Monthly Archives: October 2016

Mid-course SELF-evaluation

I do a mid-course evaluation to find out what I could do better on the remainder of the course. For the first time, I asked the students what they could do to help themselves do better. The most common answers (in bold the number of students who said that):

Take better notes 62
Be less lazy; not procrastinate 60
Focus – pay more attention 60
Review material/class notes more after class 54
See/resort to TA’s/meet with them 53
Ask more questions 44
Turn off electronics/phone 39
Study more 38
Blog more frequently/regularly/earlier 36
Time management 21
Review pop quizzes & tests 12
Attend study sessions/review 10
Attend more office hours 9
Do more extra credit work 8
Sit up front 7

All remarkably similar to the wisdom from last year (learning, grade).

As for what I could do better to help the students learn better? Most requests actually revolved around how they could get a better grade. And the most common requests? More on what makes a good blog, more on test preparation, and could I please require less blogging and make the tests easier. I take the first two points, but I really think those things are a work in progress. As for less blogging? 65% of the students think the work load of the course is about right (which makes me think its too light). As for making the tests easier — how hard to stretch people is one of the toughest (and most ignored) questions in Higher Education. They might already be too easy: nobody thinks the course is insufficiently challenging, with 57% thinking it’s about right and 43% saying its too challenging. You gotta stretch students out of their comfort zones. With almost 60% feeling pretty comfortable, I may not have gone far enough.

Things they think I am doing well? 

Picking interesting topics that keep students engaged 73
Answers students’ questions thoroughly 24
Makes students think critically 11
Detailed explanations 10
Extra credits/many chances to improve grade/succeed 10

Most disappointing is the quarter of the class for whom the course is failing to meet their expectations or who are dissatisfied. The most disappointing thing about that is that no one has come to talk to me about anything they are dissatisfied with. I always wish we could link the feedback to the grade book. Are there engaged students who aren’t happy? That would worry me. Or are the unhappy 25% those who are failing because they haven’t done much?  And by even raising that possibility, have I become the doctor who blames his patient’s death on the severity of the disease rather than the quality of the doctoring……..???

Thanks so much to Monica for her fantastic efforts to compile all the data.

Blog Period 2 results: upward

Somehow we lost 17 students from the course since Blog Period 1… sigh. None of them ever came talk to me about their options. Maybe they dropped out for reasons other than the course.

Of the 336 students still registered, 91 did nothing on the blog at all. A further 59 did so little, they failed. On top of that, there were 38 D‘s. The good news is that, believe it or not, that’s fewer fails and D’s than for the first blog period.

performance-improvement-web-picture-pcaaun-clipartBetter, the number of students scoring very well has gone up ten-fold. There were 6 A‘s, 13 A-, 19 B+, 20 B, 22 B-, 40 C+, and 28 C. The average score among the 186 who passed was 78% (C+).

It’s always a little hard to know what to make of that distribution. Some of those who did well last time will not have participated this time (I take the best score from the three periods) and some who did not do anything last time have just tried for the first time (and so have yet to benefit from personalized feedback). Nonetheless, I do take heart that some students had really stretched and things were in general much improved (way more A’s and B’s). The writing that earned those scores cheered up the graders. They found it all quite disheartening in the first blog period (a common reaction for grading newbies who never realize quite how little effort the majority of undergraduates put in).

blogSo, some examples of good practice: I enjoyed learning whether music is helpful (lots of original thinking in that one) and that chicken soup can be (mechanism unclear). Whether brothers make you gay is an important topic with lots of ramifications, some of which I hope to discuss in class in the not too distant future. Also important and well written, the possibility that video games make you sexist, and that weight loss apps don’t work. I also thought this take on sleep was great. Sleep is another topic I hope to get to in class: we do it for a third of our lives and no one knows why. Do dumber people swear more? As an occasional potty mouth myself, I was reassured to find the answer is probably no. There was also important, well written stuff on running to aid mental health, the effect of skipping class on school performance (not good), SADthe dangers of second hand smoke (where the beliefs are far stronger than the data), and whether going to the doctor is actually good for you (it’s almost always good for the doctor’s bank account, so you can trust their answer to that question).  As always, for students interested in improving their blog grade, I strongly recommend taking a look at those examples (not random entries on the blog which are by definition average), scrutinizing the grading rubric, paying serious attention to the feedback from the graders, and looking at the tons and tons of resources to be found here.

Ok….so we now have the list of the 23 students who have yet to do any blogging whatsoever. We’ll write to those folks over the next few weeks begging them to engage. You can’t pass this course without blogging (it’s 40% of the course and the pass grade is 60%). In previous years, some students have failed and told me after they thought blogging was optional… Gotta love it.

A failed time-management carrot

To encourage time management and to discourage procrastination and last minute panic, I give 2% extra credit for anyone who can get their blog posts done five days ahead of time. That’s extra credit for no extra work whatsoever. You’d think everyone would want a piece of that, especially since 2% extra credit is equivalent to raising test scores from a B to an A or blogging scores from a B- to a B+.

Nope. For blog period 2, just 20 students got sufficiently organized to get something for nothing.

Climate change change

Today I reviewed what Mike Mann had said in class about the evidence that climate change is real and mostly due to humans. Then I re-did the poll I took before Mike came to class. Last week, 39% of the students (n= 152 respondents) either didn’t know or disagreed with the statement The earth is warming mostly due to human activity. Today, it was 16% (n=132 respondents). So I guess that’s progress.

But that prompted some scary stuff on the comment wall:

There are bigger issues going on in the world that need our immediate attention. War, violence, the economy.
Climate change isn’t happening because humans are not superior to god’s will.
Climate scientists are going to hell because they are saying humans are superior to god’s will.
Everything that happens with global warming is due to nature and god, not humans. God is superior to us and determines what happens to earth.
I know global warming is fake because my uncle is a republican congressman and says so.

It’s always a little tricky to tell the comedy from the reality.

More constructively, I had a really good idea for a teachable moment. Following Mike Mann’s forceful presentation last class, I polled the class today:

132 respondents

132 respondents

And that gave me the opening to say that among the 100-500 climate or climate-related scientists on campus (a guess, based on estimating the post-docs and grad students as well as faculty), there was not one….NOT ONE… who would disagree with Mike’s summary of the evidence that climate change is happening and largely man made. That’s the extent of consensus on this. If I wanted to find a climate denier, I’d have to hunt among the non-scientists on campus, and even then probably only among the politically motivated. I pointed out that when TV news does balance, it’s not balance in any real sense. Just a scientist and some talking head. It looks 50:50 but that’s an incorrect impression.

I also used it as a moment to to say that if any of those 100-500 Penn State scientists could convincingly show that climate change was not happening or not man made (or a Chinese invention), that scientist would be famous. That’s why we can be pretty confident when they all agree. Everyone is trying to take down everyone else’s science.  When it stays standing, we have to start to think it might be right.

Well I thought it was a good teachable moment….

Class with Mike Mann: Climate Change and the Hockey Stick Wars

I teach Lysenko as an example of what happens when science isn’t allowed to work properly because outside political influences intervene. That’s a very extreme case (skeptical Soviet scientists got imprisoned and killed) but for several years I’ve been using Prof Mike Mann in our very own meteorology department as an example of how politics in this country can also try to make science work differently (for the most part, so far without success). For producing the iconic Hockey Stick graph, Mike has been on the receiving end of death threats, email subpoenas and fraud investigations (detailed here). As he put it, the rules of engagement you learn as a scientist [robust debate] are not the rules of engagement used against you as a scientist [personal attack]. This year, finally, his schedule and the SC200 time slot lined up to make it possible for him to come to talk in class.

Mike Mann in action Oct 25

Mike Mann in action Oct 25

It was an interesting experience for me (and I hope the students). The comment wall was more active than I have ever seen it. Questions ranged across the political spectrum and varied widely, some focusing on the science of climate changes (what’s the evidence?) and others on the politics (e.g. “The Democratic Liberal agenda of this presentation makes me sick.”). I had trouble trying to sift through all the comments to find a balanced range of them to put to Mike. For the first time, I wondered if the class is actually too big – so many views and interests, most of which might not have been dealt with sufficiently in so brief a time.

After, I asked Mike to comment on some of the questions we didn’t get to. Below, the questions (bold) and his answers where he offered them.

Is the carbon footprint of building devices such as solar panels and putting expensive filters on car exhausts worth it because of the building process?

What’s our preferred method of alternative “clean” energy?

 What are your thoughts on the youtube video ? [Hide the Decline] 

Where is the decline? 

Alas, it is largely in the quality of the public discourse over matters of policy-relevant science.

Did you sue everyone for the videos they made about you?

Does that mean a democrat would deny climate change if from Oklahoma?! 

In my view, it shouldn’t mean that *any* politician deny climate change. But unfortunately, most climate change deniers these days are on the republican side of the isle, and it’s not a coincidence. Folks like the Koch Brothers have spent millions of dollars funding primary challengers against republicans who express an enlightened view on climate change (like former republican congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina), i.e. they have sought to “purify” the republican party with respect to climate change denialism. And that’s a big part of how we’ve arrived at the extreme partisan polarization we now have on climate change. It is ironic, since many past Republican presidents (Nixon, Reagan, George H W Bush) displayed leadership in acting on climate environmental problems like acid rain and ozone depletion. It is only relatively recently that the environment has become a partisan political issue. And it is most unfortunate. I talk about this in my new book “The Madhouse Effect”.

In 2014 there was record sea ice in Antarctica.

If we do eventually manage to stop our growing carbon footprint, is there any way to bring it back down to safer levels?

Is it too late to do something about climate change?

If you could have us take away one point from today, what would it be?

Has all these government issues made you even more passionate about climate change?

What can be done to separate science and politics? 

What’s the effect of rising sea levels on the subways in NYC? Isn’t there something about brine levels? 

Why is climate change so heavily denied by a majority of republicans? 

Addressed in a separate response above.

What is a non-believers thought process towards climate change?

How does one combat this issue of climate change when the United States and many other countries are so dependent on fossil fuels? Is there an alternative?

What company does Frank Luntz work for? Why did he want to confuse the public? 

Luntz is a pollster, and has largely worked for republican clients. It is unclear what his own views are. He is merely doing what is asked by his clients, and I doubt he actually
wants to confuse anyone. But in the end, his polling and focus group research has indeed provided fodder for those looking to confuse the public.

Why do you think people are so avid on denying climate change? 

Have you ever been successful convincing someone that climate change exists?

I like to think so. I’ve given many public lectures and media interviews over the past decade and a half, and I’d like to think that my fact-based approach to talking about climate change has won over many honest skeptics. And indeed, I’ve been told a number of times by people that had been skeptical beforehand that they were convinced after listening to what I had to say. That having been said, there is a fringe sector of the population that sees issues like climate change entirely through a partisan political lens, who see it as a part of their tribal political identity. For those people, facts and figures and information and logic alone are often insufficient to change their mind. Their mind is already made up. And our efforts, arguably, are better spent on the “confused middle”—a large group of people in the political center who *think* that there is a scientific debate about whether climate change is real. They are typically receptive to learning more about what the science has to say.

What do you see the future looking like ? How much hope do you have for our generation (us students)?

I am optimistic for several reasons. In “The Madhouse Effect”, we spend the last chapter of the book outlining the reasons for cautions optimism in the battle to combat climate change.
I’m optimistic because of the tremendous progress that has been made, domestically and internationally, over the past few years in tackling climate change—the huge growth in renewable energy, the monumental agreement last December in Paris to lower carbon emissions that was reached by nearly 200 nations around the world (read e.g. this Huffington Post commentary I wrote about the Paris agreement), the fact that global carbon emissions dropped for the first time in decades last year even though the global economy continued to grow). I am also optimistic because millennials (read—you folks!) have really gotten it in a way that older generations have—there is considerable energy and passion surrounding the issue of climate change specifically, and environmental sustainability more generally, among college students today. I see that here at Penn State, and at other colleges and universities around the country where I lecture. I think that energy and passion will help power the critical transition that is underway toward a green energy future.


But most amazing to me was that Mike really got the classes attention when he was asked about whether its good or bad to have celebrities weighing in on the debate. All was normal until he said Leo. Leo, more than glaciers melting, NY flooding, extreme weather events, …… Leo got a reaction. LEO? I did not know whether to laugh or cry. At least its not my generation who will be mopping up the mess.

Anyway, Mike was worried after that the class did not believe he advised Leo. So here folks, is Leo and Mike (with more here, including Bill Clinton):


And here’s the Penn State premier of the film Mike helped Leo make:


Mike is very keen any interested students come to that event. And that students who liked — or did not like — what he said follow him on Twitter @MichaelEMann.

And, a final irony, Mike himself is now apparently something of a celebrity. Here’s the selfie shot after class.


The work of climate scientists like Mike and his many colleagues here at Penn State repeatedly survives peer review. That means the science as sound as it can be at this point in time. My overwhelming impression is that all of the scientist involved are very scared about what they are concluding. Many of them are knocking themselves out trying to warn the public. I wish the SC200 class of 2016 — and their children –the very best as a they struggle to deal with the fall out of the current US political inertia.

Class with the Dean

Dr Cavener, Dean of the Eberly College of Science came to class last Thursday to talk about creation and evolution, religion and science, as well as giraffes. The comment wall lit up with various questions. We didn’t have time in class for him to answer them all but over the weekend he sent me the following answers. I am particularly grateful that our very busy Dean took time out of his packed schedule for students that are most assuredly not in his College.

Dean Cavener in action

Dean Cavener in action

Was it difficult for you to change your mindset from gods creation to just evolution and natural processes? 

The first step of accepting evolution was actually not difficult. However at the last step, where I decided that there was no evidence or reason to believe that god was involved any aspect of the origin of life, was more difficult.

Did your parents want you to go to college and how did you get there coming from such a small background/limited opportunities?    

I only applied to a single college, which was a small christian college that was associated with the denomination of my church, so my parents were supportive of me going there.

What advice would you give to students who have ventured towards agnostic or atheist views who have very religious parents? 

If your parents were like mine, it is pointless to argue and try to convince them of evolution. I let them know what my beliefs were and left it at that. Maintaining a good relationship with my parents was very important to me, and I always thought that keeping this relationship was much more important than trying to convince them that I was right and they were wrong.

Do you have any particular feelings about The Willard Preacher?

Annoying! But protecting his right to free speech is important. The first amendment is vastly more important that the second!

How did you major in evolutionary biology with the opposition of your parents? And how did they feel about you majoring in this field of science?  

My undergraduate major was biology and my PhD was actually in genetics but much of my research was in the sub-field of evolutionary genetics.

What got you interested in science if you really didn’t have the opportunity to experience it growing up? 

I didn’t develop a strong interest in biology until I took a gen ed course in biology in my sophomore year in college. Although I went to a christian college I had some outstanding biology and chemistry professors who were also intellectually engaging. I was very much attracted to the emphasis on critical thinking, hypothesis testing, and discovery that I found in science.

Is there something that happened in your life that specifically made you go against religion?    

No not all. In fact for the most part I enjoyed the social and cultural aspects of religion and looked forward to going to church as a teenager. I was also my church’s organist. My transition from “faith to reason” was personal and intellectual; in the end reason won out.  Although I am an agnostic and don’t attend church, my moral and ethical beliefs are very much influenced by New Testament teachings of Jesus (e.g. “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). So in many ways I see myself as a christian but not in the way evangelical/fundamentalists would accept as “being a christian”. However, I think that much of the current evangelical/fundamentalist religious practices and politics have become divorced from the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

Are you still religious?   

See response to question above.

Are you glad that the church and the new pope have increased their beliefs in science in recent years? Does this steer you back towards the church?   

Yes, I am pleased to see the new pope embracing reason and science. In contrast many of the leaders in the protestant evangelical denominations have become overtly anti science.

Do you still consider yourself religious or “believe” what the bible says? 

See response above.

Do you believe in God?

I am an agnostic. I have flirted with pantheism – the believe that god is nature. What gives me a deep sense of meaning and pleasure is the knowledge that I am connected with all of nature. The idea that we are a separate creation from the rest of nature is empty and depressing.

Why do people continue to believe?    

Believe in god or creation story? Belief in god is central to identity and meaning of many people. I totally understand this. However, belief in the biblical creation story is a clear rejection of evidence and reason that is being strongly reinforced by the current leaders of the “religious right” by psychological intimidation. I should note that the level of psychological intimidation to conform is much higher now than it was when I was young, which was prior to the politicalization of the evangelical churches.

What did the church tell you about dinosaurs? 

Some people said that dinosaurs were hoax (bones fabricated by scientists). Others accepted the fact that dinosaurs once existed but claimed that God created them at the same time “he” created all the other animals and that the dating of dinosaurs bones was incorrect. It was particularly a struggle for them to explain why dinosaurs weren’t described in the Bible as they must have co-existed with man according to their beliefs. You’d think that a free living Tyrannosaurus rex would have made an impression on the authors of the Bible!

Climate change.

At the start of the semester, the students considered climate change one of the most important and interesting questions in science. In preparation for a guest appearance by Penn State’s Mike Mann in class next Tuesday, I polled the class on their views.

Based on 168 responses

Based on 168 responses

The precise wording for this question came from the Pew Trust’s recent survey. Overall, 48% of Americans agree with the statement, but that ranges from 15% of conservative Republicans to 79% for liberal Democrats. Our 61% is about in-line with the average for moderate Democrats.