Monday, November 15, 2010

One of the saddest things I have seen in the lab...

Today I am sitting in lab, and of the six students remaining only two of them seem to be actually making any effort.  I watch the two workers, and I am still frustrated by the increasing number of helpless slackers that seem to be an ever-increasing part of my labs.

Every semester I conduct problem-based learning exercises where I place students in groups of four to five.  The general pattern for most groups seems to be three of the people in the group are (A) lazy, (B) clueless, (C) apathetic, or (D) all of the above.  These slackers attempt to ride the coat tails of the more motivated students.  I have tried implementing punishments for this behavior, but nothing I do seems to work.  (I guess my only option is to walk around with a clipboard and mark them as participating or not participating.)  What's worse, the students who are now in the class are asking me to help them design a procedure that they have already done in an earlier lab!

Is this a consequence of No Child Left Behind (click here for Dr. Moon's video on the subject)?  Is this some sort of ludicrous trend in extended immaturity (If 30 is the new 20, then 20 is the new 10....)?

I am discouraged by this situation, but what is the alternative?  I could let these young people continue to wallow in a sea of disengaged anesthesia, and I'm not so arrogant enough to think that I can truly open their eyes.  Maybe they will finally grow up one day and demand more from their own children.  By this time, hopefully, the next generation will learn from their parents' apathy.

Rediscovering My Old Manifesto

Now that I have suffered through one of the most frustrating semesters of my teaching career, I have decided to revisit an idea that occurred to me in 2008. This idea is to be my manifesto of higher education. What is this idea? It's quite direct...

Confrontation shall be the sum of all education!

Does this mean that I will become an overbearing "sage on the stage", still a sad fixture within higher education?  Does this idea of confrontation mean I must adopt an adversarial attitude towards my students?  No, this idea means that I must seriously think about my role as an educator.  In order to confront the woefully inadequate preparation that too many of my students receive I can see they require three simple actions from me, to filter information, to assess basic proficiency, and to facilitate engagement.

The first two actions are relatively easy for me, since, I am considered a subject-matter expert.  I can, with a PhD in chemistry, find a myriad of real-world applications that capture the essence of different chemical concepts, and I can design challenging assessments that push my students to their intellectual limits.  The real challenge comes from the third role, facilitating engagement, a problem that many of those in my PLN (Professional Learning Network) can attest to being one of the most challenging parts of education.   

Another election...another round of funding cuts...what else is new?

Election day has come and gone this month.  A "tsunami" of anti-encumbent sentiment has swept many out of Congress, and I must now ask whether the new crowd will be helpful or harmful towards community college education.

In my own state the answer has already been handed down.  Our budgets will be decreased by another 15% when the next budget is passed.  The next round of draconian cuts promises to stretch tight budgets even tighter, despite the nearly 7% enrollment increase statewide.  Community colleges in Mississippi are now facing an uphill battle, especially with the prospect of funding being tied to graduation rates rather than just full time enrollment numbers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Student motivation...or a lack thereof

Recently, I have started conducting some of my office hours in my institution's tutoring center.  The reason for this change in my normal schedule is the hope that I can provide greater assistance to people enrolled in our chemistry courses.

The result of this effort, unfortunately, has been no change from conducting my office hours in my office.  Students just do not seem to seek out assistance.  I'm sure there have probably been studies about this phenomenon, but I just can't see how we, as educators, can create motivation.  Don't get wrong, I try extremely hard to make my lectures engaging as well as provide my students with resources that run the gamut of Bloom's Taxonomy.  The priorities of my students, though, seem to be focused on everything besides getting help.

I have to wonder how student services professionals or faculty can really engage students in the face of such apathy.  

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Very pleased with Mind42

As stated in a previous post, I have decided to abandon my traditional, snore-inducing lectures (using a ubiquitous slide producing application) in favor of interactive mind maps, and this post is my follow-up describing my likes/dislikes of my weapon of choice.  The application that I have chosen to use is Mind42.  You can see an example of one of my works in progress below.

What I like about this application:
  1. It's FREE!!!!
  2. You can attach links to different nodes as well as notes that contain text or Wikipedia references.
  3. You can collaborate/share easily with others.
  4. You can imbed published mind maps within blogs/sites.
Some features that I wish were there:
  1.  I wish Wikipedia was not the only reference source (Must review content for accuracy).
  2. I wish that you could export the map as something more than just an image file or PDF. (i.e. HTML)
On the whole, though, I'm really pleased with the capabilities of this application.  Please feel free to interact with the mind map shown and tell me what you think.

Note:  Notes/Wikipedia entries can be accessed by clicking on the paper clips, links by the world icons.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Batting Averages and Student Assessment

I was having a conversation recently with a university administrator, and the subject of standardized testing came up.  As someone who teaches, or at least attempts to teach, chemistry students who are the products of our current No Child Left Behind educational environment, I was struck with a sudden realization.  The students that arrive in my classroom seem woefully unprepared to apply any knowledge from their tenure in the K-12 system, and this lack of preparation is in no way evidenced by their standardized test scores or college entrance exams (ACT in the case of my institution).  Also, we as college educators often want  students who come pre-loaded with amazing abilities, but this is an unreasonable expectation for K-12 to meet if the primary goal is to pass standardized assessments for funding to keep the doors of their institutions open.

If part of the problem with the current system is teachers being forced to "teach the standardized tests", who determines the content for these assessments?  Now, please don't take this question as a denouncement of all standardized tests.  I think most of the time these tests provide a measure of raw talent, a useful piece of information, however, these exams provide little if any measure of subject-specific application.  Additionally, students have no way of determining the scope of their talents or their limitations within specific subjects.

My solution to this problem is to develop an index, call it the Applied Subject Knowledge Index (A.S.K. Index, gimmicky, huh?).  This assessment consists of content-specific questions that range from the lowest level literacy to the most advanced critical thinking exercise that a student might encounter within the first two years of college study and is to be given during a student's last year of high school or period prior to applying for college.  Content areas are separated into blocks, Biology/Biotechnology, Chemistry/Biochemistry, Languages/Literature/Technical Writing, Physics, Mathematics/Statistics.  The questions in each content are submitted by two different stakeholders.  Private-sector interests (corporations, companies, etc.) submit questions that test a student's knowledge area regarding skills they look for in a potential employee.  Public-sector interests like academia and government agencies balance the fads that sometimes occur in the private sector by focusing on the core competencies needed to survive in their own communities.  The development of this assessment must also be transparent to both stakeholders as well as the K-12 educational community at large in terms of slightly broad areas of content application rather than overly specific topics that might lead school districts to "teach the test".  Secondly, freedom should be given to school districts to assess their own student populations with variations of this index in order to determine adjustments that might be required to their curriculum, provided the results of these assessments are shared with state/federal agencies.

So, what does this hypothetical index have to do with batting averages?  Simple, in the majors a player that can bat .300 or better is considered to be a solid asset to his team.  This means said player is considered a pretty good batter if he hits the ball only 30% of the time.  In other words, he is expected to fail at the task of batting nearly 70% of the time since the task he is undertaking is so difficult.  This spectacular failure rate is exactly what I propose as the expectation of the ASK index, a difficulty so great as to test the limits of any student.  In this way students are not expected to be "geniuses" but are encouraged to be honest about what they know or don't know about a given subject.  Extremely talented students obtain a measure of their actual understanding as well as a goal to push themselves.  Average students also receive information about their talents as well as an advising tool to help them determine a career path.

Colleges/universities also receive a much more detailed assessment of a potential recruit.  Students scoring an overall 25-30% should be considered as solid assets to a college institution, and high performance in specific content areas should be used to advise a student on career options.  Students that score lower on the index should be encouraged to take a more developmental route through community colleges for one year before attempting the ASK exam again.  Scores for each attempt of the exam should be retained as a measure of a student's intellectual evolution (also a great measure of growing maturity/work ethic) and as a means of providing detailed feedback to the student as to their talents/shortcomings.

Private sector interests should also find this index useful in providing feedback to the workforce as to which skills are strong and which areas need improvement.  In this way industry can be more confident about the intellectual talent that is available in our country.

I realize that I am proposing yet another assessment to what seems to be an ever-growing number of tests, exams, etc.  However, if the current system is to be changed, a concerted, transparent effort between the higher education enterprise and the industries receiving the graduates is desperately needed.  Otherwise, our nation is going to continue this ludicrous cycle of blaming K-12 educators as incompetent for not achieving standards that are never clearly set or students for being "lazy", disengaged brats, both labels that only serve to make education out to be a hopeless endeavor. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

They don't even realize where they might need chemistry...

I remember reading an article about a new discovery from GA Tech that involves the use of magnetic nanoparticles to slow the transport of free cancer cells throught the body, thereby limiting the metastatic growth of some cancers. This technique involves the selective attachment of nanometer-scale magnetic particles to the free-floating cancerous cells (in this study ovarian cancer was of interest), and literally moving them around with another, larger magnet. The magnetized cancer cells can then be moved to another area of the body for physical extraction.

I read about this stunningly simple, yet elegant approach, and all of a sudden I am hit with just how crucial a basic chemistry/physics education will be for the present generation of undergraduates.

Monday, May 3, 2010

New tech tools and a renewed purpose

If you can't tell already, student engagement in my classroom is probably my greatest hurdle as an educator. I have resolved to change this by drawing a line in the sand.

Step 1

I have decided to get away from the traditional Power Point presentation that I have been inflicting on my students in Chemistry 1. I am going to give a visual approach a try through an application called mind42. Here's my first published mind map. I want to actually use this resource to assist my students in making connections between concepts as well as to turn their informal study into an active learning experience.

More steps to come...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Frustrations with student engagment/effort and finanical aid fraud

I'm about to make a "well, duh" kind of statement. It seems to me that far too many students at the college level are severely lacking in the fundamental maturity required to accomplish even the most basic level of college study. It's not that they are disruptive or overtly disrespectful, just completely disengaged from the whole process. As a result, they flounder about and make poor grades while wasting large amounts of tuition dollars, a heavy cost when considering the hard economic times that face parents/taxpayers. To the casual observer outside of higher education this problem is usually simplified into an accusation made towards the instituions. Anecdotally, I have heard several of these comments from parents/other citizens that sound something like this...

"I pay all of this money and my child still doesn't know anything...Why can't those professors teach the students anything?"

You get the idea...Now, I will admit to some of the shortcomings of those who teach at the college level. Some faculty have wildly inflated egos and/or lousy instructional skills. However, as I can tell you from my own experience as an educator, innovation in the classroom is impossible if students refuse to participate in the process!

In addition to this frustrating task of trying to shake students from their high-school-induced stupor institutions (and taxpayers!) must also deal with another very ugly reality. Some students are not in college to acquire any sort of degree, rather, they barely attend classes until Pell grant checks arrive. Once the money is in-hand these students disappear until it's time to enroll in the next semester for more "free" money. At my own institution the running joke among some students is to ask when someone is going to have a "Pell grant party". I'll stop at this point to say I have no idea how pervasive the problem of financial aid fraud is throughout the country, but as a taxpayer and educator this problem bothers me to the core. Maybe I'll revisit this issue later with some hard data that either confirms or denies this impression.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fighting burn-out...sometimes you lose

Spring semesters are normally difficult for me. I always seem to be sapped from the work of the fall, and for some reason the majority of students taking my courses during this time have deep-seated maturity/work ethic issues that make even the most banal subjects in chemistry (i.e. metric untis) an impossibility to teach. These two factors combine to create an academic undertow, a vortex of frustration pulling down my spirits.

Normally, I can shake off these late winter blues during the first couple of weeks by learning to accept the shortcomings of my students. This semester, however, it has been very difficult for me to just go with the flow. I am afraid that I have hit a "third-year wall".

What do I mean by this made-up term? Well, in my case, it's now my third year of teaching, and I have exhausted all of the little classroom tricks that I learned as a graduate teaching assistant. I am now at a point where I can't try anything new or ground-breaking, especially considering the woefully inadequate preparation of the students in my institution. The result of hitting this wall is plain, old fashioned burn-out.

I have tried numerous ways to try to get motivated to be in the classroom, to re-ignite my engines. Unfortunately, I seem unable to climb out of this funk. The only hope I have seems to be this...maybe this burn-out is like the flu. If I can wait out this semester, hopefully I can recover my motivation.