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It’s working! Bwahahaha! July 18, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, grad school, research.
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I really try not to let myself post too many blog posts when I’m overly tired.  Usually this results in a post that is only semi-coherent and riddled with grammatical and spelling errors.  (The other day on Facebook, I intended to write “more likely” but it came out “morely like”…which is a sure sign of sleep deprivation.)

However, I’m rather excited that after months of trying to deal with my bad programming, the compiler not being overly friendly with my code, and some sort of conspiracy between my compiler and the communications protocol on one of the computer clusters, I am running some code for real now.  (Not just in debug mode!)

To celebrate, I am going to sleep as soon as I’m done with this post.  I sure now how to live it up, don’t I?

(Official notice: spelling and grammatical errors have not been approved by this poster but will likely show up anyway.  Especially wierd ones.)

Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.

It’s amazing what I can get done when I’m not at work July 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, personal, research, writing, younger son.
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I never thought I’d be thankful for my child being sick.  I suppose I should as it means he’s acquiring another immunity.

I’m guessing the younger son had West Nile.  At least, the symptoms were consistent with West Nile, and it showed up a couple days after his daycare took the kids to a nearby state park to swim.  Swimming hole = mosquitoes = contagion.  The younger boy is usually pretty healthy, but it was obvious he was pretty sick this time.  He spent two days solid watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, eating jello and yogurt, and sleeping.

I constantly had a thermometer in my hand.  The worst was reading temps of 103.5°F, because then I had to convince myself that it was really better not to give him Tylenol.  See, the kid wouldn’t sleep unless I let his fever run up, and I know from past experience that you’ve got to let them hit that spike or it just drags out for days.  It seemed to work because less than 24 hours after we initially discovered he was sick, his fever dropped down in to the below 101°F range.  Yesterday, which was 48 hours after we found out he was sick, he was going stir crazy and taking Mike and myself with him.

In the meantime, I was stuck at home, and it was the probably some of the best uninterrupted time I’ve had in months to work on my dissertation.  This resulted in a big jump forward, at least from my perspective.  In that time, I learned how to use the debugger and managed to fix a couple major issues with my code.  On top of that, I managed to finish a fictional novel I’ve been reading for the last six months.  (Yeah, I know…)  I even spent some time doing some fun writing of my own (though obviously not the blog).

I also was asked to take care of a rescue dog for a couple days.  He’s a very sweet boy, but he makes Gigadog look tiny.  (Maybe we should call him Teradog?)  I’ll probably be picking him up tomorrow, so I’ll try to get some pics up.  (Depends on how busy he keeps me.)  I think we’ve decided to call him Rainier, since he’s huge as a mountain.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he and Gigadog get along well.

Musings on research June 13, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, grad school, papers, research, science.
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I made an interesting observation today.  It’s funny that I should’ve noticed this before, but I didn’t.

I have finally come to the realization that the question, “How’s your research going?” is really a euphemism for, “How long until you’ve finished your PhD?”  I’m not sure why it didn’t hit me before.  My usual response to the question is to ask ‘which research?’ because I work in two totally different areas of research, both of which I find pretty fascinating.  I thought the person asking the question was actually interested in what I was doing.

Nope.  I realized today that they always say, “Why, your PhD work, of course!”  And, when it comes down to it, only a handful of people who ask really are interested in the research itself.  Most are just interested in how close that completion date is.

The reason I should’ve realized this before is because my husband got the question all the time.  It didn’t occur to me until this line of thought became clear that once he’d graduated, people started asking, “How’s work?”  (And usually, they aren’t interested in his research, either.)

If there isn’t a PhD comic strip devoted to this topic yet, there ought to be.

—–

I got scooped.  (A work related project – not my dissertation.)  It was a small side project that I’d worked on here and there but had really not had any significant time to commit to.  I’d gotten started on it and looked at things here and there.  In part, I was waiting for someone else to finish some of his software development.  (Of course, he was laid off earlier this year…so I imagine I’ll be waiting a while.)

Anyway, I am kicking myself because I obviously had a good idea (given someone else published exactly. the. same. thing.), but there was just no time to flesh it out.  Did I make the right choice by focusing on other things or did I miss the boat?  On the other hand…hey!  I had a good idea.    I, of course, have a couple of ideas of things that can be done based on the original project, but it’s disappointing that I won’t have the paper that gives the original idea.  Of course, at the rate that particular project is going (because it’s so low priority…just some ideas I had playing around in the lab), I’m not sure I’ll ever get those other papers out.

This makes me wonder…is it good to focus on the ‘next big thing’?  Or should one keep trying to work on those little things in the meantime?  How do you prioritize?  I think I made the right decision…but it’s easy to second-guess yourself.

thinking work June 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, research, solar physics.
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I have to give a presentation next week and older son took off for the summer, so between getting slides together and getting stuff and people shuttled to the airport, it was a rather busy weekend.  There was some code I wanted to work on but didn’t have the chance.

It’s funny, though, because I was still thinking about it, and I actually think I made good progress on a plan of action.  I realized I had three options: fix it, rewrite it, or throw my hands up in despair and give up. (Okay…last one is very low on the list of possibilities, but I can’t say it’s non-existent…there have been days.)  I’m not sure I can fix it, but I have an idea of how to go about doing it.  It’s a piece of code without commenting, but I know what it’s supposed to do, and I have an awesome ‘cookbook’ of numerical algorithms that explains it.  (Need a spline written in a jiffy….I’m your woman!)  I also suspect that in the process of trying to fix it, I’ll figure out a way to rewrite it a bit more efficiently, likely with less effort than fixing it will take.  And I planned out how I can verify everything, as well.

While I didn’t have much time to work on it directly, I got my resources together and know what I’m going to do so I can hit it first thing after work tomorrow.  I wonder if I made more progress by spending my ‘off’ time thinking about it than if I’d just dived in.  I guess I should know in a couple days.  But it’s funny how stepping away from something and letting your mind idle on it can result in something worthwhile.

Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.

It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship.  I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student.  However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog.  If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.

The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading.  Read journals in your field.  Look at what interests you.  Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading.  And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles.  Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you.  If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years.  (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)

The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this.  Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t.  (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.)  However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work.  My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas.  I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own.  On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.

Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested).  You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project.  If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor.  It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate.  Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating.  (Yes, it does happen.)

The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it.  Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.

Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.

If I didn’t need a job, I’d probably… April 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, work.
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I am always amused when listening to people talk about what they’d do if they didn’t have to work.  I sort of found out for myself: I’d probably work.

I had a couple years as a stay-at-home mom, where I primarily was homeschooling the older child.  I also had a stint doing it when he was a toddler.  I sometimes fantasize about staying home with the younger boy, who would be much easier to homeschool than the older boy was.

Then my husband reminds me that’s not a good idea: I was pretty much going batty by the end of it.

I bring this up because Nicoleandmaggie posted about this, saying boredom would be a problem.  Oh, was it ever.  I cannot spend all day at home with a child.  Believe it or not, I had nearly a spotless house (you’d die laughing if you saw my house now), was taking care of getting kids to appointments, homeschooling, even working on an MSEE part-time…

And going completely nuts.

I really immersed myself in dancing during this period because it was one of the best ways to interact with other adults outside of school.  Unfortunately, regular training, teaching classes, and spending time outside of structured dance time did nothing to help the boredom.  It kept me busy, but not stimulated.  My classes (which I was doing pretty much one per semester) were about all that kept me sane.

The year the older boy hit middle school, he decided he wanted to go to public school full time, and I decided it was time to finish my MA.  My dancing dropped off significantly, I was working on teaching or research or homework almost every night.  And I was much, much happier.

I guess what that made me realize is that I really, really need to have intellectual stimulation, and reading Scientific American just isn’t enough to do it for me.  I like working on problems, figuring things out, working towards a goal.  If I were to win the lotto, I suspect I would just keep doing the same thing, probably by funding my own research.  (Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to find someone to pay you to do it?)  I think the biggest difference is that I’d probably be able to go on trips more often.

Let me drop everything and work on YOUR problem March 23, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, grad school, work.
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I appreciate the fact that I have very respectful and polite colleagues.  I particularly appreciate it when it comes to my schedule.  I only work half-time, and most of them have been very good about making sure to schedule things for when I am there.  On those occasions where things had to be scheduled when I was supposed to be gone, my supervisor has usually asked me first to make sure there’s no conflict.  My hours are pretty flexible, as well, so if I have to stay late one day, I can take time off the following day or something similar.

Still, I hate having things change around too much.  Changes in schedule seriously seem to affect my concentration, and changes in routine just don’t sit well with me.  I can certainly deal, but it always seems to throw me off.

In the past month and a half, things have gotten much worse, schedule-wise.  I’ve had to do a lot of changing schedules because of some PR that the university has been doing both on my research at work as well as my dissertation project.  I have gotten to the point that I now am dressing up half the time when I go to work because, more than once, I’ve gotten a call in the morning that they’d like me to talk to a reporter or in the afternoon.  Half the time, I wasn’t even dressed like a nerdy engineer – t-shirt and jeans was it.  It’s a good thing I live close to campus because I’ve had to make emergency wardrobe trips.  However, despite all of the rearrangements, if I’ve said I had a conflict, no one has ever asked me to change anything.  People have been willing to work around my schedule, which has been awesome.

The only real problem I hit is when deadlines show up.  If the deadline is looming but not close enough that I can adjust a schedule for the week, that sometimes sucks time out of dissertation work (although I am getting more and more protective of that as time goes on, simply because it’s so easy to let it slide).  What’s worse is when there are deadlines at work and the kids suddenly have a million and one extra activities as well.  And I really hate it when someone gives me ‘vague’ deadlines, like “as soon as humanly possible”.  I usually tell them what is humanly possible for me, but I suspect that on a couple of occasions, they felt as though they could do the same thing faster.  It’s possible they could…but it’s also possible that, if they had the same schedule constraints I do, they might not.  As cliche as it is, I go back to Stephen Covey’s 7 habits book.  In it, he says he schedules everything out, and if someone drops something in your lap, you ask them what other thing you should get rid of to fit in this deadline.  (Maybe it’s surprising, but my supervisor is very open to shifting priorities when it’s necessary.  Other people…not so much.)

How do you deal with shifts in schedule and sudden deadlines?

The Brain Drain March 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
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Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.

Image

My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it.  In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)

When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so.  First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.  (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.)  Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.

People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state.  The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them.  The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state.  The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them.  I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state.  On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate.  And we won’t even talk about research.  The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?

I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning.  I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school.  I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here.  And why should I, when I could go someplace better?

If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening.  Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world.  There were companies in town doing engineering.  There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree.  And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.

In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering.  However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide.  The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO.  If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do.  Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses.  Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers.  The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.

Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state.  Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible.  Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere.  So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state.  (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)

My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story.  I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.

Scientist, with kids February 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, family, feminism, grad school, homeschooling, older son, personal, physics, research, science, societal commentary.
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FSP has a post asking about the Local Mom Effect.  That is, she wonders if being in a department with more women professors who have kids affects the outlook of younger women in the field.  I find this post interesting…but also, I hate to say it, irrelevant.

Let’s put it this way: what women?!

When I started school at Caltech, I knew of two women professors out of all of math, physics, and astronomy.  I only ever met one of them, knew she had no kids. I knew nothing about the other professor.  When I decided to go back to school a few years later, I ended up in a physics dept. where the professors were all men.  Later, I ended up in an electrical engineering department where the professors were all men.

I guess that, in my mind, the notion of being one of the few women in the department was no different than being one of the few women with kids in the department.  When I went back to school, I had a kid already, so it wasn’t like I really had a choice about whether or not to be a childless woman in physics or engineering.

I will say that when I originally got pregnant as an undergrad at Caltech, I was told by my advisor that women couldn’t do calculus while pregnant and that I should drop out.  Of course, he was a guy, so I seriously doubted he understood how women’s brains work while pregnant.  (And it turns out that I can do calculus great while pregnant…I just can’t speak a full sentence coherently.)  However, I guess I never took it as a message that women with kids don’t belong in science…I inferred that he meant it more personally, and that I myself was not a good fit for science.  (Fortunately, major hopping got boring after a while, I ended up back in physics.)

When I went back to school, however, I felt that being the only woman or one of a few was very advantageous for several reasons.  First, if I was the only woman or one of a very small number, I was already an oddity.  A woman with kids is probably not much more odd than a woman without, and there was really no one to compare myself to (or say that I was doing it wrong).  Second, I went back to school in North Dakota, and it really seems like people here more or less expect you to have kids no matter what you’re doing.  I know that grates on some people, but for me, it was a blessing: having kids is just another part of life, and most people here learn to do their jobs while having them.  (Also, I can’t recall anyone having a fit if I said I couldn’t make it to something because of kid-related issues.)  Third, I was older than the average undergraduate or even grad student, so I think people assumed that it was pretty normal for someone my age to have kids.  The fact that the younger students didn’t have kids was simply a function of age and never made me feel self-conscious that I did have kids.  Finally, when I started my MS, my advisor was fine with the fact that I was homeschooling the older boy and would only be doing my degree part-time.  He said this was really no different than other students in the department who were working full-time and pursing their degree part-time, as well.

I have been told, especially when doing my PhD classes, that it was “really cool to see a woman in science with kids”, especially by some fellow grad students.  Until I started my PhD, I really hadn’t expected it to be a big deal.  It had never occurred to me that I might be a “role model”…but I keep hearing it more than I ever expected to. I also suspect it’s because I often had kids with me or family issues that were more apparent to fellow grad students.  Many professors try to maintain a more professional relationship with their students, and it doesn’t surprise me that many grad students don’t see how having kids affects the lives of the professors or that they don’t realize some professors have kids at all.

Realistically, I only got here because I didn’t really know that what I was doing was unusual in any way.  If I had been surrounded by women who had kids but never let it on or didn’t have kids, I might have felt self-conscious about being a mom already.  With no one to compare to, however, I just assumed that it wasn’t any more abnormal than a woman without kids.

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