Saturday, March 28, 2009

This Needs to be Read.

Hat tip to Chad at Uncertain Principles, who offered his own version of this story:

A security guard tried to take some luggage from a disabled person in a wheelchair because "some body" was not in possession of it. Read it yourself. The ADA meets Homeland Security.

Totally outrageous, yet not surprising given how disabled people are often treated. Now imagine that the person involved was the Iraq war vet, a triple amp, who attends the CC where I teach. (Welcome home, vet, and thank you for your service, but you are no longer a person without your legs.)

Read Entire Article......

Thirty Years since Three Mile Island

Today is the 30th anniversary of the accident at TMI, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant outside Harrisburg, PA. Since that event, there were no new nuclear power plants started in the US, and some projects were terminated. More on that later.

I need to find a slide I took of the plant approximately one year after the accident and scan it. The paranoia of a security guard was captured nicely.

Among the many ironies of that event, the movie The China Syndrome was released on March 16, less than two weeks before the accident. With the tagline "Today, only a handful of people know what it means... Soon you will know.", it described a Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA) quite similar to TMI accident, except there was apparently no meltdown in the movie. By the way, the similarities between the movie and the actual events were no accident.

Irony #2:
Why were they no accident? If you look at the safety considerations that go into nuclear power plant design, as I have, you will see that they are built around the statistical analysis of various ways a reactor can fail. The best solution is a design with passive safety features, where the loss of some crucial element results in the device shutting itself down. If that is not possible, you build active backup systems that protect against likely (and unlikely) scenarios and forbid operation of the reactor when those systems are not available. Likely scenarios get more attention than unlikely ones. The one that started the TMI incident, a LOCA, is considered to be a highly likely scenario - whether from a pipe break or a shutdown of the main feedwater pumps (the problem at TMI, followed by a stuck valve) or manual intervention due to faulty readings (in the movie, where later events concerned a possible major pipe break).

The accident at TMI started when coolant was lost due to a failure in the external cooling system that shut down the main feedwater pumps and scrammed the reactor. This is not all that rare. The first defense against a LOCA like that at TMI is a secondary feedwater pump. My recollection from the time is that this system was physically disconnected for maintenance, but this is not mentioned in the Wiki article. I'm pretty sure that its normal operation after the reactor scram would have prevented any further problems by removing the post-fission decay heat from the reactor. Operating while it was shut down resulted in a significant increase in the probability of the next event in the failure chain. In addition, my recollection is that red tags, warning that a certain system was off, obscured crucial instruments and other tags warning that even more important systems were off. They were not operating a reactor that looked like the one analyzed to estimate the probability of an accident like this taking place.

The next key event is that a pressure relief valve opened. This was normal. However, it stuck open, and pressure in the cooling system fell. Again, an automatic "active" safety system, the emergency core cooling system (ECCS), kicked in. If allowed to run as designed, this would have prevented the accident. However, much like the error made by the operators in the movie, the ECCS was shut off manually because the operators believed the water level in the reactor was too high and did not know (due to a poorly designed warning light) that the pressure relief valve was open. This error was noticed two hours later when a new shift arrived, and actions taken at that point prevented further damage.

Irony #3:
The movie was based on the premise, common in both the anti-nuclear movement and many experts in nuclear power, that once a core meltdown started, it would lead inevitably to a full melting of the core - right through the containment vessel until all of that radioactivity got released into the atmosphere and ground water. The irony is that we learned, long after the fact, that the core of the TMI reactor had been damaged and a meltdown had started. This accident, along with some observations long after the Chernobyl disaster (see this section in particular as well as this picture of the post-TMI situation), showed that the molten core material does not appear able to sustain a "critical" nuclear reaction. It forms a lava-like mixture with whatever is around as it forms. It does not appear that it could get through undamaged concrete, let alone get to groundwater or to China.

Irony #4:
The China Syndrome movie was produced as anti-nuclear power plant propaganda, yet the accident at TMI did more to harm nuclear power than any movie could. It was the eventual loss of about a billion dollars, from an accident that would not have taken place if management had sensibly realized that safety rules were there to protect their investment rather than cut into their profits, that led the industry itself to cut back on investment in nuclear power. Who would loan money or invest in something where all of that money, and more, could be lost in an hour by a failure to operate the system prudently?

It has taken more than a generation with no comparable failures to bring back nuclear power. This is also no accident, as it resulted from revised training procedures and better control room design. In addition, the new reactor designs are far superior to the old ones, with more passive safety systems.

Shared Lesson:
The "graveyard shift" (third shift, typically 12 mn to 8 am or 10 pm to 6 am) is well named. Both TMI (4 am) and Chernobyl (1 am) occurred during that shift, and poor decision making contributed to - and likely caused - both "accidents". At TMI, the tired operators never re-evaluated what was going on. The fresh shift, arriving at 6 am, identified the actual problem almost immediately. At Chernobyl, key decisions were made under pressure, late at night, after a long day, and in some ignorance of the physics of the reactor that was the basis for rules saying you should never do what they eventually did.

The Ultimate Lesson:
Many things are safe only if you treat them with the proper respect due something that is actually dangerous. In the case of nuclear power, the challenge is to convince the public that this technology is safe while simultaneously convincing management and plant operators that it is NOT safe. It is only safe if you act as if it isn't. This applies to many things in life, ranging from shooting guns to driving cars. For example, the risk of death in a car accident is much lower if you wear your seatbelt, particularly in a car with air bags. This does not mean you are so safe in a car with air bags that you don't need to wear a seat belt. An air bag is of minimal value if you are not belted into the space in front of it. Promotion of air bags has obscured this not-so-minor detail and people die as a result.

PS -
One thing that I found interesting is that, despite its politically charged importance, the Wiki article about TMI is extremely accurate and (apart from my memory that there was a backup cooling system disabled that was the first stage in the ECCS, before the pressure valve would have opened) contains nothing inconsistent with my memory of the NRC report I read way back then.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Advice to those seeking tenure

There was an excellent article in IHE today providing advice to those in a tenure-earning position. I was going to add it to a collection of articles in a followup to one of my "jobs" series, particularly part 4 on tenure at an R1, but think it deserves its own place.

What I Wish I'd Known About Tenure by Leslie Phinney.

Read it, but keep in mind that it is clearly written about tenure at a comprehensive or graduate research university, not a teaching college like a CC. (The author was formerly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

I should add a few comments about the parts I think are relevant at a CC, but will do that at another time.

Updated on March 28, after the first 3 comments appeared:

One of those instances of someone with a high-quality research program being denied tenure at a top-10 physics department (alluded to in my comment on this blog) is in the list of blog comments at the bottom of my article two summers ago about the difference between being hired into a t-t job and earning tenure in it. I've also put a back-link to that article up at the top of this blog entry. UIUC is in the top 10 for both physics and engineering, so the experiences of the author of that opinion piece about tenure are most relevant at that level of competition. Unlike universities at other levels in the top half of all physics research programs, the top ones are much more likely to hire people without the presumption that they are more likely than not to earn tenure if they merely continue to publish grant-supported research. I have heard respected researchers refer to a particular department as being "nuts" to deny tenure to certain individuals, individuals who went on to great success in their field (at another university). For example, getting a 4-year NSF award and a NASA fellowship (as in the case of Dr. Phinney) would absolutely guarantee tenure at a mid-tier R1 unless you did something illegal along the way.

Now, as noted earlier, I am going to add my comments about each item in the original article, mostly (but not entirely) from a CC perspective.

  • 1. The Gamble: Part of the gamble at an R1 is that the 3 M$ commitment is balanced against what the university has already gained in profit from the first 7 years of research funding by the person up for tenure, and a judgment concerning the chance this productivity will continue. The other part of the gamble concerns the cash flow at the university in any particular college or department. The latter consideration is all that applies at a CC (where the gamble might be "only" 1.5 M$), but that decision is normally made before the t-t line is advertised. There are some exceptions, particularly today with the chance of further major budget cuts on the horizon, where one-year hires occur without the promise the job will even be considered for tenure. It does remain true that the final decision is made in the college's interest.
  • 2. The Fraternity: This is generally good advice, but some of it reflects being a female professor in a college that has few women above the Asst Prof or Instructor level. Physics shares that distinction with Engineering, whether in academia or private practice, so this is advice that looks more significant to me than it would someone in the Evergreen areas or Education (where Sherman has his experience as a historian of education). It is much less important at a CC where female and minority faculty are more common than at universities, particularly in the sciences and math, but still relevant. However, I think the tenured faculty at our CC push this process of integration into the college so less initiative is needed by the newly hired prof.
  • 3. Making a Solid Case for Tenure: This pretty much mirrors what I wrote about tenure in my "part 4" article about universities, and I already wrote a detailed article about the differences at a CC as part 5 in my jobs series.
  • 4. The Gray Area: I believe this bit of advice has little relevance below top 10 institutions, although it can also apply at upwardly mobile top-quartile or (in particular) second-quartile departments. Elsewhere, hires appear to be made with the assumption that the candidate will likely get tenure unless they screw up and fail to maintain the quality research and/or teaching program that got them hired in the first place. That is certainly the case at our CC, but I have seen one instance where the person just didn't have what we thought they did.
  • 5. Risk Factors: This is mostly relevant toward the top of the R1 heap, and many of the things I mention under item 3 (and in my "part 4" article) apply here as well. It certainly is VERY risky to go to a top R1 without a research post-doc and some experience with grant writing to support a research program that is uniquely yours rather than one identified with your major prof. It can even be risky to take a teaching job at a CC with little teaching experience.
  • 6. Mobility: This observation looks a lot different to me today than it might have a few years ago. Budget cuts have made my job much harder than it used to be, due to significantly increased student loads and less support from staff in the last two years. However, I doubt that it is any better at most other schools! But, if necessary, I think I have the record needed to move elsewhere (assuming that the utter collapse of our state government is the exception and not the rule). And that should be the message to someone at an R1: Build a program good enough that you can move to another, more rational institution if your first choice does not see the value in your contribution.
  • 7. Priorities: I can relate to this. My priorities are much more easily satisfied teaching physics to motivated, upwardly mobile students than pushing a research program at an R1. That is also true for a significant number of the PhD faculty at my CC.
  • 8. Job Flight / 9. Life Choices: To thine own self be true.

Read Entire Article......


A CBS "commentator" said something about U Conn having to face the "frenetic defense" of Missouri. Sorry, but "holding" Memphis to "only" 91 points (2 more than they scored in a win over Maryland and 10 more than they scored in a win over Cal State Northridge) is not my idea of defense.

Holding Duke to 54 (10 less than the scored in a win over Texas) is my idea of defense.

But it was frenetic: especially if you take the meaning of "deranged" or "insane".

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy watching the tiny bit of the game we saw in our region even if it hurts to see big basketball players cry. I wonder if it was just sinking in that their conference had not prepared them for the challenge of a tournament game.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Madoff's Ponzi Lesson

You all know about good old Bernie Madoff, whose recent conviction has brought the story to the forefront. CNBC assembled some of his "victims" (scare quotes because a Ponzi scheme, more so than a normal con like driveway sealers or a money switch, relies on greed rather than just pure salesmanship) to discuss the matter. You can read some of that in this story.

Now, granted, there are plenty of reasons to point to the failure of the police in this matter (the SEC regulators who are supposed to be giving speeding tickets), and one very good lesson for those of us in academia. [The person who repeatedly blew the whistle on Madoff complained on "60 Minutes" that the SEC was full of lawyers who could check that forms were filled out correctly but could not follow a simple statistical or mathematical argument. We should mention that every time a student in the liberal arts complains that ze does not need math because ze is going to be a lawyer.] But I was sorely disappointed when one person on the TV broadcast was asked point blank what lessons she had learned.

Sadly, she did not learn that the reason she only lost 2/3 of her money while others in the room had lost all of their their retirement funds was that she had only given 2/3 of it to Madoff.

The lesson from Madoff, and other recent events, is to Diversify.

Those events have reminded me of a bit of family lore that has guided a few decisions I have made over the years. Here is the story.

Both of my parents were raised during the Great Depression, so I know some things about their view of that time but almost nothing about what THEIR parents were thinking as they struggled to survive and raise kids. I'm not sure my parents knew much about their parent's economic thinking until a half century later when illness or death brought their parent's finances under their control. Those finances have a lot to tell us, and my parents made it a point to share those stories with us.

Story 1:

After my grandfather died rather suddenly, it fell to my Dad to figure out his financial records. My grandmother had never even written a check in her life, let alone have any clue about the family finances. She got her weekly cash and that was it. [So lesson 1 is that my wife and I are careful to be sure we each know as much as possible about the big picture, including our separate retirement accounts.] My Dad ended up having to visit or write every bank in Chicago plus those in another city to try to find all of the accounts and CDs my grandfather owned. [Lesson 1A is that my parents are also careful to be sure we know where their money is buried.] One can only assume that Grandpa lost a lot of money as a result of bank failures circa 1930 and had distributed his cash as widely as feasible. He had dozens of bank accounts, in addition to other investments. He would never have given it all to Bernie Madoff.

I don't have all of my retirement money in accounts managed by the same company. That was by plan. But I never really thought about the fact that we have accounts in several different banks and credit unions until now. However, we keep it down so we know where they all are.

One of his other investment strategies always struck me as a good one, but it isn't as feasible today as it used to be in the days before mergers and conglomerates. As one example, he owned stock in Borden because he liked Cracker Jack. He had bought stock in Cracker Jack, which was later bought by Borden. (Like a product, buy their stock. Of course, today Cracker Jack is owned by Frito Lay and Borden is part of Hexion Chemical that is owned by a private equity company. So much for THAT strategy!)

Story 2:

The finances of the other set of grandparents didn't become clear until they became seriously ill and had to go into nursing care. When cleaning up and out their house, they found a bag of money (mostly silver coin) under the mattress. A big bag. Turns out they had more cash than the other, apparently much better off, set of grandparents. In fact, they didn't know how much they had, so they didn't know that they could have moved into a very nice, upscale, retirement community with lifetime care. [Lesson two, learned by my parents: Know your net worth, and plan to move into a lifetime care facility while you are still healthy enough to walk in the door. Once you are sick, your choices become extremely limited.] Sadly, they also didn't know they had the funds to visit "the old country" with plenty to spare.

Paraphrased conversation. Mom: "Wasn't it uncomfortable with that bag under the bed?" Grandma: "We were used to it." When they moved from one house to another, they had somehow moved that heavy bag of money themselves so no one, including family who helped with the move, even knew it existed. I would assume that they also lost money when banks failed circa 1930. That zero interest investment strategy looks pretty bad until you look at 40% losses in the stock market or 100% losses with Bernie Madoff.

They had continued to save even while on Social Security, just to be "safe". They could do this because they owned their home, so their only living expenses were food, power, property taxes, and insurance. That could be how their cash resources remained significant even with inflation going on. [Lesson three: Don't re-mortgage your home with payments extending 20 years into retirement. Own it, and live in it. A home is a great investment if you can live in it rent free for 20 years. What you had been paying toward the mortgage becomes available for investment while you are still working, and what you don't have to pay in "rent" will make retirement income go a lot further.]

All of their decisions were not good ones, just as all of mine have not been good ones, but diversification has (so far) protected one big chunk of our investments from any loss of value in the current slump. Talking about finances within a family can be the most valuable investment of all.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

First Day of Spring!

This white narcissus always seems to be the first bloom of the season.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

We had a fun one at work. I think the faculty have more fun with this one than the students do. One of my colleagues wore all sorts of green bling to his classes, while the students seemed focused on learning.

I see the dual advantage of giving an exam right before spring break: (1) the students have it all crammed in their heads from studying and doing homework right up to the exam, with no chance to forget it all over break, and (2) the wake up call when they get back from a week of work or partying and get the exam back.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bunnies Made of Cheese?

Today is Approximately Pi Day (3.14) as well as Einstein's 130th birthday (and also, according to Google's promotion of Mars in 3D, Giovanni Schiaparelli's birthday) ... so what better way to celebrate than with yesterday's announcement that Chad Orzel's book about teaching quantum physics to his dog Emmy is on its way under the title "How to Teach Physics to Your Dog".

It is scheduled to ship just before Christmas. This link to the Amazon order info was on Chad's web page, and is the place to go to request that they publish it for Kindle.

What is disappointing is the first level of marketing: the title and cover.

It is hard for me to figure out why they chose that title, or even the dog used on the cover. I mean, why isn't "quantum physics" in the title? And even Emmy's blog photo might make for a better cover if it showed her thinking about the overlap integral between bunnies and cheese (such as an appropriately labeled graph of the s and p solution with just "probability" on the vertical axis) than what they have in the cover mockup. If bunnies aren't appropriate for some marketing reason, they could pick something else (treats and dog food, steak and cheese) or just have a quantum/classical duality question in her thought bubble. Too late to change the title, but you need to get quantum on the cover.

Chad, these ideas are free to you to use ...

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Second Blogiversary

It has been two years now since I got this thing started on the eve of Pi Day.

What better way to celebrate than with a story from the BBC (complete with video) about flossing monkeys in Thailand teaching their infants how to floss! If only my mother had been nearly as successful as these. For me, it was never "monkee see, monkee do"....

And below the fold, how about the charming presence of Emmy, the Queen of Niskayuna, on facebook to help promote her role in Chad's pop-science book about Quantum Mechanics? Having vastly enjoyed the stories on his blog (see this collection for a sample), I eagerly await the appearance of that book - and hope to see his book tour visit to the Colbert Report.

Or an argument (not unfamiliar if you have heard any talks about "Brain-Based Education") whether the internet has, or has not, created a stupid generation? I take the Negative side on that debate. When professors see uncritical use of citations (or not) from the tubes of the internets in student work, they forget that they used to see uncritical use of periodicals of questionable repute and cribbing from print sources in the past. One generation was cured of that the same way this one can be, by actual instruction in critical analysis. In some ways it should be easier today: there was nothing like Google or Turnitin to identify the use of copied works.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Advice for a New Professor

Rather late for someone starting work about seven months ago (woo hoo, only two more months to go!), but IHE has a nice article today titled I'm a Professor. Now What? with advice for the new college teacher fresh out of grad school.

The premise that someone will enter a teaching job without anything more than a PhD is rather a stretch, since most people who fit that description are at an R1 that should emphasize research over teaching during the first year (as described in a recent article by FSP), but the advice is mostly solid.

Relax and be yourself is probably the best one, along with the KISS approach outlined as "black and white". However, that begs the question of the actual objectives of the class. You have to have clear objectives that guide everything from the book you select (if you have that option) to the material you emphasize to the format and coverage of your exams. Temper that with the expectation that they might truly retain (long term) only 10% of what they get right on a test so you choose your battles carefully.

What I dislike is the failure to emphasize the use of a single local mentor on a regular basis, not just when setting up the syllabus. It is not a sign of weakness if you ask for guidance. I've seen the arrogant opposite, and it isn't pretty. It is much more than "don't reinvent the wheel" if you really haven't taught before. I was well prepared by my undergrad department, and got eased in by doing recitations where you see all of the difficulties that require a solution in lecture and problem sessions. I can't imagine where I would be if I was teaching a major class without that preparation and experience.

What seemed missing was to look at your own notes from the class you took as an undergrad - but to tailor it to the institution you are teaching at now. Your own teachers might have had some good ideas about what was important, and you now have the background from grad school to add your own views to that frame.

Finally, I really like the US Army lesson plan format linked at the end of the article, as a warning. Something tells me we will be doing that for all of our classes before SACS et al get done with their emphasis on detailed learning objectives. I just wonder about the value of having over 140 of those pages archived somewhere for a class like mine when the thing that works the best on a given day wasn't even on my own outline of what I planned to do.

Updated April 2009:

There was a really good article about the transition from post-doc to professor from Professor in Training that deserves a link here as well as in one of my older articles. I gather that Prof in Training is wrapping up the first year of research AND teaching. Quite the perspective. Even though that is ancient history to me, I agree that there is a lot you don't know as a post doc, and even as a research professor on someone else's grant. For other links and comments, go to a more detailed article in my blog.

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Comment semi-Moderation

Hat tip to Dr. Crazy for this one.

I've had a few contemporaneous 'spam' comments show up on the blog, and tolerated them by mocking them in my reply. However, I have recently noticed them show up in older articles, particularly ones that get linked in a comment on another blog. One was particularly lame, to borrow Dr. Crazy's term, simply a list of words that were linked to various places.

So I am enabling comment moderation for articles that are more than 10 days old. That should cover it, with little pain for me. Moderation will be light, but might not always be promptly carried out.

The way you make this change is simple. You just go to the "Settings" tab, click on "Comments", and select the middle option to moderate comments posted more than N days after the article appears.

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Math with Manipulatives

Another hat tip to Sherman Dorn for his comments about the "Springboard" math (and language arts, aka English) curriculum in his county school system based on an article in the local paper about it.

[By the way, when did they invent "language arts" anyway? Do they read poetry in the original Russian or plays in the original Greek? Aren't all of the classes based on English translations when they deal with foreign authors? It's English, folks, and your students need to be able to read and write it so they can deal with my lab class and know enough about literature to survive college classes in composition and the humanities.]

Based solely on the article, which spent most of its column inches criticizing the content of the HS literature courses (when it wasn't shocking me with the huge difference between their curriculum and mine as noted in a footnote), I think I came away with a misleading view of what they are doing on the math side. I find the example Sherman ridiculed to be potentially very effective in the hands of a competent teacher because its purpose was not what the journalist thought it was. Details are below the fold.

The article introduced the math content as follows

In math classes, just four SpringBoard lessons are required each year. Among them is an Algebra I SpringBoard lesson that starts with students arranging baby marshmallows and spaghetti on blue paper to discover different ways to multiply binomials.

Seventh- and eighth-graders in Jennifer Apgar's Algebra I honors class at Ferrell Middle Magnet School in Tampa couldn't wait to dig into their bags of marshmallows in January and were relieved to find extras for eating.

The marshmallows represent office computers; spaghetti separates sections of the office.

"I'm kinesthetic – I like to use my hands," said Giana Moore, 12. She said she prefers such hands-on activities to doing math problems on the computer. The seven computers lining one wall in her class are rarely used, she said.

Well, at least I know where the student mentioned in my previous article picked up on that Learning Style terminology! In Middle School? (Little does this girl know that this is actually a visual learning tool. Your hands are only used to arrange them. Kinesthetic learning would be actually connecting computers into a network, getting your muscles to learn how to pull cable and plug in the connectors.)

This description from the newspaper article sounded a lot like the "discovery" (aka look-say or guessing) way of not teaching math that has been used in some elementary math curricula. The sort of curriculum that produces students who cannot divide or work with fractions when they get to college. What changed my mind was seeing a video showing what it really is, in action, albeit in the hands of an experienced and clearly skilled teacher. That video is part of an article from a Tampa Bay Online story from February 2009 that turned up high on a Google search for the term. The video probably resulted from the same dog-and-pony show, since it featured the same teacher at the same middle school in Tampa (clearly filmed on January 15). It just took another month to get the print version of the story out.

Several things were immediately clear.

The marshmallows were not being used to discover equivalent ways of multiplying binomials, they were being used to represent computers in a cube farm that was described in a rather long and detailed story problem (correction, they are now called Word Problems because story problems are even scarier than nuclear power) that you can see on the screen at the start of the video. [Side comment: I love how up-to-date the problem is, dealing with physically networking computers. The simplest answer to this problem is to go wireless!] That problem would be way over the heads of most college students I encounter, who act as if they had never had to analyze a word problem. My colleagues at Wannabe Flagship say the same thing, and my guess is this results from it not being on the local HS exit exam. From what I can see, the trend in "college" algebra has also been to avoid word problems as much as possible unless they fall in a very narrow class so only one 'type' shows up on an exam and can be solved out of habit rather than by analysis. (They spend the time gained from dropping this topic to teach students how to graph functions on their calculator.)

Anyway, back to the main point:
The video makes it immediately clear to me that the marshmallows are not being used for what the reporter says, but rather to help visualize the geometrical situation that has been described in words in the problem. Even better, the developers of this module recognize that there might be a vocabulary issue with the word problem and make that part of the analysis explicit. As the teacher puts it, "A lot of good practices are in Springboard". Looks that way to me. The 'manipulative' (which has the advantage of being edible) is there to illustrate why the equations work out the way they do. I really like the emphasis on collaborative learning, which is a great way for students to work on problem solving by articulating their strategies.

I see this as the math equivalent of theory and experiment in physics. We set up a problem, we solve the problem, and then we see what happens when we measure the unknown in an experiment. Incorrect approaches are exposed by the harsh light of reality. You see an example of that in the comment of one student in the video story. I can see why the math faculty have had little trouble adopting this system. In addition to changing only a fraction of their curriculum because they added selected modules to supplement their existing approach (no doubt tailored to their HS exit exam), it does what experienced teachers already do. The upside is that it helps inexperienced teachers by giving them an entire exercise with printed worksheets to guide students through this process.

The unanswered question is whether they can transfer this skill to wholly new problems. If it is just one exercise with no reinforcement, it will be lost quickly. Experienced problem solving requires more time and additional coaching. (Do they still do "coin problems"? Those can be tested with play money.) Can they use everyday objects like marshmallows to model some other problem? To identify the marshmallow with a variable like "x"? That would be great. But unlikely except in the best classes.

* Long Footnote:
I really was shocked to see the huge difference between what they described as the "national" curriculum and the college prep curriculum I experienced decades ago. Bro, if you read this, please comment on the sequence your kids followed in HS. We had a 7-9 and 10-12 system that only changed to the middle-school scheme when my 2000 capacity HS went from overcrowded with 3 classes to capacious with 4, so I don't have a clear memory of what we did in 9th grade. I can still remember the trailer where I studied 10th grade American Lit, which was followed by a year called "world" lit that started with Greek plays and ended with British literature, so we got a good mix of plays and poetry that year. Senior year was devoted to a capstone composition class that featured (in my case) a wide range of fairly contemporary short novels and short stories with an existentialist bent, with major focus on learning how to research and write a 10+ page term paper. We read Conrad, Hesse, "Clockwork Orange", etc. No movies, no "iTunes", the modern books-on-tape, but (unlike one class mentioned in the article) we could all read at the 9th grade level or above. Even one kid notable for his lack of intellectual curiosity got connected in this class.

The curriculum described in this article lacks a senior composition class and puts world lit before American lit so they have limited exposure to advanced American English before taking their "high stakes" exit test. If this is a national curriculum, it is no wonder so few students can even write a decent lab report. I think they also struggle with reading problems because they appear to have never heard of the critical reading exercise of writing a pre'cis (a short summary of a text that contains only facts, no opinions) that was common in our curriculum.

The comments on this article were also interesting. The usual suspects show up attacking "government" schools, but I have seen little evidence in our area of a major difference between non-selective private schools and the public schools. They also place into 5th grade math. The public doesn't know how they measure up because they don't have to take the state exit exam to graduate from HS, so everyone assumes they are doing a good job.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Learning Styles

A month or so ago, Becky Hirta blogged that "Learning styles are the academic version of horoscopes." (When I shared that with some colleagues, one immediately planned to develop an "astrological inventory" to give his students to be sure their failure can't be blamed on a conflict between their respective astrological charts. I think he was joking.)

Anyway, with a hat tip to Sherman Dorn who linked to a blog from the Dallas Independent School District (back in August of 2008) that contained the video below, here is the confirmation for what many of us have always suspected:

This is from Professor Daniel Willingham, at the University of Virginia in the Dept of Psychology. His closing remark that "Good Teaching is Good Teaching" really does say it all. Well, not all ...

My example was a student last year who came up to me at the end of class (early in the semester) and said something like "I can't learn this the way you teach it, I'm a visual learner". (The topic was net force = mass * acceleration involving several forces acting on an object.) My response was quick and to the point. "That is why I draw free-body diagrams and motion diagrams on the board, and do demonstrations whenever possible." (Motion diagrams illustrate the sequence of events and/or positions as a function of time when doing kinematic problems.) He looked like he had been hit between the eyes with a 2x4. Stunned. Mouth agape. (I am not making that up. You should have seen his face. He must have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one in the past.) And it was true. Visualization is difficult. Turning words into equations requires some picture of what is going on, in your mind if not on paper, and engineering classes push this to the point of requiring the relevant free-body diagram in every problem whether they ask for it or not. You can't get the problem right if you don't have the right picture, and truly complicated problems (not the toy problems we deal with) make that step essential.

Interestingly, he was a good enough student to suddenly realize that the visual part was there - and that it alone will not supply all of the meaning needed to solve a physics problem. With that excuse gone, he buckled down and earned an excellent grade in that class. I haven't heard that complaint from him again, but I do notice that he is now careful to take notes that include the drawings I put on the board.

Reflecting on that story after watching that video was somewhat enlightening. We do all of those things (visual, kinesthetic, verbal) when we solve problems. You can't do it without putting every tool to work in some way. We read the problem. Analyze and pick out key words, translating them into our own vocabulary. (Critical reading.) Construct a picture of what is going on and make a highly stylized drawing, the free-body diagram, that relates what is going on to the algebraic variables and numerical values we were given in the problem. Then we do math. Some might use strengths in one area to help in another, but none can avoid any part of the process.

I think what makes me a good teacher is that I know several ways to bring out each of those steps, making each one of them visible to the students. At that point, the only remaining challenge is to convince them that they need to follow those steps. Somewhere in the past (I am guessing some experience with teachers who could not function without the "teachers manual") they got the idea that there is a magic formula for every problem, and experts know all of those formulas. My biggest job is to convince them that the principles are what matter, and the steps I listed above are the only "magic formula" they need.

Hmmm. I think that will be my theme for the week after Spring Break.

There was something else in that blog by Sherman Dorn, but that needs its own topic. I need to correct my first impression of a new math curriculum now that I see how it fits with what I just wrote up above. That won't get done until Wednesday.

PS -
You might also want to watch a related video from the same professor about "Brain-based Education". Very interesting. It is even more fun to test this by watching a (student produced?) video from a "learner support center" about learning styles ... with the AUDIO OFF! Does this reach non-auditory learners? How can I interact kinesthetically with this video? Why do I have to sit and watch it? One thing that really breaks me up is when the college brings in an outside speaker who gives a LECTURE about how we should not use lectures to convey new material. Right.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

What I am Reading Today

Video and story from the BBC about the remains of Shakespeare's first theater. The thought of a new theater rising on the foundation of one where Romeo and Juliet might have had its premier is really quite remarkable. They also show the portrait recently identified as that of Shakespeare.

Dean Dad's musings about spousal hires and the next group of college leaders. The commentariat jumped on the spousal hire issue, probably because it is an even bigger issue in the current economy. Having seen my share of two-body hires over the years, it has been about 50:50 where hiring the woman was the driving force and I have also seen one instance where the guy was the primary hire and his spouse turned out to be the star. You really can't tell. Maybe the second half, about a possible leadership vacuum, deserved to be left alone. It comes up often, about as often as worries that we won't have enough of X coming down the pipeline. There always seems to be enough of X coming along. As DD seemed to say, if you really do think it is a problem, start grooming the next group of leaders at your own institution.

Reading more of an excellent discussion from last Thursday over at Dean Dad's, where a bunch of random ponderings generated quite the open thread. I put in my dos centavos more than once, but I want to elaborate here.

On the question of demographics, the population of our CC has been pretty stable for the past decade. We have the odd feature that the median age (around 21) corresponds to a local minimum in the age histogram! The mean age is several years higher than the median, reflecting a long tail toward the high end. We have always been a "transfer" CC, feeding Wannabe Flagship University down the road ... filling in the empty seats as their students drink their way out of school. We thus get a lot of traditional age students, including ones from outside our service area who are forced to go to our CC because they didn't make the freshman cut. The past year has seen an apparent decrease in the out of town group (staying closer to home because of money issues?) but an increase overall as budgets force a reduction in freshman enrollment at Wannabe Flagship and more top notch students (AP calculus, etc) choose us because we cost less. I have not seen the latest IR numbers for our "unduplicated headcount", but they will be interesting.

On the issue of more men coming to school, and how that impacts the college, I found the suggestion of a need for more support systems quite interesting. Our college is planning for one group, returning military on the GI bill, who will likely need a variety of support systems to adjust to the "real" world. I already see quite a few of those in my physics classes, but most were from Iraq 1 or the early part of Iraq 2. I'm guessing that the Army hasn't let too many out who can put boots on the ground. (The exception being young men like the triple-amp who is taking classes in our building.) We have only limited experience with that cohort, but we have some veteran's groups on campus that provide mentors and a support group. What we don't seem to deal with very well are the unemployed and underemployed young men who were failed by the K-12 school system the first time around. Our support systems seem to work much better with women who return to school, often while being the sole support for their children, than with men who find their way here.

We appear to do particularly badly with high school "graduates" who are barely literate and end up in our developmental ('prep', 'remedial') classes. I fear that most of those classes are organized too much like the structured environment they grew to hate in K-12, and we struggle to get them to use our less-structured learning environments.

Then there is the peripheral, but non-trivial, issue of female professors in mathematics and the sciences. Doctorate or not, they just don't get respect from our fairly conservative male students. They seem to view any woman in the classroom as a "teacher" (and K-12 teachers get no respect) rather than a "professor". They don't respect or trust what they are being taught, acting as if they know more chemistry than someone with a graduate degree in the subject. I wish there was some "academic support system" to help these kids adjust to the real world where experts come in two different genders as well as several different colors and accents. When racism (based on national origin, not color) showed up this semester, I was particularly taken aback. That last kid will be in for quite a shock when he gets to the Wannabe Engineering College and discovers how few professors there speak English as a first language.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

What I am Reading this Weekend

Lots of blog reading and commenting is in store this weekend, now that Spring Break has arrived to let me catch up on my reading rather than doing the grading that needs to be completed a week from Monday.

First, in the academic life territory, we have "Angry Professor" dealing with e-mail from a snowflake that appears unlikely to earn a Gentleman's C. There are a few more where this comes from. A student I deal with as an academic adviser took this approach: "I'm going to stop attending class X to punish the prof for not giving me enough help outside of class to make up for other classes I missed." Punishing whom? Right. Somehow these students appear to be attending a large number of different institutions. Check out this example "Becky Hirta" posted this past week.

I'll put that above the fold. More academic discussion will follow some obligatory physics reading. The very last one is a definite read, by the way.

I found several interesting items from the link lists at Uncertain Principles. I guess I will build them into my own list and comment on them as I have time.

  • Exposition on significant figures. "Good Math Bad Math" really comes through on this one. I really like that he "rounds to evens". This is essential to avoid biasing the results of a calculation, but many people have given up in the face of the ubiquitous flawed code in Excel and some calculators. There are also some good comments, but one fails to get the point of sig figs. Erring by having too few digits in the resultant is not nearly as bad as erring by having too many. Unjustified precision is where danger lurks. Thinking you have fewer significant digits leads to conservative (safe) design.
  • Michael Faraday. Only the latest in a series of articles by "Skulls in the Stars" (the others are all back linked), this article takes up Faraday's attempt to unify gravity with electricity and magnetism.
  • Photons in the Room from "Built on Facts". This is a really nice little example that uses the energy density of an electromagnetic "wave" to estimate the number of photons in a room coming from a particular light source rather than just calculating the number per second leaving the source.
  • Going Deeper is another nice blog from Matt, although I am pointing to it here as a substitute for elaborating on my comments posted in that thread. I really like his pedagogy, and added my own suggestion for how to jump from the Balmer formula (not to mention Kirchhoff's rules for optical spectroscopy) past the Bohr model to real quantum mechanics. "Going Deeper" really is the theme of how lots of physics came to be. And not just statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics either. That is what Newton did when he connected gravity on earth to gravity acting on the moon.
  • Astroprof's continuing saga about planets ... now featuring part IX!

On the more generic academic side, we have
  • Advice to new t-t faculty at a Regional Comprehensive from "Dr. Crazy". This article fills a huge hole in my own jobs series, since I know little about the situation at the typical 4-year university that offers Masters degrees. Teaching intensive, requiring research for promotion without being research intensive, these make up the bulk of the openings in academia. It falls between parts four (tenure standards at an R1) and five (getting a job at a teaching intensive place like a CC). An earlier article giving advice for a new R1 professor by "Gay Prof" gives perspective on the R1 world from the Evergreen side of the fence. Looks like I need to update my "jobs" articles.
  • How faculty are mentored at FSP's R1 gets some constructive support. That also needs linking from the "jobs" series as a reminder that how new faculty get brought into the system will change with time.
  • The evils of salary compression also got discussed by FSP.
  • Rebecca talks about Tennessee and fixing computers in a Q&A. I was glad to see that I am not the only computational expert who knows little about fixing computers because (1) hardware is someone else's problem and (2) Unix is an operating system. But I was particularly taken by the comparison between Illinois and Tennessee. The comments about TN reminded me of the small town of Lake City, just north of Knoxville, where we used to stop when driving I-75. (We discovered the Cracker Barrel there. It is store number 6, IIRC.) The fog in the rolling hills north of there make for a magnificent vista at every turn in the highway that always reminds us of landscape print by an artist with a name something like Shur.
  • "The Little Professor" completely nails the entire topic of technology in the classroom. This article is the must read alluded to above. She gives a great take on how different AI forms would function in the classroom of the future.

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