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My kingdom for a tutor (not Tudor)! February 24, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, physics, science, teaching.
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I’ve been very quiet.  There’s good reason for that: prepping for new classes is a lot of work.

Specifically, I’m teaching university physics for the first time, and I have to admit that it’s very different from the other side of the (hypothetical and totally non-existent) podium.  I’m also doing it as a flipped class, which is adding an extra layer of challenge as finding good videos is a particularly large time-suck.  (No, it’s not faster than writing my own notes…but it does seem to be more effective.)  Part of the reason it’s taking so much time is that I am spending a lot of time trying to figure out exactly where my students are at.  I can definitely tell that this is a struggle for the ones who haven’t had much calc before, which is a feeling I certainly can understand as I was in the same boat when I started college.  Unfortunately, we don’t have enough tutors who can handle physics to help everyone since our enrollment is way up. Not yet, anyway.

I am loathe to assume that someone who has insufficient math is not necessarily capable of passing physics.  (After all, almost everyone I know says that you learn as much calc in physics as you do in an actual calculus class, a viewpoint which has a certain amount of merit.)  As a result, I told students who didn’t do so well on the first test that I expected them to see me for weekly appointments.  (Note: I did not *require* them to…just said I expected it.  Not sure they understood the difference, but I figured it wasn’t worth explaining as most of them showed up.)  I think they weren’t too excited about it at first, but the ones who are showing up are doing so very regularly.  Apparently word got around, though, and even students who seem to be doing fairly well have started showing up, too.  My office hours have basically turned into giant study sessions.  (I think I need to start bringing donuts.)  I had half the class show up over a two day period for the latest homework.

I personally think this is good.  I am getting a sense for the kinds of things they have difficulty with and the overall frustration level has been decreasing, at least among the students coming in for help.  In particular, getting some help with reasoning and processes is more effective when it’s coming from someone who has been doing this stuff for a long time.  I’m tickled when they come in and automatically start doing the stuff I’ve been drilling them on (‘draw your free body diagram and then sum your forces!’) without any prompting.  I also never realized how much homeschooling my kids would come in handy: when you’ve supervised all grade levels of math, you end up picking up lots of handy tricks to make life easier.  I’m now able to pass those tidbits on to my students to help remedy some of the common computational issues I’ve run into.

I did tell them, however, that they better be prepared: next year, I will be teaching more classes, so they need to sign up to tutor the incoming freshman.  A couple of them laughed.  I don’t think they realized that I’m serious.

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Mercurial biology text October 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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Younger son was reading through some biology homework when he suddenly pipes up, “Mom!  Did you know you need mercury in your blood?”

I was of course quite shocked at his proclamation because that just didn’t make any sense.  I asked him to read me the sentence.  It said something about how the blood’s pressure needs to remain at xx (where xx is some number I don’t remember) mmHg.  “And Hg is mercury!”

While I can see where he would get that impression, this instigated a long conversation about how we measure air pressure.  It also made me wonder why they don’t bother explaining units before they start using them. I suppose it may be because they don’t think like younger kids, who could easily read something into it that an adult would never have thought of.

I’m just glad he thought to mention it before he went and got a hold of some mercury.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

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.

 

Conversations with the kid February 25, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science, Uncategorized, younger son.
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Younger son: “I don’t care if Tesla was smarter than you, I still love you.”

Me: “But he was only just a bit smarter, right?”

Younger son: “Nope.  He was a lot smarter.  You just do physics.”

Me: “I also do electrical engineering.”

Younger son: “Oh.”  *wanders off to kitchen*

Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid.

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.

Friday Fun: Things you can microwave July 17, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, homeschooling, science, younger son.
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Most people are familiar with the concept of microwaving a grape to make an arc.  If not, the procedure is very simple: cut a grape in half but leave just a small bit of skin to connect to the two halves.  Put the grape on a plate in the microwave, turn it on, and watch the sparks fly.  (As a side note, I’ve been able to replicate this on a smaller scale when microwaving green beans.)  This video explains it fairly clearly:

This week, we discovered another fun microwaving activity: soap.  I can’t be just any soap: it specifically has to be Ivory soap.  Apparently it gets hot and the gas bubbles expand causing it to create a hot foam which grows fairly quickly.  You can’t do it with other soaps, however, because they’re too hard and will explode.

We used a whole bar of soap with our experiment, but the younger son told us later that the demo he saw only used a smaller chunk.  Be careful after you pull it out of the microwave: it’s hot!  Also, once it’s cooled, you can use the soap, although it may be more useful to stick it into a soap sleeve than try to use it directly.

It looked like this when we were finished:

Ivory soap that has just been microwaved.

Ivory soap that has just been microwaved.

 

To see the whole process, the video is here.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Space CRAFTS! July 14, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, science, teaching.
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