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2014 January 3

Not applying for administrative role in honors program

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
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In Undergraduate Honor Programs and What is the point of honors programs? I talked about the part-time faculty administrative position opening up for building up the honors program at UCSC and what the point of the honors program is.  I’ve decided that I won’t apply for the administrative position, because the largest and most important task is one that I’m not good at.  In the What is the point of honors programs? post I ended with

… what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.

It is that last goal, finding funding either within the campus or from an outside source, that I see as being the biggest hurdle to creating a meaningful, lasting honors program. Fundraising (internal or external) is something I’m not very good at and hate to do, and so I don’t see myself as being the administrator needed for the honors program now.

If they were looking for a faculty adviser for honors students, I’d volunteer. If they were looking for someone to design an honors program with already identified funds (even if limited ones), I’d probably apply. But with no resources already allocated, the program will need a much more entrepreneurial person than me to have any hope of lasting.

If whoever does get hired for the post wants help, I’d be glad to give suggestions on what the honors program should try to do and discuss approaches for getting there within the campus culture.  Things I’d like to see include the following:

  • Dedicate a dorm (or two) to honors-college students, so that they are surrounded by other top students, not spread out thinly all over campus.  This should not just be a freshman dorm, but ideally a 4-year dorm.  This shouldn’t cost anything, since it is just a reallocation of housing assignments.  I would locate the dorm at Crown or at Cowell, since those two colleges seem the most conducive to instituting an honors program.
  • Set realistic size and admissions standards for honors college membership.  For example, Michigan State had 503 new honors-college members out of 7924 new full-time students (6.3% of entering class).  This got them an average SAT score of 1390 (CR+M) and average GPA of 4.09 for the entering honors college members.  Of course, they’ve been running their honors college for a long time—we’d probably have to start much smaller, with maybe 2% of the entering class (about 75 students/year).  I have no idea what the top 2% of our applicant pool looks like, nor what the yield is at the high end of the pool.  Part of the point of creating a robust honors program is to improve the yield there.
  • Waive all prerequisites at course registration for honors-college students.  These students are bright enough to figure out whether or not they really need a prereq, and could be encouraged to talk to instructors before exercising their waivers.
  • Provide priority registration for honors students (open their registration a day or two earlier than for other students).
  • Require honors college students to meet quarterly with a faculty adviser to discuss how they are shaping their education.  This would require some faculty time, but not an enormous amount (if we assume a steady-state of 300 honors college students and half-hour meetings, we get 450 faculty hours.  That’s a lot for one faculty member, but not a lot for 10 faculty.  It may be necessary to provide some prestige award (Fellow of the Honors College) to reward faculty for the advising load, but probably does not require monetary compensation.
  • Waive all general education requirements for honors-college students.  (This is the Brown University approach to general education, for all their students.) The advising meetings should, of course, include warnings that losing honors college status would result in the general education requirements being reimposed, so students might want to follow enough of the general ed that losing honors college status would not be a disaster.  Note that discipline-specific requirements for a major would not be waived.
  • Create honors versions of any course that has over 200 students a year in it (except for remedial courses, of course).  This would cost real money, and I can’t see the current department chairs supporting this out of their own budgets.  Finding the funds for a 10–30 classes a year taught by ladder-rank faculty is expensive (3–15 FTE positions).  Although this is an important part of a good honors college program, I don’t see it is likely to happen at UCSC.
  • Funding a number of National Merit Scholarships on campus. None of the UCs or CSUs participate in the National Merit Scholarship program, but other public universities in other states do. For example, University of Oklahoma offers five-year tuition waiver, $5,500/year for expenses, $5,000 National Merit award, $4,200 housing scholarship, $2,000 textbook/technology stipend, $2000 research and study-abroad stipend—that’s not a full-ride scholarship, but it is big enough that OU has over 700 National Merit Scholars. According to the National Merit Annual Report, OU gave out 160 new National Merit Scholarships for the 2012 competition (starting college in 2013)—and that isn’t the largest number from a state school (University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa gave out 208).  Over half the 2012 National Merit Scholarships are funded by colleges and universities (4554 out of 8064).
    Of course, most of the National Merit Scholarships are not as generous as the OU one, but even a few scholarships at the average value ($4,800) would be a strong inducement for top students to attend.  This is moderately priced, but would probably require finding new money from donors, and UCSC has always taken the approach of having rather secret scholarships that no one has ever heard of, plus UC-specific ones like the Regents scholarships.

I think that UCSC has the potential for creating a very strong honors college, but that the resources needed to create and maintain such a program are unlikely to be forthcoming in the next couple of years (unless some donor pushes for an honors college), because the administration is just dipping a toe in the water and not committing to creating a robust honors program.  I’m not the right person to try shaking the money tree, so I’ll have to pass this opportunity by.  Maybe if the administration commits some real funds to the honors program, I would be interested in the position.

2013 December 15

What is the point of honors programs?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:35
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In Undergraduate Honor Programs I asked

Why should we have an honors program?  What is the point of honors programs in general, and this one in particular?  What resources does an honors program need? How can the program be made a permanent institution, and not just a quick burn through startup money (which seems to have been the fate of all previous attempts to create honors programs here)?

I’ll start making a stab at those questions today, starting with “what’s the point?”

The basic assumption of any honors program is that it is worth putting some effort and resources into attracting and retaining students that are substantially better than the average students at that institution.  Highly selective colleges (like Stanford, MIT, or Harvey Mudd) do not need to have an honors college, as their average students are already at the top of the pool of available students—there aren’t “substantially better” students available for them to attract and retain.

But why don’t the top students just go to the highly selective colleges? Two reasons: there aren’t enough slots at them for all the top students, and many of the highly selective colleges are quite expensive—middle-class students often can’t afford to go even if they get in.  Thus many of the top students will end up going to public universities or other colleges that aren’t as highly selective.  How can these students best be served?  Ideally, we’d like to duplicate the experience of the highly selective colleges as closely as possible: top-quality faculty teaching small classes of students who are intellectual peers.  (Yes, this is definitely a rose-colored-glasses view of the highly selective colleges, some of which do have huge lecture halls stuffed with athletes and legacies, taught by underpaid contingent faculty—but we’re talking about the ideal here.)

From the standpoint of the honors students, an honors program at a “lesser” college should provide them a close approximation of attending a more selective college, but at a price they can afford.

There are other stakeholders in any university planning besides the students: faculty, alumni, administrators, … .

What do faculty have to gain or lose by having an honors program?  First and foremost, teaching honors students is a joy—they understand points quickly, they do the reading, they respond to guidance, they can participate fully in research, … .  Having one or two top students in a class does not help much—the material has to be presented at a pace suitable for most of the class, and  the top students quickly get bored and tune out.  Having a class full of top students can be incredibly energizing, though, and can compensate for other classes where enormous effort is needed to get marginally competent performance from the students.

So why don’t faculty whole-heartedly embrace honors programs?  Simply put, not everyone will get to teach an honors class.  If the honors students are only the top 2–5% of the students, and are concentrated in honors classes, then most faculty will never get to teach them.  Jealousy of those who do get to teach smaller classes of top students can erode faculty support for honors courses. Furthermore, teaching resources are usually allocated based on raw numbers  of students taught (the “butts-in-seats” metric that administrators and legislators use), so any small courses that are offered have to be paid for by making other courses bigger.  Those who teach the big courses understandably object to increasing their workload so that someone else gets to teach a more fun class.

Also, some public-university faculty see the point of public university as social leveling—providing a ticket to middle-class jobs and lifestyle for students from poorer families. Honors students tend to be disproportionately from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, so faculty with social-leveling as their main goal do not want to help them—it is easier to narrow achievement gaps by holding the top down than by bringing the bottom up.

What is the value of an honors program for alumni? Mainly the reputation of the college. College reputation these days is based mainly on research output (which has little to do with undergraduate education—some would even argue for a negative correlation) and on the few students who later attain celebrity status.  Having exceptional students graduate from a college increases the reputation of the college, even if the average students are decidedly not exceptional.

What is the value of an honors program for administrators?  Two-fold: improving college rankings and improving alumni loyalty.

College rankings are based mainly on numbers like the SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the retention of students into the second year, and the fraction of students that graduate within 4, 5, or 6 years.  Increasing the number of honors students improves all those numbers, though a small program (<5% of students) will not move the 25%ile and 75%ile numbers on SAT scores much by itself.  However, having an honors program can increase the number of top applicants, allowing the admissions office to be more selective and move those numbers up.

Thus honors programs are particularly attractive to colleges that  want to increase their selectivity.  For example, UCSC is currently near the bottom of the UC system (above Riverside and Merced) with 25%ile SAT scores of 470, 490, 480 and 75%ile scores of 610, 630, 620 (that’s for reading, math, writing). Only about 6–7% of UCSC freshmen scored over 700 on the SAT.  Many of the faculty would like to see something closer to the UCB numbers (25%ile: 590, 630, 620; 75%ile: 720, 770, 750, with 36–56% of students over 700).  Even a small honors program could increase the number of students scoring over 700 at UCSC substantially, since there are so few (about 250 a year) to begin with.  (Numbers from 2012–13 Common Data Sets.)

Alumni loyalty is a subtler effect.  Alumni are loyal to an institution if it gave them a strong sense of belonging while there were there.  That is part of the reason that colleges tolerate fraternities and sororities, despite the terrible press and scandals (hazing, alcohol overdoses, racism, …) that seem to accompany that decision so frequently. It is also the justification given for college sports, though the evidence now is pretty strong that college sports does not increase alumni giving by nearly as much as it costs to operate.  At UCSC, with few frats or sororities and only Division III athletics and club sports, the usual approaches for invoking alumni loyalty without actually doing anything are not available.

For a number of years the college system at UCSC evoked a lot of student loyalty (particularly at Cowell College), but the growth to about 1500 students per college, with few classes taken with one’s fellow college students and the loss of a number of traditions (like weekly College Night at Cowell Dining) has made college loyalty much less of a draw than it used to be.  An honors college, where the students really did often have classes in common after their freshman year, could restore some of that luster to the college system.  It seems to work fairly well for the Honors College at Michigan State University, for example, though they have even lower SAT scores than UCSC, except in  math (MSU 25%ile: 430,540,460; 75%ile: 590, 680,580; 4–22% over 700).

So, assuming that we want an honors program at UCSC, what are the short-term goals?

  • Recruiting top students (say students with 2 SAT scores ≥ 700, or one ≥ 740).
  • Retaining top students past the first year (we still lose a lot who transfer to schools with a higher reputation).
  • Creating a community of peers for top students—it is too easy for top students to compare themselves with the average students around them and end up not challenging themselves.  Having a peer group who are just as bright can push them to achieve far more than they would have in an environment where they are always the “best”.
  • Finding a way to fund the honors program that does not rely on start-up funds that expire nor build up jealousy from faculty not teaching honors courses.

In a subsequent post, I’ll muse about ways that we can achieve these goals.


2013 December 14

Undergraduate Honors Programs

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:31
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My campus has recently announced an administrative opening for a Faculty Director of Undergraduate Honors Programs, and I’m considering applying for it. I normally try to avoid administrative positions, since they usually call for being nice to lots of idiots, which is not something I’m good at.

But I’ve been a (not very vocal) advocate of honors programs for years, and my campus has only just started dipping its toe into the water in recent years, so maybe this goal would be worth overcoming my distaste for administrative positions to try to achieve something.  And the position reports to the “Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education”, who is a very reasonable and sensible person that I’ve worked well with in the past, so I wouldn’t have to be fighting a higher administrator all the time.

Here’s the problem, though: there are no resources associated with the position,  just “compensation: $12,500 annually in an allowable combination of stipend and course relief, subject to negotiation” and “Assisted by the Honors Coordinator and other divisional staff as needed and available.”

The compensation is not very important: $12,500 would be a nice replacement for summer salary, but I don’t really need the money, and it isn’t enough to do much with if spent on an honors program.  I don’t particularly want course relief—I’m teaching entirely courses that I’ve designed, and there is only one other person I trust to do a good job with one of them (he covered the course when I took my sabbatical).  I’ll need to train people to take over some of my courses so that I can take sabbatical (and eventually retire), but for next year that seems unlikely. It bothers me when some of our best teachers get sucked into administrative positions—no matter how good they are as administrators, I can’t see the administrative work as being as important as good teaching.  Unfortunately, some of the poorer teachers, who would be good to replace through course relief funds, would also make lousy administrators, so the incentives don’t line up well for getting the best people for each job.

Currently, we only have a first-year honors program, and that a tiny one that is only for first-year students.  The scope of the position seems to be only doing small tweaks to the existing program that don’t cost anything, not a major expansion of the program to be a 4-year program, which is what I’d like to see.

Before I decide whether to apply for this position, I need to figure out what I could achieve by taking it, and whether that is worth the effort it would take. Is there some other candidate for the position who would do a better job (or even nearly as good a job, so I that I don’t have to do it)?

More fundamentally, I need to have solid answers for questions like these: Why should we have an honors program?  What is the point of honors programs in general, and this one in particular?  What resources does an honors program need? How can the program be made a permanent institution, and not just a quick burn through startup money (which seems to have been the fate of all previous attempts to create honors programs here)?

I’ll try to address those questions in posts over the next couple of weeks—after I’ve got my grading done and the draft curricula put together for all the tracks of the bioengineering major.

2012 April 8

Princeton University’s Integrated Science course

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:33
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I recently heard about the Integrated Science course at Princeton University, though they’ve apparently been running it since 2004.  The class is rather heavily crosslisted: ISC/CHM/COS/MOL/PHY 231, 232, 233, 234.  The class must be somewhat expensive to run, as it involves a dozen top-notch faculty from chemistry, physics, biology (both molecular and evo-eco), and computer science.

I’m usually a bit dubious of integrated science classes, as they tend to be an excuse for sacrificing depth for breadth.  This course does not seem to have that problem. In fact, it looks more like an honors course, requiring students to come in with strong high school backgrounds in chemistry, physics, and calculus (BC, not just AB).

They use computer modeling (both dynamical models and statistical models) extensively, which makes me wonder why they are using Halliday as the physics text, rather than Matter and Interactions—was it just familiarity with the book, or are there some good pedagogical reasons for preferring Halliday in the course?  It may be because they actually get a little into quantum mechanics at the end of the year, which Matter and Interactions does not cover well.

Somewhat unusually, the course has a heavy component of computational biology (mainly systems biology, it seems, but a little on finding genes and comparing them between yeast and human).  Overall, it looks like a pretty intense course for a first-year college class (it counts in total as 4 courses at Princeton, and is supposed to be the equivalent of first-year chem, first-year physics and the first semester computer science).

There is a second year integrated science course that covers organic chemistry and biochem.  The six courses look to me like excellent preparation for a student going into bioengineering or bioinformatics, though students wanting to do traditional physics or chemistry might be better off with a narrower focus their freshman year.

I don’t think UCSC can currently afford to teach honors courses like this one, as much as I would like us to.  It is a shame, but it seems like honors courses are the first thing that gets cut when department budgets get squeezed. I can understand why, because relatively few students are affected and honors classes, by their very nature have low student/faculty ratios, so are expensive to run.  But the loss of honors classes causes a disproportionate loss of top students to other universities—a problem UCSC administration has worried about for quite some time (our attrition is bimodal, with an unusually high loss of top students as well as the more common loss of students failing out).  Unfortunately, the loss of top students never seems to worry the administrators enough to actually create and maintain honors courses.  Honors courses get taught occasionally, but they never last long—the administration only ever provides startup funds for such classes, never continuing budgetary allocations.

The Princeton course looks like a good model to follow, if we ever had the money to do it.  Princeton, of course, has a huge endowment and high tuition, so they can afford to continue expensive courses if they work (they’re in their 8th year of teaching this course).  I doubt that UCSC could scrape together the funds to offer such a course even once, though the probably could put together a watered-down large-lecture version of it, if there were any point to doing so.

2011 April 7

Honors courses in CS (going, going, gone)

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:33
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Mark Guzdial, in the Computing Education blog posted an opinion that Lack of women in CS is our problem to fix, regardless of cause.  The blog post itself is ok, but I was particularly struck by one of the comments by Elizabeth Patitsas:

My experience as an Honours CS and Physics student is that the biggest problem is the lack of community for the top CS students.

There are no Honours CS courses at my university, nor are there at most institutions. In physics, and in math, and many other fields, it is the norm to have the top students in a different pipeline of courses for at least the first two years. You get two things out of this: more specialized teaching for the bright students, and very importantly, a community that develops of the students in this pipeline.

You simply don’t have this in CS. The top students in CS don’t get to know each other. My experience as a bright student in the first two years of my degree was that I didn’t know who the other bright students in my programme were.

But I knew who the other bright students in math were, and in physics — we had our Honours classes together and had our community. There is an important source of peer support in these crowds. It is through my peers in these two communities that I got a lot of encouragement to do undergrad research, to be a TA, to take more challenging courses, to go to conferences, to apply to grad school, etc.

If you look at the Honours enrollments in CS at my uni, the overwhelming majority of the students are in Combined Honours programmes — with math, physics, biology, or microbiology. All these disciplines have established communities for their Honours students.

And so, the top students in CS don’t stick around the CS department. We stick around with our friends in our other major. And soon enough, since that’s where the community is, that’s where the focus is. Nearly all of the CS/physics students go to grad school in physics, for example.

That’s if they finish the CS component of their degree. Because, as you said — mid-level CS is “dry as dust”. I’ve had many friends start off in CS/physics or CS/math but then switch to physics or math, just because mid-level CS was so unengaging for them.

We spend a lot of time in the CS education community looking at how the average student does, or how the weaker students do — but there’s really no attention paid to how to cater to the better students. For many top students, the lack of Honours CS courses tells them that CS is not a place for them.

I have also noticed the lack of honors courses in computer science education. When I was a student, back in the 70s, all computer science classes were essentially honors classes, as only techno-nerds even considered taking them. The instructors then were excited by the new material they were teaching and everyone was pushing to see what they could do that hadn’t been done before.

Now the CS curriculum is very routine for the first few years and few undergrads get anywhere close to doing anything novel. (One exception is game design, where creativity is still expected of undergrads, though I would not be surprised to find some programs drifting into routine platformer and first-person-shooter exercises devoid of interest.)

I don’t teach computer science exactly, but the bioinformatics classes I do teach have a few CS classes as prereqs. I have been surprised by how poorly some of the students program after 3 or 4 CS classes. These are not students who hate or fear computers, but they still seem unable to do fairly trivial programming tasks. I talked with some of them about their previous computer classes, and it turned out that they had had only highly scaffolded assignments in which only low-level coding skills were ever used. They’d never had to figure out how to break up a problem statement into subproblems and never designed a data structure—just implemented what they were told to. I’ve been finding myself teaching fairly basic computer science that should have been taught in lower-level classes. I’m willing to spend a lot of time on concepts I don’t expect them to have seen before (like dynamic programming), and conceptually difficult problems (like getting boundary conditions right for recursively defined algorithms), but I shouldn’t have to tell them how to create simple data structures using lists and dicts in Python.

I think that the first couple of years of CS education have been dumbed down since the peak a decade back, in an attempt to keep enrollments up.  Unfortunately, with massive budget cuts planned at most state schools, I don’t expect to see any attempt to create new honors courses in the near future, and the small courses that have survived so far are likely to disappear.  I fear that CS is becoming a boring major, and that attempts to pump more students into it will make it a more boring major, until it finally loses all the luster it once had.

This bothers me not just as CS PhD holder, but because my son seems likely to want to be a CS major in 3–4 years, and I would really like for there to be a good community of bright people for him to join.

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