Monthly Archives: August 2013


Not freshmen, as one of my students puts it.

I went to two welcome functions for the class of 2017. The first was convocation, in the Bryce Jordan Center. I was straight off a plane from Scotland to Newark, and exhausted. But it was so energizing to see 9,000 young people raring to go. 
Convocation.jpgAnd then, next day, to see 900 new science students just thirsting for it.
ECoS Welcome.jpg
The class of 2017 includes my oldest son. All power to him and his classmates. I increasingly feel like it’ll all be ok if the world is in the hands of his generation.  

The most important and interesting questions

Yesterday, in the first class session, I asked the students (in eight groups) to come up with the most important and interesting questions in science. It is an interesting exercise in its own right, but it also helps me decide what topics to cover.

The most important:
(1) What will we do when we run out of oil? (3 groups)
(2) How can we cure cancer? (4 groups)
(3) What is the meaning of life?
(4) How can we cure HIV and other fatal diseases?
(5) Global warming?


The most interesting:
(6) How long will humans last?
(7) What will cause our extinction?
(8) Is there life on other planets? (3 groups)
(9) Can humans be cloned?
(10) How do penguins find their mates again after 6 months apart?
(11) Can we colonize other planets?
(12) Is time travel possible?
(13) What is the future of American agriculture with GMOs?
(14) What is to be discovered under the sea?
(15) Are GMOs harmful?
(16) Are mermaids real?
And from my list of possible class topics
(17) Are animals gay?
(18) Are drugs better than teachers?
There is a lot of overlap with the questions identified by the Classes of 2012 and 2011. I think I can cover most of these topics in class, or get someone in who can. When #16 was raised I said all I have to say about it (no). Though I am shocked to discover mermaid outfits are available for babies. I love #3. Someone should figure that out.

A MOOC-ing we go

This semester I am engaged in both SC200 AND a Coursera MOOC. The MOOC has been a serious pain in the butt.

The MOOC ‘adventure’ is the brain child of Marcel Salathe, who has done a ton of work on it, very ably assisted on curriculum design by Matt Ferrari, Megan Kohler in ETS, and a big investment from ECoS. There are eight CIDD faculty involved. It’s a huge experiment in so many ways. Barely anyone has any idea what they are doing in this space (note cool jargon).


MOOCs are very controversial in universities, not least Penn State. Some people think they are the end of residential college education as we know it. Others, myself included, think they will be a nice addition – and will motivate honest improvements in what we deliver in traditional courses. If you can get from a Stanford professor on-line better than anything I can deliver in person at Penn State, why would you come to Penn State?
The MOOC has been a real hassle all summer. Script deadlines, story boarding deadlines, filming deadlines. Like I needed anything else to do. And now there are more deadlines about glossaries, further reading, quizzes. Groan. But I was really blown away at a meeting we had last week with two of the faculty that have already run MOOCs from Penn State.
It turns out that a significant number of MOOC students – and this can be in the thousands – want extra work, more detail, more contact with professors – in general to go further, faster and higher than the course requirements. It was the inverse of what I experience on campus. Students who paid nothing, who get no transcript, who are not doing it because their parents and their society expect…push themselves. One of the PSU MOOC faculty described it as the most exciting teaching he had ever done.
I look forward to the compare and contrast. Of course, I’ll post my reflections here..

Fall 2013: here we go


It seems incredible we’re about to start again. Normally the years whizz by. This last one has been very full. It feels like a decade since Rachel, Beth, Chris and I kicked it off just 365 days ago. I have lived a lifetime since then.
Anyway, tomorrow the class of 2013 starts. It is fascinating scanning the class pictures. It’s hard not to look at them and wonder: who will be the stars, who will be the problems? Which ones will put in no effort and get nothing back? And which ones will transform their lives (and mine) by engaging even though they learned to hate science at school?