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The first week September 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, work.
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I finished my first week teaching in my new institution, and I have to say it was very strange.

I started college at a small university, but it had twice as many graduate students as undergrads, and it was in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  While the campus wasn’t huge, it was relatively busy.  I finished my undergrad at a mid-size state school, but the department I was in was tiny.  I had very small upper-level classes but most of my generals were in very large classes, one even having about 500 students. For my MS, I switched to one of the largest departments, which was a jolt.  While my classes weren’t huge (15-20 per class in the grad program), there were a lot of people around and pace and flavor of the department was far less intimate.  There were people in the building nearly 24 hours. For the PhD, I was in a very large state university in a big city but in a small department.  Even so, my classes typically had at least 20 people in them.  At all of these places, it seemed like, at least during the school year, the pace was hectic and there were a lot of people always around.  I always felt like I was busy.

Now I’m in a new department (I’m one of two faculty) in a small liberal arts college in a small town.  The feel is completely different.  The classes are smaller, and the students always seem to be off at class.  The campus quad is usually quiet, unlike the last place (the really big university in the middle of city).  At the big school, people would eat lunch while listening to the Christian hippy-looking fellow standing on a ladder in front of the library, preaching fire and brimstone or playing inspirational music and singing slightly out of tune.  Other students would be playing frisbee or football.  Now I mostly see people walking from one building to the other (usually on the sidewalks!), with the occasional line coming out of the student center because everyone decided to grab lunch at the same time.

While I’m kind of surprised by the quietness, I am also enjoying the lack of everything feeling so hectic.  My colleagues generally seem to be laid back, the students are mostly pleasant and polite.  Everyone is getting things done, but no one seems to be running around all frantic and the campus doesn’t feel like a beehive.

Of course, it’s early in the semester; I’ll have to revisit this train of thought in December.

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Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.

 

Meet the old math, same as the new math January 22, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, younger son.
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The younger son is beginning adventures in algebra, and I had a hard decision to make.  He’d been using computer-based programs to learn math, but Mike and I decided we didn’t want to go that route any longer.  I had spent a lot of time looking into curriculum with the older son, so I already had a textbook available (Jacob’s Elementary Algebra), and it’s one that has received excellent reviews.

It’s also 37 years old.  Apparently there’s a newer edition, but that’s not the one I bought.

I had one concern with using this book.  A lot of the standards surrounding math curriculum have changed and become standardized.  There are a lot of texts available that have been evaluated and measure up to those standards.  I was worried that by going with an older book, I was going to shortchange the younger son in his education.  (I think that’s something almost every homeschool parent worries about.)  The problem with a lot of the modern curricula, though, is that  I really don’t like it.  While I think the sciences generally benefit from taking a problem-solving approach, I’m not so sure that’s the best way to do it with math.  Sure, I think there are ways to teach it more effectively, especially in terms of using active learning strategies and hands-on learning.  Reasoning is important, but so is process, and kids need to come out of the classroom very fluent in process and computation.  I’m one of those old-fashioned types that thinks you’re better off giving your kids a multiplication table than a calculator.

I had issues with one curriculum that was being used locally, for instance, because it taught division as repeated subtraction without teaching long division.  It also taught matrix math and repeated sums without teaching the standard multiplication schemes.  For those who are familiar with all the controversy over curricula and math standards, I’m sure this is old hat.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that this 37 year old book assumes that the student knows long division and standard multiplication.  However, in the first chapter (which is review), it introduced both matrix multiplication and repeated division as alternative methods.  Repeated division was done side by side with long division as a way to show how long division works.  However, it was not suggested as a good way to do division but to augment student understanding of long division.  Matrix multiplication was proffered as a bonus problem, but I made sure younger son understood how to do it.  I found with the older son that he was less likely to stumble on multiplication problems if he used the matrix method but would have a hard time keeping things straight with the standard method.  It’s a good tool to have in your toolbox, and I have even pulled it out when I had to do a fairly large problem by hand despite only having learned it about 10 years ago.

This left me feeling like this book was going to work just fine.  In fact, I’m rather disappointed that I didn’t get to use this book in high school.  (It was already out of print, sadly.)  Apparently, though, Amazon reviewers, internet philosophers, and other homeschooling parents really do know what they’re talking about.  Feynman may even have approved.

Adventures in high school classes January 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, science, Uncategorized, younger son.
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The younger son was very adamant that he wanted to take high school biology this year.  He wasn’t in my face about it, but whenever the question was put to him about whether he was sure he wanted to do that, he was pretty firm.

My approach to dealing with this, after seeing he was sure was, “What the hell?!”  Worst case scenario is that he fails and has to retake it in four years with his age mates.

The first couple assignments were great.  However, when he hit the second unit of the class, I started having second thoughts. It wasn’t going well.  And would failing a class leave a long term scar on his academic record?

He was worried, too, but he started asking me how he could improve things.  I noted that he started saying he needed to “study harder,” but when I asked him what he meant, he wasn’t sure.  I started giving him specific suggestions and pointers and told him that doing those things is what “study harder” meant.

I learned a few things from this experience.  First, younger son didn’t know how to study when he started this class.  To anyone who has ever dealt with a bright kid, you’ll identify this as a common problem.  It’s hard for kids to learn how to study when the subject matter they’re tackling is relatively easy and doesn’t require the type of effort that a seriously challenging class does…or any other life obstacle.  I think we’re all convinced this was a good experience in that regard.  Second, I’m probably more worried about his grades than I thought, but I think I’m managing not to be a helicopter parent.  There were some assignments he submitted that he didn’t ask me to review.  Some came back with really good grades and some didn’t, but I really wanted this to be his own work.  Honestly, it’s a bit more stressful to be hands off than I thought.  I keep reminding myself that I should be celebrating a good effort instead of relatively effortless higher grade (that probably indicates he wasn’t seeing anything new).

To all of our surprise, he pulled his grade up to a B- for the first semester.  This guarantees he won’t be a straight A student in high school, but I personally think he got a lot more out of it now than if he’d taken it when he was supposed to.

Fun conversations with younger son December 16, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, science, younger son.
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Part of the fun of hanging out with my offspring for part of the day is the entertaining conversations we get to have.  When he was younger, he had some awfully adorable misconceptions that resulted in a lot of fun.  Now that he’s older, his discussions have become more sophisticated.

Younger son: “Mom, have you ever wondered how Thor’s hammer generates lightning?”

Me: “Not really.”

Younger son: “It’s Asgaardian science!”

Me: “I bet they took a giant tesla coil and shrunk it down to fit into Mjolnir.”

Younger son: “But can Tesla coils create thunder clouds?”

Me: “I don’t think so.”

Younger son: “Oh.  I suppose that’s just for dramatic effect.”

Me: “Maybe the hammer has some kind of weather control device?”

Younger son: “I bet it has something to generate static.  That’ll attract particles and cause condensation in the air.”

Me: “That might work.  It’s amazing how the Asgaard figured out how to shrink all that stuff down into a hammer, isn’t it?”

I think we need to work on doing a Mjolnir prototype for a science fair project.

World’s Worst Officemate November 23, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, homeschooling, research, science, younger son.
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I have been working at home, trying to finish up this PhD thing once and for all.  Earlier this year, the place I worked was shut down and so I figured that if I had any desire to stay in academia (which I do), the PhD thing is kind of a necessary evil.

Because of the job situation, however, I also ended up with a new officemate: my younger son.  It was actually a combination of factors: private school is expensive, middle school is a cesspool of derision and contempt (and therefore not the best place to develop social skills), and, finally, the younger son really wanted to take high school biology and no one would let him.  Except me, being the overindulgent parent I am.

I have to admit that he’s been a bit easier to deal with than his older sibling.  It’s amazing how much easier this education thing is when you’re not dealing with ADHD.  The younger son is amazingly self-sufficient and does a good job of keeping a schedule.

I have, however, discovered one major flaw in this plan.  I had no idea how much middle schoolers talked.  Mostly, he gets excited about the things he’s learning in his class, which really tickles me.  However, he wants to share everything with me.  Every. Thing.  I have learned more about genes and cell processes and reproduction in the past two months than I probably did during my own high school biology class.  I have learned about social and mental and physical health.  I am beginning to speak Spanish with a level of proficiency that has not been present since my teens.  And mostly, I see him being happy and excited about learning again.

Unfortunately, he’s not quite so receptive when I begin to talk about coding and arrays and debugging and compiler issues and, especially, writing.  I have begun, as of late, to tell him that while I’m glad he’s learning, I really need him to let me focus on my work, too.  Someday, if he has to share an office with someone, this will be good real life practice for not making them insane.  At least he’s not asking to go out every ten minutes, like the dogs.

Wilted STEM June 10, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, societal commentary.
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Earlier this year, I was accepted as a NASA Solar System Ambassador.  In this capacity, I help to promote NASA and the space exploration activities conducted by the agency.

As part of the program, people can contact you and ask you to present on a space-related topic.  I was asked earlier this spring to be a guest speaker at a STEM program for 4th-7th grade girls talking about space exploration.  The activities ranged from engineering to xenobiology, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I would’ve loved to have gone to as a kid.  Also, it’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to do as an SSA.

Unfortunately, it was cancelled.  I’m not sure what the required enrollment was, but there were not enough girls enrolled.  I find it very disappointing that there aren’t enough girls interested in space in a metropolitan area of over 200,000 to fill a program like that.  Obviously, I have my work cut out for me.

(Disclaimer: Opinions stated here are my own and not those of NASA or the SSA program.  Though I hope they are.)

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

Mom, could you homeschool me? December 15, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, younger son.
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I knew we had to do something when, early in the school year, the younger son asked me to homeschool him.  When I asked him why, there was the range of answers that included he’s not looking forward to losing recess when he gets to middle school, he’d like to spend more time with me (obviously we’re nowhere being a teenager right now), and even wanting to finish college at 14 or 15.

All I could think was, “Aren’t you supposed to be the easy one?!”

He is.  Honestly, homeschooling him would be emotionally easy, but I’m not so ready to quit everything and become a full-time mom again.  Or maybe ever.  Not sure, and hope to never find out.  The fact of matter is that he’s involved in so many activities that homeschooling him would involve me becoming a full-time chauffeur, and I know it would make me crazy.

On the other hand, he’s said he’s not sure he wants to leave school because he likes it and would miss his friends.  After several discussions, he told me:

I think I need to write a pro and con list.

In the meantime, I’ve done a list in my head.  First and foremost, he likes school.  To me, that is the prime reason to keep him there.  If he’s got a good thing going, don’t mess with it.

Beyond this, however, we’re discussing some academic acceleration for a couple subjects at school.  I honestly do think that he’s better off staying where he is, but it’s also clear that the standard curriculum is not going to cut it.  At a couple points, I contemplated whole grade acceleration, but I’m now opposed to this idea.  I spent a lot of time reading through the Iowa Acceleration Scale material, and he has a couple things going against him: he’s already one of the youngest in his class, he’s small, and he’s athletic.  Participation in sports is a major no-no if you’re going to bump kids up entire grades because this can have very real implications for the physical development and ability later on.  I’m now certain that this would be a bad idea for him, and so subject acceleration in a couple areas seems to be the best solution.  Fortunately, the school is, so far, open to discussion.

The other thing I’ve come to realize is that there’s really no hurry in getting through school.  Is it really any better to go to college early and find a job early and lose that much time from your childhood?  I realize that, for some kids, this is the only way to deal with the gap between mental ability and typical school pacing.  Or maybe they are really that driven.  I am fortunate in the fact that my kid doesn’t seem to require that level of acceleration, and I’d like to give him as much time as possible to explore his options.

I think, most of all, I want him to understand that there’s no reason to hurry up and get there, despite the fact that a lot of people think that’s somehow a sign of competence. I guess I’m starting to realize that no one really will care if he finishes high school in two years or four…just that he get there and finished.  If he finishes in four, though, there’s the opportunity to explore more interests and do other things without the stress and expectations of adulthood weighing him down.  Given the opportunity, there are a lot of other things I wish I could’ve done in my teens that aren’t an option now.  I therefore hope he understands the value of taking his time: maybe he can learn to enjoy the journey.

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