Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Critical Thinking Through Writing

I teach biology and microbiology but I make my students write essays. I'm so MEAN. I think writing is important. Deal with it.

I recently asked them to write an essay comparing an animal cell to an analogous structure. They tend to have fun with these, and I get to read all about how the cell is like a prison or grandma's house or an amoeba (note to students, an amoeba IS a cell). Some students get a bit carried away and build a cell to go with their essays. I highly encourage this, especially if it's edible.

I bring you the cell as JELL-O(R). CELL-O(R).

Go ahead! Eat it! It's tasty, I promise! That's a plum for a nucleus, some licorice for ER, Mike and Ikes(R) as mitochondria, cake sprinkles for ribosomes, and ribbon gum for the golgi apparatus. This is one of my best students, and she made this with her little brother. They got a bit too excited and put in the organelles before the gelatin was firm enough, and so they lost color and structure. I suspect this will simply encourage them to do it again.

Anybody need a fancy dessert for a party? Consider CELL-O(R), a fun and educational treat!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Multiple Choice, True or False?

I do realize that multiple choice exams are tantamount to professorial cheating, but they're just so much easier that sometimes it's hard to motivate myself to other assessment techniques. Essays are time-consuming to evaluate. Short answer exams lend themselves to subjective grading because I'm searching for key words or phrases. With large class loads, zipping a SCANTRON through the machine is just so much simpler than my other options. And they can be rigorous! Just ask the 50% of my students that failed their last exam!

But this morning I wondered, do multiple choice tests accurately reflect student learning?

I give my students access to a test bank as a study tool. Most textbooks now come with electronic files: instructional materials, lecture slides, movies, test generators, animations, etc. I make some of these available to my students, because the main resource they have at their disposal when studying is their textbook. I call the test bank "Chapter Preps" and encourage them to use them to prepare for upcoming lectures. Students who use these score higher on their daily reading quizzes and higher on their exams. It's practice, and practice makes perfect.

This year we changed editions of our biology textbook, and the test bank has changed, but not in the way you would expect. It's still multiple choice, but the number of potential answers has decreased from five (A-E) to four (A-D). This increases the probability of randomly selecting a correct answer by 25% (from 1/5 to 1/4). I've yet to find justification for this by the publisher, and can only assume it is meant to increase student success. Is it appropriate to increase a student's chances of getting it right by decreasing the number of ways they could get it wrong?

When I create a multiple choice test I try to ensure that answers require critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Anybody can memorize a list of names; nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria - but the most successful students will understand how those organelles function in context. A student may know that the mitochondria is for energy, but a better student will know why the shape of the mitochondria is critical to the production of ATP, a molecule that is essential for proper cell function. Assessing this difference on a multiple choice test is tricky, and I don't always get it right.

When I was an undergraduate I relished the opportunity to show off on an exam. I know, I know, it's obnoxious, but it's true. I hated multiple choice tests. They were boring and too easy and I often pretentiously considered the choices to be substandard to the answer I would have given if I had the freedom to do so. I know, I know, I was an arrogant jerk. If I had to teach College Breana I'd relish the chance to flunk her, mostly because I still am an arrogant jerk.

None of my students have the kind of confidence that I remember from college. I wasn't the only one who looked forward to exams with a nervous excitement - there were others. Many of us have gone on to be professors, and are in no way representative of "normal" college students. We were nerds. NERDS. And proud of it. I don't expect a classroom full of nerds, but I would like it if at least some of my students were interested in more than just the bottom line. They want to know exactly what they have to do to get a passing grade, and they invariably think the standards are set much too high. They like multiple choice, they rely on multiple choice, because they wouldn't be able to craft an answer in their own words.

How do I know? Because I've asked them to, and they can't. Student failure rates increase exponentially when I administer a short answer exam. It's more work for me and worse grades for them. I often look on this as a failure on my part, but I can try teaching the material six ways from Sunday and they still do better on multiple choice exams than on written ones. It's frustrating, and it makes a multiple choice test seem even more inviting. But it is fair? Is it rigorous enough? Is it appropriate for college? I'd love to know how other educators make this decision.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Manifesto for Public Schools

As a college professor I am often shocked by the behavior of my students. Worse, they are shocked by my response to it. When I toss them out of class they ask, "Really?" Yes, really. Get out. A classroom is no place for bullies, cheaters, vandals or slackers. Somehow the public school system is rampant with all of these and not until they go to college do they see real consequences for their actions. Not until they fail a college course and can't complain their way out of it do they realize they may lack talent, discipline, or both. And even in college, parents demand grade changes for failing students and administrators pressure professors to give out more passing grades. This has to stop. It's crazy. It's not okay!! 

After listening to the horror stories of my peers at different academic levels, I hit a wall. I couldn't take it anymore. Enumerated below, in no particular order, are changes I believe to be desperately needed in public schools. It may look oversimplified, but the simplest explanation is often the best. I am a scientist, after all.
  1. All children have a right to a public education. However, any child that infringes on the rights of other students to learn in a safe environment forfeits his/her own rights and should be dismissed. Currently, schools appease a few students at the expense of the others. It's despicable and should stop. Where is it written that troublemakers make the rules? That troublemakers have the right to ruin the educational experience of their peers? REWRITE THE RULES.  
  2. Children must face real consequences for their behavior. Suspension and expulsion should be on the table, and furthermore, they SHOULD be an inconvenience, not just to the child, but to the parent. Can't leave work to pick up a troublemaker who has been thrown out of class? Can't stay home to care for a child that has been suspended? Too bad. Have a conversation with your child about how his/her actions affect the family economy. MAKE IT MATTER.
  3. There is no A for effort. If a child does his/her best and receives a C, the student is average. Grade inflation simply prepares a child for failure in higher education. Most students are average. They can be special without being academically gifted. DEAL WITH IT.
  4. Good children get rewards, bad children get removed. A reward can be anything extra-curricular: dances, awards ceremonies, field trips, etc.  Can't afford to keep your kid home on field trip day? See Article #2. Children who cause trouble should not receive privileges, as it detracts from the learning environment. A student who infringes on the rights of others cannot expect the same privileges as those who do not. ONLY GOOD KIDS GET REWARDS.
  5. Teachers cannot teach when they are babysitters, referees, or security guards. Parents must prepare students to participate in the learning environment by teaching and demonstrating appropriate behavior. Children should strive to be respectful and responsible citizens, not spoiled, narcissistic brats. Teachers are educators, not parents, and education is more effective when the learning environment is safe. PARENTS NEED TO DO BETTER.
  6. Administrators need to administrate some discipline so that teachers, staff and students enjoy a safe learning environment. School children would face fewer bullies in the hallway if school administrators ditched their frivolous meetings, came out of their offices, and commanded respect among students, parents, and staff. Thoughtful and consistent disciplinary procedures are  necessary to maintain safety.  Bullies should not be tolerated. As bullies beget bullies, expect repercussions from the bullying parents of child bullies. Stand your ground and stop the cycle. GROW A PAIR.
  7. Teachers need to speak up for the students who deserve praise and demand discipline for those who detract from the learning environment. If teachers speak up, students will speak up, and the empowerment of a student body against those who inhibit the learning process can be useful in the peer-to-peer regulation of student behavior. It's not okay to behave inappropriately at school. It's not okay to be disrespectful. It's not okay to be mean. It's not okay. SPEAK UP.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

It's gittin', it's gittin', it's gittin' kinda hectic

There are particular things that, for me, herald transition during this time of year: baseball on the radio, hay fever, warm days with cool nights, and graduation. Nothing says, "I've accomplished a goal and am ready to move forward," like a cardboard hat with a tassel on it. In fact, selected* statistics indicate that you are 72% less likely to be homeless, 90% less likely to be arrested, and 81% less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy if you wore the university regalia. I've worn it three times; my cardboard hat is made of foam and lists slightly to one side. I try not to worry that it makes me look drunk or sloppy. I'm not usually drunk.

It's Final Week (cue scream) and there are an obscene number of students milling around my office waiting for grades. Keep in mind that I've already dished out 80% of the points and appreciate my frustration at being used as a human calculator for people who are too lazy to think on their own. "So, like, what do I have to make on the final to, like, pass this class?" You need to accumulate more than 60% of the total points I've made available. Do your own damn algebra! A friend recently sent this, written by a colleague frustrated by a similar issue. I'm not asking for rocket science or neurosurgery. It's basic math. How do you calculate a tip at a restaurant or your share of the cable bill if you can't do fractions?

Worse are the students who do very little all semester only to expect some sort of extra credit miracle at the end. If I have no idea who you are because you never came to class, why would I care about your academic standing? Why do I have to give you a C in my class so that you don't lose your financial aid? It's not my fault you're on probation.Oh wait, apparently it is my fault. I give out the grades. I've got the power. I don't simply divide the number of points a student accumulates over the number of points possible. I spin the Wheel of Grades located in the faculty lounge, and I've been known to spin it three or four times for my favorite students.

Why is it that when students get a good grade they take all the credit, but when they get a bad grade it's all my fault? And what's with this sense of entitlement? Why does everyone think they should get an A?

While I look forward to getting my free travel mug and/or tote bag at every scientific meeting I attend, there is a misleading precedent set when you get something "just for showing up." Suck at hockey? Have a trophy anyway! Really bad at math? That's okay! Everyone gets a ribbon for participating in the Math-A-Thon! Lacking in talent and morals? MTV will give you your own reality show!

Nobody appreciates that there are consequences for their actions. What happens when these students get jobs? Pharmaceutical Rep: "Oh, I would have finished that presentation but it was my buddy's birthday and we were out late. Can the client come back tomorrow?" ER Nurse: "Mr. Yamagashi in room 235 needed those meds, like, at a specific time? Oh man, I totally didn't know..." UPS Guy: "Huh, I had two packages looked the same, so I guess I grabbed the wrong one. Sorry dude!" When does it start being YOUR responsibility?

They call this generation The Boomerang Generation, but that's not exactly fair. Unmarried singles have historically lived with their parents. In fact, multi-generational households are common in many countries. Only recently have we decided that people should be more independent, and those moving back home tend to do so for financial - not marital - reasons. The difference? It's not that they need their mommies more, it's that their mommies want them back. I've got students being micromanaged by their parents, who in turn demand things from the faculty: grade changes, leniency on late papers, extra credit. If whining and empty promises work with parents, why not with professors? And if parents only ever deliver empty threats, why expect any different from the faculty?

I could talk about this all day, but I've got too many students milling around, waiting for me to do math for them.

* Statistics gathered in a rudimentary search of the internet and should in no way be considered particularly rigorous or unbiased. Remember, statistics are most dangerous in the hands of people who consider themselves experts but really have no idea what they are doing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Study is Hard

Ashley L., BIOL 1107
Ashley's husband took this picture of her at 1:30am this morning. When woken, Ashley sleepily claimed, "I had to get closer to highlight..."

That's the textbook for my course underneath her head. She was preparing for my lecture on transcription and translation this morning.

If she wasn't already an excellent student, I'd totally give her an A just for sleeping in the "ready to highlight" position.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Registration Gives Me Nightmares

Back in the day, when we rode dinosaurs to school and turned in our homework on stone tablets, registering for classes was simple. We picked out our dream schedules, and then our back-up dream schedules, and then our reserve okay schedules ahead of time. We scoured the catalog and ran back and forth between rooms asking, "Which comp class are you taking?" trying to figure out who was the easiest professor and where our best friends would be and when was the latest we could possibly get up in the morning.

Those who majored in math were screwed, as our math professors tended to be early birds.

We took our schedules to the registrar's office and stood in line for ages to get into classes. The further back in line you were, the worse your schedule would be. Freshman registered last, and never got what they wanted. Upperclassmen registered first, and always knew what the best classes were. If a class was closed, you had to have a backup choice or be forced to the end of the line. I remember being sprawled out across the hallway floor in the dorm while my RA gave us tips on how to pick out classes. We had all the catalogs spread out, and we generated layers of eraser shavings as we changed and changed and changed our minds.

Some of my colleagues describe waiting in long lines for each class, only to be turned away once they got to the front. How frustrating! In any case, picking out classes and planning for the future was exciting, and the students practically buzzed with energy the closer it came to Registration Day. I remember discussing my classes with my adviser. I remember changing advisers. I remember changing majors. I remember asking the folks in the financial aid office if I could audit classes without paying for them because we could only take 18 credits. I remember enrolling in 17 credits and having 4 jobs (three on campus, one off-campus) and playing 2 sports (swimming and track) and still having time to be involved in Earth Club (hug a tree!) and Alpha Lambda Epsilon (Bear Well the Torch, my brothers and sisters!).

I'm an adviser. Students can register themselves electronically if they have over 30 credits. If they have less than that or are in a learning support class, they have to be registered by an adviser. I'm registering students right now who have no idea what classes they want, no idea how many they need to take, and no idea what is required by their major. They come into my office and they want to take the minimum number of credits to be considered full time but they don't want to be here at 8am and they don't want night classes and they don't want to come to campus every day and they don't want to take two "hard" classes at the same time.

They want Fitness Walking. They want Public Speaking. They want the guy who teaches College Algebra that everyone says is super easy and gives everyone an A. They want those classes to total 12 hours instead of 7 hours and they want them to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 2pm but they want to be able to drive into town for lunch because our campus cafe isn't good enough. And they want me to put together a schedule for them that meets these criteria while they text their friends and chat on their cell phones.

That's when I throw them out of my office.

If your mother didn't teach you better than that, get out. If you can't be bothered to put a little effort into your own future, get out. If you don't know why you're in college, get out. If you're too stupid to understand that Weight Training and Introduction to Statistics are not interchangeable, get out. I'm not going to help you. Get out of my office.

I suspect I'm one of only a few people here on campus who throw people out of the office on a regular basis. I hear horror stories from my fellow faculty members about behavior inside and outside the classroom, and I think, "Why? Why would you put up with that?" Then it makes me nervous. I'm new here. What if I'm not supposed to be asking these students to be responsible and respectful? What if I'm supposed to baby them? What if I'm supposed to be a maternal figure? A mother hen?

As my own mother would say, "What the Hell is wrong with you?"

I was raised by one of the least sympathetic mothers of all time. And she raised one of the most histrionic children of all time. But that's irrelevant. These students are not my children. They are adults, and I'm sick and tired of people not treating them that way. I have high expectations of my students, and they can expect the same of me. They are young, that's true, but they've been waiting a long time to be treated like adults, so just do it already. Hold them accountable. Force them to be involved in their own education. And for heaven's sake, tell them the truth.

I advise a lot of nursing students, and a lot of them are not going to be nurses. Ever. I'm constantly stuck in a conversation that starts with, "Is there anyone else I can take for Anatomy and Physiology? Because I heard [insert ANYONE here] is too hard." Listen, these are introductory courses. If you're not getting it now, you're in trouble. They hate math, they're afraid of chemistry, they complain about lab assignments, but they want to be nurses. Who is telling you that nurses get paid big bucks to sit around all day? They're lying to you! Stop believing them! What do you WANT to do with your life? You don't know? Then take a lot of different courses and find out, or take a semester off and figure it out. It's your education. It's your life.

I understand that many of our students are under special circumstances. Many are first generation high school graduates. Many come from families where they don't have proper role models. Many have deficiencies in their core curricula because they were on the "wrong" track in high school. Many have learning disabilities. But that doesn't excuse them from taking responsibility for their education.

So until they get a clue, I'm going to keep throwing them out of my office. And hope I get tenure anyway.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pants On The Ground

This is not a biology problem, and before moving here I didn't consider it an ethnic problem, but it's a problem.

The first time I ever really noticed it was when I was at UGA. And it was a multicultural problem: white guys, black guys, Asian guys... It was a guy thing. Here in Swainsboro, it tends to be a black thing, which makes it difficult to address without being accused of racism.

In my opinion, asking a young man to pull up his pants is not racist, it's professional. This is college. This is your chance to present yourself to an intellectual community. Do you really want to do that with your ass hanging out of your pants? REALLY? For what it's worth, I'm also not a fan of sweatpants or pajamas, either. And don't think I won't ask you to cover up your breasts if they spilleth over. That's the way you present yourself? REALLY?

Now, I remember wearing wearing pajamas to class. I remember wearing my track pants to class after swim practice. I remember pretending not to care at all what other people thought and yet spending ages picking out which sweatpants I should wear to class that day. I was presenting myself as casual. Laid back. Smooth. Carefree. Individualistic.


But I promise you I never walked around with my underwear sho-  Oops. Wait. That's not true. I never went to CLASS with my underwear showing. I promise.

A male student asked me, "Dr. B! Did you yell at someone about their pants being low in the Registrar's office today?" It wasn't me, but I was his first guess, because I'd gotten after him and his friends before. Typically all I ask is whether or not there is a reason I'm being forced to look at their underpants. They say no, and they pull their pants up. If they're wearing a long shirt and I can't see it, I don't care. It's baggy. Baggy is unflattering, but it's not inappropriate. At this point, the few on campus who are the worst offenders pull their pants up the minute they see me. I smile and say hello and ask after them and treat them as I would any other college student. They seem fine with it.

Recently, one of my other students claimed that his government professor told him that wearing pants buckled below the crotch is about "street cred" and I shouldn't be so critical. It's racist. "Your government professor is a middle aged white guy from Alabama. He's your expert?" I don't buy it. This is an academic environment. Put your best face forward. Do you want to be a thug or a college graduate? Why in the Hell are you here?

So, I'm going to keep asking them to pull up their damn pants.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dirty Rotten Cheaters

I have to talk about the cheating, because it's obnoxious.

Cheating is not limited to southerners or small schools or even juvenile delinquents. Economics graduate students do it. Professional athletes do it. My mother would never do it, but only because she's a really terrible liar. Maybe your mom did it? My point is that it's not just the poor and uneducated who lack the scruples necessary to resist opportunities to cheat. Lots of people lack scruples. They don't sell those at Wal-Mart, you know.

I enjoy small class sizes. I have a lot of control over my students because I can see them. I can walk around and watch them as they take their exams. It would be difficult - not impossible - to cheat during one of my exams. In fact, I rarely have a problem with cheating in my class, either because they are very clever at hiding it or because they are afraid to get caught. Semesters worth of lackluster test scores indicate that they just don't do it.

They say cheaters never prosper, but is that true? I don't think we can say for sure. At the time, it might seem like a good idea. Or at the very least, it seems inconsequential. Unless you get caught, who does it really hurt?

I don't condone cheating, but I certainly understand the train of thought that may re-route you into Cheater Town. Perhaps Cheater Town is simply a stop on your journey. It's not like you're going to live in Cheater Town the rest of your life, right? You just intend to cut through Cheater Town to get to Prosperityville, where you promise to be a model citizen. But the thing about Cheater Town is that it's highly addictive. You can do whatever you want, and nothing requires very much work. Oh the people who've been permanently stranded in Cheater Town. The folks in Prosperityville pray for you.

I recently suspected that a student cheated on my Biology lab exam. I did not see her cheat, but for someone who never shows up to labs, fails all her other exams, and didn't bring a calculator with her, a perfect score (and calculations to the hundredth digit without showing work) was a bit... unusual. This girl is cute, and bubbly, and very sweet. She even drew a little Church of God cross and flame over her name. She would NEVER cheat, right?

She took the exam late, because she was allegedly in the hospital. I don't do make-up exams (there is a provision in the rubric for missed exams), but for a lab exam I am a bit more lenient. I told her that if she brought me proof that she was indeed in the hospital and could not take the test, she could make it up. She brought me a hospital discharge slip. I made a copy and told her I would be checking on it. She took the exam and bounced on her merry way.

Then I noticed the perfect score. Then I called to verify the signature on the discharge slip. Because of HIPAA, I can't even ask if the student was seen at the hospital, let alone ask when she was seen, or for what. All I can do is FAX the slip to the hospital and ask the person who signed the form to verify their signature. Easy peasy.

This signature checked out, but the rest of the form did not. Without disclosing details, the nurse said that her signature was valid but that she did not fill out that particular form. So the signature, while her's, was fraudulent. "We have a problem," I said. "Oh yes, we do," she replied.

What I do and what she does are two separate things and need not interact, so we said our goodbyes and I contacted my boss. I assume she did the same. Whether she or the hospital file charges against my student for forgery is none of my business. This student faces huge consequences in my class, some of which have already been explained to her. I'm going to have to involve myself in a giant procedure created to ensure that students get due process and we get a ton of paperwork. But she violated the student code, and there are consequences for that kid of behavior. "I made a bad choice and I'm sorry," won't cut it. It's not enough. I don't believe that you are really sorry. The evidence does not lend you any credibility. You are young, but you are an adult. Getting away with it now makes it okay in the future. And it's not okay.

The worst part? The little cross and flame over her name. She committed forgery, cheated on a test, and then draws a religious symbol over her name. I am offended. For whom I don't know for sure. I'm neither religious nor spiritual, but I'm offended that someone would use a Christian symbol when they are clearly up to no good. It's the height of hypocrisy. I would feel the same if the symbol were Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist... it's wrong. It's offensive.

How do we discourage this behavior? I work hard to set a good example. I outline all rules and expectations plainly at the beginning of class. I maintain high standards for myself and my students. I don't put up with disruptive or disrespectful behavior. I make consequences known ahead of time. And yet... they still cheat. The ability to squash the urge to cheat must come from within. I can't give it to them. They have to bring a certain amount of maturity to the table. It's up to them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


How do you get an entire room full of students to pay attention to everything you say? Apparently, you should drop your papers and say, "Dammit!" The media acknowledges a direct correlation between the use of foul language and approval. Should I use a lot of curse words in my lectures? Is that the way to keep them interested? I consider swearing to be unprofessional, and I try not to do it, which is hard because I always do it. I have a problem with bad language. As a professor I have to curb the urge to yell, "Son of a bitch!" at my contaminated bacterial cultures the same way I try not to say, "What the Hell are you doing?" to my 6 year old nephew. I feel that it's important for me to set an example, to be a leader, a role model.

After I dropped my papers and used a swear, a student said, "You're the coolest teacher I have, Dr. B, seriously." Because I swore? I mean, I am pretty awesome, and you're in for an amazing lecture once I pick all this shit stuff back up, but should you really like me because I swore? That's a silly reason to bestow "coolness" on someone. And yet, I watch educators scrape and grovel for student approval all the time. It's true that if students are paying attention they are going to learn more. But should we make asses fools of ourselves in the name of learning? I don't really need an 18 year old kid to think I'm cool, but I do need him to pay attention.

So, what the fuck would you do? Can you be popular and professional? I'd like to think so. I don't want them to say, "Dr. B is so awesome; she swears!" I'd rather they say, "Dr. B is awesome; we discussed natural selection and she showed us the coolest videos from the Galapagos!"

I've had professors who tried to be "cool" and it was embarrassing. I appreciated a professor who was smart, knowledgeable about the subject, and comfortable enough in their own skin to own their passions. If you think chemistry is dorky, you probably shouldn't stand up in front of 300 students and try to convince them chemistry isn't dorky. I love biology. I love ecology. I love agriculture. I could talk about them all damn day. I sit in my office trying to find ways to engage students, but I'm not going to humiliate myself (or lower my standards) to get a classroom of 18 year old kids to like me. Unfortunately, whether or not your students like you seems to be a big deal.

Sites like Rate My Professor allow students to give scores based on "easiness" or "hotness" instead of quality education parameters. Is this the way we pick our professors? I can't remember choosing science over art because I thought my bio prof was hotter than my art prof. In my case it was true, but that's not why I switched. What people don't appreciate is that educators get up in front of a classroom every single day, sometimes several times a day, and put themselves out there. It's only natural that we would seek approval from our audience. But seeking approval should not take precedent over facilitating the material.

It's intimidating enough to lecture to a large group of people. If I have to worry about which ones like me, I'm in trouble. If they like me, they might learn more, right? I disagree. Many students who fail my course take it over again with me, because they like me and don't want a different professor. Their affection for me had no bearing on their grade or their performance. So why seek their approval? Who is the better professor, the one who is more popular or the one who is more effective? If my students adore me but can't pass the post-test, then what does it matter how many chili peppers I have on Rate My Professor?

I have one chili pepper. That's fine. I'm also apparently helpful and clear, but hard. I can't really disagree with that. One review is a pretty small sample size, though. Without any data to back it up, I feel that today was a fantastic day. My students were really engaged in the lecture material and we had a grand time in lab. I'll take that over "Dammit!" any day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Educations Costs and Student "Brokeness"

At a recent departmental meeting, a math professor mentioned that several of his students would not be able to buy the graphing calculator usually required for Algebra and/or Calculus. He said they were too poor. Our department chair countered with his own observation that they all have smart phones and fancy shoes, and therefore should be able to buy a graphing calculator.

I agreed loudly, "Yeah," because I tend to be a bit unsympathetic.

The other professor got a bit agitated (not really, he's not an aggressive guy, but he was trying to make a point) and explained that many of his students are really, honest to goodness poor, and they can't afford anything. Another professor corroborated with her own account of purchasing online access for students who don't have credit cards. She is reimbursed in cash. This started a moderate debate (it was mostly a discussion, we're not a debate crowd) about the cost of education and the slow turnaround time of the financial aid packages.

Education costs money. So I guess the sticking point would be, "Is education a privilege or a right?" I tend to think it's a privilege, and therefore it's the student's responsibility to get the materials. But if you believe that all people have a right to a college education, our financial aid strategy may need a complete overhaul. The current financial aid packages are insufficient to provide everyone with everything that they need when they need it. Is it unfair to ask a biology student to purchase access to a website? Is requiring a calculator for math going too far? Where do you draw the line?

The conversation (as I said, all my colleagues are incredibly polite and kind and therefore would never actually yell or argue) got me to thinking about WHY I feel the way I do about college being a privilege. It's probably because I am not a child of privilege, and every penny I scraped together was used to buy books and calculators and lab materials. Many sacrifices were made in the name of my education, sacrifices that would not be necessary if college were a fundamental right.

My father was unemployed for all of the nineties and for some of the decades on either side. My mother is a teacher's aide. My younger brother was still at home when I left for college, and my parents took in a friend of his who was homeless at the time. So, it was a 1:1 exchange of mouths to feed. We had a house, and we had food, so I wasn't going to squabble over tuition or books. I paid my own way through college - I chose the college that gave me the most financial aid. It happened to be a small private college in Michigan that I could never have afforded otherwise. I took a full load and had up to 4 jobs per semester. I didn't have a car. I didn't have an apartment. There was one year when I didn't even have a winter coat. But I had my damn calculator.

What I fail to appreciate, I suppose, is that my family was supportive. They couldn't give me money, but they were behind me, 100%. There are four college degrees in my family, and I have three of them. I didn't have to pay for daycare or take care of an ailing grandmother. I didn't have a husband or a mortgage payment. I lived on campus to reduce costs, but if I'd had children I wouldn't have been eligible for student housing. My situation, while pathetic at times, was my own. And I need to start realizing that these students have their own real problems, too. And many of them are trying, really really hard.

Is education a right, or a privilege?

ETA: I just discovered that The Chronicle of Higher Education is debating this very same thing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Can We Test That?

At the end of the semester my students must demonstrate their ability to think critically and use the scientific method by testing a hypothesis and presenting the results. It's not rocket science. The projects are simple, but must be based on valid observations and testable hypotheses. Usually, the students knock this assignment out of the park. I've been extremely pleased with their presentations and rarely hand out a bad grade.

This is significant because (apparently) I love to give out bad grades.

Many of these students are not science majors, so I hope that by taking my class they learn enough about science to navigate the natural world around them. I want them to process information critically and to think before they form an opinion.  They come to us with some strange beliefs anyway - "I didn't come from no damn monkey!" - and so I spend a lot of time encouraging discussion and clearing up confusion.

Major points of confusion:
  • evolution
  • natural selection
  • gene regulation
  • cancer
  • theory
  • global warming
  • cloning
  • antibiotics
  • hypothesis
The recent rash of mass bird deaths has generated buzz within the community because of the "apocolyptic nature" of the events. Historically, mass animal deaths are not really uncommon, from wildebeest to honeybees, populations can be affected by numerous variables, both natural and anthropogenic. The most famous incident resulted in mass species extinction and may have been caused by an asteroid. People always seem to forget about that one when talking about birds falling from the sky and toads exploding and whatnot. Many valid hypotheses abound regarding the recent rash of birds falling from the sky, fish floating to the surface, and crabs washing ashore. An example of an untestable hypothesis would be, "Apocalypse."

I'd like to blame the humanities for devaluing the word hypothesis, but I don't think that's exactly fair. They could blame me for making up words and ignoring grammar. Indeed, I carelessly wield a vocabulary as dangerous as a butcher's meat cleaver. But in science, a hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable. A theory is a hypothesis for which there are several lines of hard evidence. Unfortunately, people throw around the words "hypothesis" and "theory" to describe guesses and tenuous connections. A man on a commercial flight to Australia once told me, "I don't believe in global warming. It's just a theory." I pointed out the window to the ocean below us, "Theoretical physics gave man the ability to fly. How's that working out for you?"

How do we reconcile these definitions?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

State Standards and Student Apathy

My Fall 2010 Biology students were possibly the poorest students I've ever encountered. They didn't do anything. They didn't participate in class or study or even complain about their grades. It was the epitome of apathy. I did everything I could think of to help them: practice quizzes, chapter prep questions, classroom activities for kinesthetic learners, movies... and that's not counting the hours and hours I sit in my office waiting for them to come by for help. I posted video lectures and privately tutored them and did my very very best to facilitate the information. They didn't get it. I was baffled. I even asked them for suggestions, but of course they had none.

I started to wonder if there was something wrong with them. Our unique institutional status means that our students tend to skew toward the lower end on the spectrum of academic abilities, and that's fine. We're specialists, and we've adjusted our teaching styles accordingly. But the more I talked to students about their experiences, the more I started to wonder if the system was setting them up for failure. Many were taught science by coaches or part-time teachers, and while I have no way to evaluate the qualifications of any of these individuals, I do know that the students I get in my biology class haven't retained even the simplest biological concepts. Why not? I hypothesized that expectations are low and that there are no consequences for poor performance. 

According to the Georgia of Department of Education, there are state standards for grades 9-12, assessed by an end-of-course test (EOCT), and I was able to download a copy of the exam given in 2004. The test seems reasonable. Assuming the standards haven't' changed drastically, any student who took biology in high school should have seen the material presented in BIOL 1107 before enrolling in my class. Furthermore, 66% of Georgia students who took the exam met or exceeded these standards. This means that they are being held to a reasonable set of expectations. Apparently I have the 34% of students who did NOT meet the standard. Fantastic.

From the Georgia Department of Education website, "Improved teaching and learning are the main focus of Georgia’s education system. The EOCT align with the Georgia curriculum standards and include assessment of specific content knowledge and skills. The assessments provide diagnostic information to help students identify strengths and areas of need in learning, therefore improving performance in all high school courses and on other assessments, such as the GHSGT. The EOCT also provide data to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom instruction at the school and system levels." I've included the Spring 2010 assessment results below.

Sixty-six (66%) percent of Georgia’s students met or exceeded the standard for Biology. When comparing the Spring 2010 scores to the Spring 2009 scores, the percent of students meeting or exceeding the standard increased by two (2) percentage points in Biology. The percent of students achieving the exceeds standard performance level in Biology increased by one (1) percentage point between Spring 2009 and Spring 2010. Since the inception of the Biology EOCT as a GPS-based test, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard has increased by seven (7) percentage points from Spring 2006 to Spring 2010. The 2009 – 2010 Strategic Plan target for the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standard on the Biology EOCT was 66%. This target was met.

So, perhaps there are no consequences for poor performance, and this could explain my surprisingly low success rates in Freshman Bio? I know many students are pushed forward regardless of academic prowess, and that school districts are under immense fiscal pressure to prevent students from being held back, sometimes at the expense of the student's learning. But according to the Dept. of Ed., there are consequences for failing the EOCT. "The EOCT is administered upon completion of one of the above courses. Beginning with the 2004-2005 school year, a student’s EOCT score is averaged in as 15% of the final course grade. The student must have a final course grade of 70 or above to pass the course and earn credit toward graduation. When the student repeats a course to earn credit for graduation, he/she would participate in the EOCT at the end of the repeated course. EOCT scores will not be “banked”. The EOCT is also one criterion for a student to receive a variance for the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT)."

Hypothesis rejected.

So what now?