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2014 January 31

Biomed lab tours and online discussions

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:22
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I forgot to type up notes after the sixth day of the freshman design seminar, because I had a meeting right afterwards.  I’ll try to make up the deficit now, two days later.

At the beginning of class I collected the homework (which had originally been due Monday, but which I had given an extension on, so that students could do it right).  I’ve not looked at it yet, but I could tell when I collected it that students had taken to heart the message to type up their homework and put some care into it.  I hope that spills over into their other classes—not only will it benefit them, but it will help our department if the bioengineering students get a reputation for being diligent and meticulous.

Most of the class time was spent on lab tours in the Biomed building, given by four grad students who work there.  The tours were good, providing students with some idea what sort of work was being done and what sort of equipment was available for doing the work.  They saw high-temperature incubators for hyperthermophiles, a glovebox for working with anaerobic organisms, a qPCR machine, an ultracentrifuge, a cell sorter, a large warm room (hardly being used—there was one shaker table with one flask, which would easily have fit in a benchtop incubator),  mammalian cell culture facilities, and a teaching microscope for mouse surgery.  (And other stuff that I won’t bother to list here.)

The whole Biomed building seems to be half empty and even the occupied lab bays have a huge amount of space per person, especially compared to the rather cramped labs stuffed with students and researchers that we saw in Baskin a couple of weeks ago, which makes it irksome that the University administration has been preventing our department from doing recruiting for wet-lab faculty for lack of lab space.  All the space is earmarked for growth in a different department, which would take them 10 years to fill (if they ever manage to do so).  The space planning on our campus seems to be done by turf wars between deans with no central rebalancing, and one dean (not ours) now holds all the empty space on campus.  Our dean has an unimproved warehouse 3 miles away which would cost millions to convert into anything usable, even if it made sense to exile active researchers from campus.

The lab tour ran a bit long, and half the class had to leave, but the other half got an interesting discussion about getting into research as an undergrad from a grad student who had been an undergrad here.

The e-mail mailing list for the class is still not serving its function of providing an out-of-class discussion space.  Only eight students have posted anything and no student has responded to another student.  The list is still useful for my making announcement (like when homework has been posted on the web site), but it isn’t working as a discussion forum.  I’m apparently not very good at creating online discussions—I’ve not gotten them to work in classes yet, and even this blog has 86 views for every comment (and 40% of those comments are mine, so the ratio is more like 144 views per external comment).

I looked for some stats on MOOC discussion groups, to see how my online discussion compares with classes that are only on-line.  I found a series of blog posts by Jeffrey Pomerantz where he analyzes the data for a MOOC course he is teaching.  The one about online discussions showed him getting 1787 posts and 707 comments in 8 weeks, for a class whose size was 27623 total registrants, 14130 active students,  9321 video viewers, 2938 who did one homework, or 1418 who completed the course (numbers from his post about course completion).  If we take the video viewers as the most realistic measure of the class size, we get about 3.3% of the students posting or commenting per week.  Maybe my 60% participation in one week is not as bad as I feared, even if it doesn’t have the feel of a discussion yet.

2014 January 11

Student forum and FERPA

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:43
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On Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 11:28 PM, one of my students wrote:
Also, is it possible to set up some type of discussion forum for the class so that we could all discuss ideas etc.?
Here is my reply:

I was planning to set up a place for student discussion, though I’ve had difficulty getting students to use such forums in previous classes.

There are a few different ways I can do it, with differences in the ease of setting it up and how public the resulting forum is.  Some students may feel inhibited about posting comments in a public forum, but it would allow people from outside the class to contribute. 

One possibility is for students to comment on my blog posts on

That requires nothing new for me to set up, but is very public.  Students could also make semi-anonymous comments (I’m the only person who would see the e-mail addresses).

Another possibility is for tech staff to create a class forum, which is very private (not even other UCSC students or researchers would have access).  My experience with these is that no one ever looks at them or contributes, unless draconian methods are used to force them to.  (Other faculty have had different experiences with forums—I don’t know what the magic is to make them work.)

Yet another possibility is for me to create a “google group” e-mail list with all the class members on it.  This is private, but I can easily add group tutors or other mentors.  Getting direct e-mail is more likely to induce students to participate than having to go to a special place on the web, but people’s email addresses would become know when they sent stuff to the mailing list.

Since you are the first to ask about a forum—what do you think would work well?

Now I’ll ask my blog readers.  How do you set up on-line class discussion spaces?  How does your institution interpret Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA regulations) about the privacy of student work? How do you get all students to participate?

UCSC takes a particularly extreme view about privacy and FERPA (see FERPA for Faculty):

Avoid inadvertently disclosing information from student records. For example:

  • Do not place graded, identifiable student work in the hallway or an unmonitored area for students to pick up;
  • Do not post grades publicly if grades are linked to a student ID number, name, or other identifier except for an exam number or unique ID known only to the instructor and student;
  • Avoid requiring students to post identifiable homework assignments or projects in a publicly accessible on-line forum (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, and other social media spaces)
  • Instead of requiring students to participate in a publicly accessible on-line blog, allow students to opt out, create a private blog, or consider using eCommons;
  • If you use Doodle or a similar system to solicit or share calendar or schedule information, create a private poll so students’ information is not disclosed to other students;
  • Obtain consent from new students before sharing any of their personal information, biographical or academic, with students, faculty, or others;
  • Do not circulate or post a class roster that includes photograph or student ID number, and do not circulate or post a class roster of student names if the roster is available to persons outside the class;
  • The “cloud computing” environment offers many handy and inexpensive applications. However, placing any information about students at a Web site not under contract with the University may raise FERPA issues. Make the use of these sites optional, or allow students concerned about privacy to provide their information to you in a secure manner.

These rules put some strong restrictions on what I can do. Whatever it is has to be either closed or allow students to use pseudonyms. I think I prefer having a public forum, where non-class members can comment, but only if I can ensure that students are not identifiable by outsiders.

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