Are some people just innately smarter?


I don’t know about you, but I’m used to hearing academics talking about how some people are just inherently brilliant. That there are people with oodles of raw talent, that just needs to be molded, and it’s our job as academia to find them and raise them up. Continue reading

Responding (or not) to prospective students


For all the concern about pipeline problems, we seem to be fond of creating bottlenecks that filter out the people we’re trying to recruit. Let’s take a quick look at how people get into grad school in my field.

To my knowledge, in most other fields, prospective graduate students apply to graduate programs. And then the selection process happens from there. I don’t have much direct experience with these programs, obviously, because it’s not my field.

But in ecology/evolution and allied fields, it happens bassackwards. Continue reading

Is there a shortage of summer research opportunities?


I’ve talked to a lot of talented undergraduates who have been in search of summer research opportunities, but end up not having any options available.

Doctoral programs expect undergraduate applicants to have meaningful research experience. This might not be on the application checklist, but it’s essentially a requirement. That means if we’re trying to be equitable about access to graduate education, that means we have make sure that access to undergraduate research experiences is equitable. Continue reading

EEB Mentor Match to help underrepresented students get graduate fellowships


I’ve griped about how undergraduates from wealthy private institutions and public research universities get the lion’s share of graduate fellowships. This happens for some obvious reasons of course, and I’m pleased to introduce a scheme that — with your help — can contribute to fixing this situation.

To get right to it: I’m teaming up with Meghan Duffy to pair up mentors with students from Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to give them guidance and support as they put together their fellowship applications. (Meg has been the leader on this.)

To participate, see this post from Dynamic Ecology where she describes the project. Continue reading

Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading

We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences


At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.

This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening. Continue reading

How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?


Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).

A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions. Continue reading

Elite vs. disadvantaged institutions, and NSF Graduate Fellowships: a peek inside the mailbag


I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.

I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.

In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships. Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships are a part of the problem


I started this morning with tremendous news: a student of mine, who left my lab for a PhD program last year, let me know that his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was funded!

I had two other former students who put in applications. I downloaded the big list from NSF, and — alas — they did not have the same fortune. So, I was 33% happy. Continue reading

When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?


Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.) Continue reading

Remetaphoring the “academic pipeline”


We need to ditch the “academic pipeline” metaphor. Why?

The professional destinations of people who enter academic science are necessarily varied.

We do not intend or plan for everybody training in science to become academic researchers.

The pipeline metaphor dehumanizes people. Continue reading

A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science


Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

Public higher education is not a reward for hard work


Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.


Structural privilege in the world’s premier science fair


Three years ago, the “world’s largest pre-college science fair” was passing through town. I was asked to volunteer as a judge, and my university system was pleased to have a faculty member at the event. I was a student in the fair in 1988, too, so I was curious to see it from the other side.

What I saw was appalling.

After the experience was over, I got a pro forma email asking me to provide any remarks and recommendations. Here is what I sent back to the organizer, edited for length and to accommodate the uninitiated.

May 16, 2011


I actually do have some remarks, as I’ve been really troubled since the judging took place last week. I’d like to know what response my remarks might elicit, if any. It is my hope that my remarks are taken seriously.

To make the very long story short, I’m troubled by what seems to me to be a systemic problem in the judging process. I’m not taking this lightly and I find this compromises the integrity of the fair in a serious way. I didn’t say much about it at the time — I was quickly dismissed — but after some detailed consideration and deliberation with colleagues, I am very concerned about the process. I am reluctant to participate as a judge again because my involvement would compromise my professional standing, if my colleagues were to know how this process took place.

There was a shortage of judges in my category, some projects were only officially seen by 2 [which is far below the standard set by the fair; there were 30+ judges on my panel as there were many projects]. Because the finalists did not receive enough interviews to have a representative sample, the scores from the official judging sessions were thrown out, and the decisions in caucus were actually not informed whatsoever by the votes. In fact, the group voted by majority to ignore the scores, even though not all of the judges were present in the caucus.

During the caucus process, each of the judges advocated for what they considered to be top projects for the grand, 1st place, and 2nd place awards. Each of the judges introduced what they thought to be the strength of the project and the finalist who conducted the project, and then those with experience with the finalist and project then contributed their opinions. Of course, given the breadth of projects, much of the science was outside the expertise of the judges who were assigned to a particular project. We all communicated our areas of expertise and made a point to interview students whose projects fell within out expertise, even if we were not officially assigned as judges to a particular poster.

The basis of evaluation for most of the projects was based on the students’ abilities to articulate the purpose of the project, why they conducted the project, and what they learned from the experience. When the judges were evaluating the projects, there was a strong emphasis on shared interests and how much the finalists convinced the judges that they were personally inspired by conducting their projects. When the judges were asked why they thought certain projects should be selected, they judges emphasized that they could really relate to this student, found them likable, and found that their fascination, and decision to conduct the project, to be superb.

These criteria are faulty in several ways. The central problem with this approach is the inherent cultural bias. Depending on the cultural background of the student, the students may be trained to not communicate great passion in their science, as they may believe that communicating inspiration would distract from the significance of the project. The cultural bias in this criterion is even more insidious because the way that a judge evaluates excitement and likability is biased towards individuals from their own cultural group. One judge who heavily advocated for a project – which won the grand award in the section — said (this is a rough quote from my notes): “My main reason for this choice is that I made a connection with her, she’s very personable and you could feel her enthusiasm for science more than the other finalists.”

Not all projects were perfect — though some approached perfection. There were some amazing students. Clearly, the judges were looking to find areas in which some students were more superlative than others, or to find flaws. This was the area that cultural bias was most overt. The flaws of students whose ethnic backgrounds resembled the judges were overlooked, and the flaws (in some cases, incorrectly evaluated by those who were not experts in the field) in the underrepresented students were scrutinized and amplified by the judges. As one example, a few judges specifically stated that they would give a student (of similar cultural background) a “free pass” on the statistics of the project, while the statistics of other projects (by students of different cultural backgrounds) were heavily scrutinized by the same judges. This happened even though the student with the free pass had simpler statistics which were central to the finding. In this case, I cannot come to any conclusion other than the fact that it was cultural bias – and I’m working hard to keep an open mind. This was not just the case with one or two projects, but a consistent pattern that I detected near the end of the caucus session after considering many of the deliberations.

Let me put it this way: The way the judges picked their top projects, it was a virtual impossibility for a project by a student to rise to the top of the list of finalists, if these students had an odd accent or who did not share a similar cultural background to the judges. I do not take this charge lightly, and do not make it without understanding the gravity of this charge.

I think the number of judges is a little problematic, and the qualifications of the judges is problematic, but the prevailing problem that taints the integrity of the process is the overt cultural bias that occurred. I do not think the basis of this cultural bias — which some might simply call systemic racism — is rooted in any kind of overt racism among the judges. The judges were evaluating based on criteria that they could use, and in the absence of scientific expertise, they were drawing merely on intuition which does not work well for finalists with different cultural backgrounds.

None — absolutely zero — of the judges came from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Given the ways in which top students were evaluated, I can’t imagine a scenario in which a student from an underrepresented group could have come out of the caucus with the top prize. I was surprised that I was the only person in the room who was conversant in Spanish – when the group was struggling to fairly evaluate the projects by several students who came from Puerto Rico. The translators were clearly not professional translators and had difficulty with the science and technical words (I interceded in one case, when I was walking past, to clear things up. I wish I had more time for this task but I had my own judging assignments to attend to.)

I think this can be fixed using three approaches. First, the judges need to be experts in their scientific discipline, with advanced degrees and an active research agenda. I greatly respect and admire K-12 educators, but some of the judges with this background were not prepared to evaluate most projects, which were conducted in a university laboratory under the mentorship a Ph.D. scientist. [more on this topic here, by the way.] Second, the pool of judges should only be certified after there is adequate participation of individuals from underrepresented groups. Third, the recruitment of judges should be more robust to draw from local talent in the area – nearly none of the faculty or professional researchers in the LA area were judging in my panel, which mostly consisted of volunteer educators flying in from around the country. As you realize that Los Angeles is a highly diverse area with scientists from many backgrounds, recruiting judges representing the ethnic diversity of the city is not an unreasonable task.

Please let me know what response there might be to my concerns.

So, what was the response? After asking three times for a reply, this is what I eventually received:

October 03, 2011

As for your concerns on the number and quality of judges, I assure you that the there was no one more concerned than I was about the small number of judges who actually showed up and interviewed students. The no-show rate was considerably larger than I had anticipated.  Those that did show up, however, were well-qualified, with only a small number of exceptions, and I don’t know that any of those exceptions were in your panel.  I’d have to look at the detailed records to be sure.  I suspect, rather, that most people were being modest in their introductions if you got the impressions that they weren’t good enough to be there.

Here was my reply:

October 03, 2011

Thanks for getting back to me.

Just to be clear, my concerns were not so much about the qualifications of the judges and the degrees they hold, but rather the fact that the judging criteria – as stated by several judges in caucus – were not connected to any of the criteria specified by [the organization] and as a consequence, the judging was culturally biased.

There were a number of students who lacked the upper-middle class white upbringing that had no chance at winning a prize because of their background. Moreover, some of the top prizes in my category were selected on the basis of their likability and enthusiasm – and their ability to connect with judges on a personal level – even though the experts in the panel found major flaws and errors in their projects that should have knocked them out of contention. I found this appalling and I couldn’t leave from the process without having expressed my concerns.

Nobody in these panels can understand all of the projects fully – there is far too much breadth and depth. I’m not expecting this. What I did find are people who preferred to rely on their own impression of the likability of a finalists, and were inclined to disregard the opinion of the judges who were experts in particular subfields. Ultimately, the majority of the panel voted in caucus for finalists who they personally got along with, even if other judges clearly showed that these finalists had a poor understanding of their own projects or discovered that the finalists misrepresented their work.

This reminds me the sausage factory analogy. I think it’s just best for everyone if I stop eating the sausage.

After that? Crickets. Or frogs. The sound of silence.

The fair passes through town again in three months. I’m torn between showing up to fight against cultural bias, but I’m tempted to steer clear. I hope they invest more heavily into diversifying the pool of judges this time around. Maybe my best contribution would be to work hard to improve the pool of judges. There is a ton of money poured into organizing this fair, and with just a little bit of it, they could invest more in efforts to get a qualified and diverse set of judges. In the meantime, I suppose my efforts judging are best spent on science fairs in local public schools.

At the time this happened, I talked about it with one colleague of mine who was in my section (who I got to know in the day-long process of judging). She was not as concerned as myself because she didn’t perceive structural bias. She thought the judges were underprepared and over their heads, but not discriminating on the basis of ethnicity. She’s a very smart and very reasonable person, and has great judgment. So, I could be merely hypersensitive. On the other hand, the most parsimonious conclusion is probably that a room full of non-underrepresented minority judges is coming up with an unfairly biased outcome. In our current environment, anything else would be quite remarkable.

I’ve had concerns about posting this because of non target effects on the participants in the science fair. However, as I am equally qualified to judge in several categories in the fair, the only readers who could know which particular section I was involved in would be the officials with records of the fair. Of course, it should go without saying that none of the students did anything wrong or unfair. I am only taking this to the public venue after being blown off by the people in charge. The people in the organization that puts on the fair are well-intentioned, and I would like to see opportunity extended to all.

My aim is respectful conversation. I I hope I might be able to get a more constructive and detailed response from the organization in charge of the event. I think the the best case scenario is that the organization adopts guidelines that require effort to diversity the judging body, and invests the time and money required into making sure that these guidelines are both followed and enforced.

Keep in mind that my own participation in the fair in 1988 was the product of capricious judging, at least at my own high school, and my own gender and ethnicity helped me get there. One could argue that that experience was one of the things that led to me becoming a scientist. So sitting on the sidelines is tantamount to silently profiting from an ongoing injustice.

How would you size up this situation, and what would you do?

Disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities


The future of research in the USA requires that we recruit the best possible scientists. As the country gets less and less white, we can’t afford to have fewer and fewer people seeing science as a valid career path. This should be self-evident.

When NSF and NIH throw money at the problem, the money mostly winds up in institutions that don’t have many underrepresented minority (URM) students. It’s no surprise, then, that we haven’t seen a substantial increase in the URM population of career scientists. At least, the increase is meager given the big emphasis over the years.

Most URM students who are brought into active research programs are the token few, who are already interested in research and are prepared to do it. Research institutions can advertise and recruit, and they’ll get research-focused students. So, a small number of prepared and focused URM students become a highly prized commodity among funded researchers. As the stakes get higher for URM students, then the small number of them who already want to do research become even more valuable.

To recruit new URM students into science, you have to recruit URM students into doing science. To increase the actual number of URM students who want to do science, you need to identify those who aren’t interested or ready to do science and make it happen for them. This happens some places, but it’s not the standard approach. Most programs take the easier route, to scrounge for the already-science-focused URM students instead of recruiting new students. It’s easier.

URM students disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And disadvantaged students go to disadvantaged universities. Disadvantaged students aren’t to be found in the locations where world-class scientists are trained.  Let me emphasize this point again, because it’s huge:

Disadvantaged students enroll in disadvantaged universities. The URM students that we need to recruit are found in universities that are disconnected from big research training programs.

If you’re serious about recruiting new URM students into science, who otherwise wouldn’t be in science, then you need to build provide opportunities to students at disadvantaged universities. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Genuine recruitment requires serious relationships with students, in which they trust their professors. Students don’t need just an awesome science experience; they need to see science as a viable career path. Once my URM students want to become scientists, their biggest roadblocks are likely to be their own families. Rich experiences, personal relationships and friendships are what makes a difference.

I can tell my students that they have access to certain opportunities far more easily than non-URM students, because they’re a rare and valued commodity. I tell them they could spend a summer doing research in Svalbard, maybe go to Antarctica, or the rainforest, or live in Australia for several months doing climate change research. Or they can spend the summer working in a local NASA facility. And they’re not jumping on board or applying in droves. This is not the thing for which they went to college. What looks like amazing opportunities to me looks like a distraction, and a huge inconvenience, to many URM students. Moreover, many of them literally can’t afford to take a summer research experience with a full stipend, because they’d lose gainful employment in the process.

They’re underrepresented in the sciences for a reason. It’s not that they’re not capable of doing science, it’s that they’re not oriented towards doing it.

To make more URM scientists, you need to make more URM scientists. You’ve got to create them from non-scientists, from people who never saw themselves as scientists. These students aren’t at your research institution. They’re at the technical college. They’re at the regional state university. They’re at the community college. If you’re at a research institution, the exact students that you need to diversify the discipline are not to be found at your institution.

To truly reach out to and recruit new URM students from disadvantaged institutions, you need to directly deal with faculty members who work these students on a daily basis. Their disadvantaged institutions can’t be seen as a mere source of students, but need to be seen as partners in mentorship.

The faculty members at disadvantaged institutions don’t have the capacity for mentoring students like you find at research institutions. They spend more time in the classroom, they don’t have big labs, and they don’t have postdocs and grad students. Research institutions that want URM students from disadvantaged institutions need to be able to help create that capacity. They need to give resources to enable the faculty at URM-serving institutions provide the mentorship that is necessary to create scientists.

There are a variety of “bridges” programs that have been devised to connect up such disadvantaged institutions with research institutions with greater resources. This kind of program, in theory, is exactly what is needed to grow more URM scientists. However, in my limited experience I have found that these bridges have been constructed of poor quality and the foremen don’t pay attention to potholes on the disadvantaged sides of the bridges. When these partnerships are genuine, they work. The disadvantaged institution needs to get plenty of resources to make sure that the required mentorship can happen. This means time, supplies, and travel. And all three cost money. But the lead institution — the advantaged side of the bridge — is inclined to only fund the partner as much as absolutely necessary to keep the bridge from collapsing. And URMs students are not inclined to cross such a rickety bridge.

I hear far too often from people who are running research training programs, who have trouble getting their URM numbers high enough for themselves or their funding agencies. Either recruitment falls short, or retention, or long-term outcomes are inadequate.

For them, my prescription is simple: go to disadvantaged universities which are replete with capable science majors who may have an open disposition to research. Don’t just ask these universities to ship students to you, but build genuine relationships with the faculty and students at these universities to provide mentorship opportunities. This takes time, it takes effort, and it takes money. The good and important things, though, shouldn’t come easily.

Inequality in computer science curricula


This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a PhD student in computer science at a university where most of the undergrads come from pretty affluent, educationally privileged backgrounds (as I did myself, back in my undergrad days).  I’m a teaching assistant and/or tutor for a couple of different programs that we have for students who are not from such backgrounds.  One is for students who are motivated but have been educationally disadvantaged in some way (whether this was poverty, major illness in high school, an unstable housing situation, war in their home country, or any other life circumstance that would have left them at a disadvantage in their schooling), who take catch-up classes as a cohort and get extensive advising in order to prepare them for a full undergrad program.  The other is for students who are first-generation college students or who come from families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and gives them free tutoring, extensive advising, career prep, and leadership development.  Some students are in both programs.  Neither program is exclusively for students of color or poor students, but in practice, most of my students are both.

Computer science has unusual status compared to most science, social science, and humanities programs, because so many people associate it so strongly with a quick and direct path to good jobs.  There is some truth to this association – when I graduated from college at 22 and started my first industry job, I had a salary that put me in the top 20% of all US wage earners, plus excellent benefts and good working conditions.  This gives computer science obvious appeal for my students (and for other marginalized groups — I have a friend, a trans woman, who teaches at a program to ecnomically empower other trans people by teaching them to code).  It also makes it very popular at, for example, many community colleges.

My concern, though, is what sort of computer science marginalized and underrepresented groups are learning in the name of economic advantage.

Some community colleges have excellent offerings, of the sort that will prepare their students well for upper-level classes.   In others, the curriculum seems to be dominated by courses that could be described as “How to use a currently-popular technological tool for immediate commercial applications.”  Sometimes they are “Intro to a currently-popular computer language.”  There’s generally a data structures class, but not much else on the more foundational side of CS.  Some four-year departments like this approach too.  The thing is that in the tech world most of these skills and languages are likely to be archaic in a few years – I don’t often see job listings asking for people who know Pascal or BASIC or who can hand-write websites in HTML or make an eye-catching GeoCities site, all of which were in the currently-popular category when I was in high school.  The CS programs, much more than, say, the biology or history programs, stress the idea that this is vocational training.  Again, I don’t want to imply that every community college or state non-flagship is doing this, but I have noticed that plenty do, especially community colleges.

At schools where the idea that learning specific current tools = employability doesn’t drive the curriculum quite so hard –- which includes affluent schools with affluent student bodies — students focus on subjects like AI, algorithms, operating systems, robotics, computational biology, distributed computing, software design.  They learn specific currently-popular skills in class projects or paid industry internships where they apply, say, AI to creating Android apps, or software design to creating a new video game.  They don’t seem to have a problem getting good tech jobs after they graduate.  Meanwhile, if a student from a vocationally-focused school wants to transfer to a prestigious one, will they be prepared for the classes at the new school?  Will their credits from the vocationally-focused classes transfer?

Are there tech jobs where hiring managers care mostly that applicants have a list of buzzword Skills O’ the Day, and will seriously consider candidates whose whole CS education is an associate’s degree?  Yep.  What kinds of tech jobs, in general, are those?  The crappy tech jobs.  The code monkey jobs.  The ones that pay less.  The ones with less prestige and less respect.  The ones that get outsourced to developing countries.

I think it’s incredibly important that people be able to get jobs after they graduate from college.  It’s often more important for students from poor or working-class backgrounds, who don’t have family money to fall back on if they don’t get a job right away, so I understand why schools with many such students would be very concerned about employability.  But I worry that focus on vocational training will ironically lead to less employability, and less upward mobility, for the people who need it the most.  I also worry that increased focus on college as preparation for the workforce, which has had consequences already for the humanities and social sciences, will push computer science in the direction of vocational training.

I am not saying that there should be no vocational focus at all in computer science (indeed, some affluent schools have been criticized for not having enough of one) only that there needs to be balance.  The course that I TA is an intro to computer science course focused on game design.  Students learn basic computing and engineering concepts along with skills like how to create their own webpage and how to use game-creation software.  I make a point of talking about how they can use what they’re learning in other fields, like biology or public health or economics, as well, since after all not all of them want to go into computer science.  My hope is that they’ll get something out of it no matter what field they go into, and that if they do want to continue in computer science, they’ll be well-prepared to do so.

Efficient teaching: Rubrics for written assignments


I’ve often emphasized the importance of transparency and fairness in teaching. The evaluation of written assignments is an inherently subjective activity, at least from the perspective of students. The grading of written assignments is most prone to the appearance of unfairness. When students think they’re being treated unfairly, they are not inclined to focus on learning.

Moreover, in the grading of written assignments we are most likely to be inadequately transparent and unfair. By using rubrics to grade writing, we can mitigate, or perhaps even eliminate, this problem.

Some folks don’t like using rubrics because they think that written assignments should be evaluated holistically or by gestalt. As experts in our field, we can tell apart a B paper from a C paper based on reading without the use of a rubric, and we can explain to students in our evaluation how this distinction is made without resorting to over-simplified categories. We can reward deep insight without being captive to a point-making system.

Even if the concepts in the preceding paragraph were factually correct, the choice to formulate is such an argument indicates a lack of focus on student learning. Rubrics should be used to grade written assignments not only because they lend themselves to the appearance of fairness in the eyes of students, they actually result in more fairness.

Grading written assignments without a rubric is unfair. Why is that? It’s very simple: when an assignment is graded without a rubric, students do not know the basis upon which their writing is to be evaluated. Fairness requires that students know in advance the basis upon which their grade is being assigned.

There are many different components to good writing, and presumably someone who grades holistically takes all of these into account in an integrated fashion and then assigns a grade. However, if the purpose of the assignment is to learn about writing, then the student needs to which components are important constituents of good writing. And then the student needs to receive credit for including these components, and not receive credit if not including these components.

If a professor wishes to reward students for making “deep insights,” then these deep insights can be placed as a category on the rubric. And, when handing out the rubric when assigning work to students, the professor can then explain in writing on the rubric what constitutes deep insights that are worthy of receiving points in the rubric.

Rubrics don’t rob professors of flexibility in grading written assignments; they only prevent professors from ambushing students with criticisms that the students would not have been able to anticipate. They also prevent professors from unfairly rewarding students who are able to perform feats that satisfy the professor’s personal tastes even though these feats are not a required part of the assignment.

Is bad grammar something that deserves points off? Put it on the rubric.

Should it be impossible to get an A without a clearly articulated thesis and well supported arguments? Build that into the rubric.

Does citation format matter to you? Put it on the rubric? Don’t care about citation format? Then don’t put it on the rubric.

When you’re grading, you should know what you are looking for. So, just put all of those things on the rubric, and assign the appropriate amount of points to them as necessary. Of course any evaluation of “clear thesis” and “well supported argument” is to some degree subjective. However, when students know that the clarity of their theses and the quality of their arguments are a big part of their grade, then they will be aware that they need to emphasize that up front, and focus on writing well. This point might be obvious to faculty, but it’s not necessarily obvious to all of the students. To be fair, every student needs to know these kinds of things up front and in an unbiased fashion.

There are several other reasons to use rubrics:

Rubrics help reduce the unconscious effects of cultural biases. Students who write like we do are more likely to come from similar cultural backgrounds as ourselves, and students who write well, but differently than we do, are likely to come from a different cultural background. If grading is holistic, then it is likely that professors will favor writing that reflects their own practices. Without the use of a rubric, professors are more likely to assign higher grades to students from cultural backgrounds similar to their own.

Rubrics save your time before grading. Students often are demanding about their professors’ time when they are anxious about whether they are doing the right thing. The more specific information students receive about what is expected of them, the more comfortable they are with fairness and transparency in grading, the less often instructors are bothered with annoying queries about the course, and the more often they’ll contact instructors about substantial matters pertaining to the course material.

Rubrics save your time while grading. If you grade holistically without using a rubric, and it takes you appreciably less time than it takes with a rubric, I humbly suggest that you’re not performing an adequate evaluation.  The worse case scenario, with respect to time management while grading, is that a complete evaluation happens without a rubric, and then it takes only a few moments for the professor to then assign numbers on a rubric after being done with a holistic evaluation.

Rubrics save your time after grading. If students are unpleased with a grade on a written assignment, and all they have to go on is a holistic assessment and written comments – regardless of verbosity – they are far more likely to bother you to ask for clarification or more points. If they see exactly where on the rubric they lost points, they are far more likely to use their own time to figure out what they need to do to improve their performance rather than hassle you about it.

Most importantly, rubrics result in better writing practices from your students. It is a rare student who relishes receiving a draft of an assignment with massive annotations and verbose remarks about what can be done better. Those remarks are, of course, very useful, and students should get detailed remarks from us. When fixing the assignment, students will be focused on getting a higher grade than they received on their draft. The way to do promote success by students is to provide them specific categories on which they lost points. This kind of diagnosis, along with any written comments that professors wish to share, is more likely to result in a more constructive response and is less likely to terrify students who are unclear how to meet the expectations of a professor who gave a bad grade without providing a specific breakdown about how that bad grade was assigned. If a student wonders, “what can I do to produce excellent writing?” all they’ll need to do is look at where they lost points on the rubric. That’s a powerful diagnostic tool. If you think the use of a rubric in your course cannot be a great diagnostic tool, then you haven’t yet designed an adequate rubric.

Of course, it’s okay to disagree with me about writing rubrics. If you do, I’d be really curious about what your students think. The last time I graded a written assignment (a take-home exam), I asked my students if they wanted to receive a copy of a grading rubric before I handed out the exam. They all wanted it, and they all used it. By choosing carefully what I put on the rubric, I was sure that their efforts were allocated in the best way possible.

Why host a speaker?


I recently went over why seminar speakers might give a talk.  Now, the flipside:

What is to be gained by inviting and hosting a seminar speaker?

There are institutional advantages to running a seminar series: to promote an intellectual atmosphere in a department, build a diversity of viewpoints, train students and keep everybody current. However, when an individual person or laboratory decides to host a particular guest speaker, there are other primary motives at work.

Here is a non-exclusive list of goals of hosts, that could explain why certain speakers are picked for a seminar series.

Schmoozing for a postdoc.  I think this is the main reason that speakers are invited. Grad students want to be able to land a postdoc, and PIs want their students to land postdocs. Bringing in potential postdoc mentors to build relationships with graduate students is an old tradition.

Hang out with your intellectual hero.  There’s something special about academically famous people in your field. The chance to visit just have a coffee with, say, Bert Hölldobler or Dan Janzen would be mighty darn cool. When I was in grad school, one person I invited was Ivette Perfecto. My main motivation was because because her science is just so darn awesome, and the chance to hang out with her was tremendous.

Quality time with a friend. Wouldn’t it good to see an old pal you haven’t seen for a while, and catch up on what work they’ve been doing?

Being an alpha. Hosts could invite junior speakers in their same field which are sure to be flattering of their more esteemed hosts whom they are visiting.

Be a beta. Hosts could invite senior researchers in their field, upon whose feet they may grovel. How is this different from hanging out with your hero? Betas are looking for status and opportunity, while it’s also possible to invite someone for less careerist motives.

Develop the career of another scientist. It could be that you just want to give an a good experience to a junior scientist who does good work, who could stand to benefit from giving an invited seminar.

Work with a collaborator. Some work is a lot easier, or more effective, when you’re in the same room, rather than using various methods of remote communication. Why not bring your collaborator out on the department’s dime?

Build a culture of inclusiveness. It’s no accident that most visiting speakers that I invite to my university’s lecture series are early career women, often with an international background or from underrepresented groups. This helps promote the careers of these scientists who are at a structural disadvantage because of biases in the system. An even stronger motivation, from my standpoint, is that these speakers are inspirational role models for our students, most of whom are minority women. I can talk about a commitment to diversity until my white face turns blue, but the fact of who I am speaks more than my words. Regular exposure to the experiences of senior doctoral students, postdocs, and junior faculty who have backgrounds not so different from my own students are critical. This isn’t the only factor involved in extending an invitation, but it’s a big one for myself and others at my institution.

Trade favors.  Bringing a speaker out might be to make someone owe you a favor or a way to repay a favor. This could be to help out someone’s postdoc, or help out someone with a shaky tenure case who could use a bit of external validation. This might sound like a silly motive, but not without precedent. Once, when I was organizing a symposium, someone asked me for a speaking slot, and if I did this favor, this person said that I would be invited for the seminar series.

Show grad students a variety of career options. The flawed default mode in many universities is that moving onto an R1 faculty position is the natural and expected progression after grad school. However, the majority of Ph.D. recipients don’t go this route. Inviting people who work in industry, NGOs, and governmental agencies can help broaden perspectives.  Also, of course, you could invite a researchers based out of a teaching institution. This will definitely widen the job horizons of grad students.

Entertainment value. Some people are invited because they’re known for giving a really great talk, will fill the house, and will bring not only reflected praise on the hosts but also a good time.

Learning science. Some people actually invite seminar speakers because they want to learn about the science that’s being done by the guest.

And that’s it for the list. Feel free to add the ones that I’m forgetting in the comments. Or to tell a funny story, for that matter. We could use more funny stories in the comments, right?

How a research institution can mentor undergrads better than an undergraduate institution


More doctoral students emerge from small liberal arts colleges than from the undergraduate populace of research institutions.

This is a point of pride held by liberal arts colleges, that market themselves as the best place to go if you want to become a scientist receiving a Ph.D. from a big-name research institution. Demographically, they’re correct.

Are small teaching schools better equipped to train undergraduate researchers better than big research institutions? I don’t think so.

In practice, liberal arts schools are far better at producing high quality researchers, but it’s not because of any inherent property of liberal arts schools. Some could argue that the curriculum itself might matter – that’s a discussion for another time – I’ll spend the rest of this post thinking about the single reason that people identify about what makes liberal arts schools a special place for budding researchers.

Here is the standard reasoning: Teaching schools provide students with the opportunity to have close professional interactions with their professors. Students in labs in small teaching institutions benefit from direct mentorship from the PI, which will more likely result in a higher quality research experience, better insights into how to do research, and greater opportunities to own their own research projects, enabling them to present at major venues and eventual publication as undergraduates.

How true is the preceding paragraph? It’s a straight-up fact that students at small teaching campuses are more likely to do more original research of their own working with their PI. And, if an undergraduate arbitrarily selects a research lab to join, then they’d probably end up getting a better experience at a teaching institution.

But, though this trend is real, research institutions have tremendous potential for training undergraduates. Without providing any additional resources, any research institution can be a top-notch training ground for undergraduates. After all, there is nothing inherent about teaching institutions that makes them better at training researchers.

There is nothing magical about having the PI as your direct mentor that will make you a better researcher and help you get into a better grad school. Looking closely at what supposedly makes a teaching institution better for training undergraduate researchers – close involvement with the PI – I see a massive handicap.

All of the literature on research mentorship says that the relationship is most successful when the mentor is just a little above the mentee in research experience. Even though the PI is a better academic expert and has mentored more, the Ph.D. student and the postdoc are in a position to be more effective as mentors.

The best mentoring arrangement is a multi-level team, in which the early undergrad works with a senior undergraduate, who then works with a Ph.D. student, who works with a postdoc as well as the PI. The PI knows everyone personally, and spends some time with the undergrads, but the graduate students are the better formal mentors. (A colleague of mine at a research institution recently tried to kick one of her own undergrad researchers out of the lab, because she didn’t recognize her. That’s not good.)

I suppose a young PI can connect more easily with students, but as we get older, then the nature of the relationship evolves. Add on a few years, and the gap between the PI and the student grows. Even if the PI is affable, and might truly understand the perspectives and thoughts of the students, it would be silly to ignore the fact that our students can’t relate to us and that we can’t relate to our students, even if we were once in their position. No matter how much time I spend with my students, now matter how similar our backgrounds are, the fact of who I am limits my ability to serve as a model. I can do all the right things in the mentoring process, but if a grad student did all of the right things, it would be even better. (And for my students from underrepresented groups, having a mentor from the same group is particularly powerful.)

I really like most of my students. I enjoy their company, and over time some have become good friends of mine. But, let’s face it, there’s a big gap. I’m older, have a kid and am married, and we don’t have that many overlapping interests. While I try hard to be transparent, I recognize that I seem like an enigma in a bunch of ways. (For example, earlier this summer one of my students was totally surprised that I use torrents to watch a couple TV shows. He just thought this was outside my realm for some reason.) I didn’t go to grad school in the middle ages, but things have changed since I’ve been there, and this is true for anybody who is at least halfway to tenure. If I try to discuss grad school with my students, I’m not nearly as credible or powerful as the same information coming from a current graduate student.

My position of authority makes me a less influential mentor.

I don’t want to overgeneralize from my experience, but I doubt that I’m alone.

You might be thinking, “Do your students really have to relate to their mentor to have an excellent research experience, and move their career to the next level?” Not necessarily. But I think it really helps. Especially for students who aren’t able to visualize themselves as capable of excelling in graduate school, a proximate model is an essential part of the mentoring process. Having seen my undergrads interact with doctoral students on a regular basis, it’s clear to me that without this kind of opportunity, that my students would missing out, big time.

Having a student know that the path has been blazed in front of them by other students, like them, matters. If students see other students throw themselves into research with great passion, they are more likely to allow themselves to get that excited. Of course, the same was true for me. But now, I’m an old bald dude with kids, and I get really excited about research, but in a different way. I can’t serve as a model for my students, even if I tried.

While grad students might not have the same authority and skill set as the PI, they can offer things that the PI can’t. This is exactly why a multi-level mentoring scheme is the way to go. The PI can choose to become involved when it is wise, and step back and focus on other things when the grad student has things under control.

Research institutions have grad students, but this doesn’t mean that they deliver great research experiences for undergraduates. While the personnel are available for a multi-level mentoring system, in many labs the system is nonfunctional because undergrads are often treated as serfs. I know many R1 labs that that are exceptional for undergraduates who work with graduate student mentors. However, I’m aware of far more labs that do not focus on making sure that undergraduates have their own research experience and are able to focus on building their own academic identity. In general, undergraduates in research institutions that receive their own project (as a piece of their mentor’s work) are the exception rather than the norm.

As for the mass production of Ph.D. students from small liberal arts colleges, I would bet that the outcome is a done deal even before the students enroll in college. The social and economic class that produces doctoral students is the same caste that is able to send students to fancy private liberal arts schools. Yes, there are scholarships and financial aid. But even if you look at small liberal arts colleges that heavily emphasize economic and ethnic diversity, they simply can’t match the diversity of the nation’s populace because, simply, most people can’t afford it. As long as the average cost of a liberal arts college is more than average cost of research universities, of course a higher proportion of doctoral students will emerge from liberal arts colleges.

How do I get my own students a multi-level mentored experience? Well, I don’t have that happen inside my lab on a day-to-day basis. I may have Master’s students around, but I usually have undergrads that are more seasoned than my grad students. That experience helps, but the way I really bring in graduate student and postdoc mentors is by having my students conduct their research in a hub of collaborative activity during the summer at a field station: La Selva Biological Station, in Costa Rica. There, my students build strong relationships with scientists from all over with different levels of experience, and these bonds typically stay tight after they leave the field station. Sometimes their projects become collaborations with grad students and postdocs at other institutions. I like that a lot, for a bunch of reasons.

If multi-level mentoring is important for the success of undergraduates, then what does this mean for you?

If you’re in a research institution: Postdocs and grad students should become genuine mentors and give undergraduates the time and resources to have their own students, and supervise them properly.  Faculty at research institutions should support their lab members, not just in the process of research but also in the process of mentorship. Don’t exploit undergraduates as trained monkeys. If you want someone to be an unthinking data-generating machine, then hire a technician. If you take an undergraduate to do “research,” then do actual research with them. Your own research agenda is easily split up into several smaller questions. Hand one of those questions to your undergraduate researcher, and learn how to mentor them. Give them the same support that you expect to receive from your own research advisor. Yeah, it’s not easy, but it will pay off for both of you in the long run.

If you’re at a teaching institution: Seek routes for multi-level mentoring in the lab. At a minimum, the undergraduates with more than two years of experience in the lab should be given the chance to actively supervise new students. Ideally, you can develop relationships with colleagues in other institutions with graduate students and postdocs. Find a way for your undergrads to become friends with doctoral students. I don’t know how to make this happen, and it varies with institutional context and geography, but from where I sit, it’s an ingredient that really promotes success. (For starters, you can bring students to smaller national meetings where they can build relationships with the students of your colleagues.)

I don’t have a big specific solution to the problem, but recognizing the fact that we as faculty are inherently flawed mentors is a start, and recognizing that the lack of graduate students at teaching institutions isn’t a strength, but a weakness, of the mentorship process.

Extra credit is unfair to students


The old joke goes like this:

Q: Why did the undergraduate cross the road?

A: Extra credit!

I’ve known scores of students who would work their butts off for five extra points when they wouldn’t work nearly as hard for a normal 100-point assignment. It’s disheartening to witness such irrational behavior. However, this isn’t why I don’t offer extra credit.

I don’t offer extra credit because it’s inherently unfair.

I treat my students professionally. I respect their time and I expect the same courtesy from my students. When professors decide on an extra credit assignment in the middle of the course, this looks to me like poor planning. Even if the possibility or certainty of extra credit is placed in the syllabus at the start of the semester, that doesn’t make it fair to everybody in the course.

Just because all students are given equal opportunities, doesn’t mean that they are being treated fairly.

When students sign up for our classes, they are expected to attend class at the scheduled times, and complete the studying and assignments outside of class, though not at any particular time because they have other courses, jobs, and private lives. The syllabus says what is in the class and why the class exists. If a professor adds additional stuff to the course, at some point through the semester, then this provides a disadvantage to the student who has more commitments outside of regular class hours.

Maybe there are some ways that extra credit is used that is fair to everyone. I can’t think of any. If there is a regular part of the course that is used for points above 100%, that’s not extra credit, that’s just spreadsheet voodoo. Extra credit, as I consider it, is when students are given a chance to earn extra points by doing some stuff that is outside the typical curriculum of a course, or is scheduled outside class hours, or is connected to performance on an assignment in the middle of the semester.

Let me address different reasons that people might use extra credit, and why I view these reasons as unjustified:

1. Extra credit is a carrot to get students to do favors for their institutions. The most common one that I’ve seen that students get extra credit for attending seminars by visiting speakers. This drummed-up audience prevents anybody from being embarrassed by paltry attendance. This practice is manipulative, and doesn’t show adequate respect for time of students. Moreover, because not everyone may have equal availability to earn such extra credit, this gives some students an opportunity to earn more points than other students. (Assigning written assignments to students who cannot attend an extracurricular event to earn extra credit is punitive.) If students need to attend seminars for their courses, then this needs to be built into the course and scheduled during class hours, or placed in the course description. It’s not right to reward the students who have enough spare time to attend events while others might be working or have other commitments.

2. Extra credit is an opportunity for students to earn additional points if their exam scores were particularly low. I have seen some professors give students extra work, including an opportunity to revise exams, in order to improve their scores on exams. If a professor doesn’t like the mean score on an exam, the proper course of action is to give everybody a boost. If most students in the class performed below expectations, then offering extra credit to everybody is relatively punitive to the students who did perform higher than their peers. Some students did better than other students on an exam for a reason. To respect all of your students, honor those reasons and look to the future when students tank an exam. (For edu-folks: exams are summative assessments. Keep it that way.) The only way students should have a chance to revise an assignment or exam for additional credit is if it was structured that way in the first place and the students were aware of this policy at the outset. Anything else is unfair to those who did their best at the start.

3. Extra credit is assigned to motivate students. If students aren’t working hard enough, and extra credit is the incentive, then I humbly suggest that there is a suite of pedagogical approaches that will increase student effort and engagement that don’t involve the inherent unfairness in extra credit. Extra credit encourages students to obsess over their scores rather than focus on the content of the course. If you have students jump through hoops to get a higher grade than they think they would otherwise be getting, then how does this help them learn?

4. Extra credit keeps students happier. I’m doubt this is true. Does extra credit help professors out by boosting their evaluations? I’m not aware of any evidence along these lines and my anecdotal observations suggest that some students are aware that extra credit is manipulative. Even if extra credit would pacify some otherwise unhappy students, priority should be placed on fairness.

5. Extra credit is assigned because the professor overestimated or underestimated the difficulty of the curriculum. If students are underperforming because the course was harder than the professor intended, then the scale should be shifted. If students are overperforming and extra credit is required to give students enough material for learning, then other curricular changes within the bounds of the course should be implemented.

6. Extra credit is assigned to engage students with the community. If student involvement in the community through some extracurricular activity (such as a beach cleanup, or volunteer tutoring at a local elementary school) is desired by the professor, then it should be built into the required curriculum. It’s acceptable to integrate service learning in all kinds of courses. If you don’t want to require it, but want to provide the option, then you could make this activity one of a variety of things that are worth equal required points, or you could offer the possibility without giving student an academic reward for extracurricular activities.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of an instructor calling an audible during the semester to change up all kinds of things. I often have a large amount of points to ‘homework and in class assignments.’ I often don’t know exactly what those are going to be when I start the semester. However, I’m not going to give extra points on top of those assignments. It’s simply unfair and doesn’t respect my students’ time.

When students come see me about extra credit during the semester, I explain that I don’t give extra credit because it’s unfair to students who have their time budgeted to other activities and to those who were able to perform well consistently throughout the semester. Nobody’s argued with any substance, other than, “Are you sure?” Yes, I am sure.

One strategic reason to be clear about not offering extra credit is that some students accustomed to the practice might not try hard to learn the course material in the first part of the course, hoping that extra credit might bail them out in the end. By not having extra credit, and making sure this is well known, then you might get a higher investment throughout the whole semester.

The professor-student relationship is structured by the power that the professor has over the student. By coming up with (seemingly) capricious ways to increase student scores throughout the semester, this looks like an abuse of that power to make things easier for the professor and (seemingly) harder on the students who don’t need the extra credit.

If you are providing a carrot to some students, then those who aren’t able to eat or fully digest the carrot will then see extra credit as a stick.  When I start my classes each semester, I tell my students: “The world isn’t fair. But in this classroom, I place a high value on endeavoring to be as fair as possible.” If I offered extra credit, then I’d be undermining that notion.

Many of my students work long hours outside of school, in addition to a full course load, and they also have families to care for. I’m not going to ask anything more of them other than what was in the course catalog and what I made very clear in the course syllabus. Even if I taught a bunch of students on a residential campus, who did not have major family obligations including a paying job, I still feel that extra credit would be an unprofessional manipulation that wouldn’t fairly treat those who did their best throughout the course.

Broader impacts ≠ reaching underrepresented groups


When the National Science Foundation introduced the required “Broader Impacts” criterion, it took more than a little bit of explaining at the outset.

Several years later, most of us understand what a “broader impact” is: In some shape or form, the funded project affects society beyond the scientific findings. There are a lot of ways to approach broader impacts. How do we go about deciding which way to fulfill the broader impacts requirement?

Earlier this year, Nadkarni and Stasch answered this question quantitatively, by evaluating the broader impacts included in nine years of funded proposals within the Ecosystem Studies program. There were some interesting finds, but there is one that I want to single out in particular.

Only 11% of the broader impacts in these proposals specifically targeted groups underrepresented in the sciences.

That’s right, only 11% of the proposals had broader impacts targeting underrepresented groups.

When I think “broader impacts,” I first, and foremost, think of providing training and mentorship opportunities to students from underrepresented groups. I also think of outreach efforts targeting underrepresented populations.

That seems to be a relatively rare priority.

It doesn’t seem to be a big stretch to say that one of the major factors imperiling the future of scientific progress in the USA is that massive sections of our population – and the ones that are growing more quickly – are not interested in, or prepared for, careers in science. If you read every other piece of policy paperwork about science education, you’ll see that the country needs to open the pathway for careers in science to Latino and African-American students. It matters, big time.

But nobody’s doing it in their broader impacts. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

There are so many possible reasons for this phenomenon, and I don’t want to speculate ad nauseum. Here’s one possibility, though: when people think “broader impacts” they actually do first think about targeting “underrepresented groups.” However, they don’t have a simple or effective route to do so.

How do you reach students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups? You start with students who are in disadvantaged and underrepresented institutions. Which means that the people who are getting all of these grants funded to implement broader impacts, if not at a disadvantaged institution, should start reaching out.

Are you one of those who haven’t included underrepresented groups in your broader impacts? If so, could you leave a comment about what kinds of things could smooth the path? What do you think that NSF, and we as a community, could do to help researchers at institutions with lots of NSF grants (and relatively few disadvantaged underrepresented students) reach out to underrepresented groups?


Nalini M Nadkarni and Amy E Stasch 2013. How broad are our broader impacts? An analysis of the National Science Foundation’s Ecosystem Studies Program and the Broader Impacts requirement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 13–19.

A method to develop scientists from underrepresented groups: Research Recruits


The United States needs to develop more scientists from underrepresented groups. This post describes an approach I’ve developed that has helped me do this more effectively.

The United States has always been, and remains, a nation of immigrants. For a variety of complex sociological reasons, our nation’s scientists are principally being drawn from one pool of historic immigrants. Now, the demographics of the country are changing more rapidly than the culture of our scientific community.

The subset of the US population from which scientists are drawn is proportionally shrinking. If our nation is going to remain (or regain) global prominence as a research powerhouse, then we need to recruit scientists from the entire population of the country. We need to make more Latino and African-American scientists, particularly women, from these groups.

The nation needs to overcome the sociocultural divisions that inhibit students from a variety of cultural backgrounds from becoming scientists.

A few generations ago, all women were excluded from most career paths, but these restrictions also applied to the men in my family because of their heritage. My Irish and Italian great grandparents living in Brooklyn were members an underrepresented ethnic and religious minority subjected to substantial discrimination (the movie Gangs of New York puts this history into context). A hundred years ago it would have been laughable that a fresh-off-the-boat McGlynn could become respected science professor in the US. Now, my ethnic background is such a part of the mainstream that I’m now considered to be a member of the privileged class.

It’s now, literally, my job to build that kind of progress for Latinos and African Americans, ethnic groups that have a longer history in the US than my own ancestors. I work in a university that gives me the opportunity of training many of these underrepresented students, and I create avenues of opportunity for those who aspire to become research scientists.

For nearly all of my students, the concept of going to graduate school to become a scientist isn’t even on their radar. Most students are oriented towards careers as technicians in the medical, biomedical or biotechnological fields. Some are broadly interested in environmental science but more about on-the-ground conservation work rather than become a research leader in the field.

Nobody new has come to me and said, “I want to go to graduate school and become a researcher.” If I were to introduce this concept to students, most would be neutral or opposed to the idea, meet resistance from their families, and would be more oriented towards finding a 9-5 job right after graduation or seeking vocational training.

Research is not an easy sell, even though I have some students who I intuitively know right off the bat that they would both excel at, and relish, a career in scientific research. How do I make this happen? There are many books and articles written about the general approach. This post describes one specific practice that can enhance recruitment efforts.

In general, researchers are created by the placement of promising students in an immersive and amazing research experience. They also are made with the provision of proximate models (e.g., not an old white married professor with a family) to show them how possible it is for them to pursue this route.

How do you get students into immersive experiences with the right role models? How I can I, at an underfunded state university with scant research activity on campus, make this happen?

One of the problems in recruiting students from underrepresented groups into scientific careers is that most of this underrepresented population goes to high school and college in environments where it sucks to do science. These urban high-need schools are so focused on raising test scores in English and math that science is merely an afterthought at best.

It’s no wonder that our underrepresented students don’t want to become scientists. They’ve never done genuine science in school, and at our university, our labs are shabby and poorly equipped, and there are no big active research labs on campus, so they don’t have any idea what it looks like to do research.

If I want to make research scientists out of my students, I’ve got to them the heck out of Dodge.

I’ve got to get them to a place where serious research happens all over the place, surrounded by a multiethnic group of students that are one step above them in experience and aspiration. There’s lots of fun tinkering in my lab, but nothing that can inspire someone to make the switch towards a life in science.

I’m not going to bring these students to local research universities like UCLA or Caltech, or to well-endowed undergraduate campuses with great undergraduate research programs like Occidental or Pomona. That could, and does, work, but I’ve got what I think is a better plan.

I’m writing this post right now on a plane. The six seats in front of me are occupied by students from my university, and when they started college they were not planning to become scientists. I’ll wager that a few years from now, about half of them will be published authors and enrolled in a great PhD program in biology. This plane is heading for Costa Rica, and they’ll be spending either 2.5 weeks, or 2.5 months, doing research on trophic ecology in a tropical rainforest. (Their work supported by the NSF International Research Experiences for Students program, also the Louis Stokes Alliance for Broadening Minority Participation administered by NSF.)

The rainforest itself isn’t what makes the students become scientists. Instead, it’s the research environment located at the edge of this massive fragment of forest, called La Selva Biological Station. There, my students interact with undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs  from all over the US, Latin America and Europe. They hang out with people who are supremely excited about research, and they also see the social and ethnic diversity of scientists that is rare at most US universities. Many of my students speak Spanish at home, and at La Selva, they’re able to talk with research students from Latin America who are also native Spanish speakers. They see Latinos excelling at research, and it is inspiring.

What my students see at La Selva is something that I could never just explain to them: they can have a genuine future as a research scientist. If they love the research (and only some do), then this experience makes the avenue to success perfectly clear and obvious.

They know that it’s my job to clear the path for them, for the next few years, by bring them to conferences, making them published authors, and helping give them the skills they need. (You’ll be able to meet a bunch of them if you go to the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting this summer, by the way.) They know it’s their job to deliver the goods as well, by being productive members of my research lab, primarily as the engines of data creation.

I don’t necessarily need to schlep these students to the rainforest to give them that kind of immersive research environment. I think active biological field stations are the best for this kind of experience, and there are lots of these within the US. Some universities are great for this as well, especially for those whose research orientation is focused on what happens in the lab. I bring these students to La Selva because that’s my biological home where I’ve worked for almost 20 years. I work there because my undergraduate advisor brought me there, and she remains a top mentor and model for my work with students.

Bringing the right students to the rainforest became really difficult since I came to a university filled with students from ethnicities underrepresented in the sciences (in California, you can’t call Latino a “minority” after all). When I worked at schools filled with relatively wealthy students with northern European ancestry, I had no problem finding students who wanted go down and work in the rainforest for a few weeks for a few months. They could pay for it themselves, and they enjoyed the experience, though not so many of them enjoyed it enough to become scientists.

I was surprised when I got to CSU Dominguez Hills. I posted signs up all over the (dilapidated) science building which read:


Who wouldn’t want to do that? It turns out, nearly everybody.

I thought I’d be overwhelmed with applications. I didn’t get enough credible applications to fill my slots. The few applicants I had were hardcore premeds who I knew (from past experience) would never be won over to research, and I didn’t want to waste NSF’s money (nor my time) that way.

I eventually filled the slots, mostly with the right students, but it took a serious recruitment effort. The most frustrating part of the experience is that there were students who I knew well, who I was confident would enjoy and succeed in the summer rainforest research experience, but I couldn’t convince them to apply. It turned out that nearly all of my best potential candidates were the ones that I couldn’t convince to come along.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Many of these students were closely tied to their families and had never been away from family for a week, much less two months. Also, though I could pay a full stipend, this amount couldn’t fully match the revenue they would be earning from summer employment. Third, many students were counting on taking summer school so that they could graduate in 5 or 6 years instead of 7 or 8 years (no, I’m not exaggerating. Welcome to the contemporary California State University).

I couldn’t pull a student away from home for a whole summer of paid research unless they were exceptionally untied at home and had a great degree of financial freedom, combined with an independence of vision or a particularly free spirit that would allow them to have an open mind to the future. There were students I wanted to take down for the whole summer, but I just couldn’t hook them.

So, what did I do? As the title of the post suggests, I created a new category of student researcher, which I called the “Research Recruit.”

Remember how I wrote that some of the students traveling with me joined me for just 2.5 weeks. They spend two weeks doing research at La Selva, and a few days on “cultural experiences” such as the beach, cloud forest, volcano expeditions, hot springs, museums and zip-lining before going back home. They don’t receive a stipend, but they do get all their travel expenses covered plus a little per diem. Nothing has to come out of their own pockets.

It’s not that hard to convince most students to leave for the rainforest for 2.5 weeks. They can take that much time off their jobs with enough advance warning, and even if they have overprotective family, they can escape and reassure them with video chats from abroad. Students can get someone to watch their pets for that long, if not the whole summer. While not many people apply as research recruits on their own initiative, when we seek out students who we think are a good fit and ask them to apply, then we get a large and high quality applicant pool.

The Research Recruits don’t run their own projects like the long-term students. They pitch in as research technicians on the projects run by the other students. They also are encouraged to tag along with other researchers on station, which gives them the chance to meet a variety of grad students from the U.S. and also gives them exposure to a variety of biological and research system. Exceptional ones might be invited to stay for the whole summer, if there is adequate funding and mentorship.

By hosting a short-term cohort of Research Recruits, I am able to give students a taste of field biology and a thrilling research community. We are able to entice a number of recruits to apply to, and plan for, a full summer of research abroad in the following summer. Some research recruits don’t return to the rainforest for a full summer, as they discovered that they are not field biologists, but they have emerged from the experience excited about research and some have wound up as researchers in other lab-oriented disciplines. Others have gone into careers in teaching, and their tangible research experience has enhanced their classroom teaching.

It is hard work to make a scientist out of a person whose background precludes scientific research as a genuine career option. It is a highly personalized process, and it takes building genuine personal relationships. It also takes multiple years. Not all of my “research recruits” become scientists, but some of them do. These students who wind up in grad school never would have committed to a full summer of research without having an initial taste of research. If I gave up on them because they were wary of a summer of dedicated research, then it’s likely that they never would have been turned onto scientific research as a career option.

Once our Recruits go home, then they can prepare for the next summer. They can talk to their families, arrange for someone to watch their dog, don’t mind quitting their job and get excited about the projects that they can do. The level of commitment required to leave home for the summer, for the purpose of an intangible and vague experience, is a high bar for underrepresented students. The Research Recruit experience lets students know what they would be doing for the whole summer, and gets talented students to be motivated to make the personal commitment.

Is an exceptional summer experience enough to turn a student into a lifelong scientist? It can be. The hard part is getting students to envision themselves taking part in an experience for one summer. If you bring Research Recruits into your program, you lessen the initial level of commitment and then you can identify those who will succeed in long-term experiences.

Underrepresented students are going to college at underrepresented universities, the campuses that are not actively participating in the research community. To diversify the sciences, you need to recruit students from these campuses. To do this, you’ve got to go through us – the faculty who work with these students on a day to day basis.

To bring students from these institutions into the fold, you can’t just offer amazing experiences and hope that the right students sign up. You’ve got to court them, and convince them that research is a viable avenue. You’ve got to build personal relationships.

You can’t just expect the best students to commit to full summer research experiences. Research ability and motivation may be independent from the ability to envision research as a career path. I wish every program that is trying to recruit students from ethnic minorities included a Research Recruit option, which would bring in not only more students, but also the best students who otherwise would not see research as an option in their future.

We have a high conversion rate from our Research Recruit program, and after doing this for four years, our challenge is that we have too many qualified students looking for full-summer slots. That’s not a bad position to be in, and it also helps us argue for greater levels funding for our programs.

If you don’t have enough talented students from underrepresented groups applying, consider inviting them for just two weeks. Build your research community from the ground up. There are so many amazing students from underrepresented groups at non-research universities that can be excellent scientists. Creating funded opportunities is only the start, you’ve got to court them. I humbly suggest that creating a short-term Research Recruit program is one successful tactic that is absent from most programs.

Science, math skills, and high school students


There was a diversity of visceral reactions to EO Wilson’s op-ed piece, which argued that you can be a great scientist without being good at math. The lowdown can be found at Dynamic Ecology (with 15 updates as of this writing!) I wrote my own take on it here.

Before we go any further, I’m curious about all of you, what’s your take on the op-ed piece? Compel yourself to make a choice. (If you have caveats, put them in the comments section of the post, but please pick one or the other).

One common reaction by scientists who teach and train students was, “Thanks, Ed, for making my job harder.” That was my first thought, as I regularly teach Biostatistics.

Another common reaction was, “That’s not the message to send students early on as they still are developing their skills in all aspects.”

With these ideas in mind, I brought the op-ed piece to a bunch of high school teachers. They read it and we discussed it for about half an hour.  How did the discussion go?

First, let me tell you more about the teachers. I regularly meet with this crowd as a part of an NSF-funded Noyce Master Teacher Fellow program that I run with education faculty. They all have their Master’s degree (most in education, some in science) and were competitively selected for this program as a result of their experience, excellence and continued commitment to teach in high-need urban schools in South Los Angeles. These teachers work in rough schools, with kids who have the deck stacked against them even before they enter the classroom. They were picked for this program because they are the ones staying at their schools even though most new teachers leave after a very short time.

These teachers are talented, dedicated, overworked, and mentors to new teachers. I tell them so often how much I respect and admire they work they’re probably sick of hearing it. (I have learned a lot from them about teaching over the past couple years, no surprise there.) One of the reasons I try to praise often is because they hear it so little elsewhere. The newspapers and the mayor and the school board and anybody who has a loud mouth will say that these teachers are the problem that need to be fixed. Let me tell you, that’s entirely backwards. These teachers are the solution to the problem. Free these teachers to do what they were professionally trained to do, with the resources to do it, and you’ll see the positive changes that have been so elusive. (Making this change, sadly, is politically complex).

These teachers know their stuff. Moreover, they teach exactly the population of students that NSF is trying to hard to recruit into the sciences: “underrepresented.”

The opinion of these teachers about the requisite math skills for becoming a scientist matters, more so than anybody else in the whole of the USA.

What did they say about Wilson’s piece? Immediately after we all read it, I did an informal survey: thumbs up or thumbs down, just like in this post. (Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.)

All I saw were thumbs up, or neutralish waves of whatever. I asked, why is that?

The general consensus was that being good at the process of science isn’t inherently mathematical. You don’t want to dissuade someone who is interested in science, after all. Of course, you need to use math, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing science and the math can come along for the ride. That was the initial response.

Then, one person (the only physics teacher in the bunch) disagreed, and a biology teacher joined in. They said that to be good at the practice of science, in real life, you have to be able to do math. You can’t really understand some fundamental principles in science unless you can grasp the math.  There were some disagreements, that this was endemic to physics, but then plenty of examples throughout the sciences were brought up. It was also raised that engineering is growing in importance and will be a key feature in new state educational standards soon to be adopted.

The discussion then turned to the fact that specific skill sets are required not just to be able to do science, but also to land positions, perform your job, and be able to adapt to evolving requirements of these jobs. Not all scientists can choose to work on whatever they want, even though E.O. Wilson has that option, and we need to train students to be prepared for the opportunities that rise before them and to be able to use their skills to create the opportunities that they want, or need.

If you’re E.O. Wilson, then you don’t need math, we decided. But if you’re not Wilson, with National Academy mathematicians available for collaboration, then sophisticated math is a very practical skill that will serve you well in the sciences more than almost any other resource. Especially if we are training students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we want to be able to confer upon our students every possible advantage, and being analytically and mathematically adept is key. It’s genuinely a key. It opens doors.

In the end, we agreed that Wilson was right on the fact: It’s possible to be a great scientist and not be great at math; this is a possibility.

We also agreed that this was a downright destructive choice to communicate such an idea.

Wilson’s article lamented that he had a hard time recruiting Harvard students to become scientists because of their math phobia. Nearly all of his students are archetypes of privilege, who also received strong preparation in high school before winding up at Harvard.

Meanwhile, the students in the classes of our master teachers who are lucky enough to graduate and then go to college, are likely to need remedial math. At my university, it’s been normal for a majority of entering students to require remedial math courses right off the bat because they don’t pass the stunningly basic placement exam. Do we want to tell them that math isn’t important to become a scientist? Should we tell them that this remedial math doesn’t matter, and that the calculus course required for our major is pointless?

Perhaps Wilson would like to visit us, and tell my students that they don’t need to worry too much about developing math talents to further their careers as scientists.

Far too often, my students have heard while growing up that they don’t need to work hard at something difficult. They have heard plenty enough that they should just slide into tasks suited to their inherent abilities, whatever they may be, rather than kick it up a notch and genuinely improve one’s talents. If you’re the first one in your family to go to college, expectations are paramount.

Maybe Wilson should limit his don’t-sweat-the-math message to his Harvard students. That way, our students will get jobs over their underprepared Ivy League competitors.

And then I woke up.

Online learning is the ghetto of higher education


People need to rethink the concept of the digital divide.

In our society, the digital divide doesn’t separate those who have access to computers and those who don’t.

It separates those who are required to use digital devices for learning and those who have the privledge of learning directly from genuine experts.

Soon enough, if my legislature has its way, the wealthy will get to go to real colleges and take classes with real professors. Everybody else is sitting at home on a computer.

Those who are pushing MOOCs and online learning as an alternative to higher education are trying to take my students away from me. The big push is coming from those who stand to gain financially, or from those trying to balance the budget books, so I won’t trust them much on the matter of best educational practices.

Perhaps I’m narcissistic in overvaluing my role in higher education. I think the most important part of my students’ experience is me. I’m involved in their lives in a way that can’t be done online.

The student population on my campus is mostly low-income, working part-time or full-time, first-generation college students, nearly all from groups underrepresented in the sciences. These are, by definition, disadvantaged students. This isn’t an insult, just a fact – the deck is stacked against them based on their background. They have a competitive disadvantage against those with more resources and against those with a pedigree that creates access to fancier opportunities.

This year, a few undergraduates who have worked with me are heading off to great graduate programs. What all of them have in common is that they started working with faculty at my university in the classroom and in the lab, in person. They’ve all told me and my colleagues that there’s no way they would have been able to do what they’ve done without us as a resource and as an influence. I take them at their word.

All the research shows that personal interventions into the lives of disadvantaged students is what leads to their success.

The students that need personal interactions with their professors are the ones that are the most economically disadvantaged.

This is the same group of students who will be the first pushed into online education instead of going to college for real. Why aren’t people more worried about this?

Some are – there is a bunch of concern at Computing Education, such as this post. Overall, though, as usual, the underrepresented students remain, well, underrepresented.

Pointing this fact out doesn’t come without some personal risk at annoying my higherups. My university is deep in the push for online education, and has a mess of wholly online degrees, such as a B.S. in “Applied Studies,” whatever that is.

My university is also known as a place of refuge for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. This is a painful irony that we are at the forefront of the push for online learning. Pushing students out of our labs and onto their laptops.

As a mentor to undergraduates, and an advocate for undergraduate research as a great way to learn, I wonder how this online education trend will affect the ability for students to truly move ahead. I wonder, but I will never want to find out, because I don’t want it to happen.

I just want these students physically in my lab, where I can chat with them personally and help them in ways that I can’t over a computer screen. Please don’t take them away from the university. Please give me the chance to speak with them, listen to them, and show them how to become scientists. Please don’t take away their best chance at success. Don’t make them settle for anything less than what wealthy students are getting at more heavily endowed campuses. Give them what they need to get from college – personal, actual connections with their professors.

You can let the students of privilege take their classes online, if you think online education is just as good. Those students don’t need the face time like the disadvantaged students do. If you don’t like that idea, it’s only because you acknowledge the fact that one truly is lesser than the other.