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2015 June 19

Teaching as public speaking

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:57
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“Dean Dad” recently wrote a post Confessions of a Community College Dean: When Public Speaking Works Best, in which he talked about the advantages of improvised talks over highly prepared ones:

My best moments as a speaker have consisted of a layer of improvisation on top of a prepared framework. The words were substantially ad-libbed, but in a context that had been thought through in advance. Having the safety net of a clear framework, the knowledge of where I was going, and the security of knowing that the worst that could happen wouldn’t do permanent damage, made it possible to follow the muse of the moment. I could improvise knowing the direction I wanted to go, and having faith that I’d get there one way or the other.

That is my usual modus operandi for giving talks or class lectures. I start by figuring out what I want to cover and (sometimes) in what order, and make sure I understand the material thoroughly.  There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to give lectures on material I’m not completely comfortable with, and the results are not really satisfactory.  I know that there are people who can give scripted lectures from prepared PowerPoint slides on stuff they don’t really understand, but I can’t—I have to have the stuff really solid in my head. (Which is not to say that I never pass on mis-information—I have sometimes realized after further study that I’ve been teaching a simplification that is incorrect.)

My best classes usually have no more than about 5 words of lecture notes, reminding me of the topic of the day—the entire performance is improvised off of those notes, together with lots of “audience participation”—getting the students to ask questions and come up with partial solutions.  Such talks do not use prepared slides, but blackboard/whiteboard or live coding (for programs like gnuplot, where the concepts really rely on seeing what the program does with various scripts).  I also get a lot of digressions in the best classes, when students ask about what really interests them, rather than what I have prepared.  If the digressions are valuable and I know enough to go in that direction, I’ll take them.  If I don’t know enough, I’ll usually put the students off until the next lecture, so that I have time to do some reading.

I have, once, given a talk with a carefully written-out script (see Video of Designing Courses talk), when I had a very short time slot to present a large amount of material. The results were OK, but not as good as the longer, slower improvisational presentation I use in classes.

2015 March 30

First day of S15 circuits class: demo failure

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:23
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I went into the class with a fairly short to-do list—much shorter than last year’s. I managed to cover the following:

  1. Went over syllabus .I showed them the syllabus and managed to go over scheduling of labs, partner work, and online texts, but did not get to some of the boilerplate about cheating and about disability services.  Oh well, it is enough that the boilerplate is on the syllabus.
  2. Demoed pressure sensor  with PteroDAQ on KL25Z board. I hooked everything up and it didn’t work. I fixed one problem of a loose wire (using the jeweler’s screwdriver, but it still didn’t work. I did manage to show them PteroDAQ and used gnuplot to show them a pressure trace I had recorded in the BME88A demo last quarter.
  3. Reading the book and doing design well before lab.
  4. Assigning reading due tomorrow and Thursday.
  5. Partners changing every week, so no one gets a free ride for very long and no one has to suffer with a freeloader.

I was thinking that I’d use the chalkboard a lot, so I used the small screen in the classroom (this classroom is ridiculously over-equipped with projectors, even having a project for a screen at the back of the classroom) rather than the big one, which covers most of the chalkboard. But I ended up using the projector to show them parts of the book and to use the document camera to show the KL25Z board and instrumentation amp protoboard, and barely used the chalkboard at all.

The rearrangement of the labs, with soldering on Tuesday, sampling and aliasing on Thursday, and the thermistor labs next week does give me a little leisurely start-up than last year, as I don’t have to get to Ohm’s law and Kirchhoff’s current law until the voltage-divider lecture on Friday.

Overall, I’m fairly happy with how the first day of class went, despite the demo failure.  I’ll debug the demo and show them either in lab tomorrow or in class on Wednesday.  I just hope I haven’t fried the instrumentation amplifier with static—they’re expensive and I don’t know whether I have any spares on hand.

Update 2015-Mar-30 17:58:  When I got home I checked out the board to figure out what might be wrong.  After probing for a while with the voltmeter, I determined that the wire that had come loose from its screw terminal and that I had fixed in class was not the only wire that had come loose.  The one next to it had also come loose.  It still looked ok, but wasn’t making contact.  Opening the screw terminal, reinserting the wire, and tightening it down again fixed the problem.


2015 January 6

New quarter, lots of work

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:21
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The Winter quarter started yesterday, and my schedule is going to be even fuller than I thought.

I only have two classes this quarter, both 2-unit courses. One course is the freshman design seminar, the other is the senior thesis writing course, so I’m getting students at both the beginning and the end of their undergraduate experience. Two 2-unit courses sounds like a pretty light load, but the courses are more work for me than most 2-unit courses.

For the freshman design seminar, I’m having to create content as I go—we have some lab access this year that we didn’t have last year, and I want to get the students building stuff as soon as I can. But that means my having to build the stuff, to make sure it is feasible, and to figure out how to digest it down to the point where students can have success in the design and construction. I’ll probably be spending more time on the course than any of the students—they’re supposed to have 3.5 hours a week in class or lab and 2.5 hours a week on their homework—I’m expecting to spend more than that prepping for class, and even more on grading.

At the end of last quarter, I filled out a form on the library web site asking for an information session for the course, and I filled it out again yesterday.  Usually the librarians are pretty good about responding to the requests, and I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from them, so I sent e-mail to a couple of the librarians I’d worked with in the past—it seems that the forms on their web page weren’t entering the data into the request system (reason still not known), and they’d never gotten my requests to schedule the information session.  They forwarded my request on to other librarians (a different team handles lower-division information sessions, which worries me a bit, because I don’t want the sort of pablum they usually give freshmen—the ones I’m used to working with know that I want solid training on search techniques), but I’ve not heard back from that team yet. It’s a good thing that I haven’t figured out my schedule for the quarter yet, as I’ve no idea when they’ll be available.

I’m also still waiting to hear back from the engineering lab staff about what training the students need to be able to use the tools in the fab lab, and how I can get access.  I probably need to go and talk with them in person—I’ve gotten no responses to my e-mail requests.

Today I asked the bioengineering undergrads (by e-mail) for volunteers to lead lab tours of the labs they work in, and to explain to the freshmen how they managed to join the lab. My explanation of how to join labs never seems as convincing to the freshmen as hearing directly from juniors and seniors that are in labs. The lab tours are always rather cool, because there is a lot of interesting research going on by bioengineering undergrads here. So far, I’ve had one faculty member tell me he’s assigned some students to do the tour of his lab, but they haven’t contacted me to schedule it yet. Tomorrow, I may ask the seniors doing thesis research if any of them have time to help out.

The senior writing class meets for 3.5 hours this week, but for the rest of the quarter we’ll be meeting only 1.75 hours a week (Wednesdays 5–6:45) as a group, mainly to go over common problems and for them to practice presentations with an audience. I was expecting about 12 students in the class, but I have 19, six of whom had not taken the prerequisite tech-writing course. This pisses me off a bit, since I don’t have time in a 2-unit course to teach everything that should be covered in the 5-unit writing course. But the fault is not entirely theirs—the tech-writing class has been full with students not able to get in every quarter for the past few years.

I had to do some last-minute restructuring of the thesis-writing class because of the size.  The last time I’d taught the class (2 years ago), I read each student’s draft thesis 5 times, providing four rounds of detailed feedback before the final draft was evaluated. I won’t be able to do that this year. Instead, I’ve broken the class into three groups, who turn in their papers out of phase (6 this week, 7 next week, 6 the week after, then repeat).  This plan results in only 3 rounds of feedback before the final version, not 4, but still has me reading a thesis (50-to-100 pages) every day.

I will be meeting with each thesis writer individually for 20 minutes a week, for them to practice their elevator talk, to discuss their research with me, and to discuss their writing.  In some cases in the past, I could not understand their projects from their writing, and it took several rounds of discussion before I realized what they were trying to do, so that I could help them word it comprehensibly.  (In at least one case, the student had misunderstood the statistics so badly that what they were claiming as exciting results were all indistinguishable from chance.) Nineteen students at 20 minutes each is another 6.3 contact hours.

Another difference from the last time I taught the course is that most of the students are in the second quarter of the three-quarter thesis project, rather than in the last quarter. This was a deliberate rescheduling on my part, because I was appalled at how many students had been working for over 20 weeks and written absolutely nothing.  In some cases they hadn’t even properly done their background research, and found that they’d wasted most of the 20 weeks on rather useless stuff that didn’t address their real research questions.  (I did send some politely worded e-mail messages to the faculty who had been “supervising” them, though I wanted to scream at them for their incompetence as advisers.)  Since then, I’ve also gotten much more careful when signing the independent study forms as the undergraduate director and program chair (the forms call for both signatures, but for the bioengineering program, both signatures are mine) to make sure that the students are writing something every quarter.

In any case, the student will not have finished theses at the end of the writing course, but almost-finished ones, with just a few results to fill in next quarter and a little discussion.

So for the two small classes this quarter, I have 11.6 contact hours, 12 hours of grading, and probably 4–5 hours of prep work each week.  I also have 2 hours a week scheduled for office hours, 1.5 for meetings with the department manager, and 2 hours for the department research seminar. So I’m up to 17 hours a week of scheduled meetings and 12 hours of grading—and that doesn’t count the 2–3 hours a week I’ll need to spend with grad students and 1–2 with the nanopore research group, nor the extra advising load that will happen this quarter as all the sophomores try to declare their majors.. So figure at least 22 hours scheduled and 12 hours grading, before we get to my administrative duties.

Today was spent almost entirely on administrative duties—both the department and the bioengineering program are having to do self studies this year for WASC accreditation next year, and I’m stuck writing the whole self study for the bioengineering program and the undergrad portion for the department. I had written a draft of the bioengineering self study over the two-week break while campus was closed, but I only found the form with the prompts for the self study today.  None of what I wrote was wasted, but they wanted a whole lot more bureaucratic bullshit about “Program Learning Outcomes”, a top-down management approach that ensures that every faculty member will run screaming when asked to do anything about the curriculum.  (Actually, our faculty are much more subtle than that—they just nod their heads and disappear.)

I was particularly annoyed by the loaded question in one prompt:

Overall, how has program assessment (including all steps: defining the program learning outcomes, developing the curriculum matrix or rubrics, interpreting the findings) been used to guide improvement of the program? Provide at least one example since the last review of an improvement made to some aspect of the program’s curriculum or course effectiveness.

My current draft answer (which I’m afraid will have to be toned down a bit) is

This prompt assumes that the Program Learning Outcome process has some beneficial effect on improving the program, for which there is no empirical evidence in the bioengineering program.  The improvements in the program have come despite the time wasted on the PLO process, not because of it. The extensive curricular changes described in Section 2 considered data from senior exit interviews, careful thought about what concentrations were uniquely offerable at UCSC, what made pedagogic sense, and what courses and resources were available.  The overly bureaucratic PLO process, particular the curriculum matrix and “rubrics”, took time away from thinking about and discussing the curriculum and pedagogy, diverting it to satisfying arbitrary bureaucratic requirements.

As you might gather, I’m pretty pissed about the PLO process, which calls for an annual report on assessment of one of the Program Learning Outcomes.  I had to make up the outcomes myself last year (none of the faculty were interested), and I’ll have to do all the “assessment” and writing of the report this year for two programs (none of the other faculty are interested). If the process served to trigger discussion about curriculum or pedagogy among the faculty, it might be worthwhile, but it has had the opposite effect, making faculty even less willing than usual to engage in discussions of the curriculum. So I’m stuck writing bullshit reports for administrators who’ll probably never read them, when I’d much rather be teaching, advising students, or fixing problems in the curriculum with other faculty.  (Or even, gasp, doing some research!)

Note: there have been some substantial improvements to the curriculum since the last review—I spent countless hours last year meeting with other faculty (one-on-one or in small groups) to completely overhaul the bioengineering curriculum.  I’m pretty pleased with the result (and students who’ve compared the old and the new curriculum wish that I’d overhauled it a couple years earlier, so that they could have done the new curriculum). But it really was the case that the “Program Learning Outcomes” was a distraction and a sideshow that cut into the time I had to think about and fix the curriculum.

Anyway, after meeting with the BME chair and department manager this morning, to set the agenda for this Friday’s monthly BME faculty meeting, I spent most of the rest of the day trying to wrestle the draft of the bioengineering self-study into shape so that I could share it with the bioengineering faculty, while answering the loaded questions of the administrators. (I’d shared the first draft and gotten feedback from only two faculty out of the thirty—both of them instructors, not tenure-track faculty—two of the best teachers in the School of Engineering.)  I’m unlikely to get much out of the rest of the faculty—I have no carrot or stick to encourage compliance (the program chair of the bioengineering program comes with 0 resources, not even a course buyout for hundreds of hours of work on the curriculum and the self-study).

I had been planning to spend the afternoon doing a first draft of the undergraduate self-study for the bioinformatics program, but the amount of extra work needed on the bioengineering one took up my whole afternoon. I spent a lot of it asking staff for the data that the administrators wanted—much of the data they asked for was not available and will take the staff several days to try to compile. Some of the prompts were particularly irksome:

Provide a brief description of the learning outcomes assessment process, including a multiyear assessment plan, references to assessment instruments provided in Appendix III (e.g., a capstone rubric), and a summary of the annual assessment findings regarding each of the program learning outcomes (as many as have been
assessed to date). Comment on what the indirect evidence from the undergraduate major (UCUES) survey, such as students’ self-reported competency levels and satisfaction with educational experience, indicates in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of  the program. How do measures of direct evidence of student learning agree with indirect measures?                           

What is the UCUES survey data I’m supposed to analyze?  Well, after trawling through my e-mail I found a promise that I’d get the data in December. I never did, so I asked. Oh, they might have that by next week, maybe.  So much for trying to get the self-study written before the thesis-a-day grading starts tomorrow!  The “assessment instruments in Appendix III?” There aren’t any—I only wrote the bloody outcomes last year under duress, and there haven’t been any “assessment instruments” (by which they probably mean bullshit surveys and meaningless statistical analysis of portfolios using made-up “rubrics”). So, summary of annual assessment findings: “there haven’t been any and they wouldn’t mean squat even if there were some”.

I do have several years’ worth of portfolios from graduating seniors as well as notes from exit interviews (both portfolios and exit interviews are requirements for graduation), and I’ve actually read a lot of the student theses in depth. That’s useful to do, and a lot of the ideas for the curriculum overhaul came from discussing the curriculum with graduating seniors at the exit interviews, but turning the portfolios and interviews into an “assessment instrument” using their 50-page guide to the process?—pure, unadulterated educrap.


2015 January 4

New tech writing course

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:07
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In my request for comments, xykademiqz mentioned that she’d like to hear about the tech writing course I’m planning.

Planning this course has been a bit of weird exercise for me, because it is the first time that I’m designing a course that I won’t teach. Normally, I design courses that I teach, which occasionally get transferred to some other teacher.  Here, I’m trying to modify a course I designed and taught for a long time, adapting it to a new audience. But I’ve not taught the original course since Winter 2003 (11 years ago!), and I don’t plan to teach this one, as I already have a more-than-full teaching load.  I’ve paid my dues teaching tech writing, having taught it sixteen times (1987–2003).

The course I originally created was for computer engineering majors, but this one is for bioengineers, specifically those in the biomolecular engineering concentration.

The rest of this post is the “Undergraduate Supplemental Sheet—Information to accompany Request for Course Approval” that is required at UCSC for approval of any new course. I have sent the form off to the Committee on Educational Policy, the committee of the Academic Senate that reviews new courses. I’m hoping to get approval for our department to offer this course in Spring 2015, so there isn’t much time for revision if they decide that they don’t like something. I’ve left a number of design questions in the document, although this is not usually done for CEP course approvals, to emphasize that this course is a work in progress, and to give them some idea of the adjustments that are likely to be needed in the first couple of years. The course design has been discussed by a group of five faculty, two or whom are likely to teach the course, and one of whom is likely to be a guest lecturer for it.  I welcome further discussion—particularly suggestions for more specific exercises (for the graphics and the library puzzle, for example).


Sponsoring Agency: Biomolecular Engineering Course #: 185
Catalog Title: Technical Writing for Biomolecular Engineers
Catalog copy:

Writing by biomolecular engineers, not to general audiences, but to engineers, engineering managers, and technical writers. Exercises include job application and resume, library puzzle, graphics, lab protocols, document specification, progress report, survey article or research proposal, poster, and oral presentation.

Enrollment limited to bioengineering majors, or by permission of instructor.

Prerequisite(s): satisfaction of Entry Level Writing and Composition requirements; and Biology 101L (biochemistry lab).
BIOL 101L may be taken concurrently.

Enrollment limited to 20.

1. Are you proposing a revision to an existing course?  If so give the name, number, and GE designations (if applicable) currently held.


2. In concrete, substantive terms explain how the course will proceed. List the major topics to be covered, preferably by week.

The course will consist primarily of writing and feedback on that writing, with some lectures and readings on common problems. There will be a substantive writing assignment due every week, and the week-by-week outline below lists the assignment that the student will complete that week—some will need to have been started much sooner, so that students may be working on multiple assignments simultaneously.

The list below is the initial design of the course, but we expect that the assignments in the course will evolve, depending on how well they work to develop students’ facility and scientific and engineering writing

Week 1: Job application letter, resume, and letter of recommendation.
The purpose of this assignment is to focus student attention on audience assessment, in a practical format that they see the point of.

Week 2: Library research.

Students will have a library information session, in which they learn how to locate lab protocols, material safety data sheets, and databases of important molecular biology reagents. There will be a library search quiz, with specific questions relevant to biomolecular engineers that use databases learned about in the library information session.  Students will have to write up their search strategies, and not just the results of their searches.

Correct citations in a consistent style will be essential, though students will not be held to any particular style, as the field has an enormous diversity of preferred styles. Use of citation tools (such as Zotero or BibTeX) will be strongly encouraged.

The library puzzle questions will feed into the later assignments: data for the graphics assignment, lab protocols that can be blended together for the lab protocol assignment, and so forth.

Design questions to explore in the first couple of years: can we come up with suitable questions, similar in difficulty to those in each year?  How much can questions be re-used from year to year?  Can lab managers and librarians be enlisted to help update the questions frequently?

Weeks 3&4: Design of scientific graphics

Students will prepare at least three different graphics, including a scatter diagram, a line or box plot with error bars, and a block or cartoon diagram of a process. Figures for this assignment must be generated by the student, not copied from the web or other sources. Students will be allowed to use almost any graphics tool (gnuplot, R, MATLAB, matplotlib, Python, Inkscape, …) except Excel, which is often the only tool students have previously used, and which produces unacceptable graphics with the default settings.

Concepts taught will include some of the main concepts in Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information, though that book will not be required for the course (too expensive for the small amount the students will use). Important concepts include avoiding chart junk (especially fake 3D), proper scale and range of axes (including when to use log scales), “up is good”, people only understand straight lines, and making the graphics tell the story.

Also included will be the notion of floating figures with figure numbers and paragraph-long captions, as many students do not seem to have learned this standard style for scientific and engineering reports before their senior thesis.

Design questions for the first few years: What public data sets should we use? (Census data? RNA expression data?) Students need to be able to find the data as part of the library puzzle.  How should the material be broken up between the two weeks—two separate assignments or draft and final version?  For the first run, it would probably be easier to have separate assignments.

Week 5: Writing a lab protocol.

Many biomolecular engineers will end up with jobs as lab technicians, where they will have to read and write lab protocols. This assignment is intended to get them familiar with the format and conventions.

Design question: What lab protocol can students be asked to write? It must be simple enough that an undergrad can write it, but not just a copying task from some source of protocols.

Staffing questions: Will the instructors that we hire for BME 185 be able to read and comment on lab protocols appropriately (pointing out missing steps or incorrect units, for example)? Will we need a guest lecture explaining the protocol that the students will then write up?

Discussions among writing faculty and biomolecular wet-lab researchers have lead to a few ideas for the protocol to try for the first offering.  It looks likely that a guest lecture from a wet-lab researcher will be needed from someone familiar with the protocol to be written.

Week 6: Final project proposal

The students will write a proposal for the paper they will write as the final project for the course.  Note that this is not a research proposal, but a writing proposal, in which they will describe the topic, the intended audience, and the format of the project.

The project should be a survey article, prior-work section of a senior thesis, or other project that involves substantial library research.  Students should include at least five citations for work that they will be consulting in writing the project.

Key concepts for proposal writing include getting the precise definition of the research question or design goal into the first paragraph.  For this assignment the design goal is the paper to be written, and the specifications for that paper.

Week 7:    Oral presentation

Students do a 5-10-minute individual (not group) oral presentation with visual aids (PowerPoint, Keynote, HTML, or
PDF format).  Students will be taught the design of visual aids for scientific talks (which have a little more content than some other types of visual aids) as well as standard public speaking techniques for eye contact, gestures, expressive voice, pace of talk, and controlling nervousness.

It may be a good idea to have half a class period dedicated to voice projection, including going out into the woods to practice speaking loudly.  The course will not cover techniques for working with microphones, as that is a more specialized skill that would require extra equipment in the classroom.

Design questions to address in the first few years:

The oral presentations will have to be spread out over several class periods, and they represent a major constraint on the class size. At 10 minutes, the oral presentations for a 20-student class would consume an entire week of class time. How much class time can be spent on presentations?  Will 5-minute presentations suffice?

Video recording the presentations and having individual feedback on the presentations would be valuable, but the logistics of arranging for the video recording and scheduling feedback sessions may be too difficult to sustain.  Just rendering videos into a usable format can take 10 times as long as the recording.  Is there any campus-level support for doing this?

Week 8:    E-mail Progress Report and draft

Students write a 100-200-word e-mail memo explaining the status of their final project and attach a draft of their paper for detailed feedback.  This assignment practices professional e-mail style, the content of progress reports, and ensures that they do not put off starting their final report.

Class time will include discussion of professional e-mail and social media (such as blogs), and the differences from the informal social media they may be used to.

Week 9:    Poster presentation

Students design, print, and present a poster, preferably on a research topic they are pursuing in another course.  This will usually be related to their final project, but it may be a different project.

Students will be taught the visual flow of posters, the trade-off between detailed information and readability of a poster, font sizes, color choices, and the need for posters to be comprehensible as stand-alone documents.

Because of the time required to print a poster, students will probably be presenting their posters in week 10, or even during the scheduled final exam time.

Week 10:    Final project report will be due at the time of the final exam slot.

3. System-wide Senate Regulation 760 specifies that 1 academic credit corresponds to 3 hours of work per week for the student in a 10-week quarter.  Please briefly explain how the course will lead to the appropriate amount of work with reference to e.g., lectures, sections, reading and writing assignments, examination preparation, field trips, providing specific estimate of the number of hours devoted to each.
[Please note that if significant changes are proposed to the format of the course after its initial approval, you will need to submit new course approval paperwork to answer this question in light of the new course format.]

There will be 3.5 lecture hours a week, about 1.5 hours of reading, and 10 hours of writing and editing, for a total of 15 hours a week.

4. Include a complete reading list or its equivalent in other media.

The main text book will be Huckin and Olsen’s Technical Writing and Communication for Nonnative Speakers of English (ISBN 978-0070308251, which is out of print but is available used for under $30, see with particular attention to Part 5 (Readability).  Within Part 5, Chapters 21 (Readability: General Principles), 22 (Writing Paragraphs), 24 (Maintaining Focus), and 25 (Creating Flow between Sentences) are particularly valuable.

Individual students may be referred to chapters in Part 6 (Review of Grammar, Style and Vocabulary Building) as needed.  Chapters 29 (Indefinite Articles) and 30 (The Definite Article) are particularly valuable for non-native speakers whose native language does not use articles (Russian, for example, and many Asian languages).

Design question:  will sufficient copies of the book remain available at a reasonable price?  Is there any other text that provides the quality of parts 5 and 6 of Huckin and Olsen for readability and non-native grammar?

5. State the basis on which evaluation of individual students’ achievements in this course will be made by the instructor (e.g., class participation, examinations, papers, projects). Enumerate the minimum required learning outcomes for a student to pass this course. (Example: ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and a non-Western text.) Provide information on how these components are weighted.

Students will be evaluated on their writing and on their oral and poster presentations.  Each of the assignments will have roughly equal weight, with perhaps a little more weight on assignments towards the end of the quarter than ones toward the beginning (so that students whose writing improves during the quarter are suitably rewarded).

6. Final examinations are required of all undergraduate courses unless CEP approves an alternate method of comprehensive evaluation (e.g., a term paper). Note: final papers in lieu of final examinations must be due during final examination week, and not before. If the course does not have a final examination, indicate the alternative method of comprehensive evaluation.

There is no final examination, as the skills of interest in this class are those displayed when students have adequate time, not those testable in a 3-hour time slot.  The final report for the quarter, which is a culmination of several intermediate assignments, will be due at the final exam time.  Although the report itself only carries between 10% and 20% of the total grade, previous assignments that lead to the report make the total weight of the project closer to 50% of the grade.

The poster presentation session may be held during the final exam time slot, though it is clearly not a final exam.

7. Please describe the learning objectives that you would ascribe to this course: What do you expect the student to be able to do or understand that would not have been expected of them before taking the class? How do these outcomes support the larger goals of the program(s) in which the course is embedded? (Example: the learning outcome of ability to do comparative analysis of a Western and non-Western text support the Literature objective of cross-cultural inquiry.)

After finishing this course, students should be able to write comprehensible technical reports on biomolecular engineering topics, produce research posters, and prepare and give oral presentations with visual aids on technical topics.

8. List other UCSC courses covering similar material (if any) and how the proposed course differs from these existing courses.

The course is very similar to Computer Engineering 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, after which it is modeled.  The main differences are in the background of the students and in the topics the students are expected to write about.  The biomolecular engineering class assumes more biology background and less programming background.  The “lab protocol” assignment, for example, is highly typical of the sort of writing biomolecular engineers may do in industry, but is not at all similar to what computer engineers write (user documentation and in-program documentation).

A major reason for creating this course is that CMPE 185 has reached capacity, and more variants of it are needed for different engineering majors.  This course is an attempt to provide that variant for biomolecular engineers, as they are the students currently required to take CMPE 185 who fit the course least well.

9. List expected resource requirements including course support and specialized facilities or equipment for divisional review. (This information must also be reported to the scheduling office each quarter the course is offered.)

No special facilities are needed for this course, but it needs a high instructor-to-student ratio, in order to provide the extensive feedback necessary for a writing class with large weekly assignments.  No more than 20 students per instructor or TA is feasible.

Poster printing (through Baskin Engineering Lab Services) will be needed, and the department is willing to pay for poster printing at the current rates (but not rush fees, which will be the student responsibility).

10. If applicable, justify any pre-requisites, co-requisites, or enrollment restrictions proposed for this course.  For pre-requisites or co-requisites sponsored by other departments/programs, please provide evidence of consultation.

Students must have already completed the C1 and C2 writing courses, so that the instructor can focus on discipline-specific writing requirements and not have to spend much time on the basics of writing.

Students must have completed enough biology or biotech courses to be able to read and write technical reports on biomolecular engineering. In order to write lab protocols, students need to have followed molecular biology protocols themselves, which they encounter in BIOL 101L (or the discontinued older equivalents BIOL 100K or BME 150L).

BIOL 101L is already a required course for the biomolecular engineering concentration of the bioengineering BS degree, so including it as a prerequisite does not increase the demand for the course.

One possible problem is that the prerequisite chain to BIOL 101L is already very long, and adding the whole prerequisite chain before BME 185 and having BME 123T require CMPE 185 or BME 185 as prereq may constrain when students can take BME 185 too tightly. Offering BME 185 multiple times a year (Fall, Winter, Summer, for example) would alleviate this problem, if we can afford that many sections.  Some students who have molecular biology lab experience before transferring to UCSC or from individual research may be able to take BME 185 without BME 101L.

11. Proposals for new or revised Disciplinary Communication courses will be considered within the context of the approved DC plan for the relevant major(s).  If applicable, please complete and submit: the Disciplinary Communication Statement Form—new proposals (Word or PDF) or Disciplinary Communication—revisions to approved plans (Word or

The current DC requirement for bioengineering centers on CMPE 185, Technical Writing for Computer Engineers, with more communication practice in the capstone requirement.

This new course is intended to be a compatible substitute for CMPE 185 for bioengineers, specifically tailored for the biomolecular concentration (for whom the current CMPE 185 is not as good a fit).

The revision to the current plan is trivial:  everywhere that CMPE 185 is mentioned, the new plan will say “CMPE 185 or BME 185″.

12. If you are requesting a GE designation for the proposed course, please justify your request by answering the questions listed in the attached guidelines. Please make reference to specific elements in the course or syllabus when answering these questions.

No designation other than DC is sought.

2015 January 1

Becker’s ideas on improving undergrad teaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:51
Tags: ,

In Three Ways to Improve Undergraduate Teaching, Katrin Becker listed three ideas she thinks are important for improving undergrad teaching:

Take the Time
ID—do a decent job of instructional design. Don’t always take what you’ve done and rehash it.

I’ve come across far too many courses that really haven’t changed much in over a decade. We’ve learned some things in that time, and while I’m not proposing change for change sake, do things the same way year after year makes you look lazy, not skilled.

I have some courses that I redesign every time I teach them, others that get only minor modifications each time. The class that I’ve been teaching longest (Bioinformatics: Models and Algorithms) evolves the slowest. I generally redo only about one tenth of the class each year, and the last really major change was in 2009, when we switched from Perl to Python and all the assignments were rewritten. The lectures in the class have evolved to involve more class participation, but the content has not changed all that much in 15 years. The dynamic programming and sequence alignment parts of the class have grown, at the expense of phylogenetic trees and neural nets. I regard the dynamic programming material as the core content for the course, and that is where I’ve put the most effort into improving my pedagogy. I’ve also increased the amount of feedback I give students on their in-program documentation, after realizing that most had never previously gotten any feedback on the internals of their programs.

Teach Out Loud
Always be prepared to answer these two questions: Why are we doing this? What is it good for?

I’ve said this before. I’m not saying that everything we teach needs to be immediately applicable in a practical setting, but you need at least to be able to connect the dots for your students. You need to be able to explain how this helps the students, and how what they are learning fits in to the big picture. If you can’t, then maybe they don’t really need to learn it. If you won’t do this, then shame on you.

I do try to explain the reasoning behind the choice of assignments and choice of teaching styles, but I’m not sure that I remember to do it with every class. It is difficult, when you’ve said something 100 times, to remember exactly who you’ve said it to. Most of the stuff I teach is very applied, so it is pretty easy to explain why a particular assignment is useful, but I do have to teach some stuff for transference, which is harder to communicate. A lot of the electronics course, for example, does not seem particularly relevant to students in the biomolecular concentration, so I step pretty hard on the universal engineering design practices: decomposition of problems into subproblems with well-specified interfaces, documentation of the reasons for design choices, careful attention to units and graph axes, finding data sheets for components of the design, paying attention to details as well as the big picture, … . I’ve also used the class as a time to talk about imposter syndrome, as many of the students feel out of their depth in their first (and often last) electronics course.

Turn the Tables
Faculty need to be students from time to time. For PD, and to encourage reflection on teaching

Remember what it is like–assignments, exams, … .

I think everyone who teaches should have to TAKE a course, say, every 3 years. For faculty in higher ed, that means taking an undergraduate course—FOR MARKS—and the grade earned becomes part of your public record. Also, it must be a course outside of your immediate area of expertise. If you can’t do that, then maybe you shouldn’t be teaching.

I used to do this all the time—in fact, for many years I regarded taking one course a year as a good norm, but it has probably been a decade since I last sat in on someone else’s lectures and did the homework and exams. I got out of the habit of doing it, with the excuse that I was too busy, but I did not stop learning. I just switched to a more self-taught style (see, for example, Physics posts in forward order for my learning of calculus-based physics with my son, or increasing my knowledge of electronics for the circuits course).

Although I’ve always done the homework and exams when I’ve taken courses (with permission of the instructor, of course), the grades have never been recorded. I would probably have been reluctant to take the humanities courses (like Japanese literature in translation or Campus architecture) if my grade would have been a public record, so I can’t agree with Katrin on that point. I think that making the grades public would be counterproductive, as most faculty would choose the lowest-risk courses—ones where they had already learned the material before taking the course. This would turn the courses into a bureaucratic exercise with no pedagogic value—and faculty certainly don’t need more bureaucratic exercises! In any case, publishing grades for students is illegal in the USA, because of FERPA, though Katrin as a Canadian professor may not be so constrained.


This spring, I’ll be doing something else that I’ve used to increase my learning—teaching a course in a subject I’m not an expert in (Banana Slug Genomics). Luckily, I’ll be co-teaching the course with someone who is an expert on genome assembly of eukaryotes.  I see my role in that class as more a facilitator of learning than as a “teacher”—I know some of the material and can pass it on to the students, but a lot of the course will be an exploration of the tools now available, about which I know little, as they have changed enormously since I last taught the course four years ago. I expect to learn a lot along with the students in the course.

Part of the problem with taking courses is that my workload has increased—I’m teaching six courses this year, rather than the two or three I used to teach, as well as being program chair, undergraduate director, and de facto faculty adviser for the bioengineering program. I can’t even complain to the department chair about not getting the course relief that I’m supposed to get as vice chair for the BME department, as I’m the one who puts together the curriculum leave plan and I assigned myself the load—we needed the course relief money to cover the instructors we were hiring for other courses, and there wasn’t enough left to unload any of my courses. (The program chair and undergraduate director position, which is easily three times the work of the vice chair position, does not get any course relief.)

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