Monthly Archives: September 2013

Nobel gold

Peter Agre, Nobel Prize Chemistry 2003, came to talk to the class. 

As a fellow scientist, it was really inspiring.
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As a teacher, it was phenomenal. Look at the smiles.
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(Peter assured me he was having a good time).
Why do Nobel prize winners come to talk to my class (2010, 2011)? Because they, like me, know it does not get more important than the students in my class. Few science students will run the world: they are geeks. But SC200 students will. These folk will become leaders in business, media, politics…  these people matter. 
I have no trouble persuading Nobel laureates of this. But how can I make the students realize that is why the class matters?
Thanks so much to the Eberly College of Science and the Huck Institute for the Life Sciences for sponsoring Peter’s visit. And to Peter, for his enthusiasm in the face of health challenges. Tremendous good was done.

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The secret to winning a Nobel, according to Peter? Marry well.

Class Test 1, 2013

The first class test was a wake up for us all. The average score was 72%, a straight C, worse than in previous years (20122011). 

The scores went like this. No one got everything right, but five students got 100% on my grading algorithm. Thirteen students got an A. And from there: A-, 19; B+, 9; B, 27; B-, 19; C+, 15; C, 15; D, 29; Fail, 25 + 4 no shows. The big concern is the almost 60 students who got a D or worse. I am not sure why they did so poorly (ideas on a postcard please). My theory is that the class is dominated by juniors and seniors this year, the very students who are most difficult to motivate and most likely to skip class (they think they can handle Gen Eds easily and they are more focused on their majors).
But actually, I don’t know that. To test my theory, my staff assistant Monica is crunching the numbers. I’ll post the analysis when we’ve done it.
Meantime, students, if you got a score you don’t like, review the test (your answers and mine on Angel now) and figure out what you got wrong and why. If you can’t figure it out, come see me after class, or email TA’s Kira or Ethan. You gotta get on this. It’s only a couple of weeks to the next test.
My homework: to try to figure out how to teach a large class which includes 32 people who got an A- or better and 58 who got a D or worse. It’s not a Bell curve. It’s an inverted Bell curve. Or at least a deep pie dish. How do I teach to that distribution?

An exercise in humility

Science is good at generating knowledge because it crowd-sources criticism. We humans are hopeless at finding fault in ourselves, but we are damn good at finding fault in others. Science exploits that. This is completely different from other realms of human endeavor (imagine politicians or lawyers or marketing people or religious leaders encouraging people to find flaws in their arguments).

But over the years I have struggled to get this across to students. Last year, I hit on what I hoped would be a powerful approach: follow in real time during the semester a paper of mine as it went through the peer review process.


It sure was powerful. I gave the students a grandstand view of the peer review process in action, and a close look at a few of the rigor hoops scientists have to jump though. But I accidentally provided a perhaps more important experience: a grandstand view of my anger, tears, fury, incredulity, humility, disagreements, disputes….in other words, an experience of science and the human condition. They seemed to revel in it. I will never forget the sound of the class groaning as I told them of the latest failure. Particularly because their groans got more emotional with each successive failure.
This was how it played out that semester.
Early August 2012, submitted to Science. Rejected without review.
Mid August, submitted to Nature. Rejected without review.
Early September, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Medicine. Full submission encouraged.
Mid September, submitted to PLoS Medicine. Rejected without review.
Late September, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Biology. Full submission encouraged.
End September, submitted to PLoS Biology. Rejected December 4: four negative reviews.
Well…, at least I was able to show the students some reviewer comments before semester end. When they last heard from me, the paper was in limbo. I told them I would email them in the Spring semester with the outcome. I should have been so lucky.
Late January, 2013, submitted to PNAS. Rejected without review early March.
Early March, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Pathogens. Full submission encouraged.
Mid March, submitted to PLoS PathogensRejected May 23. Four largely positive reviews.
June 7, re-submitted to PLoS Pathogens. Rejected end June. Three largely positive reviews.

accepted.jpgJuly 4, resubmitted to PLoS Pathogens. Accepted July 10.

Yesterday, September 12, 2013, it got published.
And what happened to the paper in those intervening 13 months? Well, it mostly just got shorter. We dumped almost all the mathematics, which we will publish elsewhere, and we took out an experiment, which we will publish elsewhere. Otherwise, we changed the rhetoric a bit (adding a paragraph repeating what we had said before).
And now we wait to see whether anyone in the scientific community thinks the paper is as good as we do. Today, I emailed the SC200 class of 2012 to tell them how it all ended. And I think I will tell the class of 2013 this tale. I don’t have the heart to do another paper in real time.


Tuesday, I spent class time on plagiarism – how bad it is, and how to avoid it. I hate having to do it. But it’s a simple legal thing. When I want to throw the book at some student, I need to satisfy the university I explained it properly to the class. It’s all deeply boring. But it is one legacy of the class of 2012. My ban on laptops in class is another.

The final irony of 2012: one of last year’s students had her original blog post plagiarized by someone else in the ether. I believe she was flattered, and not without reason.
But I will eat for breakfast any students who try to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Why do I even need to say that? But now I have said it. I have said it in my syllabus, in my class, in my emails, and now on my blog. Bases covered guys. Just don’t do it. There is no excuse. It degrades you. You are better than that. 


Image from Alamance Community College who apparently borrowed it from


The students are currently blogging about why they are doing my course and why they are not science majors. I ask them to do this (for credit) to make sure they can work the technology, but also because I am interested in the answers.

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This year, more than before, many of them are saying that they are are doing my course because it is easy. I wonder why it has got that reputation. Each year, I have serious s*** from the students after the first class test or two because they do not like their grades. Likewise after the first blog period. So I work hard to get them up to speed — and most of them do get up to speed. And I like that.
But I could make things tougher. I think this is the biggest issue in US education today: how high a bar to set? What should our expectations be? If I set my bar too high, they will hate science. Too low, and I will rob them (and society) of a proper education.
This problem has worried me from the start. My thoughts in 2011 are largely unchanged. If the course has a reputation for being easy, then clearly I can stretch things further.
Just how hard to push students is I think the gorilla in the room. Faculty shy away from serious discussion of it. So do the institutions. How to bring in student dollars but at the same time take the students places they don’t want to go?
Maybe I should have a classroom discussion about this?