data analysis. I get baseball. I can relate to the situation where a team is up 3-0 with one out in the 8th inning and five outs away from that team making the World Series. What’s the probability that the team goes on to win? Now assume that some knucklehead interferes with a play and the batter goes on to walk. What is the probability that player scores? What is the probability that the team goes on to score 8 runs? It can be modeled as a Markovian process just like predicting a protein fold. I get baseball. I get card games. I get the stock market. The products of the analysis are something tangible that I can relate to. DNA and protein sequences? Yeah they’re cool and all, but sometimes they’re just a little to abstract to use to help me or my students to learn a concept.

A big challenge that I find in teaching is using the right examples to elicit the reaction I had to Baseball Hacks in all of my students. I run into this frequently when I try to think of examples of the “Portfolio effect” to explain why diversity might lead to stability in communities. Always forgetting to write down examples ahead of time that I can go to when I lecture, I draw the following examples… mutual funds and positions on sport teams. You don’t have to think about stereotypes to realize that’s a pretty limited list of examples. Who do you think I capture with those examples? Now what if I were to say: mutual funds, positions on sports teams, colors on a painter’s pallet, food on a buffet, or textures of surfaces in a room? Boom. I may not get everyone, but I suspect I get a lot more of the room.

Similarly, a challenge of being a parent is motivating and helping your kids to learn the basic building blocks that they’ll need throughout life. I have a bunch of kids. The motivations for #1 are to be doted on by others and seen as “different”. The motivation for #2 and 3 is money. Kid #1 loves to bake, sew, and work on our farm doing all sorts of “dirty jobs”. Kid #2 taught themselves to knit and crochet. Kid #3 bought feeder calves that they raise and sell. You get the picture? Each kid has a different motivation and interest that could be used to teach them about math, writing, reading, history, ethics, logic, and so forth. If I assume they have the same motivations and interests, I’ll wind up with a bunch of unmotivated kids that hate school. This leads us to the great philosopher:

This struck a chord with me. Perhaps it’s because kid #3 reminds me of Calvin. Short, blond, doesn’t really like school, and has an amazing imagination and work ethic that is often mis-applied. If I asked #3 to figure out how many 800 lb bales of hay we need to get his two steers through the winter assuming they eat 3% of their body weight each day, he could probably do it. Asking him to solve: 2 x 500 x 0.03 x 180 / 800 will get you a tantrum. So why doesn’t #3 love school? Because he doesn’t get to read enough about cows or dinosaurs:

A final thought on the power of examples… Remember Kid #2, the one who taught themselves to knit and crochet and made the $200 rug? Kid #2 is a boy. What would happen if encouraged him to pursue more “boy” like activites? Many of us think that the use of limited examples with young girls is discouraging them from STEM disciplines. While Kid #1 will make you a killer cheesecake, you better watch out on chicken butchering day. She loves digging through the offal to find the various organs. Fast forward to science class, she’s the only girl that thinks it’s fun to do dissections. Perhaps that’s because she’s the only girl that is encouraged to think digging through intestines is a normal thing for a girl to do. Will she be a baker or a surgeon? Probably neither. Instead, think of the lessons she picks up along the way about the value of baking birtday cakes to lift the spirits of her siblings or about science from butchering chickens. As I tried to say in 140 characters, the biggest challenge I face is figuring out my students’ and kids’ interests and knowing how to use those to communicate the fundamental ideas that they need to move on to learn the next concept.