Friday Sprog Blogging: You’ve made it clear “it’s a girl thing,” but is “it” science?

If your Tweeps have been hashtagging about the same things mine have today, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen this video from the European Union:

Ummm … yeah. As science outreach, this would never have worked on a younger time-slice of me. But maybe I’m not the target audience.

In the interest of generating empirical data from the two possible members of the actual target audience to whom I have access, I showed the video to each of the Free-Ride offspring (both daughters, as related in my newly-published story at Story Collider) separately, then asked for their reactions, which I’ve transcribed below:

From the elder Free-Ride offspring, almost 13 years old:

I didn’t really see those women doing science. Plus, they were trying to act too sexy. Yuck.

Me: Did you find any of the visuals engaging?

Some of the sprays of orbs were cool.

Me: How about the glassware?

Sort of. But we don’t actually see how any of it is used to do science.

Based on this teaser, I would not watch the full music video.

Me: Um, I think it’s supposed to be a teaser for an outreach campaign rather than a music video, although it’s interesting that it read to you as “music video.”

Or whatever. I feel like I’ve seen enough of this.

Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about science?


Me: Did you feel like it conveyed any information about what kind of people do science?

The only clear scientist in that video was the man. The women in that video didn’t come across as scientists. They were more like giggly models with scientific props.

Me: If it were you, what kind of strategy would you use to get girls interested in science?

Don’t show me make-up, lipstick, and high heels. Show me an actual scientist at work.

* * * * *

From the younger Free-Ride offspring, 11 years old and no stranger to feminine accoutrements:

Why the high heels?

It was bad. I didn’t like it. And science isn’t just a girl thing.

Me: What didn’t you like about it?

How the guy was all seduced by the girls. And the girls were acting too girly — abnormally girly.

I didn’t feel like anything in the video had anything to do with science. It was just lipstick and stuff — that’s not science.

Me: Well, there’s science that goes into making cosmetics.

We didn’t see that in the video. We saw make-up exploding on the ground and women giggling.

I don’t think this is a good science outreach strategy except to girls who want to have exactly that image.

* * * * *

It appears the sprogs aren’t the target audience either — or, if they are, that this video is 53 seconds of highly produced FAIL.

UPDATE: While the original video was reset to “private”, there is a mirror of it:

Because you want to know what the fuss is about, right?

Friday Sprog Blogging: paleozoic poetry

A little early this year, the elder Free-Ride offspring wrote these “sci-kus” for science class. They’re like haikus, except with a few more syllables per line (7-9-7* rather than 5-7-5), because the names of geological periods require more syllables.

* * * * *

Cambrian oceans were full
Of sponges, trilobites, and snails
Invertebrate paradise

Ordovician fishes
Were the first, and coexisted with
Crinoids and cephalopods

Silurian plants survive
On land, and in the seas, fish with jaws
Have made themselves known to us

Devonian forests
Made up of ferns and conifers
Situated on land

Tree ferns, amphibians,
And insects in Carboniferous
Became the coal of today

At the end of Permian
Mass extinction of the sea’s creatures
Farewell, sweet amphibians

*Two of these are actually 7-8-7. I’m guessing poetic license (or perhaps poetic learner’s permit).

Wouldn’t it be cool if they had the equivalent of driver’s ed for poetry? What would they show instead of Red Asphalt to scare the kids off reckless poetry?

Claims and their logical consequences (or not)

Within certain quarters of the administration of my fair university (and of the state university system of which it is a part), it is now taken as given that the classroom is a relic of a bygone era.

Lectures, it is declared, don’t work. Besides, the Internet abounds with free streaming lectures (the ones from MIT, the TED Talks). What could we possibly have to add to that? So, it’s time to phase out classes in classrooms and move our instruction online.

It’s interesting to me that what is offered is a general declaration, rather than an identification of any particular lecture classes of ours that are not working. As it happens, the particular classes are what we offer, not some abstract generalization of “the lecture class”.

Moreover, to the extent that lectures are a suboptimal delivery method for information and skills, this seems to be connected to a lack of opportunity to engage in what we in the biz call “active learning”. This can be as simple as a pause for questions, or to have students work through a problem where they try to apply or extend something presented in the lecture. It might also involve a more elaborate small group exercise or a facilitated discussion.

Here’s the thing: many (if not most) of us who teach “lecture” courses already incorporate a lot of active learning.

And, if the concern is that we should do more of it, or do it better, why would one conclude that the answer is to take this interaction out of the classroom and move it online? Why, especially, would one conclude that one should move it online while making class sizes much, much bigger?

Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to conclude that the way to increase active learning is to make class sizes smaller?

Of course, that would cost more.

However, if the goal is really better pedagogy, not just cutting a few million dollars here or there, it might be worth remembering that facilitating active learning — not to mention evaluating it to provide students with useful feedback and/or grades — requires more instructor labor, not less, when it’s done online.

Or, maybe the administration is only interested in improved pedagogy if the improvements (and whatever extra labor they require) can be had for free.

The whole thing kind of makes me wish the folks further up the org-chart than I am would just spell out exactly what they care about, and exactly what they don’t care about. As it is, enough is left implicit that it’s really hard to know whether there’s any common ground for us to share.

In which the professor expresses her frustration with the perennial bashing of her occupation.

I am generally a patient person, sometimes more patient than I should be. I am also usually optimistic about people’s potential to learn and grow, which is probably a good thing since I am in the business of educating adults and since a good bit of my job also involves being on committees.

But darned if I’m not starting to believe that there are some issues that are black holes of dialogic suck, around which people are absolutely committed to killing the potential for learning and growth where it stands, and where any speck of patience is likely to be rewarded with a punch to the gut.

I refer you to this steaming pile of fail that posits that college professors do not work hard enough.

Others, including Zen, and DrugMonkey, and Crooked Timber, and Echidne, and Lawyers, Guns and Money, have gone into some of the dimensions along which the author’s model of what’s happening in non-R1 colleges and universities (and what, therefore, should be done) veers widely from reality.

And there’s part of me prepared to jump in to lay out what kind of time it takes to teach college students well — the time that is invisible because it happens out of the classroom, when we’re prepping classes, and updating classes, and designing assignments, and refining assignments, and grading assignments in ways that actually provide students with useful feedback that helps them figure out what they can do better on the next round of assignments for twice as many students as the same number of classes had not ten years ago, and seeing students in office hours, and answering their emails, and providing websites with announcements pages and periodic email blasts to one’s classes to keep them on track — and these are just the demands on time and effort of teaching, not even starting in to what research and “service” activities or various sorts pile on.

But I’m not going to lay out all these details because the people who are reading David C. Levy’s op-ed and nodding approvingly just don’t care.

They will simply deny that my workload could be what it actually is.

Or, they will insist that I’m somehow exceptional and that everyone else in a tenured position in a teaching-focused state university is doing much, much less (and that those slackers at community colleges are doing less still).

But I’m pretty sure the ugly truth is that these people believe that my students, and the community college students, do not deserve quality education at a reasonable price.

And, I’m pretty sure they believe that professors at teaching-focused state universities and at community colleges (not to mention public school teachers, too) do not deserve to make a middle-class wage. Never mind that we sometimes work so many hours that it’s hard to find time to spend it (for example, to get to the grocery store to buy food for our kids, or OTC medicine for ourselves so we can drag our lazy, sniffly asses in to class to keep teaching).

It matters not a whit to these people how many years we have devoted to our education and training. A Ph.D. program (or two) is obviously just a multi-year exercise in sloth.

Verily, to these people I and my entire sector of the workforce are a problem to be solved. We are doing something of which they do not approve, and even if we were giving it away for free and living on alms, they would hate us.

I can’t argue with committed ignorance of that magnitude. I cannot counter such thoroughgoing selfishness.

So this time, I won’t even try. Instead, I’m going to fix myself a drink, make dinner for my family, and brace myself for as many more hours of work as I can manage before my eyelids refuse to stay open.

A hole inside where my optimism used to be.

I have discovered that whatever patience I may have once had for students who think it’s a reasonable strategy to try to deceive their way through “meeting” requirements in an ethics course has completely eroded. There’s not a bit of it left, just a gaping hole where it used to be.

What’s more, I think I came to the mistaken impression that I still had some patience in reserve largely due to my lack of inner shout-y-ness* about these students.

It turns out the inner shout-y-ness is gone because the part of me that regulates it has concluded that it’s wasted energy. I cannot save adults who have decided to cheat at ethics for a grade. This is not to say I believe they cannot change — just that I cannot change them. At least, not with the tools at my disposal.**

This realization leaves me feeling kind of sad.

Also, I think it has changed my strategy with regards to setting explicit expectations (for example, specifying that students are only allowed to use class readings and notes, discussions with classmates, and their own wits on certain assignments, and that using any other materials for these assignments is forbidden), and then enforcing them with no wiggle-room. At this point, if a student specifies (in writing) that he or she understands the rules and agrees to follow them else fail the course and face administrative sanctions, I am going to treat that as an enforceable contract.

Because honestly, with a critical mass of students who do seem willing to conduct themselves ethically in an ethics class, it’s probably better for everyone if I can remove the few who are not.

I only wish removing the bad actors didn’t leave me feeling dead inside.

*Shout-y-ness is so a word.

**This is not an oblique request for a torture chamber. That’s not really my scene.

Some things I think are elitist.

Given that some presidential hopefuls think it’s elitist for President Obama to support universal access to higher education, and given that I work in higher education, I figured this might be a good time for me to tell you about some things I think are elitist.

It’s elitist to decide “college isn’t for everyone” — not that people who choose not to go to college don’t deserve guff for that (I agree, they don’t), but that the people you’ve decided are needed to do the manual labor in your society shouldn’t go to college, because really, what would be the point?

Perhaps the point is that some of the people who attend to your manual labor needs want to go to college. Maybe they would find immersing themselves in higher education for a while enjoyable, something that feeds their needs as human beings. Just because higher education is not a requirement for workers in a particular kind of job does not mean that it would be “wasted” on those workers. Making the blanket assumption that it would be wasted on them is elitist.

It’s also elitist to decide that, even if it’s not strictly necessary for a career path, college is a fine way for people of means to spend their time and money, while deciding in the same breath that it’s an extravagance for people without lots of disposable income to partake of it. This attitude casts higher education as a commodity that only the wealthy deserve. It’s the same attitude that scolds college students for accumulating lots of student debt studying “useless” subjects with which they will not be able to secure big salaries upon graduation and swiftly pay off their student loans. It’s the same attitude that motivates tax payers to lean on lawmakers in their states to get rid of “frivolous” subjects in state university curricula (usually humanities, but pure sciences — and really, much of what isn’t business or engineering — regularly make these lists of curricular frivolity), the better to turn publicly supported higher education into no-frills trade schools.

Indeed, I don’t know how it isn’t elitist to decide for loads of other people you don’t even know (let alone for people you do know) what it’s worth their time to study. I have no problem if you decide that you don’t want to explore Latin American philosophy, or German literature, or interior design, or forensic chemistry, but once you tell someone else that she shouldn’t? You’re deciding that you know what’s best for her with no clear basis for this judgment beyond your commitment that people like her don’t need to study [X] (and thus shouldn’t).

And the cherry on top of the elitist sundae is for anyone — professors, politicians, parents, whoever — to decide that it’s appropriate to remake someone else in your image. No other human being, child or grown-up, is a lump of Play-Doh whose role is to take your impression. Treating others primarily as fodder for your attempts at self-replication is deeply disrespectful and elitist in that it singles out certain people as appropriate impression-makers and everyone else as an appropriate impression-taker.

My job as a liberal arts college professor is to give my students the tools to set their own paths in life (to the extent one can in a world in which we share space and other resources with other people, and have to pay rent, and such). I’m not going to tell them who to be. I don’t want to tell them who to be. I want to help them find the space, and to have the freedom, to figure out who they want to be, and then to set about being that person. And, I believe that all of my students (and all of the humans who are not my students) are entitled to this without regard to socioeconomic class.

If that’s what’s passing for “elitist” these days, then I’m going to need a new dictionary to keep up.

Things to do instead of grading that first stack of student papers.

  1. Staple any papers held together by paperclips, folded corners, or sheer force of will.
  2. Print out papers turned in by email, stapling if necessary.
  3. Alphabetize papers by students’ surname.
  4. Divide papers into sets of ten and paperclip together.
  5. Create a grading rubric.
  6. Create a spreadsheet in which to record the grades.
  7. Find a supply of appropriately colored grading pens.
  8. Try to locate your drawing board.
  9. Double-check that the state and county correctional facilities will not, in fact, correct papers, not even those from state university courses.
  10. Leave papers, grading pens, and rubric on kitchen table overnight to see if elves will come to grade the papers.
  11. Write a blog post about ways to put off actually getting started on grading those papers.

GRE scores and other tools to evaluate people for lab positions.

In the last 24 hours there has been an interesting conversation on the Twitters (with contributions from @drugmonkeyblog, @CackleofRad, @mbeisen, @Namnezia, @dr_leigh, @doc_becca, @GertyZ, @superkash, @chemjobber, @DoctorZen, and a bunch of other folks) on the value of standardized tests (like the GRE) in evaluating candidates for a lab position.

The central question at issue seems to be whether GRE scores are meaningful or meaningless in identifying some quality in the candidate that is essential for (or maybe reliably predictive of) success in the environment of an academic lab. And, it’s worth noting that the conversation has not been framed in terms of using GRE scores as the only piece of evidence one has about applicants. Rather, it’s been about the reliability of GRE scores as a predictor compared to college transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays, and the like.

I have thoughts about this issue, thoughts which are informed by:

  • my teaching experiences
  • my own experiences with the SAT and the GRE (I aced them)
  • my own experiences doing research in four different lab settings (three of them while I was an undergraduate)
  • my experiences teaching test preparation courses (for SAT I, SAT II, and MCAT)
  • my experiences as the graduate student representative on a graduate admissions committee (albeit not for a science department)
  • my experiences on hiring committees (where GRE scores weren’t an issue but things like letters of recommendation, grades, and personal statements were)
  • broader ongoing conversations with colleagues about the challenges of finding reliable proxies with which to assess the success of our educational efforts.

What I have observed from these:

  1. There are extremely smart, capable people with severe test-anxiety. I’m talking puking-at-the-very-thought-of-sitting-fot-the-test anxiety. The people I’ve known with this manifest it most strongly when faced with standardized tests; generally they’ve found ways to deal with the other kinds of exams that are part of their schooling. I doubt that GRE scores would be reliable indicators of the fitness of such people for a position in an academic lab, unless that position involved taking standardized tests on a regular basis.
  2. My own success on standardized tests is mostly a measure of how well I understood the structure of those standardized tests. This is a lesson that was reinforced by my experience teaching others how to do better on standardized tests. I did not make my test prep students smarter about much of anything except strategies for taking the standardized tests. (In a few instances, my work with them may have helped them identify conceptual issues or problem solving skills that they needed to sharpen before test day, but again, I take it the “help” they got was primarily a matter of knowing what material and skills the test was going to assess.) Is understanding the structure of the GRE, or developing a good strategy for taking it, a crucial component of success in an academic lab? Probably not. Is it a reliable proxy for something that is? Maybe, but it would be nice to see an explanation of what that is rather than just putting our faith in the test to tell us about something that matters.
  3. Plenty of people with awesome test scores are hopeless in the lab. Plenty of people with non-awesome test scores are really successful in the lab. What’s the level of correlation? I don’t know, and you probably don’t either. Maybe someone should do an empirical study so we know.
  4. One place that standardized tests seem to be of use (or so I’ve heard repeatedly over the years from lots of admissions committee folks) is in “calibrating” grades, especially of schools with which one might have less familiarity. What does an A at Podunk U. mean compared to an A at Well-Known Tech? Presumably the GRE scores of the candidates give us some information (so, if they’re really low from the Podunk U. student, maybe Podunk U.’s As aren’t requiring the same level of mastery as Well-Known Tech’s As). But, there’s always the possibility that Well-Known Tech has a better developed organization from the point of view of getting its students into grad school, and that part of this might include in-house test prep. Also, what if the lone Podunk U. student who is applying to your program has test-anxiety?
  5. GRE scores are often thought of as an objective counterbalance to letters of recommendation because, as the common wisdom has it, letter writers lie. Or maybe they just put the best possible spin on the candidate’s talents. Or maybe they’re actually just overestimating the candidate’s potential. Or maybe they don’t write good enough letters for the students who are not like them in certain relevant respects (including scientific style, socioeconomic background, gender, race, sexuality, etc.). Surely, in many cases there is something like a positive bias in letters of recommendation (and some faculty will advise students to ask someone else for a letter if they themselves are unable to write a glowing recommendation). And, there are instances in which a letter writer will undervalue the talents and potential of students (although one hopes that the other letter writers in such cases will compensate). Still, the letters at least present a space in which actual concrete examples of the student’s awesomeness (or shortcomings) can be discussed. Some of these examples may touch on situations or challenges directly relevant to what the applicants may have to face in the academic lab in which they are seeking a position. Plus, at least in fields that are not totally enormous, there is (or could be) a professional cost to lying to a colleague in the profession, even in a letter of recommendation for a student.
  6. If I had to rely on just one proxy, it would be the applicant’s personal statement. Again, it strikes me that this is an instrument that creates a space where an applicant can describe past experiences and current interests, challenges overcome and lessons learned from them that might be applied to future challenges. A personal statement can give you a glimpse into what the applicant cares about and why. It can also give you a sense of whether the applicant can think and communicate clearly. However, this is probably another area where someone should do some empirical work to see what kind of correlation there actually is between the quality of the personal statement and the success of the applicant in the position for which the personal statement was part of the application package.
  7. Every single proxy we might look at to select among applicants can fail. It’s not clear to me that it could be otherwise, especially given that we’re using the proxies to try to predict future success, which you can’t do with perfect accuracy unless you have a machine for seeing into the future (and even then …).
  8. It strikes me that active thinking-on-your-feet interview questions might provide more relevant information. It used to be that you couldn’t really use these for things like grad school admission because you couldn’t afford to fly all your applicants out to campus. (By the time you saw prospective grad students, they were admits trying to choose between the programs that had accepted them.) But maybe now with tools like Skype those looking to make sensible choices among applicants should do some video interviewing?
  9. Then again, if video interview questions for lab positions become a thing, someone will probably set up a video interview preparation company.

Yeah, I’d say to take GRE scores with a grain of salt. But, I think that’s the right attitude to take to all the bits of evidence an applicant presents. Honestly, my attitude toward test scores probably has a lot to do with my knowledge about how easy it can be to do well on them (at least compared to the other pieces of one’s application package). It probably also has to do with at least a few gatekeepers who treated GRE scores as definitely more reliable simply because they were quantitative, rather than qualitative.

If you have an applicant-screening item that has never led you astray, please share it in the comments.

Help high school “nerds” visit the Large Hadron Collider.

Last week, I got a really nice email, and a request, from a reader. She wrote:

I am a high school senior and an avid follower of your blog. I am almost definitely going to pursue science in college – either chemistry, physics, or engineering; I haven’t quite decided yet! I am the editor of my school’s newspaper, and I frequently write about science topics; I find science journalism interesting and possibly will pursue it as a career. 

I’m writing because this spring, 32 physics students from my high school will hopefully be taking a trip to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. We are extremely excited to make the trip, as it will allow us to glimpse some of the most groundbreaking physics research in the world. Twenty-two of the 32 students going are girls, and we are all involved with the physics department at our school. Women are overwhelmingly outnumbered in the science classes at my school, especially the tougher Advanced Placement classes; thus, taking this trip with a majority of women feels like a triumph.

My correspondent is, this year, the president of her high school’s science club, which is affectionately called “BACON: the best All-around Club of Nerds”. If you look at the BACON website, you will see that they do some pretty neat stuff. They field a bunch of teams for competitions like the Science Olympiad, Zero Robotics, and the Spirit of Innovation Challenge. And, they launch weather balloons to capture video and still photographs in a near space environment, have a day of launching model rockets and flying model airplanes, and have created a giant tank of ooblek to run across.

Basically, the kind of science-y stuff that might make high school not just tolerable but fun, which I think is a pretty big deal.

Here’s where we get to the request.

The planned high school trip bringing the 32 students from Virginia to CERN will be exciting, but expensive. So, as students have come to do for pretty much every field trip, the BACON members are doing some fundraising. Here’s their fundraising page, from which we learn:

As we speak, scientists at CERN are conducting groundbreaking research and rewriting the science textbooks for future generations. It is imperative that our students gain an interest and understanding in such endeavors. A two-day tour of CERN will surely aid in our students’ comprehension of particle physics, the study of the mechanisms and interactions that underlie all chemical, biological, and cosmological processes. But more importantly, through exposure to the leading edge of physics research, this trip is intended to excite students about scientific progress and demonstrate the power of experimentation and collaboration outside of the classroom. …

We need money to cover the cost of travel, lodging, food, and tours. Specifically, the cost breakdown per student is as follows: $1000 for travel; $300 for meals; $300 for lodging; $100 for tours and exhibits. Thirty-two students are scheduled to attend, and without fundraising the total cost is $1700 per student. Unfortunately, not all students can afford this. Any donations are welcome to lower the per-student cost and facilitate this trip for all who want to go!

For donations of various sizes, they are offering perks ranging from thank you cards and pictures of the trip, to signed T-shirts, to something special from the CERN gift shop, to a video to thank you posted on YouTube.

If you want to help but can spare the cash for a monetary donation, you may still be able to help these plucky science students make their CERN trip a reality:

Tell your friends! Share this link with others: There are also other ways to help us besides monetary donations. Do you have any objects, gift certificates, coupons, or other items you could donate for a raffle? Do you have an idea for a fundraising event we could host? If you want to get involved, please email us: We are really looking forward to this amazing opportunity, and we appreciate any help you can provide. Thank you!

I know I’m looking forward to living vicariously through this group (since no doubt I’ll be grading mountains of papers when they’re scheduled to tour the LHC). If you want to pay some science enthusiasm forward to the next generation, here’s one way to do it.

Meanwhile, I will inquire about whether the BACONite can share some highlights of their trip (and their preparations for it) here.

Cross posted at Doing Good Science

Things I cannot do.

To my students, during finals week,

I regret to inform you that I cannot

  • Tell you within an hour or two of your handing me your final exam what your grade for the course will be (as I need to grade about 130 of these exams and you will note that not all of the items were multiple choice),
  • Grade your answers on the basis of what you meant rather than what you wrote (especially on the items that were multiple choice),
  • Tell you, as you’re handing me your final exam, whether the exam grades will be curved, or if so, what the curve will look like (see above about the number of exams to be graded — and then entered into a spreadsheet to run the stats),
  • Reassure you that your participation will contribute positively to your final grade if you have attended class meetings so seldom that your face rings no bells for me at all,
  • Create an extra-credit assignment just for you to counteract the negative effect of your having blown off all the graded assignments besides the midterm and final exams (since it would be unfair to do so without offering your classmates the same opportunity, and since I’m already working on the very edge of what is possible just to grade the non-extra coursework to submit grades on time).

This whole exam thing, and the larger grading thing, is supposed to be about evaluating what you have learned during the semester.

I have done my best to make the material accessible and maybe even interesting. I fully recognize that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And, having been a student myself for a lot of years, I understand that life sometimes unfolds in ways that make it hard to focus on school, to come to class meetings, and to get the assigned work turned in.

Among other things, college can teach us that we’re not always going to get straight A’s (or, necessarily, passing grades) during semesters we can’t get it together to do the school work.

If you earn a low grade, that doesn’t make you a bad person.

And, if I give you the grade you’ve earned, that just means I’m doing my job. I don’t always enjoy it, but that’s how it goes.