Ellen Aikens, second from right, engages in collaborative communication with her team at the 2019 Summer Institute in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The filtered light and colored leaves of autumn make a suiting backdrop for our October Fellow of The Month, Ellen Aikens. This Fall semester, Ellen will complete her PhD in Ecology. Yet, despite the heavy workload that she knew would inevitably accompany her degree completion, Ellen was the first enthusiastic applicant to the LAMP 2019-2020 yearlong training. On her application, Ellen stated, " I believe the best way to learn is by doing. Actively seeking out a solution to a problem or issue of importance to the student is the best way to learn and enforce concepts. I hold this belief, because this has held true in my own experiences as a student and teacher. These experiences have stuck with me, while the material I memorized to pass a test has faded away." When Ellen wrote this statement she could not have known how much "doing" and problem solving would characterize the instructional development, implementation and pedagogical research that she would soon undertake.


Ellen's LAMP experience began with an immersive weeklong Summer Institute held in Sheridan, Wyoming. The theme of the Institute was Transformative Learning and in order to facilitate a transformative experience for all participants, the practice of Collaborative Communication was used. This purposeful dialogic process is built around seven principles: climate building, active listening, questioning, listening, thinking, focusing, acting, and facilitating.

Twice a day throughout the Institute, participants engaged in collaborative communication. This reflective dialogue enabled them to process their learning, build community and, in many cases, be moved to the action needed to transform their classrooms.

Throughout the week, Ellen began to contrast her experience with dialogue in collaborative communication with what she generally experienced in traditional lab meetings. In her instructional strategy, she described her experience in lab meetings:

A racing heart, sweating palms and a cracking, uncertain voice are the three most common ways I would characterize my experience participating in lab meeting during my first semester as a graduate student. But honestly, these unpleasant feelings also characterized my experience in lab meeting during my second, third and fourth semesters of graduate school.

Ellen continued to explain that this response to the lab meeting climate leaves many students voiceless and causes them to do nothing but listen in lab meetings. This robs students of the opportunity to achieve the most important learning outcome of lab meetings - practicing scientific communication.

Thus, Ellen proposed and is implementing a robust research study. She hypothesized that utilizing the seven aspects of collaborative communication to structure lab meeting sessions would enhance scientific dialogue. In order to test this hypothesis, Ellen is facilitating two separate lab meetings. The experimental group has been trained in Collaborative Communication and the control group is utilizing traditional lab meeting techniques. For each of the seven aspects of Collaborative Communication, Ellen predicted specific learning outcomes. For example, for the first aspect, Climate Building, Ellen hypothesized that the open and welcoming environment would allow lab members to feel comfortable speaking during lab meeting. In order to measure this outcome, Ellen is recording every lab meeting, transcribing all dialogue and noting non-verbal communication. She will compare control and experimental groups. Inherent in Ellen's experimental design is her alignment with her teaching philosophy through attention to connection.

My teaching philosophy focuses on the core values of creativity and community. I consider the act of drawing new connections between ideas and synthesizing different perspectives to be the key ingredients of creativity. To assess creativity, I will use recordings of conversations during lab meeting to measure the number of connections that are made between different people and determine if there is a change in the number of connections made through time. Community, which I define as a sense of mutual respect for every member of the group, is my second core value. To assess the impact of CC on community, I will measure the number of minutes each person talks during the one-hour lab meeting. I will use this information on the amount of time each person speaks to determine if there are shifts from certain people dominating the conversation to a more equal distribution of time spent talking among the group members.

In addition to this community network analysis, Ellen also designed a survey that she asked all lab members to take before the first lab meeting and will ask them to take at the end of the semester. This survey inquiries into members' feelings about participating in meetings, their perceptions of the scientific communication skills, their ability to recognize bias and overall engagement.

The importance of Ellen's research is difficult to overstate. Half of all PhD students do not complete their degree (Cassuto, 2013) and the Council of Graduate Schools further found that among 3,829 underrepresented minorities in STEM PhD programs only 44% earned their degrees within seven years. Ellen's research may serve to generate future research into how we might purposefully create welcoming environments for students of all types.

It is an honor to recognize Ellen Aikens as our October LAMP Fellow of the Month! Thank you for persisting in your degree and in this meaningful work!



Cassuto, Leonard. PhD Attrition: How Much is Too Much? The Chronicle of Higher
Education. Accessed on October 28th at

Sowell, Robert, Allum, Jeff, and Okahana, Hironao. 2015. Doctoral initiative on minority
attrition and completion. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. Accessed on
October 26th, 2019 at



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