More stats, less calc


The times have changed, and our curriculum is not keeping up.

In the various majors offered by our Department of Biology, I’m convinced we’re not providing our students the most useful set of quantitative skills. After browsing the catalogs of a variety of other universities, I think we’re not alone.

Our curriculum has shortcomings when it comes to statistics, experimental design, and data visualization, interpretation, and management. I would guess that most of our faculty teaching upper division undergraduate courses would say that that things would be a lot better if our lower division students were provided with more opportunities to increase statistical, experimental, and data literacy.

We can’t add more units to our major, because reasons*. To add coursework related to data literacy, we’d have to cut something. I’d be all up for cutting calculus.

Our majors need to complete a semester of calculus, and some take it in semester right before they graduate. They also need to complete a year of physics, though nearly everybody takes the physics sequence without a calculus prerequisite. So, even though they need calculus to get a B.S. in Biology, they aren’t expected to apply it to anything in biology. I’m betting that most students aren’t using calculus much after they graduate.

I think it’s fair to say that, after graduation, many of our students would be using statistical and data science skills up the wazoo. With calculus, for a lot of them, not so much.

The irony here is that all of our majors do take a required course in statistics, taught by the math department. I am sure the students in this class are learning statistical theory and are getting three units’ worth of education out of the experience. Though in our biology curriculum, using this class as a prerequisite doesn’t change how we can teach our upper division courses. We’ve discussed collaborating with the math department to make sure that this course meets the needs of our students better (including, perhaps, sections designed just for our majors). However, I don’t think a single 3-unit class is going to give our majors all of the data science skills that they should be getting to go with a bachelor’s degree nowadays. We’ve got to do a lot more. (We have been having these discussions, but since I’m away on sabbatical, for all I know things are already happening, I’m just making a point to not pay attention. Whatever we do, it shouldn’t come without deliberative planning.)

I don’t want to jump on a “everybody must code!” bandwagon, but if I had to choose between requiring students to know basic differential and integral calculus, and being familiar with statistics and familiarity with (say) R, I vote for the latter. I do think that understanding calculus is fundamental to a contemporary understanding of how the natural world works. But I think understanding statistics is even more fundamental.

Has your department upped its game with data science? If so, how much of it is in your own department, how much of it involves courses/faculty from math or computer science? Did this come at a cost to other parts of the curriculum, and if so, which parts?

Update 28 March 2017: One year ago, I read and enjoyed a post by Stephen Heard, on nearly the same topic. It was so good, it was absorbed into my subconscious, so much that I was compelled to write this here blog post. But he said it first, and I think might have said it better. (After all, he did write a book on writing.) He had to point this out in the comments here, which shouldn’t have been necessary! I’m sorry, Steve.

*(We used to require an introductory computer science class, but when the chancellor’s office was asking departments to shed units from their majors, we removed this one. (It might sound like a loss, but students didn’t noticeably emerge from the course with new skills.)

Taxonomist Appreciation Day is coming up


pun by by @phishdoc, illlustration by @verdanteleanor.

It’s been hard to wait a whole year, I know! Taxonomist Appreciation Day is coming up, on 19 March!

I imagine museums, science departments, and libraries will have costume shows, trivia, art competitions, and potluck taxonomic salad festivals. Meanwhile, the talented scientific artists of BuzzHootRoar are running their annual taxonomy pun contest!

Here are their instructions: Continue reading

Recommended reads #98


Five practical ways you can help a first generation student succeed. If you’ve ever thought positively about anything I’ve written or shared on this topic, I bet you’ll really appreciate this piece by Abigail Dan. I bow to its wisdom and excellence.

Obsessed with smartness, by James Lang. I love this almost as much as the preceding piece.

Advice for my conservative students

Why facts don’t change our minds, by the inestimable Elizabeth Kolbert. Continue reading

Knowing your animal and your question


I’ve read a lot of research proposals and manuscripts. Some manuscripts were rejected, and some proposals didn’t fare so favorably in review. What have I learned from the ones on the lower end of the distribution?

Here’s an idea. It can’t explain everything, but it’s something to avoid. Continue reading

Recommended reads #97


Alan Townsend wrote an op-ed that I think you really need to read: Science might save my daughter. Don’t kill it. (And in his blog, which I absolutely love and have linked to on previous occasions, he explains why he wrote the piece.)

Science censorship is a global issue – a short letter to Nature written by three Aussie ecologists.

Unlearning descriptive statistics. I thought this was really interesting. Continue reading

Should scientists write Wikipedia pages for their study species?


I’ve been working on Penstemon digitalis for a long time now. I first met the plant as a starting PhD student looking for a new system to make my own. I wanted something local (to Ithaca, NY), a plant that was dependent on pollinators with pre-dispersal seed predators (those are insects that lay eggs in the fruit and the young larvae eat the seeds). I wanted to study conflicting selection on floral traits by mutualists and antagonists, not what my dissertation ended up being about but that is a story for another day. In my search for a species to work with, I also wanted something with larger seeds than Lobelia siphilitica that I had just spent my masters cursing over and to be taller than Collinsia parviflora that I broke my back over during my undergrad. Continue reading

Let’s talk about mental health in academia


A few days ago Canada was abuzz with messages about mental health for Bell Let’s Talk day. The social media campaign resulted in Bell donating 6.5 million dollars to mental health initiatives in Canada, which is great. But I’m not sure that one day a year when everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health publicly actually helps reduce the stigma around mental health, one of the stated goals of the Let’s Talk campaign. Any other day of the year, it’s still pretty difficult to bring up mental health issues, so this post is partly an effort to continue the conversation. Continue reading

Taking action at this critical moment


I’m going to have to suspend business-as-usual. Please stick with me, while I connect some dots to explain how critical this time is for the United States, and, as a corollary, for the world. If you’re reading the news, but not yet marching in the streets, I think this is for you.

Right now, everything counts on Americans who may choose to stand up for our democracy. We’ve been cramming for this exam for months. Now we’ve got our number 2 pencil out, and we’re heading into the exam room. Are we going to pass through this test?

There is a lot going on, but I’d like to point out the central issue at hand. Continue reading

Recommended reads #96


I feel a bit guilty that I came upon some cool reads, in the precise moment that my country stopped being a proper democracy. This list is more decline-of-democracy-related than usual. But still even if you’ve had enough of this, there’s enough in here about other things I hope it’s worth your time. In part, because there’s a link in here about how to keep on keepin’ on while still doing your best to resist the the new authoritarian government that has taken over the US.

But I do have things to share, some of which aren’t even about our brave new world.

Just in case you didn’t know, is a for-profit venture that exists primarily to gather our information and sell it. Ungood. I’ve stayed away from it for this reason – this article explains how they ended up with a .edu even though they’re not a .edu.

America’s great working class colleges. This is such a great piece of journalism (admittedly  I think this in part because it says things I try to say here often and get it better than I could). Here’s the interactive feature that accompanies the article, which I really suggest you play around with – if anything to get an idea about how the institutions that you are personally familiar with compare to others in ways that you might not have seen visualized before. It was an education for me, surely.

This is a good visualization of gerrymandering. Which (I don’t argue here) is specifically how we got into this hideous mess. Continue reading

In teaching, less is more


Question: When you’re teaching, how much should you cover?

I propose a couple answers:

Answer A: You shouldn’t cover much, because the more you cover, the less they learn.

Answer B: Trick question! You’re not supposed to “cover” anything! If you teach a topic by just making sure it gets covered in a lecture, then you’re not really teaching it. Continue reading

Recommended reads #95


In the United States, a woman died a few months ago of a bacterial infection. This microbe was resistant to all antibiotics available in the US that we were capable of throwing at it.

A paper came out this week, looking at predictors of publication rates among 280 graduate students accepted and enrolled into a biomedical grad program. And — shocker, I know — grades and standardized test scores didn’t matter. The best predictor was the content of the letters of recommendation. You want to know which undergraduates have the greatest research potential? Listen to their undergraduate mentors. Here’s a drugmonkey post about this paper. Continue reading