blueollie

STEM and humanities education

Humanities

I had an interesting experience in the weight room today. The weight room was almost empty at the time; there was one (graduate?) student from India there doing some leg presses and I was doing pull ups on the power rack (has a pull up bar attached). Sometimes, people like to do squats on that rack; note there is a mirror there too.

As I did my pull ups, I noticed that he was looking my way. My guess is that he eventually wanted to do squats; so upon finishing a set he asked me something like “how many sets do I do?”

I THOUGHT that he wanted to know when I’d be done with that rack so he could use it. So, I moved the Olympic bar back to the racks and said “I am done right now!” thinking that he’d be happy with the news.

He looked confused, then smiled and walked away.

It dawned on me that he wasn’t waiting for the rack, but was genuinely interested in my routine!

That is a small matter of little consequence, but it also shows the value of communication and how important it is.

That is where the humanities are so valuable, beyond their inherent worth. Things like communication, ways of thinking and culture matter. Just think of how much better off both the US and Vietnam would have been had we recognized that Vietnam really had no interest in aligning with China (they were historically bitter enemies) or with “Communism”; they wanted independence from ALL of us.

This also reminded me of other issues too, in particular poverty and work and migrant workers.
We watched the film Overnighters last night; it was about one church’s ministry to the workers migrating to North Dakota to take advantage of the oil boom.
We saw that many of these workers had checkered pasts and many had a history of making bad decisions; of course with this influx of workers came things like an increase in crime rates, a decrease of available housing, etc.

This ties in with our culture wars with regards to anti-poverty programs and safety nets.

Some wisdom is essential here: we should remember what has happened in the past as well as being able to wrap our heads around the relevant statistics.
Yes, it is true that many social pathologies are correlated with poverty; one sees substance abuse, sloth, and bad decision making. Yes, many have made life decisions which put them in a bad place to begin with, and in other cases, poverty was the cause of the bad decision making. And in other cases, one just has plain bad luck.

Communication is essential here: many times our conservative friends are right when they point out the pathologies and self-destructive behaviors of some of the poor. Hey, don’t we all have that one relative that is constantly mooching off of others and always wastes whatever money they fall into? And yes, any safety net program WILL end up helping some chronically irresponsible people and there will be some who game the system.

But don’t we have to look at the big picture when we figure out what to do? Sometimes it is counter productive to make “punishing the slackers” our top priority.

Figuring out solutions to these problems does draw on the wisdom that comes from the humanities and the statistical literacy that comes from STEM education.

That leads me to what I’ve seen recently:

noalbegra

I note, with irony, that such memes are passed along via the internet which is reached by things like computers and cell phones! How ironic is that?

Even worse, we see some “why do people have to learn algebra” type stuff coming from those who should know better.

So you say, “ok, algebra might be necessary for future scientists and engineers, but what about the rest of us?”

Well, let’s examine some important issues: what are the implications of economic policies? (change vs. rate of change is brought up here)

What about breast cancer screening implications? How might the average citizen interpret and understand the relevant facts?

Without some mathematical literacy you are flying blind…and even worse..you might not know that you are flying blind.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | economics, education, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Nuclear energy; gaffes, free speech for professors, etc.

Nuclear Energy It has been a very long time since I had anything to do with nuclear power plant operation. Back then we had main coolant pumps, higher power reactors and the submarine had a screw.

Now-a-days; the subs have less powerful reactors, some rely less on coolant pumps and the Virginia class submarine uses a pump jet propulsor instead of a screw.

What I knew is obsolete. :-) Sort of. More here.

Here, Paul Krugman, who is a “lukewarm opponent” of the TPP, pushes back on some of the Obama administration push back to TPP opponents.

College campuses and free speech
In an effort to be accommodating to many different types of students and faculty, some colleges have tried to restrict free speech and to keep faculty from saying anything that might “offend” students, at least in a certain way.

Here is one professor’s push-back.

In today’s world; what faculty say, even on line and in newspaper column comments is subject to scrutiny and possibly negative consequences.

Now I don’t like what either of these professors said. But are we getting to the point in which professor’s public comments on the big issues of the day are subject to being straight jacketed?

Now I don’t want to conflate issues. Yes, I’d be fore firing a creationist biology professor or astronomy professor for incompetence, just as I’d fire a mathematics professor who tried to teach mathematical nonsense like this or this.

Competence matters.

So, if you want to fire, say, a holocaust denying history professor, well, good. That person would be too incompetent to teach history.

But what if I had genuine doubts and expressed them in public? (no, I am not a history professor) Would that be a fireable offense? By the way: I don’t have any doubts; to me, simple arithmetic seals the deal. Just look at the Jewish population before and after, as well as mountains and mountains of documents, much of which the Nazis generated.

What if someone really gave some credence to, say The Bell Curve (the book) stuff and they wanted to honestly discuss this in public?
Personally, I’d enjoy the challenge of having an honest discussion and debate with someone who honestly holds such ideas.

Now of course, others in other professions (e. g. politicians) should have more PR savvy than this.

Yes, this is a Democrat and yes, this was stupid. She is probably toast.

May 17, 2015 Posted by | education, politics, politics/social, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

Slackers and punishment…

Workout notes early morning: 10K walk in Bradley Park; 5.1 mile plus lower 1.23 mile loop. It was cool and pretty; it would have been peaceful too except our local ROTC contingent saw fit to run around and chant stereotypical military sounding stuff. They might have been more impressive had they not been going 10-11 minutes per mile. They aren’t exactly West Point material.

So, needless to say, I don’t like slackers. But sometimes one can be counterproductive when one attempts to punish them. This New York Times story talks about the poor who get into debt but are then hampered by losing their driver’s license …which makes many jobs off limits to them. I believe in paying one’s debts; perhaps wage garnishments are the way to go.

Charter Schools I have mixed feelings about these; and these can sometimes lead to increased segregation:

Parental preferences are part of the problem. The charter school admissions process is itself race-blind: Schools that are too popular conduct lotteries between their applicants. But if a school isn’t white enough, white parents simply won’t apply.

In previous research, Ladd discovered that white North Carolina parents prefer schools that are less than 20 percent black. This makes it hard to have racially balanced charter schools in a state where more than a quarter of schoolchildren are black.

“Even though black parents might prefer racially balanced schools, the fact that white parents prefer schools with far lower proportions of black students sets up a tipping point,” the authors write. “Once a school becomes ‘too black,’ it becomes almost all black as white parents avoid it.”

On the upside: this is the type of bipartisanship that I hope to see more of:

The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes in the way Medicare pays doctors, clearing the bill for President Obama and resolving an issue that has bedeviled Congress and the Medicare program for more than a decade.

The 92-to-8 vote in the Senate, following passage in the House last month by a vote of 392 to 37, was a major success for Republicans, who devised a solution to a complex policy problem that had frustrated lawmakers of both parties. Mr. Obama has endorsed the bill, saying it “could help slow health care cost growth.”

The bill, drafted in the House in negotiations between Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, also extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program for two years, through 2017.

Without action by Congress, doctors would have faced a 21 percent cut in Medicare fees on Wednesday or Thursday. Senate leaders cleared the way for final passage by allowing votes on several amendments sought by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

April 16, 2015 Posted by | education, health care, political/social, politics, poverty, walking | | Leave a comment

Has Government cut higher eduction funding?

I found this Paul Campos article interesting :

The conventional wisdom was reflected in a recent National Public Radio series on the cost of college. “So it’s not that colleges are spending more money to educate students,” Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute told NPR. “It’s that they have to get that money from someplace to replace their lost state funding — and that’s from tuition and fees from students and families.”

In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher.

In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.

Some of this increased spending in education has been driven by a sharp rise in the percentage of Americans who go to college. While the college-age population has not increased since the tail end of the baby boom, the percentage of the population enrolled in college has risen significantly, especially in the last 20 years. Enrollment in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs has increased by almost 50 percent since 1995. As a consequence, while state legislative appropriations for higher education have risen much faster than inflation, total state appropriations per student are somewhat lower than they were at their peak in 1990. (Appropriations per student are much higher now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when tuition was a small fraction of what it is today.)

As the baby boomers reached college age, state appropriations to higher education skyrocketed, increasing more than fourfold in today’s dollars, from $11.1 billion in 1960 to $48.2 billion in 1975. By 1980, state funding for higher education had increased a mind-boggling 390 percent in real terms over the previous 20 years. This tsunami of public money did not reduce tuition: quite the contrary.

Campos goes on to point out that colleges are spending a LOT more on administrative overhead. Now there are many reasons for this; some include technology (someone needs to administrate the computer systems), mandates (all of the “learning disabled” students who are entitled to “accommodation”), helicopter parents and, yes, competing for students to stay in business. Obviously, this is an incomplete list.

But Jordan Weissmann published a counterpoint:

To his credit, Campos is at least gesturing towards an important point. Even in years when states increased their per-student education spending, public colleges still raised their prices faster than inflation. And while schools tend to up tuition when legislators cut their budgets, they don’t usually lower it when the subsidies get restored (see the graph below1). Instead, they lock in the extra revenue so that they can spend more per undergrad. Where has that money gone? Here, Campos is more on point. As he writes, universities are spending an increasing share of their budgets on administration. In other words, the bloat really has grown in higher ed, and it’s costing students.

But that doesn’t change the fact that government cutbacks have contributed to the problem. There have been moments when university profligacy has been the major driver of tuition increases. At others, contracting state support has played a critical role. This has especially been the case in these days of post-recession budget austerity. Depending on who’s calculating, states are giving schools somewhere around 25 to 30 percent fewer dollars per student than they were 15 years ago. And someone has had to make up the difference. Namely, college kids.

Now this gets to the crux of the disagreement. When you say “spending on higher education is up” or “spending is down”, what exactly do you mean?

Now of course, we have to adjust for inflation. But do you mean: “amount spent” in terms of dollars? (Campos does) Do you mean “percentage of GDP” or “percentage of budget”? Do you mean “per capita” in terms of a state’s population or in terms of “per student”? And if you mean “per student” do you mean “dollars per student” or “percentage of expected expenses per student”? Which measure are you using and why are you using that one?

To give the Devil His Due: Mitt Romney explained this principle very well in his book when he discussed “defense spending”.

April 8, 2015 Posted by | economics, economy, education, social/political | , | Leave a comment

School books…

fruts

Okkkkaaaayyyyy….

(Thanks Jennifer)

April 2, 2015 Posted by | education | | Leave a comment

PC-ness on various levels

Today on Facebook, a friend posted the following:

realmenblahblahblah

I had to laugh. Personally, I think that I am attracted at what I am genetically predisposed to be attracted to, moderated by what I am capable of attracting back. Seriously….this is expressed very well here: (science)

and here

“Love: being slightly deluded in each other’s favor”…or an evolutionary adaptation that makes it easier for our species to propagate.

Heck, to see who I might be in love with, all I have to do is to watch her pick something up. If she bends over like this…she is probably for me.

No, I don’t go along with ideas that I don’t agree with (though I can change my mind upon seeing appropriate evidence). And yes, I am a liberal, who sometimes loses patience with other liberals:

There is some good discussion on this topic at Jerry Coyne’s website.

And no, liberals attacking each other over …well…not much is nothing new.

March 30, 2015 Posted by | education, evolution, political humor, political/social, politics, politics/social, social/political | , , , , | Leave a comment

Today’s college students: similarities and differences

Workout notes swimming only; 2200 yards (2000 meters, or 1.25 miles)
500 warm up
5 x (50 drill with fins, 50 free)
5 x 200 on 4: 3:31, 3:33, 3:27, 3:27, 3:31 (tired out)
100 back, 100 fins (50 fly drill, 50 fly)

Hey, I got it in.

Students
I went to a forum devoted to the search process for a new college president (the current one is retiring). Yes, there is more to this, but that isn’t what I want to focus on.

There were mostly faculty there, along with some staff and a few students.

One student rose to speak: she mentioned that she and her fellow students LOVED the current President “their “Jo-Jo” ” who…well, held office hours to directly listen to their concerns, showed up at student events, and..well..gave them hugs. Yes, I am talking about a college president.

The issue isn’t whether this is the role of a college president. The issue is the student reaction.

When I was an undergraduate, I would have found such behavior by a college president to be, well…sort of creepy. I liked my “higher ups” to keep some distance between me and and them..for the “adults” to be ‘adults”. At student events, I didn’t want to rub elbows with old people! Some informal discussion was fine, but I liked my professors staying professors and older leaders staying leaders.

I am that way now. I might joke in class, but I am NEVER the student’s friend. That isn’t my role.

So, I see this as a genuine generational difference.

On the other hand: some things remain the same.

Example: I am teaching a topology class. On one hand, I have an advantage because I know this stuff inside and out. The disadvantage: I know this stuff inside and out. I found that with a month to go in the semester, inadvertently…I’ve covered almost the entire “small” text book. That is a bit too fast for them as they are beginners. It still takes time for stuff to sink in.

Hence, I’ll be doing a ton of examples the rest of the semester; that is how they learn, just as that is how I learned.

Learning new stuff still takes time. :-)

March 30, 2015 Posted by | education, swimming | | 2 Comments

Numbers, fraudulent and misleading…

Education: yes, if you base teaching performance on the test scores of their students, the teachers will cook the data any way that they can. Given a metric, people will seek to optimize the metric, regardless of end results.

A questionable pro-President Obama claim: This article claims a 22 point improvement in President Obama’s approval ratings:

President Obama’s approval rating has improved by 22 points in the Gallup poll since Republicans won control of Congress. Obama’s opposition to the Republican agenda is making the president more popular while destroying the myth of a GOP mandate.

Really? Well, his approval went from 39 to 50 percent, which IS nice. So where did “22 point improvement” come from? You see, his DISAPPROVAL went down so the difference (approval minus disapproval) went from -17 to +5. Okkkkaaaaayyyyy…

That is an interesting slight of hand. But Rep. Sessions (R-Texas) thinks that 108 billion divided by 12 million is 5 million and not 9000. He called it “simple arithmetic”. Hmmm, for him, not so simple? :-)

That’s ok; Fox News will probably back him up, and NPR will probably try to present “both sides” of this arithmetic issue “well, most math teachers say that the quotient is 9000, but some say 5 million so we’ll give BOTH SIDES an equal opportunity….”

March 26, 2015 Posted by | education, health care, political/social, politics | | Leave a comment

Some stark reality: academia and otherwise

This is from College Misery and discusses the lament of someone teaching an astronomy course to, well, less than talented and less than motivated students:

Each semester, I usually teach a large section of general-ed astronomy for non-majors. I also teach a large section of physics for engineers and scientists.

I also teach a smaller, upper-level theoretical astrophysics course for physics majors and grad students. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be delving into the secrets of the Universe.

Well, THIS semester’s astrophysics class has convinced me that American university education is without question in its death spiral.
[…]

The large, general-ed astronomy class is packed with freshpersons. Sniveling, patently unprofessional, childish behavior is common. I hate it, but it’s like the smell you get living near a slaughterhouse: you get used to it.

Similar childish behavior is rarer in the physics class for engineers. This is because it’s more advanced, with at least three other prerequisite classes. When childish behavior does raise its ugly head there, it hurts.

This semester, for the first time, I am encountering childish behavior from most of the upper-level astrophysics class, and it REALLY HURTS. More than once I have reminded them that astrophysics isn’t an immediately commercially applicable subject: people do it mainly because it’s interesting.

So WHY do these students treat the wonders of the Universe as such a dreadful CHORE? Probably because even the simplest wonders are quite beyond them. Most of the grad students don’t understand significant digits, despite my TRYING to explain what they should have learned on their FIRST DAY of college. If they think they are going to GET A JOB doing this, they’ll be going up against people from Caltech and MIT, ALL of whom funnily enough DO understand significant digits.

I think that we are seeing “regression to the mean” effects: we are sending higher percentages of people to college. So: this means more jobs for professors at “teaching oriented” institutions but also…a less talented student body. None of the lament surprises me at all.

We even see this in the humanities:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

There is more in the article. But yeah, what is said there counters many popular but hare brained ideas:

1. “You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.” Anyone who believes this has never accomplished anything of significance.

2. “It is never too late to start”. Wrong. It is probably not to late to learn something new, but if you start from scratch late in life, you are all but guaranteed to not be good at it (there are isolated exceptions, of course). And by “good at it” I mean “good compared to the stronger people in the profession”, not good compared to “the other average old geezers”.

As you get older, it becomes more difficult to pick up brand new material, though if one is still active in an area one can often compensate by having a broader perspective and by having a larger tool box of knowledge to draw from (just from learning for so long).

Extrapolation from the local
Yes, it may have been cold where you live…but:

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 3.03.17 PM

Yes, I live in the dark blue area.

Being certain…even if the facts are against you. Zealots are very good at doing this:

The Times has an interesting headline here: Richard Fisher, Often Wrong but Seldom Boring, Leaves the Fed. Because entertainment value is what we want from central bankers, right? I mean, Janet Yellen is such a drag — she just keeps being right about the economy, and that gets old really fast, you know?

OK, never mind. What is remarkable is Fisher’s complete confidence in his own wisdom despite an awesome track record of error. What’s even more remarkable is that his unshaken certainty is the norm among inflationistas and anti-Keynesians in general. So wrong for so long — and the other side has been right, again and again — yet not a hint of self-doubt.

And check out this anti-new atheist article.

This is supposed to come from a “sophisticated believer”, but never once does he even make the case that the existence of any deity of any kind is even a reasonable conjecture, much less a belief in their deity of choice.

Really. We live in one average galaxy and orbit one of billions of stars in said galaxies ….among billions of other galaxies. And somehow, the scribblings of profoundly ignorant groups of humans made are supposed to be taken seriously as a guide to knowledge of how things work now? Oh boy…if the old blue hair says so… :-)

What is comical is that these sort of writers expect to be taken seriously.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, atheism, economics, education, religion, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Schock, snowflakery, dishonesty on different levels.

Aaron Schock is stepping down from his US House seat (IL-18); he was my Congressman for 4 years (and Illinois State Representative for 4 years prior to that) until I got redistricted into IL-17.

Each time, I voted for his opponent.

Well, now he is under investigation by the FBI for a number of things; witnesses are being subpoenaed and a Grand Jury has been formed.

I admit that I never liked him and that was for reasons beyond his being a Republican.

But I did wonder to myself: “how much of this dislike is just simple envy?” After all, much of his resume was impressive: school board as a teenager (elected), school board president, winning the Illinois State House (close election the first time) and winning it again in a very blue district and then running for, and winning Ray LaHood’s old seat.

He finished his undergraduate degree in 2 years and made money in real estate, and, at least at first, much of it was above board.

Yes, he is fit, though my Steamboat 15K best (1998, 1999) is about 7 minutes faster than his. He is a heck of a lot faster than I am now though. :-)

But..I wondered “how much of your dislike is that he is/was ambitious, attractive and successful?”

Still, in his debates, he was quick with statistics and data..but it was almost all cherry picked. He reminded me a bit of a young Paul Ryan.

Now I never cared one way or the other about his Instagram photos and the like; I know that when it comes to social media, I enjoy my friend’s vacation and adventure photos, especially those that show me what they are seeing.

So, as much as I’d love to tell you “I told you so”, I really don’t know if my dislike stemmed from tribalism (“other political party”), envy (his success and ambition) and from personality; there was something that seemed phony about him (as it does, to be fair, with Bill Clinton who I mostly liked). He just struck me as a frat boy who used slick power point slides to bluff through a presentation of stuff that he really didn’t understand that well.

So I really can’t crow “I told you so” and there is about 5-10 percent of me that is genuinely disappointed that he didn’t put his considerable talent to better use. And yes, there is about 50 percent of me that is gloating; I am not proud of that. :-)

Speaking of entitled snowflakes Randazza has a laugh about this:

NH Lawmakers Crush Fourth Graders Bill. Good.
And I applaud them for it.

In the spirit of learning by doing, students drafted a bill to learn the process of how a bill becomes law. They proposed House Bill 373, an act establishing the Red Tail Hawk as the New Hampshire State Raptor. Even though it passed through the Environment and Agriculture committee with a majority vote, some representatives were far from receptive.

(source)

Cue the outrage.

In fact, the headline was “NH lawmakers brutally kill 4th-graders’ bill in front of them”

Rep. John Burt, a Republican from Goffstown said, “Bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills, and bills, and bills forward that really I think we shouldn’t have in front of us, we’ll be picking a state hot dog next.”

Exactly.

Yes. Just because you think your kids are “smart” and “cute” doesn’t mean that their ideas warrant being taken seriously. Really. I feel the same way when someone posts some video of some pre-teen or teenager “owning” someone on an issue.

Really. I teach college. I’ve seen the work of 60-70 undergraduates per semester for 24 years. The vast majority of them don’t know what they are doing, just as I didn’t when I was that age.

When it comes to laws, issues, etc., if you want me to take an idea seriously, give me someone who knows what they are talking about and who is respected by others in the field. I am not interested in what your little snowflake has to say.

Now of course helicopter parenting isn’t unique to the United States; check his out:

Cheating in school tests is an old Indian problem.

But the malpractice literally scaled new heights this week in the eastern state of Bihar when relatives of 10th-grade students climbed the wall of a school building and perched precariously from windows of classrooms as they handed cheat sheets to children writing the tests inside.

Videos also showed school inspectors slapping young girls as they pulled out cheat sheets from under their tables.

Cheating is common in schools in remote rural areas in India, where jobs and seats in college courses are few but competition is fierce. But the sight of parents risking their life and limbs to climb the walls shocked many Indians.

I’d like to think that we aren’t that bad.

Why your Republican friends sound so nutty
If your Republican friend watches Fox News, they are often only getting part of the story. The government issued two reports about Ferguson, one which showed that it was a very bad idea to use Michael Brown as some sort of innocent martyr and one that showed that there WAS systemic racism within the Ferguson city government and police department. Guess which one Fox News emphasized and which one was downplayed? (though NOT totally ignored)

Bonus Read Randazza’s CNN post on why the racists at the University of Oklahoma have free speech rights, which include their right to NOT be kicked out of school. Note: I have no problem with the Fraternity being kicked off of campus and their charter being revoked.

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Schock, education, IL-17, IL-18, racism, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

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