Tuesday, March 22, 2011

So What Are You Going to Do When You Graduate?

This article was pointed out to me and it seemed to see a bigger picture than some recent thoughts about higher education. I found this statement profound in some way:

"Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not."

This would suggest that the academic thermodynamics are endoknowic. There is a work term but no change in knowledge suggesting that the system (the student) can only get hotter with the process. I suspected that was true for some students at the bachelors level but was surprized that it extended to the PhD.

What I found weird is that this was written in The Economist ... go figure.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Term Paper / Formal Reports ... 'Tis the Season

In my lab courses the formal reports typically include a review of the literature in the introduction and an expectation that the results and discussion will include a contextual analysis based on either the selected literature in the "Suggested reading" or the results of their own literature searches. In the humanities courses that I teach I have given up trying to teach senior students how to write without plagiarizing internet sources so I have them do "naked essays" where I frogmarch them into a room with computers that have been disconnected from the internet, give them annotated bibliographies that they have prepared beforehand and tell them to write their terms papers in the next three hours. High stress, but I get essays that I know are the students own work.

That said, this link popped up on my reader today and I quite like it. I would quote from it but for some ironic reason I cannot lift the text out of the webpage ...

That brings up the annual problem of scientific quotes and referencing. For the most part, in my sub-discipline actual quotes are kinda rare. The expectation is that the writer will paraphrase the source and reference it to a general source citation listed as an endnote. It is assumed that the reader, if motivated, will read the source and find the relevant section themselves without specific guidance. The humanities students, however are forced the specifically cite each quote as page footnotes that really clutter up the page.

In any event, I liked the cut of this articles jib, I found it timely in this semester pause before the onslaught of papers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Do Not Try This At Home

I read this article in Time today. Chemistry is replete with accounts of chemists that used themselves as the first test subject for the properties of the compounds that they isolated. I was just at a lecture by a natural products chemist that worked with a pillar of drug discovery who tested which tree frogs to examine by licking them (shades of a famous Simpsons episode).

That said, I think if you asked synthetic chemists about it most would admit, that at least inadvertently, they had ingested a number of unknown compounds. In my case there was a whole class of heterocyclic compounds with a distinctive odour (my wife called it "that wet dog smell"). My group and I made an significant number of new derivatives and truth be told many of them had a significant volatility. High enough in fact that we must have breathed in a significant compound load by inhalation. We all admitted at a group barbeque that after a week or so of working on these heterocycles that both our urine and stool carried the distinctive odour. I reassured my group by telling them that this was proof that the compounds were passing through us unchanged. Unchallenged, as all supervisor assertions must be.

I doubt I am alone but I have at least anectdotally heard from other chemists more concerns about breathing solvent fumes than compound inhalation. The day is coming when we will have to wear full Hazmat suits to add vinegar to baking soda or to even make molecular models of caffeine. All it will take is one lawsuit.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We are at the Semester Transition State

It has been a long hard winter here at Liberal Arts U. We have over a meter and a half of snow standing in the fields and the piles are as high as they have ever been. We ended February yesterday with 20 cm of new snow. Our problem is that we have not had warmer periods during the winter to melt away the older snow. Under the snow we have there still remains the snows of November and man has it accumulated. This is the view out the lab window.

I have had a weak class that I have had to carry through the Intro Chem Mountains. truth be told they have been dropping. This generation of students will not stay and fail, they drop once they see their learning deficit.

That said this little bit of poetry came to me in the middle of tutorial last week ...

Just gonna stand here and watch you learn
That's alright, 'cause I want your mind to turn
Just gonna stand here and see you try
That's alright, 'cause one day you'll get it right
One day you'll get it right.

Winter will end, the semester after March break is an academic Nantucket sleigh ride but the end is in sight. We have made it to March and the stream on our property that we study for environmental studies is open. Time to get the snowshoes and probeware out.

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.