Archive for the 'education' category

Winding paths

May 02 2018 Published by under education

This past fall, the child that was in my big belly when I defended my dissertation started kindergarten. It wasn’t a hard transition for him. He had been in full day daycare from the age of 5 months when I started my postdoc. It was a big deal for me, though. My baby was growing up! It was also made a bigger deal by the fact that all the parents around me could talk about was school open houses they had been to, how they were going to choose a school, and how good these various schools were. People spend a lot of time thinking about where their children should go to school.

Many people go to great lengths to get their kids into the “right” schools. Sometimes moving, sometimes selling and buying houses, sometimes paying an arm and a leg or driving across town every day to allow their child access to a private or charter school. Of course everyone wants the best for their kids, but what makes a school the right school? What is it all for?

The goal of getting one’s child into the “best school” I imagine is to give the kid the best life they can live. Presumably, that is by helping them succeed in life. Everyone wants to provide their kids the education that will give them the best opportunity for success. They want to place them in the environment will set them up for success. But what does success mean?

Is success educational attainment? A prestigious job? Making the most money? Or Is success something less tangible, like happiness or “making a difference”?

Thinking about all of this brings up for me my own path and the paths of those around me. There are so many variations on educational and career paths. I didn’t go to any fancy school growing up. I lived in a small town and went to the one high school in the city limits. The big decision in my area was whether to live inside the city limits and send your kids to the city school or live outside and have your children attend the county school. Neither was ranked nationally.

For college, I went to a good school, but I chose not to attend a better ranked school because I didn’t think it was worth the extra money. It seemed like such a big decision at the time, but here I am, 15 years later, and I can’t tell you how that affected my life. While I’m sure my college experience affected my path and who I am, I don’t know what experience I would have had at a different school. What about elementary and middle school? How much of an impact do they have?

There are so many directions one can go even after a straightforward grade school experience. I had a very straightforward path up until my most recent transition. After high school, a small liberal arts college, summer science fellowship, graduate school for a PhD, postdoc. Then I had a career crisis when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now have a job one would not have predicted from my education. I have a coworker who had some elements of my journey, college and grad school were involved, but yet it was very different. She started at community college, she had a job in a medical field before deciding to go to grad school, and she did a policy fellowship after a postdoc. Yet now she has the same job that I have.

People find their paths. Yes, good education is important. Quality education is important for all and we should invest in education for our nation’s students. However, for a child that has a family that cares enough to debate what school they should go to, perhaps each educational decision is not going to make or break their future. They have the support to deal with the situations they will face, and a variety of experiences will help them face what life has in store.

 

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Is this cheating or is it networking?

Mar 19 2018 Published by under academia, cheating, conflict, education

I’m a TA for a large undergraduate course that’s required for premed and bio majors. As I was grading the first exam of the course, I was scoring an open-ended question that was vaguely worded. So I was surprised when many of the students put together the exact cookie-cutter answer the professor was looking for.

“How on earth did they know what she was asking here?” I said to another TA. “Did you guys cover this explicitly in review sessions?”

The other TA answered, “No we really didn’t talk about that too much. But I think a similar question was on last semester’s exam? She refused to let them have a copy of that to study from, though. So I don’t know how they could have seen that.” She frowned at her pile of exams, “I’m having the same concerns with another question.”

A few minutes and a brief internet search later, we figured out that the exam from last semester was still posted online and although it was not available to current students, the exam and answer key were still accessible to last semester’s students. So, basically, any student who knew a former student would have had an answer key prior to the exam since the professor re-used the same exam from the preceding semester.

Upon review, it became clear from the lack of variety in responses to the open-ended questions that most of the students who had scored well on the exam had seen a copy of the answer key. For instance, one question asked students to draw and label the structures of the pituitary gland. The professor, on the answer key, drew the organ from an unusual angle. Many of the students did the same, although this was not how the pituitary gland was drawn in the text, in lectures, or in most online resources.

We, of course, immediately alerted the professor to the situation. She promised to make the next exam ‘harder’. In my mind, this was not a sufficient response to the inequities of the present exam, because the students clearly did not have access to the same study resources so I don’t think it was a very fair test.

Students who were able to get old exams and answer keys were simply using all resources at their disposal to study—although from a pedagogical perspective, if students simply reiterate answers they may not understand well, they’re clearly not getting much information out of the course. On the other hand, I sympathized with students who did not have access to the old exam through their social connections, studied hard, and did not score as well. I worry that they might be discouraged from putting in honest work in the future because of this experience.

What would you do in this situation? As a TA, I feel really frustrated and can imagine what the students who didn’t have the answer key feel. Of course, I think the professor should not have re-used last semester’s exam. I personally thought the professor should have done a mea culpa and not factored this exam into the final grade but she said that was not an option. I really hope she will create new exams in the future and I’ve even offered with the other TAs to write the next exam. But I just don’t have a lot of power in this situation.

Although I personally don’t think the students cheated in this case, since the answer key was so easily available, there’s a fine line between them and these guys, who, in my opinion, clearly cheated—although they seem to think their behavior was justified as ‘networking’.

Briefly, the link goes to a case where a professor re-used old exam questions although he took pains not to allow copies of his exams to fall into students’ hands. Some students managed to photograph their exams behind his back and passed them on to friends in the course. The thread was started by a student who did not have a copy of this exam, found out others did, and wasn’t sure what to do about it. Many responses posted on the thread were along the lines of this one: “Life isn’t fair, bruh, time to make some friends.”

Reading what those students wrote makes me wonder– what are the differences between cheating, slightly unethical behavior, and networking (especially in 2018 where such lines are completely blurred, even in the highest office in America)? Is cheating just networking to a greater extent?

The pre-med students who have been rewarded with high grades for ‘networking’ don’t seem motivated to outgrow this behavior either—CNN revealed radiology residents cheated on their board exams by basically the same means—which, frankly, could put our healthcare at risk.

I’m feeling naïve in my belief that students come to college to learn (as I did), or that they’re here for anything more than a grade on a transcript and a fat salary down the road. But, especially for pre-med and medical students, academia is set up to reward grades over knowledge, students learn to game this system by ‘networking’, and it’s difficult to know what, if anything, to do to change that.

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Getting to know you

What I really wanted to know.

Image from: http://www.fallingfifth.com/comics/20070105

In my courses this semester I have over 100 neuroscience students, ranging from just-declared sophomores to early grad students, and I am trying to get to know each one! It’s a challenge but I know it’s important, especially for the early level students, to feel connected and comfortable talking with a professor in their field, and even if all I know is their name and face, that could improve the chances of their being comfortable with me. Throughout the first weeks of the semester I ask each student to tell me (verbally or in writing depending on the size of the class) what brought them to study neuroscience, what excites them, and what their goals are.

It is remarkable (but not surprising if you know or remember college students) the range, from  “I have no clue what I’m doing but this seems cool,” to “I was drawn to neuroscience by a specific event and am on a path to medicine/research with a specialty in this ultra-specific sub-field.” One thing that has struck me is how many students are drawn to the field because of a first-hand experience with a brain-related trauma or disease, especially given the young age of the majority of my students.

More than anything though, it is refreshing. I love to see things through their wide (but not naïve!) eyes, hear their personal stories, and especially to learn about things I’ve never heard of that sparked their interests!

And I have one piece of advice for them, and everyone at this stage – try everything! Anything you think you might be interested in, any opportunities you’re presented with you think might be even a little interesting or beneficial – do it! Even if what you learn is that you don’t like that experience, that is extremely valuable as you home in on your goals and personal path. In some ways, this is most valuable advice for people who are so set on their path they don’t try it, or anything else, so if they at some point come to the realization that their top and only choice won’t work, it is devastating and difficult to find a new path. And while it’s never too late to try a variety of experiences, it’s never so easy and so cost-free as this early stage in your career.

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The hardest semester of my life

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a complaint. I had the hardest semester of my life but I got something great out of it.

I started a new job this fall – one of my top-choice careers, at one of my top-choice institutions! I am teaching undergraduate neuroscience students at a large university in a place I love, near family. But of course it couldn’t be that simple. Because of family-related issues, I couldn’t move there and get started full-time right away. So all fall I’ve been commuting between two different states to work part of the week at my new job and part of the week at my old postdoc research position. As you can imagine, it’s been a terrible to commute, and especially difficult to be away from my family, even part-time. Add to that health issues, deaths of family and friends, and more, and it’s been a nightmare overall, and a struggle to get through each day and week.

Despite all that, I found that I loved my new job and was excited about it throughout the semester, regardless of what else was going on. I looked forward to planning how to teach each lesson/topic, talking with students, and evaluating their performance. I love virtually every aspect of it! This was a stark contrast with my old job. Even though I couldn’t wait to return home to my family, I dreaded going back to my job in the lab. I did not want to do lab work, did not want to write or research, and, to my surprise, did not even look forward to helping my students with their research projects.

Realizing these thoughts and feelings about my work made me so happy that I could be confident about my choice in career paths. Up until I accepted this teaching position, I had been thinking that I would be equally happy doing that or teaching and running a small lab with undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus on the students more than cutting edge research. Now I realize that that would have been a mistake and I just can’t be excited (or do a good job) for research-related activities, outside of teaching students about research on an intellectual level.

So here I am on the home stretch of the hardest semester of my life (so far…), fully excited about my move to full-time lecturer, and for a fresh start for the new calendar year! It feels so good to be confident about my career choice and path forward.


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Gender exclusive STEM education?

This summer I enrolled my 6-year old daughter in a math camp exclusive to girls, “Girls Rock Math.” I knew about the existence of the camp before my daughter was old enough to enroll, and this year as she became eligible I did not hesitate to sign her up. She is showing keen interests in numbers and math, constantly performing arithmetic in her head. The one-week-long camp was held at a botanical garden, with its theme “Math-Magical Garden.” The campers explored patterns, shapes, mental math, and logical reasoning inspired by nature. My daughter had a great time. Everyday the camp ended with singing of inspiring and empowering songs about math, girls, female mathematicians, pi number, and not giving up, and she still sings the songs after five weeks.

In Seattle where I live, there were many other STEM camps and programs exclusively for girls. I marveled at the number of opportunities and thought this is a great era. Given the current demographics in STEM fields, girls interested in STEM could use all the opportunities and encouragement.

As summer ended I came to find out that Seattle Parks and Recreation newly created a science class for parents and children to attend together, called “Sonsational! Mad Science.” The original description of the class indicated that this class was for boys only. There was a bit of an uproar, and many concerned parents protested that it gave wrong messages to girls, and that the boys already had enough opportunities in STEM there was no need for new one. The office responded and claimed that the class was created in response to community requests. The city held “father-daughter dance” for more than 25 years with good attendance, and they were asked to organize a similar event for boys. Yes, nice dinners for girls and science for boys. Parks and Recreation later edited the description that even though the class is titled “Sonsational,” it is still open for all children. The office also claimed that the “father-daughter dance” is open for parents and children of any gender.

There were many responses and entertaining discussions in social media.  Many responders advocated to make the event title, description, and event itself gender neutral. Why not make it all inclusive? Why single out one sex in any activity? I got to thinking, should STEM education / programs be segregated between the sexes?  Is it helpful? To both sexes?  What are pros and cons?  

I asked my daughter, what if there were boys in the math camp?  Would things be different?  Would she still have liked it?  She said, boys tend to / can be more rough and disruptive than girls. The presence of boys would have made the camp less calm and peaceful.  She really enjoyed being with just girls and female teachers and assistants.  

Is this answer positive or negative?  Has she already formed a stereotype for boys?  A preference for not working with boys?  Should she just learn to get over roughness and disruptions and deal with it? Should she learn to cultivate and pursue her interests in any type of environment?  Is “Girls Rock Math” a good idea?

There are studies (for one) showing that graduates of all-girls schools have higher confidence in their math and science skills compared to their cohorts in coeducational schools. The proportion of girls who pursue careers in STEM fields is much higher in alumnae from single-sex schools than coed.  What is it about female-only education that produces such outcomes?

A recent survey by Microsoft lists conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models as reasons girls steer away from STEM fields. Perhaps those stereotypes and traditional gender expectations are less obvious and less reinforced in female-only surroundings.  So do we educate girls and boy separately, and build up their skills and confidence, and send them to the world?

Eventually, girls will grow up, go to college, and work side-by-side, up-and-down with male colleagues/superiors/subordinates.  If neither party was exposed to each other in professional settings until that point, would there be more seeds for conflicts than potentials for successful collaboration? Perhaps gender stereotypes are even more strengthened in segregated settings. If my daughter continued in girls-only camps and classes, she may never find out how to work with boys, or that there are calm and cooperative boys out there, too.

I suspect that the Google employee who wrote that now famous memo was never sufficiently exposed to female counterparts during his training.  If he was exposed to more female colleagues (i.e. bigger sample size), he might not have formed those blatant prejudices regarding women. Would not mutual respect be more likely together than separate?

It is a conundrum. How do we achieve equality, when one group is underrepresented?  Is segregation of the lagging group the best way?

Would I still enroll my daughter in “Girls Rock Math” next summer?  I have 6 months to think it over (sign ups start in Feb!).  My current parental challenge lies in maintaining my daughter’s math interest beyond the age of 15, segregated or not.


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