Laci M. Gerhart Barley

Field Blog

NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy List: COMPLETED!


I *may* have gotten a little carried away at the library

Reading has always been one of my favorite activities. I honestly think the ability to read might be the skill I value most, even though it’s (fortunately) a super common skill.  As a little girl growing up in Kansas, I loved how books could transport me anywhere, and anywhen. Nowhere is that more true than in the sci fi and fantasy genres, where you can push beyond even the limits of the laws of physics and the space-time continuum.

In the summer of 2014, as I was cranking into my post-doctoral position at Kansas State University, I stumbled across NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. I was new to both genres – a couple years prior, I had made it most of the way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and by the fourth book had given up on the life expectancy of any character whose story arc I enjoyed. I lamented my dissatisfaction with the series to a number of my friends who read fantasy regularly – what I wanted wasn’t Martin’s medieval war story with a side of dragon (#sorrynotsorry), I wanted something with more *actual* fantasy. Every person had the same response: then you should read the Wheel of Time. I spent the last year of my doctoral program wallowing through Jordan’s 14-book, ~12,000-page series, which was actually a nice mental break from the 5-chapter, 215-page hellscape that was my dissertation.

Regardless, once I found the list, it perfectly fit the combination of my voracious reading habit and my anal retentive love of crossing things off lists.

In the time I’ve been working on the list, a lot of people has asked me the following questions:

How was the list compiled?

All of NPR’s Top 100 lists are compiled in roughly the same way. For this list, NPR readers nominated over 5,000 titles, which were then reviewed by a panel of experts and culled to a finalist list, which was then opened to an online poll that received over 60,000 votes. The 100 books receiving the most votes made the final list. The books are ranked in order of most to least votes; from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (receiving 29,701 votes) to C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (receiving 1,452 votes).

Before you freak out that your favorite book or series isn’t on the list, it’s worth noting that this list intentionally excluded young adult and horror/thriller novels, both of which now have their own Top 100 Lists.

Since this is essentially a popularity contests, there are a number of criticisms that can be levied, the most frustrating (in my opinion) being the dearth of diversity in authorship. The list is overwhelmingly white male, which is also true of both genres generally. The top ranked book by a woman is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at #20, and while many male authors have multiple entries on the list (including Tolkein, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Stephenson, Gaiman, Vonnegut, King, Orwell, Sanderson, Clarke, Pratchett, Wells, Niven, and Verne), only one female author appears more than once (LeGuin).

Seriously? A HUNDRED books? Did you actually read them all?


My cat even read some of them with me.

Yes, and no. Many of the books on the list are actually a series, so the list totals ~320 individual books.

I had previously read ~10 of them (including two of the heftier series Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s Wheel of Time) and I did not reread those. Two of the list are graphic novels (Moore’s The Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series) which I skipped because I don’t care for graphic novels. I also let myself out of a series if I truly hated it and had read a significant portion of it to give it a fair chance. I did not complete Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for the aforementioned reasons. I also did not finish Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because it is literally 40 books long; I read the first dozen or so and then could not stand any more terrible puns or juvenile plot lines based around gender stereotypes and I simply could not bring myself to interlibrary loan a book titled The Color of Her Panties.

Other than those few exceptions, I read everything on the list. Totaling over 250 books.

Geez, how long did it take?

Almost exactly four years. I did also intersperse some books that weren’t from the list, but not many.

I’m interested in sci fi and fantasy, but I don’t want to read the whole list. What do you recommend?


Winter break 2014: a few books from the list, a couple extras on Hawaiian history, and a little kir royale on the side

This is hard, because it depends so much on preference, and because my opinions of the books are probably influenced by the order in which I read them since I had read so little sci fi and fantasy prior. But with those caveats, here are my personal top 10, in the order in which they appear on the list:

(I promise there are no spoilers in these descriptions, everything I discuss here are either general themes/topics or plot info you learn in the first couple chapters)

8) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy: just read everything by Asimov. Foundation is great, I, Robot is greatthe robot novels (of which only Caves of Steel is on the list) are all great. Just really, read everything he ever wrote. They are fantastic on their own, and also frequently referenced throughout other sci fi works.

20) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If you went to high school in America, it is highly unlikely that you have not read this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it since high school, read it again. Shelley’s monster is a far cry from the green-skinned, knob-necked zombie of pop culture and her portrayal of the monster’s ostracism by society and Frankenstein’s guilt over his creation are powerful and timeless. The story behind her own life and the writing of the book just make it all the more fascinating.

23) Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: I’m a little conflicted with Stephen King. He’s a fantastic character writer and I often feel like the fantasy and horror aspects of his novels detract from the quality of his character development. The Dark Tower is no exception – you have a fabulous blending of four characters who are so different that you would never expect them to work well together (and yet they are the perfect ka-tet), but shit gets weird fast. It’s a long series, and if you make it through Song of Susannah, you’ll be wondering what brain trauma King went through as a child that would account for his plot lines, but at least read through Wizard and Glass because Roland is a fabulous story teller.

27) Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: this book is halfway between a collection of short stories and an actual novel. Each chapter is a separate time slice in human colonization of Mars, and as the reader you kind of ‘play God’ by knowing all the back history of previous chapters that current characters don’t know. I was hard-pressed to pick only one of Bradbury’s several entries on the list, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. The Illustrated Man (another collection of short stories) is also good, and Something Wicked This Way Comes has some of the most poetic writing I’ve read.

43) Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy: one of the frustrations I frequently ran into with fantasy series were that there was little internal logic to how the magic worked (it seemed anyone, no matter their ability, could always just dig deeper in a time of real need and do just about anything). In Mistborn, not only is Sanderson’s storytelling fantastic, but the structure of the magic is really specific and clearly defined, and the cleverness comes in how it is used. The storyline is also far less predictable than a lot of the fantasy series on the list. I felt like most of them were protagonist (frequently an orphan) finds magical ability, then maybe love, fights evil, rides off into the sunset, blah blah blah. This is one of the few series where I found the ending surprising without just being a contrived last-minute plot twist.

54) Max Brooks’ World War Z: I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it does the book justice. The book is split into a bunch of small sections following numerous individuals’ experiences with the zombie outbreak – regular people, government officials, doctors and scientists trying to understand the ‘infection’, etc etc. I was struck by the realistic feeling to most of the stories – like, I’m pretty sure this is what would actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred.

77) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Series: Ok, full disclosure, this series has some rather graphic S&M scenes. And, I don’t mean 50-Shades-Of-Gray-my-inner-goddess-is-moaning kind of crap, I mean real violence. The up side is it’s all 100% consensual, since this society takes the religious precept “Love as thou wilt” remarkably literally. I really enjoyed following a strong female protagonist navigating her own sexuality and trust issues, and the series’ discussions of morality in love, sex, and loyalty/betrayal and how these interweave with religious and societal norms.

83) Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: This was probably my favorite entry on the whole list. It’s a 10-book series that follows The Culture, a society of numerous intelligent and sentient species (humanoid and non) and artificial intelligences that interact with other ‘less advanced’ societies. Each of the books follows different characters and occurs on different planets and in different time periods, which means they need not be read in any particular order and most can be read as a stand-alone book. I really enjoyed the theme throughout the series of the impact of ‘benevolent’ manipulation by The Culture on other societies and on individual agents of The Culture. Also, the AIs that control spaceships are so advanced that they have individual personalities, which means that the ships are plot-driving characters and have their own social interactions/norms. Not all the books have quite the same tone, which makes it not feel as repetitive as other long series, and many of them are written with a wittiness that makes even the longer novels easy to read. If you’re not ready to commit to the full series, I recommend starting with Consider Phlebas (which occurs during the Culture-Idiran war) followed by Look to Windward, which discusses the impacts of that war 800 years later.

92) Robin McKinley’s Sunshine: this is McKinley’s only entry on the list, as much of her work is young adult or children’s fiction. I really enjoyed Sunshine, though if I’m being totally honest, I’m including her in my top 10 more for body of work as a whole and not just this novel. You should also read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown and Dragonhaven and Pegasus.

3) Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series and 100) C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy: really, what I loved in these two were the second and third books in Card’s series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) and the first of Lewis’ trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet). These deal with the behavior of human individuals and societies when faced with newly discovered intelligent, sentient species and the danger of cultural misunderstandings, especially in the face of xenophobia. Card’s series also delves into inter-planetary ecology. Discovering intelligent life was a common theme in the sci fi entries, but I thought these two addressed it best.

An aside for books about war

Many novels in both genres focus on war, to the point that I am now really sick of reading about war, especially in fantasy where it’s mostly hand-to-hand combat with lots of beheading and disembowelment… There were some noteworthy ones, however, which didn’t quite rise to my top 10, but were still thought-provoking.

56) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 74) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: I accidentally read these two back-to-back and found them to have interesting similarity, even though they’re rather different. Both follow an individual soldier throughout his career and both focus on how war and general life in the military separate soldiers from the civilians they protect. The Forever War focuses on social and temporal separation as the protagonist accrues time dilation while traveling to battles throughout the galaxy. Old Man’s War focuses on biological separation through the development of genetically engineered super-soldiers and trends more towards the question of what it means to be human.

81) Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series: this is another hefty series – 10 books at 1000+ pages each. It actually has a lot in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – countless characters that you cannot possibly keep track of, numerous political factions all fighting over the same area for different reasons, and no one’s safe from death (but even dead, they might not really be gone). It’s better than Game of Thrones in my opinion, though because the characters are a lot more diverse and the cultures they represent are more richly developed and there’s a thread of humor woven through that keeps it from being too terribly depressing.

So…. what are you going to read now?

Oh, so many things! There’s The Guardian’s dystopian novels that reflect today’s socio-political climate, there’s The Guardian’s five best climate change novels, there’s NPR’s  novels for understanding Trump’s election, there’s every book Obama recommended during his eight years in office, and there’s Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list of feminist writings. That sentence maybe came off more political than I intended, but I’ve been stuck in sci fi and fantasy for four years now, and I feel like I need to reconnect with the real world. I also have plans to slog through James Joyce’s Ulysses with a friend with whom I previously slogged through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so maybe I should just round out the Top 10 Most Difficult Novels.

I just love books. And lists.


The final four! Small Gods was the official last book.


The Value of Service Learning

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My first service learning; with an ‘a’ali’i at Ka’ala kipuka, Fall 2014

The University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu puts a strong emphasis on service learning as part of our student’s educational experience. Numerous courses at UHWO contain a service learning component linked to course content, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) coordinates university-wide events, and students who complete at least 30 hours of service learning during their coursework are recognized with a certificate of accomplishment at graduation. In my intro biology and botany courses, our service learning takes the form of native plant propagation and ecological restoration at two sites on the west side of O’ahu, coupled with a reflection paper in which students are expected to discuss if and how they value service learning as part of their educational experience at UHWO. In this post, I’ll reflect on the value of service learning from the instructor’s perspective.

The CCESL statement on service learning describes the purpose of the service learning experience and the benefits the university believes it provides for students. CCESL states that “In service learning abstract ideas and theories become concrete as they are used to make our world a better place.” I view it more as the opposite, actually – in biology classes, we deal so much with concrete facts and in the service learning we get a chance to look at the messiness of the real world; particularly how to deal with large-scale environmental problems like invasive organisms and climate change in the context of two very different habitats.

My students work at two sites on the west side of O’ahu: Kalaeloa Heritage Park and Piliokahe (aka ‘Tracks’) Beach Park. While the work we do at both sites is similar (remove invasive plants and replace with native and endemic vegetation), the sites themselves have very different histories and present very different problems for successful restoration. I believe our restoration at Kalaeloa represents honoring Hawaii’s past while our restoration at Piliokahe represents the struggles Hawai’i faces now and in the future.


upright stones mark the Kualaka’i Trail

Kalaeloa Heritage Park is a 77-acre archeological park containing 177 documented cultural features of Tahitian origin. When students visit the park, Shad Kane (the park’s director) gives them a tour of the 3-acre section that will eventually be an educational park open to the public. Our role is to restore the vegetation of the park to the native plants which would have occupied the area when it was inhabited. Shad emphasizes to the students that this village was one of farmers, fishers, and gatherers (not chiefs or kahunas), and that the people who lived here faced the constant struggle of subsisting off the land. The Kualaka’i trail, which crosses the park, connected upland farming villages with coastal fishing communities and was a feature of maps drawn in 1825 from off-shore surveys performed by Royal Navy Lt. Malden of the HMS Blonde. The park now abuts the Kalaeloa Airport and both the airport land and the park were formerly part of the Naval Air Station Barber’s Point which closed in the 1990s. The park contains the remains of an airplane that crashed during a training exercise in 1949, killing the three pilots on board (the park plans to erect a memorial in their honor next to the wreckage). In this way, Kalaeloa Heritage Park embodies many stages of Hawaii’s past, from Polynesian inhabitants prior to Western contact to recent relationships between civilian and military presences. The park is protected by a fence, and Shad and his crew care for our native plantings and support our removal of invasive species. Once it is open to the public, entrance fees will continue to support the maintenance and care of the park, which will educate visitors on Hawaii’s sociopolitical and environmental history.


Piliokahe Beach Park is a very different place. The park is open to the public and abuts Farrington Highway in Nānākuli. It is managed by the Honolulu Parks and Rec Department and is an off-the-beaten-path tourist spot (our Saturday-morning restorations regularly run into wedding parties). Unlike Kalaeloa, this park is not protected by any fences, though recently Bruce has posted signs informing visitors that restoration work is occurring on the dune. Our plantings at Piliokahe Beach are vulnerable to many of the social and environmental problems facing Hawai’i generally, such as human apathy and ignorance of environmental issues, homelessness, and climate change. Malama Learning Center initially started restoration work here, with the goal of progressing down the dune front away from the primary beachgoers’ area. In the several semesters I have participated here, our progress has stalled out on two regions which repeatedly face destruction. One semester, a homeless man removed all of the rock rings protecting our plants and placed his multi-tent camp on top of our plantings. The next semester, nearly all of our plants were killed by an unusually hot and dry summer and significant erosion of the dune front. The primary invasive plant on the dune is buffel grass, which takes over again almost as quickly as we can remove it. Buffel grass is particularly helped by the proximity to the highway – one tossed cigarette can start even a small fire that will kill the native plants (which are not adapted to fire), and clear the way for buffel grass (which is resistant to fire) to recolonize large areas.


Seed pods on pohinahina

At Kalaeloa, the naio we planted my first semester are already shoulder-high on me. Many of the species we’ve planted are now reseeding themselves and every time I visit, the park is visibly more lush with native plants. I even once saw an endemic picture-wing fly on a wili wili tree. I can walk around Kalaeloa and remember the individual plants and even which of my students planted it. Almost nothing has died. At Piliokahe I know where we planted on the dune, but I struggle to identify our individual plants. The shape of the dune front changes and I can’t always tell if the new plants we planted there died or were washed out, or still struggling amongst the returning buffel grass. It’s a harsher ecosystem all around; even the plants that survive aren’t showing the robust vitality that the plants at Kalaeloa exhibit. Still, we’re making progress. The sections of the dune where we planted when I first started are slowly overgrowing with pohuehue, pohinahina, and ‘akulikuli, and this semester, I noticed some of the pohinahina setting seed.

For these reasons, the restoration at Kalaeloa feels more successful than at Piliokahe, although the struggle at Piliokahe resonates more strongly with me. It’s easy for people to understand the value of preserving what little remains of the past; it’s harder to convince them to preserve what little remains of the present. This dichotomy is visible even in my students’ reflection papers. Students often comment on looking forward to taking their families to Kalaeloa to learn about the cultural features and show off their contribution to the park’s restoration. Piliokahe is a public beach, and any one of the students could revisit the dune at any time to show their families or observe the progress of the plants, and yet to my knowledge, only one student has done so.


Naio at Kalaeloa, planted Fall 2014, photographed Fall 2016

Which brings me back to the point of this for the students’ educational experience. CCESL states that “Service opportunities provided by faculty in their courses engage students in active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning experiences that meet community needs while deepening and expanding classroom learning objectives… Research has shown that students who participate in focused service learning in a course retain information better and have a deeper understanding of course material.” My students probably don’t see a connection to learning objectives or course content yet, for two reasons:

1) We haven’t gotten to the most relevant content yet. The semester ends with the chapters on ecology, including invasion ecology and sustainability and conservation. When we went to Kalaeloa Heritage Park, we were still covering like, properties of water or something, which was not obviously directly related. The students will get the content in class after we’ve done the service learning, and right before the papers are due (see how I worked that out?! :-D)

2) The service learning relates most strongly to an unwritten learning objective for the class; an unwritten learning objective for college generally, I would argue: by the time students complete their degrees at UHWO (regardless of their major) they should be functional, contributing citizens. They should be informed voters, caring members of their community, have identified social causes important to them and support these causes with their time and/or money. In short, they should give a shit. About something; about anything, really. UHWO doesn’t have a biology major, so I recognize that few (none?) of my students love biology like I do. That’s fine. Love something. One of the things I hope my students see before they’re done here is that your grades, your GPA, your class rank don’t matter. I mean, they “matter” in that they determine if you get credit for the class, keep your scholarship or whatever, but they don’t matter in the real world. The purpose of college isn’t to get A’s or be valedictorian or graduate magna cum laude – the purpose of college is to be an informed, caring, and contributing member of society. If you figure that out, you’ll probably also get A’s, and you might be valedictorian, and you might graduate magna cum laude. But those things are not the end goal.

One of my students this semester commented in her reflection paper draft that the overall point of service learning is to do something that matters, because so many people never feel that they’ve done something of real value. She argued that service learning should be emphasized more in high school because not everyone goes to college. While I agree,  I also find that college is a good time for this kind of work because so many of my students are on the cusp of adulthood. They’re newly living outside their parents’ influence (or maybe longing to do so). They’re starting to get ‘real’ jobs and some are beginning to settle down and start families of their own. They’re maybe in different places, but they’re all on that continuum working their way from child towards adult. High school is weird in that you’re not really a kid anymore, but you’re definitely not an adult either, and I think the concept of being a ‘contributing member of society’ isn’t really on your radar at that age. The college years (whether or not you are in college when they occur) are formative for adult-hood, for shaping the way you will view the world from here on out. This is particularly relevant in science classes, where we emphasize building evidence-based perspectives. Don’t just regurgitate your parents’ opinions, or your textbooks’ definitions, or your professor’s soap box rant in class (What? Doesn’t everybody do that…?). In college, you should learn to read, to evaluate, to think for yourself.  And if, in the meantime, we your professors can get you to care about something now (I mean really get you passionate about it), it will stick with you when real adulthood descends. Trust me, that’s exactly what happened to all of your professors when we were in college – and here we still are.

The professors are not “required” to go to the service learnings. In some classes, the students choose and coordinate their own service opportunities, and few professors attend the university-coordinated events. I go to all of the service learning events with my students; not to keep tabs on them, or take attendance, or whatever, but because I enjoy it. I see the difference we’re making, even in just a few semesters, at both of these sites and I know that our work there matters. I’m proud of my students, and I hope they’re proud of themselves, too.

Hawaiian Plant Propagation, Spring 2017

It’s that time of the semester again! Namely, the time when Bruce Koebele, our resident propagation expert and service-learning coordinator, visits all of my classes and instructs all my students on planting and caring for a cutting of a native Hawaiian plant. The students will care for their cutting for most of the semester and then plant them at Piliokahe Beach in April. Across all my sections this semester, I have 60 students – a small army of propagators and habitat restorers – and I look forward to the impact a group this size will have on our two restoration sites.

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I enjoy starting the students off early on the propagation. It gives them as much time as possible with their plants, and shows them right away that this class will be different – on the *second day* we’re eschewing the normal class structure (which I tell them I do all semester, but I’m never sure they believe me at first) and literally getting our hands dirty (or not literally, since we’re using potting media and not dirt). It also lets me unleash my dorky side, since I always love the little trays of baby cuttings waiting to be potted. They just look so hopeful, and ready for their new adventure.

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Bruce walks the students through the different techniques of propagating plants, and the steps he has done prior to class. What are the pros and cons of propagating from cuttings versus from seeds? How do you collect seeds or cuttings? How do you ensure the plants you propagate are healthy and will survive in their new home? This semester, Bruce collected cuttings from native populations of each species growing on the eastern coast of O’ahu. This location will bring some genetic diversity to the population at Piliokahe (which is on the western coast), which will help the long-term survival of the population. Bruce also brings potting media that has been sterilized, to prevent infection in the delicate cuttings. And at this point, the cuttings have no roots, so students dip each cutting in a rooting hormone to promote root development as rapidly as possible. Since we’re scientists, we also collect data on the cuttings: students measure the height and leaf number for the cutting upon planting, and then track it throughout the semester. Investment in stem and leaf growth is one indication that the cuttings roots are developing sufficiently to support above-ground growth.

This semester, I’m propagating a plant (or two!) with each class. Left-to-right in the picture below are my pā’ū-o-Hi’iaka, nehe, ‘uhaloa, and pohuehue. So far, only the pohuehue is named – Charlie Brown (for what I hope are obvious reasons).

I strongly encourage the students to name their plants. Naming has a practical goal of helping the students remember to care for the plant… But also, naming the plant encourages the students to identify and interact with it as another living thing. Naming also has importance culturally – Bruce reminds the students that Hawaiian culture believes naming something instills it with your mana (power, or life force).


My plants ❤

Currently, all of the plants are living on campus for a week or so, just to make sure they get off on the right foot (or root). Then the plants will journey home with the students until their planting at Piliokahe. Check back here for more details in late March when all our cuttings return for their final check-up!

Looking to the future, learning from the past

Every semester, students evaluate their professors and their courses. At the University of Hawai’i, this is done through an online system called eCAFE. UH West O’ahu provides new faculty with suggestions from other faculty on how to get students to fill out the surveys. Many are what you would expect – provide class time for completing surveys, offer extra credit incentives, etc. One professors commented that every semester, they post their evaluations online and respond to student comments (especially the critical ones) – this shows students that their comments are read and considered, and it provides new students a chance to see what previous students have thought of this instructor and course. Since this was my first time teaching the large introductory Biol 171/172 sections at UH Mānoa, and since I may be returning in the Fall 2017 to teach the same courses, I decided to do the same.

You can read the full student responses for Biol 171 and Biol 172, and/or scroll through my summaries and responses below. Since the courses and the responses were rather similar, my descriptions below are summarized across both courses. Anything in italics is a direct quote of a student comment, followed by the course that student took in parentheses.

Humble Brag
I’ll start with a number of individual student comments which I found particularly amusing or meaningful. These are admittedly all cherry-picked; the most positive and articulate comments, hence the humble brag…

She made boring topics very interesting to listen to and learn about. (Biol 171) and Made plants sorta fun (which in and of itself is a hard task). (Biol 172) Thanks! I think…?

I liked the plant portion of the class best. (Biol 172)  YES! I converted one!!!! #botanistsunite

thank you for making me feel like I’m learning in a small classroom environment when it’s a huge lecture! (Biol 172) This was what I worried most about going into this semester, and the several comments like this made me feel I succeeded on that front.

I enjoyed how passionate how (sic) Laci was about the subject of biology. I also liked the atmosphere of the class, she does not make you afraid to give your answer even if it is not correct. (Biol 171). I want every student to feel this way, in every class, for the rest of my career. Science isn’t about having right answers, it’s about the process of getting to them. Never be afraid to be wrong.

This class was in the morning and professor Laci made the class so much more bearable with her nerdy quirks, insightful explanations, and interactive discussions. (Biol 171) Sometimes I think my nerdy quirks are my most effective teaching tool. That’s not at all a joke.

Loved this class! I know more about animal copulation and defecation than I ever thought I’d need to–and watching Finding Nemo will never be the same. Those are all wins in my book. #marthasmom (Biol 172) #yourewelcome

I felt very secure in her knowledge of the material and this facilitated a trust-based learning environment. She was also freaking hilarious and that doesn’t hurt either. (Biol 172) I never thought ‘trust-based learning environment’ and ‘freaking hilarious’ would end up in the same comment….

I really super enjoyed this course, and felt that Dr. Gerhart-Barley actually cared about our success in the class (which is something I can’t say about a lot of my professors this semester). (Biol 172) I get at least one comment like this ever semester and it always saddens me. Do that many professors really not enjoy teaching or care about the success of their students?

These next three almost make me tear up:
Dr. Gerhart taught with such passion, love, and care. She has truly left an impact in my life and I hope that she continues to do this for as long as she teaches. (Biol 172)

She really gave me a different perspective and outlook on not only biology, but life. (Biol 171)

i can tell this class means something to you and because of you it means something to me too. (Biol 172)

And the best in both classes:
She. Is. Flawless (Biol 171) and You’re perfect (Biol 172) awwww, shucks….

Me, Myself, and I
When the history of discoveries were taught with such passion, they became unforgettable. The content may have been difficult but it was very enjoyable to learn. (Biol 171)

I generally get positive results from the students about their interactions with me as an individual. I wondered how that would translate from my smaller (24 student) sections at UHWO to the 250+ students in 171 and 172 at UHM. It must have translated well because the vast majority of students commented on my enthusiasm and engaging lecture style, how much they enjoyed my personal stories, etc etc. For example, when asked what they liked best about the class, one student said The best part of the course was the interactions between the professor and the students. She did well to communicate with examples from her lifestyle and our lifestyles. (Biol 171) and another said  I love anything that sparked her passion the most, especially plants, because she got even more enthusiastic than usual and it was adorable. (Biol 172) and another said She made class fun but also thought provoking. (Biol 172) and another said Please never change your teaching style. You’re a perfect example of a how a professor should operate in a classroom. (Biol 172) and another said I enjoyed the enthusiasm that Laci brought to her lectures and to the classroom in general. She was always in a great mood, very engaging, and relatable to the students. You could tell she was passionate about the subject material as well as the success of her students. (Biol 171) and another said Laci Gerhart Barley made this class interesting and exciting. She is very easy to talk to and helpful without making the class easy. She has a great balance of being friendly and helpful, while also keeping the class a challenge. She makes students think and understand the material rather than just memorize vocabulary. This was so far my favorite class at UH Manoa (Biol 171).

One comment I particularly enjoyed:

I loved that you always had time for your students when we needed help outside of class and that you would always ask if we had questions and if we understood everything even when we didn’t respond. I really loved that you kept asking if we got it fully before moving on. (Biol 171) I’ve had students tease me about how often I say ‘Does that make sense?’ and in this class, they teased me about expecting a verbal response, but I appreciate their feedback in the moment (not later on an exam or homework) on how clear I’m being. Just asking that question makes their faces tell me the answer even if their voices don’t.

In fact, the only negative thing students said about me as an individual is that I sometimes should slow down in the lectures. They’re totally right – I talk faster the more excited I get. I’ve been working on slowing down for pretty much my whole professional life.

Preparing for Exams
The students overwhelmingly requested study guides (or practice exams). I have tried a number of ways to better guide student preparation for exams in the past. When I provided practice exams to my smaller sections at UHWO, they were a lot of effort on my part (you are writing two exams, and they need to be similar enough that completing one prepares you for the other, but different enough that they aren’t essentially the same) and no one did them. I switched to a study guide of a bullet-pointed list of terms, topics, and concepts and was impressed at the number of students that used the study guide, and did so effectively.
At UHM, I decided to piecemeal the standard study guide as learning objectives for each lecture – this way the students know for each chapter what they should be studying as we go, and don’t have to wait for a study guide closer to the exam. I explicitly stated this in class on about half the lectures and repeatedly reminded students who asked how to study for the exams throughout the semester. Only a few students commented on the learning objectives, and they alternately found them very helpful or too vague to usefully guide studying. Regardless, I could easily provide students in the future with a bullet-pointed list to guide their studying, though I’m not confident it will improve performance.

Exams Themselves
My exams for both courses consisted of 50 multiple choice questions (to be completed in a 50-minute class). Many students requested shorter exams, more exams covering less material, easier questions (ha ha), or inclusion of short-answer/essay questions. I spent many hours prior to the course weighing various options for the structure of the exams, and came to this decision not lightly or happily. While students frequently view multiple choice questions as easier, they can actually be much harder, as students frequently talk themselves out of the right answer. Also, writing good multiple choice questions that are not absurdly hard or painfully easy and get at complex topics can be difficult. They lend themselves a lot more easily to straight definitions or simpler concepts than critical thinking skills. This was especially troubling to me since the vast majority of their grades came from exams (which also frustrated many students).
Exams for my smaller sections are entirely essay, short answer, and a bit of matching or diagram labeling. In a class of 24, that format is manageable; however, this semester, I had over 520 students across 171 and 172, and only a part-time grading assistant for 171 (and no help for 172). I talked with many of my colleagues who teach larger courses about options for getting out of multiple choice questions, and including assignments other than exams without burying myself under a mountain of grading. In the end, I was wary of committing myself to a grading structure I couldn’t maintain, and instead chose to keep the same grade and exam structure that past instructors of these two sections have used.

Lectures and Activities
I better understood the matieral (sic) when we did hands on learning. I believe that the handout she gave us were very effective as they made us communicate with one another to understand the topic. (Biol 171)

I enjoyed the interactive discussions that took place in class. I appreciated her desire to stray from the traditional lecture class setting because I feel it personally helped me grasp the concepts taught in class by being able to apply it in discussion. (Biol 171)

Most of the class periods were fairly standard lectures, interspersed with iClicker (multiple choice) and open-ended discussion questions. I also sprinkled in a number of what I called Applying Concepts days – these were opportunities for us to catch up if we got behind on material, focus on local or historical issues (such as medical ethics or the ecological restoration of Kaho’olawe following its use as a military bombing range), or to do in-class group activities. Many 171 students really enjoyed the group activities and requested more of them. The 172 students were a bit more mixed. For example, this student comment, which I find kind of amusing: I didn’t like the interactive assignments, even though it was fun, I personally would have rather had a lecture. (Biol 172) I’m sorry you had fun, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…
I believe this difference is because of the content of the activities. In 171, they focused more on practicing particular skills – using Punnett squares to predict offspring genotypes/phenotypes, reading a codon table to determine the amino acid chain produced by a particular stretch of DNA, building a phylogenetic tree, etc. These were skills the students would need in order to answer exam questions, and it gave them the time to practice them beforehand with feedback (and I explicitly framed the exercises to them using this reasoning). The activities in 172 were focused more on applying class concepts to real world problems – effectiveness (or lack thereof) of genetically modified rice to solve nutritional deficiencies in third world countries, the relative merits and dangers of fad diets, etc etc. While I personally found these exercises more interesting, they are less obviously related to course content and showed up less frequently on exams, and therefor were less relevant to the students.
Regardless, the students seemed to overall enjoy the lecture style and the class structure generally. One student comment sums this up nicely: Her current teaching style is extremely effective. The combination of powerpoint lectures and in class activities are helpful in understanding the chapters and topics of this course. She breaks down the topics so that even people who know nothing about biology can understand. (Biol 171) The only mild exception to this was my debate to post my lectures online, and whether to do it prior to or after lecture. I want to share my lectures for students to study from later, but I know it encourages skipping. Also, I don’t want students to be able to see ahead to a point I’m building or a question I’m asking (hence waiting till after class to post them). I split the middle by posting my lectures prior to class, but removing answers to questions or spoilers to a story/example. Students disliked this; however, I will continue to do it because not coming to class means you don’t get all the information.

Homework on MasteringBiology
We use the standard Campbell’s Biology through Pearson, along with online homework assignments through MasteringBiology. I made the homework assignments not formally due until the exam date, though I strongly encouraged the students to complete them prior to the lecture to be prepared for that day’s content. A number of students requested the deadlines be prior to lecture, to which my general comment is that the homework is posted from day one and you can set your own earlier deadlines for completion if you like. Many students completed the homework early to stay up on material, while others chose to use it as a study guide before the exam. This one I will not change, simply because I would spend every morning responding to students who missed the homework deadline and want an extension. I already had many of those with the deadlines on the exams.
I also make the homework completion-based instead of grading for correct answers. Philosophically, I want to focus more on the process of thinking and learning and not just the right answer. I believe completion-based homework lowers the stress (especially since MasteringBiology takes off points for using hints or other aids provided by the system) and encourages the students to think through concept for themselves and learn from their mistakes or misconceptions (especially since MasteringBiology provides feedback on why wrong answers are wrong, or other information backing up the correct answer). The few students that commented on this seemed to agree: The fact that the mastering biology assignments were graded on completion made the assignments less stressful yet extremely helpful. The fact that she focuses more on knowledge and understanding rather than getting the answer right away. (Biol 171)

The Future
So, in summary, what will I do differently next time I teach these courses? Overall, I will probably keep a similar structure since my comments were overall quite positive. I’ll keep my ‘nerdy quirks’ and ‘adorable’ love of plants (as if I could get rid of them). I’ll keep posting my lecture slides and I’ll keep removing the answers and spoilers – students can add them in themselves during class. I’ll keep the completion-based homework with exam due dates (but remind students frequently they can do them early). I’ll keep all the activities in 171, and maybe add in some more. I’ll reevaluate the ones in 172; maybe I’ll make them more skill-oriented, or find a way to integrate them better with the rest of the course material (and the exams). I’ll try giving them a study guide and see if anyone uses or appreciates it. I will once again agonize over the reliance on multiple choice exams for the bulk of the grade and consider all the options I can find for getting around that. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be on that front, but I’m hopeful that I can find a structure that eases the exam anxiety for students without overloading myself on grading.

UHWO Restoration at Piliokahe Beach

Last weekend, students from introductory biology and botany classes met at Piliokahe Beach on the Waianae Coast to restore native dune ecosystems! We have been working our way down the dune for several years now, and my favorite part of this site is how visible our progress is across the dune. The dune slopes that we’ve planted in past semesters are overrun with native vegetation, and each semester we work our way a bit further down the dune.

Last semester, we discovered that a number of our plantings from the previous fall had been killed by squatters setting tents on our plantings. Bruce and I had discussed posting signs indicating that restoration was in progress and to take care where you step and set up camp. Since then, Bruce created and posted these signs, and fortunately, there was no evidence this semester of our previous plantings being trampled.


Hopefully these signs protect our baby plants as they establish on the dune


Erosion of last semester’s plantings

Unfortunately, the summer and fall have been extremely dry on this part of the island, and a number of our plants from the Spring 2016 semester are struggling. The dune also faced extensive erosion since our last outing, washing away some of the plants we planted on the front of the dune. Consequently, we spent our third semester filling in the same small area of the dune we worked on for Spring 2016 and Fall 2015.

Which leads me to a realization I had while we were working out there this weekend. The two sites we take the students to each semester (Kalaeloa Heritage Park and Piliokahe Beach) are different in many ways. KHP is a wahi pana (sacred place) and archeological site, which will eventually be open to the public as an educational park. Piliokahe is a public recreation beach. It is also called Tracks Beach because of the railroad tracks nearby which carried sugarcane from the rural fields to the processing plants in the city (the tracks are no longer used, but have not been removed). While both sites are in the Ewa Plain, KHP is more inland, reflecting more of a lowland scrub ecosystem, while Piliokahe is shoreline dune. None of this was the realization I had, as that is all fairly obvious if you’ve ever been to these sites. My realization was in how I view these sites and the importance and meaning of our restoration work there. In my mind, our work at Kalaeloa honors Hawaii’s past, while our work at Piliokahe represents the struggles facing the future of conservation. Our goal at Kalaeloa is to restore the site to what it might have looked like when it was inhabited, to contribute to the physical preservation of Hawaii’s past in the form of the archeological structures, and the intellectual preservation of Hawaii’s past in the educational role the park will serve when it is open. Our goal at Piliokahe is to counter the impacts of public recreation and help the native plants take back the dune from the humans and buffel grass that have slowly overrun it. Our plants at Kalaeloa are protected by a fence, and by Shad Kane and his crew who are developing the park. Our plants at Piliokahe are vulnerable. Vulnerable to the elements and to human ignorance and apathy.


Bruce instructs the students against the backdrop of recreational use at Piliokahe

The good news is that the older plantings that have established a bit more are still doing extremely well. In particular, the ‘akulikuli plants (which can take up water from ocean spray) were not surprisingly, much less affected by recent dry conditions. Across the older sections of the dune, ‘akulikuli, pohuehue, and naio were still thriving, which shows that if we can just get our little plants past the critical early stage, they will be more successful.


Successful naio (background shrubs) and ‘akulikuli (foreground vine)

As with past semesters, the students first removed invasive buffel grass from a portion of the dune before planting our plants. Buffel grass is particularly problematic because it is fire adapted. All it takes is one cigarette butt out the window of Farrington Highway right next to the beach, and even a small fire promotes the spread of buffel grass, which recolonizes burned areas much faster than the native Hawaiian plants.

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After that, we planted the following plants (the first three species were propagated by my students. The rest were propagated by Olivia George’s class, or by Bruce directly):

Pōhinahina, poh-hee-nah-hee-nah (Vitex rotundifolia) This native shrub gets its name from its tendency to fall over (pohina) as it grows taller and from the silvery-gray (hinahina) hairs that protect it from the sun. It is native to Hawai’i, but also found in Japan, India and many other Pacific islands.

Pōhuehue poh-hoo-ay-hoo-ay (Ipomoea pes-caprae subs brasiliensis) This vine also assists with erosion control, and is already well-represented throughout the dune from previous plantings, so we know it will do well at Piliokahe.

‘Akulikuli, ah-coo-lee-coo-lee (Sesuvium portulacastrum) This native shrub is common in coastal areas, marshes, lagoons, and rocky shorelines and can grow directly out of exposed coral beds. It is so well-adapted to shore life that it can take up moisture directly from sea-spray off the ocean, despite the salt content of this water source. ‘Akulikuli bears a strong physical resemblance to the invasive pickleweed, and the two are sometimes confused.This plant is also edible – the small, succulent leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.

Aki’aki ah-kee-ah-kee (Sporobois virginicus) This indigenous grass is common along many Hawaiian coastlines. Like many grasses, ‘aki’aki forms extensive underground root and stem systems, making it also an excellent choice for erosion control and soil retention. Bruce identified this plant as the most important of our Piliokahe plantings because of its impressive erosion control abilities.

Pā’ū o Hi’iaka pah-ooh-oh-hee-eee-ah-ka (Jacquemontia ovalifolia subsp sandwicensis) The Hawaiian name of this endemic vine translates as ‘the skirt of Hi’iaka’ – the vine is said to have protected Hi’iaka, the infant sister of the volcano goddess Pele, from the harsh Hawaiian sun as she lay on the beach while Pele was fishing. The vine produces rather pretty thick green leaves and small bluish purple flowers, which resemble a skirt.  Pā’ū o Hi’iaka readily spreads throughout the dunes, and mature plants can be seen in many of the restored areas in the photos below.

Hinahina kū kahakai hee-nah-hee-nah koo kah-hah-kye (Heliotropium anomalum) This endemic shrub also takes its name from silvery-gray (hinahina) hairs that protect the leaves from the sun, and its location near the ocean (kahakai). It is the official flower of Kaho’olawe and is frequently used in lei.


My students’ plants, all ready for their new home!

My previous comments about Piliokahe representing the future of conservation in Hawai’i are perhaps why I always find the tray of baby plants so hopeful. We have this little army of plants, that we’ve cared for and trained, and we’re going to strategically place them on the dune to fight back against the buffel grass, the dry soil, the eroding waves, the human obliviousness, and they’ll do it one leaf, one flower, one microscopic root hair at a time, with no help from us. And Bruce and I will come back next semester with a new crop of students and a new batch of plants to congratulate the winners and try again in the space left by the losers.



UH Mānoa Celebrates Arbor Day

Today, the UH Mānoa campus held a tree-planting and tree-give-away event to celebrate Hawai’i Arbor Day. These events are part of the Arbor Day Foundation‘s Tree Campus USA program, which encourages local involvement in planting and awareness of forest and tree issues. If you are like me and grew up in one of the many states that celebrates Arbor Day on the federal date in April, you may be confused as to why we are celebrating it in November. As I learned today, many states celebrate their own Arbor Days to coincide better with local climate. The majority of states celebrate it sometime in April; all but two celebrate it sometime in the Spring. Only Hawai’i and South Carolina celebrate it in winter (theirs is first Friday in December).


Stand full of give-away plants and new residents of the Hawai’i Hall quad

Anyhow, Tree Campus USA set up shop in the quad behind Hawai’i Hall, complete with ~20 trees to be planted throughout the quad, and six species of plants to give away to volunteers. Van Wishingrad (a UHM biology grad student) and I dropped by to plant and adopt. Van and I both adopted little money trees (Pachira aquatica), and planted a little betel palm (Areca catechu).


Van and I with our new money trees

Since I teach on Fridays, I was improperly dressed for manual labor (particularly in the footwear department), so much of the work fell to Van. Still, it didn’t take long to get a decent hole dug and our little betal palm all snug in his new home!

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UHWO Native Hawaiian Plant Propagation for Habitat Restoration

The first week of the fall semester, my biology 101 students at UH West O’ahu planted cuttings of three plant species native to Hawai’i: ‘ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), pohuehue (Ipomea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis), and pohinahina (Vivax rotundifolia). The students have cared for these plants at home for the past two months, and today returned the plants in preparation for our dune restoration at Piliokahe Beach later this month.

The ‘ākulikuli had the best survivorship, with all 6 of the plants still intact. The pohuehue had 90% survivorship (9/10), and the pohinahina struggled the most, with 50% survivorship (5/10), giving us an overall success rate of 20/26 or about 73%.


Vinery (named by Jaja) has gained 32 cm in stem length and 14 new leaves!

The plants that survived are doing very well. The ‘ākulikuli had an average increase of 5 cm in height and 80 leaves! The pohinahina increased by an average of 6 cm in height and 17 leaves. And the pohuehue increased by an average of 21 cm in height and 9 leaves. More important than the averages, every single plant showed increases in both height and leaf number, indicating that they are all in good shape! Shown below are all the plants, and some of the particularly successful ones with their caretakers. Bruce will come by to pick up the plants next week – he will check them and (if needed) treat them for pathogens and pests before our planting at Piliokahe on November 19th.