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2014 April 12

No-salary adjunct professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:40
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Katrin Becker in her post Six things that will demoralise staff, which is a response to Six things that will demoralise staff @ smh.com.au, commented on the difficulty of getting adjunct professor appointments at one Canadian university:

Curiously, I actually tried to become an adjunct at my Alma mater—twice. The first time was just after I’d graduated, and won a research award. That time my paperwork mysteriously disappeared—twice. The other time it took months of cajoling to even elicit a response from the Dean, and then they said they weren’t really interested. An adjunct appointment in Canada is a completely resource neutral appointment. It costs the University NOTHING, yet allows them to claim my achievements as part of their “output”. I can’t imagine why anyone would turn that down, but they did.

This phenomenon is not limited to Canada, nor to people whose only connection to the university is as an alumnus or alumna.  On our campus, adjunct professor with 0% salary appointments are up to the deans, and they don’t always make rational decisions.

For example, a few years ago our department had an extremely active researcher and teacher who had created courses for the department, taught them and trained others to teach them, taught one of our core grad courses, written grant proposals (he was on soft money), and basically done all the things that a good assistant professor would do. Our department voted unanimously to give him adjunct assistant professor status with a 0% appointment, which would have no fiscal effect, except that when he taught a course he would be paid like a visiting professor, rather than like a lecturer—the difference is not huge, but it meant that he would not have to take a pay cut from his research position in order to teach.

The dean refused to make the appointment, with the lame excuse that the person had not been a postdoc long enough (despite the fact that most of the tenure-track faculty in the School of Engineering are hired directly from PhD programs without postdoctoral training, and the person had 20 years of industrial experience in a related field).

Who can understand the minds of university administrators?

 

2014 April 11

Arthur Benjamin: Teach statistics before calculus!

I rarely have the patience to sit through a video of a TED talk—like advertisements, I rarely find them worth the time they consume. I can read a transcript of the talk in 1/4 the time, and not be distracted by the facial tics and awkward gestures of the speaker. I was pointed to one TED talk (with about 1.3 million views since Feb 2009) recently that has a message I agree with: Arthur Benjamin: Teach statistics before calculus!

The message is a simple one, though it takes him 3 minutes to make:calculus is the wrong summit for k–12 math to be aiming at.

Calculus is a great subject for scientists, engineers, and economists—one of the most fundamental branches of mathematics—but most people never use it. It would be far more valuable to have universal literacy in probability and statistics, and leave calculus to the 20% of the population who might actually use it someday.  I agree with Arthur Benjamin completely—and this is spoken as someone who was a math major and who learned calculus about 30 years before learning statistics.

Of course, to do probability and statistics well at an advanced level, one does need integral calculus, even measure theory, but the basics of probability and statistics can be taught with counting and summing in discrete spaces, and that is the level at which statistics should be taught in high schools.  (Arthur Benjamin alludes to this continuous vs. discrete math distinction in his talk, but he misleadingly implies that probability and statistics is a branch of discrete math, rather than that it can be learned in either discrete or continuous contexts.)

If I could overhaul math education at the high school level, I would make it go something like

  1. algebra
  2. logic, proofs, and combinatorics (as in applied discrete math)
  3. statistics
  4. geometry, trigonometry, and complex numbers
  5. calculus

The STEM students would get all 5 subjects, at least by the freshman year of college, and the non-STEM students would top with statistics or trigonometry, depending on their level of interest in math.  I could even see an argument for putting statistics before logic and proof, though I think it is easier to reason about uncertainty after you have a firm foundation in reasoning without uncertainty.

I made a comment along these lines in response to the blog post by Jason Dyer that pointed me to the TED talk. In response, Robert Hansen suggested a different, more conventional order:

  1. algebra
  2. combinatorics and statistics
  3. logic, proofs and geometry
  4. advanced algebra, trigonometry
  5. calculus

It is common to put combinatorics and statistics together, but that results in confusion on students’ part, because too many of the probability examples are then uniform distribution counting problems. It is useful to have some combinatorics before statistics (so that counting problems are possible examples), but mixing the two makes it less likely that non-uniform probability (which is what the real world mainly has) will be properly developed. We don’t need more people thinking that if there are only two possibilities that they must be equally likely!

I’ve also always felt that putting proofs together with geometry does damage to both. Analytic geometry is much more useful nowadays than Euclidean-style proofs, so I’d rather put geometry with trigonometry and complex numbers, and leave proof techniques and logic to an algebraic domain.

2014 March 13

Suggestions for changes to biomed training

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:56
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Yesterday I attended a a discussion lead by Henry Bourne (retired from UCSF) about problems in the training system for biologists in the US.  His points are summarized fairly well in his article A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs and the two articles it cites that preceded it:

In a recent essay I drew attention to five axioms that have helped to make the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in the US (Bourne, 2013a). This essay tackles, in detail, the dangerous consequences of one of these axioms: that the biomedical laboratory workforce should be largely made up of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, mostly supported by research project grants, with a relatively small number of principal investigators leading ever larger research groups. This axiom—trainees equal research workforce—drives a powerful feedback loop that undermines the sustainability of both training and research. Indeed, unless biomedical scientists, research institutions and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) act boldly to reform the biomedical research enterprise in the US, it is likely to destroy itself (Bourne, 2013b).

I’m basically in agreement with him that very long PhD+postdoc training current in biology in the US is fundamentally broken, and that the postdoc “holding tank” is not a sustainable system.

I also agree with him that one of the biggest problems in the system is paying for education through research grants. Grad student support should be provided directly, either as fellowships or training grants (I prefer individual fellowships like the NSF fellowships, he prefers training grants). By separating support for PhD training from research support, we can effectively eliminate the conflict of interest in which students are kept as cheap labor rather than being properly trained to become independent scientists (or encouraged to find a field that better fits their talents). By limiting the number of PhD students we can stop pumping more people into the postdoc holding tank faster than we can drain the tank by finding the postdocs real jobs.

I disagreed with one of his suggestions, though. He wants to see the PhD shrunk to an average of 4.5 years, followed by a 2–4-year postdoc. I’d rather keep the PhD at 6.5 years and eliminate the postdoc holding tank entirely. In engineering fields, researchers are hired into permanent positions immediately after their PhDs—postdoc positions are rare.  It is mainly because NIH makes hiring postdocs so very, very “cost-effective” that the huge postdoc holding tank has grown. If NIH changed their policies to eliminate support for postdocs on research grants, allowing only permanent staff to be paid, that would help quite a bit.

Draining the postdoc holding tank would probably take a decade or more even with rational policies, but current policies of universities and industry (only hiring people in bio after 6 years or more of postdoc) and of the NIH (providing generous funding for postdocs but little for permanent researchers) make the postdoc holding tank likely to grow rather than shrink.

He pointed out that NIH used to spend a much larger fraction of their funding on training students than they do now—they’ve practically abandoned education, in favor of a low-pay, no-job-security research workforce (grad students and postdocs).

A big part of the problem is that research groups have changed from being a professor working with a handful of students to huge groups with one PI and dozens of postdocs and grad students. Under the huge-group model, one PI needs to have many grants to keep the group going, so competition for research grant money is much fiercer, and there is much less diversity of research than under a small-group model.

The large-group model necessitates few PIs and many underlings, making it difficult for postdocs to move up to becoming independent scientists (there are few PI positions around), as well as making it difficult for new faculty to compete with grant-writing machines maintained by the large groups.

A simple solution would be for NIH to institute a policy that they will not fund any PI with more than 3 grants at time, and study sections should be told how much funding each PI has from grants, so that they can compare productivity to cost (they should also be told when grants expire, so that they can help PIs avoid gaps in funding that can shut down research).  The large groups would dissolve in a few years, as universities raced to create more PIs to keep the overhead money coming in.  The new positions would help drain the postdoc holding tank and increase the diversity of research being pursued.

Of course, the new positions would have to be real ones, not “soft-money” positions that have no more job security than a postdoc. NIH could help there too, by refusing to pay more than 30% of a PI’s salary out of Federal funds.

Of course, any rational way of spending the no-longer-growing NIH budget will result in some of the bloated research groups collapsing (mainly in med schools, which have become addicted to easy money and have built empires on “soft-money” positions).

I think that biology has been over-producing PhDs for decades—more than there are permanent positions for in industry and academia combined. That combined with the dubious quality of much of the PhD training (which has often been just indentured servitude in one lab, with no training in teaching or in subjects outside a very narrow focus on the needs of the PhD adviser’s lab), has resulted in a situation where a PhD in biology is not worth much—necessitating further training before the scientist is employable and providing a huge pool of postdoc “trainees”, many of whom will never become independent scientists.

Tightening the standards for admission to PhD programs and providing more rigorous coursework in the first two years of PhD training (rather than immediately shoving them into some PI’s lab) would help a lot in increasing the value of the PhD.

Unfortunately, I see our department going in the opposite direction—moving away from the engineering model of training people to be independent immediately after the PhD and towards a model where they are little more than hands in the PI’s labs (decreasing the required coursework, shrinking the lab rotations, and getting people into PI labs after only 2 quarters). I gave up being grad director for our department, because I was not willing to supervise this damage to the program, nor could I explain to students policies that I did not agree with.

One thing we are trying to do that I think is good is increasing the MS program, so that there is a pool of trained individuals able to take on important research tasks as permanent employees, rather than as long-term PhDs or postdocs. Again, the engineering fields have developed a much better model than the biomedical fields, with the working degree for most positions being the BS or MS, with only a few PhDs needed for academic positions and cutting-edge industrial research. Note that a PhD often has less actual coursework than an MS—PhD students have been expected to learn by floundering around in someone’s lab for an extra 5 years taking no courses and often not even going to research seminars, which is a rather slow way of developing skills and deadly to gaining a breadth of knowledge. Biotech companies would probably do well to stop hiring PhDs and postdocs for routine positions, and start hiring those with an MS in bioengineering instead.

2014 March 11

Why few women in engineering?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:33
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The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by Catherine Rampell with a somewhat unusual, but plausible explanation why some fields end up with more men than women (as most of the engineering fields do). The theory is that women are more discouraged by a B in an entry-level course than men are (she cites some data from econ courses that support that theory, though it is only correlation, not necessarily causation).
Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.
As parents and teachers we encourage children to pursue fields that they enjoy, that they are good at, and that can support them later in life. It may be that girls are getting the “that they are good at” message more strongly than boys are, or that enjoyment is more related to grades for girls. These habits of thought can become firmly set by the time students become men and women in college, so minor setbacks (like getting a B in an intro CS course) may have a larger effect on women than on men.
I’m a little wary of putting too much faith in this theory, though, as the author exhibits some naiveté:
But I fear that women are dropping out of fields such as math and computer science not because they’ve discovered passions elsewhere but because they fear delivering imperfection in the “hard” fields that they (and potential employers) genuinely love. Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.
It is very difficult for students, male or female, to transfer into STEM majors late—the number of required courses and prerequisite chains are too long.  As long as the humanities majors have few, unchained requirements and STEM majors have many, chained requirements, the transfer out of STEM will be far larger than the transfer into STEM. Expecting equal flow in both directions is naive.
But there is, I believe, a greater proportional loss of women from STEM fields in college than men, and most of the interventions trying to reduce that loss have not been very effective.  (Harvey Mudd has had some success, attributed to various causes.) If the theory put forth by Rampell is valid, what interventions might be useful? Here are a few I thought of:
  • Higher grades in beginning classes. Engineering courses generally average 0.4 or 0.5 grade points lower than the massively inflated grades in humanities courses. I doubt, somehow, that many engineering faculty will be comfortable with the humanities approach of giving anyone who shows up an A, no matter how bad their work. So I don’t think that this idea has any merit.
  • Lower entry points. One of the things that Harvey Mudd did was to require every freshman to take CS and to introduce a lower-level CS course for those who did not have previous programming. By having some lower-level courses, students could get high grades in their first course without teachers having to water down existing classes or engage in grade inflation. By requiring the course of all students, students who avoided the subject for fear of not being able to compete are given a chance to discover an interest in the field (and, apparently, many women at Harvey Mudd do discover an interest in CS as a result of the required course).
  • Extra tutoring help for B students in entry-level courses. Almost all the “help” resources at the University seem to be aimed at getting students from failing to passing—but the students who are barely passing after massive help do not make good engineering majors, and are likely to fail out of the major later on. It would be far more productive to try to turn the Bs into As, retaining more women (and minorities) in the field. Of course, this means that the assistance has to be at a higher level than it often is now—the tutors need to know the material extremely well and be able to assist others to achieve that expertise.  Basic study skills and generic group help may be good for getting from failing to passing, but may not be enough to get from B to A.
  • More information to students about the feasibility and desirability of continuing with a B. This sort of encouragement probably has to happen one-on-one from highly trusted people (more likely peers than adults).

These ideas are definitely half-baked—I’m not even fully convinced that the theory behind them is valid, much less that they would have the desired effect. I welcome comments and suggestions from my readers.

2014 March 9

Three Days of Rain

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:43
Tags: , ,

We just saw a very good production of Three Days of Rain, by the Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz. It runs for another week (Wed through Sun), and I don’t think that all the performances are sold out, so tickets may be available (though probably not for all performances).

We’ve also purchased our tickets for Jewel Theatre’s production of What the Butler Saw in May—for once we ordered the tickets early enough to get our choice of seats.  We picked a day that has apparently just been added to the run, since we were the first to buy tickets for it—the first day we looked at would have required us to sit in the back row, where we usually end up. Those are not bad seats in a tiny theater like Center Stage, but it’ll be a nice change to sit in the third row, in what are arguably the best seats in the house.  (The second row is clearly the worst, since it is on the same level as the first row, so sight lines are somewhat blocked.)

Next year, my wife and I will probably get season tickets for Jewel Theater, as long as most of the plays look like ones we want to see. My son will be away at college (I hope—we haven’t heard back yet from any of the colleges he applied to), so it will just be the two of us. That means we’ll stop skewing the age distribution so much—we’re guessing that my son was the youngest person in the audience by a factor of 2, and my wife and I were probably still below median age and will probably continue to be until we retire.

I think it is a shame that Jewel Theatre is not attracting a younger audience—the ticket prices are fairly affordable ($31 for adults, $26 for students) and the quality is high. Maybe Friday nights get a younger crowd than Sunday nights, and we’re getting a distorted view of the audience age distribution. There is certainly plenty of youth interest in live theater, but maybe it is being met by all the children’s and teen theater that is available in Santa Cruz (schools, West Performing Arts, and the musical companies: All About Theater, Kids on Broadway, Hooked on Theater, Little People’s Repertory Theatre, Christian Youth Theater, …). Perhaps Jewel Theatre needs to team up with West Performing Arts to have a special teen day or family day with discount group tickets.

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