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2010 June 26

Curriculum revision

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:42
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Our department examines the curriculum every year.  For a while, we were tweaking it every year also, adding and dropping requirements, trying to get the best program we could with the available courses and faculty skills.  Things have stabilized a bit now, and we generally change the curriculum only every other year.

One difficulty for us is that we require courses from nine different departments, so that almost every year one of the departments has done some scheduling or prerequisite change that affects our students.  We usually don’t find out about these changes until after the deadline for changing the catalog copy (particularly since the deadline for curriculum changes is months before the deadline for course changes). As a result we’re often scrambling to do damage control from some unanticipated change.

Our biggest problem has been with the chemistry department, which has the longest pre-requisite chain of any of our required courses, and increased it one year without consulting with affected other departments. They added a high-school chem course at the beginning of the chain and eliminated AP credit, effectively adding 2 more courses for most of our students.  We are seriously considering creating our own, more focused chemistry sequence that would take only half as long to get to biochem, but we don’t currently have either the faculty or the lab resources to do it.

This summer we are looking at curriculum revision with a different view.  We are considering merging the bioinformatics major (which has few students) with the bioengineering biomolecular track, to make a biomolecular engineering major with biomolecular and bioinformatics tracks.  One constraint of the curriculum design is that we’d like the resulting program to be accreditable by ABET. They have quite different criteria for bioengineering (which they seem to assume is mainly mechanical engineering) and biomolecular engineering (which they lump with chemical engineering), so separating biomolecular engineering from the rest of bioengineering would allow us to create a pedagogically more sensible program—one that ends up closer to the bioinformatics program than to the other bioengineering tracks.  We’ve only just started on the curriculum re-design (we’ve put in about 14 hours work on it so far), and we’ll have to get some buy-in from the non-biomolecular bioengineering faculty to split off the biomolecular track and merge it with bioinformatics. This may take several months.

2010 June 24

Scientist stereotypes

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:02

There is a nice collection of before and after pictures of scientists at

The pictures are by 7th-grade students before and after a trip to Fermilab.  The “before” pictures are the standard media stereotype.  The “after” pictures show a bit more diversity, but the uniformity of the comments suggest that the presentation was a bit heavy-handed it saying that scientists were “regular people”.

Unfortunately, I can’t help much is dispelling the media stereotypes, as I look more like the “before” pictures than the “after” ones, except that I don’t wear a lab coat.

2010 June 22

Lego contest for teachers

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:34
Tags: , , , describes the Lego Smart Creativity Contest.

This contest is for teachers to come up with lesson plans using a small set of Lego pieces provided in a kit by the company.

The winning entries from previous years can be found at

Some of them look like good short exercises for young students.

2010 June 21

Project Euler

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:11
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My son (just finished 8th grade) is learning another programming language this summer.  I suggested that he learn Python next, because he already has learned Logo, Scratch, various Lego programming languages, NQC, C,  Dr. Scheme (a LISP dialect), and some Javascript.  He is a competent programmer in Scratch, C, and Dr. Scheme, but he has not worked with rapid-prototyping language like Perl or Python, nor with an object-oriented language.

He read the on-line tutorial (which seems to be better than any of the books out there for learning Python), and did a couple programs I suggested—assignments that I gave to grad students learning Python to do bioinformatics.  He was not particularly interested in learning the statistics and biology needed to do the more advanced programs for that course, so we looked around on the web for other programming exercises.

Google has some ( but he wasn’t that excited by Google’s idea of a good exercise either.

He then remembered Project Euler, which I had tried unsuccessfully to interest him in a year or two ago.

Project Euler is a series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve. Although mathematics will help you arrive at elegant and efficient methods, the use of a computer and programming skills will be required to solve most problems.

The problems start out easy, and gradually get harder.  Some can be done with a calculator, but most are intended to need a little programming:

Each problem has been designed according to a “one-minute rule”, which means that although it may take several hours to design a successful algorithm with more difficult problems, an efficient implementation will allow a solution to be obtained on a modestly powered computer in less than one minute.

It turns out that Python is an excellent language for doing the early programs, much better than C (which is what he was learning when he last looked at Project Euler).  So far he has done the first 10 of the almost 300 problems. I helped him with a couple to show him aspects of the Python language that were different from the languages he has learned in the past (list comprehensions made one of the exercises into a two-line program), and to get his thinking unstuck about how to find small primes.

I expect he’ll slow down and run out of steam after a while—then we’ll look for some other application of python, perhaps one that requires object-oriented programming, since he has not been exposed much to that paradigm yet.

2010 June 16

Teach like a Champion

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:48
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I’ve been reading Doug Lemov’s new book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College.  I find the emphasis on tiny teaching techniques interesting, and some of the techniques seem applicable to my university teaching as well as to the volunteer work I’ve done coaching math teams or teaching kids programming.  I am rather put off by the constant puffery of the chain of private or charter schools the author works for, as well as by the very poor copy editing.  I suppose an English teacher can be forgiven for not knowing the difference between a sum and a product (though how anyone gets past grade school without than knowledge is a mystery to me), but punctuation errors are not really excusable—it is the publisher’s job to hire a competent copy editor, even if the author hasn’t the skill to punctuate and choose words carefully.

I’m only about halfway through the book, and I need to return it to the library tomorrow (no renewal for Interlibrary Loan)—I now have to decide whether it is interesting enough to buy my own copy to finish the book. I’ve also been considering whether to require the book for my “how to be a graduate student” course.  Although TAs and faculty often complain about never having been taught how to teach, I doubt that even 10% of the grad students would find the book gripping enough to actually read it, especially as none of the grad students in my department aspire to become elementary-school teachers.  My best bet may be to select out the material I think is relevant for university faculty and teach just those little snippets.  I can get the university library to buy a copy of the book, on the off chance that some student might want to read the source and find out how badly I’ve mangled it.

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