Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Mission Support

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I took this photo of the chemistry building at SLU yesterday at 8:15 am. Note that the curb marked “fire lane” and “no parking” is completely full of parked cars.

I tweeted the pic and threw some shade on our Office of Parking and Card Services, because last year, they insisted it would be impossible to allow people in our department to use the curb for short-term loading because of the fire hazard presented by parked cars. True to their word, they have ticketed students and staff in our department who have attempted to run quickly into the building to attend to experiments. Given that none of the cars this morning had parking citations, I can only conclude that vehicles belonging to facilities crews and contractors are special and do not pose the same fire hazard as our cars. Or, perhaps, this is administrative hypocrisy at its finest worst.

At Caltech, parking is treated as a resource meant to support its students and staff. Despite having a campus in densely-populated Los Angeles County, the institute didn’t even charge for parking until around a decade ago, when space started to become limited. My favorite aspect of parking at Caltech was that students and staff could park on yellow-curbed loading zones after 5 p.m. You could drive right up to the door of the lab building! It was wonderfully convenient, and a boon to safety since the walk to your car at night was short.

Given the many benefits of the Caltech system, I thought our department should raise the issue of instituting similar parking policy at SLU. I drafted this letter and sent it up the chain. Unfortunately, little came of it. Our department was granted a few passes that allowed holders to park in a slightly-less-distant parking lot (perhaps, 100 yards away instead of 200) if they need to run inside the building.

The different approaches to parking policy mark a stark contrast in culture between Caltech and SLU. At Caltech, resources are milked to improve the efficiency of students and staff. At SLU, students and staff are milked of financial resources. Perhaps no parking rule illustrates this difference more than how cars are treated at night. Whereas all parking at Caltech is free at night—whether you have a day pass or not—parking at SLU can cost $10, regardless of whether you have a daytime permit. If I attempt to park at the garage closest to the chemistry department on the night of a sports game, SLU will charge me $10. My parking permit is no good. What a wonderful way to treat your researchers!

This picture, from Caltech’s Instagram stream yesterday, illustrates another nice thing that Caltech does:

 

Must be lunchtime. Caltech ❤️s Ernie’s. #caltech #campus #caltechalumni #summergram #nomnom A photo posted by Caltech (@caltechedu) on

 

Ernie is a guy who runs a food truck at Caltech. He is an institution within the institution—a legend—serving great food at cheap prices. Caltech could easily boot him off campus and drive students and departments to use campus eateries. But instead, Caltech provides places for Ernie to park his truck, giving students an inexpensive, convenient option to eat. During my official intake meeting with HR at Caltech, the HR representative even took out a photocopied map and highlighted the spots on Ernie’s route. It was awesome.

I would strongly encourage any organization to emulate this behavior and think how it could allocate under-used resources to improve the efficiency and/or morale of its community. Why not let researchers park in loading zones at night? Why not let students use the department’s nice conference room after hours? Or the big-screen of the lecture hall to watch movies?

Why not foster a friendlier, welcoming environment, where your university’s resources are used to support students and staff rather than wring every last penny out of them?

Orgo Thursdays

Monday, August 10th, 2015

ed_academic_bigOne of the nice things about being a professor is that you have the agency necessary to successfully garner support for causes you feel are worthwhile. Earlier this year, I brought to SLU something that I had sorely missed from my time as an undergrad at NYU: organic division problem sessions. These were held once a month during the school year and worked as follows:

Each organic group took turns hosting the sessions. The hosts would be responsible for bringing pizza, beer, and 3 or 4 hard, graduate-level organic problems. The organic students and faculty would gather at 6 pm, eat, drink, and work the problems. Volunteers would put up their answers, the audience would nitpick and argue, the faculty would weigh in with suggestions, and if no one could figure them out, the people who brought the problems would set us straight.

The attendance of organic graduate students was expected, and undergraduates were welcome to attend. In something of a paradoxical twist, I think these sessions were instrumental in both (i) making me appreciate that organic chemistry is hard and (ii) making me feel like organic chemistry was something I could do.

At Harvard, I attended Christina White’s monthly organometallic sessions, even though I was the dumbest participant by far. Each person was responsible for bringing one slide that summarized a recent paper from the literature. While these weren’t problems, there was a fair amount of arguing over mechanisms. The White Lab’s departure to Illinois marked the end of these sessions for me. It’s kind of unfortunate that Harvard had nothing else—that I know of—considering the rich history of late-night organic chemistry seminars at Harvard led by Woodward.

Earlier this year, I decided to champion these blasts from the past and start one at SLU.

On the third Thursday of every month, I host a voluntary organic problem session. I bring pizza and three graduate-level problems, and the students work them over, present ideas, and face my ridicule—or occasionally, approbation. Usually I steal problems from texts, but if I’m feeling saucy, I’ll write them based on interesting papers I’ve come across and stashed away.

While attendance at Orgo Thursdays is completely voluntary—except for my grad students, for whom the session replaces group meeting that week—we’ve averaged 12 participants over the first seven sessions. That’s makes the sessions just a shade smaller than those at NYU, and isn’t too shabby given the size of our department.

Now that I’ve seen these sessions from both sides of the table, I am convinced of their value in a number of areas:

1. For any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The problems keep students and me thinking about fundamental course material long after final grades are in the books. The continued practice is going to help our grad students become better teachers and perform better on their comprehensive exams, which are taken in the summer between their second and third year.

2. There is something to be said for placing students in uncomfortable situations where they have to think on their feet and be brave. This is a life skill that classes often don’t focus on developing.

3. These sessions are a great opportunity for everyone to interact with people from other research groups. I believe strongly that departments should actively foster wide collegiality, where students and faculty have meaningful interactions not only with their labmates, but with people in other labs. Such an environment is so much more enjoyable and supportive than when each group is an island.

4. These sessions help me get to know our students better. It’s never a good situation when a professor has to write a ‘third’ rec-letter for a student he hasn’t talked to since a class four years ago.

5. The problem sessions give undergrad students an opportunity to stay involved in organic chemistry after their sophomore classes in the subject are done. Undergrads also get a taste for what graduate school is like, given they are working graduate-level problems alongside our graduate students. When I was an undergrad, it was empowering to participate in these sessions.

My plan is to keep hosting Orgo Thursdays until I run out of problems or money to buy pizza. So long as people keep coming, I assume they see value in the activity too.

Textbooks Make Me Feel Dirty

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

ChemBark Ed on Dollar BillWe’re three weeks away from the start of the semester at SLU, and this time of year always brings the first wave of e-mails from the next class of students. While these messages vary in length and tone, they can generally be distilled to one question: “Professor, what do I really need to buy for your course?”

Can I use the previous edition of the text? Do I really need a model kit? Do I really need the model kit on sale in the bookstore? Can I share my model kit with a friend? Do I have to buy the subscription for the online homework?

Whenever I read these e-mails, a part of me dies inside. I feel their pain. They’ve just paid their bills for thousands of dollars in tuition, with two more years of it to go. And now, after absorbing that massive hit, they’ve got to scrounge up another $375 dollars for my coursepack. It’s a slap in the face.

The cost of these materials makes me sick, and the prices are rising at an astounding rate. For my college organic text, I paid less than half of what students are asked to pay today. Are today’s books really worth double my book, which remains a valued reference on my office bookcase? Has our understanding of introductory organic chemistry really changed that significantly in the last 15 years? No.

I’ll be teaching Organic Chemistry I for Majors again and using the same coursepack we did when I arrived at SLU.  It contains: (i) the textbook, (ii) the solutions manual, (iii) a plastic model kit, and (iv) a subscription to the online homework assignments. That all costs about $375 when purchased together.

Three hundred and seventy-five American dollars!

While I could easily point the finger at the publishing companies as the villains that they are, ultimately, they are not the problem—I am. After all, I’m the one who assigns the books for my course. And for that, I’m truly sorry, but allow me to explain:

While there are a dozen good organic texts, I think we can all agree that it makes sense for a class to adopt a single textbook. As a teacher, I literally want everyone on the same page, with a precise understanding of what information everyone is responsible for. In the absence of a strong external force, inertia will govern this decision. It makes sense for an instructor or department to stick with the book it used the previous year, because the switching costs of an instructor having to rework the syllabus, slides, and order of practice problems can introduce a lot of unnecessary work. And there are benefits to students when we use the same book as the year before, because they can buy a used version. Furthermore, they can get something out of borrowing their friends’ old notes and exams.

Now, here’s where the publishing industry appears and sinks in its fangs. The used-book market poses a serious threat to their revenue stream, because they only make money by selling new copies. It’s the bookstores and old students who make money from the used-book market. So, what do the publishers do? Release a new edition! By releasing a new edition, the publishers can (i) find professors to drive orders of new books and (ii) stop printing the old edition so colleges can’t find enough used copies of it, forcing adoption of the new edition.

These new editions usually contain few or no substantive changes relative to the previous edition. It can be as silly as shuffling content between chapters, renumbering the practice problems, and adding a few new photos. Case in point is the 4th edition of the text I use now. Anyone with the 3rd edition would have no problem following my class, because hardly anything changed.

Another thing that burns me up is that by the 4th edition of a text, you’d expect all of the errors would have been ferreted out and corrected by now. Have they? No. I maintain a list of errata in the text on my webpage and use it to show my students that organic chemistry must be hard—not even the textbook’s author can get it right.

Textbook publishers erode the used-book market to drive the sale of expensive new editions, but professors are complicit in maintaining this skewed market. Why? Because we are the ones that assign these textbooks as required course materials. And you know why professors don’t especially care? Because we get our textbooks for free. The publishers will just give away a $250 text to us because they want us to force 200 students to buy it. They’ll even sweeten the deal by giving us free lecture slides that correspond to the text. The sales technique is brilliant: make life as easy as possible for the professors and give them free stuff so that they will force their students to buy your product. While it’s not exactly a kickback, it’s not terribly far from it.

So, the textbook market is not a fair one as far as students are concerned. Students can’t shop around for the highest quality book at the best price; they are essentially required to buy whatever textbook their professor decides at whatever price the publisher is charging. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you sick, publishers send instructors e-mails like the one I received a month ago:

From: <Textbook Publisher>
Subject: When it’s required, they’re prepared required_advert_450Disgustingly shameless. I feel gross just reading it.

Hey, instructor buddy! You want your students to learn? Well, then you need to *require* them to purchase our expensive online add-on! And don’t worry—we’ll give instructors free access to the system, of course!

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that authors and publishers perform a valuable service. While our understanding of first-year organic chemistry hasn’t changed in 30 years, our ability to make instructive figures has certainly improved to the point that no one would choose a text from the 1980s over those offered today. So yeah, publishers should be compensated for the materials they produce. But at the same time, there is a limit to what is reasonable. Issuing a ‘new’ edition every three years at $375 a pop is ridiculous.

So, students, please forgive me. I know the system is unfair, but there really isn’t a good alternative at the moment. I would much rather you spend $375 on a nice iPad and download the coursepack for free. Unfortunately, the free organic texts in existence pale in comparison to the expensive texts out there, and the time required for a professor to produce all of the necessary materials for a class is too much to do in one shot. I hope you will believe me when I say that I’m working on it, but it’s going to take some time. Every year I produce a little more material and build towards the goal of obviating the need for an expensive text. Give me 20 years and that should become reality. I hope someone else beats me to it.

Thesis Acknowledgments

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

ed_academic_bigChemjobber has a post up asking readers what information they put in the acknowledgments sections of their dissertations.

I have always been fascinated by whom grad students choose to acknowledge. As a first-year, I used to pull old theses off the shelves of our group room and read the acknowledgments sections from front-to-back. Some were long; some were incredibly terse. Some were over-effusive in praise; some had cutting zingers. But every acknowledgments section was interesting and, I felt, gave me some sense of the personality of the student whose research had helped lead the group to where it was.

About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept and hunt for interesting names: Nobel laureates, current professors, recent friends who’d graduated, and grad students present at remarkable events (e.g., when Corey won the Nobel, when various professors had moved labs, and when Jason Altom took his life). I’d flip through their work, admire the figures, and always finish by reading the entirety of their acknowledgments. It was fascinating, and I cherished the glimpse of what each scientist was feeling at my point in their career.

People often joke that your acknowledgments are the only part of your thesis anyone will read carefully, including the professors on your committee. But that isn’t a joke—it’s the truth. When I was writing my thesis, I viewed writing the acknowledgments section as a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone from my educational career, past and present. It was six-and-a-half pages of joy to write.

And since the dissertation guidelines at my school allowed students to include epigraphs, I twisted a line of a famous poem such that it would serve, in my estimation, as a sufficiently veiled comment on my sentiments at the time.

To this day, I keep a copy of my dissertation on my iPad and I read the acknowledgments section every four months or so. Yes, I’ve almost memorized it by now, but reading it again always brings back a flood of happy, sad, and funny memories.

Sometimes, you need that.

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.