Thursday, May 19, 2011

Field Trip

No, I am not dead, just trying to move an NMR, finish the semesters classes, create an online course for the continuing education college, get three Masters students to thesis, write annual reports for student development grants, and attend all the end of year celebrations, and dire budget meetings on the agenda.  Actually writing that fills me with a mixture of exhaustion and panic as I still have much to do.

Those who think I need a break convinced me to go to the Huntington Library and Museum yesterday.  Being a science book collector I was looking forward to the exhibit on the Regency period in England (1810-1820).  I was not let down as they had one case on the science of the period which included one of Davy’s coal damp papers and two books by Frederic Accum.

The regency period was one of significant advances in science and industry as it was the beginning of the industrial age.  The people’s interest in science was great and the middle classes would read scientific literature of the day. 

Out of this period came the practice of public lectures where you could subscribe to lectures on chemistry by Davy himself.  It was in such lectures that an apprentice bookbinder named Michael Faraday came; being gifted the lecture tickets by someone who was not interested in attending after the first couple of lectures in the series.  He wrote up the notes he took and bound them, which earned him a meeting with Davy and ultimately a place as a dishwasher in the lab.  The rest of this digression is history.

In looking at a case focused on the theater of the period I noticed something interesting in a diary entry for an Anna Mararette Lapent.  Apparently she was quite a theater maven and wrote volumes about the plays she attended and books she read.  At the bottom of the open page about February 1814 in the case at the Huntington is the following; “During the week read two lectures of Davy’s on agricultural chemistry."  There was something written after that which I could not make out.

If only my students were reading two of Hall’s lectures on organic each week, what new flowering of science might we see.

T.S. Hall

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Watch Out Angry Birds

One of the things that my students always have trouble with is recognizing that a collection of reagents in a flask will not react with each other.  They automatically assume some reaction must occur, and will come up with some crazy product.  The thing is, in vivo many functional groups and reagents can coexist.  It can be important to the chemist or biochemist to recognize the potential for reactivity or coexistence.

With this and many other issues in mind I have been trying to think of ways to help my students master organic chemistry.  One thought was to have the students make 3x5 cards of solvents, reagents, and molecules with one, two, three, etc. functional groups and families present.  The students would then draw from the decks to create collections of contents in a hypothetical flask.  They would then have to determine the possible reaction and the products that would be produced.

Realizing that 3x5 cards are so last century, I wonder if this could be done as an organic chemistry application.  Perhaps as T.S.Hall's Organic Reactions slot machine where the flask contents would be on the wheels.  Once the student has pulled the lever or pushed the start button, the wheels would turn to a random set of reagents.  The student could accrue points by predicting the correct products, using a drawing program.

Who knows, it might make organic even more fun than it is now!

T.S. Hall

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Narcisissma is the pride of the faculty

(Let's start with an apology to Don McLean.  Having learned the word narcissism from his song back in my childhood, the concept always reminds me of the song.)

One of my colleagues has stated at faculty meetings that, "students come and go, but the faculty are always here, so the university should be run for the benefit of the faculty."  This way of thinking has always bothered me.  Recently my department chair chose to publicize the publications of faculty members and a scholarly activity award for another faculty member.  Aside from not mentioning the student co-authors, the chair at the same time completely ignored that one of our seniors earned a NSF Graduate Fellowship, and our students took three of four university awards for scholarship and service.  The specifics of these cases are not important but serve as examples of the insidious ways departments shift away from student focus and towards faculty focus.

It's not that faculty don't care about students.  With constantly increasing class sizes, pressure to graduate more students regardless of achievement, budget cuts that reduce the resources for teaching and research, pay that even the state's consultants say is below national averages, and leaders who tell the public that budget cuts will be covered by reduction in the pay and benefits of faculty and staff, faculty can come to feel that no one cares about them.  The faculty need to bolster there self esteem by drawing attention to their successes.  I can't fault that.

The thing is, at PUIs and MCUs the faculty must remember that those who control the resources see our main products as educated students.  Most of the public don't get the connection between the faculty member's publication or scholarly activity award and what they perceive that they are paying for.  The connection must be made through the students.

Every argument, and the foundation laid for every argument on budget must be based on the quality of education our students receive and the value that quality represents to the community, the taxpayer, and the parent or student who is paying the tuition.

It's the students, stupid!  Love yourself a little less, love your students a little more, and the community will view you with higher esteem!

T.S. Hall

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What we cover

When the economy is tight and education budgets are being cut, the public generally turns to the idea of higher education as technical training rather and a broad training of the mind wedded to a training in a specific field.  As has been noted in this blog on several occasions, this is in line with the interests of many college students who could care less about anything that they think is unimportant to their getting the job they desire. Rather than comment on the value of classes like "Comic Spirit,"it might be useful to turn this discussion toward my favorite class, organic chemistry.

After the recent ACS National meeting I was discussing "real world" organic chemistry with one of my former students.  I had a standard organic text open when my former student arrived.  The visitor immediately noted that the chemistry shown on the pages was never really used in modern industrial laboratories, to which I noted that few academic labs would use that particular chemistry.  The truth is that much of the chemistry in standard organic texts is not used today.  My early career med chemist commented that one of the challenges of the first year in industry was learning all the chemistry that they never encountered in their academic training.

With the advances of transition metal catalysis over the last couple of decades many of the chemistry's we teach in our organic classes are, form a practical standpoint, only marginally better than teaching students blowpipe analysis.  From a pedagogical perspective, these older chemistry's have value in training the mind.  My concern is that we must balance the training of the mind with the practical skill training that students need to be successful.

Some will argue that the practical training is the function of research in the curriculum.  The problem is that in the modern funding scheme of higher education, research and small lab classes are being defunded, as they cost the university a considerable amount per student.  In many systems research required of faculty and students, receives barely token funding.  Faculty and departments are expected to raise the needed funding themselves.

It may be time to convert those third semester organic classes to "real world organic" courses.  There is a need for textbooks written at a junior class level that make the transition from the basic organic course to modern practical organic chemistry.  I would be interested in suggestions and ideas on the subject.

T.S. Hall

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lab course credit units

While I am sure that this blog has become too higher ed policy wonky for many, some policy issues have more impact on the day-to-day lives of academics than others.  Today's issue may be one of those.

The federal government, in an effort to more evenly assess the value to the level of instruction, academic rigor, and time requirements of course work is pushing toward a clearer standard for the academic unit.  The main goal is to define the unit for purposes of financial aid.

The proposed standard relies on the Carnegie classifications in which the minimum requirement for one unit is defined as an hour of direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately 15 weeks for one semester or trimester, and adjusting for quarters or differing amounts of time.  For labs, internships, practica, etc. and "equivalent amount of work" is required.

Between my student days and my faculty days I have been associated with six different institutions.  Five of those institutions assigned the organic lab courses one unit for a three hour lab.  The other university assigned 1.5 units.  Under the definition of a unit, assigning one unit to three hours of lab suggests that in terms of time, the minimum for a unit has been met by the in lab activity only in the organic lab course.  Those extra minutes preparing prelabs and lab reports represent effort beyond the minimum.  When one considers research units and all the lab courses a science major takes, the effort expended to earn a science degree is substantially greater than the minimum.

Our students often complain about the workload of science degrees.  I believe that the workload discourages some students from pursuing STEM degrees.  It also makes it more likely that a STEM student will take longer than four years to complete their degree, particularly if that student must work to pay for their education.  Additionally, the nerd stereotype, which also discourages STEM focus among students, suggests that our students have no time for social lives.  A unit analysis supports the stereotype, if our units require more effort than those of other disciplines.

I doubt that many of us would suggest lowering the workload to earn a STEM degree.  Increasing the number of units would also increase the time to a degree.  With the public expectation being that a college degree should be only four years/120 units makes increasing the units for a degree is problematic.

If we want to improve our STEM recruitment and graduation rates we may need to rethink our approach to educating STEM students.  This may require touching third rails of higher education, such as the general education curriculum and our lower level core courses which occupy a large portion of our units.

T.S. Hall

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Organic Chemistry A & B - Why?

I just finished grading my second exam of the semester.  Teaching a Chem and Biochem majors organic course has advantages and disadvantages, both of which are clear upon grading an exam.  The are a few students who really care and show a clear desire to understanding of the material and go beyond it.  There are also a uncomfortably large number of students who make me suspect that they have never heard of general chemistry let alone organic chemistry.  (I am not sure how this can be the case in the second semester of organic, but it is.)  This later group are only chemistry majors as a stepping stone to pharmacy school or are biochemistry majors who believe that biochemists don't need to know organic chemistry.

During the bout of mild depression that follows grading I find myself struggling with the balance between a life-of-the-mind approach to education and technical training.  In the life-of-the-mind approach I try to teach my students to think like scientists, with an emphasis on applying that thinking to organic chemistry topics.  In the technical training approach I try to give the student just those tools they need to move forward in their careers.

The technical training approach is very much in vogue today lead primarily by those who appear to believe that we have reached the end of scientific advancement and our graduates will never see anything that is not already known. Obviously, I see this, in its purest form, as a shortsighted and detrimental focus to education.  I don't understand how scientists can embrace an approach so antithetical to the idea of the scientific method.  This mode of teaching creates good technicians, not good scientists.

The life-of-the-mind approach is demeaned in our anti-intellectual society as being an ivory tower perspective, which it is, in its purest form.  Often I find myself wondering why we are covering some of the outdated and, for practical modern day purposes, useless chemistry we see in organic courses.  I can see a rationalization that points toward a training of the mind, although I am suspicious of such arguments.  This method creates people who can think-tank a problem, without dealing with the practical realities.

As I am sure many readers will agree, I think the key to a good educational system is to balance the two views.  This leads me to a questions for which I have no answers.  In a fundamental sense, what is the balance we trying to convey to students in the two semester organic course?  Do our texts and examination methods reflect that balance?

With the increased reliance on multiple choice exams and larger class sizes I fear that we are moving increasingly toward credentialing to the technical training side.  I don't believe that this approach will make either our graduates or our economy competitive in the future.

I look forward to the thoughts of readers.

T.S. Hall

Saturday, March 12, 2011

No Compromise America

Every time I have started to write a blog entry over the last few weeks I have found myself drifting back to the same off topic issue, so I am just going to get this off my chest and move on.

A few weeks ago I was listening to an interview with a member of a state legislature talking about budget issues and how to close a large budget gap.  This elected representative stated that the source of budget problems is "compromise".  He then went on to argue that there should be no compromise.  He suggested that the only solution is to silence all who disagree and have one party (his) make all the rules.  No surprising for today's politicians, but increasingly we see evidence of politicians acting to silence all who disagree.

Being a radical moderate, I don't care and won't tell, which party this person was from.  It does not matter. The movement to the extremes is a recipe for destruction.  When we refuse to negotiate, when facts don't matter, when we salt the earth of our enemies in a civil war, we have sown the seeds of the end of civil society and at some future time will see revolution in our own land.

In my life I have see revolutions and genocides.  They begin when one group holds power and wealth and dictates to those who think or look differently that they will have no voice or power over their lives.  Look at Egypt and Libya, the populace are wage slaves who must suffer in silence as all power and wealth go to a few.

I was taught in elementary school and have always believed that part of the genius of the founders of the United States of America was that they set up a system requiring that even the minority opinions would have a voice and would be heard in the court of public opinion. When politicians act specifically to pursue a permanent majority by legislating the destruction of any means that those who disagree with them might use to have a voice, they undermine the foundations of the nation.

I am hopeful that the pendulum has reached the zenith of its swing and more sensible voices will soon speak up, but when I hear leaders like the legislator who is anti-compromise speak without fear of rebuttal or retribution I worry about the our collective future.

T.S. Hall