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Wrong wrong wrong August 17, 2019

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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I was working on something today that suddenly brought me back to a meeting I had about a decade ago. I was working as a researcher but also teaching as a lecturer in one of the academic departments.

I had been getting frustrated because I wanted to teach more technical courses. The department chair kept refusing to let me take any.

In the meantime, there were at least two other people adjuncting who really had no business in a classroom. One of whom had been hired after the department chair asked my husband to teach the course. My husband said he was too busy but that I was interested since it was my area of expertise. They hired this other person instead…and then fired him midway through the semester.

I tried to talk to the chair about this because, frankly, I felt slighted. Instead of convincing him that my interest in teaching and subject matter and prior teaching training and experience would make me the perfect person to teach this upper-level course that needed staffing, he seemed uninterested and asked me why I wanted to teach the course. I told him it would help me toward my goal of becoming a professor. Then told me what he really thought:

You will never get a job as an engineering professor with most of your degrees in other areas. You’re just not qualified.

When I remembered this today, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Grading policies and equity March 28, 2019

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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When I was a grad student in electrical engineering, I had to sit in on a couple of undergraduate courses to fill some knowledge gaps.  One of the classes I sat in on was the second semester of circuits.  The prof had a very interesting grading structure: he only graded you on whether your answers were right or wrong, although you had to show your work.  Then he took the grades and renormalized them to fit a bell curve.

The whole “all or nothing” approach was quite intimidating, but I can see why it made sense in classes of 60-100 students and why he would then use renormalization to determine the grade distribution.

When I taught physics for the first time, I thought that renormalization would be a good way to handle the very frustrating bi-modal grade distributions that pop up.  I would move the class average up to where I thought it should be and while Fs were generally still Fs, I found that they were Fs that could be recovered from with a lot of hard work.  For students with low frustration tolerance, this will probably make no difference and they will shut off.  No one wants to fail, but not everyone has the experience to know how to handle it constructively, unfortunately.  However, there are a number of F students who, with some mentoring and pep-talks, step up and get their grades into the passing range.  Those students later become very solid students because they understand that hard work will get you a lot farther than brilliance, although I think we all recognize that brilliance can give you a bit of a boost.

I have discovered, not surprisingly, that this grading method is a problem because even most A-students at that level don’t understand statistics.  Numerous times in student evaluations, I had students complain about how someone would get a 10 point increase in their grade while they managed only to get a 3-point increase.  They failed to realize that the 10-point increase was still an F and their 3-point increase bumped them from a high C to a low B.

As I am not one of those teachers that believes “you have it or you don’t,” I find this frustrating.  Often times the students who do well in the classes had opportunities in high school that others didn’t or were simply more focused on their educational goals.  More than once, I have had students whose parents were not educated and advocated that their children go to trade schools.  The children agreed that was what they would do, foregoing advanced math and physics courses until a school counselor or math or science teacher saw promise in the student and suggested that engineering would be a suitable profession.  Of course, the student then comes to college a couple years behind their peers and is expected to perform similarly.

This is a macrocosm of the equality vs equity argument you often see discussed when talking about efforts to broaden the demographics in STEM fields.  An excellent discussion and the graphic below can be found here.


It’s unintentional, but students complaining about grading policies, in this instance, can be an example of how people unwittingly reinforce the status quo.  The student who received three points (1 box) is only aware of that the other student received 10 points (3 boxes) but is unaware of the fact that this student started from a spot that was lower than their position.  Fairness is too often tied to the notion of equality.

I’m still struggling how to explain grades and point differences in terms of fairness, equity, and equality to my freshman classes.  Any of my students will tell you I’m a hard grader, so it’s not that I’m handing out participation prizes.  However, a little bit of a leg up right in the beginning of someone’s college career can make the difference between their long-term success and failure despite the fact that it seems unfair.

Fitbit and the Plague January 13, 2019

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal.
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One of my Christmas presents this year was a new Fitbit Versa.  I was overjoyed with this because I had done some serious damage to my previous Fitbit.  I had also been eyeing an Apple watch but wasn’t entirely happy with some of its limitations.

I began wearing it immediately and played with fun functions like assessing my health level and that jazz.

Then I got sick.  It started as just a head cold that I caught from older son.  After a couple days, he was fine and back to normal.  I, however, had started hearing rice krispies and bag-pipes in my lungs.  I had a nice visit with the doctor where he informed me that I was dealing with one of the worst asthma attacks I’d had in years and it was probably set off by the cold and the exhaustion from the semester (and, let’s be honest, probably not taking my inhaler as regularly as I should’ve been).  I came home with a whole pharmacy in my purse and began trying to get things under control.  Of course, a few days later, I had to go on a trip for work.

My Fitbit was my guide through all this.  As I started on the prednisone, it very helpfully informed me that fitness level was rapidly decreasing relative to other women my age.  While I was already aware that slowly walking to my various destinations was causing severe shortness of breath and coughing, my Fitbit so helpfully informed me that was I was reaching the top levels of my cardio zone.  When I would wake completely unrested from having woken up coughing several times, it reminded me that my sleep was incomplete and that I hadn’t met my sleep goal.

Of course, my favorite was the helpful reminders that I only needed 200+ steps within the next ten minutes to meet my daily goal (before I died from pulmonary insufficiency or an aneurism from all the coughing).  I felt like I was being judged worse by the watch than by the people who were obviously angry with me for bringing the plague onto their aircraft.  (The doctor said I wasn’t contagious!)

I was very much starting to resent the thing after a couple days of this.  I kept wishing there was a way to tell it I was sick so it was stop trying to encourage me to hack up a lung.

As much I like my Fitbit, I think that next time I get sick, it will probably go on a hiatus until I recover.  I don’t need to be stressed out AND sick.

The force on a horse December 7, 2018

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, teaching.
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Yesterday, while teaching class, I had an uncontrollable laughing fit that lasted a good five minutes and involved me crying.

We were studying a problem involving a horse on a raft, and so I kept saying “the force on the horse,” which lead to the Mr. Ed song running through my head…kind of.

What was actually running through my head was the following:

The force on a horse, of course, of course,

is the gravity force, of course,

unless the force on the horse is buoyancy instead.

So every time I started talking about the problem, I would say, “the force on the horse,” which would start a mental chorus of the above song or I would stop laughing and see the students laughing (probably because they were wondering what was wrong with me).

Finally, I stopped laughing because I started saying “the force on the animal.”  It wasn’t quite as catchy.

Summer days drifting away August 6, 2018

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, teaching, work, younger son.
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Tonight, I was bringing my younger son to the first meeting of his high school career.  I made the comment:

They’re starting everything off with a meeting.  That’s good practice for adulthood.

I was only half kidding.  As I said it, I realized how true it is.  This week, I have a couple days of meetings.  Next week, I will be in meetings for about three days.  The week after that, you guessed it, more meetings.

And then school starts.  It hit me that summer is finished for me.

I am much more disappointed about this than I expected to be, I think primarily because I’m losing some of my last couple weeks to meetings.  I was finally starting to feel recovered from last spring (aka the semester from hell).

That being said, it was in some ways both a summer both full of accomplishments and satisfyingly lacking in productivity.  I managed to spend a lot of time with my kid, which I owed him because I was gone so much last spring.  I started to write another paper.  I developed a lot of plans for how to improve this coming semester, although just having less courses to teach will automatically help.  I took care of a ton of small administrative tasks that need doing but are just plain boring and time-consuming.

I also got a lot more sleep (that is, more than 5 hours a night), spent more time outside, traveled, talked with friends and family, watched birds, smelled flowers, made friends, took a quilting class, did some crafts, read some books, and made a mental effort to step away from work.

I almost feel ready to start back up again…but I still don’t feel ready to sit in meetings.

The online text and the flipped class November 29, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, teaching.
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I ran into an issue earlier this year when I discovered that the ISBN I’d given to the bookstore for one of my classes was incorrect.  I thought I had provided the number for the full book but it turns out that it was only volume 2.  Since I figured this out a week before class and several students had already purchased the book, I felt like it was too late to go back and ask them to get volume 1 separately (which, I will also add, was a bit more expensive).

I decided this was a perfect time to try an online textbook and see how it went.  I thought this was particularly nice since it was free and no one could say they didn’t have the book.  While there are many advantages to the book, overall I’ve not been happy with it.

The first issue is that, as much as I hate to admit it, the published textbooks are a lot more comprehensive and rigorous.  They provide better overall explanations and the quantity and quality of example problems is much better.

The second and bigger issue, which may be somewhat specific to my class, is that online textbooks don’t really work well in class.  I teach a flipped class format and usually have students do problems out of the book in groups.  With a textbook, it only takes one person in a group to have a textbook, and that seems to work fine.  If they don’t have the tools to work the problems, they can go back into the text and find the answers.

With an online textbook, this process is more of a hassle.  First, only students who have laptops with them can access the book.  This is actually a fairly small percentage of my students (less than a 1/4), and depending on how they are arranged, there may be several groups without a laptop available.  I’ve started printing out the problems and making copies for each group.  The other difficulty is that students don’t have a place to look things up.  While some of my students take copious notes of the readings before class, that is also about a quarter of the class, and the rest don’t have any resources if they don’t have notes or a laptop/phone.

There are a couple positives to the online book, the primary one being that it’s free and so students aren’t going to be coughing up $200-$300 for a text.

Accessibility and convenience is not a clear benefit, contrary to what I thought.  The primary issue is that I have a lot of students who travel for sports.  While I thought the text being online would work better, not all of them carry laptops with them when they travel (for good reason).  They will, however, take textbooks with them.  I’d say the convenience issue is actually a draw between textbooks and online texts.

Overall, when I checked with the class, most of the students said they would rather have a regular textbook despite the cost.  That is my preference, as well, but it always helps to get student feedback.  I am not ruling it out for future classes, but I think the quality of the text would have to be substantially better to overlook the inconvenience caused by using it in a class with this format.

The best laid plans of mice and men… September 4, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in research, teaching, work.
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It’s the beginning of the new school year, and I decided my blog has been left neglected too long.

That, however, was the thought I had in early August, when I was in the middle of putting together a lab for the fall semester.  I therefore wasn’t in a good place to be writing.

I figured that, this semester, I’d have more time.  That was before a couple weeks ago.  In addition to teaching two new classes, I somehow ended up on faculty senate for the next year (along with a committee as part of that responsibility). I decided to continue my involvement with a committee I was on last year and ended up as chair.  And then I found out that I would be coordinating a search committee for a couple new faculty members.

My chair asked me how that happened.  I shrugged.  Best laid plans and all that…

There was also a CFP for a journal I’d like to submit to.  I have until December to write something up.

It’s a lot to do, but it also has been enjoyable in a way my previous job wasn’t.  I liked doing research, but when that’s all you’re doing, it’s a lot of time working alone or with a select group of people.  I always looked forward to teaching my class of freshmen in the fall just because it got me out and talking to people, which was a great way to break up the monotony.  While talking to myself was a great way to do some problem solving, I would get bored with my own company after a while.

I definitely have a lot of opportunities to be interacting with people now, so there’s little chance it will become monotonous.  At least, not until next summer.

My kingdom for a tutor (not Tudor)! February 24, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, physics, science, teaching.
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I’ve been very quiet.  There’s good reason for that: prepping for new classes is a lot of work.

Specifically, I’m teaching university physics for the first time, and I have to admit that it’s very different from the other side of the (hypothetical and totally non-existent) podium.  I’m also doing it as a flipped class, which is adding an extra layer of challenge as finding good videos is a particularly large time-suck.  (No, it’s not faster than writing my own notes…but it does seem to be more effective.)  Part of the reason it’s taking so much time is that I am spending a lot of time trying to figure out exactly where my students are at.  I can definitely tell that this is a struggle for the ones who haven’t had much calc before, which is a feeling I certainly can understand as I was in the same boat when I started college.  Unfortunately, we don’t have enough tutors who can handle physics to help everyone since our enrollment is way up. Not yet, anyway.

I am loathe to assume that someone who has insufficient math is not necessarily capable of passing physics.  (After all, almost everyone I know says that you learn as much calc in physics as you do in an actual calculus class, a viewpoint which has a certain amount of merit.)  As a result, I told students who didn’t do so well on the first test that I expected them to see me for weekly appointments.  (Note: I did not *require* them to…just said I expected it.  Not sure they understood the difference, but I figured it wasn’t worth explaining as most of them showed up.)  I think they weren’t too excited about it at first, but the ones who are showing up are doing so very regularly.  Apparently word got around, though, and even students who seem to be doing fairly well have started showing up, too.  My office hours have basically turned into giant study sessions.  (I think I need to start bringing donuts.)  I had half the class show up over a two day period for the latest homework.

I personally think this is good.  I am getting a sense for the kinds of things they have difficulty with and the overall frustration level has been decreasing, at least among the students coming in for help.  In particular, getting some help with reasoning and processes is more effective when it’s coming from someone who has been doing this stuff for a long time.  I’m tickled when they come in and automatically start doing the stuff I’ve been drilling them on (‘draw your free body diagram and then sum your forces!’) without any prompting.  I also never realized how much homeschooling my kids would come in handy: when you’ve supervised all grade levels of math, you end up picking up lots of handy tricks to make life easier.  I’m now able to pass those tidbits on to my students to help remedy some of the common computational issues I’ve run into.

I did tell them, however, that they better be prepared: next year, I will be teaching more classes, so they need to sign up to tutor the incoming freshman.  A couple of them laughed.  I don’t think they realized that I’m serious.

A New Semester January 17, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, teaching.
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I’m teaching physics this semester, and I have to admit that I’m in a slight panic.  At most places, physics is a 4 to 5 credit class.  It’s only 3 credits here, and I have a pretty strict schedule on what I need to get covered.  I can do it, as long as I don’t get off track, but it’s daunting.

The down side is that sometimes students don’t realize right away that they will be taking the class, so they miss the first couple days.  In my case, that means a week.

I’m doing something different in terms of homework, though, to compensate for how quickly we’re moving.  The students are getting a “mini” homework assignment each class.  Part of me knows this is going to be a pain because grading is generally one of my least favorite part of teaching.  (I think that’s true of most people I know, so I don’t feel terribly ashamed about it.)  The class is also “big,” which means the grading is going to take me longer than I had hoped.  I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea until I went through the first homework.

One of my late additions very clearly didn’t know what was going on.  I saw this was a problem and so I suggested he come see me so I could go over the information he missed.  This afternoon, I stepped him through my notes.  Things were rocking along and then he got that look on his face: it was like a giant light bulb went off.  He stopped, his mouth came open and his eyes seemed to pop out.  Then, after a few seconds, there was that slight smart to a smile.

Oh.  NOW I get it.

I really love that expression, and I think he’s happier because I gave him the opportunity to redo it now that he actually understands what we’re doing.

The perfect finish December 31, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I saw that Breitbart was proposing a cap on women admitted to STEM programs.  My first thought was a very sarcastic, “Well, that shouldn’t be hard.”  I read part of the article aloud to Mike, the part about how women don’t leave STEM because of external pressure.

Mike jumped in, “What ever happened to that one student you had?  The one that the other professor said should switch majors…”

I knew which student he meant.  I had a freshman who, when she went in for advising for spring semester, was told by her advisor that she should switch majors.  The reason he did this was because she was one point too low on the math placement exam to get into calculus, putting her a semester “behind.”  She came to me, almost in tears, because she didn’t know what to do.  She felt like she needed to listen to him but really didn’t want to switch.

I wasn’t very proud of what I did next because I know it was completely unprofessional, but it had to be done: I told her to ignore him and that he was being a jerk.  I don’t like ripping on my colleagues, but this individual had just told my BEST student that she didn’t belong in engineering.

It had been a while since I had talked to her, though the last time we spoke, she told me she had a summer internship at a local engineering firm.  I performed some google-fu and found an article that mentioned her.  It turns out that she graduated earlier this year with a degree in electrical engineering.  Even better, she graduated with honors.

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about how I handled that situation, but at least I can leave this year and begin the next with the thought that I did the right thing.

Have a happy new year!

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