school

My odds of becoming a professor

Not good, and worse because I’m a woman.

Now, I’ve known that for a long time. But it’s not until today that I could see a number representing just how lousy my odds are. In a paper published in Current Biology, three scientists were able to take citation data from PubMed to calculate your odds of becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, or in layman’s terms, a professor who is the head of a research lab). They built a statistical model that took into account how various factors – number of publications, highest number of citations on a paper, gender – affected your chances, which you can figure out using their app.

PI_Predictor

My current odds of becoming a PI are 14%, but they’d be 26% if I were male. If I publish at least two first author papers before I graduate (a reasonable assumption), my odds go up to 23% (still not as much as a male scientist with my current status), while a man would have 34% chance.

Just to give these numbers some perspective, they’d be depressing even without the glaring gender differences. Most grad students nearing their defense are going to have odds around mine; some better, some worse. I have three papers (one first author), they’re in average journals and have almost no citations (hey, kangaroo rat copulatory plug genetics is a pretty niche field, ok?). I’m pretty average when it comes to the variables that affect your chances. And our odds are still crummy. Or at the Onion put it in “New STEM Education Initiative Inspires Girls To Earn Less Than Men In Scientific Career,”

“”Today’s girls have the potential to become the physicists and chemists of tomorrow, powerlessly watching as their male counterparts are promoted over them, their intellects are ignored, and their research is underrepresented in scientific journals. Our mission is to let every young woman know that such a future isn’t a fantasy; it’s a reality they can most certainly achieve.” Grant admitted, however, that such opportunities depended upon the slim chance that these girls even managed to be hired from a predominantly male applicant pool in the first place.”

I never hate my past self more than when…

…I’m trying to decipher mysterious comments I left in an old piece of code. Comments that made perfect sense a couple of months ago and that were painstakingly written so they would still be clear in the future, which still despite all that end up being completely nonsensical.

I thought everyone could use a little good news for a change

My labwork is finally starting to work after months of troubleshooting and more months of planning! This is the first positive feedback I’ve had in grad school since I passed my general exam a year ago!

I’ve had my first straight week where I’ve felt “okay” instead of the crippling hopelessness, worthlessness, anhedonia and despair of severe depression!

I’m home with my family to celebrate my mom’s birthday and also get to hang out with my best friend that I’ve known since first grade!

But most of all…

My mom’s cancer marker levels are officially in the normal range and she only has three more chemotherapy sessions left!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.

kthx,

Jen

Those boner-killing educated women

I’ve never been more glad that I’m getting my PhD. Apparently it’s a great way to keep away misogynistic idiots who think educated women decrease men’s happiness because they aren’t sexy. Because you know, fuck becoming educated and pursuing a career you’re passionate about – you should be acting sexy for some guy! Sorry lesbians and bisexuals, you don’t count. I know it sounds like nonsense, but he has a GRAPH!

Can’t argue with something made in Excel! How did he come up with this highly scientific, objective measurement of femininity and education?

A good test to see if a girl is over-educated is to add the word “sexy” before her job title. If the resulting phrase ignites arousing images in your head, then she’ll most likely have what it takes to satisfy you.

Sexy Waitress? Unf. Sexy Professor? Get the barf bag. I guess this explains why you never hear about Sexy Librarians or Sexy Nurses, and why nerdy girls universally repulse guys on the internet. …Wait.

Anything beyond a bachelors at a public university is a near guarantee she’ll possess a large basket of masculine traits that will prevent boners.

I’m getting nervous at this point. Why, I’m pursuing something beyond a bachelor’s! Though at least I’ve never attended a private, elitist, feminazi university. What terrible masculine traits have I been subjecting my boyfriend to?

1. They’re fat. (This guy probably thinks so)

2. They’re constantly glued to their phone. (Only men are allowed to do this)

5. They think being funny and witty is a quality that men love. (We all know women can’t be funny, right?!)

8. They wear flip-flops even when they’re not at the beach, pool, or in their house. (Comfort be damned, you should constantly be subjected to only the highest of heels!)

9. They have condoms in their drawers because they expect to have random sex with strange men. (I’m such a slut, using condoms)

10. They cannot dance. They also do not know how to sing or play basic musical instruments. (Doing the “shopping cart” counts as a dance move, right?)

12. They acquire pets instead of putting effort into landing a quality man. (I do have more photos of Pixel on my phone than my boyfriend…)

18. Their idea of travel is going to the beach or France. (Paris was awesome!)

24. They make lame excuses for not putting effort into their appearance. (Like “I look fine without makeup and don’t care enough to put forth the time or effort.” LAME!)

25. They obsess about the environment above what is reasonable, even though they pollute more than 90% of people in the world. (#1 pollutant is apparently the rays of masculinity I’m exuding)

33. They insist on eating pizza or otherwise fattening food after a night of binge drinking. (I guess only guys are allowed to fulfill their late night munchies with some nice biscuits and gravy or a Seattle Dog (hot dog with cream cheese and sautéed onions, mmmm))

35. They care more about maintaining their career than a good home. (Pay no attention to the mounds of dirty dishes and laundry)

36. They rarely wear high heels. (Because I don’t own any)

40. They like Ikea furniture. (But it’s like adult Legos! It’s a furniture amusement park! LINGONBERRY SAUCE!)

Pixel enjoying my Ikea furnishings

42. They go on and on about the stupidest shit. (Well, I am a blogger)

That’s only 15 out of 42, which is probably around the Average Masculinity Unit for 3rd year graduate students. By the time I’ve graduated, I’ll probably have picked up a few more terrible traits, like getting acne and watching too much tv.

But this is the money quote for me:

Unless you’re a latent homosexual, you won’t get many benefits from a relationship with a woman on the right side of the chart.

Wow, I never knew my current boyfriend and all of my exes were secretly latent homosexuals! Apparently it’s easy to confuse “latent homosexuality” with “not being an idiotic misogynistic jackass.”

(Via Man Boobz)

Purdue welcomes new students with a dose of religious privilege

Going off to college is an exciting time. For many students, it’s the first time in their life that they’ll be far away from friends and family. That independence is awesome, but it also means you’re trying to awkwardly adapt to your new home, make new friends, and fit in. Universities often try to make this process as painless as possible, but my alma mater Purdue University missed the ball when they sent this email to incoming students (emphasis mine):

Welcome from Religious Student Organizations

You are about to become a Boilermaker – Congratulations!  This is an incredible place, not only to continue your education, but to experience all that the university has to offer through the plethora of student organizations.  We want to encourage you to think about growing in your spiritual life as well.  There are around 40 different religious student groups that offer places for worship, prayer, study, conversation, and fellowship, as well as opportunities to put faith into action through service opportunities, mission trips, and faith-based initiatives.

Please go to our website: www.campusfaith.info where you will find links to student ministries and organizations that are non-denominational, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, ecumenical, etc.  You’ll also have opportunities to meet several faith groups during Boiler Gold Rush.  Groups will be at:

–Activities Fair: Tuesday, August 14, 11:00 am-1:00 pm, in the Armory
–Faith Fest: Saturday, August 18, 4:00-5:00 pm, on the Memorial Mall

Welcome to Purdue.
University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

========================================
Sent from the Office of the Dean of Students on behalf of the University Religious Leaders and Religious Student Organizations

Anna Biela, current President of the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue (the group I founded!) perfectly sums up why this email is inappropriate:

The Society of Non-Theists finds it highly inappropriate for a public university to endorse religion in such a way. We feel that incoming freshmen should not be pressured into joining a religious institution, especially not by the university itself. Rhetoric of this variety is alienating to non-religious students and can make them feel like outsiders before they even set foot on this campus.

And this has made at least one non-religious student feel like an outsider. The student who brought this email to my attention wishes to remain anonymous (I can’t imagine why in Indiana), but had this to say about how the email made them feel:

I was taken aback that this was one of the few emails chosen to be sent to all incoming students. Why not “Welcome from *all* student organizations”? The choice to send this email presumes that all incoming students are interested in spiritual growth; worse still, it tacitly implies that spiritual growth corresponds solely to organized religion. Overall, the email gave me the distinct impression that Purdue will not be a welcoming community for a student more likely to worship Carl Sagan than any deity.

That’s why this email is such a perfect example of religious privilege. It automatically assumed that spirituality is 1. Something everyone is interested in 2. Important and good 3. Worth promoting over other things. You don’t see the Dean of Students sending out emails to incoming freshmen on behalf of the Purdue Progressive Coalition. At the very least they could have been more inclusive by including an option for the non-religious students, or sending out an email for clubs in general and listing major themes (Academics, Activism, Religion, etc). But positively promoting religious groups alone is a type of endorsement that is inappropriate for a public university like Purdue.

I know some of you are probably thinking “Who cares? Who is this really hurting? Suck it up!” But I can tell you first hand how awful it feel to be a religious outsider, especially at Purdue.

Annual pro-life demonstration at Purdue, because all aborted fetsuses are Christian

When I came there, I felt like the only non-Christian on campus. I was constantly getting religious advertisements from groups in my mailbox. People were always asking me where I went to church, and some literally would stop talking to me and briskly walk away when they found out I was an atheist. Campus preachers were common. Students from Christian groups spot lonely freshmen in the dorm common rooms and offer up friendship if you’d just come to their Bible study. They prey on the desperation of lonely homesick students to convert them (which unfortunately happened to a good friend of mine).

The hand of God creating life…a piece of art in our Biology building

I co-founded the Society of Non-Theists to combat this notion that everyone on campus was religious, and to provide a safe place for students who were not. We’d get people screaming at our tables saying we’re going to hell. As President, I received hate mail. At graduation, I was treated to a choir repeatedly singing “Amen.” The one time we tried to use a public display case, it was vandalized.

By sending that email, Purdue has effectively labeled non-theistic students as “others” in an environment where they would already be ostracized.

Anna tells me the Society of Non-Theists will be meeting with the Dean of Students on Monday to address these issues and discuss making campus more inclusive in the future. I’m optimistic since the Purdue administration has always been fair to our group in the past, and I don’t think this email was sent out of malice toward non-religious students. But I do think they were unaware of the religious privilege they were promoting, so it’s good someone is pointing it out.

What should we call grad school?

I wanted to share one of my recent favorite things with you, especially since I know I have a surprising number of readers who are either in grad school or have been in it. I present to you the tumblr “What should we call grad school?” Here are some of my favorites:

“How I feel when I answer all the questions during my presentation”

“When I realize the talk is on computational biology”

“My audience when I tell them my data is trending on significance”

“When someone tells me they want to go into industry”

“Trying to pass my dead end project to someone else”

If you don’t get any of the jokes…well, then you’re probably not a grad student.

This is post 30 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Fixing Math Education – or – How I Learned to Stop Lecturing and Love the Common Core Standards

This is a guest post by Mark Webster, continuing his tradition of guest posting for me during Blogathon. He is a graduate of Purdue University from the School of Science in the field of Mathematics Education and is currently a High School Mathematics Teacher in Indiana.

Please note that the author is representing general trends and personal experiences of a trained educator combined with popular evidence-based practices.  By no means is this exhaustive.  Please do not be butthurt. If you have evidence-based practices that conflict with anything I have said, please feel free to leave a comment.

There has been a lot of discussion on the problems in education, in general, but never do you hear a bigger cry for change in any other subject than you do in Mathematics.  Perhaps it is time to analyze the problem and line up some solutions.*

Who are the problems in Math Education?

Teachers are certainly not the only problem, but when deciding to figure out the problem, it’s always best to start inward.  In this post, I will be looking at what teachers need to focus on.

In our schools, there is still a lot of passive learning going on.  What is passive learning, you may ask?  Let me answer your question with another question:

When you imagine a math class, what do you think of?

Probably something like this:

**

A teacher, facing the board, not interacting with his students.  Many of us, myself included, have had experiences like this.  No teacher-student interaction. No checks for understanding.  No eye contact.  Perhaps, even more pernicious, there may not even be an analysis of the learning and long term progress of students.

Direct lecture-style math classrooms create an environment of passive learning.  The teacher says a bunch of words at the front of the board; maybe, if he is a more dynamic teacher, waves his arms around a little bit; and then throws quizzes and tests at you. (Multiple, if you’re lucky—on the college level, there is rarely regular assessment…but that is neither here nor there.)

Even worse, the math classroom suffers from a lack of student metacognition and critical thinking—an ailment in a math classroom that baffles me to no end, particularly because that is, more often than not, the go-to excuse that teachers trot out when a student asks them “When are we going to use this?”

Rarely is the question asked, “Is our children learning?”, the answer to which is, more often than not, either “No.” or “Not well enough.”  Now it is time to move beyond that question to “How can we help them to learn?”

How will the Common Core Standards help?

One of the country-wide initiatives that will be taking hold in the coming years, the transition to which will be complete in 2015, is called the Common Core Standards.  While there are standards for Math and English, for obvious reasons (Hint: I’m a math teacher) I will be only talking about the Math standards.

1. Stricter Math standards for the USA.

If you look on the national report cards, you might notice grades for the states are changing. Of the 50 states, only six of them have not bought into the common core standards.  If you or your children are students in any state besides Washington, Alaska, Texas, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Virginia, you will have (hopefully) heard of the change.  A common set of standards across the country will mean that students are learning with the same level of rigor and relevance in Indiana as they are in New York or Mississippi.

2. Increased focus on Critical Thinking

In my professional development and my own personal research on the PARCC exams, I’ve come across the same thing over and over:  The standardized tests of the past will not go away, but they will be refocused.  Instead of fifty “Math Problems” on a test, the student may be given five or six “Math Tasks.”  These tasks may involve, on the elementary school end, explaining the purpose of a step within a problem that they have completed for you, finding errors in simplifying a problem down and explaining what the error is, or even taking a newspaper article and analyzing it to take a position, using evidence.  Instead of focusing on finding an answer, the test will be concerned with how they can apply math to that answer.  How wild!

3. Broader, more targeted learning objectives

Most state standards and assessments have, in the past, been far more focused on students simply demonstrating their knowledge of a process, i.e. “Plot these two points and determine whether the slope is positive or negative.”  Common Core standards are far more broad and far more targeted.  Much like the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics standards, the Common Core standards concern themselves with specific domains of learning and applying them to metacognitive tasks.

Now, instead of plotting those points on the exam; they may, instead, be given a question that asks them to analyze, display, and track profit margins for a company and take a position on whether or not they will be able to afford to stay open in five years.

The accountability is changing from teaching mathematical processes to teaching thought processes. I approve of this, but does this really address the problems that we have seen above? I don’t think so.

So…How Do We Do This?

There are many champions of new processes within the Math Education community.  Many of you have heard of Salman Khan and his famous Khan Academy, fewer of you have probably heard of Dan Meyer***—some Math teachers even haven’t (A fact which breaks my heart.), and I’m sure even less of you know about the conflict of pedagogical styles that lies between them.

Let’s break them down:

Dan Meyer’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as WCYDWT? or What Can You Do With This? and has slowly morphed into something he calls Any Questions? is designed as a student-centered, inquiry-based, generally collaborative effort to force students to lead the discussion and gain ownership of the material by creating the payoff in the medium used to teach the material; and, instead of spoon feeding them concepts, force them to push through a mathematical task and create the demand for the material.

Salman Khan’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as a series of youtube videos, has become a website, and some might say a school, of its own.  The Khan Academy allows students to develop on their own, facilitates continuous improvement for the students at their own pace and on their own terms, and allows for constant pedagogical moderation.

Math teachers and parents alike have raised concerns about the methodologies that these two men have created.  Dan Meyer critics fight him because they believe his philosophy creates a lack of rigor.  Salman Khan critics fight him because his videos do just as much lecturing as one might see in a classroom, and do nothing to enrich and create ownership of the material.

Even with the miles of space between their two philosophies, it is worth the time to compare them and see a similarity:

These philosophies depend on a consistent foundation of what has come before.  The genius of Dan Meyer’s method lies in the students being able to work through the tasks because they are absolutely prepared to tackle it.  The utility of Sal Khan’s method is that because students get to a topic on their own terms, they are prepared to see it and they can meet it head on.

Without constant analysis and moderation of our students’ learning, we cannot teach to our fullest potential.  If we leave students by the wayside because we don’t know where they are, we have put a student in a hole that they may not be able to escape from.

*I’m by no means the first nor am I the most qualified person to look at this.  We’ve been overhauling since before I started teaching, but one more eye on the problem can’t hurt. Even if I’m not saying anything new, informing new people can’t hurt. Right?

**http://www.canyonville.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Math-Class-620×270.jpg  Disclaimer: This picture is not necessarily an indictment of this teacher.  It is a photo that I found on the internet with a teacher that had his back to the classroom.  The fact that it took me about five minutes to find one is encouraging to me.

***Full Disclosure: I worship the ground upon which this man walks. The classroom ideal he has created is my personal mission.

This is post 28 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

How would you reform education in the US?

Sometimes I wish that when it comes to the institution of education in the US, we could just wipe the slate clean. I know that’s impossible, and that you have to work with the existing infrastructure and culture to make gradual progress. But if I could start from scratch and design a new educational system, these are some of the things I’d do:

  1. Raise teacher pay. I’m sure everyone here has had both wonderful and shitty teachers. One of the ways to reduce the number of terrible teachers isn’t to evaluate their performance of those of their students…but to actually pay them what they’re worth. Teachers are training our entire population how to think, yet they often have to work extra jobs just to pay the bills. I know too many people who were passionate about teaching and would have been wonderful teachers, but they went into other fields because they didn’t want to get paid diddly squat. We need to make the job more inviting to the best and the brightest by making it competitively priced.
  2. Less standardized testing. Standardized testing is basically bullshit. It doesn’t accurately measure intelligence or your likelihood of succeeding in college or your career. The only thing you can glean from looking at someone’s scores is their socio-economic status. Kids from rich areas with supportive families do much better than kids living in the ghetto with families who can’t even feed them. Hence why evaluating teachers based on their students is ridiculous. It discourages teachers from working in schools that need good teachers the most, and penalizes teachers who happen to get assigned lower level classes instead of the brightest honors students.
  3. Fail more people. Our country has become so obsessed with crap like “No Child Left Behind” and statistics that it’s forgotten the main point of education: To learn. Instead schools are constantly lowering their standards in order to graduate more students, lest they lose government funding. A high school diploma used to mean something. Now a college diploma doesn’t even assure you’ll get a job. Hell, people with biology PhDs have  a terribly bleak job market. We need to make these things mean something again. If you can’t read past an 8th grade level and can’t do basic algebra, then you should have to repeat the 8th grade.
  4. Promote vocational training. If you want to drop out of high school at age 16 because you know you’re going to be a chef or mechanic, then more power to you. We need to remove the stigma from people who have interests and passion and skill that’s not best used on memorizing Shakespeare (while obviously keeping the Shakespeare for those who want it). Lower the social pressure that says you need to go to college in order to be successful…since it’s simply not true.
  5. Teach how to think, not just memorizing facts. We have people who are college graduates without the slightest grasp of logic or the scientific method. People who can regurgitate the dates that wars occurred but not the politics behind why they occurred. People who can blindly follow instructions but who freeze up when encouraged to be creative or come up with their own plan. Science classes should be more about the process, and art classes should be embraced to foster creativity.
I’m sure I could come up with a million more improvements, but those are the ones that pop into my head first. How would you reform education?

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Another academic accomplishment!

A new paper that I’m an author on has just been published in DNA and Cell Biology!

It’s a slightly atypical paper, though. When I was a senior undergraduate at Purdue, the Department of Biology staff nominated me to help develop the curriculum of a new NSF-funded, research-based, freshman honors biology laboratory course called CASPiE (Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education). That description is a mouth-full, but it basically means these freshman Biology majors were doing real research for a semester, instead of your typical cookbook lab experiments where the outcome is already known. The class was taught by a professor, a graduate student, and me. I like to say that my main duty was making sure the students plated their bacteria on the correct media and didn’t set themselves on fire*, but I also got to give a lecture on evolution and help out with general concepts throughout the semester.

And now that research has been published in a special undergraduate research edition of the journal DNA and Cell Biology. And it’s atypical because the subject matter is vastly outside of my normal field and interests: Isolation and Preliminary Characterization of Amino Acid Substitution Mutations That Increase the Activity of the Osmoregulated ProP Protein of Salmonella Enterica Serovar Typhimurium. That is going to look bizarrely random on my CV.

But the main congratulations go to the undergrads. They’d be juniors now, and having a paper published by then in a major accomplishment. So kudos to them!

*Though one somehow managed to set the rubber tubing connecting to the gas source on fire. I had a moment of “WTF” and then calmly turned the gas off, and the fire went out. Yay lab classes!

*insert academic joy here* :D

This fell into my inbox this morning:

“Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive a 2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship.”

:D :D :D :D

Can’t say anything else. Too busy dancing around the room.

In other Harry Potter news…

My alma matre, Purdue University, won the Quidditch World Cup in their division!

Woooooooooooooooo, go Purdue! Boiler up!

What’s that? How’s our football team doing? What’s the upcoming basketball season looking like? Hell if I know.