Gas station without pumps

2013 September 28

Program Learning Outcomes

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:52
Tags: , , ,

I just took over as undergrad director of a couple of our majors this summer, and I’ve been thinking about how to revamp the curriculum.  Because the bioengineering major relies on courses from 11 different departments, it is very difficult to maintain.  Even if each department were very stable and only changed their courses once a decade, our program would still be facing changes every year.  We generally handle the changes, which we only find out about after it is too late to change our catalog copy, with exceptions and clunky workarounds, but that gets unwieldy after a while, and we have to do a clean sweep and start over.  This year I want to do that clean sweep.  Of course, I can’t do it by fiat—I have to get a curriculum committee together representing most of the departments and get them all to agree on a new curriculum.  That is likely to be a difficult undertaking.

This fall, I got another task dumped on my by the administration: coming up with “Program Learning Outcomes” for our majors, showing how each required course supports one or more of the PLOs, and writing a plan for measuring 2 or more PLOs each year and how we will use the measurements for improving the program.  The description of what they want is presented in a 46-page PDF file, which reads like it was generated by an eduspeak jargon generator, like the one at  Oh, and they want it all done by the end of Fall quarter.

There was an assumption built into the message from the Vice Provost of Academic Affairs that everyone already knew about this and had been working on it for months.  (I didn’t get the message directly—it was forwarded from the department chair.)  Of course, this was the first I had heard of the PLOs, so I searched my e-mail to see if there was any hint earlier.  As it turns out there was.

There was a message sent to the faculty  in June, during final exam week, that had six paragraphs listing what new degree program had been created and what ones had been removed.  At the very end of the email, there was one paragraph that said

There is a campus-wide effort underway to prepare for our next Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation, including further defining student based learning outcomes for each undergraduate and graduate major.  Program learning outcomes will be posted on department websites for easy communication to all students. Assessment will be incorporated into department external reviews. More information is available on my VPAA  website:

I certainly did not notice that paragraph at the time (I only found it now by searching through all my archived e-mail).  Even if I had read it, it would not have told me that there was a major effort needed to produce PLOs—that only became apparent only clicking through to the link, which had a letter to deans, department chairs, and program directors explaining the new mandate from the administration to the faculty.  That letter was probably never read by our over-worked department chair, and our faculty has certainly never discussed or agreed to this way of doing curricular planning and maintenance.

It seems like some of the worst practices of K–12 education administration are being pushed on the university—administrative mandates for creating bullshit objectives and reams of paper wasted on “rubrics” for measuring the unmeasurable.

The underlying idea—designing a curriculum by first figuring out what you want students to learn, then making sure that students do learn that—is sound, but the implementation by administrative fiat with no faculty buy-in whatsoever is doomed to being a time-wasting, bureaucratic exercise in producing piles of paper reports that are never read or used by the faculty or anyone else. It looks like the main purpose of this whole exercise was to hire an administrator to manage it—no one else is going to benefit from the half-hearted (at best), pro forma exercise.

When I was in the computer engineering department, we went through an extensive self study for ABET accreditation which took about 2 faculty-years of effort to complete (one faculty member full time, and the rest of us contributing part time).  We analyzed all our courses, both expectations of what students would know going into the course and what they would be expected to know coming out of the course.  We looked every path through the major, collected examples of student work to check calibration of grading in all courses, and generally did the curriculum analysis thoroughly.  It was a valuable exercise that resulted in several improvements to individual courses and some improvements to the curriculum as a whole, but it was exhausting.  It worked because all the faculty believed it was worth the effort and put in the time to make it work.

On the  other hand, when EE went through their first self study, they out-sourced a lot of the work to someone in another department and did the minimum necessary to satisfy the bureaucrats. There was no attempt to fix any problems that were uncovered—just to paper them over so that no one would notice. It had no lasting effect on their courses and was a complete waste of everyone’s time.  I fear that this new initiative from the administration will be more like the EE lack of effort than the computer engineering effort.

I care a lot about the design of curricula, having been heavily involved now in the design of curricula for 3 undergraduate majors and 2 grad programs.  I was planning to put a lot of time into overhauling the bioengineering and bioinformatics undergrad curricula this Fall.  And this PLO initiative will not help at all with that.  Sure, I can come up with a list of some of the main things students should learn (though phrasing them in the eduspeak manner required in the 46 pages of instructions will not be easy nor useful).  But all the trash that they put around that assumes that the curriculum is a fixed, unchanging entity, with all required courses taught by multiple instructors, and that the department has full control over all instructors for all required courses, and that improvement comes only in the form of minor tweaks to existing courses.  None of those things are true of our program.

Did I mention that the bioengineering degree has required courses from 11 different departments?  And that all but a few of these courses are being taught primarily for majors in other fields? Most of the annual curriculum maintenance is in the form of finding workarounds for changes made by other departments, not tweaking courses within the department—so all the verbiage about how assessment will “improve the curriculum, pedagogy, and/or advising” is just bureaucratic bullshit.

We already do a lot of outcomes assessment (for example, as undergrad director I review senior portfolios for evidence of research and writing skills, and we do exit interviews with all graduating seniors to get feedback on what parts of the curriculum are working and which need improvement).  Writing up a brief description of what we already do, however, is unlikely to satisfy the administrators—given that they consider 46 pages of “guidelines” a suitable introduction to their pet project.

Our faculty are busy teaching and doing research, neither of which are aided by producing paper doorstops for administrative office doors.  I doubt that I can get their attention for this administrative time waster. I’ll probably throw together something to try to satisfy the administrators, but I’d much rather spend time on improving the curriculum than on placating bureaucrats.

2013 September 23

Science Fair Workshop

Filed under: home school,Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:45
Tags: , , ,

Suki Wessling, my son, and I ran science fair workshop last week for middle school and high school home-schooled students.  Our attendance was meager (one student other than our two sons).  So that the effort we put into the handout will not be wasted, I’ll put it in this blog post.  The next time I do a handout for science fair, I’ll want to add a section on doing engineering projects also, since those have a somewhat different process than the simplified version of the “scientific method” that we described.

The remainder of this post is the handout:


Science Fair Workshop for Parents

Why science fairs?

The science fair is a lot of work. However, it is also a very rewarding project to do with your child. Benefits include

  • Helping your child do a project that has a beginning, middle, and end. This can be very useful for children who tend to be scattered and unfocused.

  • Completing a cross-discipline project, including science, math, language arts, and public speaking.

  • Supporting your child to approach more challenging work.

  • Meeting other families who love science.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method:

  • Is the basis of science

  • Is the opposite of having a belief and finding a justification for it

  • Is not weakened when hypotheses are disproven

The steps of the scientific method are

  1. Observe

  2. Form an investigative question

  3. Read what others have written, and make competing models that explain the observation

  4. Come up with a hypothesis (a prediction that is different in the competing models, not a guess)

  5. Conduct experiments

  6. Accept or reject hypothesis

An example of the scientific method in action:

  1. Observe that a plant in the shady part of your garden didn’t grow well.

  2. Why didn’t that plant grow as well as plants you put in at the same time in the sunny part of the garden?

  3. Read about what plants need to grow, noting that different plants need different amounts of sun and water.

  4. Hypothesis: This plant needs a certain amount of sunlight per day to grow well.

  5. Plant a good number of seedlings (6–8) and subject half of them to sunny conditions, half to shady conditions. Keep a notebook of the plants’ progress, with observations and measurements.

  6. Consider whether the data support the hypothesis.

How to find a project

There are many places to look to find a good project:

  • The best projects grow out of a child’s actual interest.

  • The best projects take advantage of what children like to do (e.g., messy projects, outdoor projects, math-based projects).

  • Try out examples on a science fair project website just for ideas, then try to expand on or change them based on your child’s interests.

  • Don’t just replicate the steps of a project outlined on the web!

Tips for getting through the process

  1. Plan early: Get all the dates on your calendar, and make sure your child has enough time to do all the steps (including writing the report).

  2. Don’t bite off too much: If your child’s idea is too BIG, help him whittle it down to size. Don’t be tempted to finish it off if the child resists finishing—this is also part of the learning process.

  3. Plan to be completely done well before your school’s science fair (if you’re taking part in one).

  4. There is nothing wrong with preparation: successful kids do actually practice their spiels. However, don’t overprep your child so that she seems to be reciting something you wrote. Make sure she understands what she’s talking about and only uses words she really understands.

What do judges look for?

See more details from Kevin:

  • Multiple replication of the experiments—generally the more the better, but 3 is usually a minimum.  More replication is generally better than more different conditions.

  • Proper controls (both positive and negative, when possible)

  • Graphical display of the results with correctly labeled axes and no chart junk

  • Correct use of units of measurement

  • Proper (simple) statistics (averages, best fit straight lines, …) High school students may add standard deviation and significance tests (chi-square or Student’s T)

  • Measuring the right thing

  • Measuring and reporting inputs as well as outputs

  • Lab notebook with detailed information recorded as the experiment is done

  • Clever use of simple equipment

  • Careful thought about how the experiment could be improved if it were to be repeated

Homeschoolers and the SC Science Fair

  • Students doing projects involving invertebrate or vertebrate animals, human subjects, recombinant DNA, tissue, pathogenic agents, or controlled substances, need to get approval from their sponsoring teacher before they begin their research. A Certificate of Compliance Form must be signed by both student and sponsoring teacher, then submitted by the registration deadline. (The detailed rules have not been published yet for this year—they will be in the “Science Fair Guide”.)

  • Put the schedule on your calendar, including the awards night.

  • If your homeschool program takes part, make sure your teacher meets the school roster deadline.

  • If you are independent or your program doesn’t take part, fill out the registration form and choose your school if it’s in the list. If not, put your private school’s name in the Other box. Submit a school roster after you register.

Winning and losing

Although it’s a competition, the SC Science Fair does a great job of making all the kids feel like they have achieved something. It’s always good to focus more on the event itself—setting up the display, talking to judges, and looking at other kids’ work—than talking about the prizes.


2013 September 22

Common App transcript

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:40
Tags: , , ,

As a homeschool parent, I have to do all the “school” parts of the Common App and other college applications, which means I have about as much work to do in filling out college applications as my son does.

The Common App was completely re-implemented this year, which means that there are piles of bugs, poor or non-existent documentation, and a very harried support staff.  Basically, everyone is pretty much on their own to figure out how to get stuff done—the interface is far from intuitive.  I posted earlier about how a home-school parent gets to become the counselor, but that only gets access—figuring out how to fill out all the parts of the application is still daunting.

There are three main things the home school parent needs to create:

  • a school profile,
  • a transcript, and
  • a counselor’s letter.

The school profile is the shortest and easiest.  This consists mainly of simple statements of fact (like the education levels of the parents) and the philosophy of the home school.  Around here, most public schools put their profiles on-line, so it is easy to see what the standard ones include.  A lot of it is irrelevant to home schoolers (number of students, demographics, percentage going on to 4-year colleges, …), but other parts are directly relevant.  Here is what I said on ours:

Mission and philosophy
The purpose of our home school is to provide Xxx with advanced educational opportunities in his passions (computer science, math, and theater) that are not available in the local public schools, while still preparing him for college admission at a top-rank university. We have a particular emphasis on long-term (6-month or longer) engineering projects.
Graduation requirements
Minimum graduation requirements were set to meet or exceed the standards for California high-school graduation and college admissions standards set by the University of California:

Laboratory Science 4 years English 4 years World History 1 year Physical Education 2 years
Math 4 years Foreign Language 3 years US History 1 year
Art or Theater 4 years Government 0.5 years
Economics 0.5 years

Courses are a mixture of ones taught by the parent-teachers, online courses, courses at Alternative Family Education (AFE), which is the local school district’s umbrella school for home schoolers, theater courses from West Performing Arts (WEST), Cabrillo Community College courses (Cab), and University of California courses (UCSC). Some of the high school curriculum was completed at a private high school (Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School; GBK) in 7th and 8th grades or a public high school (Santa Cruz High School; SCHS) in 9th grade before beginning home schooling in 10th grade—courses are also included on the transcript to provide a single transcript for all high-school work. The provider for each course is indicated on the transcript.
Most STEM courses are honors, AP, or college courses.
The Home School does not give grades, but ungraded courses have been validated by AP exams or SAT 2 exams when feasible—these exam results are indicated on the transcript for the corresponding courses. Where grades were given by course instructors, those grades are recorded on the transcript. Because most of the courses are not graded, GPA has not been computed.

The counselor letter is used for talking about the student as a person—to call attention to things that may be buried in the transcript and to talk about things that cannot be reasonably put on the transcript.  It is too personal to put on this blog, but I basically summarized his passion for computer science and theater, compared him to college computer engineering majors, talked about his recreational activities, and pointed out where he could be found on the web (StackOverflow,, …). The letter is about 2 pages long, and I had it reviewed by my son, my wife, and our consultant teacher.

The transcript has been the hardest to write—partly because it is the longest.  We ended up with 65 courses totaling 45.7 credits listed on the transcript: 10 computer science (7.3 credits), 22 theater (10.9 credits), 7 math (7 credits), 5 science (5 credits), 5 Spanish (5 credits), 4 social science (3 credits), 7 English (4 credits), and 5 PE (3.5 credits).  Many of the courses are less than a full year—classes varied from 0.2 to 1.0 credits.  I could have lumped together some of the theater classes, but then I would have ended up with classes with more than 1.0 credits, which I wanted to avoid. A typical AP-intensive curriculum involves 28–32 credits, so the 45.7 credits is a rather large load. Of course, 5 credits of it was taken in middle school, we are giving credit for things that might be extracurricular on other transcripts (like theater, robotics,  and being a TA for a Python course), and a lot of the theater happened as intensive summer camps.

The listing of the courses with provider, credits, grade (if any), and validating exam (if any) takes just over 2 pages.  The first page is just the computer science and theater classes, the next all the other academic classes, and the third page the PE classes.  Also on the third page is a listing of all standardized test scores and awards.  As a footer on these three pages, I list the 9 abbreviations used to indicate the different education providers.

The next 14 or so pages of the transcript give one- to two-paragraph descriptions of each course, including the instructor name, textbooks used, topics covered, and so forth.  The course descriptions are in the same order as the courses on the short course list.  Where possible, I copied course descriptions from education providers, adding textbooks (when we could remember what they were) and changing the tense of the descriptions to use past tense consistently.  For courses that we did at home, I had to create course descriptions—I’m still waiting for course descriptions from my son and my wife for some of the humanities courses—a list of readings would be most helpful.  It has probably taken me in excess of 40 hours to create this transcript and list of course descriptions, and I probably have a few hours of work left, incorporating the humanities course descriptions.

Electronic sensors for water quality

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:19
Tags: , , , , ,

I just read an article in AEE – Advances in Engineering Education—A Journal of Engineering Education Applications, vol. 3 #2, 2012, SENSE IT: Teaching STEM principles to middle and high school students through the design, construction and deployment of water quality sensors:

This paper describes the structure and impact of an NSF-funded ITEST project designed to enrich science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using educational modules that teach students to construct, program, and test a series of sensors used to monitor water quality.

The four sensors that they used for the middle school and high school students (thermistor for temperature, LED and photoresistor for turbidity, pressure gauge for depth, and electrodes for conductivity) would be suitable for the freshman design seminar. I already use the thermistor lab as the first lab in the circuits course, and I do a more sophisticated version of the conductivity and pressure sensor labs (measuring impedance with polarizable and non-polarizable electrodes and using a pressure sensor that is just a strain gauge, so that they need to build the amplifier for it).  Details of the curriculum and the sensors themselves can be found at

The application to water quality measurements is reasonable, and for the freshman seminar it might be worth a field trip down to San Lorenzo River or Cowell beach to test out their designs.

We would use Arduinos or KL25Z boards, rather than Lego NXT bricks, and waterproofing their designs could be a part of the engineering. Using a drybox and a connector should not be too difficult. The robotics club has used IP68 Sealcon strain reliefs from for cables and Buccaneer mini IP68 connectors for disconnectable connections, both successfully. Some parts could be potted in epoxy, like the cameras for the underwater robot.

My main concern is that making the instruments be standalone might be too challenging, but just duplicating what the high school students do might not be challenging enough. I also don’t want to have to teach half the circuits course for the freshman design seminar, so I’d like to keep the necessary electronics to a minimum.

Projects for freshman design seminar

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:15
Tags: , , ,

The Fall quarter is about to start, and I don’t have my web sites set up with all the homework assignments yet, but I’ve been thinking more about my Winter and Spring courses than my Fall ones.

This Winter I’ll be trying to run a new freshman design seminar for bioengineering majors.  This is intended to be a 2-unit course (that is, about 60 hours total work) and to have a lot of engineering design thinking.  The basic idea of the course is to have students design and build something relevant to their major, and to get them used to thinking of themselves as engineers, rather than as students who memorize stuff from books or as hands in a bio lab, who behave like low-cost robots to do whatever protocols they are told to implement.

The problem, of course, is that I can’t count on freshmen having learned anything useful yet, at least not universally.  Most of the students will have had little or no physics, many will have had little chemistry or biology, most will have had no computer programming, and essentially all will have had no electronics.  Collectively, there may be a fair amount of learning in the room, but individually, not so much.

This argues for doing a group project (the traditional way to get something done with large numbers of untrained people).  The danger, as with many group projects, is that one student might end up doing all the work, because that is more efficient than parceling out the work to less competent team members.  With only 60 hours per student (including class time, reading, lab safety training, and any other activities), I can’t have them picking large projects that are too big for one person to handle alone, which is the usual engineering school approach to ensuring that group projects are really group projects.

The course is not a required one, so I won’t have to deal with reluctant students who don’t want to be there, which removes one problem, but it also means that I have to come up with a course that excites the students, and makes them want to put in the effort to accomplish the project.  That means coming up with project ideas that are feasible for freshman at an only moderately selective school (we accept about 50% of applicants) with limited time, but that are exciting to do. A tough challenge!

In June, I mentioned 2 possible projects:

  • A low-cost optical density meter for continuous monitoring of OD 600 (with an LED light source) or OD 650 (with a narrower-spectrum laser-diode light source) of cultures on a shaker table.
  • A pulse oximeter for measuring blood oxygenation.

Over the summer, I played a bit with the pulse-oximeter idea, and I think it may be a bit too difficult for students with no analog electronics and no mechanical design skills—a pulse monitor using a bright IR or red LED shining through a finger seems feasible though.

I thought about some other projects students could work on, mostly on the theme of do-it-yourself lab equipment for home or cash-strapped high-school labs:

  • 3-color colorimeter.  This consists of an RGB LED, a disposable cuvette, a phototransistor, and a microcontroller with analog-to-digital conversion.  The mechanical design is straightforward, the electronics trivial, and the programming not too difficult.  The resulting device would be useful in a number of AP chem labs.
  • Conductivity meter.  I’ve posted about this idea already.  It also has trivial electronics and fairly simple programming.  There would need to be a bit more background on the idea of polarizable and non-polarizable electrodes, and most of the design difficulty is in mechanical design—designing a small probe that is consistently wet by the solution and can be handled by the user.
  • Spectrophotometer.  Initially I thought that a spectrometer was a bit too ambitious for the freshman design seminar, but I’ve seen a couple of crude open-source designs (PublicLab design and Scheeline cellphone design) that could serve as starting points for a usable, low-quality spectrometer.  The biggest difficulty here is in getting the spectrum into digital form—the open-source designs use an external camera and a lot of existing software to finesse this problem.  I don’t particularly like the idea of using a DVD as a diffraction grating (the lines are spiral, rather than straight), especially since linear diffraction gratings cost under $1 each (down to 30¢ each in lots of 200).  I looked up the track pitches of various optical disks:
    CD 1.6±0.1 µm
    3.95GB DVD-R 0.8 µm
    4.7GB DVD-R 0.74 µm
    BluRay 0.32 µm

    and they are comparable with the 1µm pitch of the cheap linear diffraction gratings. The finer the pitch of the diffraction grating, the wider the resulting spectrum.

Note that 4 of the 5 projects involve optoelectronics, and that all of them require programming (unless we take already written programs, like that available with the online spectrophotometer projects).  Mechanical design for eliminating stray light paths and making sure that the optical path is consistent is important on all 4 projects, and the conductivity meter has similar mechanical design problems (for ensuring that the electrical paths between the electrodes remain consistent.

Next Page »

%d bloggers like this: