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2016 July 30

UCSC iGem 2016: Sugar Slugs

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UCSC’s 2016 iGEM team has finally had their crowd-funding site go live at https://crowdfund.ucsc.edu/project/2548.  They have an interesting project this year:

Engineering a Better Future

The world of crop production is laden with agricultural co-products that are unfit for human consumption. The vision of the UCSC iGEM team is to develop a novel process for converting these co-products into the high-value sweetener, Erythritol. It’s simple, sweet, and best of all, zero-calorie.

Ever wanted a bioreactor you can control at the click of a button? Our team is also designing and building our very own autonomous bioreactor, the Taris V1. Whether its temperature, pH, nutrient uptake, or beyond, our bioreactor will also monitor and feed its internal conditions into an online interface where users can seamlessly track their data and change conditions as they see fit. Talk about convenience.

With its low cost and ease-of-use, we hope our Taris V1 bioreactor can serve as a platform for other teams across the globe to create innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Source: UC Santa Cruz | UCSC iGem 2016: Sugar Slugs

I don’t know much about what they are doing for the metabolic engineering to make the erythritol, but the bioreactor project is a rather fun “maker” project.

They have posted their budget on-line, and by far the largest cost is getting to the iGEM “Jamboree” in Boston in October. All the lab equipment is provided by UCSC (except the bioreactor they are designing and building), and all the student labor is free (in fact, they are paying summer tuition in order to take the iGEM course). So they have about $1000 for hardware, <$200 for reagents, and $31,300 for travel to the conference.  I think that they’ve over-estimated the price of flying to Boston, though, as Southwest flights are currently about $320 round-trip, and ground transportation at each end would probably add only about $200 to that, so 21 people  (20 undergrads and 1 instructor) should be able to do the travel part for under $11,000.  They’ve probably underestimated the lodging costs though, unless they are planning to pack like sardines into an AirBNB rental.

I’ve been thinking of going to the iGEM conference myself this year (on my own money, not crowd-funded), as I’ll be on sabbatical in October, and not teaching. I’ll have to make up my mind soon, though, as the cheap flight prices will probably go away.

I’ll be giving the iGEM team some money for their crowd-funding campaign, as it would be valuable for all of them to be able to attend the conference after the work they’ve put in—I know many of the students on the team this year, and they are the hard-working students that teachers love to have in their classes.

I urge others to make at least a token donation, to let them know that the hard work they are doing is recognized by the community.  Donations can be made through the UCSC crowd-funding site.

Disclaimer: I’m officially the “2nd PI” for the iGEM team this year, because the iGEM organization insisted on there being two faculty involved. I’ve done some advising on the bioreactor project also, though only through a few conversations with the lead designer on that team (who was also my group tutor for my applied electronics course in the spring).

2016 July 17

ABET accreditation

On Fri, Apr 29, 2016, a parent on the [hs2coll] mailing list wrote:

I think the main thing is that the program is ABET certified.

Indeed one of the most frequently asked question by parents of prospective students at UCSC recruiting events is whether our engineering programs are accredited by ABET.

Unfortunately, certification by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. is somewhat overrated. Its importance varies a lot between fields in engineering—in some fields (like civil engineering) it is absolutely essential, while in other fields (like computer science and bioengineering) it is pretty much irrelevant. Fields that expect engineers to have professional licenses are generally more interested in ABET certification.

At a small, little-known school, having ABET accreditation may be some guarantee of  having at least a minimal set of courses, but at a large research university, all it means is that the faculty were willing (or coerced) to slog through endless paperwork. I think that ABET accreditation may actually be a bad sign in newer fields, because faculty are unwilling to tinker with and improve the curriculum if they have to be sure not violate any of the arbitrary criteria of the accreditation process, which tends to be based on 2-decade-old views of what is important.

The ABET certification process is incredibly bureaucratic. It took the computer engineering program at UCSC about 2 faculty-years of effort to do the paperwork the first time they got accreditation, and a quarter to half that every 6 years for renewal.  The Computer Engineering Department at UCSC is considering not renewing their ABET accreditation, because they can’t afford to take that much time away from teaching, and the computer industry cares very little about ABET—they care more about what new employees can do and whether they have up-to-date training, not whether they have met a lot of bureaucratic requirements.

There is some value in the ABET process, as it forces as detailed look at every course in the curriculum, making sure that the faculty have examined the interfaces between classes as well as thorough documentation of each course.  This detailed examination of the curriculum can result in improvements—filling gaps or removing unneeded duplication that faculty were not aware of. But for that desirable outcome, most of the faculty must see the analysis of the curriculum as valuable and be willing to modify their courses to improve the curriculum.  This was the case when the computer engineering department first applied for ABET accreditation and justified the enormous amount of faculty effort.  (Also engineering at UCSC was very new at that time, and ABET accreditation was important for establishing that computer engineering was a real engineering program.)

The bioengineering program has decided not to seek ABET accreditation, because it is far too much paperwork for far too little value—most of our students seek jobs in the biotech industry, who hire mainly biologists and are almost unaware of ABET. In any event, the bioengineering major at UCSC would have to be broken up into 3 or 4 different majors to get ABET accreditation, because each of the concentrations would fall under a different ABET category.

With thirteen different departments providing required courses for the curriculum, most of whom regard the bioengineering program as belonging to someone else (even some of the departments that own the program!), it would be almost impossible to get the level of faculty cooperation and enthusiasm to do a proper analysis of the curriculum. Furthermore, because many of the courses are designed for some other program (biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, electrical engineering, robotics, psychology, … ), improvements in the courses to fit better into the bioengineering curriculum are unlikely to happen.  Thus the accreditation exercise would be unproductive as well as tedious.

That is not to say that our curriculum doesn’t get examined carefully, just that the examination does not involve all the faculty and produce hundreds of pages of documentation, as required by ABET. We are always looking for ways to make our program better, to improve our 4-year graduation rate, and to compensate for changes in content or prerequisites in courses currently required. The 2014–15 catalog introduced a huge overhaul of the bioengineering program, but every year sees some tweaks. (Incidentally, ABET does not approve of such large curricular changes—they value stability over innovation.)

The bottom line is that ABET accreditation is not the guarantee of quality that some parents have been lead to believe it is, and many modern engineering departments might be well advised to forego ABET accreditation.

 

MRC’s beauty spot revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:25
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In MRC’s beauty spot, five years ago, I commented on the temporary staging area set up by Chancellor MRC Greenwood around 2000, and how it seems to have become a permanent blight on the Great Meadow. I took pictures of it again last month—it seems to be becoming more permanent, with no indication that UCSC administration will ever restore the damage done to the Meadow.

They have broken up the staging area into 4 parking lots, cleverly numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4:

Lot 1 is contractor parking only.

Lot 1 is contractor parking only.

Lot 2 was contractor parking, but has been turned into student parking.

Lot 2 was contractor parking, but has been turned into student parking.

Lot 3 is for contractor parking, but seems to be used for storage as well.

Lot 3 is for contractor parking, but seems to be used for storage as well.

Another view of Lot 3, showing more random storage and trailers.

Another view of Lot 3, showing more random storage and trailers.

Lot 4 is labeled for student parking, but also has buses and storage containers.

Lot 4 is labeled for student parking, but also has buses and storage containers.

Lot 4 seems to be used for storage of buses and storage containers, as well as parking.

Lot 4 seems to be used for storage of buses and storage containers, as well as parking.

Another view of Lot 4.

Another view of Lot 4.

After about 15 years of “temporary” construction staging, I think it is long past time for UCSC to either decide that this parking lot is permanent and construct it properly (with lighting, shade trees, pavement that will last, and similar amenities) or clean it up and restore the land underneath as was originally promised.

UCSC has suffered a lot from MRC Greenwood’s mistakes (like taking on lots of extra students on the theory that the resources would catch up), but this particular problem is fixable.

2016 May 26

Not so proud of UCSC undergrads this year

Last year I wrote a post, I’m proud of UCSC undergrads, in which I praised UCSC undergrads for rejecting a fee to subsidize the approximately 250 Division III athletes on campus:

  • Measure 62. Athletics Operations Enhancement Fee: Shall the undergraduates of UCSC provide funding for the operations for Intercollegiate Athletics by implementing a compulsory fee of $117 per student, per quarter, starting in the fall of 2015? FAILED: 60.33% No, 39.67% Yes.

This year, I’m not so proud of the students. After enduring an unrelenting propaganda barrage by the athletics staff, the students voted on an opinion poll that just allows them to vote on a fee measure next year:

Would you support a new student fee of approximately $90 per quarter ($270 per year) to retain the current NCAA Athletics program at UC Santa Cruz?
Votes Percent
Yes 3976 63.53%
No 2282 36.47%
Total Turnout 6258 40.89%

[http://deanofstudents.ucsc.edu/elections/]

On other parts of the ballot, the students voted overwhelmingly to support fees for maintaining the Office of Physical Education, Recreation, and Sports (OPERS) facilities (about 80% in favor of each of two measures), which I approve of—these are facilities open to all students and which encourage students to participate in physical activity, both individual exercise and social team sports.

I’m not so happy with their theoretical support for subsidizing elite athletes—I have no patience for spectators—sports should be something students do, not pay to watch other people do. In the past UCSC students understood this distinction, with the result that intramurals were far more important to students than interscholastic sports.  When I came to UCSC, 30 years ago, there were no NCAA Division III teams—all sports were intramurals or club sports, and students recognized that participation in sports was something one did for pleasure (and paid for, if needed), not something that was a “service” or for the benefit of others.

It makes sense for students to pool their money to pay for services and facilities that many will use, but not to pay for coaches, trainers, and separate locker rooms for the varsity teams (who make up less than 2% of the student body).

I have been bothered by the Admistration’s $1 million a year subsidy for NCAA athletics for the past couple of years (and for next year). That money could have paid lecturers for about 100 more courses, benefiting several thousand students who can’t get into the courses they need.

I was very bothered by the Academic Senate’s response to this boondoggle, actually encouraging the Administration to continue pouring money into something that really has no reason for existing at UCSC, when basic needs like adequate classroom space and sufficient faculty and TAs to reduce classroom sizes are not being funded.

Oh, well, maybe the students will come to their senses when the athletes actually ask for money next year, as they have done in prior years.

(All that said, the UCSC student elections look much more reasonable than the dysfunctional student government at UCSB, which seems to consist almost entirely of political infighting, if the UCSB student newspapers are to be believed.)

 

2015 December 24

Sports At Any Cost

In November 2015, Huffington Post had an article, Sports At Any Cost, about the ridiculous amounts some colleges are spending on intercollegiate athletics:

A river of cash is flowing into college sports, financing a spending spree among elite universities that has sent coaches’ salaries soaring and spurred new discussions about whether athletes should be paid. But most of that revenue is going to a handful of elite sports programs, leaving colleges like Georgia State to rely heavily on students to finance their athletic ambitions.

They included a list of some of the most outrageous subsidies in collegiate sports, where the college is pouring millions of dollars into propping up their semi-pro athletic departments—money extorted from the students (student fees) or diverted from educational purposes (“institutional support”).  Note: these figures aren’t for intramurals or recreational facilities used by all students—just for the team athletics.

Some of the worst offenders are state schools.  For example, University of California, Riverside comes 7th on their list, with 87% of the athletics budget being subsidized ($67 million out of $76 million for a 4-year period), with 32% of that being student fees and 68% being institutional support. This comes to each student paying (through fees and diverted general funds) about $3656 over four years to support the UCR athletic teams.

The measure they sorted on (percentage of the athletics budget that is subsidized) is not the right one—what matters more is the subsidy per student.  If the athletics budget is tiny, it doesn’t matter if it is 100% subsidized, just as other entertainments on campus are subsidized at low levels.  What matters is the subsidy per student, by which measure UC Davis is doing even worse than UCR with a subsidy of $114million out of $144million (79%), or $4411 per student.  Other UCs on the list include UCSB ($3171/student), UCB ($1852), and UCI ($2694).

UCSC doesn’t make the list, because we have no Division I teams.  There has been some institutional subsidy of our Division III athletics (I estimate under $100/student), but that was a one-time administrative grant to give the athletics department a chance to convince the students to assess themselves a fee to support the teams.  So far the students have wisely resisted this, though they have been supportive of fee measures that support all students (not just elite athletes).  The fee that the athletics department tried to get passed was $117/quarter, which would be a subsidy of $1404 over 4 years—less that many of the other UCs but still far more than the entertainment value of the sports teams. I suspect that if the Office of Physical Education, Recreation, and Sports had floated a fee measure to increase the intramural program, buy more recreational sports equipment, or fund more surfing and scuba classes, the students would have passed it—it isn’t an aversion to the activities, but to the subsidy of a few “elite athletes” that is anathema to UCSC students.

I’m hopeful that UCSC will exit Division I this year, returning to having only club sports (as they did when I first came to UCSC) and intramurals, in which all students can participate.

I have spent significant time on  sports-mad campuses (I was an undergrad at Michigan State and a grad student at Stanford), and I’m convinced that UCSC has a much healthier attitude towards sports and exercise than those colleges. The value of sports in college is in the exercise and practice at cooperating in teams, which is best done by maximizing the participation (intramurals) rather than by subsidizing a small number of elite athletes as entertainers.

 

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