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2015 November 25

3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night 

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Last Friday, my wife and I went to a “3rd Friday” event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History:

Radical Craft Night is back at the MAH! Challenge your traditional notions of craft at the MAH’s Radical Craft Night which takes crafting to the extreme.  Join us for a night of workshops, demonstrations, collaborations, performances, and making at the MAH:

Source: 3rd Friday November: Radical Craft Night – Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

We’re museum members, mainly to support the work that MAH is doing in community building and creating art, rather than because of any intrinsic interest in the museum.  Before Nina Simon took over management of the museum a few year’s ago, it was a terribly boring history museum with generally uninteresting art exhibits.  They did some useful work in maintaining history archives and publishing local history books, but that was about it.  Under Nina’s leadership, the museum has really blossomed, with twice monthly events, lots of partnerships with other groups in the community, and much more interesting galleries.

The crafts night turned out to be a little less “radical” than I might have expected from their advertising, but it seemed to be a great event for kids (too bad they weren’t doing that sort of thing a decade ago, when our son was the right age for it).

For example, the blacksmithing was not a “demo” (we’ve seen plenty of blacksmithing demos), but was instead a chance for kids to don safety goggles and hammer hot steel on an anvil.  They had two portable propane forges set up and two anvils—and kids (mainly boys) were lined up for turns to make something.

The hand-cranked sewing machines were also a fairly popular setup, more so than the backstrap weaving (set up with too long a warp for the time available) or the triangular looms.

There were a lot of other crafts, like the fabric greeting cards and bubble-wrap printing, that would have been good for 6–10-year-olds, but they were not what I’d consider “radical”.  They were popular with kids, though, and parents had brought lots of kids.

Perhaps the high point of the event for us was the wearable art fashion show, which was a selection from a larger event coming up at the Rio Theater (though not as big as the fashionArt show in September).  There were only a couple of pieces that looked actually wearable, but a number were amusing.

My wife and I had already seen the surfboards that were the first ones made in California (which are being sent back to Hawaii 2015 Nov 30), and the good Uncommon Threads wearable art display in the main gallery, which runs until 2015 Dec 6. So we used some of our time at the event to look at the history gallery, which was remodeled this summer.

The new history gallery is more interesting than the old one, includes more recent history, and seems to have a less biased viewpoint. All the captioning was done in both English and Spanish, and looked like it had been professionally written to have about a 4th-grade reading level, which is appropriate for the school field trips that the museum gets.  We would have liked there to have been some more in-depth information on individual items (like the baskets and the feather cloak) for adults—perhaps QR codes could be used to link to web pages for each item?

We would also like to have seen a photo of the big tents that kept downtown businesses alive for months after the Loma Prieta quake—there was a lot about the quake itself, but not much about the rebuilding from the quake, which played a major role in reshaping downtown Santa Cruz.

We’re not likely to go to many 1st Friday or 3rd Friday events (by the end of the week we just want to rest at home), but it was worth going to this one for me, just to see the museum being so active.

Buy Nothing Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:00
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Today I got a message from Leanpub, the site where I’m selling drafts of my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers book, suggesting that authors provide a discount for Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the USA (or one of the 10 biggest, depending whose figures you believe).

My family doesn’t engage in the demented frenzy of orgiastic consumerism that the day after Thanksgiving has become in the US.  We, instead, stay home and celebrate Buy Nothing Day.  The celebration is simple: we stay home and buy nothing that day—not venturing out into the crazy traffic of drivers too stoked on the thought of bargains to look out for pedestrians, not doing on-line ordering, not even ordering pizza by phone (though we did do that one year, when we didn’t have enough food in the house for dinner).

Despite our family’s habits, though, I’m going along with Leanpub and offering a discount on my book:  From Friday 2015 Nov 27, through Monday Nov 30 (“Cyber Monday”), I’m lowering the minimum price on my book from $3 to $2.50.  As always, this includes not just the PDF of the current book, but all future updates for as long as I’m publishing the book with Leanpub.

Quite frankly, I doubt that the 50¢ difference (17% OFF!) will result in any more sales. Most of the purchasers of the book are paying more than the minimum anyway (average currently is $4.89, and that includes several people whom I gave free coupons to).

2015 November 23

Meeting for teachers of writing to engineers

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:00
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Last Spring I got a small grant from the Academic Senate to create a new “Disciplinary Communications” course for the bioengineering majors (a $7,000 “partial course relief” for 2015–16).  Most of the effort of creating the course happened last year, as we needed to offer the course in Spring 2015, but the money comes for this year.  I’m not actually taking any course relief this year, though my load is lighter than last year, since I’m not doing two overload courses this year.  The money (as all our course relief money) is being spent on hiring a lecturer—paying part of the salary of the lecturer teaching the new writing course.

But I felt that I ought to be doing something this year on improving “disciplinary communications” for bioengineers, in order to have something to report at the end of the year for the grant.  Since the new course was designed last year, the main effort this year will be on tweaking that course and other courses our students do that involve writing.  Rather than work just with the instructor of that new course, I thought it would be useful to gather all the faculty who teach writing to engineering students, to discuss (according to the message I sent out):

  • course design
  • teaching techniques
  • assignments
  • grading techniques
  • use of TAs or graders
  • creation of a “Professional Learning Community” to meet on a regular (quarterly?) basis

There was no set agenda for the meeting—just a chance to meet and talk about what we do. We had a pretty good turnout: 3 ladder-rank faculty, 4 writing instructors, and 1 staff person who teaches writing to a small group of minority students.

After self-introductions we had a wide-ranging conversation about assignments people gave, challenges they faced, approaches to making assignments work better, and so forth.  We did not talk much about TAs and graders, course design, or grading techniques, concentrating more on assignments and teaching techniques.

I’m a lousy note-taker, so I don’t have good notes of what was discussed, but I remember a few things.  I’ll present them here mainly as they apply to me, since that is what I remember best.

None of the ladder-rank faculty are teaching courses where writing is the primary content of the course, but improving student writing is a secondary goal of their courses. In my case, I’m (thankfully) not teaching either the technical writing for bioengineers course nor the senior thesis writing course this year, but I do provide a fair amount of writing feedback both in the Bioinformatics: Models and Algorithms course and in the Applied Electronics course. In the bioinformatics course, there are a couple of writing assignments, but most of the feedback is on in-program documentation. In the Applied Electronics course, there is a weekly design report due, which is centered on the graphics (block diagrams, schematics, and fits of models to measured data). Other courses include assignments to write abstracts, write proposals, write standard operating procedures, and other assignments typical of both academic and industrial writing tasks.

One aspect of teaching writing that I’ve never had much luck with is peer editing—another of the ladder-rank faculty brought this topic up as one of the challenges that help was needed on.  A couple of the writing instructors agreed that peer editing was hard, because the students had no notion of “editing” as an activity. What they suggested was having a set of specific questions for the peer editors to answer—questions relevant to the piece they were editing, like “what is the research question? Is there a summary of results? Is the approach clear?” for editing an abstract.  Without specific guidance, students tend to fall back on the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything meme, and provide useless “looks good to me” comments.  One technique that the faculty member who raised the issue has tried (with mixed success) is getting students to rewrite another student’s abstract in their own words.  Although this often pointed out problems in the original writing, it sometimes just reflected the inability of the editing student to write coherently.

One idea that seemed to come as a bit of surprise to some of  the writing instructors was creating the figures and figure captions of a document first, and then writing the paper around the figures.  This is a common approach in some research groups in our department, and one that some students will have to face. One of the writing instructors pointed out that the poster assignment (used in two of the courses) is good preparation for this.

We all pretty much agreed that there was no place in the writing instruction students were getting about good presentation of data and generation of figures. I mentioned that one of our junior faculty is interested in creating a course centered on scientific graphics, but it wasn’t clear whether he’d get to teach it next year or not.  I felt that students in my Applied Electronics course got a lot of instruction and got pretty good at displaying data (at least the scatter diagrams and fit models for that course), but that they really struggled with the notion of block diagrams and organizing problems into subproblems. One of the writing instructors, who saw the students mostly after they had had the applied electronics course, saw more problems with data presentation than with block diagrams.  This may be because of different expectations of the block diagram, or it may be that the data representations her students needed were not among the few types covered in Applied Electronics.

Another form of writing that a lot of students were not getting adequate feedback in was lab notebooks. Unfortunately, the different disciplines have such different expectations of the content of a lab notebook that it is hard to provide any sort of standardized assignment. A couple of the instructors who teach Writing 2 classes, mainly to STEM students, do include an observational-field-notebook assignment, which at least gets across the idea of taking notes as you go, and not trying to reconstruct what you did at the end of the day (a flaw I’ve seen in several of the Applied Electronics labs) or the end of the quarter (a flaw I’ve seen in some senior theses).

We did discuss the strategy of setting high expectations on the first assignment by giving detailed feedback on that assignment, with reduced checking on subsequent assignments.  This helps keep the grading down to an almost sane level, and the students still benefit from the practice, even if not everything they do is checked. I’ve certainly noticed on the bioinformatics assignments that by the 4th or 5th assignment I only need to spot-check the internal documentation, or check it for students who are struggling with the concepts of the assignment, as the better students generally are routinely producing decent documentation by then.

We discussed various things we could do that would be generally helpful, and I ended up with two action items:

  • Create a shared Google Drive folder where we can put assignments and examples of student work (access limited to faculty involved in the group).
  • Organize another meeting for next quarter. People were pleased enough by the meeting to want to meet again.

I don’t think that anyone will make any radical changes to how they teach as a result of the meeting, but I think that several of us came away with the nugget of an idea for a small improvement we could make. It was also very refreshing to have a discussion of teaching techniques—something we professors don’t often get a chance to engage in meaningfully.  Most attempts to foster such discussions are way too broad (like the Academic Senate teaching forums) in an attempt to include everyone, or way too bureaucratic (like the attempts of the administration to push assessing “program learning outcomes”).  Today’s informal discussion seemed to me to be focused enough to be productive, yet broad enough to involve many different courses.  I’m looking forward to doing it again next quarter.

2015 November 21

Am I benevolently sexist?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:09
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In her blog, xykademiqz just posted Benevolently Sexist, which I excerpt part of here:

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her—nay, trick her!—into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist. *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Go read the whole post, and the comments attached to—they are thought-provoking.

I’m a little uncomfortable responding to the post, because I have also held the view that we could get more women into engineering if we emphasized some of the useful and helpful things engineers can do, rather than just assuming that people would sign up for the coolness of the math and programming.  Am I, then, benevolently sexist?

I have no evidence that emphasizing “helping” would make any difference to the abysmal gender balance in engineering, but it is one of the few suggestions I’ve seen that might help, and as fadsklfhlfja said, it would be a good thing to do even if it had no effect on the gender balance, so I’m comfortable recommending that engineering programs pay more attention to how they can help people.

Bioinformatics and bioengineering, my current fields, attract more women than other engineering fields at our university (though still not to parity, unlike biology, for example). The worst gender balance among undergrads here is in electrical engineering, and the next worse is in computer game design (despite an almost equal gender balance on the faculty for the department that runs the game-design major).  The EE ratio may be explainable by math phobia (though I think it has more to do with the way the EE courses are taught), but the game design ratio seems most explainable by the “usefulness” theory, as game design has all the coolness and employability factors one might want, except that.

I have no interest in tricking anyone into pursuing engineering—I only want the ones who will pursue engineering diligently (and preferably passionately). If anything, I’d like to send away the students who are just in the field because their parents think they ought to be.  But I think that a lot of students go through high school with really bad stereotypes of what engineers are (Dilbert, for example) and spreading a more accurate and honest message about engineering would go a long way towards improving gender balance.

We have a couple of concentrations in bioengineering that are very close to other majors that have bad gender balances:

  • the Assistive Technology: Motor concentration is very close to the Robotics Engineering major.  There are a few extra bio courses and a corresponding shortage of upper-division tech courses, but the cores are quite similar.  The main difference is that assistive technology stresses the application of robotics to helping people with movement disabilities.  Once this concentration has existed long enough for statistics to be meaningful, I’d be interested in comparing the gender balances in the concentration with gender balances in robotics engineering.
  • the Bioelectronics concentration is close to the Electrical Engineering major.  Again there are chemistry and bio courses that the EE students don’t take, and a corresponding shortage of some of the more esoteric upper-division EE courses.  The application is interfacing biological systems to computers.  Again, I’d like to see how the gender balances compare in a few years, when there have been enough students through the concentration for the statistics to be meaningful.

From what I’ve seen of the statistics so far, the bioengineering program here is doing a reasonable job at retaining women and under-represented minority students, but recruitment is still a problem—the ratios for our majors (juniors and seniors) are essentially the same as for our proposed majors (freshmen and sophomores), so we need to get better at attracting women and minority students to the field. If putting more emphasis on how the engineering we do helps people has any positive effect on recruitment, we should definitely do it.

2015 November 16

How scientists fool themselves

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:01
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Nature News & Comment has just published a good comment:
How scientists fool themselves—and how they can stop

The comment goes through a number of the standard ways people fool themselves, but skirts around the most important one in modern biology: failure to correct for testing multiple hypotheses. They mention “p-hacking” as a problem, but their prescription is just “don’t do it” rather than explaining how one corrects for testing many hypotheses.

I think that the comment could have been much stronger if they had gotten some statisticians to provide the real corrective measures needed, rather than just moralizing about how people fool themselves.

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