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2016 October 29

iGEM age rules

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 05:12
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I’m currently attending the iGEM synthetic biology competition’s “Jamboree”, where all the teams present their results.  It is a big conference (about 3000 attendees this year, representing about 300 teams), so a bit overwhelming.

One thing that surprised me was that the UCSC team of 17 undergraduates was listed as an “overgrad” team, rather than an “undergrad” one.    It turns out that the classification has nothing to do with student status or education:

There are 3 sections in iGEM 2016:

  1. Undergraduate: all student team members are age 23 or younger on March 31, 2016
  2. Overgraduate: one or more student team members are older than 23 on March 31, 2016
  3. High School: all student team members are high school students on March 31, 2016; includes students who graduate from high school spring 2016

http://2016.igem.org/Requirements/Sections

The age constraint seems like a very strange way to divide undergraduates from graduate students.  It does not work well in countries where there is mandatory military or civil service before college, and it does not work well for minorities and the poor in the USA.  I think that the problem is that the people defining the sections have a very narrow view of what it means to be an undergraduate—one that is colored by their teaching at elite private universities in the US.

The Common Data Set that each college in the US has to publish provides information about the percent of undergrad students age 25 and older at different institutions (question F1 on the form).  For example, UCSC reports  4% of undergrads are 25 and older, UCLA reports 5.1%, UC Berkeley and University of Illinois report 6%, Cal Poly reports 3%, San Jose State reports 20%, while Stanford and  MIT report only 1%.  I have not looked at many colleges, but there seems to be a clear trend that elite private schools are much less likely to be familiar with older undergraduates than public schools, and that higher status public schools have (like UC) have fewer older students than good, but slightly lesser status schools like San Jose State.  (I’ve not found a site that allows rapid summaries of the Common Data Set across many institutions—colleges are required to report the information, but no one seems to be making it accessible other that by one-college-at-a-time lookup—if someone knows of a good site for exploring the data, please let me know.)

Looking at the schools most attended by minorities and poor students in the US—the average age of a community college student is 29 [http://www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/Trends/Pages/studentsatcommunitycolleges.aspx].

By using age as a cutoff, iGEM is being quite elitist—their definition of “undergraduate” only matches the demographics at elite private schools.

I asked about the reasons for the age cutoff, and it seems like some teams were complaining about having to compete against teams that had 35-year-old students on them, and that this was somehow unfair.  I find this mystifying.  How is it that a student who worked in a warehouse or tending bar for 15 years before finally being able to afford college has an unfair advantage over a student whose parents had the money to send them to college immediately?

I’m a bit more sensitive about re-entry students than many college professors, perhaps because of my mother.  Her college education was interrupted by World War II, and she did not get an opportunity to go back to college until her 50s. I am very grateful to the US system of community colleges that allowed her to return to college at that age and earn an AA degree. Being told that she would not have qualified as a “real undergrad” is personally offensive.

Coming up with a simple rule that can be applied uniformly around the world to distinguish undergraduate from graduate students is not easy, but I think that a simple age cutoff is one of the poorer choices that could have been made.  Years of education since age 5 (to avoid cultural differences in when schooling starts) might be a better choice.  Certainly the reasons given for the age criterion (to make the competition fair to undergrads) reveals a real misunderstanding of who undergraduates are outside the elite US colleges.

2016 September 19

Coast Starlight, college train

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:49
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The Coast Starlight train, which my son just took to return to UCSB, could reasonably be called the “college train” because of the number of large universities along its route. I’m really surprised that Amtrak does not do more marketing of the train to college students and their parents. They do have a 15% discount for students aged 13–25, no longer needing a special “student advantage” card, but marketing the Coast Starlight route still seems to be aimed mainly at summer tourists.

Here is a list of the stops on the Coast Starlight, and some of the nearby colleges and universities (found using Google Maps), with times by public transit from the Amtrak stop to the college. The listing of colleges is not intended to be complete, nor to be recommendations for the colleges—I just tried to pick a few of the colleges that I thought might attract students from far enough away to generate Amtrak customers.

I relied on Google Maps for transit timings, but did not attempt to synchronize to the Coast Starlight schedule—some of the connections may be awful.  You don’t want to rely on a tight connection to Amtrak, though, as the Coast Starlight is often an hour or more late. Many of these universities are close enough to the Amtrak stations that a taxi ride or Uber from the stations to campus would be a reasonable cost—still cheaper than flying in most cases.  My son took public transportation from Santa Cruz to the Amtrak station in San Jose, but got an Uber ride from the Santa Barbara station to UCSB, to save hauling his luggage to the bus station there.

(Note: Greyhound is often cheaper and faster than Amtrak, but it is a lot less comfortable. BoltBus and other private bus services might also be worth checking.)

Seattle, WA

University of Washington is 35–55 minutes from SEA; Seattle University is 25–35 minutes; Antioch University Seattle, 19–22 minutes;

Tacoma, WA

University of Washington, Tacoma is 10 minutes from TAC; University of Puget Sound, 47 minutes

Olympia-Lacey, WA

The Evergreen State College is 1:24–1:40 from OLW.

Centralia, WA

Kelso-Longview, WA

Vancouver, WA

Washington State University Vancouver is 1:06–1:27 from VAN.

Portland, OR

Reed College, 15 minutes from PDX; Concordia University, 28 minutes; Multnomah University, 34–38 minutes; University of Portland, 13 minutes; University of Western States, 1:04–1:07; Lewis and Clarke College, 1:04–1:08; Pacific University, Forest Grove, 1:37–1:50.

Salem, OR

Willamette University, 6 minutes from SLM (10 minutes on foot);Western Oregon University, 0:58–1:40; Corban University, 57 minutes; Northwest University Salem, 0:49–1:30; George Fox University: Salem 0:44–1:26.

Albany, OR

Oregon State University, 0:33–1:38 from ALY.

Eugene-Springfield, OR

University of Oregon, 23 minutes from EUG, 31 minutes walking.

Chemult, OR

Klamath Falls, OR

Oregon Institute of Technology, 21–25 minutes from KFS; Southern Oregon University (Ashland) 2:44.

Dunsmuir, CA (Mt. Shasta)

Redding, CA

Chico, CA

CSU Chico, 13 minutes from CIC.

Sacramento, CA

CSU Sacramento, 37–41 minutes from SAC.

Davis, CA

UC Davis 27–33 minutes from DAV.

Martinez, CA

Cal Maritime, 1:27–2:30 from MTZ

Emeryville, CA

(Although Emeryville is closer to UCB than Oakland is, transit is better from Oakland.)

Oakland, CA–Jack London Square

UCB 37–59 minutes from OKJ; Mills College, 47–55 minutes; SFSU 0:56–1:03; CSU East Bay (Concord) 1:30

San Jose, CA (Caltrain)

San Jose State 11–14 minutes from SJC; Santa Clara University, 7–26 minutes; Stanford, 0:46–1:27; UCSC, 1:34–1:55

Salinas, CA

CSU Monterey Bay, 23 minutes from SNS.

Paso Robles, CA

San Luis Obispo, CA (Morro Bay)

Cal Poly, 17–24 minutes from SLO.

Santa Barbara, CA

UCSB, 41–55 minutes from SBA.

Oxnard, CA

CSU Channel Islands is nearby (11 miles), but Google Maps can’t find any public transit—the Vista bus is 25 minutes (perhaps Google Maps is missing the VCTC transit information).

Simi Valley, CA

CSU Northridge, 44–56 minutes from SIM.

Van Nuys, CA–Amtrak Station

CSU Northridge, 42–44 minutes from VNC; American Jewish University 0:55–1:09; Pepperdine 2:00–3:00

Burbank-Bob Hope Airport, CA

Woodbury University, 22–35 minutes from BUR;

Los Angeles, CA

Cal State LA, 19–31 minutes from LAX; Caltech 48–60 minutes; CSU Dominguez Hills 1:03–1:09; CSU Fullerton 1:06–1:15; UCLA 1:14–1:45; Claremont Colleges (Harvey Mudd, Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer, …) 1:20–2:00; CSU Long Beach 1:41–2:07; Cal Poly Pomona 1:47–2:06

2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?

2015 November 1

Yet another pair of overly narrow college ratings

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:14
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In the past week two more college ratings have been released, both based on the highly questionable assumption that the way to rate colleges is by how much money their alumni make.

The Economist‘s ratings are based on the difference between the average salary reported and the salary expected from a regression that contains a huge number of predictors (some of which strike me as rather dubious in their data quality).

The Brookings Institution’s ratings  are calculated in a similar way, but with a much smaller number of predictors, omitting some of the most important ones.

Both ratings are trying to look for “value added”—a difference between how much the alumni make and how much the same cohort would have been expected to make based on their socioeconomic status, GPA, SAT, and other characteristics.

The data seems to be very noisy and subject to all sorts of weird biases, so that the rankings have little to do with each other, even though both are using the same underlying data set (the Department of Education’s  “college scorecard” website). The Economist admits to some serious limitations:

First, the scorecard data suffer from limitations. They only include individuals who applied for federal financial aid, restricting the sample to a highly unrepresentative subset of students that leaves out the children of most well-off parents. And they only track students’ salaries for ten years after they start college, cutting off their trajectory at an age when many eventual high earners are still in graduate school and thus excluded from the sample of incomes. A college that produces hordes of future doctors will have far lower listed earnings in the database than one that generates throngs of, say, financial advisors, even though the two groups’ incomes are likely to converge in their 30s.

Second, although we hope that our numbers do in fact represent the economic value added by each institution, there is no guarantee that this is true. Colleges whose alumni earnings differ vastly from the model’s expectations might be benefiting or suffering from some other characteristic of their students that we neglected to include in our regression: for example, Gallaudet University, which ranks third-to-last, is a college for the deaf (which is why we excluded it from our table in print). It is also possible that highly ranked colleges simply got lucky, and that their future graduates are unlikely to make as much money as the entering class of 2001 did.

Finally, maximising alumni earnings is not the only goal of a college, and probably not even the primary one. In fact, you could easily argue that “underperforming” universities like Yale and Swarthmore are actually making a far greater contribution to American society than overperformers like Washington & Lee, if they tend to channel their supremely talented graduates towards public service rather than Wall Street. For students who want to know which colleges are likely to boost their future salaries by the greatest amount, given their qualifications and preferences regarding career and location, we hope these rankings prove helpful. They should not be used for any other purpose.

I don’t like either rating scheme, reducing college education to just an income enhancer, but of the two terrible schemes, The Economist‘s is slightly less terrible.  (Note: UCSC does not come off well in either rating scheme, though I’m not sure why—could it be that we send too many on to grad school?)  On the Economist’s rating, UCB is below UCSC, but on the Brookings rating, UCB is quite high—probably reflecting the number of engineering students at UCB, since major choices are treated very differently between the rating schemes.

2015 March 15

Bruni opinion column on college admissions

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In How to Survive the College Admissions Madness, Frank Bruni writes consoling advice for parents and high school seniors wrapped up in college admissions and set on going to elite colleges. Although the obsession with elite-or-nothing is more a New York thing than the American universal he treats it as, it is common enough to be worth an opinion column, and he does as nice job of providing a couple of stories that counter the obsession. (No data though—his column is strictly anecdotal, with 5 anecdotes.)

He recognizes that he is really talking to a small segment of the population:

I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college—any decent college—and on finding a way to help them pay for it. Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those that won’t leave them saddled with debt.

But the core of the advice he gives is applicable to anyone going to college, not just to those seeking elite admission:

… the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience—the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed—matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.

In any case, there’s only so much living and learning that take place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

The elites have some resources to offer that colleges with lesser financial endowments find difficult to match, but any good enough college can provide opportunities to those who look for them.  For some students, being one of the best at a slightly “lesser” institution may result in more opportunities, more faculty attention, and more learning than being just above average in an elite school.  (And, vice versa, of course—moving from being the best in high school to run-of-the-mill at an elite college can also be an important wake-up call.)

Currently, the American college landscape is very broad, offering a lot of different choices with different prices and different strengths.  Unfortunately, many of our state legislatures and governors have decided that only one model should be allowed—the fully private, job-training institution—and are doing everything they can to kill off the public colleges and universities that have been the backbone of US post-secondary education since the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.

The colleges established by the land grant acts were intended as practical places, not primarily social polish for the rich (as most private colleges were then, and most of the elites are now).  The purpose of these public colleges was

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.[7 U.S.C. § 304, as quoted in Wikipedia]

Although agriculture is no longer as large an employer as it was in the 19th century, research in agriculture at the land-grant universities is still driving a major part of the US economy, and engineering (quaintly referred to as “the mechanic arts”) is still a major employer and a primary route for upward social mobility in the US.  The land-grant colleges were explicitly not intended as bastions for the rich to defend their privilege (as our legislators want to make them, by raising tuition to stratospheric levels), but for “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”—colleges for working-class people.

I think that it would benefit the US for legislatures to once again invest in the “education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” and for parents and students to look seriously at the state-supported colleges, before the madness of privatization wipes them out.

(Disclaimer: I teach at one campus of the University of California, and my son attends another—neither of them land-grant colleges, but both imperiled by the austerity politics of the California legislature, who see their legacy in building prisons and making sure the rich don’t pay taxes, not in providing education for the working class.)

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