Monthly Archives: April 2012
The Student Caring website posted a podcast a while ago that has some anecdotes from me. It’s entitled “How to Cheat in College, and What to Do About It.” It’s fairly short and worth a listen. These folks try to come about things from a fairly compassionate position, which is easy to lose track of when you’re dealing with people who sometimes take advantage of the compassion of others.
What I learned as a high school student:
- How to write well
- How to edit other peoples’ work
- How to prioritize my time
- How to interact with people
- How to do basic calculus
- How to solve a few well-known physics problems
- Work ethic and responsibility
What I learned as an undergraduate in physics:
- To start my homework the second it’s assigned
- How to use basic matrices
- How to solve a large variety of well-known physics problems
- A tiny amount of lab work
- How to oversee people working toward a common goal
What I learned as a graduate student in physics:
- How to grade two hundred labs a week
- How to solve more complex well-known physics problems
- How to do tensor calculus
- How to teach courses
- How to carry out research
What physics professors do:
- Propose and carry out research
- Oversee graduate students
- Run a lab
- Write grants
- Serve on committees
- Design and teach courses
- Write papers
- Review papers
- My high school education did as much to prepare me for a professorial job as my graduate and undergraduate education combined.
- I learned as many useful things outside of my coursework as I did inside.
Depth and breath of physics knowledge is a worthy prerequisite for being a professor. Unfortunately, it is a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for doing well as one. If we’re not preparing our physics majors to be professors, what are we preparing them for?
That’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. If you can spot the job for which physics students are ideally prepared with their current curriculum, not counting electives, I’d love to hear what it is.
Not every physics major becomes a professor, nor should they. However, given that it’s the current “expected route” for which we prepare people, it may be worth considering a revision to the undergraduate and especially graduate-level curricula.
If you are in any level of school administration, you need to read this article, passed on to me by a friend:
It boils down this lengthy report of the UC Davis pepper spray incident.
The key message is, over and over again, “failed to communicate.” To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The UC Davis administration and the police that they called in were both permeated with that illusion, for weeks, and the pepper spray assault was the result. Here’s an excerpt:
Chancellor Katehi, on her part, “thought she made it clear” that when police ordered the students to leave, they were (a) not to wear riot gear into the camp, (b) not to carry weapons of any kind into the camp, (c) were not to use force of any kind against the students, and (d) were not to make any arrests. But all that anybody else on that conference call heard her say out loud was “I don’t want another situation like they just had at Berkeley,” and Chief Spicuzza interpreted that as “no swinging of clubs.”
This sort of situation is constant throughout the report. When you have to say “I thought I made it clear,” you didn’t. When you have to say, “I thought I understood,” that’s a sign that you didn’t know what the hell was going on and you weren’t about to admit it.
Because you’d rather see other people harmed than have yourself look stupid.
If you have trouble looking stupid, if it really scares you to the point where you’d rather have someone else rub capsaicin in their eyes than admit your temporary, changeable shortcomings, then I’m sorry but the world needs you to not be in charge of anyone. If you need to gather your courage first, that’s understandable – but gather it quickly, and act. For me, it helps to consider it as setting an example to the students I work with: that anyone can admit their faults and work to correct them. That, to me, is a lesson worth embodying.
Separately, there is also the issue that several people had been given directives, or even orders, that were either impossible or illegal. From the chancellor to the police chief to the officers at the scene, these people attempted to complete those tasks.
If you are in a position of power, it can be very jarring when someone underneath you says, “What you’re asking us to do is wrong and I won’t be a part of it.” It should be more than just jarring. It should be a show-stopper, an instant halt to operations. People do not stand up and say such things easily or lightly. I’ve been on both ends in such situations, and I wish that I had listened more often, and listened better, when someone under me told me that what I was doing was wrong. I’ve also been the whistle-blower. Sometimes people listened. Other times they just took the whistle out of my mouth and patted me on the head like a dog.
Any one person involved in the chain could have stopped this. From the chancellor saying precisely what was or was not allowed, to the police chief refusing to allow riot gear and weapons, to the lieutenant, to the officers themselves. Someone should have stepped up and been the moral compass. Even one officer, even one, should have taken another officer by the shoulder and said, “Holy shit, stop spraying them.”
It would have been so simple.
This, to me, is one of the great failures of our educational system: that when human beings are given illegal or immoral orders, they do not immediately refuse. We do not truly think and speak for ourselves often enough; we want to have someone with us. We want to rebel en masse or conform and keep our heads down, as if by doing so we can avoid the moral consequences of our actions and the actions of our leaders.
We as human beings turn acts of moral fiber into acts of social or professional suicide.
There will always be people who make immoral decisions, sometimes intentionally, more often not. If we do not teach our students, and train our teachers, to stand against such decisions, we will be ruled by them.
(It’s a video game reference.)
Today I wanted to look at college completion and drop-out rates. This was brought on by seeing this site, which I was linked to by an old co-worker:
After you see the stats on the main page, just type in your favorite university at the top and take a look around. Not every feature works on every browser, but it’s fairly good overall.
It’s a rule of thumb right now that one third of the U.S. has a college diploma, one third has a high school diploma, and one third does not. I find that somewhat terrifying – the high school dropout rate in particular.
The dropout rate in my broad field, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), is even higher. Check out the PCAST Engage to Excel report (click here for a .pdf download), which I was lucky enough to see presented by one of its writers. Only about 40% of students who start off in STEM in college end up getting a degree there. We lose more STEM students to college courses than to high school courses.
Let me repeat that: We lose more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technology folks in general… in college. Not in standardized high school courses that teach to the SATs and AP exams, but in college-level courses where there is greater freedom to innovate and more fascinating topics to explore. We lose most of them in the first year or two.
That is shameful. Downright shameful.
The reason, I think (and this is just opinion here), is inspiration. I’ve been in more high school courses where the teachers come in with a love for the material and an enthusiastic presentation, seeking to inspire their kids. Intro-level college courses are often boring and dry, with the promise of more methodical and boring stuff afterwards.
I admit that there may be something to say for the effect of the difficulty level gradient – I’ve never heard people say that they left the humanities or a business program because it was too hard, but I do hear that about science and mathematics. I also hear people say that they thought science would be interesting, but it turned into boring mush, whereas business was up-front about what business does.
Luckily, we all know how to teach better – we only need the desire to pull it off.
It’s odd to see colleges needing to pull inspiration from high schools – and even middle or grade schools – when it comes to keeping kids in STEM fields, but that’s what we need right now. We need inspiration, and so do our students.
These kids don’t deserve a suspension, they deserve a commendation.
And, of course, an education.