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Unwarranted weeding October 16, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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Sadly, this isn’t a post on gardening whatever you may think of the title.

It’s advising week, meaning students must check in with their advisors and get permission for their courses next semester.  I usually have a couple students who come to me for help either because their advisor isn’t familiar with all the requirements or because they aren’t terribly helpful.

This week, however, I had another interesting reason for a student needing extra help: their advisor was basically trying to talk them into switching majors.  I thought this interesting because this student hasn’t even completed their first semester yet, and from my observation, they are a pretty good student.  So why would their advisor tell them to start thinking about alternative career paths?

Once I started talking to this student, they explained that they were in precalc instead of calc, so the argument was that they were going to be behind because they wouldn’t be able to start taking some of their major classes by the second semester of their sophomore year.  This seemed like a weak argument, so I began discussing things with the student further.  Unfortunately, that just made me more upset.

The student was in precalc because, on the math placement exam, they were one point short of being placed into calculus.  The test has a hard cut-off.  This is a different scenario in my mind than a student who placed into precalc versus trig (the next class down) by one point.  Second, this student knows a bit about engineering because both parents are also engineers.

Probably what upset me the most was that this student is not your typical 18-year-old white male that represents about 90% of the students I have.  I don’t know that this played into the discussion (as in, I honestly think that the only consideration prompting this discussion was the student’s math placement), but I would think that there would actually be more of an effort to retain such a student.

My personal feeling is that student placement is, at least in part, due to circumstances of their schooling.  “Weeding” students out based on that parameter is not a smart idea as there are a lot of bright kids who come from rural schools and don’t have either advanced classes or highly competent teachers.  If a student gets to college and is really struggling in their courses after a semester or two, that’s a different story, and then I think it might be healthy to talk with the student about switching majors.  Or maybe they will decide to change majors of their own accord.  Either way, I think they need the opportunity to prove that they’re capable before you try to push them out.  You may lose a lot of students who don’t belong in the program, but you’re also going to push out some people who are very bright and capable.

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A totally subjective ranking of socially clueless people by career October 15, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, geology, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I have no data to back this up.  However if someone has the time and inclination, I’d love for them to get some and validate my hypothesis.  I’m assuming the Autism Spectrum Quotient would be a good place to start.

There is a noticeable difference in the general cluelessness of people, and of science and engineering types in general.  I’ve been pondering, however, if anyone has done a serious study of this phenomena and provided a ranking system.  This might come in handy for non-sciency people, especially relatives.

I’m going to postulate a ranking, but please feel free to give me some feedback as to where you think this system falls down.  And again, data is gold.

So the following are ordered from most to least clueless:

  1. Physicists and mathematicians (and I’m sure they hate having to be in a group with another group)
  2. Electrical engineers and economists (I’m just throwing in the economists because while I’ve noticed they aren’t socially clueless, there are a number who may as well be given the way they act)
  3. Mechanical engineers and computer scientists
  4. chemists and geophysicists (the problem with geophysicists is that there’s a huge standard deviation ranging from geologists to physicist…and a heavy dependency on how much alcohol they’ve consumed)
  5. Biologists and manufacturing engineers
  6. Civil engineers and soil scientists
  7. Geologists (because they always bring the alcohol)

So what do you think?

Students finding their direction June 23, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, geophysics, physics, research, teaching.
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The younger son’s birthday was this week, and we opted to host a pool party at a local hotel.  (IMO, pool parties are the best for the elementary school age group: they keep themselves busy and then go home exhausted.)  I was checking in when I noticed a young man standing at the other end of the counter.  He looked familiar, so I asked if I knew him.

“I took your class last fall.”

“Oh great!  How did the rest of the school year go for you?”

“Great.  I actually switched to business and am really liking it.”

“Really?  Why did you switch?”

“I just figured I liked business a lot better.”

“That’s why they have you take those early major classes – so that you find out you don’t like it before you get too far into it.”

I think the poor kid thought I would be mad that he had switched.  But I wasn’t mad at all.  If he feels like he’d be better off in a different major, then he ought to go for it.  And that is part of what I’m trying to set out in the class – this is what engineers do.  If it doesn’t look fun, then you ought to think about a different major.  That’s a perfectly valid choice, and no one should judge a student for it.

(Yeah, I know…I sit here and wring my hands because older son gets these obnoxiously high scores in math and science but wants to be a writer…I’m one to talk.)

But seriously, I actually think it’s sort of silly to make students choose a major really early on in school.  I think it’s a good idea to try to take a lot of classes in different fields before you really choose.  I say this as someone who major hopped a lot during undergrad.  I spent some time in physics, chemistry, journalism, and graphic arts.  I finally decided that I liked physics after all, but what got me excited was geophysics.  I happened to take a geology class when I was at Caltech because I had to take a lab course, and everyone told me geology was the easiest.  Turns out, I really liked it and did very well in the course.  (Of course, later on, I found that geology feels too qualitative and prefer geophysics, so it all worked out.  On the other hand, I think I would’ve liked geology better if it had all been field courses.)  🙂

I have run into people who got upset with me for this type of thing.  I was doing research with a professor in undergrad, but I felt like the research wasn’t going well and got sort of excited about a math project that I’d seen a professor give a talk about.  I talked to that professor to see if he’d be interested in having me as a student, which he was.   When I told the other professor that I was going to work with the math professor, all hell broke loose.  (I still think I made the right choice, though, especially since the first project really never did go anywhere.)  I have yet to figure out why the first professor got upset, though, and did some petty stuff, like kicking me out of the student office (despite no one needing a spot) and having the secretary take away my mailbox.  (This was silly, BTW, as I was president of the Society of Physics Students, so she ended up giving it back to me a month later so I could get SPS mail.)

And what did this do?  Certainly reinforced that I didn’t want to work with this person, but I could also see it making a student feel like this person is representative of a particular field.  Wouldn’t you wonder if a student would not want to go into a major because of the way the professors treat him or her?  I can (and did!), and it just shows how ridiculous the whole thing was.

No, students need  some time to explore their interests and getting mad at them for not doing what you think they should do is silly.  They are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of their choices, and if a student takes my class and decides they don’t want to spend the next five to ten years of their life studying engineering, then I think they’ve learned something very important and just as valid as anything else I have to teach them.

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