Blog 10 – Changing Higher Education

In this blog, I’m going to discuss two topics in higher education where I would like to see a change.  The first of these topics, a redefinition of our grading system, was prompted after our class discussion of the flaws of the current grading system.  The second topic, relating to the divide between “first tier” and “second tier” faculty, was prompted by my research for my final paper.

Redefining Grading.  In class, I was interested to hear that some students that thought our grading system was inherently flawed and needed serious reform.  I have mixed feelings about this.  If the goal is to give students feedback that is more flexible, detailed, and relevant to the individual student, then I agree that changing the grading system would be for the better.  However, I am concerned that some of the dislike of the current system stems from an extreme form of anti-elitism – one that refuses to offend others by rewarding excellence.  You see, if we have grades, someone gets the highest grade.  Are we so afraid of this?  Has the idea of competition become so distasteful to us that we want to avoid any appearance of “keeping score?”  I guess I worry that by making grades less tangible so that nobody fails, we are also creating a system where no one really excels, either.  I think one possible solution is to expand the existing system to allow for (or even require) comments on the transcript as well as grades.  I think this is a change that could be implemented relatively easily, and would help separate the students who “just want the grade” from the students with a passion for the subject while still maintaining the same level of (if not more!) student accountability as in the current system.

Academic Culture and the “Second Tier” Concept.  My final paper in this class discusses the subject of motherhood in academia.  One common theme I have noticed in my reading is the idea that the academic world consists of two “tiers” – a first tier of prestigious, tenure track positions and a second tier composed mostly of part time and adjunct positions.  This second tier is sometimes associated with the “mommy track” because of the large percentage of mothers working in these positions.  In a previous blog, I talked about how the gap between the pay and respect given to adjunct professors and their tenure-track counterparts can be vast.  On the other hand, according to Mason and Ekman, the number of adjunct faculty positions is growing more rapidly than any other academic sector.  In an ideal world, I would say that the culture needs to change to eliminate the division between the first and second tier.  In the real world, I think we need to improve working conditions in this second tier by working to increase salaries and job security for these positions, making the relationship between these professionals and the university less exploitative.  I think we also need develop a system that gives these “second tier” professors real options for transitioning to more permanent or tenure-track positions, if they have the desire and ability to fulfill these roles.

 What do you think?  Are the changes I propose necessary?  Feasible? 

Blog 9 — Parental Expectations

Did anyone else see this article in The Chronicle today?  The article discusses the disconnect some first generation college students feel when interacting with their families and includes stories from interviews with several Ph.D. students from working class backgrounds.

As a first generation college student myself, I can identify with some of these issues.  Although I don’t feel a pressure to “dumb down,” as one student said, and I do think that my family is proud of my accomplishments, I sometimes feel that my parents wish I would hurry up and get a “real job.”  When it comes to the pressure to start a family . . . well, let’s just say I identify with Cecilia on this one :).

What did you think of the article?  Were there any parts of these students’ stories that you identified with?

Blog 8 – Citation of Unethical Studies

One thorny issue that we spent some time in class discussing, and which I’d like to discuss further here, is the ethical obligation of a scientist when considering whether to cite a study with unethical data collection methods. For the purpose of this discussion, we will take the case where the study is not compromised in a way that affects its scientific value, but was carried out in ways that are considered morally wrong. Is it therefore wrong to cite this work? In a paper published in the 1980s, the author discusses whether some of the most notoriously unethical studies in history, conducted by Nazi doctors on prisoners, have scientific value, and if it is unethical to use these data for future research. Even in the case of these widely condemned experiments, opinions were mixed. For example, Nazi hypothermia research has informed the design of some cold-weather gear, saving lives and making the case that Nazi data should not be entirely disregarded. However, others argue that any citation of these data implies acceptance of the methods used to collect it. Putting the extreme case of the Nazi data aside, much of the data collected in the past was collected in ways that would not be allowed today. Several of the most famous psychological experiments taught at universities would never be allowed to take place now. In my own research, as I mentioned in class, there are examples of studies where infants were knowingly given lead-containing formula in a well-controlled study in order to determine the relationship between lead in the diet and blood lead levels. While studies like this one are considered unethical by today’s standards, the data collected demonstrate unambiguously the link between dietary lead and increases in blood lead levels, and can inform lead in water regulations. If these data were thrown out as “unethical,” valuable information would be lost.

I would love to hear from YOU, the reader about this issue! Please let me know your thoughts on the citation of unethical work, and whether you know of any examples of this in your own field.

Blog 7 – Communicating Science

Although I was out of town during the special class on communicating science, I’d like to use this blog to talk about why communicating science is so important and how we, as scientists, can improve this communication.

Why Is Communicating Science so Important? In class, we had a lengthy discussion about why communicating science is so important. As an environmental engineer, my work is likely to influence both government policy and public opinion, making this communication even more vital. On the other hand, as engineers we are often stereotyped as introverted and unable to communicate with “normal” people. I believe inability to communicate has contributed to some of the major political/environmental controversies of today, including the continued debate concerning climate change. Even when scientists agree, the message can be lost in translation; when they disagree, the result can be even more confusing. Sometimes, scientists seem to believe that the general public just isn’t interested in learning the science, but I don’t think this is true. When I tell people that I am studying environmental engineering, they want to hear my opinion about the environmental issues they have been hearing about on the news, whether those issues relate to my research area or not. I think, as scientists, we have a certain responsibility to not only understand these issues, but to be able to answer questions about them effectively.

Scientists on Stage – What Can We Learn from Improv? If communicating science is so important, as I outlined above, why isn’t this skill emphasized in our training? This is something I don’t have an answer to, but that I think is beginning to change. I found the information posted on Scholar about the “improv” approach to training scientists to be better communicators very interesting. I think this is something that would help me a great deal, personally – although learning to communicate clearly is important to me, I struggle with my lack of confidence in speaking. My most dreaded part of any conference presentation is the “Q&A” portion, when the audience can ask me anything (anything?!) about what I have presented. In effect, I am having difficulty improvising around my knowledge of the subject. It is comforting to know that other engineers and scientists struggle with this, too, and that we are working on methods to address this problem.

Bonus link:
Humorous article about media coverage of science at the same level as in sports

What do you think? How important is it to you that the public understands your research? Did the exercises in the special “Communicating Science” class help you?

Blog 6 – Scientific Misconduct and Living with a Broken System

In a previous blog, I talked about the limitations of peer review in catching cases of scientific fraud. Science has traditionally been considered a self-policing field, but if our peer review process cannot determine if a paper is fraudulent, how can we catch these scientific criminals? The general answer to this question is that results that cannot be replicated will eventually be proven false because of the nature of the scientific method. However, in the real world, how often are studies replicated? Outside of a few high-profile research areas, replication seems unlikely. This is a consequence of the funding system, which emphasizes novel research. Imagine submitting a proposal to replicate previously published work – what is the likelihood that proposal would be funded? As a consequence, it is likely that these fraudulent results will remain in the system, leading other researchers down unproductive paths. As one researcher put it, “it’s like an epidemic, in the sense that they’re infected with these wrong ideas, and they’re spreading it to other researchers through journals.” How can we fix our system? When I talked about peer review, I suggested that more transparency in the scientific process was needed. Another possible answer might be setting aside funds for proposals designed to replicate research, although I’m not sure how these studies would be selected.

What do you think? Do you think science is self-policing? What are your suggestions for catching scientific criminals?

Blog 5 – Flipping the Classroom

One topic that has come up in our discussions in class is the idea of flipping the classroom – in this blog, I talk about my experiences with and thoughts on how this technique can be used in engineering.

As a student, I think I like this idea. For example, I’m taking an engineering class right now that incorporates some of these concepts, with the instructor posing informational “pencasts” to explain some of the derivations that would normally be presented in class. No matter how dedicated and intelligent the student, watching the instructor write line after line of calculus on the board is mind-numbing. Having these derivations in a form that can be paused, skipped through, or watched again is really helpful.

As a potential educator, well, I’m also excited about this. A quick internet search reveals a variety of ways that teachers are using these tools to make their classrooms more flexible. I recently heard another Ph.D. student talking about his struggle to cover all of the required material without going too fast for the students to understand. I think providing some material for students to review out of class could help with this. To encourage participation, short assessment quizzes could be used to check the students’ understanding of the material. Lecture time “freed” by moving some of the material to videos or online tutorials could be used for example problems or demonstrations.

However, as we discussed in class, we must keep in mind that these are tools – not replacements for good teaching. In my mind, the instructor’s ideal role in this type of learning would be to serve as a guide – to help students help themselves. The time “freed” by the use of outside-class lectures must be put to good use, such as discussion, problem solving, and finding and filling in “gaps” in the students’ understanding of the material. Basically, I tend to think that having more teaching tools can only be good for educators, because, although we have long known about different styles of learning, I think the traditional classroom lacks the flexibility to make use of this knowledge. Sadly, based on our discussion in class, this seems hopelessly idealistic. The point one student made in class that this will likely be misunderstood by administrations, leading to further cost-cutting and an overall decline in educational quality is a good one – one that I don’t have an answer for.

What about you? How do you think these teaching techniques could benefit you as a student? As a teacher?

Blog 4 – “Binary” Representation of Ethics

In class, we touched a bit on the way ethics is typically taught at the undergraduate level in the engineering. For me, this brought to mind my recent experience taking the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) Exam. Because of my background, I’m taking this exam later in my career than most students, and perhaps this is causing me to be overly critical of the system. However, I found the treatment of ethics on this exam troubling. In the current format, 7% of the exam is dedicated to “Ethics and Business Practices,” roughly the same amount of space as important technical engineering subjects like fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. However, because the FE exam is a multiple choice test, the questions are by necessity oversimplified. On the exam, students are expected to determine whether the engineer should/shouldn’t do “X” because of reason “Y.” In the reference materials provided, a brief code of ethics appears, and answering the questions correctly generally requires a strict adherence to the letter, rather than the spirit, of these codes.

What impression does this treatment give students of what it means to be an ethical engineer? Further, if the goal of the exam is to determine a student’s ability to succeed in engineering, does correctly answering these questions really demonstrate competency in ethics? Personally, I worry that this gives students the impression that ethical dilemmas are black and white, and that adhering to the code of ethics is generally straightforward. This system also emphasizes negative ethical rules (avoidance of misconduct) over positive ones (what it means to be a good engineer). Is this what we want to teach students who will be designing the bridges, airplanes, and water treatment plants of tomorrow?

What do YOU think? Have you taken the FE exam? Did you feel the treatment of ethics on the exam was adequate? How do you think ethics SHOULD be taught and tested?

Blog 3 – Reflections on Online Education

One topic we have discussed several times this semester is the ever-increasing role of online courses in higher education. Today, I reflect on my experiences with and future hopes for online education.

Online Learning – Love it or hate it? Early in the semester, we had a discussion about online classes. When the question was asked about everyone’s opinion of their online learning experience, I remember that one person said “bad.” This surprised me in some ways. In general, I’ve had good experiences with online learning, both through IVS and an online class I took as an undergraduate. Sure, these classes had their flaws, but I don’t feel like any of these flaws were the fault of the online format, and I felt that the online format opened many possibilities that just wouldn’t work in the normal classroom. For example, my IVS class was my first experience using an online forum for class discussion, something I still think is a very good idea. I also feel like online learning has revolutionized the accessibility of knowledge. We talked about the large number of students enrolled at the University of Phoenix, for example, and the increasing popularity of MOOCs. This is also true of K-12 education – for students in poorly-funded, rural schools, access to online classes changes everything.

The Internet and Inclusiveness. In addition to giving new opportunities to underserved populations, I believe that online education has the potential to create more inclusive learning environments. By moving discussions online to chat rooms, forums, or blogs, we create new opportunities. In the traditional classroom, conversations are dominated by the most extroverted students. In an online setting, each student has a voice. For discussion of sensitive topics, aliases can be used. I think this system has a lot of potential in the younger grades, when students are much less comfortable with a classroom discussion, but I think these arguments also apply to university classrooms.

What do YOU think? Share your stories here to help me answer the question “Online learning – love it or hate it?”

Blog 2 – Perceptions of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Education

What is the role of adjunct faculty in a modern university setting, and where do adjunct professors come from? I recently read an article that said, in 2000, adjunct faculty provided 40% of all instruction at institutions of higher education. Compared to full professors, they are generally paid little for their efforts, and may need to struggle against negative stereotypes. According to the article, permanent faculty often have the impression that adjunct faculty “aren’t as good as other teachers,” and equate their low rate of pay with a lower quality of teaching. This lines up with one of my personal experiences as an undergraduate, during which I had a professor tell me not to take a course from an adjunct faculty member if I could take the same course with a “real” professor. I find these attitudes really strange, because my experiences as a student taking courses with adjunct faculty have been overwhelmingly positive.

For example, I took an elementary fluid mechanics course from an adjunct professor whose primary job was with the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). According to him, teaching was the “fun” part of his day, and he taught a course every semester because he enjoyed working with students. In addition to his enthusiasm, he brought a wealth of practical experience to the class. His work and interests included modeling tidal waves, predicting the spread of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill based on weather conditions, and various problems involving dams and river flows.

In another case, I took both an introductory and educational psychology course from an adjunct professor who had worked as a clinical psychologist and was teaching part-time. In the intro class, her stories based on actual (anonymous) patients really brought the material close to home. In the educational psychology class, her experiences from both the perspective of an educator and a mother of school-age children provided a unique perspective and, I think, made her teaching more effective.

What about you? Have you had a positive or negative experience with an adjunct professor that you would like to share?

Blog 1 — Peer Review

As we near the end of the semester, I’ve been reflecting on my journal entries from previous weeks. Although at first the topics seem scattered and random, upon further inspection several common themes began to take shape. Over the next several days, I’m going to be releasing a series of blogs where I explore these common themes from my journals. For the first blog in the series, I’m going to talk about the peer review process and its role in the scientific community.

Peer Review – Necessary or Just Friction? In the Open Access Week keynote lecture by Cameron Neylon, he describes peer review as something that adds unnecessary “friction” to the dissemination of scientific knowledge, impeding the process. In this same presentation, Dr. Neylon talks about peer review as “outsourcing,” and, as I understand it, implies that we are paying other people to do our thinking for us (when it comes to selecting which papers are of better quality). I think this might be true, but I don’t see the problem with it – like most things, we pay for it because we don’t want to do it. Although I think a change could happen in smaller steps, with time, I think shifting the burden of applying the “filter” at the user end all at once would be overwhelming to researchers. I have heard arguments saying if the current peer review system was eliminated today, shifting the burden of determining quality to the user, the old publishing system would begin to reestablish itself. The argument was that is that in the vacuum caused by the absence of peer review, it is likely that websites would be created that compiled lists of “best of” articles in a certain discipline. Once these sites became established, some authors would begin sending their findings to those sites directly in order to draw attention to their latest research. In order to meet this demand for review, these sites would need money . . . and so on. Of course, there are counterarguments to consider (Wikipedia, for example), but it’s an interesting point that I would have liked to see addressed in more detail.

What Peer Review Can’t Do For Us. In the NOVA program “Do Scientists Cheat?” one scientist described the role of peer review as “throwing out garbage.” In other words, peer review is designed to eliminate those studies that are clearly of poor design or low quality. However, peer review has limitations. In particular, the peer review system, used properly, can be very effective at spotting incompetence, but it is not designed to catch fraud. In a team project I worked on for another class, we noted in science, in particular, a surprising amount of the current system is based on trust. We trust that the paper we are reading is using data that was obtained legitimately, that substantial amounts of data were not thrown out, and that the authors actually did the experiments they are reporting. When that trust is violated, as in high profile fraud cases like that of Jan Hendrik Schön, we are unprepared, and science as a whole suffers. It is possible that increased transparency of the scientific process, through either providing datasets with each publication or, more radically, through open notebook science, will decrease fraud, or at least make it more difficult to commit, but, at some level, I think that we as scientists need to accept that “trust is the foundation of science.”

I’ve talked a lot about my opinions on peer review, but I really want to hear from YOU, the reader. In particular:

  1. What do you think of peer review: necessary or just friction in the system?
  2. How do you feel about the idea that trust is the foundation of science?