by Andrew Doerfler

Most textbooks are boring. Gillian Lord, UF Spanish professor and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, is working to change that.

Gillian Lord
Spanish professor Gillian Lord

Lord and Amy Rossomondo, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas, have developed an all-digital, low-cost Spanish language program called Contraseña (Spanish for “password”) that is bucking long-held norms for textbooks and language-learning curriculum.

Rather than simply adapting a printed textbook to a multimedia format, Lord and Rossomondo designed Contraseña from the ground up to embrace the digital age. Audio, video, text and other multimedia are seamlessly incorporated into the program’s instruction.

But its innovations go beyond the high-tech format: The curriculum also forgoes exams in favor of an emphasis on multimedia projects, in-class discussion and online interaction among students on a social network-like platform. Lord and Rossomondo believe the instruction will better resonate with students if they’re active participants rather than simply repeating back what they’ve memorized.

The new program builds on Lord’s past efforts to leverage technology to improve language instruction. Her online, open-access Spanish pronunciation program, Tal Como Suena (“How It Sounds”), launched in 2007 and has been used nationwide. To ensure its continued accessibility, she is currently updating Tal Como Suena with support from CLAS and the Office of the Provost.

Contraseña is already up and running at more than two dozen colleges and universities, with several more trying it out in the spring. UF has adopted it for online Spanish classes. Compared to more traditional classes, Contraseña students so far have had spent more time talking in class and are more confident about their language abilities while maintaining the same proficiency in assessments. Lord talked to us about how the program differs from what Spanish students are used to.

Q:  What was the goal in developing Contraseña?

A: We all know the things we’re supposed to be doing in language classes, but the textbooks we have make it difficult to actually do that. They’re so traditional and boring and straightforward. That’s why after four years of high school Spanish you’re able to say things like “the dog is in the wastebasket” and nothing else. We need to do better.

I have long thought that we need to be taking better advantage of what technology offers us. Even in 2002, we didn’t need to have a paper textbook for phonetics anymore. I was proposing to publishers to use a CD-ROM because that was cool at the time, and they were afraid students and faculty weren’t ready for it. But I kept in touch with one of the publishers, and in fall of 2011, we met at a conference. I said, “I think the world may now be ready for a digital textbook,” and he was like, “That’s funny, that’s why I wanted to meet with you.”

Contraseña aims to give Spanish students ownership over their own learning with more relevant material.

Q: What did you want to do differently?

A: We wanted to focus on multimedia, by integrating audio, video, text — everything.

From the pedagogical side, we wanted to use a “backward” design. Instead of saying, “In chapter two, we have to teach past tense because that’s what everyone does in chapter two,” you say, “What do I want the learner to get out of this chapter?” If I want the learner to be able to talk about what they did last summer, then what would they need?

Instead of taking tests or quizzes, at the end of each unit the students have a little project. They’re creating with the language in a way that’s meaningful to them so they can showcase what they learned.

Q: What do you see as the advantages of those approaches?

A: The students have a greater sense of ownership and agency over their own learning, because it’s not memorizing what we told them to memorize — it’s using what they want to use.

We can’t teach every vocabulary word ever, so we’re going to teach some basics and how to use dictionaries well. It’s more content-driven than grammar-driven, so that in turn is more motivational and engaging.

Contraseña Project
Each Contraseña unit includes a project where students showcase the material they’ve learned.

Q: How do students use the material?

A: Each unit begins with a model. For example, we have a chapter on health and wellness that starts off by showing infographics. They learn commands, like “wash your hands,” and there is a segment on mental health that details signs of depression and anxiety. At the end of the unit, the students have to create their own infographic that they could hang in their student health center.

In another unit, students start by watching a series of videos of people introducing themselves — a student in a dorm meeting his roommate, a student meeting a professor and two students on campus. They then have to do an interview with a Spanish speaker for their final project. One group made a video based off of “Reservoir Dogs.” The effort they put into it was so heartwarming. Another group made one called “Spanfeld,” based on Seinfeld.

Q: Why do you think we need to bring these concepts into the digital age?

A:  Everything else around us is digital, so there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be as well. But there are limits to that. It’s not cool to have your Spanish professor following your Facebook posts. We wanted to capitalize on the fact that students live in a digital world — but not invade their digital world.

For the project in each unit, they share it on a social network page and comment on each other’s. They actually develop a better sense of community than they do in other classes.

Q: Prior to developing Contraseña, you created an online multimedia Spanish pronunciation program called Tal Como Suena. How can technology help students master pronunciation? 

A: Imagine reading a description of a sound in a foreign language, with examples of words containing that sound, and even a drawing of what your tongue and your mouth should look like as you pronounce that sound… Now, imagine yourself listening to that sound and the words containing it, while watching a native speaker pronounce it, and interacting with a step-by-step animated diagram that shows you how your tongue, your lips and your teeth are moving and interacting in the process of making that sound. Which do you think would be easier to understand, and to imitate?

My goal with creating the Tal Como Suena modules was to provide Spanish learners with a place to learn the important aspects of Spanish pronunciation, on their own time and at their own pace, and to practice and get to feel comfortable with it. Technology makes both of those things possible.

Q: Some educators might be wary of the fact that Contraseña that doesn’t include exams. Why do you think it’s for the best?

A: We actually had to write a test bank because some people won’t adopt a program unless there are tests. But the idea is performance-based assessment. We want it to be personalized enough for the student to feel like they’re contributing something as opposed to memorizing and regurgitating.

The truth is, after two semesters of Spanish, 10 years later they’re probably not going to remember much of the detailed grammar and vocabulary words — so why not make it something that can at least resonate with their lives?

Interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

The UF chapter of Phi Alpha Delta (PAD) Pre-Law Fraternity recently won multiple awards at the PAD Pre-Law Conference, Mock Trial Competition, and Law School Expo. The competition was held in the Washington D.C. area, where UF students went up against PAD pre-law students from around the country.

UF’s PAD teams won both first and third place in the Mock Trial competition. The group also took home several other awards, highlighting the incredible achievements of students both individually and working as a team.

Winners include:

  • Elizabeth Bishop for Best Attorney
  • Abigail Ladwig-Conway, Chiara Phillips, Alessandra Gazzo and Megan Simmen in first place
  • Elizabeth Bishop, Macarena Bazan, Alexandra Gomez and Roselyn Castillo in third place

The group also took home five of the conference’s six awards, only missing out on “Best New Chapter,” for which they were ineligible. These awards include:

  • Top Pre-Law Recruitment Program Award
  • Outstanding Pre-Law Recruitment Program Award
  • Outstanding Pre-Law Professional Program Award
  • Outstanding Pre-Law Community Service Award
  • Outstanding Pre-Law Chapter Award

2019 marks ten consecutive years of victories for the fraternity’s UF chapter. The teams are student-coached, with Suresh Boodram as coach for both winning Mock Trial teams. It is Bishop’s second year winning Best Attorney.

“As a student-run organization, having our hard work recognized at the national level is such an honor and encourages us to work even harder so we can continue this legacy of the University of Florida Chapter in the years to come,” PAD President Samantha Masters said.

To learn more about the UF PAD team, click here. 

Nothing to See Here

The latest novel from MFA in Creative Writing graduate KEVIN WILSON ‘04 has earned rave reviews for its hilarious, surreal take on childrearing.

In Nothing to See Here (Ecco/HarperCollins), released Oct. 29, narrator Lillian is a go-nowhere millennial who once took the fall for her well-off boarding school roommate after drugs were found in their dorm. Years later, the friend, now married to a fast-rising politician, reaches out with an offer for Lillian to work as a nanny to her 10-year-old twin stepchildren — who, it turns out, literally burst into flames when they’re upset.

Told in deadpan prose, Nothing to See Here has delighted reviewers with its peculiar sensibility and moving story. A giddy notice in The New York Times Book Review called the book “wholly original” and “perfect.”

“You’re laughing so hard you don’t even realize that you’ve suddenly caught fire,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in the review. The Washington Post’s write-up, meanwhile, said, “Paradoxically light and melancholy, it hews to the border of fantasy but stays in the land of realism.”

Nothing to See Here was selected by Jenna Bush Hager as the November pick for the Today Show’s book club. Wilson told Today that he has been long been obsessed with the idea of spontaneous combustion — and it would often come to mind when his own children would have tantrums.

“I started thinking about, ‘Oh, well what would it be like if you had to take care of a kid who actually burst into flames,’” he said. “The novel just kind of spiraled out of that.”

The novel is the third from Wilson, who is an associate professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South. Wilson has also published two short story collections. His 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, became a 2015 film starring Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman and Christopher Walken. A film adaptation of Nothing to See Here is already in the works, according to Deadline.

Humans have two generations of teeth — baby teeth that are replaced by permanent ones — and that’s it. If you need a new tooth, a dentist will give you an implant made from a material that will likely degrade faster than a natural tooth.

But scientists are looking to sharks, which lose and regrow teeth their entire lives, to understand how we might be able to regenerate our own teeth.

New research published in Scientific Reports by GARETH FRASER, a biologist at UF, and colleagues at the University of Sheffield, UK, into human and shark teeth has found similarities in their dental stem cells that shows humans have more potential to regrow teeth than previously believed.

The team found a potential connection between shark and human teeth by examining a specialized layer of thin tissue formed in early development of the vertebrate mouth called the dental lamina.

X-Ray CT Scan of the Porbeagle Shark (Lamna nasus) head, showing the rows of regenerative teeth in the jaws. Credit: Charlie Underwood, Zerina Johanson, and Gareth Fraser; Scanned at the Image and Analysis Centre, Natural History Museum, London.

Once we develop our permanent teeth, the thin tissue of the lamina undergoes normal cell death and fragments, leaving bits and pieces of the lamina. At this stage, they’re known as dental lamina rests (DLR), which were previously thought to have low odds of growing more teeth. Fraser and team research looked at these DLRs and found they contain a number of dental stem cell markers found in vertebrates like sharks that have constant tooth regeneration throughout their lives.

The research also examined tumors that appear in the jaw, called ameloblastoma, to further understand how DLRs undergo change. Ameloblastoma are assumed to come from aberrant lamina rests. The scientists are working to understand how the trigger that causes DLRs to form these tumors could be linked to tooth development and if this could eventually lead to controlled tooth growth in humans.

To view the full study, click here.

The 2019 UF iGEM Team recently won a silver medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, held in Boston from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4.

The iGEM Competition brings together students from around the world to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world. This year’s competition saw more than 300 teams from over 40 countries compete against each other to design, build, test and measure a system of their own design.

For their project, the UF iGEM Team used the Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events (SCRIBE) System to quantify the concentration of heavy metals in tap water in Florida that may go improperly assessed.

“This award gives UF the opportunity to be recognized for research on an international level,” team member and student Nikila Ojili said. “Over 3,500 students from the world attended the conference at Boston, and we learned so much about the kind of work people are doing. It’s an eye-opening experience with respect to the rapid advancement of synthetic biology. I highly advise students to participate!”

The team of students that worked on this project include: Nicole Kantor, Samantha Golden, Anil Patel, Shivani Doshi, Julie Mallinger, Alexandra Gaskins, Nikila Ojili, Jessica Zheng and Zach Zeller. They were mentored by Assistant Professor Dr. Christopher Reisch of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science.

Congratulations to the team — for more information on UF iGEM and their work, click here.