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2013 March 31

Self-taught teacher

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:54
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I recently got some praise on the AP Bio teachers’ forum for answering some statistical questions, which embarrassed me a little.  I always feel like an imposter when I help anyone with statistics.  Despite having a B.S. and M.S. in math, and a Ph.D. in computer science, I learned statistics rather late in life—my first course in it was a graduate stochastic processes course in 1999, when I was 44, and my second was a Bayesian statistics course in 2001.  Other than those two courses, I’m pretty much self-taught in statistics and have to rely heavily on Wikipedia and other on-line sources.

I occasionally answer biology questions on the forum also, though my biology has an even shakier foundation: one freshman bio course, one junior-level biochem class (without the prerequisite general and o. chem), one graduate protein structure class—again, I have to rely heavily on things I’ve heard from colleagues or seen on the internet.  I feel like a real imposter answering bio questions on the AP Bio teachers’ forum, since everyone else on the forum has had far more courses in biology than I ever will. I doubt that I have the knowledge to teach even an 8th-grade life science course, much less an AP bio course.

While I’m always willing to share what I know, I frequently have gaps in my understanding that I’m not even aware of.

Of course, I’ve gotten used to teaching things I’ve had to teach myself—several of the courses I’ve created have been in subjects where I had had no formal instruction:

  • applied circuits for bioengineers (2013)
  • technical writing (1987–1999)
  • digital typography course (1996–1998). Just this month I met an alumnus of that course, who got into graphical design, then web design and programming as a result of that course—he regrets that he did not take any other computer courses in college.
  • bicycle transportation engineering (1997)
  • bioinformatics: models and algorithms (our core grad bioinformatics course, 1998–present)
  • protein structure prediction (1996–2011)
  • banana slug genomics (2010, 2011)
  • how to be a grad student (1990–present)
  • resource-efficient programming (2004)

Other courses I’ve created after only one prior course:

  • VLSI design (1982–2000)
  • digital synthesis of music (1989 and 1991)

For that matter, my first faculty position was a joint appointment between an EE and a CS department, teaching mainly EE courses, based on having a CS PhD and having taken 3 EE courses (digital logic, microprocessors, and VLSI design).

Of course, I’ve also taught several courses designed by others, often with little prior training in the field.  I find that more difficult than teaching a course that I’ve designed myself, even if it takes me six months or more to teach myself the material before designing a course (as with the circuits course).

Because so much of what I’ve taught is material that I’ve had to teach myself, I tend to take a different approach to teaching than many other faculty.  I see my role as trying to provide guidance for students to learn the material faster than I did, with less time chasing down blind alleys, not to just dump some pre-digested knowledge into their heads for them to memorize and regurgitate. I don’t teach them as I’ve been taught, but as how I wish I had been taught.  I tend to pose them problems to guide their learning, rather than giving them information, then expecting them to repeat it back to me. (I’m self-taught in pedagogy also, but that is normal for university faculty.)

I want them to learn skills (not facts) that can serve them as a basis for further learning—for example, in the circuits course, I wanted the students to be able to design and build simple amplifier circuits and to be able to write design reports.  I didn’t care so much whether they could work book problems as that they acquired the mental attitudes of engineers—that they could design and build things, that data sheets are worth consulting, that precise and accurate recording of what was designed and measured is essential, that often you have to check things for yourself (not blindly trusting the data sheets or simple models), that consistency and sanity checks are an important part of any problem solving, that breaking a problem into subproblems is an essential element of design in any engineering field, and so forth.  (I think they got some of that, but it takes more than 10 weeks for the attitudes to really become part of their worldview.)

I think that the flattery on the AP Bio teachers’ forum was to soften me up to mentor a bright high school student that the teacher knew.  I’m willing to serve as a mentor for smart and motivated kids interested in bioinformatics, but not in other branches of biology—I just don’t know enough in those fields to guide anyone.  Even in bioinformatics, I don’t find it easy to guide students below a certain level of training—I have a few programming projects I could use student help on, but I don’t have many ideas for students who aren’t already expert programmers.

I have one pending request from a high school student wanting to do computational protein work in my lab this summer—something I don’t really do any more.  I have no idea what to tell her—10 years ago, I had an active lab that I could have worked her into, but with the repeated failure of grant requests and my subsequent disillusionment with the whole grant rat race, I no longer have a lab. I’m now working more as a consultant on other people’s research (helping out with statistics, signal processing, genome assembly, and other things I’m self-taught in) and putting most of my time into teaching and creating new courses.

2013 March 30

Selective colleges getting super-selective

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:13
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Stanford offered admission to 2,210 students via electronic notification today, producing – at 5.69 percent – the lowest admit rate in University history.

On Thursday, several peer institutions also reported historically low admit rates. Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton admitted 5.8, 6.72, 6.89 and 7.29 percent of applicants respectively.

via Stanford Daily | Class of 2017 admit rate marks record low at 5.7 percent.

Another site gives the MIT rate for the class of 2017 as 8.2% (1548/18989), another record low.

Since many of the schools that would be a good fit for my son are highly selective, and it seems to be almost a lottery who gets in, it looks like he’ll need to apply to just about every college that might be a good fit, plus a couple of poorer-fit “safety schools” to raise his expected number of acceptances to more than 1. Ideally, I think that he’ll want an expected number of acceptances around 3, in order to have some choice and to keep the probability of zero acceptances low enough.  It looks like that means about a dozen super selective schools (like MIT), a handful of selective schools (like UC Berkeley), and a couple of less selective schools (Cal Poly?).  That means a lot of college application essay writing for him this summer!

I’ll have to put in some time this summer putting together the “school profile”, “guidance counselor,” and “home school supplement” parts of the application, to try to make it clear to the admissions officers what his education has been.

Early applicants seem to be accepted at much higher rate than the overall pool (14–30%, so 2–3 times higher).  Is this because the earlier applicants are better? because they have to commit sooner? because they are offered less financial aid? because they have to commit without seeing the financial aid terms?

If the early admissions process is still only a 1-in-5 lottery, I can’t see betting everything on one school—but does the process allow multiple early admissions, or do you have to commit to one school?  It seems that some programs (like MIT and Caltech) are non-restrictive early action: a student can apply to multiple early-action programs.  Others, like Yale and Stanford are restrictive single-choice early action—you don’t have to accept their offer, but you can’t apply to other early-action programs. Still others are early decision: you may only apply to one program and are committed to accepting whatever offer they make if they accept you.  (Note: I did not check the programs at the schools—the information comes from Wikipedia, and certainly needs to be checked with a more authoritative source—it may all be different next fall anyway, as admissions offices have gone back and forth on the worth of early-admissions programs.)

The College Board has a reasonably informative discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of early decision and early action programs.

It seems to me that my son should apply early for the non-restrictive early action programs that look like a good fit, but not for single-choice early action or early decision programs, unless he really falls in love with just one school (which seems unlikely at the moment).  If nothing else, having some applications due for an early deadline and some for a later one will help him spread out the workload of preparing all the applications.

A physics teacher’s reaction to anti-science witch hunts

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:06
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Frank Noschese, a physics teacher, has written a rather amusing “letter to parents” on his blog Dear Parents | Action-Reaction, including such gems as

Giggle-inducing Scientific Terminology. Uranus, excited state, naked singularity, panspermia, ram pressure, Trojans, black hole, galactic bulge, hadron, space probe, parsecs, and 21-centimeter emission, to name a few. These are not “dirty words.” They are official scientific terms and we will need to use them in class.

The post as a whole mocks the anti-science attitude of the Dietrich, Idaho parents who protested a 10th grade biology teacher using the word “vagina” in the unit about reproduction. [http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/28/idaho-teacher-under-investigation-way-he-teaches-h/]

I guess that Idaho is racing Kansas to become the most anti-science state in the United States.

2013 March 29

Admission by exam at UC

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:51
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Because my son is home-schooled, filling all the bureaucratic requirements for admission to the University of California is somewhat difficult.  UC has a list of “a–g” courses that are required.  We have been fulfilling the intent of those requirements:

  1. 1 year World History, 1 year US history  (world history at home in 10th grade, US history at AFE in 11th)
  2. 4 years English (9th grade English didn’t happen, so we had to overload up in 10th and 11th grade)
  3. 3 years Math (Art of Problem Solving Precalculus and Calculus, Mathematical Problem Solving at UCSC, Applied Discrete Math at UCSC)
  4. 2–3 years science (Physiology in 9th, calculus-based physics in 10th and 11th, probably chemistry next year in 12th)
  5. 2 years foreign language (Spanish, through Spanish 3 at Cabrillo College, possibly through Spanish 4 next year)
  6. 1 year visual and performing arts (9th grade drama class, continuing theater classes at WEST performing arts)
  7. 1 year elective (various computer science and robotics projects, including the Art of Problem Solving Java course)

Unfortunately, only a few of these courses are officially “UC-approved”, so the University needs to have them validated some other way (see my previous post on a–g courses).  The English (requirement b) is validated by his SAT score on the reading section, math (requirement c) is validated by his SAT 2 and AP Calculus BC scores, the science (requirement d) will be validated by his AP Physics scores and the UC-approved physiology course, the foreign language (requirement e) by his community college Spanish courses, the arts (requirement f) by his high school drama course, and the elective (requirement g) by either the extra math courses at UCSC or his video editing course in 9th grade.

The only courses that are difficult to validate in this way are the history courses, as he is reluctant to take the SAT 2 tests in World History and US History—they are not his strongest subjects.  It might be good for him to take a practice test in them, to see whether he’d do well enough to get UC-level approval (the barrier is fairly low—only 540 on the World history and 550 on the US history).

If he doesn’t meet the letter of the rules for the a–g requirements, even though he exceeds them in spirit, there are other ways into UC: admission by exception and admission by exam.

The admission by exception is a pretty sleazy way into UC, used mainly to recruit athletes with substandard academic records to the big UC schools, and not much used as the poorer but more virtuous smaller campuses.  Since my son is a computer programmer and an actor (and maybe a mathematician and scientist), but not an athlete,  musician, or relative of a powerful politician, there is practically no chance of his getting admission by exception.

That leaves admission by exam, which seems at first glance like the most promising method, since he has no trouble with exams:

To qualify by examination, you must achieve a minimum UC Score total — calculated according to the instructions below — of 410 (425 for nonresidents). In addition, you must earn a minimum UC Score of 63 on each component of the ACT or SAT Reasoning Test and on each SAT Subject Test.

You may not use an SAT Subject Test to meet these requirements if you have completed a transferable college course in that subject with a grade of C or better.

via Admission by exam | UC Admissions.

With the SAT test and one SAT 2 test, he is a little short on the number of points he needs, but even a crummy job on another SAT 2 test (540 or better) will put him well over the threshold.

The last sentence in the quote is a little confusing though.  If he takes the SAT2 in Spanish, which I think he should for admission elsewhere, will that not count for admission by exam? (Probably not, since he took community college Spanish and has not yet taken the SAT 2 exam in Spanish.) After taking the SAT Math 2 test, he took some college math courses at UCSC.  Does his taking those courses suddenly invalidate his SAT2 Math score?  Or would only a college precalc class invalidate the SAT2 Math level 2?  What, exactly, does “in that subject” mean in this context?  Does the timing of the completion of the course and the taking of the exam matter? Or just the completion of the course and the admission to UC?

He’ll probably take a SAT 2 in physics, but not take any transferable college physics next year, so that would be one SAT2 he could count regardless of whimsical bureaucratic interpretation of the vague wording of the requirement.  He’ll need at least one more SAT2, besides math level 2 and physics, since some colleges require 3 SAT 2s.  I think he should take 2 more: US History and Spanish with listening (though we’ll have to buy a “portable CD player with earphones” for the listening test—a minor hassle and about $15 extra expense).  The US History would leave him just one course short of validating all the a–g requirements (still no validation for World History), as well as providing an unassailable set of admission by exam scores.

It may take some convincing to get him to take the US History and Spanish SAT 2s, though as he has little interest in history and he has not done Spanish in almost a year now.  I’d recommend an intensive Spanish summer experience for him before the November SAT2s (an immersion program in Latin America, for example), but he is planning on either 5 or 7 weeks of intensive theater this summer, so I don’t think that there is room to fit an immersion program in Spanish into his schedule.

2013 March 28

Science Fair coaching session

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:34
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This afternoon the Santa Cruz County Science Fair tried something new: we had a coaching session for the students going to the California State Science Fair.  Of the 40 projects that were being sent on to state, about half were represented at the coaching session.

The first half of the two-hour session was spent as a large group.  Each of the judges who was there (in their new role of coach) introduced themselves briefly, then we went around the room having each student introduce their poster briefly (about 1 minute each).  Then students asked questions about the state competition—about what they could expect, about poster design, about what judges wanted to see, and so forth.  Since I was the only one there who had judged at state, I ended up answering a lot of the questions, but others got in good comments also.

One message that I think we got out this year was that at the state science fair, students tend to use bigger poster boards than is common at the County Science Fair, so that they can put more content on the poster and still use a large enough font to be readable.  (A lot of the posters had tiny fonts suitable only for close reading.)  The construction techniques for two of the larger posters there were shown.  One was just two ordinary science fair tri-fold boards stacked with PVC pipe glued on the back as a stiffener.  It is quite sturdy, but a bit unwieldy even when folded, since it is still 5’–6′ long.  The other was my son’s foam-core board, which is just as big, but folds up small enough to be carried like a suitcase and be checked as luggage (not small enough to be carry-on though.  I’ve provided detailed construction instructions for this design in a previous blog post (though that post shows the previous carrier box, not the new one that fits the board and surrounds it on all 6 sides).

After the group discussion we broke up into one-on-one sessions with the judges circulating around answering questions for whoever had questions for them.  I ended up doing some coaching for two of the students I had judged, plus one who was doing a bioinformatics project.  I also provided less detailed advice to several other students who had questions.  I got a chance to meet some of the students who I had not seen at the county science fair—I think that we have some potential winners at the state fair this year.

Based on the conversations at the coaching session, I think that we’ll see some changes to this year’s projects before state. But even if we don’t, next year’s projects are likely to be stronger, as these students share what they heard with their teachers and fellow students, as well as improving their own projects for next year.

The coaching session worked well enough that I think we should do it again next year—perhaps lengthening it to 2.5 or 3 hours, with the first 30–45 minutes for a group session and the rest of the time for 1-on-1 coaching.  We could also have used another 4 or 5 judges there, so that students with individual questions did not have to wait to get them answered.

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