Future of the University: Teaching or Research?

Ever since my first day in College, I’ve heard a rumor that “good teachers can’t do research and good researchers can’t teach”, which is true based on my experience. The best teachers I’ve had during my higher education are usually not as proficient at research as those “bad” teachers. However, while I admire those good researchers, I really suffer from their teaching. Most of the times they sit on the podium and read slides. Students do all kinds of things in the classroom but listening to the lecture. Then in the last few days of class we download the slides and cram for exams. I learnt nothing.

Ever since my first day of preparing to be a future professor in higher education, I’ve heard two completely different voices. Most of my Ph.D. friends and some professors say “The only thing that determines whether you are a good professor or not, whether you get promotion or not, and whether you can really have a place in higher education or not is publication”. “Publication publication publication.” They stressed, “That’s the only important thing. Do not waste time on teaching; it’s just an obligation that needs to be done.” Well, to some extent I know that they are right. But then my advisor, my classmates and instructors in the Preparing Future Professoriate program say “teaching is as well important! We need to be good teachers in higher education for the future generation”. I know they are correct, too.

Therefore, ever since my first day of writing blogs about higher education, I’ve been thinking about this question: What will I put more emphasis on once I become a university professor? Teaching or research? Can I do both well? If not, if I choose research, will I become one of the professors that I hated during my own higher education? No that’s not what I want to do! How can I solve this dilemma?

Well, In my very first blog post for this class, I wrote about university’s mission statements. And I can see that while some universities put more emphasis on research, others put more on teaching. So that’s a good thing and possibly a solution to my problem. If I like teaching more, I can go to a teaching university and vice versa. But, most of the good universities in the States (and in many other countries, too) emphasize research, which means that a lot of good students in these top universities may actually not receive a top higher education because that’s not where the universities put emphasis on!

We can’t blame the professors too much on this because everyone has limited energy and it’s hard to achieve high results in both teaching and research. Virginia Tech is trying to solve this by hiring collegiate professors, who are only in charge of teaching and don’t need to do research. I really like this idea. But then another problem comes out: how can we relate the cutting-edge scientific results from good research to our higher education teaching?

How to achieve both good teaching and research: this is a problem that needs an urgent solution for higher education and we really need to put equal emphasis on both. Higher education is where our future generation is educated and inspired, and they deserve a good teaching environment. If we keep neglecting the importance of a good balance between teaching and research, we will make higher education less and less efficient helpful.

University Culture

April 8, 2016 was the 120th birthday of my undergraduate university — Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), because Jiao Tong means “transportation” and there is a Chinese idiom related to “4” and “8” that means “extend in all directions”.

The University has been publicizing this and almost all the big electronic screens in Shanghai are playing our promotional videos recently. All kinds of shows and programs are initiated to celebrate SJTU’s 120 birthday. Famous people such as our president and Ming Yao, who is the former NBA basketball player in Huston Rocket, is back to school and is attending SJTU to get a business degree now, even attended in a comedy to celebrate the birthday.

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We are so proud of our universities and really have a sense of belonging there. That is part of universities’ culture that I believe is really important. In the States, universities such as VT have sports culture, Greek life, Hokies T-shirts, etc. Surprisingly, in a lot of other universities worldwide, there’s no university T-shirt. Back to SJTU, we have T-shirts and hats of SJTU as well, and they are usually of good quality and not cheap. Other university cultures include the university song, the university slogan, the university badge and so on.

University culture is a good way of publicizing and improve students sense of belonging. It is an important part of university life and worth spending time and money.

Gender Gaps in Academia

I ran into a discussion on the average IQ plot of students by gender ratio the other day. The plot is attached here and follow this link for the original post.


An interesting and obvious “fact” from this plot seems to be that the more women a major has, the lower average IQ the students from that major have; thus men are smarter than women. But, assuming that the statistics are accurate (which probably are not and have some kind of sampling bias), we should not forget that correlation is NOT causation.

For example, in an experiment conducted by Katherine Milkman, Module Akinola, and Dolly chugh (look at the New York Times report on this), they sent more than 6500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities from fictional prospective students for Ph.D. program seeking. And it turned out that professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost EVERY discipline and across all types of universities. And that the lower the percentage of the minorities (including women) in a discipline, the less responsive the professors to the minorities were. This could be one of the potential reasons for the less representative of women in technology and science.

Also, since 1970, the percentage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has actually been increasing from 7% to 26% in 2011 according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The situation is continuously changing with the liberation of women going on.

In conclusion, this plot is worth discussing but DOES NOT mean that men are smarter than women. Let’s continue striving for making our higher education more inclusive and prejudice-free.

Thanks to the post by Yuguangtongchen on Zhihu (Chinese Quora) to inspire me on this post. 

Academic Freedom in the Flint Lead Water Crisis

The incident that Charles Murray, one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, is going to visit Virginia Tech (VT) and give a talk invokes a large discussion among the university about academic freedom and racism problem. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Protecting academic freedom is its core mission.

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure)

This reminds me of the famous Flint lead water crisis going on recently. Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from VT, a winner once in his crusade battle against the federal government to protect residents of Washington from lead water, received a phone call in April 2015 from a woman in Flint, claiming that something was seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap and her family’s health was in danger. Dr. Edwards tested her water and found out that “it was the worst lead levels he had ever seen”. He was so furious that he formed a research team in VT to investigate the incident and “go all in for Flint”. They even have an official “Flint Water Study Updates” website to cover the progress, spread related knowledge and information, and raise funding.

This event has attracted much attention and Dr. Edwards’ research surely pushed the investigation progress a lot. In March 23, 2016, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force published the final report on the website. If there is no academic freedom, it could be much harder for Dr. Edwards to stand out and confront the government.

Another related small story: last week, I had an interview with a technical leader from a coastal consulting company. He was very polite and appraised my advisor’s study for being useful and constructive to the engineering field. Therefore, I believe that academic freedom is not only about the right to research freely, but also about the responsibility to protect and advance the common good,  just like what Dr. Edwards and my advisor has been trying to do, and also what we all shall strive to do.

Higher Education in China

As a student spending more than 20 years in China, I want to talk about the higher education in China from two aspects. One is some basic information about Chinese education, and the other is some personal experiences I had and my viewpoints about it developed during my education in China.

Some facts and numbers:

  • China education is the largest education system in the world. According to the latest data (2015) of China Ministry of Education, there were 2845 higher education institutions in China, including public and private institutions, enrolling 23.91 million students.
  • Xiaoping Deng resumed the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gao Kao) in 1977. A growing number of students have been taking the test since then. In 2015 there were 9.42 million students taking Gao Kao.
  • Investment in education accounts for about 4% of total GDP in China in 2015.
  • Until 2014, more than 377,000 international students from 203 countries or regions  are enrolled in over 775 higher education institutions in China.
  • “211 Project”: 100 universities in the 21st century. “985 Project”: 10-12 world-class universities. Investments from the government in these key public universities are much higher than others.
  • Tuition fees are waived for students in the six national normal (i.e., teacher education) universities since 2007.

Some of my experiences in Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) (“211” and “985”, a top 5 university in China ):

  • The government does invest a lot of money in higher education. We have a very large campus and many fancy facilities. We have a 3-D printer in our main library that can print for students for free. I study in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. Our wave tank is highly-equipped and ranks second among all the wave tanks in the world, only after the MARIN tank in Holland.
  • Our campus life is full of fun. Other than six buildings of restaurants on campus and numerous off campus, we have a life center that sells all kinds of things including computers, books, snacks etc.. The barbecue restaurant at this life center never closes before midnight. Every semester, we have this event called “the Hundred Regiments”, in which all student organizations have a desk of their own and recruit. Organizations include debate team, dancing club, chess club, comics club, etc.. I joined about 5 of these organizations. From my point of view, unlike the Greek life in VT, these organizations are more diverse and inclusive.
  • There’s little finance problems for students in college. The tuition fee is low. More than 50% in my department can get scholarships and we have other kinds of stipends for low-income students, too.
  • Our president morning-run with us every semester! He’s the nicest president!
  • While I had the happiest four years in my life in my undergraduate there in SJTU, I have to admit that the biggest problem for me, and probably for most of the undergraduates in China is that we pay less attention to schoolwork once we finished Gao Kao, which is the most difficult and important test in our life according to our parents and teachers. The high requirements for entering college do not keep going to ensure the high quality of graduated students from college.

To conclude, our higher education is booming but we have our problems, too. But  I love our college life and I’m confident that it’ll get better and better.

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!

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.

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.

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.


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.”