Monthly Archives: September 2014

Blog period 1 – the procrastinators

A quarter of the class did absolutely nothing, and 15% of the class did almost nothing….! Incredible. 40% of the class has left it for later. Oh my.

Well among the ones who are making the most of the feedback and opportunities and are headed for great grades, there were some very good efforts. I much enjoyed Hugs and KissesCrying , Is Technology Too Poweful? and Mushrooms on Pooh (diapers to cows — who knew?). There is a nice integration of science and the personal in Autism and the Savant Part 2 (cunning use of two posts). Also thought-provoking: foster children and tsunamis in Switzerland (again, who knew?). Laughter is a good example of critical analysis. And Ultrasounds and Abortions is a fine example of a critical thought directed at a risky and controversial topic.

The grade distribution: A-, 13 students; B+, 8; B, 12; B-, 24; C+, 28, C, 30; D, 16. Mean grade among those who did enough to pass: 78%.

So in short, a few really great efforts, and lots of room for improvement from most people. TA Amanda wrote a great post on how to blog. I urge all students to read it. There are also lots of tips and examples of great practice from pervious years here.

But I am still staggered. Is it right that a freshman class could really have 40% procrastinators?

Every now and again, I read a sentence I wish I could have written. Tonight, three:

“..a South Pole-based microwave telescope had taken us back to the time when the Universe was 10-38 seconds old—when everything that we can see today occupied a space much smaller than that occupied by a proton…”
–MIchael Turner

“..we ask questions; we try to understand what we find; we consider what evidence we would need to confirm or refute hypotheses. And that happens in whatever setting one finds oneself”
Dr Shirley Malcolm talking about why her
science background has equipped her for life

Vengeance is mine; I will repay
Leo Tolstoy, Ann Karenina


120327124746-deep-water-oil-coral-story-topChuck Fisher came to class Tuesday to talk about his marine research. Chuck is such an enthusiast, and has such great pics and yarns. Submersibles and cool animals and deep sea vents and black smokers and exploding oil rigs are all so visual. And Chuck does it so well.

He had a couple of messages for the students I really enjoyed. First, that he allowed his sense of fun to drive his career. Fun, people, NOT money. And so he’s had a ball, such a full life. It’s hard to tell non-scientists what motivates scientists; I barely understand it myself. Fame? Money? Curiosity? In my experience, fun is as good and as common a motivator as any. Second, that motivator led Chuck to useful stuff too, even though he never set out to do anything useful. He discovered animals which turned out to have a type of haemoglobin that is now used in artificial blood. His understanding of the ecology of deep sea vent communities in the Pacific has allowed him to advise deep sea mining companies – and the governments whose job it is to protect their chunk of ocean. And his technology and science made it possible to assess the damage the Deep Water Horizon explosion did to the Gulf fauna.

Student reaction after was very positive. I got the usual questions on the comment wall about whether this stuff will be in the exam (as Steve Jones once said, the question Professors most loath). But some students seemed inspired. Can’t ask more than that. Thanks Chuck.

The first results

The first class test happened yesterday. I always worry something will go wrong on the first test, when the students are nervous and unforgiving. But technically it went without a glitch, amazing since I had to write it a week ago under great time stress. And yesterday I did not have room for error. In Phoeniz, AZ, at 5.30 am I checked the test was live and then it was 2 pm in Ann Arbor, MI before I could next check the action (and then panic: less than a third of the class had made a start!). At 9.30 pm when I next got a chance to look, I was just glad there were results. But now, the day after, I see those results are not great.

The overall class average was 71%, or 75% if the 11 no-shows were discounted. No one got everything right, but on my ask-28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm, four students got 100% (one of those got 26/28 right). Nine students got an A, 7 an A-, 19 B+, 17 B, 31 B-, 25 C+, 17 C, 47 D and 16 fails (class size = 199). To see a graphic of the distribution, click here.

However I look at those numbers, they’re not good. I’m pleased a few students did very well – it shows it was possible. But more students got unacceptably low grades (defined in my books as D or less) and fewer achieved an A or A- than in any previous class at this point (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010). The class mean is in line with 2010, the lowest score ever.

Why so bad? Am I teaching worse? Is it because the class is almost entirely freshmen this year? Good thing the grading algorithms in this class are set up to reward improvement. That means all of us – students and me – can improve, and there will be no legacy of this. It might even help kick all our butts. Just what I’ve always wanted at this point.

Critical thinking and the economic price of colleges' failures.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is hugely stimulating and should be read by all students. It summarizes a study which shows that students are not being taught critical thinking at College. If true, students should be outraged. Students who do poorly on critical thinking tests are less likely to get jobs, are less likely to keep them and – get this – are less likely to know they can’t think critically.

The article has some important lessons for Professors who want to rectify this (and who doesn’t?). Encourage self-learning (one of the reasons I make the students blog so much). Enforce high academic expectations (my standards are a source of great tension with my students). Enforce high expectations by not giving out A’s for anything that doesn’t surpass those expectations. It all fits so well with my intuition (musings: 1, 2, 3). But as I keep telling the students, intuition (theirs’ and mine) is frequently wrong.

snakeoil553Is this a teachable moment? Should we do a class session on the data? Job prospects are one of the great motivators; surely the students would be captivated? But is it too much to look critically at data on critical thought? What if the data dissolve into a confounded mess when we look at hard? The claims accord with my deeply held biases. I so, so want them to be true. What if they are not? Worse, the study raises the really thorny prospect of measuring my personal impact. I have come to realize that empowering the students to think critically is the most important reason for this course. What if I don’t make a difference?

Most important and interesting

At the start of class each year, I ask the students what are the most important and interesting questions in science, partly to break the ice, and mostly because I want to know about what they wonder about so I can teach it (or find someone who can). This year’s answers:


Most important:
How can we live more sustainably?
(2) How can we change culture so we can live more sustainably?
(3) How will global warming affect our lifestyles?
(4) How can we adapt to global warming?
(5) What to do about global warming?
(6) What is a cheap source of renewable energy?
(7) How to cure cancer? [five groups]
(8) How to cure other debilitating diseases such as ALS?
(9) What are the long term effects of using illicit drugs?

Most interesting:
Can we make an iron man?
(11) Is there life on other planets? [five groups]
(12) What language to animals think in?
(13) How long can we live?
(14) What genes evolve?
(15) How did life begin?
(16) Evolution versus creation
(17) How will technology change our lives?

Compared to past years (2013, 2012, 2011), there was this year perhaps more concern about environmental well being. Curing diseases, especially cancer, still ranks high, as does the question of whether we are alone in the universe.

There are of course easy answers to some of these questions: (6) solar (soon) (9) Not good, (14) all of them, (17) a lot. The others, I will teach.