Liverworts, Nuclear Waste, and Parenting: Unexpected Connections During Virtual Teaching, by Dominic Klyve

In March 2020, I received news that seemed at the time to be a once-in-a-lifetime jolt.  A jolt that, as I soon would recognize, struck almost every teacher on the planet.  My instruction, including my finely honed classroom management and my practiced camaraderie with my students, would be conducted only virtually for the foreseeable future.

Like many people reading this, I grieved, fumed, and then tried to begin adapting as quickly as possible.

Perhaps, I mused in my brighter moments, this new reality will come with new opportunities. For a brief second I let myself imagine the benefits technology could bring my classes. We could connect with experts across the country (or around the world!) about our topics. We could engage in lively asynchronous conversations in which no voice drowned out any other, and where all ideas could be heard.  The range of media from which we could draw in our studies might come to be worth more than the loss of in-person communication.

And then reality struck.

Teaching online was a lot of work, and I was prepared for none of it.  On top of that, my wife (also teaching online) and I joined the legion of parents trying to help our kids (ages 9 and 12) to complete their elementary and middle school curricula online. The visions of new opportunity faded, seemingly as quickly as they had appeared.

My university runs on a quarter system, and COVID-19 struck just before finals week of winter quarter, so by the time classes resumed, I had new groups of students (almost none of whom I had met in person) and new pressures seemingly daily. My classes weren’t as good, I knew, as they could have been, but they ran better than I feared in my darker moments. Nevertheless, the visions of new possibility stayed at bay, held back by the stresses of professional and parental reality.

But fate is an interesting thing, and connections are found in the most unexpected places.

One of my classes was a “History of Science” course for our Honors College. It’s a class I’ve taught many times, and I love it, in part for the large array of subjects we cover. The range means that however much I think I’ve prepared, at some points in the class I’ll come upon the limits of my knowledge.

So it was in week five of our quarter, during a class in which we were discussing the disposal of radioactive waste. The students, as always, had submitted questions and comments on reading online, and I answered the easier ones in our virtual class session before declaring that due to my own ignorance, I couldn’t answer the rest of their questions.

Then one of my students unmuted herself.

“Umm… that’s my mom’s job,” she said.  “I’m sure we could ask her if we had questions.”

I looked at her image, one small rectangle in a grid of student faces.  “Her job?”

“Yes.  She’s a project manager at <a local site dealing with nuclear waste>.”  (Details omitted for privacy reasons.)

I was fairly excited by this serendipitous turn of events, and asked my student to let her mom know that we’d be thrilled to hear about her experiences, should she ever want to share.

My student smiled in a helpful way.  “I’ll ask her.  I can’t ask her now, though.  She’s working from home, and she’s upstairs on a call.”

And then, less than 30 seconds later, she called out, “She just came into the kitchen….  Mom!!”

After a hurried consult, my student’s mother, very much in her kitchen, sat down at the screen, and led us on an impromptu and fascinating discussion about her work.  My other students chimed in with questions, and we all learned a lot.

After class, I was thrilled. Finally, after weeks of struggling with virtual teaching, we had had an experience better than that which would have been possible in a traditional class. A parent, no doubt struggling in many of the ways I was, had taken time to share her knowledge and wisdom, and she left us better for it.

I shared the interaction with anyone who would listen, and vowed to try to ensure this would not be our last such experience.

I’ll confess that no floodgates opened, and after this fortunate encounter many parts of our class stayed the same, but I did find myself more open to new possibilities.  I was still looking for my opening when a few weeks later we read about modern museums in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, in a chapter in which the author highlighted scientists who studied bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and other non-vascular plants to the rest of us).  The students were, on the whole, a bit surprised that a person could devote their professional life to the study of moss. In an attempt to demonstrate the range of ongoing research on the subject, I pulled up the websites of several journals devoted to bryology, and tried to summarize the work for my students.

When looking at the webpage of the Journal of Bryology, I noticed that two of the most recent articles were by the same person, a pleasant-seeming fellow (based on his webpage) named Des Callaghan, who works as a “consulting bryologist”.  I wondered idly aloud whether the students would like to meet this person with the most unlikely of professions, if it would be possible, and I received an immediate and enthusiastic affirmative.

Thus, buoyed by our impromptu discussion with the nuclear waste expert, I emailed Dr. Callaghan and explained that my students and I would love to meet him and to pick his brain. It turned out that he had been cut off from his fieldwork for the same reason that our class was meeting remotely and that he had time to spare – he may even have been pleased that strangers took an interest in his work – and he happily agreed to be our guest.

So it was that on June 1, 2020, the CWU History of Science class hosted Dr. Des Callaghan, consulting bryologist, as our guest. To my great pleasure (and relief), he was every bit as fascinating and interesting as his website led me to believe. He told us stories of discovering a new species in Madagascar and shared some of the pitfalls of his work. (To work in the field, it turns out, you have to accept that other people will think you’re crazy as you crawl around the ground with a magnifying glass. We also learned that dogs find this behavior exciting, thinking it an invitation to play, while horses are quite disquieted by humans moving in such a way!)

At least one student later described this day in class as the highlight of the term.  Certainly, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I’d like to think that whatever the future of teaching looks like, I’ve learned and started to embrace a new tool for my future classes.  And it wouldn’t have happened without a student’s mother being willing to step into a new role, and to start to bring the world a little closer together.

Dominic Klyve (KLEE-vee) is a Professor of Mathematics at Central Washington University. He is the author of more than 40 papers in number theory, the history of mathematics and science, and applied statistics. His interdisciplinary works have appeared in journals ranging from Gastrointestinal Endoscopy to Shakespeare Quarterly. Klyve has been nationally recognized for promoting the use of primary sources in the teaching of mathematics, and currently serves as a co-PI on a $1.5 Million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop classroom materials for this purpose.  He was a 2014 winner of the Mathematical Association of America’s Alder Award.

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