Sunday, September 21, 2014

Diversity in STEM - graphic display

Chad Orzel pointed out an article about diversity in the STEM workforce, mainly to complain justifiably about the graphic. I posted a comment at #6 suggesting an improvement to the way he displayed the data and decided to actually do it. Since there is no way to include graphics in comments, I'll post a link to this blog entry.

This is basically inverted from the one Chad posted, so the largest population group (as of 2010) is at the top, and aligned at the boundary between white males and hispanic males. The result allows you to compare white and non-white populations as well as see gender differences within each demographic group.


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Friday, August 16, 2013

Facebook makes people feel worse?

As we approach the time of year when students leave home without really leaving, because they remain tethered via Facebook. That makes reports of this new study a bit more interesting than it might otherwise be. (It reportedly contradicts other studies.) What I do know, just observing, is how addicted students are to Facebook as well as the regular flow of text messages from friends. They can't even enjoy a pleasant walk across a beautiful campus! But that is only half of it. It would be great to see a study of the academic effects. The big problem I see is that they cannot concentrate in class, when doing homework, and probably when writing longer papers. I see the first two cases regularly. The short distractions of "social media" simply feed their impatience with any frustration when working unsystematically on a problem. But it must be particularly bad in the teen years, seeking social approval. I saw a truly classic example the other night when marveling at one of those stories about folks prepping for the apocalypse. You should have seen the look on the teen daughter's face when she learned that her cell phone would not work in their underground bunker where they plan to hide out while crazed, hungry, armed people rampage through the city.


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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tips on Teaching

Fascinating article today in IHE from a young whippersnapper about what he has learned about college teaching in his first few years in the classroom, all before earning the PhD. I don't have time to do much commentary, but a lot of it looks like what I might have said when I was still wet behind the ears in grad school. And a lot of it is very good advice. Nice way to start the semester. I may get back to this and fill in a few remarks later, but one that I do want to mention is his policy on cell phones. I have moved in that direction as well. I make a mental note of who is not engaged at a time when we are doing something I know is important, and then compare my mental notes to their performance when the exam is graded. Most fail to succeed at their multi-tasking exercise. He also has a rather amusing set of fifteen tips for students. Amusing because getting students to do most of these things strikes me as wildly optimistic! And some are utterly irrelevant to science or engineering majors.


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Friday, July 19, 2013

Learning Outcomes and Assessment

Interesting story in IHE today about mandatory assessment of learning outcomes in Iowa. What I found most interesting, however, was the vast amount of naivete among those posting comments. Folks, this is coming to a college near you whether they pass a law or not. This is a requirement for every college and university that wants it accreditation reaffirmed in the southeastern US, and in many other regions from what I can gather. It was, for example, prominently mentioned as an issue at San Francisco City College. I'm not sure if we are in the second or third wave of colleges required to do it, but we are early enough that I can understand why this is still news to the majority of faculty. My opinion, having done this for awhile, is that it is a useful exercise. I've learned a lot about what my students learn, even if it is relatively short-term learning as reflected at the time of the final exam. My main objection is to how we report our data, but I keep my own version as well since that can inform future development of the course. They want the results for every student in the class, but IMHO it is a mistake to lump failures in with those who passed. To me, it is a good thing when students who failed the class did so because they failed to achieve most of the expected outcomes defined for the course. And I don't think it is a failure of the course if they didn't learn because they chose to not attend class or do the homework or participate in active learning exercises in class. (They think I don't notice when they are playing on their phone, but I know exactly why person X could not do the kinds of problems that dropped him from an A to a B.) I'm most interested in what was missed by students who fail (to help them learn those topics) and what was missed by those that pass (ditto). In both cases it can be quite surprising to see what they learn from specific subsets of the course. PS - The significant extra work required to develop these and collect the data is one reason that I have not blogged very much lately.


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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day

And a Happy Birthday to that rather famous son of an electrical equipment salesman. When I was looking up a link, I noticed that it has been over a year since I've written anything here on this blog! Too busy with both necessary (did someone say assessing outcomes?) and even more necessary (unbloggable) job-related tasks to even pull out a bunch of semi-written stuff in my draft folder, but I have been blogging parasitically on Matt Reed's blog, usually on the "old" original Dean Dad one. He always produces lots of stimulating things to write more about. I really do need to get back here, though, because there are, indeed, lots of things to talk about. Maybe I should start by updating the census data about who has a college degree that came to mind this week.


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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Excellent advice from an article in IHE about the use of e-mail in the workplace.

I strongly endorse both the main advice and a contrary opinion in the comments. Contradiction? No, because the common thread is to know why you are using e-mail rather than a personal conversation.

The contrarian advice is the important value of e-mail as a written record that can be used for legal backup (even if only with your department head or dean). However, as the main article points out, that message will only be of assistance to you if you think before you send.

And the one thing to think before you hit "send" is that all e-mail is a public record in some states and potentially a public record in others. Always think about how it will be read by anyone in your organization, including board members and (for state schools) legislators.

A key thing to think about with students, but also with many others, is that they might only read the first sentence of your response. Before you hit "send", go back and read that sentence, all by itself, as a stand-alone message to see if it sends a mistaken impression of your main message. I've rewritten an e-mail for that reason alone. We have a tendency to put the main point at the end, like a conclusion, rather than at the beginning, as is proper in a memo. The CYA stuff is always at the end, of course.

It is definitely true the e-mail carries bigger risks than a personal conversation. That is because nuances conveyed by tone of voice are simply absent in an e-mail. A direct, "just the facts, Ma'am" approach common among scientists is particularly risky when used with non-scientist colleagues or students. It comes across as brusque or even rude. That is perfect if your goal is to be rude, but not if you goal is to develop consensus on a policy or decision.

Finally, e-mail can be slower than face-to-face discussions. Something as simple as re-ranking priorities can happen in a minute during informal discussion, but take days as e-mails bounce back and forth asynchronously between members of a committee.


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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

First Day of Class

Amusing and thought-provoking blog about first day of class rituals from Gradhacker at IHE.

I usually waste way too much time on the syllabus and am fighting to get pro-forma nonsense down under 10 minutes. I want to do some physics on the first day.


More detailed comments later, but I also like to give a quiz.


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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sense of Progress

I always know when Dean Dad has written a great column: I am composing a reply before I even get to his thesis statement!

That was true for his first post of the new year, about progress and cycles. As soon as he wrote "The one idea of this book is that the feeling of “progress,” even when small, is a powerful motivator." I was thinking about a key part of my teaching style. But then he started talking about ... semesters? Yeah, he has a point there as well. And on one other topic he could have addressed. And another.

Lets take up both my thoughts and his. That will also keep my comment on his blog a bit shorter than normal in a case like this.

Dean Dad's Semesters Question:

Dean Dad asks "How do you handle the lack of a sense of progress that attends the semesterly reset?"

Since I teach a subject that consists of a two-semester sequence, I don't suffer as much as some people because there is a huge sense of progress at each reset. Those that make it through the distillery that is my classroom (not to mention those of my math colleagues) are generally not at the level of finely aged "sippin whiskey", but they sometimes get close! I have come to expect a 90 to 95% pass rate in my second semester class, and it would be higher if I didn't have some students slip in from a nearby university. [And, as noted in my next topic, those students also benefit from the objectively valid sense that they can now learn anything.]

I view the reset in the first semester class as a new opportunity. (I hope the students attempting a second pass through the distillation apparatus see it that way also, rather than repeating their original flawed approach.) Now that "outcomes assessment" and a revise and evaluate cycle are being institutionalized here, there are things one learns from each class that feeds back into the next. I have always done some of that, usually focusing on some specific problem, but the gift of "outcomes" from our accrediting agency has led me to look at the entire course once again with new eyes. That is something I wanted to blog about over break.

In the interim, I'll just say that I concur completely with Dean Dad that "a deliberate focus at the cc level on pedagogical and curricular experiments over time could pay off" in more than one way. It has always been that way for me. So maybe it is a bigger problem for Administrators? They only see the classes being taught, not the students in them, unless something has gone horribly wrong.

My Teaching Version:

I am a huge believer in "small victories". That drives the intense, short cycles I use for homework and increasing use of active learning in the classroom.

That wasn't my original motivation for tightening up due dates or using active leraning. It started my first semester teaching at a CC, following someone else's previous syllabus with homework due on Friday. I quickly saw that students procrastinated so badly that they didn't know what they didn't know until almost a week had passed since a topic was introduced. The lurkers didn't even know that they had no clue what had been going on as the engaged students participated as we did problems on the board. I cut the sets in half, more like the twice-a-week recitation approach I had experienced as a grad TA. Better. On-line homework let me push it further. Sets open up early so they can see what is coming, but the first basic problems on a topic are due within a day or two of when the concept is introduced.

Get an easy one under your belt, and away you go to harder problems.

Ditto for active learning in the classroom.

The only thing I can't seem to deal with is "active failure". Never do the homework, sit with a pencil napping on the paper while texting about something more interesting at that millisecond, refuse to even start a problem when everyone else is working at their desks, or not attend at all. Actually, I view that as a small victory for all of us because someone with an attitude like that should never have thought for one second about becoming an engineer!

My Dean Dad Semesters Snark:

Dean Dad often promotes eliminating semesters, although he always does so with nonsensical references to an agrarian calendar and without ever offering a functional alternative that would allow employers and others to evaluate what students might know. I suspect he wants shorter grading periods tied to competency exams. I ride a similar hobby horse, arguing for shorter terms like those in the "quarter" system that has three 10+1 week terms rather than two 14.5+1 week semesters in an academic "year".

Both of these makes the faculty problem he writes about worse, but does help students get some small victories at the course level unless they don't start attending class until 8 of the 10 weeks have gone by.

Frankly, I have no idea what has driven the movement to semesters other than filling football stadiums from August through November. It certainly seems more of a herd mentality than anything that is research driven.

Overlooked Analogy in Developmental classes:

Some of the more promising approaches to developmental math at a CC make use of the "small victory" approach. Diagnostics locate problem areas, and targeted homework along with instructor feedback -- often in a computer classroom -- attacks that weakness until it is corrected. The alternative, where some students remain forever weak in a particular tiny area as the class moves on, is ultimately fatal in math.

Programs where a student can pass all of it in one semester by working at their own pace appear to hold great promise. They also have the distinct advantage that none of these classes transfer anywhere as college credit, so all we need is a clear way to document internally that they have met the requirements to move into college algebra. That is where other colleges need to know what something on the transcript really means.


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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Followup on Chinese engineering problems

I'm a big fan of the book "To Engineer is Human", so I can't be too hard on the people involved in the investigation of a bullet train crash in China. (See my previous article and Carl's comment on it) The adults in the room took a serious look at the causes of the accident and they will clearly learn from it.

What I wonder is whether the fawning business media will also learn a lesson: It is one thing to say you have software engineers and quite another to have ones who eliminate dangerous flaws before the product goes into use in an environment where there is a major risk to innocent life. The fact that managers were also singled out for blame brings back memories of the Challenger explosion, where management ignored the pleas of engineers who knew better.

Here's to hoping the same people aren't working on their aircraft.

Aside:
The article appears to blame the crash for reduced spending on their train system, but I suspect this is just cover for the severe budget problems China is facing. What has been bad for low-end retailers in the US has been really bad for China.


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Friday, August 12, 2011

A million actual engineers?

This article about the cause of the many deaths and much disruption caused by a high-speed rail crash in China contained the unsurprising conclusion that there was a design flaw in the system.

This is a reminder that it is one thing to produce a million engineers every year, as we are told they are doing in China and India, and quite another to produce highly competent licensed Professional Engineers with the guts to stand up to management. I wonder how many of those graduates in China are "engineers" in name only.

Of course, incidents like the Challenger explosion remind us that even our system can fail when the engineer can't stop management, particularly politically astute management, from doing something not based on sound science.


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Reflections on 30 years of the PC

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release announcement for the IBM PC. At the time, this was a key breakthrough in standardization of software for individuals and companies, as the platform allowed clones with the same Intel 8080 processor to have the same functionality at much lower cost.

Making the computer into a commodity changed the world, although it almost stifled innovation because money could be made on software without any vision at all. We are incredibly lucky that Apple survived the Lisa to produce the Mac with a mouse and a full GUI interface or we might still be waiting for devices like the iPad.

A long flashback digression. Although I had been programming and using computers for more than a decade at that time (my first access had been to a Honeywell system while in HS, where a teacher ran decks for us when it wasn't being used by the school system), they weren't suitable for writing. Good word processing systems that could handle special characters and equations were extremely expensive and limited to the business world. Our department got a home built using 8" floppy disks running the CP/M system with WordStar. WordStar could handle bold, italics, and greek letters along with superscripts and subscripts, which was like a dream come true when Word was still a dream and WordPerfect was not yet on the market. It still amazes me how many features of WordStar exist in HTML and the hot keys that somehow also appear in Word. (Learning basic HTML was trivial to someone who had used WordStar, since it was essentially a markup language for documents.) Later we bought a PC clone for home use, but the real revolution was when our department got a Mac and Adobe Illustrator as well as Photoshop. This was so far beyond the PC world as to boggle the mind. It is often forgotten how important the Apple consumer world was to the adoption of Adobe products like Pagemaker when PC users were still taping pictures into empty rectangles on a printout. Since our work machines ran one of the flavors of UNIX windows systems and I could use a Mac for fancier graphics, I was never as beholden to the M$ version as some. Now that I have an iPad it irritates me no end that I can't click on a link by touching the screen of a PC or laptop. For me, the iPad's only limitation is that I haven't adapted to either the glass keyboard or the nice portable keyboard for rapid touch typing. Hence the remark below. End of unnecessary digression.

As I commented over at Dean Dad's today, hand-held devices are changing the way we look at computers and what they do for us and how they hold us back.

IMHO, the most important choice today is your keyboard.

For example, M$ bloatware means even really fast hardware takes forever to boot compared to a MacBook, not to mention an iPad. This is a big deal in a classroom, where just booting up the computer can take a substantial part of the between-class time if you find it locked or off. [All of our classroom machines go into a single-user locked mode if left unattended, for security reasons. The only way out is a power-button reboot that takes several minutes.] It is truly remarkable how slow the Vista operating system is, almost as remarkable as how M$ has never admitted it was an utter failure. (I love that if you go to a Windows Vista page, it says you should buy Windows 7.)

A big change from the early days, mostly because of the internet and World Wide Web standardized interfaces, many computers are used only to "consume" information. Examples are the web sites Dean Dad was asking about, or e-mail, or various enterprise systems like our CMS, internal grading or advising systems, and college databases. Most of these involve minimal typing so they work great with a tablet like the iPad. I definitely see this as the future.

But sometimes you need a portable keyboard as nice as the one I am typing on now.


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