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2015 November 21

Am I benevolently sexist?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:09
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In her blog, xykademiqz just posted Benevolently Sexist, which I excerpt part of here:

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her—nay, trick her!—into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist. *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Go read the whole post, and the comments attached to—they are thought-provoking.

I’m a little uncomfortable responding to the post, because I have also held the view that we could get more women into engineering if we emphasized some of the useful and helpful things engineers can do, rather than just assuming that people would sign up for the coolness of the math and programming.  Am I, then, benevolently sexist?

I have no evidence that emphasizing “helping” would make any difference to the abysmal gender balance in engineering, but it is one of the few suggestions I’ve seen that might help, and as fadsklfhlfja said, it would be a good thing to do even if it had no effect on the gender balance, so I’m comfortable recommending that engineering programs pay more attention to how they can help people.

Bioinformatics and bioengineering, my current fields, attract more women than other engineering fields at our university (though still not to parity, unlike biology, for example). The worst gender balance among undergrads here is in electrical engineering, and the next worse is in computer game design (despite an almost equal gender balance on the faculty for the department that runs the game-design major).  The EE ratio may be explainable by math phobia (though I think it has more to do with the way the EE courses are taught), but the game design ratio seems most explainable by the “usefulness” theory, as game design has all the coolness and employability factors one might want, except that.

I have no interest in tricking anyone into pursuing engineering—I only want the ones who will pursue engineering diligently (and preferably passionately). If anything, I’d like to send away the students who are just in the field because their parents think they ought to be.  But I think that a lot of students go through high school with really bad stereotypes of what engineers are (Dilbert, for example) and spreading a more accurate and honest message about engineering would go a long way towards improving gender balance.

We have a couple of concentrations in bioengineering that are very close to other majors that have bad gender balances:

  • the Assistive Technology: Motor concentration is very close to the Robotics Engineering major.  There are a few extra bio courses and a corresponding shortage of upper-division tech courses, but the cores are quite similar.  The main difference is that assistive technology stresses the application of robotics to helping people with movement disabilities.  Once this concentration has existed long enough for statistics to be meaningful, I’d be interested in comparing the gender balances in the concentration with gender balances in robotics engineering.
  • the Bioelectronics concentration is close to the Electrical Engineering major.  Again there are chemistry and bio courses that the EE students don’t take, and a corresponding shortage of some of the more esoteric upper-division EE courses.  The application is interfacing biological systems to computers.  Again, I’d like to see how the gender balances compare in a few years, when there have been enough students through the concentration for the statistics to be meaningful.

From what I’ve seen of the statistics so far, the bioengineering program here is doing a reasonable job at retaining women and under-represented minority students, but recruitment is still a problem—the ratios for our majors (juniors and seniors) are essentially the same as for our proposed majors (freshmen and sophomores), so we need to get better at attracting women and minority students to the field. If putting more emphasis on how the engineering we do helps people has any positive effect on recruitment, we should definitely do it.

2015 November 16

How scientists fool themselves

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:01
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Nature News & Comment has just published a good comment:
How scientists fool themselves—and how they can stop

The comment goes through a number of the standard ways people fool themselves, but skirts around the most important one in modern biology: failure to correct for testing multiple hypotheses. They mention “p-hacking” as a problem, but their prescription is just “don’t do it” rather than explaining how one corrects for testing many hypotheses.

I think that the comment could have been much stronger if they had gotten some statisticians to provide the real corrective measures needed, rather than just moralizing about how people fool themselves.

2015 November 11

Learning outside your comfort zone

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:13

In On cross-disciplinary ambiguity and conference comfort zones | Byte Size Biology, Iddo Friedberg makes a plea for biologists and computer scientists to pay more attention to each other’s concerns.  I reproduce the first and last paragraph here:

I recently attended a conference which was unusual for me as most of the speakers come from a computer science culture, rather than a biology one. Somewhat outside my comfort zone. The science that was discussed was quite different from the more biological bioinformatics meetings: the reason being the motivation of the scientists, and what they value in  their research culture.

Also, try to listen more, and attend meetings outside your comfort zone. It seems I learn more from conversations in my “non-regular” meetings than in my “regular” ones. Of course, once the “non-regular” become my “regular” meetings I will learn less, so basically I may have to constantly shift my comfort zone. Then again, to me it seems like science is always poking and prodding outside one’s comfort zone.

The basic message is one that we try to get across to our bioinformatics grad students—that it takes a wide range of knowledge, expertly applied, to make real progress in bioinformatics research and that you never know what odd bit of information will turn out to be key. Unfortunately, there is another message that they hear even louder: that one should focus narrowly on the research in front of you and not get distracted by other concerns (like teaching, going to seminars slightly outside one’s current research interests, taking courses, doing service, going to grad student advancement talks and thesis defenses, …).

Where do they get this message from? From the faculty who may pay lip-service to the broad-range-of-knowledge party line, but who don’t themselves go to even the weekly department research seminars, unless the speaker is a friend of theirs or is working in exactly the same field.

In previous years I’ve tried to go to every departmental seminar meeting, but I’ve been unable to do that this year, because the Academic Senate committee that I’m on is scheduled in conflict with our departmental seminar. (The Committee on Committees didn’t tell me that when asking if I would serve—nowhere in any of the information I could find or was given did it state when the committee met nor that the committee meeting times were cast in stone.)  I’ll be off the committee in the Spring, but that won’t help with my attendance at the department seminars, because my Applied Electronics class will have labs on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’ll be teaching in the lab from 9:30 a.m. until after 5:30p.m.—again conflicting with the department seminars (also with department faculty meetings).

Besides attending department seminars and grad student advancement and thesis defense talks, I also used to take full courses to fill in the huge gaps in my education, but I’ve not done that for a while

Next quarter I will be having the first light-teaching load quarter in a long time (only one 2-unit course), so I was looking for a course I could sit in on and get some real learning done. Unfortunately, the one that I had looked forward to taking this year when I filed my curriculum leave plan is not being offered. It was a grad course on BioMEMs that was offered last year, and I guess they don’t get enough interest to offer it every year (or the sole faculty member who can teach it has other responsibilities that quarter).

I looked through the courses being offered next quarter in several departments, and the only one that attracted my attention was the second quarter of a two-quarter grad sequence in feedback control—and I really need the first quarter to be able to do the second one, as I’ve only vaguely heard of the topics in the first quarter and could not catch up fast enough to join the second quarter.

Another possibility is to take the Linguistics Syntax I course (which my wife took decades ago), but I’m not sure I’d have the time for it—it is one of those rare humanities courses that really does take the 15 hours a week that a 5-unit course is supposed to take, and a big attraction for me is the teaching style they use, of having the students design a grammar for English rather than being presented with an already polished one.  The learning comes in the doing, and so giving it less than the time it takes to do it right would miss the point of taking the course.  The schedule would be a bit tight even for attending class, as the Syntax I class is immediately before the class I teach (in the same building, though, so maybe I could do it).

Other people might consider taking an on-line course, but I’ve always found watching talking heads on a screen terminally boring.  Even a lecture that I would enjoy live comes across as flat and dull on a screen. If I can’t find a live class that I want to attend, I’ll try to put all my spare time into working on my book, but I suspect I’ll burn out on that if I try to do too many hours a week.

Not applying for that grant after all

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:56
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As long-time readers of my blog may know, I’ve given up on chasing grants (see Sabbatical Plans 2 and Sabbatical Leave Report), but I got sucked into planning to apply for NSF Engineering Education Program and Improving Undergraduate STEM Education/Professional Formation of Engineers’ RED Solicitation NSF 15-607, which would provide a minimum of $1,000,000 spread over 5 years to the lucky winner of the grant lottery for improving engineering education.  Because I have refocused my effort since my last sabbatical on improving education, this grant seemed like something worth some effort.

I was a little worried about it not being a lottery, but having an already targeted program that someone at NSF wanted to fund, as it had a very short timeline for putting together a rather complex grant, and somewhat bizarre requirements for the composition of the group applying for it:

The Principal Investigator(s) must be a department chair/head (or equivalent) to establish institutional accountability. Additionally, there must be a RED team that includes (at a minimum) an expert in engineering education or computer science education research, who can ground the research plan in the literature, and a social science expert who can evaluate department dynamics and monitor change processes. The social scientist must have expertise to advise on strategies for developing a culture of change and on strategies for creating meaningful collective ownership of the effort among faculty, students, and staff.

I was first informed of the existence of this program on 2015 Oct 7, by the engineering associate dean for undergraduates.  Apparently the deans of engineering schools had been informed of the program on 2015 Oct 5 by NSF, with letters of intent due on 2015 Nov 10, with each institution limited to 2 proposals.  I responded with cautious enthusiasm within an hour and a half, outlining what I’d like to see improved in the engineering program generally and why I thought that our Hispanic-Serving Institution was a good fit for the goals of the program to “educate inclusive communities of engineering and computer science students prepared to solve 21st-century challenges.”

I was willing to help write the grant, but I did not want to be the PI—not that I could anyway, as I’m a “Program Chair” but not a “Department Chair”—that means that I have to do all the catalog editing, curriculum revision, and responding to the administration about every bone-headed idea they come up with for education, but I have no resources and no carrots or sticks to get any other faculty to help me.

In my message to the faculty expressing interest, I detailed what I saw as the problems to address in the bioengineering program, some of which I felt were shared by other programs.

Another engineering faculty member (in a different department from mine) was in agreement with me, particularly on one point: “Students spend too much time getting book learning, and not enough time applying their knowledge to design problems.”  Our engineering programs have excellent senior capstone courses, but there is not enough design work in the first two years.  (Incidentally, this resonates well with a post that just came out today from a community college on the other side of the country.)

So within 2 hours of the associate dean asking if anyone was interested, the two of us agreed to work on it and see what we could come up with.  We both have heavy teaching loads this quarter, and he was working on several research proposals, so we did not manage to get together to talk for another nine days (Oct 16). We’d both done a fair amount of thinking independently before then, so we had a very productive meeting for an hour or two, finding that we had very similar ideas about the goals and complementary ideas about how to achieve them.

I got a couple of pages of notes out of that meeting: which courses needed to be expanded, which freshman and sophomore courses could feasibly have a greater design component, and how we could create and push courses back into the high schools to raise awareness of engineering among applicants (the other faculty member had already taught and recorded a summer course on robotics for high-school students that could be improved and adapted to be a “course-in-a-box” that could be taught by interested but not expert high-school teachers, and I would like to push my applied electronics course down to advanced high school level, though that would require some massive book rewrites).

The basic theme of our ideas was pretty straightforward (quoting from my notes on the Friday meeting):

The theme of the proposal is expanding hands-on project-based learning particularly in the majors Robotics Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Bioengineering (bioelectronics and assistive technology:motor concentrations).  Project-based learning has a good track record for increasing participation by women and under-represented minorities [citation needed].
The key concepts for the course and curriculum design are the following
  • System thinking: breaking into subproblems and well-defined interfaces
  • Trade-offs: most design decisions involve trading off one desirable feature for another
  • Documentation: the design needs to be thoroughly described in order to be maintainable or duplicable.

We concentrated on a part of the engineering program that already had a pretty good design component, trying to build from strength rather than trying to foment a revolution in programs that had very little design until the senior year.  Given the very short timeline (3.5 weeks to get a team together for the letter of intent), we did not think it wise to go for something unachievable, but rather to make a pretty good program exemplary.

Our next step was to see whether we could get a team together by the Nov 10 deadline for the letter of intent, so I started cold-calling (well, e-mailing) social scientists and education researchers on campus, trying to find people who would be suitable and interested. I’m not naturally a networker—I don’t remember people’s names or faces, and I don’t often go to social events where I run into new people, so I was having to rely on what I could find on the UCSC web pages and asking everyone for recommendations of whom to ask. I put in a fair amount of time looking through web pages and sending e-mail to strangers, asking for help.

Two weeks later (Oct 30), I managed to present the ideas of the proposal to a group consisting of one psychologist, three education researchers (one via a Skype connection that kept failing), and an EE teaching professor (who happened to be in the process of trying to improve the core EE course in the direction we were trying to move things).  The presentation must have seemed a bit bizarre to them, as it was the closest class day to Halloween, and I was dressed in a 15th-century houppelande, having just come from teaching my class.

After describing what we were trying to do and some lively discussion where the education researchers tried to figure out what NSF meant by their rather unusual team composition (not like any of the education research grants that they had ever participated in), I left with the EE professor eager to join the grant and the others saying they’d let me know.  By the next week, the psychologist (Nov 2) and the two best-fit education researchers (Nov 6) had agreed to join the team.

I had also had asked the dean’s office about the administrative support that had been promised in the original call for faculty interest, and got a rather minimal response (amounting to no more than the usual budget-writing support that tiniest research grants get—no grant writing support at all).

In the meantime (Nov. 5), another hurdle had arisen: the relevant department chair was not willing to be PI. Since we now had faculty from three different departments leading the grant, we tried convincing the dean to be the PI, but he’s stepping down at the end of the year, and did not feel that he could commit the incoming dean to whatever we were planning (Nov 9).  We made one more last-minute appeal to the department chair to let us file the letter of intent by the end of the day Nov 10, with the department chair still having veto power on submitting the final grant proposal, but were turned down.

So we’re not even getting a shot at the $1–2M lottery.  I suspect that many places that could have put together reasonable proposals will have had similar unsuccessful flurries of activity leading to not even being able to submit a letter of intent—the NSF request for proposals seemed deliberately structured to suppress applicants, leading me to suspect that there was a favored program somewhere that this whole charade had been set up to fund, or perhaps a few institutions with grant-writing machines already cranked up and ready to spew out whatever boilerplate NSF wanted.

The three of us faculty will go ahead and do what we can (without resources) to improve pedagogy in the engineering school, but the whole process has left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I’m feeling that not only did NSF not want proposals from us, but that the engineering administration didn’t want us applying for funding (which seems completely out of character for this university’s administration).

I think it is unlikely that I’ll go through that much effort again, just to be told that we can’t even file a letter of intent.  I’ve always hated grant writing, and I’d sworn off of research-grant writing a couple years ago as a completely unproductive use of my time.  Now it looks like I might swear off writing grant proposals for improving teaching also, as it seems to be even more painful and even less productive.

I would have been better off putting in the time revising another chapter of my book—at least there I can see progress when I can the time to work on it.

2015 November 1

Tenth weight progress report an Halloween

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:21
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This post continues the series of weight progress reports from the previous one.

My weight has recovered from the spike on Sept 18, thanks to my returning to my weight-loss diet.  I was hoping by now to be able to go off the diet, but my occasional excesses have left me hovering around 158 lbs—2 lbs more than where I want my weight to be before I go off the diet.

I'm back in my target range, but I want to have a solid week below 157 lbs before I discontinue the weight-loss diet.

I’m back in my target range, but I want to have a solid week below 157 lbs before I discontinue the weight-loss diet.

I’m still on my strict raw-fruits-and-vegetables-for-lunch diet. I’ve not been very good this month about reducing my portion sizes for whatever we are having in the evening, but my wife has been preparing fairly non-fattening foods, so I’ve been holding steady on my weight, not packing on pounds. The leftover Halloween candy I ate today is probably going to put another spike in my weight, which is one reason for posting this blog post today, rather than waiting for tomorrow.

My exercise for October was relatively high (5.1 miles/day of bicycling), up from 2.9 miles/day in September and higher than my normal year-round average of just over 4 miles/day.

One good thing—I was able to wear a Halloween costume that I last wore when my son was in kindergarten, 14 years ago, and it fit better now than it did then. The costume consisted of parti-colored hose and a houppelande with dagged sleeves.  The houppelande has always fit me (it is not a tightly fitted garment), but the hose were made to fit snugly with non-stretch material around 33 years ago, and I don’t expect to ever be that skinny again—my weight was less than optimal then.

Actually, I’m not sure I could get the hose on 14 years ago—though I did wear the houppelande that year, since my son was a snowy owl, and we went out as “the prince and the owl” from a series of bedtime/walking stories that we made up. By coincidence, my wife used the same snowy owl costume for Halloween at school this year (pinning the wings she’d made for his kindergarten costume to a white linen jacket from the thrift store, and making a new mask by printing one off the web, since his kindergarten mask was too small for her face).

We had about 50 trick-or-treaters this year—way down from the glory days around fifteen years ago, when we would have 140 trick-or-treaters, but better than the rainy night last year.  Still we were prepared for more, which means that we have two or three bags of candy left over—I’ll have to take them in to work and leave them for the grad students.

We didn’t have time to decorate for Halloween this year—I carved a pumpkin rather hastily and stuck an LED strobe light in it (using the same LED boards and controller that I designed for the desk lamps, but with different software in the controller, so that the potentiometer controlled the strobe rate rather than brightness).  I could have run the whole thing off a 9V battery, but I decided to run some long wires instead, and leave the control and 9V power supply inside the house.

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