One-off topics courses.

This is a followup from yesterdays post.

Thinking about how to make the curriculum more exciting.

It occurred to me that one way to make things better was to have more innovative courses, but innovation is often the kiss-of-death in university education. To wit, if I went to my chair and proposed a course, then I’d have to teach it, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize that I carry a full load and publish and perform independently funded research.

However, there is a way to do it that will work.

  • Teach a topics course. It can be on anything relevant and should be on something that you find fun.
  • Teach it once (or once every few years). If the students cant take it when you can offer it, that’s their problem. There will be another later.
  • Rotate it among the faculty. This might be the hardest to pull off, but if everyone taught then there would be a huge range of courses and there could even be several at once.
  • Tie it to research. Stuff at the edge of science is always the most fun.
  • Give it credit. Have it replace a course normally taught for one term. No one, in their right mind, will volunteer to work harder for the same reward. By being one term only, the regular curriculum is minimally disrupted.

For example, I could replace my “data security” class one term with an advanced undergraduate course that might be “topics in cryptography” or “hacking for fun and profit” (well maybe not that), or something from the bioinformatics side of my work or something like computer-based music that builds on a strong avocational interest (and is computer science). It would be fun, once, and then maybe again in a few years. There are many topics that our faculty could put together on this model – much more than we could regularly teach.

Written by Rob in: pedagogy,science |

Why Johnny Can’t Code

(more semi-deterministic thoughts about education)

I just found out that my department is having trouble keeping up it’s teaching hours. I’d noticed a drop in one of the classes I teach in the fall – Data Security (which is fancy name for a course in looking at how systems are cracked and computer fraud of various flavors). Since any individual class can have rises and falls in enrollment, this didn’t bother me too much, but I’ve also heard of similar drops in other classes – including ones that are in the core curriculum for computer science. Apparently we’re losing enrollment relative to the rest of the university, which is not good.

So as usual it is time to reflect and try and make some guesses as to what could be going on.

  1. Job Relevance Computer science used to be considered a “safe” major because there were always jobs for computer scientists. This might not be true any more, or might not have a perception of truth any more. My department has moved from a practical or engineering viewpoint towards a mathematical one. We certainly don’t stress practical skills, but the students do get a thorough grounding in algorithmic theory. Some of this shift is deliberate, but some is due to our recruiting GTA’s (graduate students who teach to support themselves) who can’t code and sometimes barely speak English. While non-research universities make a big fuss about “courses taught by professors”, a large part of graduate training is how to teach and organize your thoughts so that someone else can understand them. Therefore, having GTA’s is actually a good thing – provided they are good GTA’s. Some of this is also the result of curriculum reform – where we’ve done away with several language and software engineering requirements.
  2. Is it Fun? I’m not sure we’ve kept this up. Just sitting and programming (or thinking about programming (or thinking about thinking about programming)) isn’t that cool. Do we need to add courses that are sexy? (I half wonder if I should teach my course in “hacking” to the undergrads – and could they do it?). One of the goals of the curriculum reform was to make the fun classes – like games programming and graphics- more available, but we don’t have the depth to pull that off. We certainly don’t have undergraduates involved in research – which is fun, but we could. In fact we could do it much more easily than either chemistry or biology (after all it is a lot harder to hurt yourself in computational chemistry than real chemistry). The current faculty review/reward structure won’t support this which will take some leadership from the chair and dean if it is ever to happen. We do have a robot class which has been successful – but it is like the lego mindstorm robots that many kids do in middleschool – we need more of it at a higher level.
  3. Is It “Real”? A lot of the undergraduate and beginning graduate curriculum uses “toy” problems and “canned” examples that have sometimes not been changed in twenty years. If a student knows that the exams and homework have been invariant for the last six years then they aren’t likely to get excited about the class. How do we keep it fresh? We need to not teach “windows programming” that is just micro$oft technology (or X-windows technology), but do need to teach the principles behind interface design and operating systems. Maybe we should have a “build your own linux distribution” course (you need sources to do this) where the operating systems theory is used to govern choices in kernel design and feature selection. Do we need to revamp the curriculum every year or so?

In any case, we’re going to have to put some serious thought into this, and I may voluntarily have to re-enter the world of formal university pedagogy – an area I’ve managed (finally) to get out of.

Written by Rob in: pedagogy,science |

Fun with Powdered Creamer

Nothing attracts boy’s (including overgrown adult ones) attention like playing with fire. One of the easiest and safest ways to make a fun fireball is to use an unconfined mix of a flammable powder and air. Essentially this is an explosive aerosol so don’t confine it. It is a great deal safer than burning hairspray or insect repellent, and probably would pass the guide to safe scouting. (Both of my son’s troops ban aerosol insect repellent because the boys have discovered how “good” a flamethrower it makes – the powder isn’t flammable until it is in the air so you can’t have either a continuous flame or backflash into a can which could turn it into a grenade).

Following up on a mythbusters episode we decided to try powder dairy creamer. We built a couple of fancy devices with plastic tubes and a candle, and while these worked the easiest thing is to put some on your palm and flick it into a flame.

Pretty Cool?

Written by Rob in: outdoors,science,scouting |

Blame the Other Guy

When writing about educational shortfalls as a professor, I always feel a little like one of the characters in this famous Nast cartoon.

Apparently, at least according to a recent editorial in the Atlanta Journal, the Georgia public universities lead the nation in the dubious honor of spending the most money for the least results as measured by graduation rate. Assuming this is true – and it probably is somewhat exaggerated – it is then important for those of us whose profession includes education to ask questions about what is wrong.

There is a structural flaw in the way Georgia students are educated, and unfortunately it shows up about half-way through university.  Starting in elementary school and continuing through high school students are “taught to the test”.  This is one aspect of foreign education that we really do not want to copy.  Students learn to memorize rather than understand.  It will work through the lower-level undergraduate classes where there is a lot of basic “stuff” to learn in order to begin to understand advanced concepts.  It falls apart when the student enters advanced classwork where now the application of the knowledge is more important than mere recitation.  It is not uncommon for the higher level classes to include projects instead of exams as part of the very legitimate educational aim of teaching the students to prepare professional level presentations and papers.  If all the student has done is to look at the last five years worth of tests and memorized the answers then they cannot do this.

It should be obvious, that if a student cannot pass the upper-level courses, then they cannot graduate.

It is the professors and instructors job to stop this process early in the coursework.  So here are a few pointers:

  • The students will have a set of old exams with answers (or at least some of them will).  They often will have as many as five or six years of exams.  How do I know this? – I’ve had students echo old (and incorrect) answers to questions on my exams when the question looks like an one on an old exam.   Therefore it is absolutely critical to make up new exams every time you give one. This can be a real pain – but the only alternative is to not return the exam papers to the students which I think is a bit unfair because they do have the legitimate use of helping the student study for finals.  (I hope none of the faculty are using the canned exam questions that textbook suppliers will gladly sell you – these are also available to the students).
  • Insist upon practical projects as early as is possible.  When I was teaching the introduction to object oriented programming class (e.g. “java”), I wrote a simple framework for a zork or dungeon like game and had the students extend the game via inheritance for extra credit.  The students who could do it really understood objects and deserved A’s.  If I were teaching the class this term – I might make that the final project or a final project in lieu of an exam.
  • Follow the university guidelines about plagiarism and intellectual honesty.  Check that work is original or properly cited.
  • Actively use anti-cheating techniques when giving exams.  These include: assigning seating in exams; using multiple exams (even just two colors of paper or shifting the order of questions is enough to discourage all but the most die-hard cheats); eliminating the use of computers, cellphones and PDA’s during exams (no instant messaging if you can’t turn on the machine);  and careful proctoring by a faculty-level instructor.
  • Take attendance in classes.  I do this all the time – even in advanced level graduate classes – because the “test memorization only” students usually do not come to class – and this way I know who they are.
  • Include class participation as part of the grade.  This has to be done carefully, because it is possible to abuse it or miss shy students, but it is impossible to “fake” because the student is either there and participates or is not and doesn’t.  Since class discussion is not pre-scripted then it cannot be done simply by memory.  (I guess Socrates was on to something)
Written by Rob in: pedagogy |

More Lake Weiss Trilobites

I had a chance to find more trilobite fossils this weekend, and unlike before they were not just impressions, but the whole critter.
a trilobite
The picture below shows a very small fossil that was already loose from wave action.
a trilobite
Looking at the local rocks and their layering suggests an explanation for the spotty distribution of fossils. When the mudstone was laid down in the Cambrian the area was a wide tidal mud flat. Much like the area around Tybee Island
Tybee beach(but not as sandy and NO trees) or the mudflats near the Severn river or the Gower pennisula.
Severn Mudflats
Mud flats are not really flat, but tend to have little pockets where biological detritus collects.
a horseshoe crab These pockets become hotspots for fossil collection when covered with silt by tidal floods. There are occasional quasi-stable areas and these can also support a colony of animals that is subject to being covered in a local flood event and we have found a few dense patches of Crinoid stems – including one with a trilobite in it that I don’t have a picture of (yet). Shallow water above mud flats is a great location for small crustaceans and various small mollusc’s which is just what we find in the fossil evidence. Some of them were just unlucky (or lucky – it depends on your viewpoint) to get caught in a small pool at low tide and have their remains preserved for us.

One of the stronger pieces of evidence that this was an estuarine environment comes from about 100-1000 layers above the fossil rich layer(if each major layer in the mudstone reflects a season – then maybe only about 1000 years later) the river shifted and deposited a layer of gravel on top of the mudstone. There is a continuous shift in the color of the sediment from a dark gray – where the fossils are found to a lighter gray or tan and we don’t see visual evidence of a discontinuity event. It looks just like a gravel bank deposited on the side of a river. In some ways it is a pity that it is so old -because it would be a great place to look for land animal fossils – just that there aren’t any from the Cambrian.

Written by Rob in: outdoors,science,Uncategorized,Wildlife |

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