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Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

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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.

Partial perfectionism February 19, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, teaching, younger son.
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The younger son had forgotten a text book which he needed to do an assignment, so I told him that he should get done what he could and try to finish it up in the morning.

But mom…she doesn’t accept work unless it’s completely done.

She may not, I told him, but your future teachers probably will, so it’s a good habit.  At least she’ll see you made some effort on it.

There were several classes I’ve had throughout college where I didn’t complete the entire assignment.  Frankly, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or maybe I was short on time.  However, handing in 8 out of 9 problems, even if it didn’t earn me a perfect grade, certainly earned me enough to get a very high grade in almost all of my classes.

I really don’t like this policy of “it has to be completely done, and I won’t accept anything late.”  I totally get not accepting anything late, but I think the “completely done” thing is bunk.  I would rather a student put it in a thoughtful, partial attempt than not do anything at all.  The feedback I would provide as a teacher may be helpful to the student, too.

The notion of “all or nothing” feeds into perfectionism, particularly the kind that leads to paralysis and lack of motivation.  “It’s not worth it to do anything if she won’t accept incomplete work,” is the kind of mindset I grew up with.  Now that I teach, I know that every effort you make on your homework or on learning something will not be wasted effort.  Few people ever get any topic 100%, but putting in time and effort will get you closer.

I would always tell my students to put the best effort you can into your homework and then go to the teacher for help on the rest.  Teachers would rather see an effort or an attempt to solve something rather than a student who shows up empty-handed and saying, “I don’t understand.”  It’s very hard to understand how to help the student unless you can see where they’re struggling.

This is a good life skill to have, too.  Is it better to wait to clean the kitchen fully or should you at least take 10 minutes to do what you can?  Personally, I try to do what I can because I seldom have blocks of time to allow me to do things with the full depth and effort I would like.  You can make progress doing it a bit at a time.  It’ll never be as fast as you want, but it’s better to keep doing it than forget it because you can’t do it ‘right’.  Once it’s done, it doesn’t always matter how quickly you did it.

It also dissuades people from trying new things.  “Oh gee…I can’t cook crepes perfectly the first time out, so there’s really no point in trying.”  Honestly, a mangled crepe is almost always better than no crepe at all.  More importantly, you’ll learn from the experience.

I am therefore doing my best to teach my son that some effort is far better than no effort.  There are few things in life that we can do as well and fully as we like, so I want to disavow him of the notion of “all or nothing” right away.

Math is a #firstworldproblem June 1, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching.
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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about teaching when she launched into a complaint about students not understanding logarithms. The conversation became somewhat off putting because this friend fell into the trap of equating mathematical knowledge with intelligence. A lot of people do it: English majors will imply one is an idiot if one doesn’t appreciate the succinct stoicism supplied by Hemingway, for example. (And I use this example because I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism: I can’t stand Hemingway, and it was torture having to relive it when the older son was reading and explaining Old Man and the Sea for one of his classes.) Hemingway hating aside, many of us tend to use certain sets of knowledge as a reflection of intelligence, and that’s rather simplistic (and not all that intelligent of us).

The reason this particular discussion irritated me is because there is a level of classism that seems to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about mathematical literacy. While being mathematically literate is a good thing, the reality is that I’ve met very mathematically illiterate folks who were able to navigate through life with no problems. Not knowing logarithms didn’t hinder them professionally or personally. Not knowing logarithms was no indicator of their intelligence. Not knowing logarithms didn’t stop them from appreciating, or at least tolerating, Hemingway.

In my experience, math illiteracy often has a basis in background. Kids whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy often have a greater chance of both being exposed to advanced math concepts as well as being able to use such concepts more proficiently. In my classes, I’ve noticed a huge problem: kids from larger, urban schools and who aren’t minorities seem to be more likely to stick with engineering than either minority students or those from rural backgrounds. Kids who have engineers in their family are more likely to stick with it, as well. While this isn’t a surprise, and there’s been a lot of explanation as to why this is so, I suspect exposure to and comfort with math concepts is a big factor. Not only are they already feeling at a disadvantage because they are having to start farther behind their peers in the curriculum progression, they are often advised to change majors because their lack of math implies they aren’t cut out for the rigors of a technical profession. I’ve heard about this happening to my students as well as it happening to me. (I was once told that I should never have been accepted to college because I didn’t know Euler’s formula giving the trigonometric form for imaginary numbers.)

Living through those types of experiences has made me go out of my way to ensure that my kids have an excellent background in math before entering college. At the same time, because I’ve made a point to provide that level of education, I’ve become aware of many kids who don’t have those opportunities. There are a lot of bright kids who are forced to stick with grade level instruction despite the fact it’s obvious they’d benefit from acceleration. And then there are the kids for whom rigorous instruction and acceleration aren’t possible because it’s beyond their parents’ means and ability.

Back to my friend, it was hard to convince her that these kids weren’t stupid, and she seemed unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something wrong with the world that kids who don’t understand logarithms can actually go to college. I apparently couldn’t convince her that they’d be okay and maybe they just needed a bit more guidance to assimilate into the world of mathematical literacy. Perhaps we should’ve discussed literature instead.

A filtered education March 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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The older son is a lot of fun.  Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes.  I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate.  As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

I’m more anxious about the younger son, though.  This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics.  The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one.  I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing.  Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.

I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.

I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them.  The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching.  In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.

After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either.  After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.

I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake.  This was very disappointing.  There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about.  The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science.  Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking.  What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching?  And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?

Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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litmus

 

I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester.  I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project.  The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project.  After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college.  The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class.  There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.

I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is.  I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour).  I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.

I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work.  In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college.  They’re right, in a lot of cases.  I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned.  Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.

The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class.  This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum.  Do you know how to take notes?  What are the key things that are important?  Can you write a lab report?  Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!

These are the things I’m trying to teach them.  My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way.  I simply want them to get through school and graduate.  I tell them this.  It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.

I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments.  I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school.  In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate.  After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable.  It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.

I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them.  I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed.  I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.

99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement.  One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law.  Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss.  That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.

I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle.  The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand.  Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.

I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids.  (I had ONE bottle of beer.  No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.)  It worked like a charm.  If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.

If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:

The end is nigh December 1, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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Coming to the end of the semester is an unsettling thing for me.  I like to do something fun, like bring treats, although I always make sure to do that the week AFTER we’ve had evaluations.  Once someone accused me of trying to butter them up…

But beyond that, I am left with this curiosity.  I wonder how the students will do continuing on.  I wonder if anything I’ve done has helped them.  And, to be honest, I wonder if they’ll even remember the class a few years down the road…at least for something other than being the only female college instructor that many of them will encounter.

Anyway, it makes it awkward because it’s not something you can easily convey.  I’ve always enjoyed teaching the class, and I let them know that.  I tell them I hope they’re successful in their future endeavors.  I’ve even considered giving them the Vulcan salute…although I’ve never followed through on it.

Spock_performing_Vulcan_salute

But there’s a bit of a melancholy feel as I’ll probably never know what happens to most of them.

November 29, 2013

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I’m digging myself out of my grading hole, albeit very, very slowly.

I have to admit that reading these essays is kind of fun.  At least some of them.  There was at least one student so far who wrote that s/he needed no improvement in their time management skills…and then on about page five of the essay, it suddenly stopped with a request for an extension/redo.  It’s really hard not to be snarky when things like that happen.

Most of them discuss the same issues, which is not a surprise.  I’ve had a couple, though, that were quite interesting.  My favorite so far is the student who compared getting through college to Lord of the Rings.  Although there wasn’t a parallel for every goal I wanted them to discuss, there were a fair number of references.

I really enjoy it when I get to see a bit of creativity and personality creep into these things.  I also like seeing how much their views have changed since the beginning of the school year.  It’s amazing what three months can do to a person.

The best news is that I’ve figured out a way to revise the assignment so that it’ll be shorter as well as make it more effective.  I worry, though, that this will remove some of the more creative submissions.  I have to admit that I like how some of my students see themselves on an epic journey.

The thorn in my semester November 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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There are two things I hate about being a teacher.  The first is dealing with angry, threatening students.  Fortunately, I don’t run into those too often, but they are seriously unfun.  The second is dealing with students who don’t show up (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally) but still want to pass the class.  This problem is more common than the first, though, so I’ve had to learn to get used to it.

The very first semester I was teaching, as an undergrad, I had a student who missed a couple labs.  This student in particular annoyed me because it was someone I knew through other activities.  When I introduced myself to the class, he said to his neighbor, quite audibly, “She’s the teacher?!  This class is going to be SO easy.”  The department policy was that anyone who missed more than a certain number of labs would fail, but I tried to be nice and let him make it up.  When I set up a time for the first make-up lab, he showed up drunk and could barely function.  I complained to the chair, and he got upset with me.

“Why are you letting him make up the labs?  This is exactly why we have this policy in place.  Fail him.”

I was surprised how easy a decision it was for the chair.  Appalled, actually.  But the student had been a pain all semester, so I rationalized that I didn’t owe him anything.

I got a call from him over Christmas break: it was my fault that he wasn’t graduating.

I don’t take lightly to guilt trips, so any residual guilt I had about failing him disappeared in that moment.  The maneuver backfired, and I told him to take it up with the chair.

I’ve always wondered if his comment about the class being easy was an indicator that he thought he wouldn’t have to put in any effort.  I also realized that he was right: if the chair hadn’t told me to fail him, he likely would have gotten through the class easily.  That one was my fault: he accurately predicted that I was going to be much nicer than I had to be, and he was going to take advantage of that.  I try very hard not to do that any more.

I really hate every time I have to go through this with a student.  It’s not that I put a lot of faith in grades, but I would really rather that the students put in enough effort that I can at least justify passing them, even if just barely.  It’s much easier on all of us.

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