24 June 2008

Education in two big states

An interesting post compares higher education in Texas (where I am) and California. The bottom line:
In terms of objective productivity, my California compatriots far outpace me and my Texas colleagues.

21 June 2008

The big four questions

I mentioned in my last post about how John Wick's comments about running a role-playing game made me think about running a class.

A strange comparison, you think? No. In both cases, one person is given somewhat arbitrarily given power (teacher or GM / DM) to determine the fate of another group of people, who have divergent opinions, goals, strengths and weaknesses (students / players) and they have a somewhat adversarial relationship.

I'm stealing from John Wick who steals from Jared Sorensen.

John and Jared says there are three big questions to ask about a game, but I think these can also be applied to creating classes.
  • What is your class about?
  • How is your class about that?
  • How does your class reward or encourage that behaviour?
In any particular class, people tend to focus on the content. That is, a certain set of facts, ideas, and concepts.

But classes are also about behaviour. As instructors, there are certain things we want students to do. Often, it's developing a skill. This can be lab based skill, meeting a deadline, arguing, writing, analysis, collaboration.

And we want students to do things a certain way -- the way that meets the professional standards of the field. When we want them to write, we want it thoroughly researched. We want it to be original, and not a cut and paste job from the internet.

In my case, in the fall, I'll be teaching a writing class. That answers part of the first question, but only part. What are the skills I want them to have? That leads to the second question, which I'm still struggling with. How will my class be about writing? About the one thing I've decided is that it won't be a class where I get up and talk for 150 minutes a week, and give students homework and a monthly test.

And the big one: How will I reward and encourage that behaviour? After reading more about how economic incentives often fail to change people's behaviour in the desired way (also mentioned in my last post), I am skeptical that the answer is going to be "just with marks."

If you want students to do literature research in a certain way -- say, not start and stop with Wikipedia -- do you have any mechanic to encourage that behaviour other than reviewing the final paper and searching for plagiarized Wiki articles?

If you want students to ask questions in class, do you have a mechanic that rewards them for doing so, other than maybe remembering to say, "Thanks for the question?"

If you want students to work together, do you have a mechanic that allows for them do turn in a joint paper, say? Or do you insist everyone does their own?

I haven't been very good about this myself, as I've tended to have classes where I focused on a combination of memorizing factual information and drawing logical inferences. In other words, the very bottom of the thinking hierarchy (a la Bloom's taxonomy).

John adds a fourth question, which I wish more instructors (including myself) would think about more often:
  • How do you make that fun?
A lot of instructors would probably turn up their noses that their classes should be fun. But if the "F" word annoys you, think of it as engagement instead. How can you do all this and engage people?

20 June 2008


Ever since seeing John Wick’s "Power to the Players" video about players in role-playing games (above), his comment, “Always tell the players, ‘Yes’” has been rattling around in my head. I’ve been trying to think about how I can adopt that philosophy to deal with students. Because so much of what I end up doing to student requests is saying, “No.”

And then he goes on to talk about how to say “Yes” to players, but to put them into dramatic situations. There's something in there about motivating players – in this case by creating dramatic situations – that I think can apply to students, but I haven’t figured it out yet. I think it has something to do with trying to motivate people by applying consequences.

Then, yesterday, I came across another fascinating article in the new issue of Science. I was struck by this little story (emphasis added):

In Haifa, at six day care centers, a fine was imposed on parents who were late picking up their children at the end of the day. Parents responded to the fine by doubling the fraction of time they arrived late. When after 12 weeks the fine was revoked, their enhanced tardiness persisted unabated.

Another case of where trying to motivate by creating consequences for peoples’ actions, and it doesn’t work.

I have to think more about on this.

As a bonus, here’s an audio file of Sir Ken Robinson giving a lecture on education reform. It doesn’t talk directly about motivating people, but it's in there tangentially, as it deals a lot with how education is demotivating people because it is based on an out-of-date educational system. Lots and lots of fascinating ideas there.

19 June 2008

I hate shopping

CatalogsAt least, I hate shopping for my lab. It's taken up most of my time for the last several days. And it's a pain, for two reasons.

One is that the purchasing is complex. When I personally want something from most internet based businesses, I give them a credit card or just click on PayPal, and away I go. Not with science shopping. Since it's the university, we have to go through a convoluted purchase order arrangement, which differs depending on how much money you want to spend (among other factors).

The second is that the websites of science suppliers are really disappointing in their ability to locate items. If you want pipette tips, suppliers have a huge range of them, and not many options to sort them. The clunk solution? To look through the well-organized -- but clunky -- print catalogs (pictured), which are faster to browse. Of course, the prices in those are out of date, so you have to find the item you want, type in the catalog number into the website to get the correct, current price. If the item hasn't been discontinued.

Even worse, it's nearly impossible compare items. You can't do anything like you can on many shopping websites to compare features of different products. So you have to look at each one individually, which takes a bloody long time for many common supplies. Let's say you type in "HCl," the chemical formula for hydrochloric acid. You get 2,794 hits from one supplier. Even if you just look at the best matches, you still have to wade through 40 separate entries, from different suppliers, different amounts, different purities, and so on.

And try to figure out how much shipping will cost you. You probably can't. One of the reasons I use one supplier in particular is that they don't charge for shipping, which means they get a lot of business from me because they have reduced the number of things I have to worry about in my order by one.

It's such a pain that it routinely goes on the bottom of my "to do" lists, which is not a good thing. So if you're running a scientific supply company, consider looking into what your customers do so that you can help them do it better on your website.

16 June 2008

Five a day

Saw a very interesting talk tonight by Leon Logothetis. Leon is the -- I'm tempted to say victim -- of a television show called The Amazing Adventures of a Nobody (see also here). He's done three of these series, and in each, the premise is simple: Travel from A to B on five units of local currency a day (pounds / dollars / euros).

He was at UTPA because UTPA faculty and students helped him out, giving him a place to sleep overnight and then buying a train ticket. Although the television series makes a great point of the number of times people said "No" to him, he emphasizes the great generosity he received. Interestingly, while traveling Europe on season three, he said the most consistent aid he received was from American tourists, flying in the face of the cliched American traveler. He said it became a joke with the film crew. He'd get up in the morning and say, "Time to go find some Americans." When the crew protested that he was supposed to be interacting with Europeans, he replied, "But they're not helping me."

15 June 2008

12 June 2008

Oceanview poster

Poster session view
This picture sort of sums up the The Crustacean Society meeting: all a bit of a blur... But really! You could see the ocean from the poster session.

My student Sakshi and I made the 7 hour drive to Galveston, gave our poster, saw a couple of talks this morning (notably on cave biology -- cool stuff!), turned around and came back today. Whew!

The good news was that this quick trip up was definitely worth it. We got some feedback on the poster that may explain some puzzles we've had from one of the few people who had concrete information. And I met someone who specifically wanted to talk to me about some writing.

It only takes one thing to make a trip worthwhile, and I got two.

Had a bit of a bad moment when I walked into the room where the poster session was being held, and saw every space available was occupied by another poster. Decided to cover up an announcement temporarily to display the poster, as shown below.

TCS poster

Title redacted for security reasons.

09 June 2008

08 June 2008

Who should you train with?

From the Kung Fu Panda website.

The Houston Chronicle gets it, too

The Houston Chronicle has an editorial also responding to recent comments that Don McLeroy (chair of the Texas Education Agency) made to the New York Times. It also zooms in on McLeroy's badly wrong "two systems of science" comments.

Something I didn't know before comes up:
(Texas governor Rick Perry) unilaterally appointed McLeroy to chair the board last summer a few weeks after the Legislature disbanded. (Much simpler than having to defend his controversial choice during Senate confirmation hearings.)

It concludes:
All people are entitled to their private religious beliefs, but nobody is entitled to use the state's public education system to promote them. What chance do Texas students have of competing in the 21st century if their learning of science is warped and stunted by such benighted leadership?

07 June 2008

Will we ever get our doctoral program?

When I interviewed for this job in 2001, several people said to me that they expected my department to have a Ph.D. program in about 5 years -- that is, two years ago. It was one of the things that attracted me to this job. Since then, I've become our graduate program's coordinator and have been trying to pave the way to that Ph.D. program that helped tantalize me into this gig.

So this article in The Austin American-Statesman suggesting there's a glut of Ph.D. programs is not encouraging news.
Higher education specialists generally agree that doctoral education should be reserved for a relatively small number of campuses to ensure the depth and quality essential for creating a thriving community of scholars.
I don't think I'd ever heard that position before. Maybe it's just because I'm from western Canada, where there were about six universities in two provinces at the time, and 5 of them had doctoral programs (UBC, UVic, SFU, U of A, UC). I went to the about the only university that didn't for my undergraduate degree, U of L.

The New York Times gets it

TrollAn editorial in the New York Times, following up on their recent story, shows that the "strengths and weaknesses" rhetoric on teaching evolution isn't fooling people who are paying even a little attention. They home in on the same statement I criticized recently.
The system accommodates what Dr. McLeroy calls
two systems of science, creationist and "naturalist."

The trouble is, a creationist system of science is not science at all. It is faith. All science is "naturalist" to the extent that it tries to understand the laws of nature and the character of the universe on their own terms, without reference to a divine creator.
I keep wondering when those in charge of the Texas Education Agency will realize that individuals like Don McLeroy, the chair and not-quiet-about-being-a-Young-Earth-Creationist are giving the state black eye after black eye.
If the creationist view prevails in Texas, students interested in learning how science really works and what scientists really understand about life will first have to overcome the handicap of their own education.

06 June 2008

Scientific unity

Times logoThe New York Times has an article that focuses on the teaching of evolution in Texas, no doubt prompted by the upcoming review of science standards.

As he has before, Texas Education Agency chair Don McLeory makes some statements that are badly and deeply wrong:
Dr. McLeroy, the board chairman, sees the debate as being between “two systems of science.”

“You’ve got a creationist system and a naturalist system,” he said.
No, you don't have a "creationist system of science." Creationism does not subscribe the underlying assumptions necessary to practice science. Things like empiricism and naturalism unify all the divergent branches of science. Despite their diversity, "No miracles allowed" would apply to any branch of science.

Syndey Harris famously made this point thus:

Then a miracle occurs

04 June 2008

Making mimetics scientific

As it happened, the lucid Susan Blackmore had a TED talk up about Darwin's ideas within 24 of my own talk on natural selection to a graduate class.

She comments at one point that mimetics isn't taken seriously. I think there are very good reasons for that, which have to do with how memes could be measured. Let's compare mimetics to its senior sibling, evolutionary biology.

As Blackmore point out, there are the three things needed for natural selection.

Variation. We can easily quantify variation in organisms. We can measure height, mass, number of spines, colour, and so on. No doubt memes vary. For instance, the movie The Aristocrats is an exercise in variation, with one hundred comedians telling the same dirty joke. But how do you measure that variation? How do you compare three versions of the same joke? How much does switching words around matter? The language? The tone of voice? If it's on paper or someone's memory?

Inheritance. If something isn't heritable, it can't be subject to natural selection. I'll spot mimetics this one for now.

Competition for limited resources. This is known by several terms; superfecundity is one I use in teaching. Organisms need resources, and resources are finite. Again, we know what those resources are with biological organisms: energy, water, food, mating partners. We can measure how much of them organisms get. What are the resources that memes are competing for? How do we measure how many of those resources they acquire? How do those resources affect their ability to copy themselves?

I don't know if anyone is seriously working on these problems. But if mimeticists can come up with ways to quantify these things, they'll be on their way to rigorous science.