Archive for: September, 2010

Do science students do their reading?

Many science professors hold it as an article of faith that students do far less of the reading in their classes than they do in humanities and social science classes. I heard this expectation expressed at the APS workshop for new faculty I went to several years ago, and in other presentations I've heard about physics and astronomy education. The technique Just In Time Teaching was invented partly as a way of allowing science classes to make better use of textbook reading. Is it not a waste to spend classroom time in information transmission, telling students in a linear fashion what they could just have easily read from the textbook? Physics education research has shown that active learning is much more effective in getting the students to really understand the concepts.

When I've heard talks about this, the view I've heard expressed is that it would be crazy to expect students to come to a literature class without having done the reading. They would be completely unable to participate in that day's discussion. On the other hand, the view is, the norm is that students don't do the reading for their physical science classes, except perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to figure out how to do homework problems ("find an example that matches!").

In my statistics class that met this last September (ending last Friday), all of the students had a project; they chose a question, obtained data, and analyzed it. One student, Julian Seeman-Sterling, surveyed students at Quest to find out how much of the reading they did. Below are a couple of his results:

Histogram about Reading

You can tell just looking at the histograms that there's no appreciable difference between the amount of reading that students claim to complete in the natural sciences as compared to other disciplines. And, indeed, Julian ran a statistical test on these, and there's no evidence of any difference. (Note that Julian calls "physical science" what is more commonly called "natural science"— that is, it includes things such as biology.)

I do have to say that I was surprised to hear that, but of course it all comes with caveats. These are the results of a survey of students at Quest. Quest is an unusual place; students only take one class at a time, and it's very intensive. They don't have stacks of reading for many different classes to do; they only have the one class. As such, they tend to be very engaged with the one class they are taking. Also, these are the results as reported on the survey. As Julian pointed out during his presentation in class, he couldn't know if they're really true without following a lot of students around throughout their day... and that wouldn't be entirely practical.

So, do students do less of their reading in physics and astronomy than they do in their humanities courses? I don't know. Julian's data suggests that that is not the case at least at Quest.

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Teaching on the block

As you will know if you've read the sidebar of this blog, I teach at Quest University Canada. I've started there this year, and started teaching my first class just under two weeks ago. The class is "The Practice of Statistics". Because Quest is so small, the faculty here teach a wider range of subjects than they would elsewhere. At Vanderbilt, I taught only astronomy (with undergraduate General Relativity having been defined as an "A" course so that students could count it towards an astronomy minor without our having to revise the catalog description of the minor). At Quest, the first class I'm teaching is a math class.

Quest runs on the "block system". This is a system for scheduling courses that was pioneered (I believe) at Colorado College; certainly CC is the best known college that's on the block system. Students take only one class at a time. However, they hyperfocus on the class. Class meets three hours a day, every Monday through Friday, for three and a half weeks. Then there's a two-day block break (next to a weekend, so it's sort of a four day weekend), and the next block begins. Full-time students take eight blocks over the course of two semesters, so it amounts to the same number of courses. (You aren't really able to overload, however.)

Professors teach six blocks during the year. This is also a similar load; at the higher-end private liberal arts colleges, the typical teaching load (I hate that term, but that's a rant for another time) is either three courses a semester, or two one semester and three the next. (Lots of details about lab courses complicate this.) (This is in contrast to a research University, where scientists might only teach one course a semester.) However, if you think about it, at a typical college those six courses are spread out over eight months. On the block system, those eight courses are condensed into less than six months. Everybody who has taught on this system has told me, and I can now confirm this from my limited experience, that the course you are teaching takes over your life, and you can do basically nothing else while you are teaching.

Each day, I teach from nine to noon. I usually decompress a bit, and then spend the afternoon trying to get some grading done, but in practice I spend a lot of the time talking to students. In the evening, I complete whatever grading there is to do, and then try to figure out what we're going to do in class the next day. Then I collapse, go to sleep, and start over the next morning.

Because students are there for three hours straight— we do take a break in the middle, but that's it— you can't approach the class the same way you would if you saw them for an hour three times a week. Straight lecturing just doesn't make sense; you can't just talk at people for three hours straight. Or, rather, you can, but you will probably dull their minds permanently. Of course, astronomy and physics research has shown that straight lecturing basically doesn't work anyway, so that's just as well! In statistics, I talk at them a little bit, but try not to talk at them uninterrupted for more than 10 minutes or so in a go. We spend a lot of time working through processing data (using GNU R), there are "labs" that the students do in small groups, and I'll sometimes give them problems and challenges to work out individually during class.

So far, I like it. Yes, I'm pretty damn busy, but I knew that that was going to happen going in to it. I like the fact that the students are hyperfocusing on my class. There's no other classes whose tests and homework compete with mine. They aren't going to neglect my class because another has a big project due. Their attention isn't divided. I don't know if this is the best way to do things for all students, but when it comes to how I, personally, have learned things throughout my life, it's very unnatural for me to try to learn several things at once and spread it out over several months. If I'm learning (say) a new computer language for a project I need, I will dig into it and focus primarily on that for a long time. It means less multitasking. Generally, when people talk about multitasking, they're talking about switching tasks several times a minute or an hour, but switching tasks a few times a day is also a form of multitasking, and it can also be distracting.

This year, after the statistics class, I'll be teaching a class that's part of the foundation courses entitled "Energy & Matter". After that is an astronomy course, and then two courses in a sequence of calculus-based physics. That will have been five blocks in a row, each with a different course, so I expect when it's over and February rolls around, I'm going to be completely used up. I plan to get nothing done in February; I am just going to recover. In March, I teach "Energy & Matter" again, and then the year is over for me. One of the advantages of having your teaching condensed into six months is that in the other months, you may actually be able to focus on other things and get a real amount of research or development done. I'll see how that goes this coming April! (And maybe in February, but I really do expect I'm going to need to decompress.)

I will have a lot more to say about what it's like to teach at Quest as time goes on.

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The other horrors of 9/11

Sep 11 2010 Published by under Politics, Rant

(This is a repost from the post I made one year ago toady.)

Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.

But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we’re remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won’t be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste….)

To frame the whole thing, let’s start with what I call George W. Bush’s most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don’t doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

What was the legacy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?

  • The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of “We MUST do something” after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.

    And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritarian tenets of this act should have been in the “land of the free”, one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn’t read the act, and I wouldn’t be surprised of most of them didn’t really know what was in the act they were voting for.

    This kind of “must do something” response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  • The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I’ve seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won’t even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in comparison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)

    Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I’ve actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now… I can’t help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.

  • Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn’t work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we’re being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we’re going to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they’ve made, but for the most part, we’re probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending “accountability” while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.
  • The end of due process. OK, that’s overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we’re reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn’t stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you’re a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.

There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK’s institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks’ laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.

I believe it’s just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a “weapon of mass destruction” and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I’m talking something nuclear here (be it a “dirty bomb” or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.

We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.

Added 2010/09/11
: In the last year, I've noticed a lot more open anti-Islamic hate.  It's been pretty obvious in the USA for the last 9 years, but for whatever reason it's becoming more open, and more virulent.  I watch the Tea Party and their worship of know-nothingness, the willingness of Fox News to wildly distort the truth, and the growing of loud movements that want to treat Muslims the way that, and Godwin forgive me, Jews were treated in Germany during the years before Hitler came into power.  We are not so culturally different from Western Europe; if it can happen there, it can happen here.  I'm becoming sadder and sadder about how the USA, the supposed land of the free and home of the brave, is reacting as a whole to having been attacked by evil and reprehensible terrorists nine years ago.  I don't think we learned the right lessons; we think we need to get our own back and strike out, when in reality we need to be evaluating the world we live in and ask why it gives rise to the evils that it does.  We need to change the world so those evils can't fester, instead of trying to create our own personal mirror image of them.

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"Whence Supernovae?" : Online public astronomy talk Saturday Sep. 11

The summer is over, and that means that MICA is resuming its activities. MICA is currently undergoing internal evaluation and evolution, but one thing that we're going to keep doing is our regular public astronomy outreach talks. This Saturday, I'll be talking about where supernovae come from:

There are two types of supernovae: thermonuclear and core-collapse supernovae. Both signal the deaths of stars as best we understand them. Thermonuclear supernovae in particular have been important as tools to tell us about the Universe. It was observations of such events out to great distances that told us the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. Yet, supernova science has a dirty secret: our model for how these events occur hasn't been observationally confirmed. In the last year, X-ray observations have called into question what many of us believed to be the primary mechanism for the production of such stellar explosions. In this talk, I'll give an overview of what we do know about these thermonuclear supernovae, and what the current state of knowledge is in figuring out just where they came from.

The talk is at 10AM pacific time in Second Life. Remember that Second Life accounts are free! Follow the link to sign up. Once you're in Second Life, follow this link to find the MICA Public Amphitheater, which is where the talk will be.

For more information, look at the MICA Events web page, and follow the links to see slides from previous talks, and announcements of upcoming talks.

(As for why I've been so quiet in the last couple of weeks: soon I will make a post about what it's like to teach on the block plan!)

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