Humanizing Online STEM Showcase

Ross McKenzie, Professor of Mathematics, Modesto Junior College

This site provides examples of instructional resources created in the Humanizing Online STEM Academy, a professional development program funded by the California Education Learning Lab and administered by the Foothill DeAnza Community College District.


Where I was.

Before joining this Humanizing STEM Academy, I must admit that I'd fallen behind on my professional development. I have a little boy who is special needs; taking care of him and his social development during the pandemic consumed almost all of the time I would otherwise have spent on myself. I'd heard of some of the Humanizing concepts and tools, like "Liquid Syllabus" and "Flip", but I didn't know what they were, or why my colleagues were so eager to implement them. But this year my boy started Kindergarten, so I finally had time. ANd I'll be honest, the stipend helped convince me that now was the time to finally get caught back up.

Where I am.

Now I finally feel caught up with many of the new tools available in online education. In particular, I feel like a master of video captioning (and I'm a bit embarrassed by the fact that I apparently talk almost exclusively in rambling sentences). I also feel a bit guilty; now that I know better, I see all the places where my older efforts could have been made better by a bit more effort.

Separately, I feel convicted by how dry some of my communication may have come across. I, personally, am quite content with text-only (I read really fast, and often have closed captioning on when watching movies and television). But what's best for *me* is not necessarily best for my students, and now I have more options to give audio or video feedback, and to encourage asynchronous audio or video discussions between my students.

Where I am going.

I foresee a lot of fine-tuning over the next semester as I slowly test the new techniques I've learned and determine if they'll work for my classes. In particular, I *really* want to update my old Word-doc Getting-To-Know-You survey into something more personable that uses the Canvas quiz structure (I may or may not have been voluntold to do this for my department when I offhandedly mentioned in a meeting that I was working on this as a guidance tool). I also plan to make a lot of bumper videos introducing the various topics my students will be studying. I think they will reach students better than my current text-only approach.

It will take more work to facilitate better student-student communication. My work to make the class less chilly and to provide warm, wise feedback, while not easy, is straightforward. I need to do better. But having the students communicate with each other is a two-step process: I need to give them the opportunity, and I also have to encourage them to take that opportunity. And this will take more time and experimentation.

Liquid Syllabus

I'm really excited about having a liquid syllabus. In the past I'd email students the weekend before class started, and I'd have trouble finding the right balance between giving them all of the information they need and sending them a wall-of-text that they wouldn't want to read. Plus a featureless email message can appear cold and clinical, no matter how much one wordsmiths the text.

I think pictures (and short videos) will help me better balance critical need-to-know information and the persona, humanizing touch.

Course Card showing cats playing D&D

Course Card

I took this picture of my cats "playing" Dungeons and Dragons because we'll be studying Probability and Game Theory, and who doesn't like cats?

I prefer to use images that I've created rather than stock images. I feel nervous using other people's work, even if I'm supposedly allowed permission. Also, I think the personal touch is important when trying to Humanize a class.


I was already using a picture of myself as part of my Canvas homepage, but I hadn't thought to provide alt-text, or to add in the extra little bells-and-whistles that could make the page even more friendly and inviting.

I also took out some of the technical bits that were important at the beginning of the semester but less important once the course was underway. Those will now be part of the liquid syllabus, leaving the homepage to be more welcoming.

Getting to Know You Survey

This survey will become the first "assignment" the students will be asked to complete. In previous semesters I'd use a text file for them to annotate or copy-and-photograph-and-upload, but the Canvas quiz structure will work so much better.

In particular, Question #9, where I ask about academic history, will help me make sure students are placed correctly, and Question #12, where I ask about hobbies and fandoms, will help me write questions that the students will be better able to engage with.

Ice Breaker

In my class, it's very important that I have a feel for the cultural knowledge my students share. Too often the textbooks used in a Liberal Arts math class assume the students are familiar with a particular subset of white American culture. That's not fair to *anyone*.

So, in this assignment, I ask my students to tell me what stories they *are* familiar with, so I get a feel for what problems will resonate with the class, and which topics to avoid because students aren't familiar with the particular tropes used.

Wisdom Wall

This Wisdom Wall assignment is designed to help students study in preparation for their midterm exam. This test will be the first time I formally assess them on Truth Tables, a topic many students have difficulty with.

For this assignment, I wanted students to share the techniques that helped them. Seeing how their classmates may have had difficulties that they then overcame will, I hope, foster a growth mindset that everyone can succeed at this topic.

Bumper Video

This video will be used towards the end of the semester, to help introduce one of the last topics that we'll look at. It is particularly important for a couple of reasons. First, Game Theory is not covered in most Liberal Arts math textbooks. I need to set the stage and provide all the introductory content that would normally be at the start of a chapter. And secondly, Game Theory is such a broad topic, I need to let the students know which parts we'll be looking at during our survey course.


This microlecture serves as an introduction to the topic of Venn Diagrams and a resource for the students to use. After watching the video the students will be able to Identify Venn Diagrams (the learning objective).

Separately, I also hope that the students will be able to return to the video if they ever need a refresher. The video is short enough that going back wouldn't be onerous; I plan to go and make many similar microlectures, so that students won't have to fast-forward through longer lessons while looking for the one bit of knowledge they want to review.