Brain Food

I am not a snacking person. Although I appreciate the occasional treats, I do not usually crave for sweets. I show indifference to chocolates and ice cream at home to which my wife thinks inhuman. However, I usually keep a stash of snacks in my office at work. Hypocrisy? Let me explain. They can come in handy for me for several purposes:

Like other academicians, I tend to spend lots of time thinking. Easy to have a feeling of brain dead. Little bit of healthy snacks can refresh and rejuvenate me. Unsalted nuts, fruits and granola bars are some of my favorites. Of course coffee or tea helps as well.

I keep a small container of sweets on my desk at office and offer them to my visitors. Only few people would decline the offer of sweet treats during their visit. It actually helps to lessen the anxiety level of students who visit me with some serious issues or who still feel nervous to speak with me – an older guy.

I sometimes use snacks in the class to improve the classroom atmosphere. This could be a surprise treat during the exam time or small prize for class competition activities. A small investment with careful planning for good timing and right purpose can make a big return in class performance and atmosphere. It certainly helps to build a good rapport with students. Of course I am careful not to give an impression that I am trying to bribe the students, and am cognizant of a possibility of creating future expectations due to this gesture. So, I try this at random manner as much as possible.

I usually buy dozen bags of M&M during my marine ecology lab class’ field trips. During the orientation meeting before heading out to the field, I would let them do a simple activity with the M&M. There are several colors of chocolates in the bag. I ask them to guess the proportion of each color, and let them pick 10 pieces at a time as random sampling out of their bags. The teammates would take turn to get another random 10 pieces, and record the color distribution. Once they get their average numbers, I let them open up the whole bag and count them all. While they are eating away their precious samples I explain the purpose. They just did a basic statistics exercise of sample vs. population size comparison before facing the complex real nature, where they may not get a true population size for anything. They would pay attention to careful observation/experiment design, sample collection, and data analysis with greater sense of reality of uncertainty. Some students chuckle and say that’s a too middle-school thing, but I am sure they just had some meaningful lower-stakes learning experience. If a small bag of M&M can inspire and provoke these young souls’ brain activity for learning, isn’t it worth?

I am happy when students understand my good will and respond with smiley faces.

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