DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012: Into the home stretch.

Since our drive began, the East Coast weathered a big storm (and is now coping with another). People have also been maybe a little preoccupied with elections.

Still, almost 300 generous readers of science blogs have so far raised $24,586 to fund classroom projects that will reach 12,907 public school students.

That’s pretty impressive. But we have a couple more days to do even more good.

The drive runs through midnight Friday, Hawaii time (to be fair to Christie and all) — that’s Saturday, November 10, 6 am Eastern time.

The match code SCIENCE will be active until the very end of the drive. At last check, more than $6,000 of the available $50,000 in matching funds (from the DonorsChoose Board of Directors) have been deployed, but that still leaves more than $40,000 in matching funds on the table.

We don’t want to leave that money on the table when we can use it to help pay for textbooks, microscopes, science kits, field trips, and other resources that will make learning come alive for kids in public school classrooms.

Making a donation through the drive and entering the SCIENCE match code at checkout will double each donor’s contribution up to $100.

Some of you may have blown through your whole $100 match already. (I still have $30 left on my match as I try to choose where I want to put it.) Some of you haven’t. To get the remainder of the matching funds on the table, we’d need the equivalent of 400 new donors each contributing $100.

A donation of $100 is not a small thing, especially for those of you who are students, or retirees, or unemployed or underemployed. So probably we want to get more than 400 people to step up and contribute what they can — even a buck (which, with the match, becomes two bucks). And, we need to spread the word — to family, co-workers, friends who understand how the right teacher, with the right tools, can get kids really excited about learning. If there’s a teacher who made a big difference in your life, maybe this is a good excuse to track him or her down to say thanks and point out a project that we can fund by working together.

Share your enthusiasm about specific projects on Twitter, or Facebook, or G+, or FriendFeed, or your Tumblr or LiveJournal. Encourage your online friends to band together to do a bit of tangible good for kids and teachers in the three-dimensional world.

My giving page is here, but I encourage you to check out the giving pages of other Scientopians, and of science bloggers in other parts of the blogosphere.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012: Super-storm Sandy is not going to stop us!

Gerty-Z got there first, but a good idea is a good idea.

Super-storm Sandy did major damage to the East Coast, especially New Jersey and New York City. The offices of DonorsChoose are in New York City. Their fabulous staff is safe (and mostly dry) and their computer servers are up, which means the Science Bloggers for Students drive has been operational and ready to receive your donations. However, a bunch of potential donors to the drive have probably been kind of distracted keeping their own selves safe and dry.

So, a few things we’re doing about this situation.

FIRST, we’re extending the drive through next Friday, November 9. This gives our East Coast compatriots who are waiting to get power back a chance to join in the fun. The dollar-for-dollar match from the DonorsChoose Board of Directors will be extended to the end (unless we blow through all $50,000 first, which would be awesome). Just enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” field at checkout, and every dollar you give up to $100 will be doubled.

SECOND, I’ve added three projects to my giving page from hurricane affected area:

Chemistry textbooks for Thurgood Marshall Academy in New York City where students have been relying on their teacher’s notes and outdated textbooks.

Inquiry-based genetics lab kits for Dr. Charles E Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, New Jersey, to help students get hands-on experience with modern biological techniques.

Plants and animals for ecosystem and terraria studies at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey, where students are connecting their studies in biology, environmental science, and engineering to everyday issues like what’s on the dinner table and how it got there.

In the event that we get these fully funded before the end of the drive, I’ll add more.

THIRD, for each of these new projects that we get to full funding before the end of the drive, I will donate $25 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief. If we get all three fully funded, I’ll donate $100 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief. If we fully fund additional Sandy-affected-area projects beyond these three, it will be an additional $25 out of my pocket to the American Red Cross for each of them.

If you hit your $100 limit on the matching funds, I know you’ll lean on your family and friends who care about science education.

We can do this!

It’s not the end of the world (yet): DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012 enters home stretch.

We’re coming into the home stretch of our annual DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students drive:

Science Bloggers for Students: No Apocalypse in Sight (Transcript below)

And, now until the end of the drive, you can get your donations matched (up to $100 per donor) thanks to the generosity of the Board of Directors. Just enter the match code SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” field as you check out.

By the way, the Board of Directors has put up $50,000 in matching funds, so once you’ve hit your match code limit, you might want to nudge your family, friends, and social media contacts to give to worthy projects and get their donations matched.

My giving page for the challenge is here. You can find other giving pages from Scientopia bloggers here.

Thanks in advance for your generosity!

Transcript of the video:

Today is November 1, 2012, which means that the prediction that the world would end in October of 2012? Didn’t happen. Now what?

After your hard work laying in emergency supplies for the apocalypse, a new day dawns … and there’s stuff to do: dishes to wash, rabbit runs to clean, and public school classrooms that still need help getting funds for equipment, field trips, even basic classroom supplies.

Here’s where DonorsChoose comes in: Pick a giving page from the Science Bloggers for Students challenge. Check out the projects and find one that matters to you. Give what you can, even if it’s just a buck. And now, until the end of the drive, you can use the match code SCIENCE to double your donation, up to $100. Give a dollar, the project you’re funding gets two dollars. Give $100, the project gets $200.

The world didn’t end — this time. So take this opportunity to do some good and help some kids before it does.

An open (cease and desist) letter to a sixth grade English teacher.

Dear Sixth Grade English Teacher,

I know you mean well. I even agree that giving my kid homework assignments that request antonyms for adjectives and adverbs seems pretty pedagogically sound.

However, demanding that students come up with antonyms for any given noun seems like a problem.

What, pray tell, do you expect students to identify as the antonym for “utensil”? Or for “cat”? Or for “mass”?

I would submit to you that these three nouns do not have clear opposites — or even plausible opposites — and that they are not unique in this regard.

But framing these vocabulary-builder assignments as if every word in the language must have an antonym, and putting the students on the hook to work out what they are, forces vulnerable children to engage in a category mistake as if it were not a mistake.

I will have you know that some of us, teaching adults, already spend altogether too much time trying to get them to step away from category mistakes. Creating more in the sixth grade vocabulary homework of future generations of college students is not helping.

Just stop it.


The younger Free-Ride offspring’s mother

The glorious return of DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students (plus the story of how it began).

Since 2006, science bloggers have been working with and our readers to help public school students and teachers get the resources they need to make learning come alive. Is there an origin story for the annual Science Bloggers for Students drive? As a matter of fact*, there is:

Science Bloggers for Students Origin Story (Transcript below)

If you’re reading blogs in this neighborhood of the blogosphere, chances are you care about science, or education, or both. Probably you’re the kind of person who thinks that solid — and engaging — math and science education is an important resource for kids to have as they hurtle into the future and face the challenges of our modern world.

It’s a resource that’s getting squeezed by tight public school budgets. But we have the opportunity to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

This year, from October 15 through November 5, a number of science bloggers, whether networked, loosely affiliated, or proudly independent, will be teaming up with DonorsChoose in Science Bloggers for Students, a philanthropic throwdown for public schools.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last several years, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids — our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors — the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

The challenge this year runs October 15 through November 5. We’re overlapping with Earth Science Week (October 14-20, 2012) and National Chemistry Week (October 21-27, 2012), a nice chance for earth science and chemistry fans to add a little philanthropy to their celebrations. There are a bunch of Scientopia bloggers mounting challenges this year (check out some of their challenge pages on our leaderboard), as well as bloggers from other networks (which you can see represented on the challenge’s motherboard). And, since today is the official kick-off, there is plenty of time for other bloggers and their readers to enter the fray!

How It Works:

Follow the links above to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)


(If you’re the loyal reader of multiple participating blogs and you don’t want to play favorites, you can, of course, donate to multiple challenges! But you’re also allowed to play favorites.)

Sit back and watch the challenges inch towards their goals, and check the leaderboards to see how many students will be impacted by your generosity.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help! 

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

*It’s possible the origin story presented here is not entirely factual, but it sure is compelling! Also, it was created with less than 10% child labor!

Transcript of the video:

In 2006, a small band of science bloggers was bitten by a radioactive spider.

They soon realized their only hope was for teachers to help kids learn math and science so those kids could, some day, find a cure for the relentless tingling.

Public school teachers and students need our help. DonorsChoose gives you the great power to support the classrooms, the supplies, the projects, the field trips that matter to you.

Help Science Bloggers for Students get a generation of kids the math and science education they deserve. Thank you, and we’ll see you on the web.

Questions worth asking yourself if you’re thinking of cheating.

This should not be taken as an exhaustive list by any means.

  1. Has your instructor warned you that course policy rewards cheating and plagiarism with a failing grade for the course, and with the filing of academic integrity violation reporting forms with the relevant administrative offices? If so, cheating might be kind of risky.
  2. Have you been asked to indicate your explicit agreement to a statement that particular sources of information and help are not allowed for this assignment? If so, consulting one of those sources for information and help is not allowed (i.e., it will probably be viewed as cheating), and the instructor who secured your agreement to the ground rules may well pursue sanctions against you if you do it.
  3. Is the assignment on which you’re considering cheating one of the requirements for an ethics course? If so, being caught cheating is likely to demonstrate something like a lack of comprehension of the course content. This may well undercut any plea for leniency you’re inclined to make.
  4. Are you betting that the instructor evaluating your work will not detect the cheating? If so, you might want to entertain the possibility that he or she can distinguish typical student work from a Googled source, and that past instances of cheating on his or her watch have sharpened his or her discernment. You might also recall that professorial types generally have strong research skills and experience with search engines like Google.
  5. Do you need to pass the particular course in which you are considering cheating in order to graduate in your major? If so, there might be a principled reason that the people training you in your major subject think you should learn the content of this course — and cheating (rather than actually mastering that content) might put you at a disadvantage in your future education or employment at that kind of major. Also, if you’re caught cheating, it may delay your ability to graduate in your chosen major.
  6. Is there only one faculty member who teaches this course-required-for-your-major in which you are considering cheating? That means if you are caught cheating and you want to graduate in this major, you will have to take this course again with this same instructor who already failed you once for cheating. Is that possibility really less uncomfortable than buckling down and doing your own damn work in the first place?

I mean, seriously. Maybe it’s time to “update your priors” or something, kids.

Passing thoughts on online courses and the temptations they present.

It is interesting to me that there are certain denizens of the university community who are anxious for faculty to increase the number of online courses that we offer, and that this desire for us to pursue this aim is not generally driven primarily by a desire for us to better serve students with inflexible work schedules or scary-long commutes, or even to free up scarce classroom space. Rather, some of the most vocal proponents (at least at my university) of expanding online course offerings seem to believe online classes can accommodate much larger enrollments than can traditional classroom-bound classes.

Technically speaking, that’s true — you can set things up so that your online class will allow hundreds of students to enroll in it, and the fire marshall won’t bat an eyelash. However, making enrollments really, really big also makes the workload to assess student work (including discussion board-based discussions, which now read like papers without the benefit of spellcheck) really, really big. Plus, you also get to deal with all the technical glitches the students find with accessing materials and submitting materials and joining groups for discussions and not blowing deadlines. (It doesn’t take a really, really big online enrollment for your students to discover every technical glitch there is to find.)

Of course, increasing support for graders might help, but this doesn’t come up so much, since the point is to save buckets of money. (I should note that my better half, who has been taking some online courses through organizations that hope at some point to turn a profit, was invited to be a “community TA” for one of the courses so taken —for free! Obviously, the best way to become profitable is to recruit skilled labor that is also free.)

Well, say the hopeful advocates, there are rumors of automated programs for grading student papers. Maybe you can run all the work through those?

Even if I trusted those programs to prioritize the things I’m looking for in student papers (and, you know, to provide useful feedback to my students on their work), the boom in online classes has given rise to a boom in “services” for students “taking” online classes. Inside Higher Education describes the scene:

These sites make an appeal to the busy online student, struggling through a class they’re not good at or not interested in. The description of one site,*, reads: “I’m sure you are here because you are wondering ‘how will I have time to take my online class?’ It may be that one class such as statistics or accounting. We know some people have trouble with numbers. We get that. We are here to help.”

Prices for a “tutor” vary. advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay. When Inside Higher Ed, posing as a potential customer, asked for a quote for an introductory microeconomics class offered by Penn State World Campus, offered to complete the entire course for $900, with payment upon completion, and asked for $775, paid up front. Most sites promise at least a B in the course. …

“If we just had a course that was just a multiple-choice final at the end there’d be a high chance of cheating,” [Eric] Zematis [director of Enterprise Systems at Charter Oak State College, a fully online institution] said. “When we design courses we try to look at having more interaction to try to discourage cheating.”

In the case of a site like We Take Your Class, Zematis surmised, the amount a student would have to pay would probably increase based on the number of assignments. If there were enough assignments, tests, or required discussions, then, using an online class-taking service could become prohibitively expensive.

A couple things worth noting here: First, the pedagogical steps that make it harder for students to cheat in an online course also tend to make student work in those online courses harder to grade. Second, the kids who have enough money to pay someone else to do that work for them seem like they’re going to have a better shot at gaming the system and getting credit for taking online courses for which they’ve done essentially bupkis.

Does this leave me oddly comforted that students in my online classes probably don’t have the means to hire someone to do their school work for them? Maybe …

But wait! Can the Invisible Hand (and the excess of Ph.D.-holders) make sophisticated and hard-to-detect cheating affordable even for lower income students? Perhaps:

The website has teachers writing papers for students.**

“So you can play while we make your papers go away” is its tag line.

Organizers say education has already become a commodity and with tenure harder to get, teachers need work. …

“I’d say this service represents a new solution to an age-old problem,” said one [person working for], adding the justification is supply and demand and a void in the marketplace.

Noting that has effectively barred students from buying recycled essays on the cheap, the professor said potential clients include international students whose English is poor, students too lazy to complete the work, students too busy with jobs paying for their education to do the work and science students who resent being asked to write papers in the humanities.

The service says the work should not be used to fulfill an academic requirement — but offers to supply dissertation chapters and personal statements used for admissions — and should be used as a guideline.

“This removes the ethical dimension on our side as we have no control over what a client does upon paying for and receiving the project,” said the professor.

“In fact, it places the ethical burden squarely on the shoulders of the student.”

The service started last fall and has recruited about 30 professors. While it doesn’t guarantee an A, it does guarantee high-quality work and turns away about 15 applicants for every one it hires.

I guess when people who have trained for academic careers cannot sell their expertise to a college or university, eventually selling their integrity might become a live option.

Here, if the professorial cheating-enablers are delivering what they seem to be promising, it’s likely to be fairly labor intensive for them. At least part of the labor would involve writing a paper that actually sounds like a student paper. (Believe it or not, we can usually tell.) So either they’re charging clients through the nose, or they’re being financially exploited at least as much as they would be as adjuncts.

There seems to be a possibility, though, that a willing employee of a service like this might not have qualms about cutting some ethical corners herself — perhaps providing the same basic paper for more than one client (upping the chances that those clients are caught using a paper that has been run through a service like TurnItIn already), or even plagiarizing in the production of a paper.

Also, given the understanding of how ethics works reflected in the claims from the website, I suspect buying an ethics paper from them might be a really bad call.

The selectiveness of hiring of these professorial cheating-enablers — 15 applicants turned away for every one hired! — may drive the prices from higher, but it’s surely only a matter of time before those applicants who were turned away find each other and set up their own cheating-enabling service, maybe cutting out some layers of management so they can enable cheating among lower income students!

Yeah, there’s a reason I skip higher education news coverage for weeks at a time.

* Since the original Inside Higher Education article, “We Take Your Class” has gone offline.

** As far as I can tell, this service is not marketed specifically for students taking online courses, but it seems like it could be used for that purpose.

On the request for numerical scoring of honesty and integrity.

On the Twitters, becca pointed me to this post which raises an interesting evaluative question:

I was recently completing a recommendation form for a former student and was asked to “rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 for his Honesty & Integrity”. What meaningful answer can I hope to give? What level of honesty earns a 8? How much do you have to steal to earn 3?

I am sympathetic as far as the challenge of evaluating this.

I’m guessing some people would reject the notion that a ten-point scale is appropriate here, since (they might argue) honesty is one of those binary properties that is either “on” or “off”. Being a little bit honest, on this view, would be as nonsensical as being a little bit pregnant.

And, maybe that’s an appropriate way to conceive of individual acts of honesty or dishonesty, where you are making a representation that is truthful or you are making a representation that is not truthful. Maybe it’s not, though, since you might view offering a totally made-up lie as a more serious departure from the Platonic form of honesty than leaving out a particular true piece of information. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing “Two Truths and a Lie” with other philosophers, it’s that there are lots of interesting ways to make a claim that departs from the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

However you want to keep score on magnitudes of individual claims, though, I think we also have to recognize that evaluating the honesty of an individual is a more complicated project. Individuals, after all, tend to make lots of different representations, in lots of different kinds of contexts. There may be some contexts in which they play faster and looser with the truth, and others where they are extremely careful and rigorous. Presumably, these contexts matter. A graduate program might have no worries at all about the applicant who cheats on sit-ups, or counting strokes in miniature golf, but have huge worries about the applicant who made up every single bit of data in her lab notebook. One of these contexts seems more immediately relevant to the milieu in that the graduate program cares about than the other.

Not that I don’t have worries about a habit of lying in one milieu creeping into one’s behavior in others — I do. However, holding out for people who are 100% honest about everything is a good way to whittle your applicant pool to zero.

Besides which, what kind of actual data would an evaluator have to go on here? Honesty and integrity seem to be qualities that we assume someone has until we are faced with evidence to the contrary — for example, we tend to assume a student is honest until we catch her cheating. So, ranking someone highly on the scale might just amount to saying, “I’ve never caught him in a lie.” You’re flagging a lack of evidence of dishonesty, but that’s not quite the same as positive evidence of honesty.

Finally, I think what would be more meaningful to know about an applicant is whether he or she has been honest in circumstances where being honest is difficult — where a lie or an omission might make life significantly easier. If the applicant has stepped up to be honest in a situation where being honest created extra work, that’s someone whose commitment to honesty is serious. Especially if it’s robust, and he or she is honest in the next situation where being honest brings additional responsibilities. However, I’m not sure that this is information one is likely to get about a student in the typical college course, or even about an advisee in a typical supervised research environment. Maybe you could build such tests-of-character into those situations (as Willy Wonka did in his chocolate factors), but it would be hard to do so ethically.

Ultimately, then, can we expect that your typical college professor can provide such a seemingly-objective numerical ranking of a student’s honesty and integrity without being a little bit … dishonest?

Things that don’t bode well for college students in this economy.

From the Classified section of the student paper at my fair university late last week, the full extent of the listings under “Employment”:

In case you can’t read the text in the image:

$ $ Sperm Donors Wanted $ $
Earn up to $1,200/month and help create families. Convenient Palo Alto location. Apply online: [URL redacted]

Female Masseuse Wanted
For a private gentlemen [sic], no experience necessary.
Minimum age 18 Cash. [sic]
[phone number redacted]

I don’t even know what to say about this. Except that I hope the Career Center has more options.

Super Happy Fun Semester: It Begins!

The Fall semester is now upon us, in much the same way you might imagine a ton of bricks or a locomotive would be upon us.

And honestly, it’s much worse for the students than it is for me.

We are still in the land of The State Budget That Just Can’t Give Higher Education A Break. Millions of dollars are being cut from our campus budget and millions more will need to be cut if a ballot measure to raise sales taxes and income taxes on the highest earners goes down in November.

One response has been to cut lots of classes from the Fall schedule, since classes eat up money for faculty salaries, as well as classrooms (excepting the online classes). In particular, this response was made manifest in the elimination of nearly every class that did not have an enrollment of at least 15 students by some arbitrary date (a couple of weeks ago, I think) before the start of the semester.

This was not great news for the up to 14 students enrolled in these course offerings that were vaporized. Some of these may have been crucial courses for their majors, while others may have filled general education requirements that students need to satisfy to graduate. In any event, these students whose classes up and vanished have joined the already crowded throngs of students trying like mad to find spaces in the courses that still exist, where often it is the case that there are five or more students trying to get an add code for every available seat.

Those are not odds that would make me cheerful. Despite this, the students asking me for add codes have shown a remarkable amount of forbearance.

Meanwhile, as I’ve mentioned before, despite the elimination of many (perhaps hundreds of) classes, officially we are supposed to maintain the same level of full time enrolled students … because student fees now amount to more than the chunk of money the state puts up for each student. Logically, this means class sizes need to get bigger, but the seating capacity of the classrooms seems not to have magically increased over the summer.

Of course, the administration has put out feelers to gauge the willingness of our department, and others, to increase class size for one of our courses to 700. (Our willingness: non-existent.)

Buckle up, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.