To Switzerland!

I am finishing up some final things in preparation for GPP 2019! It has been crazy for the past couple of weeks between preparing for this trip, the semester ending, and my research picking up.  This has left little time to think about the trip itself. It’s the day before and I haven’t even packed yet! Given that I have been so busy, I have had little time to think about my expectations. What I do know, is that I am very excited and am hoping to meet some awesome people and eat some delicious food.

I am very excited to learn more about the Swiss education system and understand the type of diversity they see in their classrooms and work spaces. This has been a topic of interest of mine for a long time. I think about it frequently in my everyday life because our push for diversity enhances my ability to succeed. In my field, it has been standard to be the minority gender in the room and this is the case in my lab. I am very interested to learn if Europe has a similar situation and if it is a concern or priority if they do. In looking at job postings in Europe, they always say, women and minorities are encouraged to apply. I am curious to find out if they are applying AND getting the jobs. Finding out this information is contingent on talking to the right people while in Switzerland. These types of question may even be seen as contentious in everyday life here, at VT, so I am reluctant to even be asking. Regardless, I am very excited to learn and be enlightened by all the new information I will learn and take back with me. I am sure there will be questions I didn’t know I had until I am there. I will update along the way!

How do we bring the findings on motivation to the classroom?

A few of the readings/videos for this week described the phenomenon that when a reward is placed for the production of good work, it inhibits our ability to do well. They also state that allowing people to work on projects that they came up with and are interested in facilitated immense imagination and superb results. But how does this information translate to the classroom?

In most classroom environments, student passively learn information and reproduce that knowledge on an exam to ‘prove’ that they ‘learned’ it. While I think most of us agree that the majority of students are memorizing for the short-term and not learning for the long-term, the students still need to be taught information and take the time to understand it. It’s hard for them to be imaginative in producing a product pertaining to class information if they don’t already know it. So, how can we take this information that we know from learning and assessment and apply it to our learning environments?

I think we need to take an interdisciplinary approach to teach students and ensure that they are taking in the information. First, students will have to be taught in a very typical manner. But after going over information, instructions can have the students work in groups or by themselves on example problems or have a class discussion. Instructors should also ensure that when they are going over problems in class that they are of similar difficulty to that of the homework or exams. If the difficulty level is much higher on homework and exams than what was presented by the teacher, students feel that they are not grasping the content and lose motivation.

In the last couple weeks of the class, instructors could stop assigning traditional problem based homework move to a group of individual project. But, instead of assigning a specific project, the instructor could ask the students to come up with a project of a certain criteria and present it to them before they begin work on it. This could facilitate students doing work on projects that they are motivated by.

In all of this, I am still unsure of how to approach grading. I feel that students will remain unmotivated in interacting with the material if they are not given a grade. However, I think that presenting material and going over problems that is commensurate withe the level that is found on homework and exams will aide in the stress students feel towards grades. In addition, we should have less of an emphasis on bell curves and failing people and use grades as a way to prove to ourselves that we are good teachers. If our students have an 85% average in the class, they will be happier and feel more respected, and we can take that as an indicator that we are doing well because our students are learning. Taking away grades entirely and making instructors give oral exams to each individual student to understand their grasp of the material also creates a lot of work additional work. If we move the emphasis in classes away from grades and more toward learning, everyone will benefit.


Do we need to be taught how to learn?

All the way through my early years of education and college, I took to learning the material in my classes through repetition and rote memorization. After about a year and a half into my master’s degree, I realized I was never learning to understand but simply just memorizing the material. This was a huge detriment to my knowledge base because I basically memorized for an exam and subsequently forgot everything. Now that I am having to use some of the material from my undergraduate classes for my research, I am having to go back and re-learn “the right way”. I really began to see the difference in learning methods when I came to VT for my Ph.D. I had to take a few deficiency courses to graduate with an Engineering degree, which was mostly math courses. In undergrad, these courses were very hard for me and I just thought I wasn’t very good at math. But now that I had to go back and take additional courses, I tried actually learning the material by understanding. I was listening in class and actually taking the time to understand why something was a certain way The ridiculous part is that I was studying for significantly less time and doing really well in the class. There were times that I didn’t study at all and got a top score. It was amazing to me. After employing this new found method (to me, anyway) it was like a light bulb went off in my head.

Ellen Langer in “Mindful Learning” suggests that this phase I was in and broke out of may be rooted in the way we teach and are taught from a really young age. She states that being taught to repeat information to learn at a young age may instill in people that this is THE way to learn. I can attest that this was how I was taught to learn by both my teachers and parents. Probably the worst example of this comes from my high school biology class. The professor would give us a set of 150 multiple choice questions to study from and he would choose 50 to be on the exam. I was so good at recognizing patterns, I didn’t even read the problem on exam day and just circled the answer based on the answer choices and usually the first couple words of the question. I always finished first, usually in about 5 minutes, and always got the top score. But I didn’t learn anything, at least not for the long term.

How many people go through this and what does it say about our education system? To me, it seems that how we learn to learn is instilled in us at a very young age. If someone learns to learn by memorizing and are simply tested on knowing the material, that person may never break that habit. I was only able to break that habit by staying in school past undergrad. We need to make students think by challenging their knowledge base. Using exams to test their knowledge only enforces rote memorization.  Adding more and more exams further enforces that because they have so much to know for the next exam, they simply memorize to get through it and then forget.



Can lecture be engaging in all subject areas?

We talked a little bit in class this week about professors that have successfully engaged their students in a lecture setting and found ways to “reach them” with the subject material. Coming from a chemistry background, I am trying to think of ways of keeping students engaged in classes like organic and analytical chemistry. At some point, students need to just sit down and read the book. However, I believe we can do better in the classrooms where these subjects are taught.

I am in a class right now with a really great professor. In this class, we are learning the causes of air pollution and ways of mitigating it. I have been in similar classes before with similar subject material and every time, the time spent in class has been dull. It’s always been very passive learning on the part of the students with the professor talking at the class and doing little to engage them. But this professor is different. During class, she finds ways of working in current news topics, discussing public resources on air quality, and gives time to work on problems in class. These pieces of the lecture make the material real for students and break up the dense and monotonous 1.5-hour lecture that would typically be definitions, equations, and material.

All of this is to say that we can do better. While at some point, students need to sit down and learn the material by reading and practicing, lecturers need to get students to care. This can be done by making the material hit home, having them do problems so they feel like they have a starting point on the homework, or breaking up the lecture into different pieces. to keep them engaged.

But what about classes like organic chemistry. There aren’t many current news articles on topics related to organic chemistry meaning that they probably can’t engage students with current happenings this subject area. However, I have a few ideas that can make these lectures less excruciating. It may require that the professor get creative and even cover less material. But, would it be worth it if the averages on the exams were higher than 55%? Which is unacceptable in my opinion. No matter how you spin it, the professor is at fault. Either they aren’t teaching, they aren’t engaging, or their exams don’t match the level they are teaching. Anyway…, these professors can break up the class with problems, have students do intermittent presentations on reaction mechanisms, do small (and contained!) experiments followed by a discussion of what happened, or even do a one-day field trip to a chemical plant or lab. If I may add, my professor did none of this while I was in chemistry and the exam averages were definitely a 55% or lower! Was it the students or the professor? We’ll never know.

This may also be an issue for classes in the humanities. I have taken few classes in the humanities but for the ones I have taken, professors fill class time lecturing at students rather than letting them interact with the material. Lecturers teaching these classes can probably work in discussions or student presentations or maybe even field trips. While most professors feel pressured to cover as much material as possible in a semester, what good is it if students only take home 20% of it? It’s almost better to slow down and find ways to engage students. It will be less of a waste of the professors time and less excruciating for the students.

Networked learning

The integration of technology into our educational environments has literally taken place over the course of many of our lifetimes in the most dramatic of ways. When I started school, everything was done on chalkboards and paper. While we had computer lab to learn to type, not every student had a computer in their home until much later in our schooling years and using online environments for homework didn’t really begin until I had reached late high school. I personally found the change challenging. So much so that, in a senior high school class when we had to do a presentation on our favorite form of technology, I chose pencil and paper.

However, I can no longer deny the benefits. Technology has literally transformed learning environments around the world. People can take a class offered in one location while being in another. Students taking language classes can literally talk to people that speak that language natively ( And, people learning about the Holocaust, can take a virtual tour through Auschwitz (

But all of these technologies have been added and changed so quickly. Just this week, one of my professors was asking the best way to answer multiple choice questions in class, lamenting that iclickers seem to be out of date. I was sitting there thinking that they were this new addition to the classroom environment when I was in undergrad just 5 years ago. I then realized that smartphones weren’t commonplace at that time; I hadn’t gotten one until 4 years ago. I quickly googled similar smartphone apps to the iclicker and found a ton!

However, I am pressed with this nagging question every so often. I have a lab mate that is about double my age who started earning his PhD the same year as me. Now if I found the transition to all this technology in the classroom and needing to code all of my data analysis challenging, what is it like for students his age? While I didn’t start my life with this technology, I moved through school with it and had the opportunity to learn. Is all this technology a barrier to older students or even students that come from less developed countries that don’t have these technologies at their fingertips? The addition of this technology in schools, universities, and the workplace is inevitable, but it has happened so fast that it’s making it difficult for those people that didn’t grow up with it to compete. While I have been introduced to a ton of new technology throughout my schooling, it makes me wonder if things will continue to change after I enter the workforce, threatening my career 30 years from now. It certainly feels that we will continue to move in that direction.


Mentoring in higher education

A lot of colleges are initiating mentor programs at the undergraduate and graduate level because they can benefit students in a number of ways. They can help them navigate a new environment, assist with school work, help students find people of a similar culture, or prepare them for their future career. These programs take on all shapes at the university level. Many students come to college with no true idea of what they want to do with their life. If they are paired with a professional or peer mentor that has more experience, they can leave college with direction and maybe even lab or work experience to get them started on their career. If they moved here from another country, maybe a peer mentor can help them find people from the same culture and help them adjust to the differences in everyday life.

Despite mentoring programs having a number of benefits, they require a lot of work, money, and time. If they aren’t formatted properly, mentors and mentees can feel like they have to go to something that they don’t really want to go to. If the organizer doesn’t put any time or money into the program, the relationship falls apart and no one benefits.  A lot of the time, mentoring works best when the relationship forms naturally. Some people don’t necessarily want a mentor or don’t feel like they need one and so they feel uncomfortable being assigned one.

From my experience with mentoring programs, they have never ended well but have always had good intentions. For example, this semester I participated in the Virginia Tech Early  Engineering Mentoring program as a mentor. The program is put on by the College of Engineering graduate school and pairs new graduate students with existing graduate students. I volunteered as a way of giving back to the University that I felt has been great for me and my career. In my undergrad, I participated in a mentor program for incoming international students. The program paired us up with students through email and expected the relationship to take off from there. Naturally, I met with my mentee once and we never met again. The program at VT was much better but resulted in the relationship being forced.

There are of course other types of mentoring that can happen in universities. If a student works under a professor for research, the professor can become a professional mentor for that student. These types of relationships are much better because the student is actively seeking out a mentor with the intention of gaining experience and knowledge allowing a more organic relationship to transpire.

My thoughts from this post come from an article posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education:



The recent Harvard lawsuit

I have been following the lawsuit against Harvard over race-based admission processes and the effect it has on Asian American applicants, over the course of the semester.  For anyone who is not familiar with the case – a group called the Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for requiring Asian applicants to have higher GPA and SAT scores than applicants of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also assert that Harvard assigns personal ratings to its applicants and that Asian applicants are typically rated lower than other applicants. The case has gone through the courts and now we are waiting on the ruling which could take several months.

What this case is actually determining is the place for affirmative action in higher education. The plaintiffs claim that they support diversity in academia but what they also want from the court is “a permanent injunction prohibiting Harvard from using race as a factor in future undergraduate admissions decisions.” If this case goes in the favor of the plaintiffs, it could be the end of affirmative action in admissions processes. No matter the ruling, both sides say they are going to appeal.

This is not the first time a case has come against affirmative action. In 1996, it was ruled in California that race can’t be used in admissions processes. It came to the courts because California was seeing a lot of students that weren’t prepared for college (or maybe they weren’t prepared for them…?) This resulted in a decrease in the paucity of Black and Hispanic students that were currently being accepted in the California school system. There have also been other small cases, such as those that ruled that hard race quotas can’t be set for an incoming class. But the California case is an example of what could happen if affirmative action is repealed.

Do the Asian American’s have a case? I think they do, and this stems from the personal rating scores. However, it doesn’t seem that the personal rating scores are something that can be changed by Harvard. Harvard determines the personal rating scores from the applicant’s recommendation letters. These are often written by teachers, mentors, and guidance counselors. Harvard can’t change what these letters say and they base the scores on the same metric as all other applicants. However, we are measuring what is said to be a minority group on the same metrics as other students. In the acceptance process, it is clear that admissions officers allow leeway to students that have had difficulties in their life or don’t come from an upper-middle-class family. Maybe, the same acceptions need to be made for Asian applicants. They likely have a different culture than white Americans so maybe it isn’t fair to measure them along that same metric.

The future of the university

With each passing year, students attend college to earn a degree that prepares them for their future job all the while, student loan debt grows to over a trillion dollars. Students leave their universities with their shiny new degrees and enter the workforce bright-eyed and ready to please. But more often than not, these students are not prepared for the required tasks of even an entry-level position. Students are graduating with four-year degrees and forced into a part-time position with poor pay and no health insurance until they gain that experience. Some decide to go to graduate school to specialize but most master’s degrees don’t pay a stipend meaning that these students rack up more loan debt.

This has to change.

This is not sustainable.

It won’t stay like this.

Because it can’t.

But these problems are just as much a problem with universities as they are with the government, the economy, and the health care system. Already, we are talking about universal health care and free college. Higher education will be entirely free in the state of New York for residents of New York for student families that make under $125,000 a year. This amount encapsulates a large proportion of the middle to low-income residents of NY which are those that are coming out of college with the largest amount of debt. I imagine more and more states will move toward this model eventually leaving more states with this model than those without. People will start to move to states with this model and other states will have to follow to save their economy.

To touch on students coming out of college ill-prepared to handle an entry-level job: Some schools have incorporated an internship or co-op requirement in their curriculum. While this is incredibly important, it is also adding time to earn some degrees which is adding more debt on young Americans whom are just starting their lives and have nothing. This can be combatted by making school more trade-like. Students would take classes on top of working with a local company or in more lab-like, hands-on environments (for schools in small towns with no companies). And this would be started early rather than being done for just ten weeks the summer before their senior year of college. If they are afforded the opportunity to work with a local company in their future job of choice then companies would pay them for their work. Either of these methods would prepare students early for their future job and could mitigate the need for 2-5 years of experience on a job posting.