Gas station without pumps

2012 September 21

Bad news for circuits course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:15
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I got bad news yesterday about the circuits course: not only is the School of Engineering not going to open a search for a Lecturer with Security of Employment, but EE is not budgeting for a lecturer for the new course.  They just changed chairs, and the new chair knew nothing about the plans for the Applied Circuits course. The bioengineering students desperately need this course, and it seems clear that EE has no intention of offering it for the next few years. But can I get the course together in time by myself with no help from the EE department? Perhaps I can get a TA, though all the TA slots in the School of Engineering have been allocated to other courses.

So now I face a difficult decision—do I put aside all my unfunded research work (which is to say, all my research) and dedicate all my spare time outside my two classes this quarter and my responsibilities as grad director to trying to create the course for this winter?  Co-teaching the course was already voluntary overload, and doing the course by myself will be an even bigger overload.  I just got access to a bunch of new PacBio data that was going to require a completely new approach to analyzing it—taking on the full circuits course would leave me no time for that project (which probably needs about 1000 hours of my time), probably killing off what looks like a promising collaboration.

Part of me is worried about botching the teaching—I’ve never taken a circuits course and certainly never taught one before. It has been years since I taught an intro course, and those courses were in subjects I was much more thoroughly steeped in (digital logic, applied discrete math). I think that over the summer, designing and doing the labs has solidified my self-taught knowledge of circuits (which previously was more mathematical and less practical), but I don’t have the years of experience teaching beginning students in EE labs that I was counting on having available for the first offering of the course.

What misconceptions will students be bringing to the class from their physics E&M courses (which as bioengineers they probably regarded as unimportant and did the minimal studying needed to pass)?  Where will I get appropriate-level test questions from? I’ve not written quiz or test questions for years, but I’ll almost certainly need them for this level of class—I may even need clicker questions, a technology that I’ve been ambivalent about for years and which has not been needed in my grad-level classes.  I can do summative assessment in the labs (that’s much more like the sort of project-based assessment I use in other classes), but students will need to have their understanding checked earlier to keep them from wasting hours randomly trying things they don’t understand in the labs. I’ll almost certainly need a written final exam for the course.

I’ve not even learned to use the equipment in the lab—my oscilloscope at home is fairly similar to the analog scopes (same brand, different model, but a similar layout of the knobs), but I’ve not used a digital scope for decades.  They have very fancy arbitrary waveform generators in the lab (overkill for anything actually done in the courses that use the room), and I don’t know how easy they are to use.

I’ll also be on my own for making any extra equipment we’ll need for the lab.  I can order the PC boards I’ve already designed, but I’d have to make the stainless electrode pairs and the holders for silver wire for the electrode lab; the reservoirs, pressure sensors, and shaker tables for the fluidics characterization lab (I still haven’t finished making one copy to test whether the lab will even work); and something for the phototransistor lab.  Actually, I don’t know if I can order the boards—there is no budget for the course and I don’t know how one deals with buying things for undergrad labs.  Going through purchasing will probably be a disaster, particularly since I’ll probably have to do most of the purchasing over winter break, when all the university offices will be closed. The best approach would be for me to buy the stuff out of my own pocket and get reimbursed, but I suspect that bureaucrats don’t allow that (or at least make it so difficult that it would be easier to pay $1000 dollars out of my own pocket rather than deal with their bull****). I’d also have to start working with the lab support staff soon in putting together kits of parts and tools for the students to buy, since they will probably have to order some of the stuff that they don’t usually stock.

I’ve no idea exactly what the ADC/DAC demo lab on sampling includes as the co-instructor had designed it for another course, and I was hoping to learn about it as he taught it.  I can probably still borrow the boards and handouts he’d used, as he is a generous person, but it will require more effort on my part.  I’m even wondering if it would be easier for me to redo the lab using the Arduino, rather than figuring out how to teach his lab with his boards.

For that matter, since the EE department doesn’t want to fund the course, it will have to be offered through my department, and if EE gets territorial about the supposedly shared teaching labs, they might be able to block my scheduling a course in “their” lab.  I have no credit with the dean, who doesn’t care at all about undergrad education—the all-hands meeting he orchestrated on Thursday made it clear that all he cared about was building empires in Silicon Valley.  This is a dream that the engineering deans at UCSC have all had since before there even was a School of Engineering and a dean (at least for the 26 years I’ve been teaching engineering at UCSC).  It has sucked up more time and energy from engineering faculty than any other dozen other projects, with pitiful results so far. I didn’t see any new ideas being proposed, just the same stuff that has failed for the last 20 years.

About the only positive reports at the all-hands meeting were from Pat Mantey (our first and best dean) who was quite successful in getting the industrial-sponsored capstones working last year and from David Haussler, who with Josh Stuart has gotten a lot of funding for being a major data center in cancer research.  Both of those announcements were not news to me.  I was skeptical of the industrial-sponsored capstones two years ago, but Pat Mantey has the contacts in industry to make it work and he seems to have done so.

My chair is very supportive of my creating the course, though I don’t think he realizes just how much effort it will take to pull off, and what the tradeoffs for me would be in terms of dropping research projects.  To me it looks like I’d be choosing between being primarily a teaching professor, with almost no time for research, and being a stereotypical research university professor, willing to ignore the needs of the undergrads in order to get some research done.  Neither of those feel to me like who I am or want to be, so the decision is looking both very large and very difficult. I have to make it quickly, though, as the course approval forms (for which I have only incomplete drafts for the lab and lecture courses) need to be in CEP’s hands by the end of September, if the course is to be taught this Winter.   (And the course is looking more and more like a now-or-never choice.)


  1. Don’t do it! I’m a stranger on the internet, but your entire description suggests you really needed your co-teacher (the lecturer who can’t be hired now, right?).

    Other suggestions? Would it be possible to get an adjunct from one of the companies that would benefit from having your students have had this course? Is there any possibility of getting dedicated funds to hire a lecturer? I know that companies have paid for substitute lecturers when they’ve wanted to lure someone to their company for a sabbatical. Both these ideas rely on the concept that there are private employers with money who would benefit directly from having their students take this course (which might or might not be the case).

    I loved the descriptions you were writing here, and it looked like it would be a potentially great course.
    I think circuits courses are awesome (I & another graduate student taught ourselves, in a corner of a neurophysiology lab), but I also think they are an enormous amount of work to do right.

    Comment by zb — 2012 September 21 @ 11:26 | Reply

    • The lecturer who can’t now be hired is a superstar teacher, and doing the course with him would have been a pleasure, worth the extra effort of doing overload teaching. He and I also have very similar teaching philosophies and ideas about what is important in such a course, so we would have been pulling in the same direction.

      Getting an adjunct from industry would be of no help.

      1. A random person from industry, even if they have the knowledge and desire to teach, is unlikely to be a superstar teacher or compatible teaching styles with me. Teaching with such a person is likely to be more difficult than doing it myself.
      2. Finding someone from industry would be difficult. I have no contacts and no time nor desire to make such contacts. That would also be more difficult than doing it myself.
      3. The instructors’ union, though somewhat toothless, would probably not allow an unpaid instructor. Going through the paperwork to get an industrial donation and getting it allocated to teaching a particular course probably violates so many University policies that it would 2–3 years to go through the process. Definitely more work than doing it myself.
      4. I agree that it is an enormous amount of work to do right—I’ve put in 2 months work on the design of the course, and it looks like it would take another 2–3 months of my time to finish the course design and get the course ready to roll. Would an outside instructor be aware of how much prep work is required and be able or willing to put it in?
      5. Since EE has been unable to find a tenure-track faculty member able or willing to teach an applied circuits course (and has basically pissed on the superstar lecturer they have who can teach applied classes), I have no confidence that I could magically find, fund, and hire such a person.

      But it is looking like either I do the course, or we give up on it getting done and basically write off the bioelectronics track of the major (which is pretty much what happened for the past 4 years as EE was supposed to create that track). Even without the bioelectronics track, we have faculty in our department taking huge numbers of undergrads in their labs who really want their students to understand electronics at this level (the nanopore and the nanopipette work both come to mind).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 September 21 @ 11:53 | Reply

  2. The only thing that occurs to me is to ask if you’ve spoken directly with the new chair in the EE department. Pity about the dean.

    Comment by kcab — 2012 September 21 @ 13:55 | Reply

    • Yes. I had an e-mail conversation with the new chair yesterday, before writing this post.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 September 21 @ 15:23 | Reply

  3. “Going through the paperwork to get an industrial donation and getting it allocated to teaching a particular course probably violates so many University policies that it would 2–3 years to go through the process. ”

    I have heard about this being done, at UCSD. It’s possible the donation was personal, though (i.e. a donation from the founder of the company, rather than the company). And, it was with the purpose of replacing a person they were temporarily taking from the department (so to replace a class that was already being taught). I can see the issues with a industry-sponsored new course (kind of like the courses the Koch brothers wanted to fund).

    And, yes, teaching with a random adjunct would probably be even more work than doing it yourself, unless a goal was to build the company connections.

    Very frustrating, the interdepartmental politics and how it effects interdisciplinary work. I wonder if they’d fund it were offered as a classroom + MOOC (with video lectures). Again, I’m guessing not something you want to do, but then, you’d have some modern buzzwords to add.

    Comment by zb — 2012 September 21 @ 18:09 | Reply

    • I’m sure they’d fund it in a flash if it were a MOOC. But creating a halfway decent MOOC is a lot of trouble, and this is course is designed around the LAB, which is almost impossible to do as a MOOC. Even the “lecture” part of the course is intended to be mainly interactive, not stand-and-deliver lectures, which is about all the MOOC format seems designed for.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 September 21 @ 18:24 | Reply

  4. […] the bad news for the circuits course last week, I’m pleased to have gotten some cautiously good news […]

    Pingback by Good news for circuits course « Gas station without pumps — 2012 September 27 @ 21:30 | Reply

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