Monday, April 27, 2009

Media Mania

It was a quiet day on campus: Final's week in the spring leaves the place almost as deserted as the tail end of the summer semester. With no dorms, the only people on a CC campus this week are in class writing an exam or the faculty giving them. I was there only to be sure mine were printed and ready ... and to start getting ready for my summer class.

So I spent most of the day at home, stunned into disbelief at the media mania that was the daily press briefing and coverage of The Flu Story. I'm not making light of it, since my Grandfather told me about the pandemic in 1918, but seriously: if it is so freaking dangerous in Mexico, why do all of the networks have people doing live stand-up reports in busy public places in Mexico City?

But what really entertained me was the coincidence of some of our faculty giving a final exam in a (very) basic "college level" (scare quotes intended) math class that would be required for journalism majors. You see, they happily read the report that says the incubation period for the disease is 3 or 4 days, and then ask inane questions about the health of President Obama - who visited Mexico on April 16, which was 11 days ago. Let's see if we can figure out this "college level" problem that seems to escape the entire White House Press Corps: 11 days minus 4 days is 7 days, and 7 days is a week. Yep, that means he would have been deathly ill one week ago if he had been exposed to the swine flu during his visit.

Oh, and so would the Press Corps, who were along on the trip. I think Obama's press secretary finally made that point - that they should be concerned about their own health if they are concerned about the President's health.

The rest of the story seems to be that the conspiracy theorists among the Press are simply calling the Mexican authorities liars for saying that the man who died of pneumonia a week after Obama's visit did not have influenza while reporting as factual every other statement from the health authorities in Mexico. They must be some kind of cross between idiots who don't read their own news and racists who would never think to question similar statements from US health professionals.

They really need to stick to facts, and help people learn the common sense aspects of public health that are needed to contain the small outbreaks, the difference between the flu and food poisoning, and put particular emphasis on what to do if you think you have been exposed on a trip to Mexico by yourself or an acquaintance.

And they could also explain the role of Evolution in what is taking place.

PS -
I also really like the panic-engendering graphics that color the entire state of Texas in panic yellow or red because it has two (non-fatal) cases of flu somewhere in that huge state. BBC did them one better in this map: they colored all of Canada red for something like 6 confirmed cases.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Question of the Day Winner

A student asks Rudbeckia Hirta:

"Can you give me permission to fail algebra for a fourth time?"

I really have a hard time keeping a straight face when I get ones like that, but I usually manage to tell them that only a Vice President, on the advice of an appeals committee, can do that. One colleague, however, would preface that with a "Well, bless your heart, sweetie. I'd love to help you out but they just won't let me near the computer since that time when ... well, you might have read about it in the newspaper. You'll have to go to the Office of Academic Inquisitions like everyone else."

That combination of enthusiastic naivete is, sadly, not uncommon. But at least I have the excuse that I am at a CC, with its share of enthusiastically naive students, not at an alleged Flagship University of the State.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Cool Gift Idea

Ah, the things you can sell to tourists.

Check this out.

Paper made from Wombat scat.

It is said to have a nice organic scent.

Just when you think it can't get any stranger than making coffee from beans that have gone through an animal's digestive system, we get this story!

I wonder when they will start selling it globally, on the internet, rather than just selling it to tourists.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Teaching and Research

There was a really great article Thursday on the general topic of post docs and their view of what a PI does. It links to several articles that are also worth reading. See them here, here, and here. The last one, by MsPhd, got me into this thread. She also is writing some interesting things about the differences between different levels of R1 programs from the perspective of someone in the bio-med area.

Writing as someone who has done both a long-term soft-money gig (with all of the grants etc that go with that) and the big-time teaching gig (now), I think Prof in Training only left out the service part. Many of the points made in that article were made in the tenure at an R1 article I wrote a few years ago, as well as in a more recent set of comments about an IHE advice article, not to mention another one, commenting on an IHE article about a bad tenure-seeking experience.

And if you want to read even more from me ...

I'll just add one little thing that falls in the dark void between service and teaching: service related to academics when accreditation "reaffirmation" time rolls around. Not only do you have to do all of the things mentioned under teaching (hours of prep for each lecture, evaluating how each lecture worked, writing exams as well as grading them and evaluating how well they did what they were supposed to do), and continue to do them even after 5 or 10 years, but you might have to develop "learning outcomes" and "learning assessments" for courses you and others teach, written like you were a frigging Ed.D bureaucrat. If the words "quality enhancement" don't mean anything to you, ask around. (Oh crap. I just googled "Quality Enhancement Program" and got 3.8 MILLION hits.) Just don't whisper those words (quality enhancement) quietly while standing behind an administrator. Might kill them. Learning Outcomes are going to be the big thing the next time around. We are starting to work on them and we aren't up again for quite a few more years.

We'll see if I can get the posting software to work so I can add them as a comment on PiT's blog. I've also added a version of these remarks to the old articles of mine linked above.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

And now for something else from the brits...

How can a great article about the number of calories consumed in alcoholic beverages go from informative to sublime?

Easy. Look at the first comparison in the calorie count table: a pint of hard cider (200 calories) is equal to "beans on toast".

Beans on toast?

A "pint of bitter" (190 calories) being equal to a great looking donut, yes. This connects well on both sides of the pond. Although most American 'beer' drinkers wouldn't recognize something stronger than water as a beverage, we all like donuts. That one even looks like it came from Krispy Kreme.

But ... Beans on Toast? Either they have a twisted sense of humor or Britain needs a better cook book.

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Susan Boyle in 1999

I'll assume you've seen Susan Boyle's performance on "Britain's Got Talent". (If you haven't, or if you have only seen news clips, go watch it in its entirety on YouTube. The start is worth it just to see the skeptical audience before and after she starts singing. I can't begin to imagine what it was like to be in the audience and see that live.)

But it turns out that this is not all that she has recorded. Thanks to a BBC story today, I learned about a 1999 recording she made - as reported by a Scottish newspaper. It was cut number 12 on a privately-made charity fund-raising CD.

Take a listen. It is simply stunning.

I think it is better than the song from "Les Miserables" she did in the competition. She has soul.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Changing the Game

The profit-loss calculation for piracy has taken a sudden turn for the worse if you view piracy as a way to make million dollar profits for yourself and your friends.

My own guess got it half right. I figured the captain would be rescued by Navy SEALS, but thought it would be done from an underwater assault - but sniper work got a lot easier when the lifeboat was taken under tow.

It has also been interesting to see how the White House played this. No "Cowboy George" riding to the rescue and strutting in triumph. So far, the Obama White House seems happy to let the military take all of the credit, right down to making the call of when to shoot. This has also put all of the media coverage where it belongs, which is on the men who did a difficult job without error.

The NBC graphics folks sure botched it, however. They had an animation of a shadowy group firing multiple rounds from automatic weapons, leaving me laughing. Come on. I've seen the program about sniper school on the History Channel. I had little doubt that three men fired as one. Snipers only need one bullet, particularly at a range set by an 82 foot tow rope - less than 30 meters.

Some commentator said the pirates will be unlikely to make the same mistake again, as they will learn from the tactics employed to free the captain. Other than not go after an American flag vessel, what exactly would they do differently? Without hostages, they die or go to prison, and killing their hostages, as one pirate said they will do in the future, will result in death or prison when the ship is retaken by force. Not many good choices, since hostages have been their only way to defend their ships.

Time will tell, but the game has definitely changed.

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Remediation - and Calculators

Dean Dad put together a fantastic article Friday about the remediation "death march". Timely as well as interesting. Timely, because the part of our college that has this as its mission has been working hard for the last two years to revisit the entire system they use, and interesting because I'm not in an area where I learn much about how others address this challenge.

I only have one thing to add on the main theme (beyond what I already said in my comments on his blog), but will expand on two other issues: the "tough sell", and issues related to algebra preparation (remediation) for pre-engineering students.

Math Remediation:

Math is really where the death march takes place. Math is handled so badly at the K-12 level (with most of the damage taking place in the 3-8 territory based on my limited contact with a range of students who enter our CC as math cripples) that students are math phobic - putting off their remedial math classes and often barely giving them a chance to work.

I already commented on the structure of our system, which mirrors the one DD described. That is pretty typical, although ours is going to have some major internal changes (involving more targeted remediation) in the near future. I only know the broad outlines of the plan, which will be implemented over the next couple of years, but I think it builds on something we learned about some higher-level math classes as a result of a major effort by one of our best low-level algebra teachers. We learned that the usual process of starting with "review" topics was fatal. It bored the ones who had actually learned the material in the previous course, and led all of the students to believe there would be nothing new in this next class. The new approach is to present new material on the very first day !!! and work the review skills in on the fly. It appears to be working, although it still works best in the hands of experienced professors.

The Tough Sell:

Our success rate with remedial courses is much higher with students who return to school after many years working. They are under no illusions that their HS education has prepared them to take college classes, because they know they have forgotten what little they learned in HS. They are ready to start over, and often thrive in our environment.

The challenge is to reach students who have just left high school and have high self esteem and little else. The ones in the middle third, the ones who can't get into university unless they can play football or basketball, are a big problem. They got coached well enough to eventually pass the math exit exam so they could earn a diploma. They think that this should mean that they are ready to move from HS math classes to college math classes, just as they moved from middle school math to HS math. Unfortunately, no one told them that the HS exit exam only proved that they were ready to leave middle school.

I am not joking. It is not enough to look at those exams and notice a few problems at the level of 9th grade Algebra 1, as one commenter did on DD's blog. You don't need to get every problem right to pass the test. If you look at the score needed to pass, it is immediately clear that they don't need to know any HS math at all. If you factor in the detail that they have a calculator when taking that test, and have been coached in how to test answers against questions, etc, etc. I could not disagree more with what Sherman Dorn wrote on this subject. The confusion is between taking something called "algebra" and the sad fact that such a course in HS merely prepares a student to place into a remedial class, particularly if the next two years are spent taking "consumer math". They certainly are not ready for college algebra.

As I commented, my old article presenting an idea for Freshman Orientation at a CC suggests telling them they were lied to in HS. I have no idea if this would work. They probably would not believe any adult. It would have to come from a student. The same goes for the reality of failure in college.

This problem is deeply ingrained because of the massive amount of propaganda related to passing rates and No Child Left Behind. (None left behind? Ha! Read Sherman Dorn about "graduation rate statistics". Eye opener.) They could very well have improved math skills in our local high school grads. I have little doubt they used to be worse based on stories from my elders. But students and their parents (plus taxpayers and legislators) have been led to believe they know some math when they don't. Only the best local schools produce an average grad who does not need remediation.

Algebra for Physics and Calculus:

Finally, the promised remarks concerning what mthgeek wrote in the comments about calculators and other technology in the calculus classroom - and what the expectations are by the customers of calculus.

Mthgeek wrote (first comment):

At my university we proudly outlaw calculators from the Calc sequence even though all the disciplines we "serve" want their students to be proficient with technology including calculators, spreadsheets, and computer-packages.
Maybe, just maybe, the conversation about remediation should also be expanded to include discussion of the credit-bearing courses as well.

We already did a first step in that expansion at our CC. Other changes appear to be working their way down from the one mentioned earlier, and there is some hope that other changes will work their way up. I am particularly sensitive to the low level of algebra skills in the students who enter my physics class. They can do basic algebra, but they can't follow algebra being done at the board at anywhere near the rate expected in a calculus or physics class. So I hope the use of calculators in algebra classes gets looked at.

I don't know if this reflects the fact that our CC proudly requires a specific calculator and spends weeks teaching them how to do algebra with it. Weeks! How to graph. How to identify discontinuities and poles. How to "trace" to a zero. None of this time does anything to increase the chance that they can move symbols around or substitute an entire expression into another one. Yet, despite all of this experience, a large fraction still don't know how to use a calculator correctly. In addition to entry errors (some related to not knowing how scientific notation works), they round intermediate results and can't round answers correctly to the relevant significant figures.

As I wrote on DD's blog, the engineering school attended by most of my grads has its very own indoctrination program for everything from computer drafting to computer algebra. All classes use the same set of programs, and these are taught in conjunction with other basic engineering skills in some set of intro "gateway" courses taken by all entering juniors. Reports from my grads indicate that experience with programs like Maple or Matlab in some of their calculus classes has made that transition easy, but they find it far more significant that I expected correct free-body diagrams along with correctly calculated answers.

But the use of symbols rather than numbers in problems is something we often think about and talk about. There was an excellent article on this subject from Chad over at Uncertain Principles, including the other article he links to (by Excited State) and the ones linked from the comments. I will single out the ones in comment #16 from "Gerry R", chair of the mechanical engineering department at Portland State, as worthy of particular attention. I will have to spend some time this summer thinking about how to write problems, like ones from his MechE fluids class, that combine conceptual and quantitative skills within the same wrapper.

Mthgeek also wrote (later comment, selectively editted):

And, if all of our examples have nice answers so that the arithmetic is simple what happens when it's not?
And if all of the examples are nicely segregated into sections of text based on the methods that they use what happens when they run into an ill-defined problem?
But, I am saying that the way that many such courses are constituted only imparts a very small set of skills that students only know how to apply in nicely-formulated problems. I hope you expect more from us, seriously, I do.

Journal of Mathematical Behavior 26 (2007) 348–370:
The results also show that about 70% of the tasks were solvable by imitative reasoning and that 15 of the exams could be passed using only imitative reasoning.

Oh, we expect more, because we definitely give comprehensive midterm and final exams that require analysis and retention of much more than the least memorizable unit. Yet, even then, I know many of my exam problems require only imitative reasoning. I hate to say that I set my goals low, but I am rarely teaching math majors or even physics majors, and even most physics majors don't need to be creative theoreticians. Most of them need to be creative experimentalists (ditto for the engineers), and this does not require much beyond imitative reasoning applied (over and over again, with extremely high levels of reliability) to creatively constructed scenarios or designs.

And I agree with the concern about what happens when the numbers are not simple. Ditto for when the functions are not simple. (Do you teach them about integral tables, like G+R, or numerical tools? Those are used a lot by people who know how to set up problems that contain an integral as part of the solution. Few real problems produce easily integrated functions.) I can tell you that my problems contain non-trivial numbers as well as symbols, but more of the former than the latter. However, a correct answer that does not start from a correct symbolic presentation of the solution does not get full marks. Sometimes it gets less than half marks if the answer comes from numerology rather than physics.

I could write more, but I have already chewed on my first draft enough times that it is time to let this go.

PS -
A recent article by mthgeek really needs a response. I can't believe there is a grad program in any field where students don't learn to write papers by working with faculty who are writing papers, but maybe I am naive about areas outside of the sciences.

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