Monday, October 31, 2005

Sweet Honey

On Friday evening, the lovely Mrs. H. and I went out on the town to see Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was absolutely amazing. Their sound was incredible, their message was great, and they already even had a song about the indictments. What a great Fitzmas Day celebration.

You know, I spend alot of time during my day listening to garbage music, simply to get me through the hours. Some of it, I actually enjoy and do choose to listen to. But as I was experienceing the concert, I realized how sad it was that good music like that is never played on the radio, and how many people are never exposed to this type of music. Because if you were in that concert hall, there was no way not to feel moved.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Celebrety Metro Driver

Seriously, the conductor on my Metro train this morning completely had James Earl Jones' voice. I don't know if Metro was playing some sort of game, or if this guy was in the complete wrong line of work. All I know is that Darth Vader greated me when I got on this morning. Very freaky. (not to mention the evil looking "Men in Black" guy who got on at McPherson Square. Who wears sunglasses in the Metro?)


Fitzmas is only an hour and a half away. I think my refresh button is wearing out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Adopt a Scientist

The American Physical Society started a program that puts high school science students in email contact with practicing scientists. It's called 'Adopt a Scientist'. Although I'm not really sure how I've been adopted other than getting an email each from two students, but maybe in the future it will evolve into something else. It's a good program that I think should be greatly encouraged. Basically, it's the least that a scientist can do.

Anyway, here's my responses to the first set of questions (I did edit out a bit about my work):

1. How would you describe your job? What do you do in a typical day?

I work for a small engineering firm. My job title is “Research Analyst”, but I really do a number of different things. I do a fair amount of computer programming (in Fortran, Matlab, and C++). I do data analysis for some of the experiments that my company is working on, so I make a lot of graphs and charts. And also, I do some financial work, in that I project how much money we will spend on our different contracts, and help other people make decisions on what to buy based on how much we have left.

My typical day is spent pretty much in front of a computer. Our office is small and quiet. Probably once or twice a week, we have tele-conferences with colleagues at other companies and government offices, but otherwise, I work pretty much on my own. I did, however, get to go to Hawaii for an experiment last month.

2. Do you think that your educational background prepared you for your current occupation? What would you change?

Yes. Just to let you know, my degree is in astronomy, so it is a bit unusual for an astronomer to be working as an engineer on boats. So I have had to learn a lot on the job, simply because engineers communicate their physics knowledge a bit differently from astronomers. But, in terms of the “nuts and bolts” of physics, I learned everything I needed to in school.

Now, even though I feel like I learned what I needed to, there is certainly a lot I’d change about the way in which physics is taught to students, but that would take up a pretty long email.

3. What is the most interesting or unusual project you’ve worked on?

That’s a tough call, because I’ve actually been lucky to enjoy pretty much everything I’ve worked on so far, so I’ll just tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

I’m working on two projects. One is trying to make ships go faster by reducing their friction. The other project I work on involves the way that light reflects off of objects.

I’ll also tell you that some of the research that I enjoy the most involves learning about how students learn physics in class. I teach a lot, so I think it’s important to understand if what you’re trying to teach actually gets through to your students. Also, you want to know if the way you’re teaching is the most effective, compared to other ways of teaching you might try. So I have a few projects going on right now where we’re changing the way students do homework and tests to see if they actually learn more. I find these projects most rewarding, because I think they actually help people in a more direct way than some of the more “hard-science” based projects.

4. What advice do you have for current high school students interested in science? What advice would you give to someone looking to enter your field?

This is another tough one, because there is so much advice I’d like to give, but you’re only going to spend so long reading this email. There’s the obvious stuff, like learning a lot of math, and studying hard, and blah blah blah, but I think there are some more subtle points as well.

Try to participate in some real research as early as possible. It will give you a sense of what the life of a scientist is really like. There are many students who work really hard in school to be scientists, but then end up not liking science when they actually get to the research part of it. Daily life for a scientist is very different from science class, and it’s good to figure out if you like that or not early on.

The best physicists are not necessarily the people who do best on typical physics tests or other tests like the SAT (not that you shouldn’t try to do well on those things). Physics (and science in general) are creative processes. Being curious and persistent are qualities that really make a good scientist.

Along with that, remember that you don’t have to re-invent physics every time you do a problem or project. Learning to rely on what’s already been learned before and focusing on the smaller problem in front of you, is probably one of the most important skills that I’ve learned (and am still learning).

Even if you want to be a scientist, take lots of classes in college that have nothing to do with science. I was a history minor in college, and the perspective that those classes have given me as a scientist is invaluable. In my book, a scientist isn’t just someone who creates knowledge, they also help the world understand that knowledge. Also, it’s good to have some other skills/knowledge just incase you decide not to be a scientist.

Finally, science is a human process done by other human beings. Learning to understand and better interact with other people is often just as important as learning science knowledge itself. Think about your lab groups at school. Most of the time, probably, your group isn’t only focused on the science that it’s supposed to be learning. It’s no different in the real world. Finding people you want to work with and for, is very, very important.

5. What are the logistics of your work? (pay, hours, vacation time, collaboration with other scientists and non-scientists, balancing work and family, time spent gathering or analyzing data…)

I work between 40-50 hours per week, but sometimes it can be a bit more. I get 20 days off per year. Even though my office is small, we all work together pretty well. I’m just married, so I’m still learning to balance the family and work time, but I’m pretty happy so far. (Of course, I’d always like more time away from work.) And most of my time is spent analyzing data as opposed to collecting it.

Waddaya think?

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Glass Ceiling in My House

(with all due respect to the Fresh Prince)

So yesterday, one of the elder scientists that we have working here comes to my office and asks for a folder of materials for this program I've been working on. I've been putting together a computer simulation, and the folder contained the design elements for the project. But none of that is all too relevent.

It seems that because I've had to work on some other projects, they want to give this one to our new receptionist hired last week. (This bothers me too, because I enjoy working on this particular simulation, and I have been spending some time on it, even though I'm not supposed to.) It turns out that the new receptionist has some basic computer knowledge, and that they're going to try to teach him some programming and potentially develop him into some sort of technician position. Great for him.

However, it's funny, because it seemed to me that the receptionist who just left a few weeks ago was a competant intelligent person. She could transcribe scientific documents and was able to help anytime I needed her to with computer issues.

Now, I don't know all the details. Maybe the old receptionist didn't want to do anything more complicated. Maybe she wasn't all that intelligent. But I do remember her sitting around alot and being bored. We have the need for the help. You'd think if we were so interested in having a technician, someone could have asked her?

Maybe Larry Summers was right, and the new guy is just a whole lot smarter. Or, maybe, yet another woman lost her chance at becoming involved in science because of our deeply held gender stereotypes.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Confessions of an Engineering Washout

Food for thought.

I'll write more later.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I Heard it on the Radio

It seems that there was a show on PBS last night about education reform, but I didn't get the chance to watch it. However, on the Kojo Nnamdi show yesterday, there was an interesting interview with the producer of the show. Also, Kojo interviewed Chris Whittle from Edison Schools. I thought he had some good insites, and as much as I find that he brings too much corporatism into education, I think he genuinely is into his work for the right reasons.

The one place where I did find that I had dissagreements with him was where he places such a high opinion on the American University system and how it teaches students. Basically, he wants to drop the number of classes in High school, and give students more independant time. He says that if it works so well for the Universities (where students spend about 1/3 the amount of time in class as high schoolers), then it should work in high school. There's something to this. I certainly believe that the American high school is way too rigid and doesn't allow for students to independantly follow ideas, nor does it allow for good mentorship. However, I think that he's wrong in thinking that Universities actually teach anybody anything.

There is a small minority of undergraduates who are able to involve themselves with their professors, begin reasonable research, and actually get something academically out of the experience. These students mostly go on to graduate school, and perpetuate the "great american university". But these students mostly started with good SAT scores, came from good high schools, and were going to get good grades no matter what.

The rest of students at universities go to class, do some work because they have to, pick up some life skills, make some social/work connections, and enter the work force 4 years later with probably not that much more academic skill than they started with. Largely, I would say this is the fault of poor teaching, but the blame really goes to the administrations that don't give their professors the environment, resources, training, or threat to teach more effectively. Although academic freedom is very important to the argument, as well as the diversity of courses of study, I would bet that many universities shy away from state level exit assessments, because they know that their students wouldn't do that well. And even if they did, I have to wonder whether college student scores would increase at all between an entrance and exit exam. (Yes, I admit that that test would be awful hard to define.)

If you want to base high schools on the honors college at Harvard, then be my guest. But, if you want them to look like the average university student's educational experience (which is what would happen if you weren't very very careful), then you're not helping anyone, and probably you're making things worse.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It's a Great Day for Hockey

The greatest coach ever must be smiling today.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Good Professor

Even though humans are incredibly complicated and no real theory of human mental function would ever really fit into a blog post, I have to say that I agree.

The Science-Ed Paper of the "Day"

In a similar vein to the astronomy paper from the other day, I have a stack of science education papers sitting on my desk that I'd like to read and store my thoughts. Most of these I get off of ERIC but there are some sources from other places. (It really sucks not being at a university without a big ed library now.) And like the astronomy papers, I'm going to focus on stuff I'm interested in, like student perception of science, teacher perception of science, student/teacher perceptions of each other, interesting framing of science topics, and efforts to bring science to disadvantaged students.

So, to start . . .

"Putting a Human Face on Chemistry: A Project for Liberal Arts Chemistry"
Kriz, G. and Popejoy, K.
2003, Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching

You know, I kind of like these little stories about what people do in their classes to make science more "interesting" or "applicable". As much as they probably don't do a whole lot in terms of changing whether non-science major students actually learn any science, at least they show that professors can try to do something different, and in this case, that a science professor can actually talk to an Ed school professor. (You'd think that after the last 10 years or so, we'd be beyond that being interesting, but I guess the world does move pretty slowly.)

The long and short of the story is that a professor of a non-major chemistry class decided that they wanted to look more at the human aspect of science, so they had the students research different chemists (living or dead), pick a chemist that they would like to visit their class, propose to the class (in the form of a presentation) why that chemist would be good to visit, choose one of the proposals, think up questions for the visitor, and then have that person (or an actor) visit. In my opinion, it's actually a half way decent idea. I think alot of people don't connect with science because they have no idea that scientists are human beings and have human stories. In fact, Kriz and Popejoy administered the "Draw a Scientist Test" (DAST) to their class, and found very similar results to other studies of young children. If we never interact with scientists in a meaningful way, we only conceptualize them as the movies tell us too, and often that means that scientists are alot smarter than the rest of us.

As such, the class picked Bill Nye, the Science Guy as the chemist they wanted to come visit. Don't get me wrong, I think that Bill Ney has done an amazing job of exposing children to science, as Don Herbert did before him. It's just that Bill Nye isn't actually a chemist. He doesn't do chemistry research. He does crazy things, and teaches children how to reproduce experiments that have already been done. I think the result of the class picking Bill Nye to come visit their class as a chemist, correlates highly with the results of the DAST for this class, and says alot about our public image of scientists. (Let me clarify that I don't blame Bill Nye one bit for this. I think he does a great job. I blame scientists mostly, and the media partially, for poor images of scientists.)

Some of the other proposals from the class included Neils Bohr, Marie Curie, and Linus Pauling. Granted they're all old and dead, so actors would have come pose as those people in this class, and the effect might not have been so great, but still research chemists who (at one time) stood at the edge of human knowledge were available. So, what does it say about a group of college students in a physical science class, who when told to choose a chemist to visit their class, don't choose a chemist? What does it say about their previous schooling and interaction with science, and what does it say about the fields of science themselves?

(I don't have answers right now.)

In the end, Bill Nye couldn't come anyway, but Kriz and Popejoy present survey results that say that the students' feelings towards science had greatly improved over the course of the semester and through this project. Particularly students' personal feelings about science improved, and their gender associations towards science improved. Unfortuately, the paper does not present data as to whether the students learned more than in classes without this activity. (I could launch into a diatribe about why university level classroom research is really difficult because of the innate structure of the university itself, but I won't.) This is unfortunate, but typical (hell, I've done it too), of these types of papers. It's largely a result of scientists not knowing much about assessment and experimental design. So, we're left to try it on our own.

Things to take from the paper:

1. Try crazy things in your classroom sometimes. Plain lecturing about chemistry (or physics or astronomy) hasn't taught many people much about these subjects in non-major classes anyway over the past 30 years, so you might as well try something different. (In Dr. Phil language, "How's that workin' for you?")

2. Hoagieboy thinks its a good idea to connect science with people. More students might learn more science when it's taught through the story of human interaction with ideas as opposed to formulas in a book. But don't go too touchy-feely.

3. How do we change our perceptions of science (or change science itself) such that when college students are given the task of and opportunity to interact with research scientists, they choose to do that? (Again, Bill Ney is great at what he does, but he isn't a research scientist.)

4. How do we make accessible the methods of education research to scientists, so that they can play around with their class and see if what they're doing is actually working?