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Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before September 25, 2010

Posted by calvinus in Teaching, The Academic Life.
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Summer holidays? What are they, you will have to remind me?  Something is wrong when you actually look forward to the students come back as it brings with it a hint of normality (only just a hint, mind) and a slackening of workload!

This summer I have had to supervise/run/deal with 18 project students (not all my own). Not all passed, some may even have been stupid enough to steal some material from published work.

Too thick to know shortcuts

How often do you have to repeat yourself?

Do not plagiarise. Plagiarism is theft.

Do not copy form books/journals/tinterweb.  Plagiarism is theft.

Do not plagiarise, you will fail.

So…lets say you have to hand in a project report and it is found to contain 67% of thefted material, lets say you have thefted 42% from one source.

How to deter students plagiarising?  Partly this is cultural – many of our students are used to rote learning, many are not used to putting things in their own words, many leave things to the last minute and obey Hess’s law to submit any old tosh for the deadline.

How to deter students plagiarising?

This is doing my head in. Spend 6 months trying to get someone through a project only for them to hand in a regurgitated version of wikipedia gets to be a little tiring.  My first reaction when marking plagiarised work is to wince.  It’s painful to discover you have wasted your time.

And the pain was enough to make
A shy, bald, buddhist reflect
And plan a mass murder
Who said I’d lied to her?

S.P. Morrissey, 1987

The student still doesn’t know she is being done for plagiarism.  That will come. Another fun day of interviewing thieves awaits.  Joy of joys.


Mathematically Safe (falling off a log) December 12, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life.
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Two first year students were in my office yesterday.  We were going through an impromptu tutorial on UV/vis and the Beer-Lambert law (or Beer-Bouguer law if we are to acknowledge the actual originators).  Calculators were out and it would appear that there is some difficulty calculating absorbance (A) from transmittance (T):

A = -log10(T)

A simple enough equation for a first year student you might think, but once we got over the problem of logarithms, we struck on the increasing problem of how to use a calculator.  Both students are studying life science degrees and one suggested that we should teach maths classes.  Now, I happen to agree fully with this and am not entirely sure why we don’t (at least, not sure enough to comment openly here).  Unfortunately, what the student had in mind was not teaching actual maffmaticks, but use of calculators as what followed was a 15 minute “masterclass” in using the [shift] button to go from the log of 1000 being equal to 3 and back again.

Looks like we are not alone in this as the following image came from the website of The Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada:

I realise, or course, that this is a common problem for those of us at the frontline of “widening participation” institutions such as mine, but it will get worse.  How many of “da yoof” use/own calculators these days?  Not that many.  I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have narked at people using mobile phones in the lab, not for communication, but for working out how many moles of hydrochloric acid are in a 25 ml sample!

Exponentials?  There’s an app for that, innit?

Software & a lack of understanding thereof September 20, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
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I have a theory.  Granted, this theory has only had a comparatively short period of evidence gathering to find supporting information, but it is a theory nonetheless.

When I was going through the education system (have I ever really left), the mantra was that we were much more computer literate than all of the professoriate and lecturing staff.  Anywhere else I have been, the mantra has been the same: the students are more IT savvy than the staff.  Even now I have colleagues that learn from our students.  This is worrying given how clueless many of our students are in matters of IT.

Let me be quite clear.  It is not their fault, nor is it a criticism of our students’ intellects or abilities.  Yes “da yoof” are more connected, more technologically fluid (but not fluent) than ever before.  However, faced with a minor problem that isn’t on the menu bar of a MS program, “da yoof” are lost.  I get exactly the same questions from panicking and utterly frustrated students that I get from my mother-in-law (and given that she still uses a dial-up, this might give you an idea of the level).

So, here is the theory.  Looking back, I suspect computer literacy probably peaked with the generation that was overly familiar with Windows 2000/ME (not, I stress, that I am suggesting that these were the ideal OS!).  After around that time, operating systems started becoming more user-friendly inasmuch that they would do a lot more things automatically and intuitively for the “average” user (NDLR: the lowest common denominator).  Couple this with the ubiquity of PCs, and MS in particular, and general understanding of the structure and function of software dropped.  The theory goes that understanding and ability to use software (or anything) is inversely proportional to the slickness and popularity of the software and operating system (which means that bloodyVista is a ray of hope for the improvement of user understanding!).

Some examples of what I mean.

1) When did the “My documents” function arrive?  Every year I teach a basic statistics course which involves the heavy use of computer-based workshops.  Despite the fact that the students love the statistics, every week I encounter the same problems.  Student X says that they have a problem – they cannot find the file that they saved their work in last week.

JC “Where did you save it?”

SX “Dunno. It was in My Documents last week.”

JC “Which My Documents?”

SX “?”

JC “My documents on the hard drive or My Documents on the network drive?”

SX “The what?”

JC “OK, have you tried searching for the file?”

Suffice to say, the answer is usually “no” as they hadn’t even realised that the “find” or “search” function existed… So, if something doesn’t automatically appear when you want it, it is clearly a problem of the computer, or so it would appear many people think.

2) Post-graduate student Y tries new software for operating a bit of kit.  Said software saves everything automatically by default and in a proprietary binary that I couldn’t care less about.  This is a good thing as you have all the instrument parameters, all the data, all the conditions, etc. in one compact file.  But this isn’t good enough for student Y: you can’t open up the data in Excel.  This is considered to be a “bad thing” and all hope is lost and there is darkness upon the face of the earth.  “This is useless, I can’t open my data in Excel.” I decided that a response of “RTFM” may not be the most constructive and after a small amount of fiddling (i.e., three clicks) we were able to get the data as ASCII that will happily open up in any spreadsheet that our IT department permit us to use (go figure the length of that list).  But this requires a conscious decision and effort on the part of the operator, even if it is just three clicks.  Therefore it was suggested that the software was “hardly the most user friendly”.

Lets pause for a minute.  Are we regressing?  Should all new software only save data in ASCII human-readable text?  Shall we take this to its logical conclusion and ask that our software only accepts input files that are text-only?  No GUIs please?  This is ironic given that I know the carnage that causes – I teach the use of computational chemistry programs (although admittedly I should use something other than vi).  While we are at it, should we not go back to UNIX and DOS??

The problems, I can handle.  I am more worried about the inability, or lack of confidence, to fiddle around and find possible solutions.  I suspect this year I shall mostly be teaching from XKCD:

Well we know where we’re goin’ March 1, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Teaching.
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But we don’t know where we’ve been.

This seems to be becoming more and more the case these days. Some of the students I teach become so “institutionalised” inasmuch that they think only in terms of the subjects they are studying and only in terms of what they have to learn. Future tense. Any sense of connecting this with what has already been learned is implicit. It is not a conscious decision to relate current topics with skills already acquired. I spent an hour an a half trying to get my final years reconnect with this and realize what they are doing at a subconscious level. Add to this a lack of confidence to tackle subjects outwith their concept of what is their subject, we run the risk of graduating students that are not as rounded as they deserve to be.
Should scientists have to think about the philosophy and psychology behind what they are learning? I think so. Not too much, but there should be a small amount of teaching aimed at probing the fundamental meanings of the language and symbolism used. When is a measurement not a measurement? How does your concept of measurement bias your results? What is “truth” and “true” results in an experiment? This latter question is one I see more and more coming up. Our “average” fresher thinks that there is an absolute, true value that their experimental results must be close to. “What is the real value?” is a question I am often asked.

Good question. Come back at the end of your degree and tell me what you think then.

Where is this blog going? Who knows. The future is certain, give us time to work it out.