Café Conversation: Chocolate and Silkworms

You can find me just about every morning at the Café Pacifica having my just-plain-old black coffee and not-so-plain conversation with the early crew – my cafe “homeys”. From time to time, I hear the most amazing stories, one of which I want to share here.



What is the connection between chocolate and silkworms? The  connection is awesome learning!

One of my crew, Deb, volunteers at a middle school, and works with students in the special education program. The teacher for this very fortunate group finds creative and engaging ways to help her students learn. Here are two examples of her “stealth” education:


Students are assigned to bring in their favorite family chocolate recipe (just the recipe – not the actual yummy). After a few days, students are invited to verbally share a little about their recipe in “Show and Tell”. Next, they are assigned to write a short report about the recipe – where it came from, who makes it, when the family enjoys this treat (holidays, birthdays, rainy days, whenever), and what the student likes about this variation on the chocolate theme.

Then the recipes are converted into arithmetic problems. You are having a party and you are going to have 12 guests. The recipe makes enough for 6 people. Rewrite the recipe doubling all the ingredients. A worksheet is distributed for homework – color in the measuring spoons or measuring cups for  each ingredient.

Another activity has students trading recipes – find someone who has a recipe similar to yours – find someone who has a recipe very different from yours.

Finally, students go to the home-ec room and make some of the delicacies. I hear that other students from the school flock to the chocolate sale table to purchase goodies from the special-ed students.


The same group of lucky special education students spends an entire year caring for and observing silkworms. When the silkworm shipment arrives, learners divide into small groups. Given all the supplies needed to set up their silkworm farms, students work with guidance from the classroom volunteers to make happy homes for their voracious and productive pets. The small groups are tasked with feeding and harvesting, maintaining a weekly log, and keeping the silkworm environments happy and healthy. Students keep individual journals, and occasionally share their journals with each other.

In addition to the types of engaging activities with the chocolate project, silkworms add learning topics such as biology, ecology, and EEK! even sex education and reproduction.

Our Challenge

I hear you thinking, “Nice story, Chris, but what does this have to do with graduate school?” I argue that these rich types of learning opportunities have everything to do with graduate school. What if we were to identify the desired learning outcomes, consider focus and level of complexity, and then design activities and assignments that are meaningful, relevant, and multi-dimensional?

And, oh by the way, fun is a good idea, too.

So if it’s not chocolate or silkworms, what have you, are you, or might you do for some “stealth learning”?

From eLearning to WeLearning

When you think about online education, what comes to mind? I often hear things like:

  • I don’t like online learning — I like to be in the classroom where I can interact with other students.
  • I’m too social for online learning — online learning is too isolating and lonely.
  • Online learning is boring.

How about you? Share your preconceptions about online learning by commenting on this post.

Online learning is also known as eLearning (electronic learning). But let’s consider a different proposition. What if we engage in WeLearning rather than eLearning, or even iLearning?

iLearning (“I” Learning) — I want or need to learn something. I get on my computer or smart phone. I “Google” or use some more scholarly search tool to look up the information I am seeking. I choose from the available sites and information that seem to meet my learning needs. I learn what I need to know, and I might even discover related topics I didn’t expect would pique my interest.

eLearning (one example) — My employer requires periodic training on topics sucs as sexual harassment, human subject research, or HIPPA. I receive an email message informing me that I must complete the training online by some specific date. I log in and work through the units — slides that cover the material, with an occasional multiple choice question to check my knowledge.

WeLearning — I elect to take a course online. The course is billed as collaborative. I log on the first time and am asked to post my introduction. I read and reply to a few introductions posted by others, and our conversation begins. Soon, we become a community of learners. We are expected to use forums to sustain ongoing dialogue. We are expected to post assignments and then give and receive feedback among our scholar colleagues and faculty. We may be required to complete group projects. We learn with and from one another.

There is a time and a reason for each of these models, and many more. Designing Clinical Research for Students and Residents ONLINE is WeLearning.

CTSI Embarks on Fully Asynchronous Online Learning Journey

August 1, 2011 marks the official start date for Designing Clinical Research (DCR) for Students and Faculty. The majority of scholars will assemble on Monday and Wednesday mornings in the traditional lecture hall at the Parnassus campus. Twenty self-selected learners will take the course completely online via the UCSF Collaborative Learning Environment, AKA Moodle.

The online course site was made available to students at noon on Tuesday, July 19. At 4:14 pm that same day, the first student logged in, explored the site, and posted an introduction. By 6:00 pm, two more students showed up and began to interact with each other. Remember! The course does not officially begin until August 1.

This course about research also doubles as research. Co-faculty, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD and Deborah G. Grady, MD, MPH along with researchers, Sarah Wilson, MD and Lawrence Haber, MD, as well as instructional designer and online learning consultant, Chrisanne N. Garrett, MAED will study the first offering of the online course. This small pilot study aims to answer the following question: how do learning outcomes, including knowledge and skill acquisition, and learner satisfaction compare between health science students who take the online DCR course and students in the traditional course?

The DCR course is structured to foster the development of students’ ability to write a clinical research proposal. For the final assignment, students write a five page proposal of their research study. We plan to take the twenty proposals written by the online students and compare them to twenty proposals randomly selected from the traditional course. Two K Program scholars, blinded to the author of the proposal, will read all forty proposals and rate the proposal based on the NIH scale of 0-9. We will then compare the scores of the online students to the scores of the traditional students. Additionally, we will collect formative and summative evaluation data from the online learners on both learning progress and satisfaction with the online learning environment.

This blog will serve as an ongoing report on the online course and, ultimately, on the results of the research study. Your questions and comments are most welcome.