Summer school, and the teaching is easy

People with diverse background, objectives meet and mix within this particular type of course

The GenTree project held its 2018 Summer School “From genotypes to phenotypes: assessing forest tree diversity in the wild” on 4-7 June 2018 in Kaunas, Lithuania. About twenty “students” (most of them Ph.D. students, but some of them also confirmed scientists) convened to learn theory and practice of population (quantitative) genetic analysis from five teachers (including myself).

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We were warmly hosted by colleagues of the Aleksandras Stulginskis University (ASU); the course was organised by fellow forest scientist Darius Danusevičius, with essential support by his students.

The course covered a variety of subjects, from the basics of population genetics theory and the coalescent to the application of multiple programs for Genotype-Environment Association and Genotype-Phenotype Association, and included a day out in the forest, were a demonstration of the usage of drones for the survey of forest stands was held. Very interesting, with plenty of information, although sometimes with a quite steep learning curve!

A summer school has the great advantage of letting us explore new teaching – and learning – strategies, because the goals are left sometimes ‘open’ and the teachers can adjust to the students’ needs and limits (and of course, the students adjusts to teachers’ limits!).

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students and teachers visiting Lithuanian historical sites (Credit: ASU Kaunas)


Informal learning sessions extend out of the official program, very often during the night, when traditional tools facilitating the transmission of knowledge (slides, computer scripts, whiteboards, chalk, paper and pencil) are replaced by more unconventional ones (jokes, crisps, beers). We saw multiple teaching approaches, spanning from the “zero-electronics restless teacher” (myself: only chalk and blackboard, walked several kilometers while teaching), through the “activity-time interactive teacher” (Tanja Pyhäjärvi: having students stand and do some exercise
, and then sitting and doing some more exercises, this time through shinyApps), to “100% hands-on teaching” (Santi González-Martínez and Leo Sanchez, with their rich array of software packages, scripts, and datasets to put to test) (I cannot say what Basti Richter did with his drones out in the forest; I had to leave earlier). All this was peppered with contests (spelling out population genetics laws, presenting a piece of one’s country’s popular culture, declaring one’s favourite sports team, movie, even philosopher – which actually provided some surprises: for example, I was unaware that Donald Trump was a philosopher at all, but after all I am not a philosopher, how on earth was I supposed to know).

The mystery of number 19

At some point we thought we were close to finding some fundamental natural pattern, when the number nineteen started popping up recurrently in our life. For example, there were nineteen of us in the bus that took us from Vilnius to Kaunas, and we concurrently learned that the first Lithuanian Republic was founded in 1919. Some of us were even reported to have drunk in excess of nineteen drinks in a single evening. After having observed that there were no public seats on the otherwise very green ASU campus, we even formulated the hypothesis that there may be only nineteen public seats throughout the whole country (a short walk in downtown Kaunas allowed us tho reject the hypothesis).
After all, we dropped the idea that number 19 would contain some important meaning; so the only universally meaningful number is still number 42.

Baroque paradise

And finally, on my way back I had the opportunity to do some walking in downtown Vilnius. In my ignorance, I did not know that its city centre is a Unesco World Heritage site, and that it harbours some very nice examples of baroque architecture. Nice place, you should all go visit it.


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