Adapting zooarchaeology to the pandemic online teaching

It’s summer! I often don’t have time during the school year to do much more than post a few tweets about what’s going, but I wanted to post this summer about what’s been going on during this strange pandemic year. This is the first installment.

Shifting zooarchaeology methods online

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have worked hard to ensure that the pandemic did not prevent our archaeology students from getting methodological training and conducting their own research by creating a variety of at-home activities and digital analysis projects using real archaeological data sets. I taught two lab classes in Fall 2020, and had to adapt 12 labs in Anth 302 (Principles of Archaeology) and osteological anatomy to an online setting (Anth 583 Zooarchaeological Methods). One of the great things about Archaeology Twitter is seeing how we all have had to reinvent how to teach zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains from archaeological sites) in an online setting, and make sure students received the same training in anatomy, data analysis, and report writing. Additionally, with SDSU being online, there were limited experiences for undergraduate research, potentially leaving students at a huge disadvantage for archaeological jobs and graduate programs.

A few changes had to be made to adapt to the online format. First, I expanded students’ experiment and analysis options to include experimental archaeology in her students’ homes or in ventilated, outdoor spaces. These assignments encouraged students to use available materials in creative ways, analyze data according to disciplinary standards, and learn to how to write reports. I created at-home activities such as processing a rotisserie chicken as part of learning animal anatomy, and also developed an experimental archaeology project where students had to make a historical tool or item and test it out. Students created a variety of projects in their dorms and in their homes, from making their own slingshots to cooking over campfires to making historical desserts from the 1700s.

Second, I used high-resolution 3D-modeled scans of bones (shout out to Morphosource and SketchFab!) to teach my class about zooarchaeology and created digital research projects as well as digital research assistantships. I also held online open labs to provide additional anatomy practice for students and supported research activity by recording video tutorials for students to guide them through every step of the analysis and report write-up.

Students would normally get the research experience in person working in archaeology labs, but without access to labs, an alternative had to be found. To solve this issue, she created two digital research positions and is currently working with those students on a bilingual report and publication on the zooarchaeological data from Mission Dolores de Cosari, Sonora, Mexico.

What was the response?

Student reception of and engagement with the at-home activities was generally positive. The chicken processing was even featured in the CAL Newsletter (https://newscenter.sdsu.edu/sdsu_newscenter/news_story.aspx?sid=78210). Students in Zooarchaeological Methods class successfully analyzed their own data and wrote up the results in a formal archaeological report. The three research assistants and I presented in the CSU Council of Archaeologists Symposium. My students did everything from the start to finish online using my data, and based on my conversations with other zooarchaeologists over the pandemic, this was a common adaptation we made to keep our students moving forward.

What lessons did I learn?

Although students faced a few logistical challenges with the at-home assignments, many of these obstacles were resolvable by simplifying the project and flexibly working with what the student had available to them. The value of the hands-on activity outweighed the obstacles, and students gained a better understanding of the lives and skill of people in the past.

Honest review of Packback: The classroom AI discussion board

I used the Packback application for a gen-ed class of 100+ students for a Fall 2021 in-person class. Honest review of the learning tool and if I would use it again.

Full disclosure: I am not being paid and this review was not requested by Packback.co

Scenario: I used the Packback application for a gen-ed class of 100+ students for an in-person class in Fall 2021. I had also had a TA moderating discussion board content weekly. I wanted to provide other educators a short summary of my experience to help them make a decision about using the tool in their classroom.

Summary: I would use it again, but only for large classes. Because of its cost ($28 per student at my university), I would only use it classes where I have no textbook. I would also reduce responses to every other week as opposed to every week. It’s a superior tool to in-system LS discussion boards, but there were issues with syncing, usability, and content moderating that will frustrate instructors who are not prepared for them.

In my ideal world, I’m against AI providing feedback for students. In my perfect universe, classes are small and we have well-paid TAs aiding us in the fine craft of teaching. Students write thoughtful essays, and receive and implement copious amounts of feedback on their writing. In today’s higher-ed environment, that’s just not going to happen. There is a significant learning curve to this tool, and if you don’t like discussion boards, Packback is not going to change your mind. I believe there are contexts where it may be useful.

Why did I use it? I disliked Canvas’s in-house discussion boards and tools like FlipGrid, which uses video recordings for responses. I did not have exams in the class, and wanted weekly responses to the readings to be more robust and substantial. I wanted my students to write regularly and weekly to reinforce what they were learning in class.

What is Packback? Packback is basically a rolling discussion board feed. It’s a single discussion board, as opposed to a forum-style where posts are sorted by topic, very similar to Facebook or Twitter. Students receive a post score based on on the length and complexity of their post submission and whether or not they cite a source. When I surveyed my students after 8 weeks of use, 59% (51) said they liked Packback, 25% neither liked it or disliked it, and 16% disliked it.

Pros: This tool gives instant feedback for students on aspects of their writing and prompts them to write more. I set it so that students needed a minimum response score of 50 (out of 100) to get credit for the assignment.

Students reported liking the feedback and the points. As long as the points were above 50, the grade was auto-graded based on completion, and my grader moderated a subsection of responses per week. Students liked trying to beat their previous scores. Everyweek, Packback sent me auto-generated report with the top scorers and most-improved, and there was also a leaderboard based on the points. In class, I would announce students that boosted their scores up from the previous week (most improved).

In terms of support, Packback had excellent tech support and guided me through every single step of the process from set up to finishing the course. Through secondary meetings with their team, I saw more examples about how other instructors used the app, which resulted in students creating memes related to the weekly readings. The app is structure to promote open-ended questions, which can be difficult for everyone to get used to. It did help students structure arguments or make interesting salvos on the discussion board.

If a student response met the minimum, but was off-topic, my grader would moderate it. There was a way for students to re-do their submissions, but few students took that opportunity.

Cons: The AI is remarkably easy to manipulate. I didn’t have this problem in my class as much, but in other classes students could copy and paste from previous students’ responses and the AI can’t detect the plagiarism. Because of the scrolling format, it was hard for my grader to spot it as well. The only way to moderate something is to give the student 0 points for it, which is problematic because if students wrote something, I normally wouldn’t give a 0.

Students receive a higher score for including a source. The tool, however, does not vet the sources, so student can just post any old website, and it counts as a source. This makes it difficult to look at all posts by prompt. This was especially annoying for my grader, who found the tool initially difficult to navigate to grade and moderate, but eventually got used to it. In terms of costs, it cost each student $28 to use this service, and students also had to pay for $15 subscription to iClicker that semester as well. I did not have a textbook for the course. A total $45 is not terrible in terms of cost for a class, but I would prefer to keep my students’ costs below $25. Also, something feels inherently wrong that students are not paying for content (i.e. textbooks) and instead for learning apps.

Finally there was an issue with syncing with Canvas. If students didn’t click through the Canvas site first, their response wouldn’t be linked to their account. This was extremely confusing for me and for the students. They would sign into the website directly, submit their response, and then it wouldn’t show up on their grades. I was able to fix this issue by only posting the prompt in Canvas.

Where would I use this again? Only for large, online courses where there is no textbook. The auto-grading is really nice, and the students like the AI feedback and leaderboards. It’s not perfect, though, and discussions need active moderation of content. With large in-person courses, the audience response system subscription is more important for attendance and participation, and I would prioritize that when I’m balancing student costs.

For more information about the product: packback.co

Piloting Trello task management app: A review for academics

In many ways, Trello is like Google Keep or Evernote in terms of its ability to have shareable notes, checklists, and save pictures and reference files. What makes it different was its integration with different online applications like Box, Slack, or Google Drive as well as Agile organization integration. https://trello.com

Who might benefit the most from Trello?

Folks working in-between who don’t have task tracking apps already at their institutions but find themselves having to suddenly manage several people and projects: post-docs, museum professionals, small non-profits, early career profs, or advanced grad students done with course work, people working on multiple mid-sized projects (co-authored grants or articles), or are overseeing teams 1 or 2 other people, or working with undergraduates on research projects.

To be clear, the person who benefits the most will be the project leader, but there are additional advantages.

Undergraduates and trainees, in particular, benefit from a structured, check-list approach because it provides clarity in meetings, reference storage, and accountability. As a researcher and instructor, I am always looking for ways to be more inclusive in how I work. With Trello, collaborators are able to ask questions, link drafts, share photos, and re-visit information from the meeting, which may be beneficial to ESL and neurodiverse students. It can be hard for anyone to listen, ask good questions, take notes, and then step away and identify next steps all in a 30 min meeting. The Trello structure makes it easy to revisit tasks and reference materials. I also liked its integration with Google docs for draft sharing and how easy it was to add collaborators outside of my institution.

How did I use Trello?

In the past, I’ve generally juggled 5-8 museum volunteers and students, teaching, collection and lab maintenance, and research. My weapons of choice were Google Cal, a library of yellow legal pad notes, and sheer force of will.  It was not a big operation, but it has not always been a stream-lined. In December 2018, I was seeking to scale up and work with more museum undergraduate volunteers on meaningful research projects that could go on their CVs. These tasks are pretty typical for my field and require more active project management, but I have no formal management training. I was also working two jobs, and trying to move multiple writing and research projects forward. Trello was a free app and seemed like a way to keep all of these things organized.

As a pilot project, I tracked my own research projects, grant writing, and museum projects with 3 zooarchaeology lab undergraduate volunteers, 1 co-author, and 1 graduate student grader. All participants were under 30 and understood that I was piloting this approach. They offered feedback throughout the Spring 2019 semester, and I am incredibly grateful to them. They only used Trello in the projects where they worked with me, and here are the results of my experiences and their feedback. Views are my own, and are not sponsored by Trello.

  • Using Trello to keep track of my personal project tasks was not great, but the app was good for collaborative task-tracking.

I used Trello for six weeks as a work project tracker for my lab duties, but my usage fell after those first six weeks. I had already invested in physical whiteboards and Google Tasks and Keep because of their proximity to my work areas (office, Gmail). Checking an additional app was burdensome. If you are borderline functionally organized, a new shiny toy will not improve your system.

  • Trello’s most useful function was group task and information reference.

I did use Trello steadily, but as a quick agenda-generator. Trello was best at being a shared way of keeping track of things like assignment grading or article draft sections. (“Is this done? Yes? What’s next?). We got the important task stuff organized and out of the way, and could talk about challenges which required in-person discussion. Meetings lasted between 15-40 minutes, and if we wandered off topic, there was the Trello list to bring us back.

  • If your collaborators already have their own system, be prepared for mixed buy-in. Understand that this tool is for you, but others may benefit.

Overall, Trello helped me stay sane, but my collaborators varied on its usefulness. My xennial students loved Trello. My millennial collaborators had mixed reviews and already had their own personal systems. They used Trello reluctantly for task tracking, but they did find it valuable for organizing meetings. My working hypothesis about this difference is that it’s not an age or tech-adeptness thing. The zennials are still figuring out how to organize themselves, and appreciated a structure. The students under 25 liked the Trello format and how easy it was to snap a picture and upload for general reference or leave comments or questions. It became their go-to for reference readings and due dates about the research project. I could post reference links, draft templates, and to-do checklists for them, and we turned out two research posters on time for an undergraduate event with time for me to edit them before printing.

  • Privacy was a problem.

I recommend NEVER using Trello for communication about student issues or grades or sensitive research.  If your board is shared, everyone you shared it with has access to all the cards. I was using cards for specific people on the same board, but if you were invited to a card, it meant you could see the whole board. This auto-share was poorly explained in online tutorials, and is a potential FERPA issue if someone were to use this for task management for TAs and individual student info. If used for these projects, you and collaborators should keep wording vague and task-focused, and make your board/privacy structure with an awareness of these limitations. If you want to keep projects separate, you’ll have to create new boards. I disliked this because the advantage of having all your cards on a board is all your projects visually laid out before you.

  • Storage space and add-ins in the free version are limited.

The free version of Trello is restricted. In a group sharing large files full of reference information, you may hit that limit pretty quickly. Want to integrate with a calendar and Google Docs and Slack? You’re SOL because additional integrations beyond your first add-in cost money.

Take-away: I would use this again, and might even pay for it and wonder if costs could be added to grant requests. People in academics or academic-adjacent jobs don’t get formally trained in project management…but we still have to manage teams and get things done. If you are good-aligned, you probably don’t want to cause yourself or collaborators more misery than necessary. I could see Trello being useful for helping undergraduates and early grad students organize their first research projects and presentations, because it helps the advisor keep track and provide structure.

I can also see it being helpful for managing GRAs and TAs. Apps like Trello can help small groups break down tasks into manageable, trackable chunks, and help store some group references. This app could also scale up (at cost) as project complexity or number of collaborators increase. If you plan to use it, be prepared for Trello privacy issues and mixed collaborator buy-in and plan to consistently use it yourself at meetings.

I am currently piloting multi-project management with a Scrum structure using Trello, so stay tuned!


Working on inventorying and cataloging vertebrate collections at the UA School of Anthropology. It’s sweltering outside (summer, Arizona), but inside reminds me of the arctic. The caribou and sled dog specimens from Binford’s Nunamiut project assure me that somewhere, far away, there is snow.

AAHS talk

I served on the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society as student representative for a year and half, and I rotated out of the position this summer. On the board, it was great to interact with professional archaeologists and avocationalists, all brought together by a deep appreciation for Arizona’s history.

A big highlight for me was to present at the monthly lecture in June. You can check out the announcement.

aahs talk

Phoenix Comic Fest panel 2018

Today, we took on the pseudoscience and assumptions behinds parts of the Paleo Diet as part of the many experts panel at the Phoenix Fanfest. What I learned from fellow awesome panelists from ASU: Basically, not everything domesticated is out to get you, and beans are okay. Human diets vary widely across the globe, and humans are extremely adaptable.

I spoke about pop culture imaginations of “cavemen” and human ancestors and why hunting and meat consumption gets so much attention. Paleo Diet says more about modern values and concepts of health than it does about what our ancestors consumed.

I learned something valuable from the audience, though. Several audience members had lost weight and had changed their lives by following this diet, primarily through the elimination of nutrient-dense foods like processed sugar. Paleo Diet may not be well-supported by archaeological or bioanthropological research on human evolution, but the diet gave practitioners an intuitive, just-so story that motivated them to make major life changes and cut back on portion size and process foods. People’s journeys toward understanding their bodies remain personal and culturally-situated, and I won’t discount how empowered folks felt by this way of eating.

Skeleton pictures!

Skeletal diagrams are a great way to help folks visualize what parts of the animal were actually found at an archaeological site. Over the summer before I left ASM, I had the opportunity to gather and help create skeletal diagrams for the Homol’ovi exhibit at the Arizona State Museum, which opened on December 8, 2017. Half of the skeleton pictures came from the wonderful folks at archeozoo.org, and the rest, I made or altered myself using Photoshop and then Illustrator. Here are a few pictures from the exhibit, which was an enormous project to which everyone at the museum contributed. I feel happy to have contributed a very small part. I’m planning on posting a few of them here or on Wikimedia for open access use. I’ve benefited so much from other researchers and artists making diagrams available through Creative Commons copyrights, and I think it’s important to give back. More to come!

For more about Life Along the River: Ancestral Hopi at Homol’ovi visit the ASM website.

Children's activity sheet
Activity sheet created by the museum’s Community Engagement division using my lynx diagram. Yay, interactive!



Visit to Los Morteros and sun daggers

Tucson is full of great ways to engage with archaeology, but I don’t always take advantage of it because I am finishing up my dissertation. My friend convinced me to get away from the computer and join her on a autumn equinox tour of Picture Rocks and Los Morteros. Los Morteros was a Hohokam village site occupied between A.D. 850 to 1300, and is a large site complete with a variety of middens and a ball court. Picture Rocks is an outcrop just outside of town covered with petroglyphs, some of which help mark solstices and equinoxes. The tour was led by the great Al Dart from Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, and more information about the tour and other tours through out the year are available on the website. Above, you can see some of the petroglyphs and the triangle of light we saw crossing the petroglyph spiral at late morning on the equinox.

Los Morteros is named after these deep ground stone features in the bedrock pictured below. Having read the report, it was a great to finally see them in person.

Ground stone mortars at Los Morteros