Gamify All the Things

This week had interesting timing as I spent much of my “free” time looking at mobile conference app websites. A lot of them emphasize that you can gamify (yeah, it makes me uncomfortable that this is a word too) your conference to get people really involved/invested in the conference. Then I start reading about the same idea for learning. I had previously seen this for learning good habits, and I think many of us have play exam jeopardy or something similar to try to make learning fun.

However, the quest to learn floored me. The amount of emphasis on all aspects of the gamification process is astounding. This is a tremendous way to get children involved and critically thinking about problems. Programming your own games requires you to explicitly solve many tiny problems that you normally wouldn’t realize you’re solving. This teaches kids to critically asses everything they do, but in a fun way. It’s absolutely amazing really. I can’t help but be tremendously jealous of these young programmers.

This brings me to my next point though. The money that quest to learn must have, to supply Macbooks to students, is way out of reach for most schools. Even today, teachers across the country are complaining about basic teaching supplies like pens and pencils being out of reach. I can’t help but feel that this program comes from a place of tremendous privilege that is unobtainable for the majority of schools in this country, and certainly in the global community. The learning techniques are wonderful, but unless we change our funding priorities in a big way, they are only going to facilitate a larger divide between the haves and the have-nots.

What are your thoughts? Is gamification the future of teaching? Is it a temporary fad? Or is it another tool for gentrification?

Hooking into the Network

Networked learning is a strange concept. It isn’t something that should be special, because it is so much of how we process the world. We connect with the things around us to remember people, places, smells, sounds, and general sensations. But we waste so much time learning in a static and stuffy manner that suddenly the way we naturally process the world became a new and creative concept.

I earned an undergraduate and a masters degree with nothing but class time and some lab hours. The amount of information I’ve retained from those degrees is minuscule despite the years invested. Meanwhile, since I’ve been at VT I’ve had to present my work multiple times, I’ve had to interact with people outside my degree, and I’ve actually started building a network. This reinforces my own knowledge while connecting me with people I can talk to when I reach a topic outside of my comfort zone.

Interacting with the “real world” forces students and people, in general, to reevaluate what they are doing and saying in a way that enhances understanding and retention. At the best of times, people fact check and correct your mistakes making learning that much better. Sometimes they’ll do this in hurtful ways, but that is yet another learning experience. Getting a B on a paper and no other marks hardly teaches me to learn from my mistakes. Meanwhile, @blogjerk496 (I hope no one actually has this handle) telling me I’m an idiot and should have researched x, y, and z before talking about the origin of the alphabet gives me a chance to correct myself and learn some new information.

What I think we really need to teach in classrooms is how to connect to, build, and utilize our networks. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter are a start, but how do we actually grow those communities beyond close friends, classmates, and maybe our parents? How do I invite amazing speakers to talk to my student group? Heck, how do I get people into my student group and to care as much as I do about the group? Once the network starts to build I imagine you can facilitate discussions to learn from their experiences. Actually having those discussions can be difficult for some, but for me, I’m not even that far yet. I’ve got some distant peers that I hope to run into at another conference, but that’s about it. Should I track those people down and follow them on Twitter? Facebook stalk them or remind them that they have a LinkedIn? Even if I do connect, how what do I discuss? I can hold my own in a room fairly well but over the internet in 140 characters or whatever? That’s so far outside my comfort zone right now.

What do my classmates think? How have you developed your networks? Do you wish you could add something to it (like international collaborators or diversity)?

Once more into the fray!

Hello everyone! Here’s to another semester of blogging! You can read more about me on my page, but as a quick intro to me, I’m in the Macromolecular Science and Engineering program. This is my second time in a PhD. program because I had problems with my advisor staying put after I joined his lab. I’m infinitely happier here than I was at Syracuse University where I left with a Masters. This has left me very interested in the advisor-advisee relationship and what the ideal strategy is to address items such as professors leaving.

Anyhoo,  I’ll end here. Let’s have an awesome semester!

Global Perspectives Program 2019: Switzerland

I have recently found out that I was accepted to the GPP ’19 trip to Switzerland, France, and Italy. I am beyond excited! I just wanted to start an initial post for this category to share my excitement and prep for the blogging that is to come. Hopefully, I’ll be uploading many pictures this summer to flesh out this blog a bit. My first task is going to be to buy myself a nice little journal to keep track of the trip and my excitement leading up to it. I’m also planning on taking an old HP Mini notebook and installing Linux on it so I can easily blog from abroad. This is bound to be an exciting adventure!

Proper publication or a basic blog?

As we end the Grad5104 course I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of this blog. In general, I like the blog, but so far the only people reading it are those that are reading it for class and some spambots. There has been a lot of discussion about using social media to spread knowledge and break down the barriers between higher ed and the general public. The idea is good, but the execution is easier said than done.

I can blog all I want about higher ed, or even my research and expertise, but that doesn’t make it useful or impactful to anyone. To my knowledge, there aren’t any easy (and free) methods to promote yourself and to gather a broader audience. At best I expect this blog to be seen by a few more students at Virginia Tech. I can put it on my business cards and have recruiters look at it, but again, that doesn’t spread a message to the general public.

So while the blogging idea is great it feels like it could easily be a waste of time. I can spend a half hour a day writing a blog post, or I could spend that time working up data for my research. That would get published and people could actually learn from and cite it. It’s not as accessible to the public, but at least it gets seen by someone. Journals have the “machinery” to distribute their materials and to attract attention. Blogs are a lot more limited, especially since they tend to be just one person who can’t afford nearly as much advertising and such. Open access is a fair compromise I suppose, but even then the general public is likely to see a journal article as far less readable than a blog post. Does that matter if they’d never see the blog post?

Furthermore, the article protects my research interests a lot more than a blog post does. I can’t really put individual blog posts on a CV, but a proper publication looks great! As someone who wants to make education accessible, the blog feels better to me, but I can’t continue science if I can’t get a job, or if I get kicked out of my lab for distributing data that isn’t published in a journal yet.

I hope I can continue to find things to blog about, but the truth is I’ll always feel a little guilty that I could be doing something more “useful” with my time. Even if I make the argument that it’s stress-reducing, a hike or a drink with friends would take the same amount of time and be far more stress-reducing.

Building the confidence to learn

Throughout my time in academia, I have met many friends that believe they “just can’t understand [insert subject here].”  They then have tremendous difficulty learning physical chemistry, calculus, thermodynamics, active/passive tense or whatever subject they claim to be unable to learn. This seems to build a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve observed these friends zoning out during class, and being unable to describe even the simplest ideas in class. Then one day they actually pay attention in class and feel enlightened…before they zone out in the next class.

From my experience, these people spend so much time assuming they can’t learn certain subjects that they don’t really even try. They’ll attempt to muddle through assignments by guess and check type methods instead of reading up on Wikipedia or something to get a decent understanding of the problem at hand. They then chalk up bad grades to bad teachers or that darned inability to learn the subject. They spend hours trying to “guess” or search for correct answers instead of thinking and learning.

I’ve witnessed one person break this cycle, and break it multiple times because the subjects became relevant to their work. They were forced to learn the topic and as soon as they started to pay attention, most things made sense. Why did they struggle so much before? This friend realized it was because they often don’t take the time to really learn certain things, or that in classes they have zoned out because of boring powerpoint slides, etc.

What I’m trying to get at in a longwinded way is that when people actively try to learn things they do much better. People end up shortchanging themselves because they have the wrong mindset. I think part of higher education should be to build these people up in such a way that they chose to learn when they are struggling, rather than wallow in self-pity. This might be obtainable by making content more accessible, or more engaging. Maybe having smaller classes or connecting everything to relevant topics would help. I would just like to see more people trying harder rather than giving up when they see difficulties.

Do you have any ideas on how to get people to try harder? Or maybe try smarter?

Have you ever talked yourself out of doing well? Have you ever altered your mindset to improve your own learning?

Universities and Civic Duty

The other day I saw a post on the good old Facebook:

My first thought was: “That would be great, more people need to vote.” I liked the post and moved on with my day.

However, I started to think about it more. Universities rely largely on our political systems for financial support, as well as a delivery system for the knowledge learned in the ivory tower. Politics control what knowledge is used, and what information is ignored.  As a result, I think it is important that universities have some part in the political process.

As institutions of education, Universities should teach about all aspects of life. Many high schoolers and complain about “when are we ever going to use this stuff?!” Our voting system is a perfect chance to teach something that every single (US) student should know. To add to that, our voting system is just confusing enough that people do need to be taught. By making students register, they take away a barrier to learning and identify any registration issues before they become important.

Future of the University: Global Communication

What should change in higher education? A lot, but I’ll focus on communication for now. I think all parts of the educational system, universities as well as primary schools, need to emphasize communication between all groups of people. This is how we build stronger communities, how we disseminate knowledge, and how we grow as the global society that we are. Communication can prevent wars, and enable fantastical discoveries, but I don’t think we have nearly enough emphasis on this skill.

The global perspectives program here is an example of universities trying to enhance communication, but I don’t believe it is enough. There are too many types of communication to be encompassed by such a small program. We need to enhance communication between cultures as well as cohorts. Engineers and historians need to communicate just as much as Americans need to communicate with Germans. Freshman in high school should talk to seniors in undergrad as well as 5th year Ph.D. students and Deans.

We need journalists to communicate effectively with scientists and vice versa. We need historians to speak to teachers.
We need businessmen to talk to students.
We need mechanical engineers to understand chemists.

This communication is how we build better ideas, better consumer products, and ultimately a better world. It’s how people find their passions and their creativity. It’s how people learn about the world around them.

HOWEVER, I don’t think this kind of communication is currently supported by most universities. Engineers have a tendency to believe their work is harder and therefore better than say an English or a business major. Physicists and Mathematicians have even been known to argue superiority over other science disciplines as witnessed by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

This type of superiority complex makes it difficult to have an intelligent and reasonable conversation, as one side inherently ignores half the conversation because it is “beneath them”. This kind of thinking needs to be squashed as much as any other kind of bigotry because it doesn’t help anyone.  I think universities still emphasize superiority instead of trying to bring everyone up to the highest level of intelligence.

Universities need to find a way to facilitate more communication between students of every age, ethnicity, and discipline. Have a program to send grad students to high schools. If volunteering doesn’t work, make it a class assignment to explain a course learning objective to a middle school class or something. Have coffee budget for grad students and undergrads to sit down and talk shop. These events appear every now and then for individual departments or clubs, but university wide emphasis on this type of communication is a must.

Sensational Politics and the University

Today while bopping about the interwebs, I came across the following article about a Stanford student who was pressing charges for an altercation at a political event for Brett Kavanaugh.

News video/summary here:

Hopefully, that shows up correctly…

Anyhoo, what basically happened was that the campus Republicans were tabling somewhere on Stanford’s campus to support Kavanaugh. Other students were complaining/arguing/ vandalizing them. At one point Melinda Hernandez pushed/touched John Rice-Cameron, president of the campus’s chapter of the College Republicans. This then escalated to the police being called in, and Hernandez receiving a citation. Rice-Cameron wants to push charges. Some accounts say that Hernandez basically tried to push down Rice-Cameron’s phone because he was filming her without consent and would not stop. Some accounts say that the tabling group likes to entice these kinds of altercations. But none of that is super relevant or factual. Yet, they put a spin on the situation. The facts get twisted by our opinions of “well if they were asking for it…they can hardly press charges,” and “he was just using his right to free speech!” And so on.

No matter your politics, I think we can agree on two things. 1) College campuses should be a place for freedom of self, speech, thought, expression, etc. and 2) violence (no matter how small) should not have a place on a college campus. The problem is that we currently have a dichotomy of thought, and not much of a spectrum on many issues. To add to this, both sides want to prove they are right in any way possible, often by discrediting the other side instead of building up their own. It’s pretty easy to rile someone up about something they really dislike, and it’s also especially difficult to walk away when you feel obligated to defend an idea that is so deeply emotional. Using this as a weapon allows you to say “Look! They can’t even think straight! They resorted primitive violence! Clearly, I’m right, because I don’t need violence!” It’s a dirty trick but it’s a common trick. Look at the Kavanaugh hearing. There was no evidence in that incident. No investigation for truth and facts. It was a pure she said, he said. Both sides used emotion and storytelling. Nothing either one of them said could be verified, but that’s how we chose a Supreme Court Justice…

Now, where am I going with this? The Stanford incident happened at a university, a haven of free thought. Stanford has every responsibility to defend and even encourage the campus Republicans to share their ideas with the greater community. However, I think the university also has a responsibility to teach them how to do so in a constructive manner. When tensions are as high as they currently are, I think it’s important for universities to remind people how to speak with one another, as humans. Both sides see the other as an enemy, as competition, as morally repugnant. But we are all humans, and all need love, support, shelter, etc. The media clearly isn’t about to step in and diffuse the situation, because sensationalism sells. So at some point, I think Universities need to step up, inform the public, and remind the media that facts are important too.

Open Access: Polymers

Open access is a funny thing. To me it seems silly that we want to research things for the greater good of society and industry, yet for anyone to read our stuff they need to pay gobs of money. Paywalls can make our research practically unheard of and therefore useless. Sure, some newspapers and the like may pay for access, then “translate” our jargon into words that are more palatable for the average consumer. But often things get lost in translation. For this reason, it is critical that average people have access to the research that their taxes pay for. It gives them a chance to read directly from the source with minimal chance of misinformation or “dumbing-down”. The problem is that most people know of Nature or Science, but free and open access journals are largely unknown. This is probably a result of open access being relatively new, but it makes it difficult for people to know where to look if they want certain information. Google helps, but I don’t believe there’s an open-access only option to remove the frustration of consistently ramming into paywalls. Anyway…let’s go find an open access journal…

“Polymers (ISSN 2073-4360) is an international open access
journal of polymer science. It publishes research papers,
communications and review articles. Polymers provides
an interdisciplinary forum for publishing papers which
advance the fields of (i) polymerization methods, (ii) theory,
simulation, and modeling, (iii) understanding of new
physical phenomena, (iv) advances in characterization
techniques, and (v) harnessing of self-assembly and
biological strategies for producing complex multifunctional

When looking for an open access journal, I realized that all of the journals that come to mind for my field are not open-access. I could think of PLOS one and some others that were more relevant to my bioengineering days, but not much for polymers/macromolecules/plastics. But alas, a touch of google and here we are, Polymers. This is a relatively new journal, started in 2009, and headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. The Belgium Polymer Group is a publication partner and is composed of various industries and universities in the area surrounding Basel.

Polymers has an impact factor of 2.935, which trails well behind the 40.137 of Nature, but it beats PLOS One’s  2.766. Many would argue that the impact factor is roughly meaningless and implies more about the breadth of readership and less about the quality of the publication, but this is still something to compare with. This brings about the first thoughts on open access journals: they’re newer and generally less established. This doesn’t mean they are bad, but means during this growth stage, they may not be the best option for new researchers trying to get noticed.

Polymers promises “unlimited and free access for readers” as well as “reliable service” and a 37-day turn around time for publications. Not bad. Costs are flexible, depending on what authors can pay, so long as the quality of the publication is decent. As an added bonus, the articles appear to be exclusively online, so there is no added cost for color figures. Submission is free, so you don’t waste any money just to get rejected. I’d say this pricing structure exemplifies the open access idea because it is both accessible to readers that may not have subscriptions and also reasonable for authors to submit their work. This is truly what is needed for knowledge to be spread and disseminated.