“I feel like arguing with a woman”

Several months ago, on a popular entertainment science show in China called “The Strongest brain”, two people started an argument on whether or not the assessment for an challenger is reasonable. One person is a neuroscientist and a professor from Peking University, one of the top universities in China. He likes to say that “Science is the sole criterion for evaluation”.  The other person is a very famous author/businessman/editor/director/teen idol, but also a controversial person. Some people think he is shallow. And he is often teased by other people for being short and like a girl.

They argued with each other so fiercely, and suddenly the professor said:

“I can’t stand this. I feel like arguing with a woman.”

The writer was so outraged that even if the professor apologized twice, he stormed out of the scene and refused to come back to continue the recording.

This event lit up a nationwide discussion on whether or not this exact sentence is a prejudice against women. So I am a woman, and I don’t like this sentence. I argued with my male friend on this. His claiming is “The professor should not have used this sentence to attack the author. But without any context, this sentence itself is not a prejudice. Men and women are different. Women do prefer arguing and they argue more emotionally than men, who usually argue more rationally. And the sentence is just stating the difference out.”

I can’t argue with him on that because I am an emotional person. I know I don’t like it but deeply inside my heart I do feel that women are more emotional. And not just me, not just my friend, a lot of people in the society feel the same way. They wouldn’t say it out loud and they do have the same stereotype. And I feel that these stereotypes, not just those against women, but all stereotypes will exist more or less unless we enter a utopian world some day in the future. Act it out or not, say it out or not, differences exit. Don’t get me wrong on this, I am 100 percent sure that we should by no means do everything we need to eliminate discrimination, but, stereotypes are hard to eliminate, if even possible.

Now the question comes: should we do positive intervention in our education to make students not feel these stereotypes to improve their academic performance? Claude M. Steele says yes in his book “Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and we can do.” He thinks it is worth the risk of having these students unprepared for real world stereotypes. I like many of his ideas and appreciate his work on this. But I disagree with him on this specific question. Academic performance is only a part of one’s life. Many people will go through some type of stereotypes in his life and he/she should be prepared for this. Tell them the truth, but teach them to fight against the unfair. Knowing the evil does not mean accepting it. I would prefer that if I have a baby girl, she won’t say anything like “I feel like arguing with a woman” in the future, but she won’t be hurt too much to lose her ration by this kind of sentence either, because she is prepared, and then she can fight back.

Science Unplugged

Several weeks ago we had a communicating science workshop. Performing artists came and engaged us in a series of activities to help us improve our communicating science skills. I love these activities and do feel that they helped me to open up as well as the other future professoriate. There are a lot of things that teachers can learn from performers, especially when we do science outreach. To communicate our research to people outside of our field is a tricky task and needs performing techniques.

So I revisited the Alan Alda center for communicating science website and found this science unplugged live weekly web broadcast. This is a science show that delivers vivid and engaging presentations about scientists’ work. It even involves interactive communications between scientists and students. What is the meaning of doing research inside the ivory tower with no care for spreading the ideas and results? This science unplugged format is really a great idea.

I then searched online to see if there are other similar events about communicating science in a vivid way and found this Computer Science Unplugged website, which endeavours to talk about computer science without a computer! They are lots of activities, videos and a community that involves people who want to learn computer science in a diverse and interesting way. I love this!

Finally, another student in my pedagogy class wrote a great post on “lessons from broadway on how to create dynamic learning environments”. He even gave a list of “33 tips from established actors” that he believe, and I agree, could be used by teachers, too.

I hope we all can communicate science interestingly and effectively!

Is it just a “performance”?

When I was a TA for fluid mechanics, I was given the opportunity to give students weekly recitation. This 45-min class was usually divided into two parts: I will work through some example problems for that week’s topic first, and then followed by some experimental demonstrations that facilitate the students’ understanding of some concepts.

This recitation was optional. And the professor stressed that I won’t get too many of them, you know, just to make me less nervous. However, when I walked into the classroom in the first week, I got more than 30 students! That was two thirds of the class! I was totally taken aback by this for a minute, and then, without choice, I proceeded with caution and finished my first class.

It is amazing how teaching can get you addicted. Well, at least for me. I started to enjoy standing in front of the students and getting their attention. And inevitably, this feeling got me disappointed several weeks later, in fact, exactly the week after spring break, when some students were still in their holiday moods. I got only five students that week. I felt so depressed that I ran to the professor and asked if it was because the way I teach. Was it because I was a bad teacher?

He said:

“No. I don’t think so. Sometimes students got busy or they don’t feel like the need to attend a recitation this week. So you don’t need to be sad. As long as you think you are doing your best. This is like a performance. Your performance. You got prepared, go up stage and perform the teaching. No matter how many audiences you’ve got, it does not affect the way you teach. ”

I was convinced. This made me feel much better and I totally bought the idea of seeing teaching as a performance.

But is it really?

As I learnt recently, no. It’s better if we see ourselves as facilitators for students’ learning than as teachers. Teaching should not be a one-way knowledge indoctrination, but should be an interactive process. I still appreciate the professor’s saying that helped me to rebuild my confidence, but teaching is totally not a performance. We should, from some aspects, be cautious about our gestures, voices, and postures that can affect our communication, but we should never see the teaching podiums as our stages. Teaching is not about us. Teaching is about the students.

Online Ed: Teaching Millions or Making Millions?

MOOC, or a massive open online course, aims at unlimited participation and open access via the web. According to The New York Times, 2012 became “the year of the MOOC” because several well-financed providers such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX, which are in association with some elite universities such as Stanford and MIT, have emerged.

In the midst of applause and advocation of MOOC, a national faculty coalition– CFHE (the link takes you to its homepage), or the Campaign for the Future of higher Education — stands out and continues its anti-MOOC offensive. According to this article and the animation following it (attached in the end here), the coalition has several problems with MOOC:

  1. How does MOOC reach people without the internet?
  2. MOOC is currently a failure because 90% of the register students failed to complete. Research also shows that online students don’t learn as much as students sitting in a classroom.
  3. Is the “education for everyone” future just a sales page for MOOC? These anti-MOOC faculty believe that this is “too good to be true”, just like the financial housing loan that promises everyone a house a few years ago. Currently there are more than $65 million investigated in Coursera alone and around $1 billion invested in education technology. Venture Capitals come into play not because they care about education, but because they want more money back. Therefore, is MOOC’s purpose really “Teaching Millions” or just “Making Millions”?

Following the article are many thoughtful comments. People are arguing on this subject continuously. The pros say that MOOC at least offer those who cannot afford higher education an opportunity. The cons then argue that the quality of this kind of education cannot be guaranteed, etc.

I personally agree that MOOC does provide another option for higher education, but it is not mature enough for the society to recognize its quality. It is also a tool for businessmen to make money. However, if it proves to be indeed beneficial to education and the society, the fact that someone is profiting from it could not be a bad thing. To put it bluntly, the current higher education is totally non-profiting at all? No. But then again, it is always good to have some anti voices, to help shaping this subject into a better process.

Come on! Let’s Play!

What a brilliant idea to use the theory of human learning built into good video games for teaching and learning! Isn’t that just the right way to set students’ minds on fire in the digital era?

Video games are both frustrating and life enhancing. So are and should learning be. But why most of us (at lease for me for sure) love playing video games more than learning? Because the former gives much more fun! Can we make learning more fun than it is now? Yes I think we can.

Check this video out:

It’s a simple program that you can download and compile without warning (according to most comments below) and OMG! Look at how beautiful it is! How diverse it can be! Now think about this: instead of making math, physics and coding the most boring thing in the world, you combine them in a single program and make it so much fun! Now I’m imagining taking the codes, making it incomplete, giving it to the students and asking them to make their own animation on whatever fluid process. Isn’t that a perfect learning game? I would love that!

If we don’t treat learning as such a serious topic, we can actually have fun with it.  We play, and we learn!

Ethics: ORI Case Summary of Ryousuke Fujita

ORI is the Office of Research Integrity and is under the US Department of Health & Human Services. Here I want to share one of their cases regarding misconduct in research by Dr. Ryousuke Fujita, a former Postdoctoral Scientist in Taub Institute for the Aging Brain in Columbia University Medical Center.

Dr. Fujita is found to engage in research misconduct by falsifying and fabricating data in 74 panels included in figures in two publications (Cell 2011; Nature 2013) and one unpublished manuscript. He inflated sample numbers and data, fabricated numbers for data sets, manipulated data analysis, mislabelled images, and manipulated and reused images. Then ORI listed specifically the details of how Dr. Fujita engaged in the above research misconduct.

The punishment for Dr. Fujita is that he has entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement that for a period of three years (beginning on March 18, 2015), he will exclude himself from any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility for or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the US Government, and exclude himself from serving in any advisory capacity to the US Public Health Service (PHS) such as serve on any PHS advisory committee, board, peer review committee, or as a consultant.


74 Panels in only three papers! I wonder how the editors let him do this under their eyes. And the journals are so high-impact: Nature! Cell! And also the university he was from, Columbia University, is always a decent school in my mind. This just inevitably reminds me of another high-impact journal faker: Haruko Obokata. She published two papers on Nature in one day early 2014, claiming that she has developed a radical and remarkably easy way to make STAP cells that could be grown into tissue for use anywhere in the body — which is really a big deal in biology field. But she then was widely questioned by biological scientists in US and was investigated by her institution. Under supervision, she never succeeded in making the cells again.

I brought this up because these two cases really taught me how much it can cost to misconduct research, especially when you are in a renowned institution, and you published something on a high-impact journal. One step wrong could ruin your life. We should make right choices.

The Moon and Sixpence

So many thoughts keep talking to each other after watching Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation, reading Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” and Liu and Noppe-Brandon’s “Imagination First”, I want to make a simpler but hopefully more interesting post that could help me release some of the tension of thinking, and also perhaps can add some thoughts, too (still being contradictory, can’t stop…).

Well, I am going to tell a story of a Straight A sleepwalker. He was a stockbroker, making good amount of money in London. He had a beautiful and considerate wife, raising two adorable children, a son and a girl. They lived happily together all the time and will live happily ever after…

No. I know you are expecting something different. Here it goes. After a summer vacation with the family, the man wrote a letter to his wife saying that he decided  to abandon them and would never come back. Then he moved to Paris with little money, found a stinky and shabby hotel and started to paint. Well, nobody liked his paintings and he fell prey to hunger and illness every now and then. Yet, he finally, for the first time in life, started to feel real happiness.

You may have caught me. That’s a stolen story from the novel “The Moon and Sixpence” written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1919 and it is believed to be based on the real life story of Gauguin, a great French artist.

While the story is trying to explore the relationship between arts and livelihood and is way more complicated than what I told in the above, I  saw it another way right now:

Sixpence is the grades and the Moon is our intrinsic motivation, our imagination, our urge to direct our own lives and the desire to get better and better at something that ourselves think matters.

Although there is a long way to go to delete the system of grades, and there are still a lot of issues related to this revolution (some of my thoughts are shouting: grading is more efficient; pure subjective comments can lead to corruption; etc.), I am fully supportive of DELETING GRADES or DILUTING GRADES. I believe those issues can be solved eventually.

Finally, to echo my favorite Zen master example in “The Case Against Grades”, where the master says “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task”, I want to cite Maugham here:

“If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.”


Open Access Journal in Coastal Engineering

Most of the journals in my field — Coastal Engineering — supports open access. Among them, Coastal Engineering is a journal from Elsevier, which is “a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals”. It is easy to confuse this journal with another one named Coastal Engineering Journal from World Scientific. But they are not the same. The Elsevier one has a higher impact factor.

Coastal Engineering is an international journal for coastal engineers and scientists. It publishes fundamental studies and case studies on almost all the  aspects of coastal, harbour and offshore engineering, combining practical applications with modern technological and scientific approaches, such as mathematical and numerical modelling, laboratory and field observations and experiments.

The journal supports open access by offering authors with several choices:

  1. The authors needs to pay a $2850 open access publication fee (excluding taxes) to make the articles freely available to both subscribers and the wider public with permitted reuse. This is also called hybrid open access or “golden” open access.
  2. Elsevier has a number of green open access options. The authors can self-archive the manuscript and enable public access from their institution’s repository after an embargo period. For Coastal Engineering, this embargo period is 24 months.

A study of random journals from the citation indices AHSCI, SCI and SSCI in 2013 claimed that 88% of the journals were closed access and 12% were open access, and very few offers open access with no additional fee. Therefore, based on the above information, I think Coastal Engineering has positioned itself in a pretty supportive way, although not perfect, in the open access movement.


to Learn, not to be taught

From primary school to middle school, high school and finally to college, getting good grades during tests have been the only goal of my life. I was raised in an environment that grades speak for every child, and I felt lucky that I was so good at this. My talent on taking tests has taken me all the way from a small town to a middle city, and to the biggest city in China: Shanghai.

The more specific the goal is and the stronger the desire is, the easier one can get lost once the goal is achieved. After the most stressful National College Entrance Exam, I got a good score and went to one of the top five universities in China. Suddenly all the pressure was gone and life is much more about tests and grades. I started to skip classes, attending activity associations such as dancing club, debating team, basketball team etc., any thing but paying attention to what was taught in class. But several questions kept haunting my mind:

What do I really like? Why am I studying this major? What is my life about?

Am I being stupid and unrealistic? No. I never had a chance to ask myself these questions. But they are so important for a student to love his or her life, love learning and live happily. And I am not the only one who did not start to think about the question of significance until entering college or later. More than one of my friends realized that their true  interest lies somewhere else in the second or third year of their Ph.D.. Why? Because their life direction has been led by grades, rankings and other people’s opinions, nothing related to their true inner desire.

We’ve been taught for so many years. It’s time to really start to learn.

On the other hand, from the point view of a future teacher, we need to learn to avoid the same thing to happen to the future students. Anti-teaching and mindful learning can be a guideline on this. “Learning is the hallmark of humanity”, and the purpose of teaching is only to invoke the students’ desire to learn. We no longer need to indoctrinate the students with all the knowledge, but some of the basics and the way to learn through connected learning. And basics are not basics either. “Facts, derived from science of not, are not context-free”. “The routine stayed fixed, while the context changed.” We need to insure that the teaching environment can facilitate mindful learning. i.e., encourage the students to think while they learn. Let them enjoy learning.

Mission Statements

The two university mission statements that I found are interesting are the mission statement of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the one of Columbia University.

Caltech is in California, United States. Despite its small size, Caltech is one of world’s best science and technology research universities. What stood out to me is how its mission statement emphasizes on research in the field of science and technology while also mentions education in two places (“…integrated with education”, “while educating…”). This implies two things. One is that no matter how excellent one university is in research, it still needs to consider its role in education. Another thing is that Caltech does emphasize more on research, which  makes sense considering its type.

Columbia University is in New York, United States. It is also a private research university. Other than research and education, Columbia University also emphasizes on two unique things. One is its location in New York, and the other is its diversity. The location of a university can be really important, especially when the location is a big city. Therefore, to link the research and education to the resources of a great metropolis is truly essential and helpful. Besides, considering the globalization of New York and today’s higher education, having a more diverse and international group of students and faculty also add values to Columbia University.

The Caltech mission statement reads:

“The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become create members of society.”

The mission statement of Columbia University reads:

“Columbia University is one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields. The University recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis. It seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and students body, to support research and teaching on global issues, and to create academic relationships with many countries and regions. It expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.”