Gas station without pumps

2015 November 11

Not applying for that grant after all

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:56
Tags: , ,

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

Yet another pair of overly narrow college ratings

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:14
Tags: , ,

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 October 31

Dealing with for-profit competition

In The New Yorker gets one right, “Dean Dad” praises a short article in The New Yorker about for-profit colleges;

A tip o’the cap to James Suroweicki, at The New Yorker, for encapsulating the issues around for-profit colleges clearly and well in a single page.  The piece is well worth the couple of minutes it takes, not least because Suroweicki neatly dispatches a couple of widely held, but false, assumptions.

The way to get the best outcome all around isn’t to ban them or to try to pass lawyer-proof regulations.  It’s to outcompete them  Flood the zone with well-funded public colleges with the staffing, the facilities, and yes, the marketing, to compete.  Force the for-profits to compete on quality.  Frankly, if they can prove they do a better job with students, I have no theological objection to them.  But the experience of the last ten years suggests that if they can only compete on quality, they’ll shrink to a much less threatening size, and students will be better off.  
For-profits met a need.  The way to beat them is to meet that need better.  Austerity in the public sector cedes the field to people with other agendas.  Beef up the publics, and the need that fed the for-profits in the first place will fade away.  They can’t lawyer their way out of that.

Suroweicki’s articleThe Rise and Fall of For-Profit Colleges has the same message, plus a bit more.  The article ends with

But if we really want more people to go to college we should put more money into community colleges and public universities, which have been starved of funding in recent years. We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.

The business model for the for-profit colleges has been to get students to take out as much debt as they can, give all the money to the college (who then transfer it to a handful of executives and investors), and deliver little or nothing useful in return, leaving the students with debts that they can’t discharge.  This was obviously a socially undesirable outcome, but legislators have been doing all they can to get rid of funding for public colleges and force them to follow the same model.  I really don’t understand politicians—do they really want the sort of world that they are building?

2015 October 11

Mature students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:42
Tags: ,

In a comment on his post Growing evidence that lectures disadvantage underprivileged students, Mark Guzdial wrote,

I realize that adult learning is difficult to fit into our culture and work lives, but one could imagine a scenario where it might fit. Lifespans are much longer today. There is enough time for more than one career. Maybe we might work until (say) 45, then take a 3 year sabbatical to re-train, then launch into a second career into one’s 70’s or later. What might be learned in “second college”? How would college be different with more mature learners? What are the inherent limitations of having much older learners, and what are the inherent advantages of having learners who have 20+ years of real world experience?

Our grad program has had several “re-entry students” in their 40s and 50s who came back to college to get a PhD.  Some of them had been in industry doing computer programming, VLSI design, or engineering management for decades before getting bored with it and wanting to do something that used their skills more productively. Many of these students have done very well, both in the degree program and in their subsequent careers.  (One of the younger ones, who was only 41 or 42 when getting the PhD, is now a full professor, for example.)

I don’t see many limitations to having much older learners—there may be fewer all-night study sessions, but there will also be less need, because there will be less procrastination about deadlines.  Community colleges have been accepting older adults for decades (since the big growth of community colleges in the 1960s), and have had a lot of experience with them.  What I’ve heard is that the mature adult learners tend to be much more consistent and reliable than teens and barely post-teens who make up the undergrad population, but that many of them have lives outside of college, and can’t do more than one course at a time.

I don’t think that I’ll go back to grad school when I retire, but I am likely to take community college courses on subjects that my education is weak on (most likely hands-on skills like welding or art classes).

2015 September 29

What makes college alumni appreciate their college

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:26
Tags: , ,

I’ve just been reading the Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Reportwhich analyzes a survey of about 30,000 college graduates to figure out whether they felt college was worth the cost, and what college experiences lead to higher satisfaction. Here are a few highlights:

  • Recent graduates who strongly agree with any of three items measuring supportive relationships with professors or mentors are almost twice as likely to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost. These relationships hold even when controlling for personality characteristics and other variables such as student loan debt and employment status that could also be related to graduates’ perceptions that college was worth it. 
  • If recent graduates strongly agree that they had any of three experiential learning opportunities—an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities or a project that took a semester or more to complete—their odds that they strongly agree that their education was worth the cost increase by 1.5 times.
  • However, whether recent graduates participated in a research project with a professor or faculty member is unrelated to their opinion that their education was worth the investment. This finding suggests that it is important to assess the quality of faculty members’ interactions with students—and the benefits students derived from them—rather than simply tracking participation in such projects. 

I found the third point above particularly worrisome, as we don’t have ways for really checking the quality of the interactions in things like thesis projects—we count on the goodwill of the faculty involved to make the experience a good one. We are also short on internships, though most of the BSoE majors now have multi-quarter projects for the capstones.

The “three items measuring supportive relationships with professors” were

  • My professors at [University Name] cared about me as a person
  • I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals.
  • I had at least one professor at [University Name] who made me excited about learning.

The first and third of those are hard to do anything about institutionally, and even on an individual level there is no general way to be successful, but we could be doing more about mentoring. One suggestion they had that may be worth following up:

… programs such as those that recruit alumni as mentors do not need to be costly, but they can make a powerful difference in more effectively engaging both students and alumni.

They did note that modest amounts of debt (up to about $25,000) did not seem to reduce alumni satisfaction, but larger amounts of debt seriously reduced whether alumni thought their college experience was worth the price.  There wasn’t much difference between public and private, non-profit colleges, but the for-profit colleges were much less appreciated by alumni. Also in-state or out-of-state public university did not seem to result in different distributions of satisfaction with the value of the education (despite the fairly large difference in price), and research universities followed the same distribution as public and non-profit private colleges.  Only the for-profits stood out as distinctly different (possibly related to the high debt load—I didn’t see an analysis of the for-profits that controlled for debt—maybe there were too few low-debt students at the for-profits to be statistically significant).



Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Create a free website or blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 324 other followers

%d bloggers like this: