Monday, April 30, 2007

The Rice Mendacity Quaver

I can always tell when Dr. Condi Rice knows there is an odor of mendacity surrounding the remarks she is about to make. She gets a little quaver in her voice, an edge to it, that is probably out of her control. Perhaps we should give her credit for being basically honest, and since she is certainly intelligent enough to understand the word trick she is trying to pull off, her subconscious gives her away.
(An article today about origins of language makes a point that we have much less control over non-verbal things than of speech itself.)

As has been common for the past 6 years, statements were made this weekend that provide plausible deniability as to outright prevarication while being constructed and used in a way that leads the listener to a conclusion that is not actually supported by the statement. Consider the following from the official transcript from the Secretary of State of Dr. Rice's interview this weekend about claims made by George Tenet and others.

Context: Wolf Blitzer stated
Here's what George Tenet writes in this new book, At the Center of a Storm: "Those involved in (inaudible) the Bush Administration that war was inevitable. Richard Haass, the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, has said that Condi Rice told him in July of 2002 that 'decisions were made and unless Iraq gave in to all our demands, war was a foregone conclusion.'"
Well, I don't remember that specific conversation, but clearly when the President went to the United Nations Security Council in September and said that if Saddam Hussein does not act, then we will have to act, ...

Which is several months later, but in no way denies the correctness of what Tenet wrote or what Haass says. In fact, Rice is confirming what Tenet wrote, but uses that "well" to get you to think that she is contradicting him. Classic debate trick.

Context, from Wolf Blitzer:
Because you remember Paul O'Neill, the first Treasury Secretary, where he wrote in his first book, The Price of Loyalty with Ron Suskind, and what Ron Suskind later wrote in his own book, The One Percent Solution, that the Bush Administration came in with a mindset to deal with what they called unfinished business with Saddam Hussein.
That is simply not true. The President came in looking at a variety of threats.
and the quavering statement that made all the news sound bites:
But the idea that the President had made up his mind when he came to office that he was going to go to war against Iraq is just flat wrong.

Not relevant even if it is right. The President might have come in looking at a variety of threats and still have had a mindset to deal with Saddam Hussein. Similarly, her last statement does not contradict what a loyal Republican conservative wrote in his book. The "idea" she says is wrong is a straw man of her own construction. Having a "mindset to deal with unfinished business" is not "made up his mind that he was going to war". No one but Rice claimed that this was his goal. Her voice probably cracked at this point because she could smell the odor of mendacity on that straw man.

Context: Wolf Blitzer quotes Tenet on "60 Minutes"

"Part of all this has just been listening to this for almost three years, listening to the Vice President go on Meet the Press on the fifth year of 9/11 and say, well, George Tenet said slam dunk, as if he needed me to say slam dunk to go to war with Iraq, as if he needed me to say that. And you listen to that and they never let it go."
... He's saying that he's been scapegoated, in effect, that he acknowledges he made that comment about slam dunk that the case could be a slam dunk about the weapons of mass destruction, but he says by that time you, the Administration, had already made up your mind to go to war

Well, by that time we were certainly in the process of having brought Saddam Hussein before the international community and demanding that he carry through with his commitments or that there would be action.

In other words, Yes, we had made up our minds long before he said those words, because we now know that "action" equals "invasion".

I certainly don't blame George for the slam dunk comment having the sense that that was the reason we went to war. I think it's a complete misreading of how certainly I read the slam dunk comment.

Here we see Rice agree with the complaint from Tenet, albeit in a totally muddled sentence. She appears to confirm that his "slam dunk" comment was not the reason we went to war and that she did not read his comment at the time as an argument for war. She implicitly confirms his version of the context of his statement being about using WMD to make a strong case for war. I am not alone in this reading of her remarks. CNN says much the same thing, but then does not understand the implications of what they are saying.

Look at the lead from a CNN news story:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday said the administration did not use former CIA Director George Tenet's "slam dunk" comment as the reason to invade Iraq, disputing his complaints.

CNN has been totally bamboozled. The point that Tenet made was that his "slam dunk" comment was not used as the reason to invade Iraq! She is agreeing with him, not disputing him. His complaint is that his comment was misrepresented by VP Cheney to convey the false impression that his remarks were the reason for the invasion. Rice is disputing Cheney's version of the events, not Tenet's complaint about what Cheney said.

I was asked about this and I was asked did he say slam dunk. I said yes.

Exactly what Tenet complained about. Given a chance to set the record straight, she made a narrowly factual statement that helped convey the false impression that the V.P. had given a factual description of why we went to war.

Yet she can't leave the WMD issue without trying to cover her earlier mendacity on the imminent threat of a mushroom cloud with Iraqi origins.
I said but we all thought that the intelligence case was strong. ... We all thought, including UN inspectors, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

While we are parsing the carefully parsed, notice that she does not say that the intelligence itself was strong, only that the intelligence case was strong. She just hopes you will think she means that the intelligence was strong when the facts are that it was not. Her focus was (and is) on whether she has the cards in hand to win the debate, not on the validity of what is on those cards.

As to the rest of her remark, remember that the UN inspectors did not think he had nuclear weapons, or any reasonable prospect of getting them in the near term. She is clearly hoping that people will confuse aging stockpiles of nerve gas that could not be used effectively with a nuclear weapon on an ICBM that could reach the US. She is also hoping you will not notice that many members of the US Intelligence community have come forward to make it abundantly clear that hre "we" did not include the analysts within the CIA.

Lest we forget, I'll close with a quotation from an open letter to Tenet, that is also an open letter to Rice and many others:
CIA field operatives produced solid intelligence in September 2002 that stated clearly there was no stockpile of any kind of WMD in Iraq. This intelligence was ignored and later misused.

That letter also contradicts another famous Bush administration talking point:
Although CIA officers learned in late September 2002 from a high-level member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle that Iraq had no past or present contact with Osama bin Laden and that the Iraqi leader considered bin Laden an enemy of the Baghdad regime, you still went before Congress in February 2003 and testified that Iraq did indeed have links to Al Qaeda.

Tyler Drumheller Corrects the Record on a George Tenet memory lapse,
Larry Johnson compares what George Tenet wrote to what he said under oath to Congress.

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Deep Sigh of Relief

What a wonderful couple of days.

  • Grading 500 pages of exams.
  • Parading as a "spear carrier" at graduation, and seeing several of my hard working students move on to the next step in their career.
  • Learning that quite a few of my former students graduated from Wannabe Flagship Engineering School this semester, several with high honors.
  • Getting the lawn mowed.
  • Entering final grades while in my pajamas.
  • Fighting massive traffic around town, knowing that it heralds a 10 to 20% drop in population that will make it much easier to get into restaurants.
  • Finishing up paperwork for the year.
  • Being glad I don't have to commute across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Now it is time to start thinking about the summer semester ... and next fall when I shift to a new textbook.

Memo to newbies:
It is never to early to start thinking about your fall syllabus. Engineers have the concept of "as built" plans: After you finish building something, you put together plans that show how you actually built it. I use the notes on my "as taught" syllabus to create a draft pacing plan for the next time I teach that class. You can't believe how much that helps. My job in May is to map the details of a new textbook onto that draft, while the big picture is still in my head, so there is less to do in August.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Textbook adoption for Physics

Started at the request of "Mike" in the comments section on PG's blog.

My biggest problem with textbooks is that they have become bloated and unreadable. Bloat makes them unreasonably expensive, and tight adoption cycles (down from a dozen years in the 60's to every 3 years now) effectively increase that expense. Bloat, driven by editorial additions rather than writing the text de novo, contributes to (un)readability as the book loses the single voice it had when originally written.

My model right now is the Hewitt's book for basic (conceptual) physical science. It is way too cutesy for my taste, but college students will read it for knowledge and enjoy doing it. It may be written somewhere around a 9th grade language level, but that keeps linguistic sophistication from getting in the way of the many difficulty ideas being presented. The focus is on the new vocabulary and concepts. Best of all, it is properly organized pedagogically.

I wish there was a calc-based book that had that approach.

There are, finally, some new books out there and I am adopting one of those. Its virtues are that it is short(er) and sweet. That also makes it cheap (although only on a relative scale) and light enough to carry, but I like that the words are chosen carefully and that the book does not obscure the main narrative with lots of cute color pictures.

Read Entire Article......

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Singing the quadratic formula!

Here is a novel approach along the lines of "teaching to learn".

Stick Man sings the quadratic formula.

Disturbing, yet at the same time potentially effective.

Spread the word.


Update for Profgrrrrl:
It may not be a bouncing ball, but the "Quadratic Rap" includes a visual aid. It is also superior to some of the other quadratic formula videos out there in that it says "all over 2a" rather than just "over 2a". Distributing the division is an important detail.

There is also a trigonometry interpretative dance. Clearly there are a lot of HS students using their cell phones to record video during math class and, based on this Graph Dance, there is some cult of trig teachers who "dance" the graphs of various trig functions. [I see the sine, cosine, tangent, and secant being illustrated in a rather extreme version of active learning.]

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

President wants to Pay for his War? Finally!

Thanks to Michelle Malkin for the following quotations:

U.S. Congressman Mike Pence reportedly said, in part:
"The Democrat emergency supplemental appropriations bill is fiscally irresponsible ..."
"What the Democrat (sic) Congress has produced is a bill that violates the budget resolution that passed the House ..."
"While I am opposed to this bill based on its fiscal irresponsibility, ..."

Finally, someone who agrees with me about what Congress should do if President Bush decides to veto the bill that "gives" (from the pockets of future generations) money to properly train our troops and care for them after they are wounded. There is no question in my mind that the correct response to a veto is to pass a bill the "funds" the troops, with no other strings attached other than the requirement that it be revenue neutral, although I think it should also require that troops not be sent to war without proper training and resources to meet the mission, and that our Guard units not be diverted from their important duties at home. We must support our troops and safeguard our nation as well as protecting the Shiites in Iraq.

Similarly, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich. said:
"Providing full funding for our troops in combat should be simple and straightforward."

Yes, it would be, but it would require a tax increase like the one that Congress imposed at the start of WW II. No one in the White House or in Congress, on either side, has had any inclination at all to sacrifice one penny to match the sacrifices made by some of my students. Last I looked, people like Hoekstra were against actually funding the war. They want to charge it to their grandkids like they have been doing for the last four years.

Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino says the President even seems to agree with me:
"The President calls on the Senate to quickly pass this legislation so the President can veto it and then work with the Congressional leadership on a clean bill that funds our troops while respecting the judgment of our military commanders and helping ensure the safety of the American people."

I also like the President's suggestion that Congress force the President to stop reducing the safety of the American people by sending our National Guard troops overseas. We need them to protect us during national disasters or, heaven forbid, an attack by one of our actual enemies. Its bad enough that President Bush cut and ran in the face of nuclear tests by North Korea because of a troop shortage in Iraq. We can't afford any more of that.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

TiVo alert: classic post-war movie

TCM is showing The Best Years of Our Lives tomorrow (Wednesday, 4/25) at 3:30 pm ET. This is a must-see movie from 1946 about the adjustments men must make to civilian life after years at war.

The fact that the role of the man with no hands was played by a man who lost both hands during the war (Harold Russell, who had only acted in an amputee training film, won 2 Oscars for his performance) puts it far beyond Forrest Gump ... and makes it particularly relevant with the return of Iraq war veterans to similar circumstances.

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Visiting Thailand ... mostly for profgrrrrl

I have a colleague who visits Thailand regularly. (He is married to a Thai woman and they own a second home in the northern part of the country.) PG's latest blog about her planned trip reminded me to ask him some travel questions when I ran into him today between final exams.

His comments, in no particular order, from memory:

There is no major difference between May and June. Both are equally hot. As in 100 to 110 F hot. The rainy season comes much later in the year, so you probably won't have to worry about scheduling a trip around bad weather. It is only "cool" in the winter when they visit. Winter is also the only time there are a lot of tourists. (The resorts were packed when the tsunami hit near Christmas.) The north is only cooler in a relative sense, but he said that Bangkok is particularly hot because the tall buildings block any breeze, plus the usual urban heat island effect. Running in San Diego is just the thing to prepare you for the trip!

If you are in Bangkok, you can spend days just touring places in the city. Lots of temples, for example. One very cheap way to do this is to hire a car (sedan with driver, not a taxi). Your hotel will be able to set you up with some reliable choices. You can get driven anywhere you want to go for an entire day for a very nominal fee. Sounds like a great travel tip. I expect lots of temple photos in return!

Bangkok has nothing resembling zoning. A 5-star hotel could be one block from a slum.

The country is larger than it looks on a globe because it is dwarfed by India. He said it is something like 900 miles north to south, and it is not a "day trip" from Bangkok to many places of interest (like the beaches). Several hours on a train each way, so you would have to plan for an overnight stay if you go very far afield.

One side trip he recommended was to visit the ancient capital, which is upriver from Bangkok and can be reached via a beautiful boat ride. There are regular tourist excursions up there.

He did not think there would be any trouble traveling as a single woman, but he did recommend avoiding the southern part of the country. There have been problems with terror groups down towards Malaysia, but nothing major. (The major beach resorts, like the ones hit by the tsunami, are down there, but he said those are safe. His concern seemed more with the countryside in between.)

I also asked him about crossing the border to visit Angkor Wat, a place I've always wanted to see, but he had no experience with that. His wife cannot cross that border on her Thai passport. (Not sure what that is about, but must go back to the Vietnam War.)

Finally, he added, if you like riding an elephant ... there are week-or-two excursions into the jungle on elephant, moving from camp site to camp site. Sounds totally exotic.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, April 21, 2007

RBoC for a Saturday

A few random thoughts from the weekend:

  • Ran into a former student today. Learned that he is graduating as an Electrical Engineer next week, and that another student from that group graduated in December and is now working as an EE for Sprint. He was smiling, and so was I.
  • Its great to live and teach close to the WFU that most of my students attend. I see them around town, hear how they are doing, learn what things they really use after they leave my class, sometimes I even get them to come back and pass on some wisdom to the next crop of students.
  • One of them did just that on Friday, describing how he is required to solve an engineering problem and how many points get taken off for leaving something out.
  • A computer programming student thought that modern cars are less safe than older cars because they sustain so much damage in a crash. An pre-engineering student set him straight, which pleased me no end, and I elaborated with examples from the 60s ... when cars survived the crash and the passengers died, rather than vice versa. I know one thing I will emphasize in my gen-ed class this time around.
  • Profgrrrl may have a great new necklace, but what she really needs are donations for her marathon fund-raising effort. Pay her a visit and contribute what you can.
  • I will not point out that the Supreme Court's new inequality [woman's life > fetus's life > woman's health > any other not-a-legally-protected-human life] is a much more slippery slope than any of the slopes they thought they were working on. I also will not tolerate comments on what I did not point out, but will say that the chattering classes on both sides had very little to say about this very fine line that got drawn in the sand. They were too busy shouting from their respective scripts.
  • Today was a truly beautiful day.
  • I can't believe my brother has been writing computer code that our lives depend on for over 33 years, but I sure am glad that he is doing it. We should all be glad that he makes sure the guy with a degree from a fancy name-brand famous university, rather than the Enormous State U he graduated from, does not write a program that drops all of the bombs off of one wing of the airplane before dropping some of the ones off of the other. Can you spell center of gravity, children? (Love that story of his, which came up back when he first pointed me to profgrrrrl's blog. She wrote about overhearing future math teachers complaining about math being on their math ed exam.) Keep up the good work, kid. Wish I could send you some of my graduates, but they think it is too cold up there even though they hardly ever go outside down here ... because it is too hot.

... plus quite a few left over from the past week's events:
  • NBC owes 20 minutes of a network newscast and a full half hour of cable coverage to each one of the 32 murder victims, glorifying their lives much as they glorified the killer.
  • The other networks need to do the same, since they used NBC's actions as an excuse to evade having to explain their equally slimy actions.
  • For the news anchors who can't do arithmetic, that is one victim feature a day for the entire month of May, including weekends and holidays, plus the last day of April.
  • I was speechless when a talking head on NBC/MSNBC said, almost in the same breath, that the killer's actions were clearly intended to use murder as a way to get a national soapbox for his insane rant, but they were going to do it anyway. Other people deserved that attention, not the murderer. Did you notice I did not mention his name?
  • With a ratio of 5 faculty to 27 students killed, either he was targeting the faculty in each classroom or every one of them stood their ground and put the students first, just as we are trained to do in an emergency situation (such as a lab fire).
  • I lost count of how many mental health professionals (some psychiatrists, some not, some possibly licensed in Virginia) talked about the situation without once mentioning the court cases from circa 1970 that make it impossible to hold a person who is not, at this particular moment, certifiably a danger to himself and/or others.
  • I don't think I heard anyone, liberal, conservative, moderate, or progressive mention his parents. Perhaps this is because the living can sue for libel, but government agencies, NGOs, public figures, and universities cannot. Did they ever talk to his teachers during a PTA meeting? Did they know about his mental health treatment (or was that blocked by FERPA)? Or was this the other parallel to Columbine? Did they assume he would just turn out like his older sister if they went about their business?
  • All sides of the gun control question are as insane as the shooter. Apparently Virginia, like the state I live in, makes it illegal to have a gun on campus unless you are a law enforcement officer. He was not a felon, mentally incompetent, etc etc and he even followed the restrictive rules on time delays between purchases. If handguns were illegal, he probably would have legally bought a shotgun and sawed it off. If he needed a hunting license to buy a shotgun, he probably would have gotten one. If concealed carry was allowed on campus, what are the odds that freshmen in a french class or graduate students in engineering would be carrying guns on a random spring day on one of the safer campuses in the country?
  • That said, I do feel a bit safer in my classroom than I would at most universities, because I know that my classes contain persons who are perfectly capable of killing an armed gunman with their bare hands, and might even have done so in service to their country. A CC has quite a few returning veterans making the transition to university. I'd trust them with my life, just as they trust me with their (academic) future.
  • Someone pushing his website says parents should use it to check how safe a campus is before sending their kids there. He forgot to say that doing so would have told them that Blacksburg is a really safe place to go to school. Useless self-promotion, enabled by the cable news folks who never asked him what his site said about VaTech last spring. And is it now, on average, more dangerous than Columbia or Chicago?
  • Did the people who said this was the worst murder rampage ever in US history forget the mass murder that took place in Oklahoma City because it was more than a decade ago? What an insult to those families, and so close to the latest anniversary of that event.
I think that emptied the "clip" of bullets on the control panel, so that must cover everything. If not, it is close enough.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

We are not worthy

Thank you, Sherman, for pointing to this tribute and linking to the Virgina Tech engineering college biography for Prof. Liviu Librescu.

Words can't describe my respect for Prof. Librescu. Here is a man who has seen the worst the world can offer, as a survivor of the holocaust, and paid it back by being an expert in an extremely challenging field. [Non-linear dynamics, particularly of supersonic fluids, is about as nasty as it gets ... let alone in unsteady flow with magnetohydrodynamic effects.] His record of research, teaching, and service is spectacular. He was still going strong at the age of 76, but he apparently did not think twice about sacrificing himself to block the door to his classroom when his students came under attack on April 16. Like Sherman Dorn said, Damn.

If students ever wonder how their professors feel about them, they need look no further than how this man gave his life keeping the gunman out of his classroom.

Read Entire Article......

Monday, April 16, 2007

Thoughts for Virginia Tech ...

Today has been a sad day since I heard the news of the shootings in the engineering school at Virginia Tech. You can't teach future engineers, as I do, and not feel a connection to engineering students everywhere. It is tragic to see any young lives lost, but these were hard-working lives particularly full of promise to the future of our nation. My heart goes out to their families and friends, and the entire campus community.

It will take a long time for the scars to heal. I know people at one university where a faculty member was shot by a graduate student many years ago, and that incident was very much alive to them as much as 10 to 15 years later.

Like Chad, I think it would be nice to see some decorum. The feeding frenzy at the 7:30 pm press conference was revolting. Those insta-expert journalists all seem to think that this is a CSI episode, and the ballistics tests should be done by the next ad break. Didn't they learn anything from the Duke lacrosse story? Lets wait and see what the facts are.

I also can't help but reflect on an event at ICC a few months ago. Got to work and about the first thing I heard was "classes are not cancelled, ignore the bomb threat". ... OK. ... There was nothing to it, as the experts had deduced, and the decision to not disrupt the education of thousands of students was a good one. Will we rethink that? Will our policy be on the agenda of the governance committee I will be on next year? Will it be on the agenda for every college and university in the country? Probably. We can but hope that this necessary effort will be a waste of our time because this will not happen again.

Note added:
Bingo. The topic was on the agenda today, but fortunately it will mostly be addressed by people above my paygrade at meetings that start later this week.

Finally, as a big fan of irony, it was not lost on me that a Palestinian civil engineering grad student was the hero i-reporter for CNN. It says a lot about the difference between his homeland and mine that his reaction to gunfire was to stay put and record it on his cell phone video.

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Algebra skills and learning physics

Followup to earlier comments on college readiness:

My earlier comments ended up centered on reading, with algebra left as an afterthought towards the end. But my boldfaced comment about algebra, which is that most students do not comprehend the very concept of prerequisites, and thus underestimate the importance of fluency in algebra to their careers, got reinforced this weekend during a conversation with a professor of engineering at Wannabe Flagship U.

First, my example. Simply ask your students to solve a simple log equation on one of the first few days of the semester. No warning, no review, straight out of the blue, no calculators or cell phones. And I do mean simple, something like "8 = log_10(2x), solve for x". My experience at a CC is that the majority cannot do it. They can do it just fine if shown an example or prompted to review it, but they do not know how to do it. This after "passing" college algebra and pre-calc classes that each spent a week or more on that topic along with application problems. Is it any wonder they are strung out in calculus when the get to the log integral? Or when we simply assume they can follow some simple algebra steps in class?

The corollary is that most think "prerequisite" means they need to have "taken" a course, not that they will be expected to know everything they were taught in it. [Again, a question about what we mean when we say that trig or calculus is a prerequisite for our class can make an interesting quiz.] Is it any wonder that they treat trig like a random history class from high school, or the high-stakes test they crammed for back in 10th grade? Take it, cram for it, pass it, and forget it. After all, next semester there will be several weeks of review of anything they need to know from that class. Except there won't be any review. That was then, this is college.

The conversation that reminded me of this was about the failure rate of students in the prof's third-year "dynamics" class, and a general remark that no student should go into engineering unless they had a solid HS background in algebra and were ready to start in calculus as freshmen. (Clearly alluding to weakness in math, particularly algebra, as a signal for future failure in the engineering curriculum.)

But, I protested, that leaves out lots of students, including essentially all of mine. (And not just the returning, adult students who almost always start back in HS-level classes.) And lots of mine have done very well in his program. Oh, that's different, as long as they come in from ICC with all of their physics and calculus complete. They will be a year behind, but they can do it if they really know what they are doing.

He also made a general comment, about abject ignorance of math and physics being the main reason that 20% of his students don't have a chance, but then amended it to say that the failures had usually started at WFU. My ICC alumni did OK. So what was the difference? Well, they seem to know their basic physics and math. Most of the WFU kids also know it, but some don't have a clue, despite spending thousands of someone's money on "taking" physics and calculus. He attributed most of it to a really weak math department at WFU, and social promotion in the calculus classes.

I'd be shocked, but I know that most of those classes are taught by grad student adjuncts or one-time assigned faculty -- not "regulars" like at ICC. (See regular discussions over at Dean Dad's forum for that topic, and concerns that adjuncts and new faculty grade easily to get good evaluations.)

But I also know that one of my weekly goals is to tell my students where calculus concepts they are working on that week (particularly from calc II, which they never have to apply in "anger" in my physics class) fit into what we are doing now, and what they will do next year. Ditto for key physics concepts, such as learning to draw a free-body diagram. The multiple-choice tests at WFU can't test this, but my exams require it. Perhaps more importantly, I tell them why I require it, and sometimes my alumni drop by and tell them the same thing, student to student.

And the most important part might be that last one. Student to student. I cannot take credit for their learning. They have to do that. I'm not even sure I can take credit for convincing them of its importance, because my alumni are a big part of that, although I do try to lay the groundwork.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The joy of teaching ...

... is to run into former students who are doing well, or even graduating, in their chosen field.

Today I learned that two former students were part of a team that finished in third place (and may have had a chance to win) in a state-wide mechanical engineering design competition. Awesome! Now they know more than I do about some subjects, and can even put it into practice. I live (and teach) for moments like that.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Tattoo-ism and Imus

Lost amid the focus on the invectives that Don Imus directed at the Rutgers women's basketball team is the trigger for it all: his initial impression (prejudgement, prejudice) based on the tattoos worn by those young women. College kids entering the job market don't realize that someone in their late 60s, with military service in the 50s, might be of the opinion that the only women who wear tattoos are whores, or "hard women". There are quite a few college students who would not get a job if a liberal like Don Imus was doing the hiring. God only knows what Rush thinks.

Its unclear to me how many people from my generation hold those views. Working on a college campus keeps one younger, since you are around 20+ young people all the time. College students never grow old, and we stay young with them.

In a business like my brother is in, where what you can do matters more than what you look like, my impression is that it would not matter much. When I asked him about the corporate view of a student of mine, who resembles "Pierce" in the comic strip Zits, he told me that one of their last two fresh-from-college hires fit that mold. They could care less how many rings he ahs in his nose as long as he can design a working bit of software.

But if you are a business major, or in a sales area where first impressions are everything, the situation could be different. How many tattoos do you want to see on your doctor?

Note added:
On the job hunt, you can hide lots of tattoos, but you might not be able to hide your myspace or facebook history.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Op-Ed for the other 62%

A recent op ed piece in the Washington Post has seen wide distribution (even made it into our local paper), but I wonder if anyone actually read all of it.

The authors note a study that says "only 38 percent of graduating college seniors can successfully perform tasks such as comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials". Not surprising to me, because I teach at a college and even attended one in the distant past. The focus for many majors is not (and was not, even in the halcyon past) on critical thinking. You don't need much of that if you major in "housing" or any number of workforce-oriented programs. Its not like every Directional State University guarantees the same kind of quality education that our President got at Yale. We do what we can, but my focus for future engineers is on thinking critically about data and the known unknowns that might make a bridge fall down, not analysis of political discourse. But I digress.

What I like about this op-ed piece is that it appears written to appeal to the 62% who don't process complex arguments that well. Lets look at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. In the third graf from the bottom they write "This problem [pushing research fame rather than learning] can't and shouldn't be fixed by government regulation." Then, with one paragraph to dull the reader's mind, they say "... and by requiring taxpayer-subsidized colleges to disclose their performance to the public, the federal government can ..." -- which sounds remarkably like a government regulation to me.

And it won't even solve the problem, which is that U.S. News chooses to emphasize one set of data over ones already available on outcomes. There are already federal regulations requiring documentation of how each college does at helping "undergraduates learn and earn degrees", with the emphasis on degrees. In addition, our accrediting agency wants to know about "engagement", generating even more data on learning. We track others ourselves, internally. Much is available on our portal, just as it is for everyone else the accrediting agencies look at. U.S. News could use those data if they wanted to. So could the "Education Sector" think tank, and produce their own ranking system.

OK, I'll give the authors the plausible deniability angle, that they were referring to a law in the last graf and a regulation in the earlier one, but maybe you see my point. If they truly respected their readers, they would not have made a logically inconsistent argument. They could have been honest about wanting a new regulation, or a revision to the existing one. I hope the talk at AERA addresses the real challenge, which is coming up with a measure that will not destroy college education with a one-size-fits-all test where art majors and engineers are held to the same math standard the way they are in high school. [We already have such a test in this state, it turns out, and it is a total joke. Fortunately, it does not skew real education too much.]

But I am not optimistic. This Op-Ed is thick with anti-intellectual attacks on research and publishing in higher education. Sorry, but as a physicist who teaches future engineers, I can tell you that their education (particularly with regard to critical thinking) is improved by access to research programs as an undergraduate, just as mine was. Research is not just for the journals, and benefits more than the faculty and the nation. It also improves undergrad education.

One size does not fit all. A future engineer needs to work with real problems, not read "four books" in their senior year. Faculty know this, and that is why they rate quality higher than mediocrity and assign capstone projects to their seniors rather than books to read. Do you want to drive over a bridge built by someone who read five books their senior year, or someone who helped design and build a steel truss during their senior year?

I have less trouble with the argument in his blog about accountability, but I have a swamp to sell him if he thinks NCLB has eliminated a caste system in our local schools. Testing did help in this area, but that was before NCLB. Word is (I don't know its reliability) that the average HS reading level went from 4th to 8th grade after they started No-Stakes testing in this state some 20+ years ago. (There were no punishments back then, just data that were used to shift resources to students who needed help.) But plenty of kids today are still being left behind, while good students are forced to waste their time prepping for a High-Stakes test they will pass easily rather than learning what they need when they get to my physics class. A test that gets their teachers a raise while taking time away from student learning.

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Monday, April 9, 2007

The Great Beast of Vapid (lab report) Writing

Thanks, Sherman. Your blog on empty thesis statements, pointing me to the interesting comments of the Little Professor, was just the thing to run across while procrastinating over sloppy lab reports.

When adding my dos centavos to the Professor's blog, I forgot to point to my earlier remarks describing my views of the relationship between what we read in college and what they are trained to do in high school. That this training helps them survive a college composition class only reinforces the behavior.

It is a real problem. In a few years, these students will be writing memos and reports that could determine whether your airplane flies or a dam collapses. Vague generalities just will not do in that case. I hope your class and mine push them to take the risk of being wrong. I do it by taking off more points for being vague than for trying and getting it wrong. I can correct wrong; I can't correct vague.

I'll say more if I ever get an essay about teaching Lab classes out of the draft folder .... but now it is time to get back into the maw of the Beast.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

2.76E-3 is not scientific notation!

In Uncertain Principles' "Pick a Number" challenge, a pair of comments by a student used TI-83 notation to write mu_0 as 4piE-7 rather than 4pi x 10^{-7} (using pseudo-TeX due to the absence of superscripts and greek letters in this forum). This is an abomination perpetrated (in part) by math faculty at various levels, including at good old ICC.

It is bad enough when they tolerate using 3E-7 as if it conveyed the mathematical idea of exponentiation rather than the subtraction of 7 from three times the Erdos-Borwein constant E, but some will even tolerate 3e-7, when every child knows that this is seven less than 3 times Euler's (or Napier's) number e. [And, I might add, e is one of the most important numbers in mathematics, right up there with its friends pi, i, and -1. See my pi-Day observation posted back in March.] In my not so humble opinion, this is the equivalent of teaching BASIC in programming 1 to computer science majors.

It starts, of course, with the adoption of a particular graphing calculator (the TI-83 at ICC and elsewhere) that does not display numbers in correct scientific notation. It is reinforced when algebra instructors grade students on whether they correctly copy the exact contents of the display that results from carrying out a trained task (such as pointlessly using "trace" to "solve" an equation) in the prescribed fashion and never ask the student to also provide the correctly written value after rounding to, say, 3 significant figures. [Don't even get me started on whether they also look at any of the work the students have done, grading them on its correctness and clarity.]

Yes, computers and calculators often cannot handle data input of numbers in standard mathematical form, but that is no excuse for confusing expediency with correctness. Students must be taught to translate the expression shown by their calculator into the form used by all professionals in their published [*] work. They could also be told that much cheaper calculators, such as the Casio fx-115ms (for numerical integration and uber-cool symbolic prefixes in engineering mode) and many Sharp models, actually display a power of 10. For instructors, these other calculators also have the virtue of reducing cheating off of electronic formula sheets.

[*] Journals have, and probably still do, accept tables reproduced directly from computer printouts that use this FORTRAN format, but that is the exception that proves the rule.

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

The ultimate demo day!

I teach both physics 1 and physics 2 each semester at Ishkabibble CC, but I don't recall ever doing all four of these demos on the same day, ever. A combination of factors (room scheduling, availability of staff to get LN for my morning class, a helium balloon) conspired to allow me to do 4 of my favorite demos today. Listed in the order they were done:

1) Talking with helium.

A review topic from last week, but an ICC club event had some helium balloons available that made it convenient to do it today. Great fun, and probably worth having to defer one example to the next class day.

2) Liquid Nitrogen experiments, including the best experiment that never !! works.

I use a constant volume gas "thermometer" filled with air to test the ideal gas law prediction of the change in pressure with temperature. The result is wrong because ... air is not an ideal gas. The Oxygen condenses out at LN temperatures, and that 20% change in the number of moles exactly explains the error. Great fun, because the students always think "experimental error" rather than "interesting physics beyond the standard model" when I ask what might be wrong with the prediction I made before doing the experiment.

3) Rotation of polarization with Karo syrup.

Always a crowd favorite, but I put two orthogonal Polaroids side-by-side on the bottom after doing the usual experiment and ask what will happen. They correctly guess "two different colors", but hardly expect to see two complementary colors (such as lime green and magenta) as the result.

4) Illustrating a real image produced by a concave mirror by putting the image of light bulb in an empty socket.

They can't believe this one. Some even think the bulb is real. I like it best because I built it myself, from memory, to replicate the one at Enormous State University where I did my PhD.

And, best of all, some of them learned a few things that won't even be on the test!

[Yes, any of my students will immediately guess who wrote this, but I'm not that paranoid about what I write here. Besides, I doubt that anyone even reads this blog yet.]

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Grade 13 at Ishkabibble Community College

One problem at every college or university is that students think they are moving on to Grade 13. (Some state educational systems even look at it this way.) The consequences for student success are severe, because a high-school approach to learning will lead to failure in college. The impact is probably greatest for under-prepared students at a CC, and more significant for first-in-family students than for ones whose parents went to college. (That said, I have taught children of engineers who act as if they were never told that college classes require more work than high school did. Kids who took AP classes in HS and thought they were an example of a college class are often in for the biggest surprise.) But it is a problem for most students, even ones at elite universities. (See example from JHU linked below.)

Why is "grade 13" thinking a problem? College is different. It has always been different, but now that the majority of students move on to college in the same way they moved from middle school to high school, few think that going to college is a big deal. Everyone does it (sometimes literally everyone), rather than just one or two when my grandfather went to college. Yet it is a big deal, and nobody is telling them just how different it is going to be.

Steven Zucker at Johns Hopkins has done a lot to change the orientation program at JHU. His collection of orientation materials contains lots of information. One particular document from circa 1996, when he wrote an article in the Notices of the AMS, and a later outline of a presentation at orientation provide a good summary of the wakeup call new college students need if they are going to succeed in a true, college-level math or science class.

What would I like to see at ICC orientation?

Some of the differences between high school and college:

1) You had to attend class in high school; you do not have to attend class in college. However, your teachers were required to pass you in high school; we are not required to pass you in college. (You didn't know they had to pass you? See the next item.) There are many college math classes where half of the class does not earn a C or above. A high school teacher would be fired for doing that. The concern in college is not how many students pass the class, but whether every student who passes the class has learned and retained the material taught in the course.

2) You were never taught "at your level" in high school. Your high school teacher was teaching to the bottom 20% of the class, trying to keep the failure rate down to a few percent while giving them the rote skills needed to pass a "high stakes" exit exam. They were teaching to kids who are unlikely to ever go to college, not even to ICC. The teachers were responsible for kids passing their class whether they learned anything or not. In college, you are responsible for learning the material. You are an adult now, not a child. We will gladly help you learn, but that extra help will be outside of class, during office hours.

3) You went to class for 6 or more hours every day in high school, but only go to class for a few hours in college. Lots of time to work or party! !! Yes, but only if you want a career as a prison guard. If you want to be an engineer or doctor or nurse or business professional, you have to spend several hours doing homework for every hour in class. Most learning takes place outside class.

One year of high school Spanish equals one semester of college Spanish. How do we do this? We don't. You do. You do things outside of class that high school teachers made you do in class.

Another example:
We teach a math class at ICC that "covers", in just 15 weeks, all of the material taught in a common two-year high school algebra sequence (algebra 1a and 1b). We do this while only meeting 3 times a week. How do we "cover" 320 days of material in 45 days? We don't. We teach the principles and one or two examples, and you learn it on your own through review and homework.

4) You must do homework outside of class. (Of course, you don't have to do homework, but you also don't have to pass. You must do homework to learn the material, pass the class, and succeed in your career goals.) At least an hour a day for each class, two hours for every hour in class. You must do this even if no one tells you to do it, or collects it, or grades it. You must allow time to contact your instructor during office hours if you need additional help, or organize a study group that meets regularly outside of class.

5) College faculty do not have any time to waste. We don't teach anything that we know will not be needed by some student in their next class, and we don't re-teach anything you were supposed to learn in a previous class. (We might review it while doing an example, but we will not teach it as a separate topic.) If you need to know trigonometry to succeed in a physics or calculus class, we require a trig class as a prerequisite and we expect you to still know the material taught in that trig class when you take our class. We will not waste our time, or those of other students, reviewing material from a class you already attended. If you forgot it the day you left the final exam, you wasted your money and relearning it is your problem. Many low level classes at ICC spend a lot of time reviewing material from a previous class (something you were used to in high school), but that will not be done in higher level classes such as calculus, physics, or the classes you take after you transfer to Wannabe Flagship Tech.

You need to learn for a lifetime, not cram for tomorrow's test.

Links added in May 2008:

When posting a comment on Learning Curves, I noticed I had not directly linked to the comments Zucker published in the Notices of the AMS. The links up above are to pages that describe changes to orientation at John's Hopkins he was involved in. The links below are (mostly) to published articles on this subject:

I'll add the comment that "teaching freshmen to learn mathematics" is not at all the same as teaching mathematics to freshmen. The same applies to physics for future engineers, hence my observations from April 2007 you see up above.

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A good pseud for my college

I teach at Ishkabibble Community College.

Well, not really.

Dean Dad used Iskabibble (sic) State University as an example of an Organic Free-Range Certified college with a 90% f-t faculty ratio. I like that name. I'm not old enough to remember Kay Kyser, but my parents do. [Dean Dad, being about one more generation removed, got the spelling wrong. Young whippersnappers can look up "Perfessor" Kyser on Wiki and see if his sidekick Ishkabibble is described there.] I think I'll use Ishkabibble CC (ICC) as the pseud for where I teach, even though our f-t ratio is only about 50%.

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

April Fools ...

I can't tell which is funnier, a straight-faced claim that there is no longer any role for experiment in physics by Chad Orzel over at Uncertain Principles,

or the bogus agenda for a faculty union meeting posted by Sherman Dorn.

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