Engaging the Public with the Ocean Through Storytelling

In September, I attended MTS/IEEE Oceans 17 in Anchorage, Alaska. This was my third year covering this annual engineering and technology conference, but it was my first time leading a workshop on science communication.

I arrived at science communication via a compulsion to write and my undergraduate work in communications, where I studied media framing and public perception of issues like poverty and climate change. Then, thanks to an internship at NASA Goddard and writing for IEEE Earthzinebetween my undergrad and grad school, I discovered that science writing taps into my general curiosity about the world. It’s a constant process of learning and discovery and I can’t get enough of it.

To me, the largest challenge I face when writing about oceans is how quickly a story can turn into an obituary -- plastic and marine debris, pollution, ocean acidification, over-fishing -- the list of obstacles is long and terrifying. This has been something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. Thanks to some great conversations with Jyotika Virmani at XPRIZE and my own background in media studies, I began to think about how I frame my stories to offer, at the very least, a great story, but ideally something we all need a bit more of: Hope

Our short, 90-minute workshop examined science communication through the lens of storytelling. We looked at what makes a good story, how social media can engage the public, and how media framing impacts public perception. Our hope was to offer particpants ideas about how to communicate and engage the public with their work through storytelling. Here is a link to our presentation for more.


Sharing Experiences

I am not an expert.

I have experiences -- good and bad -- that I can share with students to help prepare them for what lies ahead. We're fellow writers at different points in our journey and teaching is a collaborative process. Sharing what has worked and the many ways things have gone sideways can be useful for my students, and for me because it forces me to see a different way forward the next time.

I've been hesitant to lecture all term. I don't see myself in that role as imparter of wisdom, but my students asked me to deliver one lecture at the end of the term. They wanted advice and guidance about what life might look like if they choose to pursue a career as a writer. Here's what I put together for them -- take it all with a grain of salt.

Delivering Course Content

When I returned to school, I spent countless hours staring at boring Power Point presentations -- some provided by text book companies, others drafted hastily by overworked instructors. Many instructors gave us access to the presentations so we could use them as a study guide. While I always thought this was a kindness, it felt less so when I returned to my notes for week 3 to study for an exam and the simple bullet points lacked meaning and context after so much time went by.

I've also been working with various Adobe products thanks to a teacher-discount on their Creative Cloud suite, which I also rely on heavily for my (amateur) photography habit. I really like Adobe's Spark Page, which allows you to build really eye-catching digital stories and presentations. I decided to use it to deliver my weekly lessons to my freshmen composition students at Portland Community College. While the platform isn't perfect, it does have a ton of benefits: the students can access the presentation with a link, so they can view it on any device without downloading; I can embed videos and hyperlinks to additional resources and contextual information; and, it is visually engaging.

Here is one of my favorites from the winter term:

WR 121 Week 10: Peer Review, Revision, and Wrapping Things Up!






A Teaching Philosophy

One of my last courses in grad school is on teaching and tutoring writing. For our final portfolio, we crafted personal reflective essays on our teaching philosophies. Here is mine:

The process of intellectual growth is akin to what goes into mastering a musical instrument. You practice your craft with a combination of experimentation and persistence. A ritual of practice moves you forward – a daily regimen that builds muscles, develops your ear, and strengthens the connection between you and your instrument. With persistence, you begin to perform more naturally, without concentrating on what note to play or which keys to press. You begin to experience the freedom to try new things because you have mastered various elements of your craft. Because learning is a recursive process, once one element is mastered, it is time to start all over again with a focus on a different aspect. A good music teacher will see where the student is in the process, and work with her to move through the peaks and plateaus of developing as an artist. The instruction is student-centered.

During my four years working with students via Portland State’s University Studies mentor program, I’ve developed a teaching philosophy built around: seeing the student as an individual, meeting them where they are, and providing the skills to succeed academically and professionally. This philosophy is also rooted in my experiences as a non-traditional student. I returned to school after a successful career working in the food and wine trade, where mentoring and teaching were key aspects of my work.

My life experience and recent academic work lead me to believe that my job is to create a safe(ish) space in which to encounter new ideas and to think critically about the course materials and the world we live in. As instructors, we have a responsibility to nudge our students into what educators have referred to as the zone of proximal development. Through the selection of diverse texts and content that exposes students to critical scholarship, we have the opportunity to participate in nurturing the next generation of global citizens by aiding their interrogation of difficult and challenging content.

To me, this notion sits at the core of a solid liberal arts education. Temple University Professor Robyn Kolodny recently wrote in Newsworks that a liberal arts education teaches students to “read, write, and think critically;” the author connects these abilities to our current political arena and suggests that much of what we are seeing in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is a result of poor training in these areas.

“The one thing that liberal arts guarantees to do is to reveal how subjective the world actually is. If you have had any social science or humanities class, you know that "good" and "evil" are never pure characterizations,” Kolodny argues. “You also know that not every problem has a clear answer and, often, solutions carry unintended consequences.”

These words resonated with me, and I believe that they speak to a need for writing intensive courses that delve into the issues of the day with a critical lens and interdisciplinary approach. Formulating ideas and communicating them to others are fundamental skills for survival out in the world. And, given our current media paradigm, possessing the requisite skills for evaluating information and developing one’s view on the important issues of the day is, unfortunately, largely up to the individual.

Writing is inquiry. Writing is engaging with knowledge and finding new ways of seeing the world, and I love sharing that with students. Perhaps I arrived at this notion because my favorite and best teachers were and are writers.

Over the years, these individuals reached me by sharing their own work – including their flaws and processes. As a student, this helped me to see that it might be possible for me to do similar work. And, as a result, I’ve worked to incorporate and share my own experiences with students. If they struggle with developing a draft, I show them my first and final drafts side by side so they can see that my ideas and words didn’t magically or effortlessly flow onto the page. We talk about how I got from one version to the other, and what possible avenues they could take in their own papers. Through this, they see writing is hard for me too, and it builds trust and a willingness to come back and ask more questions the next time.

During my second year as an undergraduate mentor, our students in a Race and Social Justice Freshmen Inquiry course were beginning the process of writing their first college-level research paper. When confronted with familiar groans and eye rolling as my faculty partner handed out his guidelines for the project, I decided to share an essay I wrote about my grandfather’s time as a clergy person and Civil Rights activist in the 50s and 60s in Texas. It was a very personal story, but my grandfather is no longer alive, so the project required a great deal of research. I let them read the work and asked them to highlight all the sections that included outside research. They were stumped. Because there was an “I” in the paper and it was about a family member, they assumed it was generated only from my memories and experiences.

When we dissected the piece together, they learned about oral histories, library research, and interviewing sources; they saw that writing and research could be engaging and relevant to them in some way. Through this discussion and process, the students found a new way to approach their own papers. One student wrote about homeless female veterans, because he was attending PSU with the GI Bill and learned that female vets have fewer resources available. He wanted to know more so he could figure out how to do something about it. Another student wrote a powerful and moving essay about Japanese Internment camps during WWII; she interviewed her grandmother, whose farm used prisoners for labor. She won a Portland State Kellogg Award for freshman writing that year and later told me that she didn’t know academic writing could be . . . fun.

I’m striving to develop ways of teaching that make writing approachable and engaging for my students. I try to meet them where they are, and I search for subtle opportunities to help them see the world around them more clearly and critically. Our students have something to say, and I want to help them find their voices.

Crafting an Intro

There is an all too common belief that academic writing should be boring. I believe that it is one of many reasons that contribute to students dreading each and every writing assignment that comes their way. When my faculty partners assign papers, I try to scaffold the work and inject opportunities for development. In two weeks our students will be submitting book reviews on texts about critical thinking. The students were allowed to choose a book from a curated list that included options like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow or Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan.

If I do nothing, many of the students will skim the text and crank out a poorly constructed rough draft the night before the paper is due. Or, the students who struggle with the complexities revealed by their chosen author will feel discouraged and add this assignment to the growing list of reasons for why they hate writing.

I don't want that.

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A Note to My Students

I wrote this little note for my students while wrapping up travel to Boston in order to visit archives for my own thesis. Since they are working on library researching this week, I thought it might offer them a little motivation to see what sorts of things one can do if they learn how to do academic research at the library. (Shockingly, I've done a survey each term and my unscientific findings reveal that more than half of them have never visited the university library or accessed it online!) After four years of working with undergrads, I've also found that they learn so much from my failures and successes if I am willing to share them!

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Teachable Moments- Modern Day Communication & Today's College Students

(Published in Medium on 25 Oct 2015)
As an older college student myself, I often struggle to understand my students and colleagues in my own classes who don't seem to get the etiquette and norms of modern-day communication. Then I remember that I used to write letters regularly, because this is what we did in the olden days. We sent letters to our friends over summer vacation, to our grandparents, and occasionally to pen-pals in distant lands. Many of today's students have never encountered the format and conventions of a written letter. They grew up texting, creating their own languages, and using cartoon characters to represent emotions and intent. This week, I spent too many hours fielding about 100 emails from students as I helped them coordinate their first team meeting for a group project in an online class. I probably don't have to say much more since you all read those dread words: group project! After responding to these emails, granting extensions, and pouring myself a stiff drink to numb the pain, I realized that I wasn't being fair. I hadn't given them the skills or advice they needed to master this oh-so-important part of adult life. So, from now on, I will be incorporating this lesson early on each term.
Here's what I drafted as a starting point for an ongoing discussion of the ethics of communicating in a modern world:

Email Communication 101

- Jenny Woodman, 2015

Generally speaking email is a great form of communication for specific purposes, but not always. There are times when this medium is highly problematic. Did you know that a pretty large percent of communication is nonverbal, meaning your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language all add context and meaning to what you are saying? Without this information to confirm or clarify the textual information, misunderstandings are likely.

Additionally, research has shown that the anonymity of the Internet erodes trust and often empowers people to communicate with others in ways that would never be acceptable in a face-to-face interaction. Some have called this the “technological imperative,” which suggests if the technology permits the behavior, then the behavior is acceptable (Johannesen et al, 2008, 125). The unfortunate byproduct of this concept is that individuals are dehumanized, which has “permitted many hate sites, gender biased chat groups, Holocaust denial locales, and so forth” (125). To be clear, this is not to create an equivalent between thoughtless and hate-based communication, but to point out that the consequences of failing to understand the potential problems inherent in online communication can be dire.

From a strictly professional perspective, there are things that are never acceptable in the workplace, and it is a good idea to learn these standards early as failing to understand what is proper (and not) can lead to serious consequences like failed projects, lost wages and work, and potential legal action. 

Here are some tips:

·      Do not communicate highly emotional materials via email, and do not hit send in the heat of the moment. Walk away for at least an hour or two - calm down. Then, reread what you have written, edit it, and make sure you are communicating what needs saying with intentional awareness that you are speaking to another human being. If you are working on a time sensitive project, send the requested information right away, and address the situation as you see it when you’ve had time to think.

·      Be mindful of your audience. How you email your friend to make plans for the weekend is absolutely not an acceptable style of communication for a professor or employer. For example, this is not an acceptable style for your professor:

What is the assignment is about? Can U help me? - j”  

This is a better way to communicate with an instructor or boss:

Dr. Smith,

I am struggling to understand the guidelines for next week’s assignment. I have referred to the syllabus and asked classmates, but I am still confused. Do you have any time available during office hours this week? If not, would you be willing to provide clarification about the timeline and recommended starting point.

Thank you for your time!


Jane Smiley

·       Subject lines are very useful. Remember your instructors and employers have many students, multiple classes, and a large workforce. It helps them scan an overflowing email box and instantly assess which messages are important and need immediate attention. Vague subject lines don’t convey much (i.e. FYI, or just the name of the class). Clear subject lines like “Important question about WR 121 week 3 assignments” or “Family emergency for WR 121 student”

·      In the examples provided above, one reads more like a text and the other includes a greeting and sign-off. These are important components of a message that convey your consideration for another human being’s time and general respect.

·      Finally, in this day and age with the vast majority of the population owning and permanently attached to a smart phone, failing to respond to time-sensitive emails is a big faux pas – especially when you are coordinating and working with a group. If you know that you are working back-to-back doubles on Tuesday and Wednesday or you are going to be on an airplane or hospital table, this is useful information to share. It is totally acceptable to tell your work group that you will likely be out of communication at certain times, but it is not ok to disappear for 2-4 days.

While it has already been stated clearly here, it bears repeating: you are speaking to another living breathing human being. If you are a stressed out, underpaid, over-worked, sick, and hurting college student, it’s a good idea to assume that the person you are communicating is all that and maybe more. You never know why things aren’t going the way they ought to be, and you will get better results if you assume the best of the people with whom you are interacting.

Related Links & Citation




Johannesen, R., Valde, Kathleen S., & Whedbee, Karen E. (2008). Ethics in human communication (6th ed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press.


Adjusting to the life of a gradutate teaching assistant...

The transition to Sophomore Inquiry or SINQ courses was challenging, but enjoyable. After spending a year at a time with students, 10 weeks flies by so fast. It can be a struggle to fit in all that you need and want to share. Additionally, in the winter term of last year, I made the transition to working in an online format instead of in-class mentoring. The demands of grad school and an internship as a science writer for a NASA publication made me seek out the most flexibility for my schedule. I love the chance to get to know our students face to face, but I have grown as a mentor because I have had to rethink how I do everything. That is always a good thing!

I am getting ready to mentor for my fourth term as a graduate mentor, and I am looking forward to it. Two terms mentoring in an online format has helped me to craft some pretty great lesson plans, and the students seem to have appreciated my efforts. I miss the interpersonal interaction with my students, and online strips away so much, but it forces me to raise the bar and make sure I am providing incredibly clear instructions with expectations, deadlines, and purpose laid out as articulately as possible.

The following is an example of how I teach a lesson on library resources in an online class:

Library Searching & Social Stratification

This week in main session you are learning about social stratification, and the role of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality in shaping or impacting communities.

In conjunction with your readings on this subject, I want to give you access to a library resource that will help you greatly in your projects, and in your research for other courses as well: encyclopedias.

These aren’t anything like the encyclopedias that some may be familiar with from elementary or high school. These are subject- or discipline-specific compilations of definitions and short articles written by experts, which can help you learn more about the subject you are exploring. In general, the materials found in the library database of encyclopedias can lead you to richer source material and give you the foundation to define key terms and concepts in your research papers or presentations. While an encyclopedia entry may not fulfill an instructor’s requirement for peer reviewed source material, it will certainly lead you to the preeminent authors and researchers working on that topic.

Often when you are writing academically, it is imperative that you define the key concepts you are writing about. For example, in communications studies, there are (surprisingly) hundreds of differing, and, sometimes, conflicting definitions of communication. You will need to explain how you are defining communication in order to build a sound argument on top of that information.

So, if you are writing about the impact of stratification on your community, it will be crucial that you define stratification clearly; this will require source material, because in academic writing you can’t rely on your personal view, you must back it up with scholarly sources. If you tried to read and cite a peer reviewed article for every concept you need to define, you’d never finish. So, you can use peer reviewed sources for your main arguments, and these short encyclopedia articles for definitions and basic or background information.

Here's what I want you to do:

Step 1: Go to the Portland State library website. On the home page, select the drop down menu “Research Tools & Collections,” then select “Encyclopedias & Dictionaries.”

Step 2: In the search bar under “Social Sciences” enter the following terms:

            “social stratification”

This will take you to a page with a number of different encyclopedias, open a few and read what they say about this concept. These articles are very short, and don’t worry about memorizing or studying all of the content. I just want you to get an overview of the basics and see how these different encyclopedias work. Some will be for people working advocacy positions; others will be focused on social theory and so on. Try and steer towards articles connect with what we are talking about in this class.

Step 3:  In the search window, search “social stratification” and “race” and look for the articles that fit our discussion this week.

Step 4: While you are here playing around in the encyclopedias, do a couple of searches related to your own group projects and see what you come up with.


If you are struggling with navigating this resource, you must contact a librarian in one or more of the following ways:

  • Go to the second floor reference desk at the library and ask for help. (It might be a good idea to print out this assignment to help them see what you are trying to do.)
  • Use the “Ask a Librarian” feature, which can be found on the top right corner of the Portland State library home page.
  • Use the library’s new DIY (Do It Yourself) library guide.

Step 5: Via email, send me a two paragraph message that tells me what you learned from reading these articles and accessing this resource. If you are already familiar with library encyclopedias, that is fine – you will still be accessing information that applied to our class discussion, and perhaps to your own projects.

This is how I will be tracking your progress this week, so please don’t forget this step of the assignment. This assignment is worth 50 points, and it is due on Monday, April 27th by 11:55 p.m.

 ***While I am always more than happy to help you navigate the university and our course materials, I will not provide any guidance or additional assistance with this specific assignment, because I want you to use the library and librarians as a resource. You are paying for access to a wealth of information, and some truly talented scholars – take advantage of what the place and the people have to offer!

 Also, while you are perusing the encyclopedias, take notes, and save links so you can cite the appropriate materials in this week’s discussion post and in your final paper, if applicable.

Why did I take some of these steps?

Let's talk about my refusal to help the students if they hit a roadblock. One of the blessings and curses of being a mentor is that your students come to rely on you for everything, and if you aren't careful, they won't learn important lessons on their own. This idea is backed up with research that suggests that students really struggle to do things the first time. So, if they haven't been to the library, they won't go on their own until (perhaps gently) forced. This is often why instructors make office hours mandatory for first year students - until they are forced to visit the professor's office, they just won't do it. And more importantly, you would be amazed (and horrified) how students just don't go to the library. They think Google scholar is just as good as a librarian, and we know this is not the case.

Finally, you might be wondering why I made the students email me about their work. First, it gives me feedback on how the lesson plan worked. And, more importantly, I think that putting their experience down in words helps them to see the value and think about what was gained. It's such an easy way to help solidify the lesson when we can't discuss it in person.

Second FRINQ: Race & Social Justice

Partnered with Dr. David Wolf in the fall of 2013, we set out to explore the topic of race and social justice. The following is an article I wrote about our experience during a final project with our students. I published this piece on Medium in 2015.

A Dreamer School - Oregon Kindergarteners Are College Bound

So here we are – me, and 26 college freshmen (with whom I work as a student mentor at Portland State University) vs. 100 five-year-olds at Alder Elementary School in Gresham, Oregon. It is our first day at kindergarten. We are all new to early childhood education; a few of the freshmen have experience as nannies and preschool workers, but nothing could really prepare them for the mayhem, for the chaos of working with this many little children at once.

After frantically scribbling for just a few seconds on the mask we are making of his favorite animal, the little boy grabs my sleeve and tugs repeatedly, “Teacher, teacher! I’m done.” Another little one won’t share the crayons, while four more children all speak rapidly at the same time. They squirm and fidget through every step of every task.

As freshmen at PSU, my students have spent the year exploring race and inequality in the safe confines of a college classroom where these concepts exist in the abstract realm of readings, research papers, and discussions. But now, it’s time to put all of these ideas into action. It is time to do something.

Our plan is to make storybooks with the children, and this is the first of seven visits during which we will use the books as vehicles for discussing diversity. The kindergarteners will draw their favorite animals, and my students will help weave their artwork and conversations into a story about differences and being special.

It’s Aasif’s* first day of kindergarten too. It is April, three quarters of the way through the school year, and he has been placed in Ms. Metko’s kindergarten class, a room already overflowing with children. Aasif has just arrived in the United States from Afghanistan. He doesn’t speak any English and Metko, a first-year teacher, doesn’t know anything about his circumstances or if he has any special needs. With 28 students in her classroom, it isn’t easy to take time to handle specific cases gracefully. Luckily, a fourth grader speaks Dari and is able to spend the day translating for her.

Aasif looks more than a little lost.

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First FRINQ: Design & Society

In the fall of 2012, I partnered with Dr. Kenneth Bagley to mentor a Design & Society FRINQ. Our students were largely engineering, architecture, and computer science majors. That first year was daunting. Our students hated to write, rebelled against assignments (in mentor session, never with the professor), and they complained about everything. There were days when I am certain that I slipped into my previous roll as a restaurant manager - barking orders and taking no excuses.

I should add, year-long courses are a different beast altogether. The first term, the students love that mentor, because she is the only person to whom they feel safe asking stupid questions. The second term, the students hate the mentor because she won't shut up, and this is all a stupid waste of time. The last term, at the end, the students love that mentor because they see how far they've come. They survived their freshman year, and this person helped.

As a new mentor, I often felt like the worst teacher. Ever. No matter how many times I told them to hand in their papers double spaced, Times New Roman, 12 pt font - at least a third of them just didn't listen. I still don't understand why this is such a sticking point with students. I've explained the concept in myriad ways. I've designed PREZI presentations on the importance of learning how to communicate in an academic environment. I've written it on the board in all caps. I've joked. I've pleaded. Yet still, were (and are) the hold outs. The rebels. And, in a way, I love those resisters, because they made me a better teacher in the end. 2 years later, and I still have moments of frustration, but I learned that growth is incremental and everyone learns in different ways. A student may not remember what you said 100 times at the end of that week or quarter or year, but somewhere down the line - they will.

University Studies Undergraduate Peer Mentor

In June of 2012, I was accepted into Portland State's University Studies (UNST) Peer Mentor Program. UNST is an interdisciplinary model for undergraduates to complete what would be considered general studies requirements at another university. Through this program, students take one year-long inquiry driven course in their freshman year followed by a series of coursework in subsequent years. The Freshman Inquiry or FRINQ course is led by a faculty member who is partnered with an undergraduate mentor. The faculty member teaches the course materials; the mentor focuses on areas that will guide the students towards college success like crafting a strong thesis & library research or connecting with university resources. In addition to academic resources, mentors are often on the front lines to capture and address issues before they become serious.

The courses are built around themes that allow students to pursue this guided inquiry in areas that interest them. Each course focuses on four goals: communication, inquiry & critical thinking, the diversity of human experience, and ethics & social responsibility. Undergraduate peer mentors are awarded a full scholarship and a stipend -- this program us highly competitive and it was an honor to be accepted.