A bitter taste from my college education experience in China

Two weeks ago, I met one of my friends, Tong, at Wall memorial gym at our routing Friday badminton night. Both of us are close to graduation this year and we couldn’t stop talking about current job hunting situations once we touched the topic.

To be honest, I haven’t started looking for jobs yet, but I already heard how bad it is. That is actually what I was thinking about whether I should stay for another semester to be more prepared for job hunting and interviews, if I get any.

Tong is the only child in his family and he is bored about the life in USA, so his top choice is in China. We would thought he is relatively competitive since he is getting his Ph.D degree here at the mechanical engineer program. While, based on what he told me, it was not what he expected.

Started at  year 1999, China’s government made a big decision, that was to dramatically increase the admission of higher education to release the pressure from gradually growing unemployment rate, which was related with the dramatic change of China’s social and economical status during the 1990s. Before that, even the admission of higher education was gradually growing with an annual rate around 8%, from year 1999, this number soared to 38% and this high growth continued for couple years till 2006. In 2008, this number decreased to 5%, which was even lower than before this college expansion policy.

Due to this aggressive college expansion, many college graduates like me, and my friend Tong, are suffering from the serious consequence now. The biggest challenge is where to find a job for such a suddenly increased population of highly-educated people.

Even only after four years, when the first batch of bachelors jumped into the job market, lots of problems showed up.

First, it built lots of pressure to colleges and universities. Due to a sudden expansion of students, most colleges and universities had trouble to offer enough basic facilities to students, like dormitories and classrooms, especially many lab classes. Then many universities spent lots of money on building construction trying to fulfill the expansion. After several years, many universities accumulated a huge debt due to this massive construction.

Second, the quality of higher education was declined. Largely due to the shortage of basic facilities and equipment, also shortage of faculties, the quality of college education during those 9 years were questioned by the public. A low faculty/student ratio, crowded classroom, in-flexible schedule, all those ended up over-whelmed faculties and less quality control. This was really bad to graduate school. Because this college expansion was not just limited to undergraduate education, but also graduate school. This even greater expansion was thought to buffer off the high unemployment rate among the fresh college graduates. In a sudden, the graduate students under one supervisor doubled or even tripled. You might be curious how the faculties can manage the financial support for 20 or even 30 graduate students. Actually, at that moment the graduate students were sponsored by the government fund, instead of research grant from the faculty. It was impossible to instruct or tutor each graduate student by the professor him/herself. Many graduate students spent several years wondering and tumbling about what they are doing, and then graduated with just a degree instead of improvement in their real ability. Now,most of the graduate students admitted during this expansion are graduated and facing the big challenge to find an appropriate job.

Also, due to this expansion, the requirement from the employers changed too. Many job positions which a bachelor’s degree will be fully enough , now they require for a master degree or even a doctor’s degree. Especially for those good-pay jobs. This brought our higher education into an even worse cycle. Everyone thought a higher degree means good job, and they all wanted to go to graduate school, while many technique-based jobs are in a big short of workers. Several years later after graduate school, they just realized the job available were still those technique-based ones, which they were able to take when they were right out of college. Should I take this job, or should I wait for a better one? Or, should I go for a higher degree like a Ph.D or even abroad study? Many of us payed with our best years in life to learn: Higher education does not guarantee good job. Many of my friends said more than once, “If I was given the chance to remake my choice, I would take a job when I graduated from college. I might be a mom/dad now, instead of unemployed and worried about my future.”

China’s higher education administration has already regretted for this rushed college expansion and stopped this expansion at 2008. Now the graduate schools are switching to the western model. The faculty is fully responsible for graduate students’ financial support. However, just like what happened to my friend Tong, there are more people holding a Ph.D degree than what this area actually calls for.  It is a valuable experience to be able to go to graduate school, but I cannot deny the bitter taste of it.

a successful project-based learning lab class

Since we are focusing on project-based learning, case study, team-based learning and all those new teaching strategies, I kind of figured out more why the General Microbiology lab is such a popular class now.

This lab based 2000 level class is offered by the department of biological science and the students are required to take the Microbiology lecture part either before they take the lab or take both simultaneously. It is not attached to the lecture so tightly, but knowing the basic of general microbiology is definitely very helpful.

The whole lab class is composed of 44 different exercises and two major long-term projects.  The students meet twice per week, either Monday&Wednesday, or Tuesday&Thursday. The students work in pairs, and they set up some experiments or tests on the first day, and then come back to check the results at the following class. For each exercise they need to write down the expected results and the real results they get from their own experiments. Then they analyze their data and write a short conclusion on that. With all those individual exercises, they learn and practice the common techniques used in Microbiology. A short mini lecture is also given by the TA at the beginning of each class to emphasize the general background information and principles. Most of the time during the class, the TA will just walk around to answer questions or help the students to go through their experiments successfully.

The two major projects are performed at later of the semester, which are built upon all the  techniques or tested they already practiced in this lab. Each project is like a case from a diagnostic lab, they need to figure out what is the organisms in their given sample. The students will work individually on their own puzzle and after about 4 weeks work, they come to a conclusion and hand in a lab report and journal.

There are also two mini projects they have to work independently during the first half of the semester. It is more like a mini summary of what they have done. By working on those mini projects, the students are getting trained on comprehensive thinking and also applying  what they learn in class to “real world” issue. One mini project is to identify the resident microorganisms from their own skin and all the students got so excited about it and were very eager to try different tests to figure out what they are.

As a TA for this lab class, I do enjoy my teaching all the time. The students are very involved and enthusiastic about those hands-on bench work. They also gain a better understanding of the lecture. When they come to the final major project, no one freaks out and most of them end up with a perfect job. I did see through this lab  class that project based learning is very interesting, inviting,and productive to the students. It is more fun for the students, also more fun for the TA.

research faculty duties, how to balance?

I was sitting in the lunchroom in our lab building alone last Thursday for a afternoon snack, grabbed a magazine from the bookshelf at the corner and  glanced few articles. the very first scientists feature article actually brought my attention, not in a traditional research sensitive way, but more humanistic thinking.

The article was a interview of a research director, Bill Jack, from the New England Biolabs (NEB) company, which is the rocket company in the whole enzyme industry. One interesting question the interviewer was asking is what brought him to NEB. Bill’s answer was quite surprising.

“As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I expected to pursue an academic position. When I finished my postdoctoral work, I received job offers from an academic institution, an industrial company, and NEB. At the time, I had three sons, the youngest of whom was 2 years old. When making my decision, I looked at my sons and realized that if I took the academic position, in six years, I might have tenure, which would allow time to get to know them. But there was a real possibility that I would miss a large part of six formative years in those boys’ lives. While I admire those who can succeed in academia while maintaining a balanced life, for me, that seemed a daunting task.

I read through the discussions in our forum and it is quite clear that everyone knows that the three major duties as a faculty: research, teaching, service (outreach). I heard so many stories about how stressful of being an assistant professor and how miserable it can be for graduate students working for them. I don’t think that means most of the assistant professors are evil, but apparently going through tenure-track is definitely a very stressful process. Even as those associate professors, especially when going through funding cut, the depressing atmosphere can be easily sensed. My supervisor he likes to supervise and tutor undergrads in the lab by himself, however, during these two recent years, he was so busy with grant writing and other services, he barely got a chance to work on his own bench. Most often we will hear from him “I got to get this grant due by …”; “I have to work on this weekend”; “I am tired”……

I really don’t think those faculty duties are completely beyond one’s potential, but just like what Bill said in his interview,”be successful in academia while maintaining a balanced life, that seemed a daunting task”. I am not sure about the statistical data about how many working hours those research faculties generally devote every week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is significantly above average. And I wouldn’t be surprised that when we see more negative comments about the teaching performance of those research faculties. I think this is beyond what I know about the importance of research for tenure-track, just by sensing it, I can only say it is hard, for Bill, also for myself.


power balance in the classroom

I was reading classmates’ blog trying to find some spark to light up my ideas about my second post. It is kind of interesting that people always have a stronger feeling when see something familiar happened to others. I guess we all need some kind of social identification at now and then. I do belong to this kind of group and I read through Jamie’s post about the power of empowerment, I immediately thought about my high school experiences with my major class advisor, also Chemistry teacher at then.

It was a big issue in China for teenagers to develop relationships while they are still in school. None of the high school kids are dare to show or express their romantic feelings to others, even now. While, you know teenagers, there are always few underground lovers. As our major advisor, Mr.D, he was terrified about this and keep having different students coming to his office and he would pretended to care about your school and then started asking behaviors or rumors about other students. Though he was a great teacher at his major, chemistry at that moment, nobody graduated in my class really appreciated his hard work and endeavor. It was hard for teenagers to really love and respect him if his hard work just ended up more suspicion, anger, stress, and unfriendly atmosphere in the class room. I still remember at our reunion after high school graduation, he was not invited and the boys played an insulting hoax to him by calling his home phone and cell phone after midnight. It was sad and we never did it again at our other reunions, but also he was never invited.

People in China say”Love is just like sand, the tighter you try to hold it, the quicker you lose it.” I think it also applies here in the class room. The more power the teacher tries to grant to himself/herself, the quicker and easier that he/she losses it. The teacher has power in the classroom, but not absolutely tyranny. Neutral respect is definitely the very fundamental base for constructing and maintaining an healthy student-teacher relationship. Of course, there are other challenges compared to one-to-one relationships. We all come across public challenges in the classroom by some special students. How we deal with those situations can also affect the whole power balance.

It is a global world and it is a very diverse classroom. There are some general rules about how to balance the power, but there are always some unique cases that we will experience. It is always those specific cases will either give us honor or pricey lessons. Keep exploring in this topic and be prepared for those challenges is always a better choice.



How blogging can help Biology Undergraduate Education?

The first thought about blogging is exciting! One reason is because I have been maintaining an active blog for over 7 years now and I really enjoy it.

However, this time, we were not talking about blogging by myself, but ask the students to start a blog for a specific class. For example, I am teaching General Microbiology Lab this  semester and how I am going to ask my students to write blog on this subject and improve their learning. I feel it is a great idea, but how we are going to put it in practice, especially in a science subject?

As we discussed in class, the person very possibly will be more motivated if he/she decide to start a blog or not. However, when it is required by the professor, it is more like an “writing assignment” instead of “blogging”. In this situation, whether the students will really dig into the subject and give some serious thoughts, will be out of our control.

Put the motivation aside. I am more concerned about how we can carry it out for Biology Undergraduate Education. As the second largest major on campus, Biological Science education seems a big responsibility for the whole biological science department. Most of the general fundamental classes are huge while we also carry lots of small classes focused on very specific research area.

One concern from me would be how many professors do have enough time to check their students’ blog on a weekly basis. For example, my supervisor teaches one class every fall semester. He told us more than once that teaching is stressful, especially grading. Though he only has two mid-term tests and one final. Also, most of his questions are multiple choice questions and 10 filling-up-blank questions. Since more than half of the professors who committed teaching responsibilities are also research faculties, I worried how many of them will really thinking about incorporating blogging into their teaching. It is hard to say I do not care about funding. We all know how important that means in a research university and how much work does that take.

Another concern would be how helpful it will be in Biology education. Biology does not equal pure memorization, but it does have lots and lots of facts and concepts you have to remember, especially for undergraduate classes. So, how to make each topic exciting and fun to promote the students to read more and learn dipper, I don’t know yet. Maybe that is why I am so eagerly expect Dr.Jill Sible’s talk in this class. Besides that, we also need to think about how much time blogging will take and how much the students are willing to spend on this part. I guess this would be a big challenge for those one credit lab classes. Currently, all my students loved this class, and most of them thought it was fun. However, this 3.7 out of 4 evaluation seems so pale with the reality that most of my students even wouldn’t read the textbook before they come to the class.

After all, so far, I feel I am more convinced to start a professional blog than asking my students to do it, to use it as a platform to offer more resources for my teaching. Suddenly, I realized that as a professor, Dr. Flowler does know much better than me about how to motivate students, because I just wrote my first post. Done!