Category Archives: Reactions to classroom

Phones con't.

There is evidence that phones are toxic for learning (e.g. 1, 2, 3). My students agree (2015, 2016). So what to do? I tried several things this semester, all for extra credit (1% each time).

(1) Collecting phones. That worked, but it’s a scene and a half. It could be improved on by collecting the phones when the students are in their seats. That would cut down on the time it takes to collect them. Returning 300+ phones would still be, well, a scene.

cell-phones(2) Honesty. This was Julia’s idea: get the students to swop phones and sign a paper form to certify that they had their neighbor’s phone for the entire class. This worked very well the first time I tried it. The second time, when the students knew how the system worked, we had at least two cases that were most easily interpreted as outright cheating. But for that, I would have tried it a third time. Several students were mighty pissed that a couple of cheaters meant the whole class missed an opportunity for extra credit. Me too.

(3) Flipd. This is an app that students download. The download is free, but there is a one-off charge of $3 to actually use it for classroom credit. The instructor sets up the class times, the app notifies the students when to flip their phone off, and system lets the instructor see who has not used their phone during class. I like it because the phone still works, so people who need to be contactable (those with offspring in childcare for instance) don’t get excluded. But I trialed this app with the TAs; the four of us did not find it reliable enough to roll out to 350 students. It’s simple enough to use, but if you push the wrong button at the wrong time, the wheels fall off. I could just imagine endless emails of the  ‘but I was there’ sort. Many professors are making Flipd work and I am sure as the software comes on, it will be great. The $3 is a bit of a downer. Maybe extra credit for the price of a cup of coffee is something students would go for. Instructors can negotiate a class rate – I got it down to $2/student – but then the instructor has to pay ($2*350 students=$$$).

I discussed the various issues with Cristian Villamarin, the guy based in Canada who wrote the app and runs the company. He sent me a flier and a presentation on the system (I enjoyed that one of his slides came direct from the PSU discussions I blogged about). He’s been pretty interactive since we talked, putting me in touch with another PSU professor who has been using it successfully. Flipd is probably going to be the solution when the reliability kinks are sorted (Cristian says they are). I also like Cristian’s slogan summing up the aim of all this: Life is Like a Camera: focus on what’s important and you’ll capture it perfectly.

(4) Pocket Points.  This app is 100% free and students gain points they can use for discounts on food around town, so they are motivated to use it. But the problem is that it gives a list of ALL the PSU students using it on campus at any time (which can be many hundreds): you can’t get a list of just your own students. Moreover, it shows the list in real time, not who was there for the full class period. So while it is a great way for students to impose discipline on themselves, it is not going to be a way to use extra credit to incentivize self-discipline without a major overhaul.

I did not try a solution Bill Goffe pointed me to. Yondr is a hardware solution which even got a mention in the NY Times. Yondr told Bill they have a subscription model — $1.50/pouch/month and 4 undocking stations. Doug Paris at Yondr is the contact. This could be an interesting way to go, but the hardware aspect means one more thing for students to forget/moan about.

yes-no-maybeIn all of this, there is a dilemma for me: phones can be good for active learning. I use PollEverywhere to poll students and to run a comment wall so they can text questions if they are too nervous to put their hand up. I think that is good option in large classes (not everyone likes to speak in front of 300+) and I hate clickers (and so do students). So how to balance those upsides of the ubiquitous phones with their toxic downsides?

Here’s a possible answer. After each of our three phone hand-ins/swops, I noticed fewer phones out during subsequent classes. Could it be that encouraging students to disengage from their phones just a few times in semester is enough to show them how much better off they are when they focus on the classroom……? Could just a few sessions be enough to show them that it is possible to leave texting and social media for a whole hour without the world ending? If so, Julia’s honesty system on a few well-chosen occasions might be enough. Is that too much to hope for?

I feel like there ought to be education specialists or teaching learning and technology specialists trying to sort all this this out. Surely none of this is rocket science.

Class test 4: sigh (again).

downloadThe results from the 3rd Class Test were the most disappointing I’ve ever seen.  Yesterday was Class Test 4 and the results are only a shade better. Among those who took the test, exactly the same class average as Test 3, 74% (C). But that average comes from way more A’s and A-‘s (44, up from 26 last time), fewer B’s, C’s and D’s (good) but more dreadful fails. Oddly, we also had way more no-shows (53, up from 19 last time). So the best we can say is that the decline in test performance across the semester has been arrested. The average grade among those who passed was 80% (B-).

Two students got 100% on my ask-28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm, but the highest score was 25/28. The rest: A, 14; A-, 30; B+, 39; B, 33; B- 24; C+, 20; C, 16; D 43; Fail, 53.

When I look at the performance on the individual questions, there were what I would term under “performance problems” with the questions involving stuff I’d gone over in class in the most recent weeks. Perhaps that’s  a consequence of the low attendance:

  • Just 40% of students in the class thought the strongest reason to think a Zombie apocalypse couldn’t happen is that it hasn’t so far; maybe that’s because only 49% of students were in class when I made that case.
  • Just 52% of students were in class when I discussed the famous ‘experiment’ where Barry Marshall drank H. pylori laden broth, only to get sick not ulcers, thereby providing (anecdotal) evidence against his hypothesis that H pylori causes ulcers. Only 45% of the class knew that.
  • Just 60% of the class was there when I showed the video that makes clear that to a reasonable approximation, the Drake equation shows that the main determinant of whether we will detect life in the Milky Way is how long civilizations transmit detectable signals; 53% of the class had taken that on board.

Most heart breaking:

Which of the following is currently an open question in science?
(a) the nature of dark energy
(b) the safety of childhood vaccines
(c) the cause of climate change
(d) the chemical composition of celestial bodies
(e) all of the above.

A staggering 55% of the class chose (e), meaning that I failed to get across the strong scientific consensus on (b) and (c), and many were not paying attention to Jason Wright’s strong guest performance when he showed we learned how to do (d) in 1859. I weep.

Just one question seems important for me to go over in class today. That’s one which makes clear I have not made clear enough that statistical significance per se tells you little about how big an effect is. Statistical significance does not necessarily mean biological significance.

What's interesting?

I polled the class on which of topics they would like me to cover in the remaining classes. This gave me a popularity ranking on the options I offered, from most to least popular (n=141 respondents):

  1. sleep.jpgAre there aliens? (91%)
  2. Is a Zombie apocalypse coming? (87%)
  3. Are animals gay? (84%)
  4. Why haven’t we cured cancer? (72%)
  5. Why do we sleep? (66%)

This order is the complete reverse of what is interesting to me and (I believe) the vast majority of scientists. Go figure.

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.

Those damn phones

Just finished a very interesting lunch with 14 faculty from the STEM Gen Ed discussion group. We meet every month or two for therapy and to exchange good practice. Today’s topic was the problem of cell phones in  the classroom. There is very strong evidence that phones are toxic to learning in a classroom setting (main mechanism: distraction). Today’s discussion was about getting students to pay attention to the class, not their phones.


  1. Do nothing. It our responsibility to help students learn. But do we have to try to change damaging personal behavior when it is self inflicted?
  2. Outright ban. Hard to enforce.
  3. Try to persuade. Show them the data. I tried this in 2015 and again this year, with no noticeable impact.
  4.  Designated smoking section (an area of the classroom students can opt into with electronics). This works for Julia but half the class opts for the electronics section, so the problem is at best halved.
  5. Collect phones for extra credit. This is what I tried. Quite a performance, and some loss of class time, but my impression is that there has been less use of phones in the class since we tried it (anecdotal observation). Perhaps that one time showed the students the learning impact? Julia suggested instead that it must have forcefully shown the students how much I care. It is sweet she thinks the students care when I care….
  6. Swap phones for extra credit.  Students swap phones with each other and sign that they were not used for the class. Julia’s idea, completely new (so no data). Worries about cheating?
  7. Software solutions. Bill Goffe points us to flippdapp. Looks interesting.
  8. Hardware solutions. Via Alicia Keys, Bill pointed us to overyonder. Quite pricey.

My take on all this is that we can implement #5 better, and I might yet try that, but before then, I’d like to experiment with #6 and #7. Next class, I’ll talk to the students and see what they think.

The white board from today's discussion... phones are good for photos -- even in airplane mode.

The white board from today’s faculty discussion… phones are good for photos — even in airplane mode.

In the middle of our discussion about all this, my phone rang (is it just me that thinks the iPhone sound-off button sucks?). Our whole discussion ground to a distracting halt…