Monthly Archives: October 2012

Oh my

At a revision tutorial tonight, one of the students told me this was the hardest science course she had ever done.  In all her other ones, she had just had to learn stuff and regurgitate it. 


The power, the beauty…and the discipline?

In previous years, I have spent some of my creative juices during Fall semester trying to figure ways to convey to the SC200 class the Power, The Beauty and the Joy of science. This year, some of my enthusiasm is being absorbed by discipline problems in class. I have NEVER had discipline problems in any class room. EVER. This year:

  • Insights on the Comment Wall like “my penis is caught in my zipper” and “the blond in the fourth row smells” and “why does my anus move like a flap when i fart?” and “if the circumference of an acorn is 12cm, why is my right testicle 36cm?” and “is it bad for me to ejaculate on pregnancy tests in order to skew the results?”. Despite my very visible anger, the comments continued over several weeks, so I pulled the comment wall from public viewing. 
  • People tried to chat up my TAs via the Comment Wall: “where’d that hot TA go”, “are the hot TAs here? I’ve yet to do my blog and could use some help”, “xxx is hella fine not juss pretty”
  • Inappropriate comments on the hand-in sheets attached to the pop quizzes.
  • People signing in for other people on the quizzes.
  • Plagiarism of blog material.
Even more incredible, there have been endless disruptions in the class. Students have been texting and emailing me, begging me to stop students talking in class. I even had one text last week, asking me to stop a student from watching a distracting TV show, another asking me to stop the person chewing gum loudly. I implore the students to stop, in the most forceful terms, but they don’t. It staggers me beyond belief that there are students who simply do not care that students around them find them deeply distracting. It is a complete failure of basic civility. It is amazing such people exist among fee-paying College students. The ultimate products of me-me-me entitlement generation?
Still, it’s important for basic sanity to realize that the majority of students are in fact highly engaged, intelligent people who care about the class material and their class mates.

Sometimes it works

I had a fabulous lunch today with one of the students. She is doing very well on the course, and has been to both revision tutorials – just to argue with me. She is not used to getting less than an A, so she is pissed she is running A-‘s and B+’s.

She let slip that among her daily reading of the Entertainment Industry ‘news’ she reads, she is starting to look critically at the science and health news: how good is the study? what’s the data like? can they really say that? 
I nearly wept. One of her counters the on-going discipline problems, the absentee students, students that bitch about bad grades who don’t come to class, the students who just don’t try.

The way it looks

A photographer came to class today. I am presenting to the Dean’s Advisory Group on Friday about developing a strategy for the Eberly College of Science about how we are going to lift the Gen Ed game.

A major challenge is the students we are trying to reach out to are nothing like any of us geeky scientists (we are weird humans). My students learned to hate science during their K-12 education. So we have nothing in common with them. But many of them are very smart, energetic, hugely fun, and going places. So we have to get on their wave length.  Step one: looking in to the whites of their eyes.  My favorite picture:


Not sure what I’d just said.  But it was obvious good. 
More pictures coming.

Class Test 2

Class Test 1 had the weirdest grade distribution. Nothing like the bell curve, it was the shape of a shallow dish, with 34 fails and 34 A’s.

This time the shallow dish has got higher sides. The good news is that there is a big jump in the number of A’s. The bad news is that number of D’s and fails is also up. So the class is further bifurcating.  At least this time the A-side is the higher (good). The average is the same because there are more and more serious fails (bad).

Class average 80.1% (B-), the same as last time.
A, 52; A-, 16; B+, 14; B, 12; B-, 15; C+, 11; C, 5; D, 26; Fails, 22 including 4 no shows.
No one got everything right, but two students missed just one of the 28 questions, and 18 missed just two. Thirty students got 100% given my grading algorithm.
I really do have to find the time to work out who is making up the bottom end of the distribution. People who are not coming to class for sure, but what’s going on with those who are?  I only had about 25 students come to revision sessions on the last test.  Hopefully more this time…

The good things

I had a staggeringly bad day. I am fighting the NIH over deeply unnecessary red tape. It’s been a shock to me how much worse the bureaucracy is in America compared to any where else I have lived (NZ, UK, Germany). Even buying and selling a car privately, which I did yesterday, involves way more bureaucracy than it does in those other countries. I am also trying to deal with bad chemistry between key people in my working life. And there are ongoing discipline problems in the class (which I will blog about when they are sorted).  

But, four good things happened today, and sanity requires I focus on those. I can tell you about three of them.

(1) It looks like we turned up Marek’s disease virus in the farm samples we got Wednesday.  Very good news for us; very bad news for the farmer involved.

coffee-cup.jpg(2) I had a breakfast coffee with one of the SC200 students. She is highly motivated about the course, loves the critical thinking aspect, and is enjoying the topics I am teaching (these are the vehicles I use for getting across hard concepts). She is a theater major, and we had a very interesting discussion about performance art. My sort of teaching is performance art. Clearly, she had not thought about teaching like that before, though she got it as soon as I raised it. She made me think it would be really great to do a class (be student) in Professorial Theater 101. I wonder what we could do for PSU teaching if we got into that.
(3) I talked with Eberly College of Science Dean Mary Beth Williams (1, 2about Gen Ed teaching. She and I are trying to change the world, starting at Penn State. She now tells me that in conjunction with Chris Long in Liberal Arts, she wants to go rogue. To really push the boundaries. To behave very, very unorthodox (in this context we can do bad grammar). To push the university (American education?) into something really new. Something really good. And really brave. To really extend our students–and our faculty. Hallelujah. I bet the University doesn’t have the balls for this. She does.
And I note that somehow, she does this all the time to me. I am cripplingly busy. And she wants to push me harder. She never once says “Andrew, I know you are busy but..”. She just says: here’s a vision. She doesn’t even have the decency to ask: “wanna run with it?’.

How big?

Yesterday, the classes for Fall 2012 rolled over automatically for Fall 2013. This means if I take no action, I have the same timetable slot and class room for next year. Result: the same as this year – 173 students of all ages.  
There are two alternatives.
First, restrict the class to freshmen and sophomores. I am inclined to think I should. I am trying to give students permission and the skill set to think critically. They need that from the get-go at College.
And second, scale-up.  Based on classroom availability, the options are to increase to 316 students…. or (gulp) 726. The 726 option would look like this: 


This time last year, I was considering scaling down to the elite few. I was persuaded not to. And I am glad I was. So now the issue is the size of the scale up. Could I fill 726 seats with freshmen and sophomores? And could I handle it?
The science geek in me thinks the equation looks like this: double or treble the potential impact, minus the reduction in quality that would go with double or treble the number of students, minus the reduction in my research that would go with such a big scale up. How does that equation balance out? 
That, dammit, depends on unknowable scaling coefficients.

Calming chickens

I spent the morning on chicken farms. We have an EEID grant to look for Marek’s disease virus in Pennsylvania. MDV has evolved to become seriously nasty. We’re working on the possibility that vaccines made it so. To me, it’s a fascinating question (although I have no deep understanding of why). And the context is fabulous. The efficiency of the poultry industry is mind blowing. It is incredible what smart people and market forces can achieve. Chickens used to be more expensive than oysters. Now…  If humans can make chickens dirt cheap, and go to the moon, how come we can’t do simple things, like Middle East peace?

Even better though, think about the scene from the virus’ perspective. Broiler chickens (the ones we eat) exist for 6-7 weeks, with maybe 30,000 birds of identical genotype and phenotype all in a single room. No wonder merry evolutionary hell is let loose.

Aviagen Trip 043.JPGBut today, none of that coolness mattered. It was just really nice to be out with proper scientists Patty and Dave in a relaxed setting. And the nature of the work – sampling dust – is lovely. After a few hours, things are done, targets reached, and everyone is happy. It is never like that when you are teaching or running a research group. Always there is something you could do better, faster, more efficiently. Its enough to drive you mad.

Last Thursday

I have been on the road, without time to blog. Last Thursday’s class amazed me.

(1) I did a pop quiz. Over the three years we have been going, 350 students have done that test.  Last Thursday, one of them found a mistake… She was SO right.  I had to crack up in class. What else to do?

brain in jar.jpg

(2) I got asked the question: why do scientists work on what they do?  This is a really deep question, which I do not think has a good answer. In my case, I choose something which might have serious impact, where the competition is not too hot, and where fundamental problems in evolutionary biology clash with real world concerns. But the natural next question is: why do I care about those things?  It is all a mystery to me. I ended by saying, we scientists do what feels good. I can’t help think that is pretty unique among the professions.
(3) I got asked, in response to the class before: how is it possible to do research on 100 rats? I beamed up the Jax labs.  Many of the students were clearly alarmed there are animal supermarkets. One even gasped: but they are selling mutants!. It had not occurred to me that the students would not know this. Must teach it next year.
(4) The ongoing saga of my currently favorite ever paper was that the thing got rejected from PLoS Medicine without review.  This led to a lively discussion about the hierarchy of journals, and why our paper can not go forward, whereas others can. Many students realized that this is particularly important issue after the especially crap paper we discussed in class that day.
(5) What I actually discussed in class is why smart, well meaning physicians kill people by not utilizing the scientific method. I think this is a powerful way of teaching what science is about. Your authoritarian physician, who you trust with your life, is running on instinct, anecdote and what their professor told them. Just like you are. Hopefully, the next generation can do critical thought.