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2015 November 23

Meeting for teachers of writing to engineers

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:00
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Last Spring I got a small grant from the Academic Senate to create a new “Disciplinary Communications” course for the bioengineering majors (a $7,000 “partial course relief” for 2015–16).  Most of the effort of creating the course happened last year, as we needed to offer the course in Spring 2015, but the money comes for this year.  I’m not actually taking any course relief this year, though my load is lighter than last year, since I’m not doing two overload courses this year.  The money (as all our course relief money) is being spent on hiring a lecturer—paying part of the salary of the lecturer teaching the new writing course.

But I felt that I ought to be doing something this year on improving “disciplinary communications” for bioengineers, in order to have something to report at the end of the year for the grant.  Since the new course was designed last year, the main effort this year will be on tweaking that course and other courses our students do that involve writing.  Rather than work just with the instructor of that new course, I thought it would be useful to gather all the faculty who teach writing to engineering students, to discuss (according to the message I sent out):

  • course design
  • teaching techniques
  • assignments
  • grading techniques
  • use of TAs or graders
  • creation of a “Professional Learning Community” to meet on a regular (quarterly?) basis

There was no set agenda for the meeting—just a chance to meet and talk about what we do. We had a pretty good turnout: 3 ladder-rank faculty, 4 writing instructors, and 1 staff person who teaches writing to a small group of minority students.

After self-introductions we had a wide-ranging conversation about assignments people gave, challenges they faced, approaches to making assignments work better, and so forth.  We did not talk much about TAs and graders, course design, or grading techniques, concentrating more on assignments and teaching techniques.

I’m a lousy note-taker, so I don’t have good notes of what was discussed, but I remember a few things.  I’ll present them here mainly as they apply to me, since that is what I remember best.

None of the ladder-rank faculty are teaching courses where writing is the primary content of the course, but improving student writing is a secondary goal of their courses. In my case, I’m (thankfully) not teaching either the technical writing for bioengineers course nor the senior thesis writing course this year, but I do provide a fair amount of writing feedback both in the Bioinformatics: Models and Algorithms course and in the Applied Electronics course. In the bioinformatics course, there are a couple of writing assignments, but most of the feedback is on in-program documentation. In the Applied Electronics course, there is a weekly design report due, which is centered on the graphics (block diagrams, schematics, and fits of models to measured data). Other courses include assignments to write abstracts, write proposals, write standard operating procedures, and other assignments typical of both academic and industrial writing tasks.

One aspect of teaching writing that I’ve never had much luck with is peer editing—another of the ladder-rank faculty brought this topic up as one of the challenges that help was needed on.  A couple of the writing instructors agreed that peer editing was hard, because the students had no notion of “editing” as an activity. What they suggested was having a set of specific questions for the peer editors to answer—questions relevant to the piece they were editing, like “what is the research question? Is there a summary of results? Is the approach clear?” for editing an abstract.  Without specific guidance, students tend to fall back on the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything meme, and provide useless “looks good to me” comments.  One technique that the faculty member who raised the issue has tried (with mixed success) is getting students to rewrite another student’s abstract in their own words.  Although this often pointed out problems in the original writing, it sometimes just reflected the inability of the editing student to write coherently.

One idea that seemed to come as a bit of surprise to some of  the writing instructors was creating the figures and figure captions of a document first, and then writing the paper around the figures.  This is a common approach in some research groups in our department, and one that some students will have to face. One of the writing instructors pointed out that the poster assignment (used in two of the courses) is good preparation for this.

We all pretty much agreed that there was no place in the writing instruction students were getting about good presentation of data and generation of figures. I mentioned that one of our junior faculty is interested in creating a course centered on scientific graphics, but it wasn’t clear whether he’d get to teach it next year or not.  I felt that students in my Applied Electronics course got a lot of instruction and got pretty good at displaying data (at least the scatter diagrams and fit models for that course), but that they really struggled with the notion of block diagrams and organizing problems into subproblems. One of the writing instructors, who saw the students mostly after they had had the applied electronics course, saw more problems with data presentation than with block diagrams.  This may be because of different expectations of the block diagram, or it may be that the data representations her students needed were not among the few types covered in Applied Electronics.

Another form of writing that a lot of students were not getting adequate feedback in was lab notebooks. Unfortunately, the different disciplines have such different expectations of the content of a lab notebook that it is hard to provide any sort of standardized assignment. A couple of the instructors who teach Writing 2 classes, mainly to STEM students, do include an observational-field-notebook assignment, which at least gets across the idea of taking notes as you go, and not trying to reconstruct what you did at the end of the day (a flaw I’ve seen in several of the Applied Electronics labs) or the end of the quarter (a flaw I’ve seen in some senior theses).

We did discuss the strategy of setting high expectations on the first assignment by giving detailed feedback on that assignment, with reduced checking on subsequent assignments.  This helps keep the grading down to an almost sane level, and the students still benefit from the practice, even if not everything they do is checked. I’ve certainly noticed on the bioinformatics assignments that by the 4th or 5th assignment I only need to spot-check the internal documentation, or check it for students who are struggling with the concepts of the assignment, as the better students generally are routinely producing decent documentation by then.

We discussed various things we could do that would be generally helpful, and I ended up with two action items:

  • Create a shared Google Drive folder where we can put assignments and examples of student work (access limited to faculty involved in the group).
  • Organize another meeting for next quarter. People were pleased enough by the meeting to want to meet again.

I don’t think that anyone will make any radical changes to how they teach as a result of the meeting, but I think that several of us came away with the nugget of an idea for a small improvement we could make. It was also very refreshing to have a discussion of teaching techniques—something we professors don’t often get a chance to engage in meaningfully.  Most attempts to foster such discussions are way too broad (like the Academic Senate teaching forums) in an attempt to include everyone, or way too bureaucratic (like the attempts of the administration to push assessing “program learning outcomes”).  Today’s informal discussion seemed to me to be focused enough to be productive, yet broad enough to involve many different courses.  I’m looking forward to doing it again next quarter.

2015 November 21

Am I benevolently sexist?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:09
Tags: , ,

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
Tags: , ,

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.

Considering splitting Applied Electronics course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:47
Tags: ,
I’ve been looking at changing my Applied Electronics course next year (not the version I’ll teach in Spring 2016, but for 2106–17).  One change is to move the course from “upper division” (3rd and 4th year) to “lower division” (1st and 2nd year), more accurately reflecting both the prerequisites needed and when students should take the course.
I have a few thoughts on problems in the course as it is:

  • The course is currently 7 units and a very heavy load for students. (A “unit” is supposed to be a median of 3 hours of work, including class and lab time, per week, so a 7-unit course should be 210–230 hours of work total.) The pace is fast and some students have trouble keeping up with the workload.  Moving the course to lower division will get more students earlier in their studies (a good thing), but they will be less able to handle a fast-pace course.
  • The time in lab and grading load are very high—it is difficult for me to keep up with, even spending full time on teaching the course.  This load will make it difficult to transfer the course to a different instructor, which will become necessary when I retire (and I’d like to do the switch to a different instructor gradually, so that I can train my replacement).
  • Not all the students need all the material in the course.  For the students in the biomolecular concentration, the course is required to get them some engineering design experience, in a curriculum that is overloaded with students learning about science others have done, rather than doing engineering. But half as much engineering design as in the current course may be enough for those students.
​My idea was to reduce the pace by splitting the 7-unit course into 2 4-unit courses.​  Students in two of the concentrations (biomolecular and assistive tech: cognitive/perceptual) might take only the first of the courses, while students in the other concentrations (bioelectronics and assistive tech: motor) would take both.

The advantage would be that students would have more time to digest the material and write their reports, as the 6-hour labs would be split over two weeks (three hours per week). They could get prelab homework back before the corresponding lab and have time to analyze data collected before writing up design reports. Lab time for each quarter would be 30 hours, instead of the current 60 hours, making it possible to have more lab sections, increasing the capacity of the course.  Lecture time would increase from the current 35 hours to 70 hours, which would reduce the intensity of lectures and allow more time for students to absorb the material and ask questions.  It would also allow me to drop the physics prerequisite, since I could take extra lectures as needed to cover the missing physics.  (The extra lecture time also explains the extra 1 credit over the current 7-unit course.)

In writing the book, I’ve already rearranged the material so that it could be used as a 2-quarter sequence (since I don’t know any other university in the US that routinely has 7-unit courses), so the curricular redesign needed is minimal (mainly adding more background material and slowing the pace of lectures).  The natural division occurs after Lab 7 (the low-power audio amp), with the second course having the remaining 5 labs (4 amplifier designs and the electrode measurement lab).
I’ve talked with other faculty whose teaching I respect about this possible redesign, and one of them thinks that it would help a lot in getting the students to learn the material—he teaches a course with somewhat overlapping material and is finding that students take a long time to get even the simpler concepts.  The other person I talked to was concerned that the students might not get enough engineering design if they only took the first half (a reasonable concern, since a number of the labs in the first half are more measurement than design labs). He suggested offering one (or both) 4-unit courses in the summer, which I might consider in future, but not this summer—I’ll be burned out after  teaching the intense version of Applied Electronics in the Spring.
Half the course would be a more feasible summer course than the whole thing, as it is already very compressed as a 10-week course, and the 6-week summer schedule would be crazy, so splitting the course does make summer session more feasible.
Some problems I see with the proposed redesign:
  • Needing the lab 2 quarters rather than 1 would increase the conflicts with the circuits course that uses the same lab space.  This should be easily handled by scheduling lab times and only allowing drop-ins when there are no scheduled labs.  The total number of lab hours a week are enough to handle both courses at once, as long as all labs are scheduled in advance.
  • I’m not willing to take on overload, so one of my other courses would have to be dropped from my regular schedule.
  • When I’m on sabbatical, someone will have to be found to teach either this course (no one else in our department is qualified) or the graduate courses I teach (there are some other qualified faculty for that, but whether they’d be willing is another question). I plan to take 1 quarter of sabbatical in each of 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2019–20 (or, at slightly reduced sabbatical salary, every year for the next 5 years).

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.

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