A little story about how minds change


A funny little thing happened in our last departmental meeting of the semester.

We meet for 2-3 hours at a time, about once per month. Conversation usually meanders. (Hey, I just work there.)

So this time we were talking about the assessment paperwork that we have to do. After discussing how the documentation required by the university is mostly useless to us, we were wondering what we could do that would actually be useful.

I threw an idea out, that we should know how our majors perform using other universities as a benchmark. And there’s a test that many universities use called the Major Field Test. And we could easily have our graduating students complete it during our capstone course.

The funny part is that everybody thought it was a good idea. It sounds like we’re doing it next semester.

What’s so amazing? Well, about five or so years ago, I said pretty much the same thing in the same context. At that time, everybody in the room just crapped all over the idea. It would cost money, ETS is evil, it wouldn’t be helpful information, and we couldn’t find a way to motivate the students to do well.

What’s changed from five years ago to now? Well, some people have retired, and we have some new people. But the same people who hated the idea five years ago thought it was a good one now.

I can’t really explain it. People change, circumstances change, and slight changes in the environment and how an idea is presented can have chaotic influences on the outcome. I don’t think I’m a better salesman than I was five years ago. It’s just a different moment and a different outcome. Huh.

I just thought I’d just share this little slice-of-professor-life that could have a moral-of-the-story if you wanted to look for one.

By the way, now that Small Pond Science has taken a few trips round the sun, I’ve noticed that traffic really drops in January — so posting will slow down accordingly for the next month. I imagine folks are in the same boat I am: holiday work hangover, a new semester, and using weeks off to both vacation and then get stuff done.  (I’m spending a whole week just with family, and then am working on grants, and traveling to the field with students for a couple weeks.) Be sure to find some time to take a restful break!

Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?


I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. Continue reading

The Church of High Impact Practices


Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

Keeping seven people out of your head


I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.

dear_mr_wattersonSeveral weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)

The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.

Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.

Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.

As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.

Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.

Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.

Could twitter have saved the lives of seven astronauts?


When the space shuttle Challenger launched on the morning of 28 January 1986, Roger Boisjoly couldn’t muster the fortitude to watch the launch of the shuttle, as its engines ignited on the launch pad. Moments later, the crew was lifted through the sky to their deaths. Boisjoly and some of his colleagues had spent the preceding night petitioning and pleading, in vain, to avert this tragedy.

Boisjoly was an engineer working for Utah-based NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, who worked on the design of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. (Morton Thiokol received a $800 million in contracts for their work on the shuttle program, equivalent to a value of almost $1.5 billion today.) Boisjoly and his colleagues were terrified about the prospect of a disaster on this particular launch, because of the weather forecast for Cape Canaveral. The cold temperature triggered events resulting in the loss of the entire vehicle in the timespan of a couple heartbeats.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Is Boisjoly complicit in the deaths of the shuttle crew? Not at all – he was a true hero. He did everything he could, ultimately sacrificing his own career.

This disaster may be blamed on those who failed to heed the specific and detailed warnings offered by Boisjoly over the year preceding the avoidable tragedy. However, this might not be what you will read in the Rogers Commission report issued in the wake of the disaster.

The Challenger disaster occurred because of a failure of leaders who did not think that public knowledge would, or could, have any bearing on the life-or-death decisions happening in NASA headquarters.

A lot has changed since 1986. The veil that separates the public from governmental and industrial organizations has been partially lifted, through the distributed access to information through social media. When the public has access to technical information about government operations, then the mechanisms of accountability may change.

In the media environment of 2013, is it possible that Boisjoly could have prevented a disaster like the loss of the Challenger? Could Twitter have saved the lives of the Challenger astronauts?

Imagine these tweets, if they came out 24 hours before a predictably fatal shuttle launch:

Why was Boisjoly so fearful that shuttle was going to blow up? One component of the design of the solid rocket boosters was an O-ring that would become predictably unsafe when launching in cold temperatures. The forecast on that fatal morning was for conditions colder than any previous launch — below freezing — and below the temperature threshold that Boisjoly knew was required for safe performance of the elastic component of the O-ring seal. (If you’re older than 40, then I would bet that you must remember hearing a lot about the O-ring.)

Three weeks after the disaster, in an interview with NPR, Boisjoly reflected:

I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.

One year later, in a subsequent interview, he explained how close he could have been to stopping the launch, if he could have been more convincing:

We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.

Is it possible that the people — the taxpaying public — could have been the ones with that power? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question. If Boisjoly was an active twitter user, with followers who were fellow engineers able to evaluate and validate his claims, wouldn’t they have amplified his concerns on twitter and other social media? Wouldn’t it be possible that, in just an eight hour period, that a warning presaging the explosion of the Challenger would be retweeted so many times that the mass media and perhaps even NASA would have to take notice?

Wouldn’t aggregator sites like The Huffington Post and Drudge pick up a tweet like Boisjoly’s warning, if it got retweeted several thousand times?

Wouldn’t the decision-makers at NASA have to include very public warnings about a disaster in their calculation about whether to greenlight or delay a launch? Don’t you think they’d get even more anxious about the repercussions of overlooking the engineers’ concerns?

Wouldn’t the risk of an disaster, after warnings by an engineer who worked on the project, alter the cost/benefit calculus in the minds of the people who would have been able to delay the shuttle launch? Even if they didn’t believe the claims of Boisjoly and his colleagues, then maybe they would choose to delay the launch anyway, if engineers using social media were claiming it would explode? Just maybe?

Social media has altered the power relationships among large agencies, the media, and the public. Individuals with substantial issues may have their voices heard, worldwide, over a very short period of time. It is possible that information sharing on social media could have prevented the loss of the Challenger?

Even though Boisjoly was, obviously and without any doubt, in the right, he was shuffled out of the industry because he dared to challenge authority in order to save lives. He should have been lauded as a hero, but I only heard of his heroics when I read his obituary last year in the LA Times.

If Boisjoly was successful in his bid to delay the launch using a rogue social media campaign, he still would have been blackballed by the industry as a whistleblower. If such a plea would have been successful, then none of us would ever have known for certain if his actions prevented a tragedy. All of us, including the lost crew of the Challenger, would be able to live with that uncertainty.

Richard Feynman was a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the loss of the Challenger. He issued personal observations as an appendix to the official report, and it’s not surprising that they deal with technical details with accurate conversational aplomb, while also cutting to the heart of the matter:

NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.     For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe.  Image from NASA

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Image from NASA

Biology departments need an accreditation body


My department would be so much better off if it was possible for us to be accredited. But no accreditation is possible for Biology Departments in the US.

Every credible university (as well as some slimy and disreputable ones) is regionally accredited. However, accreditation for individual units within universities is not universally available.

In some fields accreditation is the norm. My university has a variety of accredited programs. Our Chemistry Department gets its undergraduate program accredited by ACS. The Department of Computer Science gets accredited through ABET, and this organization accredits a variety of other technical disciplines. Our School of Business has been accredited by AACSB, but I just failed to find them on the list. And the programs in Education are nationally by NCATE as well as within the state by the CCTC. And there are more, such as nursing.

As for Biology? There’s bupkis. Zip. Zilch. No professional organization has stepped up to the plate to offer such a service.

You might wonder, how is it that I even have heard about accreditation in other departments on my campus? Because I’ve seen those folks get better treatment, year after year. Whenever we all need something, those departments get it and mine gets the leftovers, if there are any. When we ask why other departments get more resources, the answer is that those departments need certain things to keep their accreditation.

Because there is nobody to threaten the loss of accreditation in my department, we have experienced chronic deprivation during times of financial stress. The accredited programs are in far better shape than our department and other non-accredited departments. If there was such thing as accreditation for a Biology department, we’d fall short of the mark in a number of ways.

Any higher level administrator will tell you what a pain in the butt it is to maintain regional accreditation. They’ll also tell you that good things come out of having to prepare for reviews, despite the headaches. The accreditation body prescribes the allocation of resources to areas required for long-term maintenance of institutional resources.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate bureaucracy. The process of getting accredited is probably a pain the butt. But for at least some of us, the benefits of accreditation would greatly outweigh the trouble.

There’s one organization that is in a position to develop an accreditation body for undergraduate Biology programs: The American Institute of Biological Sciences – AIBS. They’re the publishers of Bioscience. AIBS is national organization with a broad reach, and has a history of dedication to undergraduate education and working with undergraduate programs.

AIBS needs to step up to the bat and invest the time and money to get this effort started as a service to our community.

Just imagine if your departmental homepage could bear the stamp of AIBS Accreditation. Wouldn’t that be nice? Moreover, imagine that you needed a new piece of equipment for teaching because the old one died, and that you are told by administration that there won’t be the budget to replace the equipment for two years. Now, imagine how quickly that piece of equipment would be replaced if you mentioned that it was expected for accreditation.

Imagine that you just had a few people retire and someone leave your department, and that your administration isn’t funding the searches for faculty members to replace these lines. However, by not maintaining an adequate tenure-line faculty:major ratio in the department, you would have problems in your next accreditation review. Moreover, you need faculty members with expertise in a certain combination of disciplines to be able to maintain accreditation. Also, accredited departments are not allowed to use too many adjuncts to fill up the course schedule.

What I just described is not a farfetched scenario. Our colleagues in business and computer science have a lower teaching load than the rest of us, because the requirements of their accrediting bodies. Also, our colleges in accredited units are always first in line for new faculty hires because these hires are required to maintain, or to earn back, accreditation. Meanwhile, my department has half the faculty that we had when I arrived seven years ago and more than twice the number of majors. That situation would never have been allowed if we had accreditation.

The long years it took to replace the rickety autoclave, outdated microscopes, and a slew of teaching supplies would never have been necessary if we needed them to keep accreditation. There are still many basic instructional materials that we lack, but our operating budget is so low that it’s hard to foresee the acquisition of these items in the near future. That wouldn’t be the case if we needed these materials for accreditation.

If my department was accredited, faculty would be less overworked, students would have better equipped laboratories, we would have a greater range of faculty expertise, and we would be able to offer courses in particular elective areas that we have not been given the funding to offer to our students. But, there’s no accreditation body to whom we may appeal.

By the way, I’m not the first guy to make this argument. At an AIBS Undergraduate Biology Summit in 2008, this topic came up. Two guys made a good argument for the need for accreditation of undergraduate biology departments. This is the pdf of their presentation. It doesn’t look like much has happened in the past five years since this presentation was made. There is some kind of accreditation offered by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but based on the website it looks entirely rinky-dink to me.

How do you think your department could change for the better in response to the need for accreditation? What kinds of changes do you think you would not want to make, that might be part of Biology accreditation?

If you are in an accredited science department, do you see the process of attaining and maintaining accreditation to be worth it?

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?


Many universities – of all conformations and sizes – have a special center or office dedicated to undergraduate research. It’s a nice idea.

On some campuses, they are tremendously helpful. On others, I’ve seen or heard that they’re more of a hindrance than a help. Some campuses don’t have one. That’s a good thing if the office would be unhelpful, or a bad thing if the nonexistent office would be successful.

The scopes of these undergraduate offices vary, depending on how well they’re funded, and what level of buy-in they have from the administration and faculty. I actually haven’t had the benefit of having the services of any one of these offices yet, though I’ve worked with colleagues at many universities who have talked to me about their experiences. (I also have mentored students from schools with these offices.)

On the whole, I’ve heard more complaints than praise, but considering that our species is wont to complain, I imagine that by the existence of praise, a lot of these offices are doing fine. A colleague of mine once got a great bottle of wine for just submitting a grant that included undergraduate research. She didn’t complain.

Here is a partial list of things that the office can do:

  • Track data and progress on undergraduate research projects
  • Provide support for undergraduates, with respect to writing, test preparation, workshops
  • Coordinate lecture series
  • Promote and facilitate grant-writing to support undergraduate research.
  • Facilitate and advertise selection of students applying for undergraduate research programs (REU, MBRS, IRES, RISE, McNair)
  • Provide support to PIs of grants involving undergraduate research
  • Support (financially and otherwise) faculty mentoring undergraduates
  • Coordinate an undergraduate research-related events (like a poster session)
  • Direct an program that funds undergraduate research projects with internal funds
  • Provide space for research students to gather
  • Provide administrative support for project coordination

Sometimes these offices are run out of, or in coordination with, the offices of sponsored programs on campus. sometimes they’re separate entities that are run with distinct budget lines. I think the latter might allow for more latitude for the center to focus on its mission. What is that mission, though?

Often, what these offices do is murky and there is disagreement about the best use of the resources of the offices. I think that these conflicts arise from fundamental differences in the purpose of undergraduate research on campuses. Sometimes, there is a disagreement about what constitutes research itself.

It is mostly established that undergraduate research enhances the educational enterprise, and coursework that includes genuine and novel inquiry results in better learning. Some administrators and faculty have this as a primary goal, as a way of increasing retention, decreasing time to graduation, and promoting “best practices.” Some, on the other hand, see undergraduate research as an enterprise to prepare students for graduate school, and as having inherent value regardless of its effect on other aspects of academic life on campus. Others see undergraduate research as a mechanism for conducting a research program, and if a the campus is full of undergraduates, then “undergraduate research” just means “research.” On some research campuses, the office might even protect undergraduates from being the serfs of their labs.

I don’t think we all can agree on a definition of undergraduate research, though such definitions do exist. I say that research means that original scholarship is being conducted. If students are involved in research projects that are not intended to make new discoveries, then these in fact are not research projects. They’re merely learning exercises.

Moreover, scholarship itself is only useful if shared with the academic community. If a student develops new knowledge but that knowledge isn’t disseminated to the community of researchers in that field, then the research project was not a success. In my view — and I recognize that this is a minority view on teaching campuses — if a student research project doesn’t eventually make it to press, then it is not clear if it was genuine research.  It was clearly research training. Keep in mind that pilots can go through stages of flight training without ever leaving the ground, and we go through earthquake safety training without having an earthquake.

So, are undergraduate research centers supposed to promote undergraduate research training, or undergraduate research itself? This is not idle discussion because it affects the decisions about how resources get allocated.

This distinction is tied to the heart of the notion of what happens on a teaching-centered institution. Is faculty research just there to keep the teaching instrument sharp, or are faculty expected to be active scholars? If it is the latter, then faculty are doing students a disservice if they’re not fully engaging them in opportunities for genuine research that are already taking place.

So how do you know if undergraduate research centers are successful? Many institutions use vague accounting, listing the number of students reported to participate in projects. More concretely, other metrics include the number of publications with undergraduate authors, the number of students employed to do research in the summer full-time and part-time during the academic year, or the long-term professional outcomes of the students. Others will count the number of dollars spent on student research; some administrators will be counting indirect cost recovery. The best metrics depend on the mission.

So, perhaps when building such an undergraduate research center, focusing on the mission is a critical starting point. You can’t get everyone to agree, but you need to clarify what the center is doing, and also why it is doing it. Consensus is always good, when possible.

If you have an undergraduate research center, could you remark on what you think works and doesn’t work? If you were in charge (or, if you are) what would you do if you could, and what would you not do?