Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

First lab rotation

Posted by Russell on November 26, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.
Now that I have a free moment between chopping potatoes and mashing them, I figure I should post the paper and talk I wrote summarizing my first lab rotation.

I tried to make the paper look like an PNAS article, but alas, their LaTeX template leaves much to be desired. I like how the talk turned out little better, thanks the wonderful Beamer package for LaTeX.

Why is printing terrible?

Posted by Russell on November 26, 2009 at 3:53 p.m.
Mimi and I spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to print a three page PDF document. First, her dad's year-old HP OfficeJet 6300 stripped a gear in its paper feeder with no paper in the loading tray. It now seems to be beyond repair. So, we went over to her cousin's house, and a her HP all-in-one choked on a strangely formatted paper size directive. The error codes suggest that the printer's firmware got corrupted, but we couldn't get any more detail on account of Vista's printer stack simultaneously shitting itself, and remaining resolutely shat even after the usual Windows hokey-pokey of uninstalling/reinstalling, rebooting and banging the table and swearing.

We emailed the damn thing to her sister at her office, and she spent an hour futzing around with it before getting it to live uncomfortably on an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper, only to discover that someone had swiped the fuser wire from the big office laser printer. Six hours after we started, the three pages finally emerged from an old printer Lan found somewhere in a closet.

This seems to be the normal experience when you want to print an important document. Why is it still so awful? Why do people not riot in the streets and burn HP executives alive on pyres of new-but-broken plastic-crap printers? Why do people continue to allow PostScript to live?

Speaking of science

Posted by Russell on November 26, 2009 at 10:38 a.m.
One of the projects I've been working on this semester is designing a teaching unit for the UC Davis introductory biology curriculum. The introductory biology courses are required for a whole bunch of different majors at UC Davis, so all three of them are offered every quarter. It's a huge effort, and thousands of students take these classes every year. This is part of a teaching seminar led by Scott Dawson (don't bother Googling for him -- you'll find the wrong guy). The idea behind Scott's seminar is to take the half-dozen or so concepts that the BIS2A, 2B and 2C students struggle with, design teaching units aimed at those topics, and then try them out on volunteers. My topic is stochastic processes, which has been great fun. The project isn't finished yet, so I'll save the details for later.

One of the other issues we've been addressing in the seminar is how scientists relate to non-scientists. This is, for obvious reasons, an essential teaching skill. Even if they hope to be scientists someday, students are not scientists. If you don't find a way to talk with them about science, then you're wasting their money and their time.

The idea that the educator is largely responsible for the success (or failure) of the student hasn't really seeped into higher education, although it's been the standard thinking in primary and secondary education for decades. Not all elementary school teachers are good at what they do, but it is generally agreed that if they are good, the results will be seen in the subsequent success of their students. In higher education, things don't really work this way.

The most often cited reason for poor instruction at the college level is that many professors consider teaching secondary to their research. While this is clearly true in many cases, teaching in higher education doesn't just suffer from playing second fiddle to research. Many, many professors (even whole departments) who take teaching seriously are nevertheless not very good at it.

There are two causes, both of which are systemic problems. First of all, people who teach at the college level are usually not trained as teachers. Many (most?) professors have no education training whatsoever. Yet, even if you have natural skills, teaching isn't something you can do effectively without at least a little theory and training.

The result is that most of the teaching in colleges is done by amateurs and autodidacts. In contrast, at the primary and secondary level, teaching has been a job for trained professionals since the turn of the last century.

The second problem, which is partly a symptom of the first, is regular old-fashioned chauvinism. It is the responsibility of the student to learn, but many professors fail to see how they fit into this. This might be acceptable at a private, endowment-supported institution, but such places are exceptions. The Harvards and Oxfords of the world are free to treat their students however they like, but public institutions are ultimately responsible to the taxpayers. The taxpayers support such institutions for two reasons; to conduct research, and to educate their kids. Sink-or-swim pedagogy is a dereliction of duty.

This is a problem that extends far beyond the classroom. I was listening to NPR on the drive down to Los Angeles, and caught a story on All Things Considered about the reception of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Some extracts :

"That fraction of people who figured that they could and should keep more or less up to date with what was happening in geology, in botany, in zoology, even in physics and mathematics is a much bigger fraction than it is today," says Steven Shapin, a Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.


"We hear about scientific findings," says Shapin. "But the proportion that can evaluate them and follow along with them, as opposed to hearing about them, is very, very small."

Shapin says that since people can't be completely conversant with the relevant science, "They're looking for an answer to the question, 'Who can we rely on? Who's speaking the truth? Who can we trust?' "

I think the good professor is missing the point. The problem is not simply that science has gotten more complicated and technical. It is true that there is more of it, and that it moves faster. The reason I don't buy Dr. Shapin's argument is that this is not at all unique to science. Everything moves faster and is more technical now than in 1859, and people seem to cope just fine.

The problem is that scientists do not spend enough time talking with the general public. Only a small minority of scientists take the trouble to arrange their findings in a form digestible by the lay audience, as Darwin did. When they do, it is almost never cutting-edge research that fills the pages. Very few scientists go on television or the radio. The practice today is to bring research to lay the audience only when it is neatly tied up (or, the research community feels that it is, anyway). There are those who do otherwise, but there is a negative stigma to it; scientists who announce their findings with press releases instead of peer-reviewed papers are usually regarded with suspicion.

Darwin's target audience for Origin -- the typical educated Briton in 1859 -- would not have much of an advantage on the average American in 2009. A Victorian gentleman would probably have had better handwriting and more patience for trudging through elliptical turns of phrase than an American high school graduate, but I don't think they would have much of advantage when it came to comprehending an unfamiliar scientific topic. The advantage Darwin's audience had was that it had Darwin.

When a good teacher notices that a student is failing to learn something, they will look first at their own teaching methodology for the problem. The same goes for scientists; when the general public doesn't understand or care about a scientific topic, a good scientist should look first at how they are publicizing their work. If the public doesn't think your research is important, then either you aren't explaining it well enough, or maybe it actually isn't very interesting.