Mobile day 4: Uni Basel

We took the train to Basel to visit uni Basel and learn about their education systems with Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno.

Pretty sure this is where we spent most of the day. But it is possible this is just a transom building I thought looked cool.

We were in lecture room for too long without enough sleep. Caffeine was key to survival.

Lopreino’s thoughts on where Swiss institutions sit on a psuedo Pasteur’s quadrant.

Ky and I had the honeymoon suite in our hotel! Fancy!

Spalantor/Gate of Spalen in Basel at night. This was about a 3 min walk from our hotel.

Mobile Post 2: First Official Day Complete

The first official day of the trip is complete. Technically the trip started at 3pm Sunday with a briefing on University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Basel. This was followed by a trip to mountain top raclette and fondue. And that was basically the official program of the day. We did a little more though…

First things first, we discovered that most of Zurich is shutdown on Sunday, especially in the morning. None of the grocery stores were open and neither were most restaurants. After failing to get breakfast stuff at the local coop (pronounced co-op apparently), Deb and I dropped our stuff at Hotel St. Josef and went to find some others.

We succeeded in getting Akshay and Patrick for breakfast, and were then joined by Erin, Mike, and Sarah.

This was followed by a checking into the hotel with everyone and a hunt for chocolate. Our original chocolate shop was closed because it was Sunday, but fortunately there was a Bachmann/Lindt across the street. I forgot to take photos here because I was too busy drooling, but the back was just a waterfall of chocolate.

Next we wandered towards the lake and engaged in shenanigans, such as climbing artwork:

(I was too short but Mike managed to get on top)

Bothering the metallic wildlife:

And hoping on a boat:

They had a ton of little shoreline parks which was super cool.

And it was nice to see the town without wandering too much.Then we went back to the hotel and briefed each other on University of Zurich, ETH Zurich, and University of Basel.

These are our first three universities and are the first two are basically the MIT and Harvard of Europe. The are both super well ranked works wide (not that rankings really mean much).

Then after that we went to dinner and I had fondue,


And flan

for the first time in my life. It was awesome and I need more…Then we went home and most people went to bed.

For of us went to a local pub to chit chat though, and boy was that fun. There were a bunch of Finnish people watching the world championships of home between Finland and Canada and I believe Finland won. As you can imagine shit got crazy. They started throwing glasses into the air to shatter on the cobblestone and shouting and what have you. This prompted the pub owner to come out. He got appropriately angry and tried to kick them out of the street but that was a struggle and we thought he was about to kill one guy. We quickly finished our drinks and left. Then it was bed time.

Please let me know if you have questions.

The next post will likely be about University of Zurich and ETH (as a spoiler alert).

On the Eve of Departure

The GPP trip is only a few weeks away and I am so ready to leave! The previous 3 weeks have been chaotic and crazy as the semester wraps up, so I am surprisingly ready to sit on a plane for 8+hours with no ability to do work. Then, of course, Switzerland has to great.

I’m excited to see what other countries are like and how they describe their own systems. I would like to know how they feel about U.S. applications for faculty and such. What are their requirements and how do people address strange things like the inability to get Swiss citizenship. We’ve discussed a lot of these already before leaving, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth is a little different. I’m curious as to how they perceive our funding strategy compared to ours. How stressed out do these professors feel when applying for grants and other funding?

Before writing this, I was enjoying the Chemical Engineering graduate coffee hour with the head of the department, Dr. Cox, and he said some enlightening things about the funding for Virginia Tech and about grants and such. He mentioned that Tech was accepting far more students than previously because Tech is trying to decrease reliance on state funding and rely on tuition dollars instead because a few years ago 40% of the state funding was cut. That just sounds horrific, and I wonder how susceptible other countries are to such budget cuts.  Switzerland sounds very supportive of its education system, but what if the politicians change their minds and remove support?

Again, I’m bouncing off the walls excited to be able to ask this question and others in just a few weeks. This past year has been a rollercoaster of emotions with regard to my thoughts on higher ed and a future career here, and this trip might solidify my resolve o become European faculty, or maybe I’ll abandon all hope of professorship. Either way, I’m excited to see what happens!

For now, I’ll shine my shoes, find a good pair of earplugs, and maybe purchase a book or two for my kindle.

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.

Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Quizzes and Quizlet

I found the article ” What a Controversy Over an App Tells Us About How Students Learn Now” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This piece focuses on a university case where students were accused of cheating for using the app Quizlet to study for an exam. For those that aren’t familiar, Quizlet allows users to upload questions and answers in a flashcards style for people to study. The idea is that if you have a big exam, instead of writing down all the flashcards and inevitably dropping them a few times during transport, you can swipe through these ones online. There are often times when there are questions that you would have missed when making your own cards, and it can be really great to see what others think is important to study. I believe the site Koofers has a similar functionality and is more common here at VT. The argument made against both Quizlet and Koofers is that people can upload test questions that are currently being used by professors, so students on these sites are effectively seeing exams ahead of time.

Some professors/institutes have reacted by trying to ban the use of such resources by their classes. I know I have seen at least two syllabi here that have specifically denounced the use of Koofers at VT. What’s interesting here is that there is no way, short of restricted internet usage, for universities to enforce this. They are relying on students’ honesty to not use the resources online. But the students who would follow such guidelines are also the ones that are less likely to try to cheat anyway.

I have always taken issue with this stance. We live in a connected global society with all the resources of the world effectively at our fingertips. One quote from the article that reminds me far too much of middle school:

“Robin DeRosa, an interdisciplinary-studies professor at Plymouth State University, used to motivate her students to learn math by warning them that they wouldn’t always have a calculator available. But with smart phones in their pockets now, students rarely encounter such constraints.”

If I’m working in the lab, it may be faster to do the math in my head, but if I’m really in doubt, I will almost always have my phone nearby to reassure me. There will be few times when I can’t google some basic facts online. If I need to know how Infrared Spectroscopy works, I’m about a 5 min YouTube video away from understanding it better than most students who just learned about it for a week of class. To try to pretend students won’t have this access when faced with “real-world” problems is short-sighted.  Students should learn to access these resources, not ignore them.

“It’s about authentic demonstrations that are externally facing so students can be part of this data-rich environment,” [Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment] said, “and about how we’re helping each other collectively to move us from a ‘gotcha’ assessment to creating a developmental learning experience. It’s a different teaching-learning mentality.”

An argument can be made that I have an unfair advantage over someone who doesn’t know about Quizlet or Koofers, but that could be solved by introducing students to the item as a learning tool. If everyone has access and knowledge of the same tools, there’s no unfair advantage. However, I would argue in today’s society, we all have roughly equal access (at least at a given institution), and the real learning skill is to find and evaluate information based on those resources.  No one is going to ban Yahoo Answers (is this even still a thing?) but most people aren’t going to trust it over other sources like Wikipedia, a textbook, or journal article. If you go to Yahoo over the others, that’s your choice, and probably your failure to learn from. Just because I’m scoffing at it, doesn’t mean the person who uses it has an advantage over me, I accept that I’m using a different toolset and would not ask theirs to be limited.

“There are times when students do need to know factual information, fundamental knowledge from a given field, etc.,” she said in an email. “But how do we assess their understanding of that knowledge? If the answer is a multiple choice and/or fill-in-the-blank exam, how much does it matter that students can recall that knowledge offhand?”

Great minds think alike…unfortunately

In class this past week, someone mentioned Walter Lewin, a renowned MIT astrophysicists known for giving tremendous lectures. The description reminded of Richard Feynman, another physicist known for tremendous teaching chops. Both of these professors are well renowned and honored for successfully communicating science to broad audiences and making tremendous discoveries. Feynman was famous for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) and his Nobel Prize. Lewin discovered rotating neutron stars with balloons. Both men were clearly brilliant in their own right and provided tremendous insight into the scientific world in ways most lecturers could not.

Here’s the problem though: both have also had some serious claims of sexual harassment and sexist behavior. In “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” there is a chapter dedicated to Feynman recounting how he literally TRAINED himself to disrespect women so he could sleep with them. The best summary of this that I’ve seen is here, on the blog Restructure!. Which to quote a quote:

Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.

That’s Feynman’s own words, in what’s basically an autobiography. Not the best look.

Similarly, Lewin was accused of sexual harassment through his online courses, and MIT took away his emeritus status and took down his lectures. I can’t find much info on what he actually did, but that hardly matters. He was a brilliant man that preyed on women.

In a similar vein, James Watson of DNA-fame has also displayed horribly racist and demeaning things. The man is brilliant for helping discover DNA and for helping found the human genome project and such, but even his disrespect for Rosalind Franklin and her research which he stole shows a poor attitude.

My question is: should we revere these men? Should we use their lectures and their notes to teach? 

On the one hand, they’ve still made valuable discoveries and have revealed tremendous methods of teaching. They still have the potential to teach many generations and inspire awe in countless future scientists. On the other, they’ve held some pretty shady views that muck up their legacies. Placing them on a pedestal also places their misdeeds on that same pedestal. This seems like a dangerous game; we don’t want to encourage more bigotry in science and education. But again, they were amazing at providing explanations in ways that people could understand complex ideas. It would be a tragedy to lose that. Do we use their teaching examples and point out their imperfections to say “you can be better”? I don’t know. I hate to waste a brilliant idea, but I’d also hate to encourage any form of bigotry and discrimination.


What are your thoughts? Did you know about these case? Do you know about others? If anyone has examples of the opposite, of brilliant minds that defended minorities or stood up against harassment, please share them.

Higher Ed and the Ability to Succeed

Today, while waiting to meet with my PI,  I was reading this article about students needing to feel like they can succeed in assignments if they are going to actually be engaged in classes and learning. In short, if students don’t feel like their effort gets them anywhere or doesn’t provide the desired outcomes then they’ll quickly lose interest in the course. They might drop the course or stop trying to do well.

This article was perfectly timed because my meeting included me asking to drop a course that was consuming far too much of my time.  I read through the article thinking “yup…yup…that’s me!” as I related much of the content to what was happening in my class.

The class is something I’m very interested in, computational modeling, but I have very little experience with the material. I took this class as an intro, to learn some of the basics, which the professor teaches rather well. However, his assignments assume far more knowledge and skill than he is willing to teach. I found myself spending countless hours trying to convert his abstract and compacted notation into usable computer code to do his assignments. It only took 3 homework assignments in 3 weeks to push me over the edge. I had lost so much sleep, all three of those weekends, and was behind on research goals, all from one class. Even the two assignments I did finish, I was not confident in the answers I handed in.

The article was funny because the author discussed how it can be easy to know what it takes to be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually become a pro.  This is what I was feeling with these assignments. I knew what I needed to do. The professor was good at teaching that. But the actual execution, the how, was far out of my grasp. It’s easy to say an IronMan just requires swimming, biking, and running. I can do all three of those easily, it’s the full bit of HOW you do them. I can’t swim 2.4mi and then bike 112mi, and THEN run a marathon. My professor was essentially just saying “go do an Ironman, it just involves some simple swimming, biking, and running, it should be easy.”  I think I’ll pass…

So after a rough weekend, I gave up, just as the article predicted.  I decided the effort wasn’t worth my time. I can learn the same content on my own, sans grading. I can take my own pace and still get sleep.

This concept seems critical to higher education delivering on its purpose to grow and disseminate knowledge. A lot of courses, especially those in fields like pre-med or pre-law like to weed students out because of the high incoming demand for those degrees. The concept of attainable successes can help weed out students I suppose, by guaranteeing that assignments are so difficult that almost no one can completely succeed. That’ll quickly squash any motivation for those subjects! But I think that’s the opposite of what should be done. Professors and other educators should keep in mind what students can reasonably learn in a given amount of time, and make sure to reinforce it and provide opportunities for successes, both large and small.  This builds confidence, and probably continued curiousity in a subject. Those two things are critical to discovery in my book.