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2012 May 31

Programming and writing: two fundamentals

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:15
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In a comment on Mark Guzdial’s blog (Women leave academia more than men, but greater need to change in computing « Computing Education Blog),  Laurissa commented

I’ve always been afraid that technology and computer education will follow in the footsteps of writing instruction. Communication and computer literacy are both necessary skills in today’s culture and job economy. How can we expect students to learn either if universities require one (maybe 2) intro level courses during freshman year then never teach students how to build upon those skills, show them how how valuable those skills, and actually give them opportunities to apply their skills AFTER they leave those initial classes. Computing–in the same way as communication–can’t the be taught in isolation from other disciplines. They’re life-long learning skills that students NEED if they’re going to succeed once they leave the university.

Although she is an English major who took some computer science, while I am a computer science PhD who taught tech writing for over a decade, we have similar views on the similarity of writing and computer programming.  Both are essential skills that require clarity of thought and are expensive to teach well.  Both are being short-changed in colleges and universities, because they require labor-intensive feedback to the students from highly skilled practitioners.

There is a strong temptation to throw the problem over the fence to a small group of experts (writing instructors or computer science lecturers) teaching first-year classes.  That happened in most universities to writing instruction over the past 2 decades, with the result that students write very few papers after their freshman year in most majors, and almost never get detailed feedback on them. It is happening in computer science also, except that the freshman CS courses already do not provide any feedback on programming style other than whether things compile and work on a few test cases.  (That’s like checking English papers for word count, word length, and sentence length, but not for content—sort of what scoring of SAT essays is like.)

Merit scholarships

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:09
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My son is just finishing his sophomore year of high school, so I’m spending some of my time thinking about getting him into college.  The two main concerns at this point are finding a college that is a good fit for him and paying for it.  We’ve been saving for college since he was born, and he is an only child, so we’re in better shape financially than most.  Still, we had been counting on the public universities as a reasonably priced option, and that has been getting gradually less realistic as the state support for higher education collapses around the country. Because our savings mean that we are not likely to get much need-based aid (except at very expensive schools), we’ve been hoping that he could get some merit-based aid, which is gradually coming back into favor after a few decades of schools only providing need-based aid and athletic scholarships.

One blog that I’ve been reading recently is Cost of College, which collects news items about college finances and discusses them.  Sometimes the author (Grace) is a little too easily swayed by propaganda pieces (like the misleading statistics in ‘changes in tuition were not driven by changes in state appropriations’), but she often finds interesting news items and web pages.

One item she pointed to was a CBS news article from August 2011 about merit scholarships: University Reveals the Secrets of Winning Merit Scholarships, a report by Lynn O’Shaughnessy on analysis by the University of Rochester’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid of the merit aid given to the incoming class in Fall 2011.  This was not a policy statement or guidelines, but a post hoc analysis of what differences various factors made in the final award amounts.  Following journalistic tradition, Ms. O’Shaughnessy quoted her source as if she had done an interview, but did not point to the real source document that had more information.  It appears to have been from a blog post by Dean Jonathan Burdick: “What kind of scholarship can I get?” posted 1 June 2011.

There were a few surprises, like that having serious conversations with the admissions and financial aid counselors were worth about $3000 in financial aid, but each A on a report card was worth only $62 and each 10 points on total SAT was worth about $115, for a max of about $4100.   Note that the recommended pre-admissions interview was only worth about $250—so the $3000 comes from going well beyond the normal level of discussion. It seems that negotiation skills are as important as academic ability in getting merit aid.

Interestingly, challenging courses were more valuable than high grades (though this might be because only those students with high grades were considered for admission—if everyone has nearly all As, the small differences in grades might not have much predictive value for amount of merit aid).

Letters of recommendation were important (having excellent letters added $1800).  Timeliness in completing the application was worth $400.  Filling out both FAFSA and CSS/Financial Aid Profile was worth $2500 (it is not clear from the CBS reporting whether this was an average of all recipients or a regression coefficient, but the original blog post made it clear that there was $2500 more merit aid for those filling out the forms).  The FAFSA form is free, but the CSS/Financial Aid Profile costs $25 plus $16/college (though some colleges provide a “fee payment code” to cover the $16 reporting fee).  Still, if filling out the form ups the merit-based aid by $800 as Dean Burdick reports, it would be worthwhile (unless it also resulted in decreases in need-based aid).

Of course, Rochester is a high-price institution with a sticker price of $54k, so their typical merit aid of $10k–$12k still leaves the price at a high $42k–$44k.  It is not clear whether other universities have merit aid policies that favor the same students that Rochester favors, and lower-priced public universities generally have little merit-based aid.  I suspect that we should be planning on a minimum of $30k per year, after need-based and merit-based aid, and possibly as high as $45k.  So we’d need savings of $120k–$180k to avoid taking out loans. It seems that a bachelor’s degree now costs the student about a year or two of  faculty salary—it makes me wonder at what point it will become cheaper and more effective to cut out the university administration and hire top-notch tutors directly.

What is clear is that reference letters and direct contact with the admissions and financial aid officers are worth more than I would have expected, and grades worth less than I thought.  It may be worthwhile for my son to cultivate some adult contacts who could write him good recommendation letters (his theater teachers, science fair mentors, …).

2012 May 30

Financial literacy

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:29
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I don’t usually read USA Today, but one of the many blogs I read pointed to this article Millennials struggle with financial literacy, which calls for “financial literacy” instruction in high schools.

While I can see the need for high schools to teach some basics of consumer finance (like the monthly payments for different levels of debt and that college loans can’t be avoided through bankruptcy), I’m not sure how much it will help people avoid acquiring more debt than they can handle.  People acquire debt to buy things they want or things they think they need.  In both cases, few people properly weigh the future pain of too much debt against their current desires or needs.

As long as the credit card companies and banks make it too easy to pick up too much dept, people will do so, even given well-meaning advice in school or the mathematical tools to figure out just how bad the debt load will be.

Still it probably wouldn’t hurt for high school students to work through a free online consumer education curriculum like FoolProof, unless there is a strong bias to the material.  I know that the home-school umbrella school that my son is part of had an “economics” course for high schoolers this year that I believe was mainly this sort of consumer financial education.  My son did not take it, because he already had too many courses and the material looked like it would be too low-level and too slow-paced for him.  Perhaps I should look for a quick tutorial on debt financing, budgeting, and investing for him to read, since he probably won’t have the patience for videos.  Any suggestions from my readers?

I do wonder about how he will handle the transition to independent control of his money when he goes to college in a couple of years.  Currently, he has a bank account but rarely spends anything—clothes, food, books, and transportation are things we usually buy for him, and he has not expressed much interest in other purchases (truthfully, he hasn’t expressed much interest in any purchases).  I suppose if he lives in a dorm on a meal plan, he’ll have to control his money for book purchases and making sure that tuition bills are paid on time, but not much else.

Perhaps we should start putting him in charge of buying his own textbooks for his homeschool classes.  The practice at searching for used copies and previous editions from multiple web sites will probably be useful for him.  We can help him learn to identify warning signs for trashed copies, and he could watch the fluctuation in online prices of text books at the beginning of each semester (buying out of sync can save huge amounts on used books).

2012 May 29

Acronyms for physics modeling instruction

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:33
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In reading one of Kelly O’Shea’s posts, Extra Tests, Bundled Objectives, and Changes for Next Year, I was struck by the number of unexplained acronyms there were.  Looking through posts by other Modeling Instruction advocates, I noticed that they all used the same acronyms: the acronyms seem to be a standard part of the training in Modeling Instruction—a secret code that lets people know you are part of the fraternity (or sorority, in Kelly’s case). Do you have to learn the secret handshake as well?

I wonder how much the acronym shorthand helps the Modeling Instruction teachers talk to each other and how much of a barrier the arcane lore is for other teachers to pick up the methods of Modeling Instruction.  Do other physics teachers use these acronyms?

I attempted to translate the acronyms, based on the usage in Kelly’s post.  In a few cases, I had to go elsewhere to find other uses, as I couldn’t guess from just Kelly’s usage.

CVPM
Constant Velocity Particle Model
BFPM
Balanced Force Particle Model
N3L
Newton’s Third Law (or Newton’s Three Laws?)
FBD
Free Body Diagram
CAPM
Constant Acceleration Particle Model
UBFPM
Unbalanced Force Particle Model
MTM
Momentum Model
COMM
Center of Mass Model
PMPM
Projectile Motion Particle Model
ETM
Energy Transfer Model
CFPM
Centripetal Force Particle Model (I guessed this wrong the first time—I thought the C was for “constant”.)
UCM
Uniform Circular Motion
MTET
Momentum and Energy Transfer (more commonly called “collisions”, I believe)

Elsewhere I’ve also seen

COEM
Conservation of Energy and Momentum
COAM
Conservation of Angular Momentum

Incidentally, the Matter and Interactions text, which is sometimes cited as ideal for Modeling Instruction of calculus-based physics, does not use these acronyms, preferring more English-like terms such as “Momentum Principle”.

LinReg for physics class data graphing

Filed under: home school,Software — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:58
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A blog I only recently subscribed to (Physics! Blog! by Kelly O’Shea) had a very nice plug (LinReg for physics class data graphing) for a graphing program I’d not heard of before: LinReg which is available free from Pomona.

My son and I use gnuplot, which is a moderately powerful script-based graphing program that produces good graphs and has a good parameter fitting command, but I’ve given up recommending it to people, because of the extreme difficulty in installing it.  It is also overkill for a lot of high school classes, where fitting a straight line is considered complicated enough.

LinReg looks like it is nearly ideal for high-school and middle school science classes.  It forces students to label their axes, use units, and express the precision of their measurements. It computes error values for the intercept and slope values, using a reasonable simulation approach (sampling Gaussian distributed points about each measurement and refitting).  Kelly claims that her Honors Physics students pick the program up quickly and choose to use it without prompting after the first few uses (unlike Excel, which they always see as a barrier rather than as a tool—an attitude towards spreadsheets that I share).

Data entry in LinReg seems to be mainly manual, which would be a big limitation for me even for the home-school physics class (the speed of sound lab generated several hundred data points just for the ladder measurements).  Because my son and I have successfully installed and mastered gnuplot, I see no reason to change to a more limited program, but I can see the attraction of using LinReg with a class, so that less time can be spent teaching the tool and more time using it.  The limited feature set looks like a very good match to most high-school science classes.

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