Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

My Design for Organic Exams

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

ed_academic_bigIt’s fall semester at SLU, and I’m teaching organic chemistry for our majors once again. Last year, I was focused on just getting through the course. I was so consumed by producing slides, homework assignments, practice exams, and real exams on a tight schedule that I didn’t get to think hard about the finer points of design until the class was over. Now, on the second pass, I can focus on making improvements rather than creating everything from scratch.

At SLU, instructors don’t get assigned TAs for proctoring and grading unless the class has greater than 30 students. In the spring, the majors’ class fell below this number and I had to think about designing exams to make grading as efficient as possible without eroding their effectiveness as tools for teaching and thoughtful evaluation. The system I settled on was different from my experience in both college and grad school, so I thought I’d share.

I’ve settled into a system in which quizzes and exams generally have four or five sections/problems picked from the following varieties: multiple choice, mechanism, synthesis, A+B reactions, explanations, and calculations. While I’ve never been a huge fan of multiple choice, it allows me to test a variety of straightforward points without the strain of having to grade a wide assortment of free-response questions. My multiple-choice questions are typically five choices, with students getting +5 points for a correct response and +2 points for leaving a question intentionally blank. This scoring system introduces a penalty for guessing; students need to recognize that sometimes the best option in life is to admit “I don’t know.”

In my system, if there is an exam on Wednesday, the students have a quiz due on the previous Friday that covers the same material. Each quiz contributes 2% to the final grade in the course, while each exam contributes 20%. The quiz has the same length, format, and answer sheet as the exam, except the problems are harder to compensate for the fact that I give students 48 hours for the quiz and allow them to talk with each other about the answers. I like how this approach requires the class to be familiar with the exam material almost a full week before the exam, and that students have an incentive to form study groups and debate answers to hard problems. I never learned as much in organic chemistry as when I was trying to defend my proposed answers to classmates. Finally, having what is essentially a hard practice exam due on the Friday before the “real” exam means that I can return it graded and marked with comments by Monday. In many cases, these quizzes serve as wake-up calls to students while there is still time to fix issues that need attention.

In every chemistry class I’ve taken, students either wrote their exam answers directly on the problem booklet or in small blue exam books. I find these response media are murder to grade because you spend so much time flipping through pages, hunting for answers, and flipping back to write the subtotal for that problem on the cover page. And, of course, there are always two or three students who get creative and write their answers out of order or on the back side of pages.

To solve this problem, I started writing exams such that students have to place all of their answers on a single letter-sized piece of paper. I draft an answer sheet for each exam on which it is clear where each answer should be written. When the answer is a single word or structure, I’ll typically draw a box for it. The use of a single sheet minimizes the burden of flipping, while the answer boxes (located at the same spot for every student) minimize the burden of hunting. Here’s a sample answer sheet typical of one of my orgo exams:

sample_exam_answer_sheet

I copy answer sheets onto 65-lb. card stock so that both sides of the sheet can be used without the pen ink bleeding through to the other side. I find that the smooth sheets sold under the Neenah brand are better than sheets of the less expensive Staples brand, which have an annoying coarse texture on one side. The card stock also gives a regal quality to the answer sheets. These puppies are suitable for framing and will withstand decades of wear if pinned to the refrigerator door of a proud parent.

Another nice thing about having students limit their answers to a single sheet is that the entire stack for the class can be scanned without hassle. Most modern office copiers are capable of sheet-feed scanning, so if your exams have no staples, you can scan the entire stack of paper all at once and e-mail the data to yourself as a single PDF. What a wonderful miracle of technology.

I scan the entire set of answer sheets both before and after I’ve graded them. In doing so, I have a permanent record of performance that I can access for eternity. If there is an issue over improper grading or a student attempting to cheat by altering answers upon return of the graded copy, I can refer to the electronic file. If a student needs a letter of recommendation two years down the road, I can open up the file and make specific comments about his/her performance. And if I want to mine data in the future for some pedagogical purpose or project, all of the data will be available for analysis.

A final important feature of each answer sheet is that I have a line for students to write their names at the top of the back side. This makes returning exams very simple, because I can fan them in columns in alphabetical order on a table and have students come in groups to pick them up. With only the top inch of the back page of each sheet exposed, students cannot see each other’s grades. Of course, as the columns thin out, I adjust the sheets to prevent greater exposure.

As I discussed before, I allow students to bring handwritten notes into exams. They serve to emphasize that organic chemistry is about analysis—not memorization. Also, having students organize the information of each unit onto a single sheet of paper forces them to make connections about the material in their minds ahead of the exam. This semester, I’ve started collecting, scanning, and returning these note sheets as well. I am fascinated at how students organize their thoughts, and I plan to use this information in my future letters of recommendation when appropriate. How an individual organizes her thoughts on paper gives you an interesting window into her mind.

So, that’s the system. Are there drawbacks? Yes. I tend not to write long mechanisms or synthesis problems that go over four steps, because there isn’t enough space to do so. With that said, I’m not sure if these problems offer much added benefit relative to alternatives with more concise answers.

One thing that I’ve found surprising is that even though the answers for the exam all fit on one page, there are students who still feel they need three hours to finish. I thought that offering four shorter exams instead of three longer ones would make time a non-factor, but often at the end of two hours, I still find myself nagging for all of the papers to be turned in.

Anyway, I like how this system works and will continue to modify it to work better for both the students and me. It is ironic that as a teacher, I feel that I am the one in the classroom who has the most to learn.

Our Faculty Position Ad: Behind the Scenes

Monday, October 13th, 2014

ed_academic_bigOur department is running its first tenure-track faculty search since I was hired last year, so it is my first chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of the process from the other side. Having experienced the joy and frustration of dealing with the academic job market from the side of an applicant, I figured our search is a good opportunity to pull back the curtain on what would otherwise be an opaque process. At the same time, such a post could be used to broadcast our position to as wide an audience as possible. That’s a win–win, baby.

You may have seen our official announcement, which ran in the August 18th edition of C&EN:

Saint Louis University, a Catholic Jesuit institution dedicated to student learning, research, health care, and service seeks applicants for a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in Chemistry starting Fall 2015. A Ph.D. is required and post-doctoral experience is preferred. Successful candidates will develop an independent research program and be committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry. Successful applicants will have an expertise in bioorganic chemistry, chemical biology or organic chemistry. The Department offers BA/BS degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and MS and PhD degrees in chemistry. Review of applications begins October 15th and will continue until the position is filled. All applications must be made online at https://jobs.slu.edu; also send CV, research plans, teaching philosophy, transcripts, and 3 reference letters to: chemsearch@slu.edu. Saint Louis University is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer, and encourages nominations and applications of women and underrepresented minorities.

These adverts have always struck me as stuffy, vague, and minimally informative, and ours is no exception. There are actually a couple of reasons for the brevity and stuffiness. First, magazines like C&EN charge handsomely per line—over $1 per character, with a $650 minimum—so you generally want these ads to be concise. Second, all of these announcements have to get cleared by the administration, and HR demands that certain information be included in any job posting. After placement of that information, there is little space for elaboration—just the basic facts.

So, allow me to read between the lines by providing some context and background about our posting. Our department began offering a biochemistry degree a few years ago, and it has become very popular. So popular that it is putting strain on the teaching assignments for our department. We need more professors able to teach biochemistry, and just as importantly, able to provide research opportunities for these majors. Bolstering our biological side will also allow us to offer more graduate courses in this area, which now is essentially impossible due to the scheduling demands of the undergraduate curriculum.

At the same time, the departure of one professor and the promotion of another into an administrative position have created a strain on the organic faculty. As far as organic goes, we offer a sophomore sequence for majors (with ~35 students), a sophomore sequence for non-majors (with ~250 students), a single-semester course for nursing students, an advanced course on organic spectroscopy, and usually two graduate organic courses each year (e.g., synthesis, physical organic, and medicinal). As a result, we are hoping that we can find a candidate who can not only teach biochemistry, but who also has the flexibility to teach organic.

So, that is what we mean when we say “committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry”. You have probably heard that many candidates get rejected from academic searches not because they lack talent, but because they do not fit the department’s current needs. We are undoubtedly going to be doling out some of those rejections, because we mean it when we say we want to hire someone with expertise in both biochemistry and organic chemistry. We are not simply throwing out these terms to try to cast as wide a net as possible. If you are strongly physical-organic (with no focus on a biological problem), it’s probably not going to work out. But if bioorganic chemistry is your bag, please apply! And the rest of you should be pals and tell your bioorganic/chembio friends about our listing.

The terseness of these job advertisements also prevents our providing more information about the school and our department. The advertisement says that we are a Catholic, Jesuit institution, and I imagine this could lead many applicants to develop preconceptions about the way things work at SLU. Having been here a year, I’d say that the Jesuit influence has more of an effect on the model the college uses for education (e.g., a broad core program weighed towards courses in philosophy and theology) rather than any particular influence on our department. When I was applying, I was concerned that my proposed research on origin-of-life chemistry would disqualify me due to conflict with Catholic beliefs. Obviously, it did not—I was hired—and I have encountered absolutely zero resistance with regard to this issue.

The school is governed by a board of trustees with a layperson majority. In fact, the school itself has argued (in public court records) that it is not a religious institution. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, stating “The university is not a religious institution simply because it is affiliated with the Jesuits or the Roman Catholic Church. A university’s motivation or aspiration to follow certain teachings does not indicate that it is ‘controlled by a religious creed’ such that religion dictates the corporate management of the university.” While the university takes great pride in its Catholic heritage and affiliation, it does not dominate the politics of the school or our department.

As far as our department goes, it reminds me of the chemistry department at NYU when I was an undergraduate. When I was at NYU, the graduate program was small-to-medium-sized and undergrads were given a lot of leeway in research. At SLU, we have 13 research faculty and we matriculate about 10 new graduate students each year. The most active labs have about 3-6 graduate students each—a very manageable size. This is also an exciting time for the department. We are converting the building adjacent to ours into laboratories, and we will expand into that space in March. Furthermore, the school just inaugurated a new president and we are set to have a major capital campaign to mark our bicentennial in 2018.

As far as people go, the faculty here gets along better than at any other department I’ve seen. I believe that most of the votes we’ve had in faculty meeting during my time here have been unanimous decisions. The graduate students get along with each other, and there is a lot of interaction among groups. This completely contradicts my experience in graduate school, where research groups were massive, faculty were absent for long stretches of time, professors talked incredible smack about each other behind their backs, and each lab was essentially its own island. While such a work environment is tolerable as a graduate student for a limited amount of time, I think my general preference is for something a little less caustic. Of course, the tradeoff is that we lack the resources of a powerhouse department. We have one NMR instrument, not nine. We have two administrative assistants for the department, whereas my graduate advisor had four just for himself.

But I like the balance of SLU. Balance in terms of size—we have a Ph.D. program, but not one so big that you lose touch of students or the lab. Balance in terms of effort—both research and teaching are valued. Balance in terms of students—both undergraduate and graduate students make meaningful contributions to research. Balance in terms of location—St. Louis is a medium-sized Metro area with plenty of culture, but not a megalopolis with an overwhelming cost of living.

And, that’s the whole story, more or less. It is not something any applicant would be expected to glean from our advert alone, but that’s how the system works. I am sure there are similar stories for many other departments who are looking to fill a specific need. While the information may trickle out in the form of personal communication and gossip, social media and the Internet allow free publication of the complete story. And, as longtime readers will know, that is one of the big reasons I love blogs: because they democratize information, making it accessible to everyone instead of people in the Old Boys’ Club who are in the know.

If you think you’d be a good fit for our department, please apply! If you think your labmate would be a good fit, tell her about our opening! And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.

 

For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.

How to Use an iPad for Orgo Lectures…and Embarrass Yourself

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

I am not a fan of chalkboards. Chalk is messy and always ends up somewhere on my clothes by the end of class. I also regularly encounter chalkboards that don’t erase well and become unreadable as more and more dust gets smeared across the slate. When I was in grad school, Andy Myers solved this problem by having his teaching assistants clean the board with water and squeegees *during* class. While I am not afforded the benefit of a squeegee team at SLU, I suppose we could hire some adjuncts.

Though I am not a fan of chalkboards, I am a big proponent of drawing structures and working problems during class. In the fall, there were a couple of times I resorted to using transparency film and colored pens. It worked, but it was clunky. In an effort to step up my game, over winter break, I went on eBay and shelled out some cash so that I could ditch the transparencies and use my iPad instead. My tool kit now includes:

1 iPad
1 tablet stylus
1 Apple lightning-to-VGA adapter
1 VGA switch box
2 VGA cables, 6′ long
1 handsome bag for transporting everything in style

ipad_teaching_kit

Prior to class, it usually takes me three or four minutes to turn on the projector, load my PowerPoint slide deck on the room computer, and plug my iPad into the projection system. This involves connecting the iPad to the projector through the lightning-to-VGA adapter and a VGA cable. If the room only has one input servicing the projector, you’ll need to use the VGA switch and a second VGA cable so you can toggle between your slides and the tablet.

Writing with the device is pretty simple. I use the app called Notability, which costs $4.99 and is worth every penny. Before class, I’ll upload PDF files of any quizzes or exams I want to review that day onto Google Drive, then download them into Notability on the tablet. Once you’ve done this, you can write/draw on top of the document and screencast everything through the projector. Here’s a screenshot of a typical session:

notability_example

I love the number of colors to choose from and the fact that you can save the marked PDF and post it for the benefit of the class. I’m still getting the hang of drawing structures as crisply as I would like, and I think part of the problem is the thickness of my stylus. I’m also considering buying a tablet with a wider screen, because things can get kind of cramped on the iPad.

While the overall system was recognized as an improvement by the students in their course evaluations, I should mention one little slip up I had in class. On average, I used the iPad for 5–10 minutes per lecture, and the vast majority of that time, I wasn’t connected to the Internet. On March 7th (the first Friday of Lent), I forgot to load the quiz/exam onto my iPad ahead of time. But the fix was simple: I could just connect to the Internet, download the file off the cloud, and be good to go.

So, that’s exactly what I did. What I forgot to do was to shut off the wireless connection after downloading the document. As I was going over the solution to a problem, the familiar chime of a Facebook message erupted from my iPad along with the following notification:

tarapushalert

The full message (which is truncated in the push alert) was:

tarachadconvo

Funny stuff. One of the many reasons I love my wife is her fantastic sense of humor. But at the time, all I remember seeing was “no meat” as I desperately tried to make the notification go away. The class was laughing pretty hard, but I wasn’t sure if it was at the content of the message or just the fact that a message had unexpectedly interrupted class. My worst fears were confirmed later in the day, when I had Tara re-send the message so I could see exactly how much of it showed up on the screen. I was hoping the worst of it was truncated away. Unfortunately, the worst of it was not.

I was pretty mortified, but I got over it. My main sources of solace were that (i) the students were a pretty cool group, (ii) the statement was a joke, and (iii) it could’ve been much worse considering other subjects Tara and I have discussed by text message.

At least my students were entertained by the exchange. I was able to find the Twitter accounts of a few of them by searching for my name, and sure enough, the incident made their feeds:

twitter_conversation_orgo_censored

Anyway, the take-home message is to put your iPad in “airplane mode” or turn off push alerts (and texts) to avoid disruptions and potential embarrassment during class. Or you can just marry a prude.

Some lessons are learned the hard way.

Update: First-Year Professor Craziness

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

ChemBark Moving to St. LouisHello, friends.

Apologies for the continued radio silence, especially in light of the fact that several instances of data manipulation have recently been exposed through “corrections” published in a variety of journals. The beautiful thing about having a blog is that you can update it whenever you want. Sometimes, life happens and blogging takes a back seat…

I continue to fly by the seat of my pants as a first-year assistant professor. One of the main differences about moving on from life as a grad student and postdoc to life as a professor is the tremendous weight of responsibility involved. If you put something off as a grad student or postdoc, you are usually just inconveniencing yourself. But when you fall short in your duties as a professor, the problem is compounded by the multitude of students who are affected. While a variety of to-dos may arise, it is simply untenable to show up to lecture unprepared, because you’re not just wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of 30+ students. And when you delay getting something set up in the lab, you are letting your group down. I imagine the feeling of being a new professor is similar in many respects to being a new parent—there is so much to do and so little time, but if you don’t get all of your work done, bad things will happen (not to you, but to innocent young’uns for whom you care deeply).

I’m teaching Organic Chemistry II this semester, which is proving to be enjoyable. Once again, it is somewhat stressful to have to create a brand new lecture every 48 hours, but I’ve got a great group of students to keep me going. In lab, my research group is growing and things are continuing to take flight. Outside of lab, I got married a month ago and that was splendid. As luck would have it, a few days after we returned to St. Louis, our high-rise apartment building experienced a massive flood because some genius left his window open over the winter break and the sprinkler lines in his room froze. The water damaged seven floors and knocked out all of the elevators in the building. Unfortunately, my wife and I live on the 11th floor. It is also unfortunate that I have a spinal cord injury that makes it difficult for me to climb stairs. So, since January 7th, I’ve been practically homeless. Some nights I sleep in my office, some nights I sleep in a hotel, some nights I invest the 90 minutes it takes for me to crawl up the 10 flights of stairs. My wife and our dog have been real troopers in this ordeal, and it sounds like one elevator might be working by the end of the week—though after four weeks of this crap, I am not holding my breath.

I hope to return to blogging more regularly soon. In parting, please enjoy a scan of a letter from my property management company to the tenants of our building. I want to vomit every time I read it.

 

clb_burst_pipe_letter

The Pauper Professor’s Orgo Library

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

chembarkfc_kit_200Well, it looks like I’ve been ignoring the blog again. Sorry about that.

We are in finals week here at SLU, and the end-of-the-semester crunch has definitely crunched me (with a lot of help from lab stuff, two chemistry “business” trips within the last month, and the fact that I will be getting married in two weeks (!).

I’m teaching Organic 1 this semester, and it has consumed an inordinate amount of time. But the experience has also been a lot of fun and a good training ground for figuring out how to run a class efficiently.

Like many orgo teachers, I began the year by insisting to the students that the best way to do well in the class is to work practice problems (and lots of them). When I was a wee lad taking orgo at NYU, I walked uptown to the fantastic Barnes & Noble at 5th and 18th and bought copies of Vollhardt and Streitwieser to supplement the problems in Jones. My weekly routine was to read through the Jones chapter in two nights while also making index cards that cataloged each reaction along the way. The rest of my week would be spent doing all the problems in Jones, then as many in Streitwieser and Vollhardt as I could stomach.

But textbooks aren’t cheap, and I feel icky about asking students to shell out extra money for supplemental problems after they’ve already forked over $260 (!) for the class’s required textbook. Of course, the used-book market is flooded with cheap, old editions of organic textbooks.

Over the course of this semester, I undertook a mini-project that involved scouring half.com for deals and assembling a small library of textbooks and solutions manuals as a resource for my sophomore organic students. The last volume arrived two weeks ago, and now my collection occupies almost an entire bookshelf in my office:

cheap_orgo_textbook_library

There are 16 books there: 8 sets of texts and solutions manuals. Here’s what I paid for each book + manual:

Bruice: $3.43 + $0.75
Carey: $3.26 + $0.75
Heathcock/Kosower/Streitwieser: $1.05 + $1.18
Jones: $0.75 + $0.75
Loudon: $4.07 +$4.12
Smith: $0.00 + $0.00 (this is the one SLU uses)
Vollhardt/Schore: $1.05 + $0.75
Wade: $2.22 + $0.75

Those costs are steals compared to the prices listed on Amazon. The shipping on each item ranged from $1.89 to $3.99 and was always more than the cost of each book. In total, my little collection set me back $74.14. The plan for next semester is to cart them over to the main library where they can be kept on short-circulation reserve. Students can check out the books for a day at a time—long enough to work or copy the problems in a chapter, but not long enough to hog the resource. Anyway, with eight texts as options, I’m hoping the market for orgo practice problems at SLU is now saturated. I should never again hear wailing about there not being enough practice problems available.

Anyway, the final exam for my class is this Friday—the 13th. I expect the only students who will encounter bad luck are those who haven’t been working enough practice problems.