Monthly Archives: October 2011

Next year…

It’s come time to decide how to handle next year.


The original vision for the course was to grow it large (to 400+ students). But I began to wonder if it might be better to go for the elite boutique market. We’re trying to make the leaders of the future better consumers of science. Shouldn’t we go for the Honors students, the ordained leaders of the future? A class of <20 highly motivated Honors students would be a joy — and easy. 
But after discussing this with Mary Beth Williams, the new Eberly College of Science Dean for Undergraduate Education (and guest instructor on this course), I began to wonder.  My blog post on our discussion drew some interesting and even moving responses, one of which got posted.  A student even took me aside and told me: if you’d already gone elite, I would not have been able to do this class.

So here’s how I see it now. (1) Mary Beth’s arguments are very sound. (2) I’m in this game for a challenge. It doesn’t get more challenging than teaching science to large numbers of students who have been turned off science by K-12 education. (3) I’m in this business to make a difference. How much difference can I make to <20 well-schooled kids already on the receiving end of boutique education?
So I’ve decided to forgo Honors teaching. Honors students are very, very welcome, of course. But they’ll have to share the class room with a cross section of students. And I will stop moaning about the unmotivated students I apparently can’t affect. Instead, I will  focus on the students who really are a joy: the lively, funny, engaged self-improvers that this course attracts in spades. 
The Dean’s office worked magic today, and extracted from the PSU system a classroom that can handle 178 students for Fall 2012.  I’ll hold as many places open for Freshmen as I can. And let’s do the experiment. Can SC200 work at 178? If yes, 400 will work. If no, back to 100 for Fall 2013. Not 20.
Game, Mary Beth.

Money for nothing

I met a student today who has calculated that he pays Penn State $100 for every class session he goes to.  He’s an out-of-state student so will be paying more than most students, but nonetheless that puts the price of education into perspective.

Today class attendance fell below 75% for the first time.  

Last minute …..or just last?

Activity on the class blog by time.  Spot the three deadlines.

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When I was a journalistfor all of six weeks – I met journos who deliberately left things to the last minute, just for the buzz. And as a journalist, I grew to love that too.  But as an academic I hate it. Everything is better with reflection and thought, none of which comes under serious time pressure (mild pressure for sure, but not extreme pressure).
The 14 blog posts I rated highly in the last blog period were posted an average of eight days before the deadline (range 2-19 days).  Cause and effect?  Ya gotta wonder.

The 2nd blog period

Leaf_Fall_in_Dixie_National_Forest,_Utah.jpgA weekend spent marking the blog, and I am surprised by how much it depressed me. I have research collaborators in four countries who need something from me (yesterday), a family who sometimes want to interact, and a ton of fall leaves to collect. Yet…

…the way to stay sane as a Professor is to focus on the students doing very well, especially those that you can see lifting their game. You believe you are making a difference, inspiring even. And who’s to say otherwise? 

A total of 17 students got an A.  The most marvelous improvement on earlier performance was exemplified by a serious and unprompted investigation into the pros and cons of GM food, and by an evaluation of Carbon Capture.  I gave my first ever extra blog credit for a magic post, as instructed by my boss’s boss’s boss.  Also very thought-provoking were 637, Pom, Macky D’s, Limitless, Love and Pain, Poof, Eyesight, Goosebumps, Infectious Diseases, and Art and Science.  The class was most moved to comment by Studying and Music, and the spectacularly gross revelations about Phone Hygiene.


The other good thing this weekend was that after 24 years of disequilibrium, the universe reverted to the way it should be. I never want to live through a final half hour like that again.
Right, now the depressing part…
Eighteen students did nothing and a further 13 did enough to score a fail mark. A further 9 managed to hit a D. So 40% of the class are excelling at being, well, seriously unimpressive. Groan.  
Then there were 14 with a C, 3 on B-, 11 on a B, and 15 B+.  Most of these students could easily hit an A if they aimed for the rubric ambition of “posts draw on material to make creative and substantive points that extend beyond the material”. In other words, got engaged in some intellectual heavy lift.
I found myself repeatedly giving the same feedback. For many students it was precisely the same feedback I gave them last time. That’s what generates the ‘why bother’ aspect to teaching.  I wonder if many of them actually read my last lot of feed back, or the grading rubric in the syllabus or studied the many examples of good practice and the tips the TAs and I have already posted (links, and above, and just posted). 
Time magazine this week suggests that Americans have had it so good for so long that the new generations have lost the ability to focus, fight and fink [ok, I made the alliteration up]. It continues to flabbergast me that so many students spend so much money to make so little effort*.  I keep wondering what I can do to inspire if big bucks can’t.  What’s the trick to getting students to really challenge themselves?
*Obviously I would be totally delighted to talk to any students who are making a big effort and are not being rewarded.

Time to choose

I let the students choose the topics we cover at the end of the course. The experience last year was that the students didn’t care. I get the same sense this year; less than 10% of the class has posted to the topic suggestion page on the class blog. Perhaps after years of being told what is important, young folk have lost the ability to decide for themselves.

I have culled the options down to a tiny list. I excluded some excellent suggestions where I could see no way to use them as a vehicle to achieve my course objectives (space travel), or I couldn’t teach them (string theory), or I doubt the majority of the class would be interested (string theory), or I doubt I can find on campus an expert who can teach to this sort of class (string theory), or where the subject can be looked up in Wikipedia (leeches).  Which leaves the following.

Students, do please vote for as many topics as you want (although the polls will close after 250 respondents). Naturally, I retain the right to ignore the votes and do what I want.

For other voting interfaces, read on….


I continue to be astounded that the students and I are on such different planets.

Today, I talked about how science goes wrong when fraud and ideology get in the way.  I mostly illustrated this with Lysenko and the tragedy of Soviet plant genetics, a intellectual and humanitarian disaster from which America gained excellent scientists and substantial wheat sales. But I ended by discussing the politicization of climate change science, particularly the data-free schallacking that Penn State’s Mike Mann has taken (e.g. 1, 2).
None of the students had heard of Mike.
One had heard of climategate.
Only a few think climate change is the most important scientific question of the age.  
And just less than half the class think humans are causing global warming:
I know we academics live in a bubble.  But really.

More or less?

Very interesting after-work drink with Mary Beth Williams, the recently appointed Eberly College of Science Dean for Undergraduate Education and a guest instructor on this course (nano).  She was looking for ideas on how to better engage research-active faculty in undergrad education. I was after a solution to the question which is really starting to bother me about 2012.  Should we go for more students (e.g. 400) or should we go elite niche (e.g. 20 Schreyer Honors students)? The status quo (100 random students) is also an option.

My instincts are to go elite: teach the students most guaranteed to be leaders of the free world. But Mary Beth might have just talked me out of that. Among the students who did not get elite grades at school will be many leaders of the free world (true). We pay the elite students to be here; the paying students deserve at least as much (true). People in all walks of life deserve to be scientifically literate – not just the elite (so true). Maybe the impact I can have on the elite is negligible – they’re doing fine on their own (true). And certainly among my ‘ordinary’ students, there really are many extraordinary individuals.

Hux 3.jpgHaldane.jpgOddly, her arguments made me think of Huxley and especially Haldane, two outstanding evolutionary biologists who took engagement with the wider citizenry very seriously. Mary Beth had heard of neither of them, but that is because she is an impoverished chemist. One was from the chosen elite, the other not. Both made a real difference to their generations by not being elitist.

15-love to Mary Beth.

Class Test 2

I want to stretch the students, and used the latest test to do it. It worked. Most of them hate me for it. 

The format was the same as the first test, but challenging questions dropped the mean score  to 73% (median 76%), down 10% on last time. No one got everything right, but two students got 100%. That is possible under my marking algorithm, which I designed so my tests could generate teachable moments and challenge the students, while also producing grades, the least interesting purpose of tests (zzzzzzz). I am very pleased with the algorithm: it really does allow those competing goals to be achieved simultaneously, particularly when I take the grade as the best two scores from four tests. This means there is a lot of space to bomb, while allowing students to get good grades so long as they improve. Rigorous thinking is hard work, and the only way to get students to do it is to challenge them while holding the grading gun to their heads.

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I discussed three of the test questions in class today, and that worked really well because the students had agonized about the answers when they were doing the test only yesterday. Opinions were strong, we had a good discussion, and I got my points across in a way that no amount of lecturing or non-graded discussion can achieve. 

The more I teach, the more I think we have to stimulate students to up their game, even if they don’t want to. Lowering the bar serves no one. Among the 2/3 of my class that got less than a B on this test there will be many who are willing to put the effort in. My turn to help. Excellent.

Anyhow, the marks spread was…. 

A, 11; A-, 3; B+, 10; B, 9; B-, 14; C+, 10; C, 9; D, 21; Fail, 13 (which includes 4 no shows).  I was pretty pleased with this distribution.  There is clearly nothing wrong with the test, because a substantial minority of the student did very, very well. There were a few students who were exasperated because they feel they have been doing the stuff and yet are not getting rewarded with great grades. Those folks are as important to me as it gets, and will be fixed by a few revision sessions.  The others? I do hope they learned that you gotta come to class and you gotta engage. A few of the students must have been quietly pleased with how well they did when they heard some of the comments in class today. A sample from the comment wall:

IMG_8365.jpgwhy dont we just have a few short answer ?’s to avoid these shennanigans…

I feel like the trickery of these tests are going to ruin all of our grades..

why was it so hard?

Yup it blew my mind

I did better on this test than the last one…

I got 60% higher on this one cause I got 0% on the first one 🙂

I thought that test was pretty hard and ambiguous

test was hard I agree…

I concur, the test was confusing, to be frank, quite b.s.

too the asshole who asked for the harder test last time…your an asshole (sic, sic)
[this a reference by a grammatically challenged student to a post after the 1st class test: “Can you make the tests harder”]

ya you asshole!

im gonna have to second the asshole comment

Sadly, none of the folk who got an A posted.

Magic science

Penn State President Graham Spanier is responsible for 96,000 students, 24 campuses, 1700 buildings and an annual budget of $4.3 billion. I asked him to our class because he is a magician

IMG_8444.jpgMagic says so much about the need for science. From my notes, the Spanier pearls:

  • Magic demonstrates that it is easy to believe what isn’t true.
  • The scientific method is really important: a lot of people are wrong, and a lot of people let their politics color their beliefs.
  • As College graduates, you should be persuaded by facts.  If beliefs get mixed in, that’s ok, but you should see if you can reconcile your beliefs and the facts.
  • Always be a little skeptical of what people are telling you, especially if they have an agenda.
  • Magicians exploit the tendency of humans to see patterns where none exist.
  • Magicians exploit our assumptions about cause and effect.

To which I would just add the one rule of science which magicians really, really demonstrate:  Don’t assume something weird, surprising or counter intuitive has a supernatural cause just because YOU can’t explain it.  


                                                                                                                     Photo credits: Tara Carson