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2014 January 25

NSF Idea Labs in STEM Education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:27
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Mark Guzdial recently copied a NSF announcement about a new program that sounded interesting to me: NSF Dear Colleague Letter on new Idea Labs in STEM Education:


Preparing Applications to Participate in Phase I Ideas Labs on Undergraduate STEM Education

NSF 14-033

The Directorate for Education and Human Resources has implemented a new program for “Improving Undergraduate STEM Education” (IUSE) through its Division of Undergraduate Education (EHR/DUE). The IUSE program description [PD 14-7513] outlines a broad funding opportunity to support projects that address immediate challenges and opportunities facing undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, as well as those that anticipate new structures and function of the undergraduate STEM learning and teaching enterprise. The IUSE program description creates an opportunity to submit unsolicited proposals across all topics and fields affecting undergraduate STEM education. It also includes an opportunity to participate in the first phase of three different Ideas Labs aimed at incubating innovative approaches for advancing undergraduate STEM education in three disciplines (biology, engineering, and the geosciences). These “IUSE Phase I Ideas Labs” will bring together relevant disciplinary and education research expertise to produce research agendas that address discipline-specific workforce development needs. The purpose of this Dear Colleague Letter is to provide additional information regarding the focus of the three Phase I Ideas Labs and guidance on preparing applications for community members seeking to participate in them.

There were two of the “Ideas Labs” that sounded relevant to me in my role as undergrad director and curriculum designer for the bioengineering program and as a bioinformatics teacher and researcher:


The biological sciences workforce for the future, including graduates of two-year schools, four-year institutions, and graduate programs, will need mathematical and computational skills beyond those of its predecessors. These tools also are required across the wide spectrum of biological sub-disciplines. …


Social inequality in engineering education and practice is a durable problem, one that has resisted perennial efforts to “broaden participation,” “increase diversity,” or “improve recruitment and retention of women, minorities, and people with disabilities.” While a great deal of previous and ongoing work has focused on fostering the ability of individuals to access and persist in the engineering education system, this Ideas Lab will focus on changing the system itself. …

A five-day workshop with other people struggling with these problems might be interesting (though I don’t know how I could take a week off from teaching for an unknown week: one of March 3-7; March 17-21; March 31-April 4—they haven’t yet figured out which workshop will be which week).  Of those, only March 17–21 is at all feasible: missing the last day of class and exam week for this quarter. With a day of travel needed on each end, the ideas labs would take a full 7-day week.

I find writing proposals rather painful, and this one wouldn’t even result in any funding, so I re-read the letter more carefully to see if it really was something I wanted to do.

Page one of the “project description” seemed reasonable:

  • Provide a brief summary of your professional background (100 words maximum). Please note that if you are selected as a participant, information provided in answer to this question will be made available to the other participants, to facilitate networking at the Ideas Lab.
  • Describe your experience and interest in working across disciplines (100 words maximum).
  • Describe your key contribution(s) to addressing the specific STEM workforce development theme of this Ideas Lab (see above) through novel and potentially transformative approaches (no more than half a page).
  • Indicate your ability or inability to participate during any of the scheduled Ideas Lab dates (March 3-7; March 17-21; March 31-April 4).

But I found page 2 a bit difficult even to think about:

Please spend some time considering your answers to the following questions. Your responses should demonstrate that you have suitable skills and aptitude to participate in the Ideas Lab (unrelated to your research track record).

  • What is your approach to working in teams? (100 words maximum)
  • How would you describe your ability to engage non-experts or people with a different perspective to yours on this topic? (100 words maximum)
  • The Ideas Lab encourages a free exchange of ideas: enjoying the sharing, shaping and building ideas over an intensive 5-day setting, working as an equal with individuals you may not know.  How do you see yourself suited for this type of interaction?  If possible, describe any comparable experience you have had.  (150 words maximum).

I was also a little bothered by the description at the end of the engineering workshop:

In the Engineering Phase I Ideas Lab, engineers and social scientists will face head on the systems and structures that reproduce social inequality in engineering education and in the engineering workforce. A complete and direct discussion is not afraid to examine manifestations of racism, sexism, and ableism in engineering, and to also consider classism, heteronormativity, ageism, and obstacles faced by Veterans and other non-traditional groups. The Engineering Phase I Ideas Lab will generate new framings and new strategies to move the nation toward greater inclusion of marginalized groups in engineering.

In both places it seems clear that they have already decided precisely how to frame the question to get the answers they want to hear based on the jargon they use to describe the problem, and that they are not interested in hearing from any one who might disagree.  They seem to be trying to create a panel to rubber stamp some plan they have already devised, and are looking for a committee of yes-men to staff the panel.

I’m afraid I’m too much of a curmudgeon to be able to help them with that—I also have extreme doubts that they are going to succeed at anything with this plan but spending a lot of money on the pet ideas of the social scientists who came up with the plan, with no positive effect on engineering education or the “durable problem” of under-representation of women, blacks, Hispanics, and people with disabilities in engineering fields.

“Changing the system itself” sounds a lot like the MOOC advocates rallying call, as does the list of parameters they are proposing to modify:

Many prior efforts for inclusion have been hampered by a presumption that certain parameters can’t be changed (for example, eligibility criteria, narrow definitions of what counts in or as engineering, limited roles for 2-year institutions, or a four year degree model).

While I believe that ABET has been too narrow in some fields in their accreditation standards for engineering programs, I’m not convinced that throwing away what makes engineering a useful discipline is going to accomplish any socially useful goals. Applying the grade inflation and lowered expectations of other disciplines to engineering may indeed produce more diversity of graduates, but would probably make industry start insisting on higher qualifications, increasing the time and expense of meaningful engineering education, and shrinking rather than increasing diversity in the workforce.

The biology Ideas Lab has a more solvable problem:

The Biology Phase I Ideas Lab will consider strategies to integrate these critical competencies in quantitative literacy into a biology core curriculum and to study their effectiveness and/or impact to generate knowledge that will inform their broader implementation.

but I’m a little worried about the precise “quantitative literacies” that they have identified:

Specifically, these are “the ability to use quantitative reasoning” and “the ability to use modeling and simulation”, to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics and complexity of biological systems. In addition, many areas of biology, from molecular, organismal through ecosystems studies, are reliant on large databases. Biologists of the future will require the mathematical and theoretical foundations necessary to abstract systems-level knowledge from complex data sets.  These skills will be important also for proper database management, preservation of the data collected, and effective use of the information they contain.

The emphasis on biologists needing to learn how to manage data and how to use large data sets is important, but the fact that they mention “mathematical” rather than “statistical” skills, and stress “modeling and simulation” implies to me that they are still stuck in the physicists’ mindset of differential equation modeling, which is not that compatible with the data biologists have available and the modeling that biologists need.  There is no mention of bioinformatics or statistics in this call, so I think that they are likely to be going in totally the wrong direction.

But their call for yes-men makes it clear that opinions like mine would not be welcomed—even if I could take off a week to sit around chewing the fat in Washington DC.  So I won’t be wasting my time trying to fill out the proposal forms by the Feb 4 deadline (the letter was only cleared for release on Jan 23, so it is clear they only want people who they had quietly hinted to ahead of time applying).

Oh well, politics as usual in Washington, DC.

2010 October 5

In defense of STEM

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:20
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In today’s Science Times, Natalie Angier writes a diatribe against the acronym STEM.  While I have no great love of acronyms, I think her criticism is way overblown.  I admit that the first few times I encountered the acronym, I had no idea that it stood for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  But all acronyms suffer from that problem, and at least this one is easy to spell and to pronounce.

I think that the heart of Ms. Angier’s objection is the “decision to include engineering and technology in the education ‘messaging’.” Ms. Angier seems to feel that engineering is just bastardized science and that it does not need to be taught, or if taught, only as a footnote to Real Science™.

I, of course, disagree.  There are distinct differences between science and engineering, as I’ve posted about before.  These differences are not just superficial, but represent very different ways of thinking and require very different pedagogy.

Here’s an example of what can happen if engineering is ignored:

This quarter I’m co-teaching a senior design project class for bioengineers and computer engineers.  I was rather distressed to find that none of the bioengineers knew anything about how protein expression was done (one of the fundamental technologies of biomolecular engineering) and that only one of them had ever done DNA manipulation (another fundamental technology of biomolecular engineering), and that in high school.  It is possible that many of these students are in the bioelectronics or adaptive technology tracks of the bioengineering program, but some are certainly in the biomolecular track.  These students have had years of science classes, but have never designed anything, and haven’t developed the skills to execute any designs if they could come up with them.  In short, they have had science training, but not engineering training.  One capstone class can’t compensate for 4 years of neglect of design skills!

You can be sure that I’ll be complaining loudly to the bioengineering curriculum committee again this year about the lack of design classes for the bioengineers.  Unfortunately, I’m not a wet-lab bioengineer (I come from a math, computer science, and computer engineering background), so I can’t create or teach the needed bio-design courses.

Note: the problem is not limited to bioengineering, though our shortage of faculty and the tendency to hire scientists rather than engineers when a faculty slot opens up does make it particularly hard to fix.  The electrical engineering department here has a similar, though less severe, problem with teaching electronics as a theoretical science, and not doing much design.  Luckily, most of the EE students take a lot of computer engineering classes, which rely very heavily on design.

The computer science curriculum, like the computer engineering curriculum, has a heavy emphasis on design also (though they refer to it as “practice” as opposed to “theory”).  Even the students who decide to do mainly theoretical CS get some design practice from the very beginning of the program.

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