Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday Meditation: A Voice Not Replaced

Carl Sagan has simply not been replaced by our scientific community. We continue to mine his words and thoughts which are quickly becoming dated for their scientific content and yet when he spoke about the meaning and purpose of science his words are timeless. Zen Pencils is a web comic of particularly good artwork coupled to selected quotes and the artist has chosen Carl Sagan again for his medication "A Pale Blue Dot". The artist has also taken some pains to provide links to audio and video of the quote and previous artistic interpretations. It is all worthy of a Monday meditation.

I must note that the "Saints and Sinners" panel has only three scientists (that I see at least). I think that lets us off easy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal Protective Equipment





I am Canadian. My family moved from the US during the time of the American revolution and has farmed it's small patch of Canada for over 200 years. I grew up in a hunting family within a community steeped in a hunting culture where it was expected that if you killed something it was for food or money, trophies were for city people. It was all long guns though. For my 16th birthday I got my own 20 gauge shot gun and for my 18th birthday I got my own rifle. I have had any number of near accidents with guns handled by either the young (watch where you point a loaded gun!) or idiots (watch where you point a loaded gun you idiot!). Indeed, one of the great traumas to happen to my family was a hunting accident that resulted in a death.

In an earlier lifetime I supervised a research group and when I wasn't writing papers I was writing grant applications. One of the grants that I was awarded was with a company in New Jersey that required me to travel down to the mothership once a year to justify my past funding and beg for more. It was altogether the most enjoyable part of the my career as a research academic. The company probably treated me like any other employee but to a tenure-track academic it seemed like I was handled like royalty.

One year, by coincidence, I was attending a conference in Philadelphia which was very close to the mothership and I sent a message to my company handler that I was nearby and would be happy to give a preliminary update. The company was very pleased and my handler offered to drive to Philadelphia to meet me in person. The night before we met I had walked to a nearby restaurant and took a shortcut off the main streets that resulted in my coming in contact with some very aggressive street people. I would not say that I was mugged but my personal space was violated and my contributions seemed less than voluntary.

Anyway, it was getting dark again when my company handler Louis showed and said that since the company was paying the bill why don't we grab a quick meal at a nearby restaurant? I said sure and we headed to the restaurant as the dark descended. I tried to keep Louis on the main streets but he headed straight down the darkened side street in a confident stroll. Same street people, completely different attitude, one guy asked "please?" and Louis gave him a fistful of pocket change like a nobleman passing out charity.

When we got to the restaurant, I marveled at Louis's confident street smarts and the difference in the attitude of the street people. Louis smiled and revealed that his confidence was largely due to the fact that he was carrying three handguns, one in his armpit, one on the small of his back and one in an ankle holster. He noted to me that it was his opinion that the street people knew he was carrying as well. Later that night Louis gave me a lesson on how to tell American from Italian handguns by the way the trigger moved.

I asked Louis if he wore guns to work and his eyes got a bit mysterious and the conversation moved on. I have to assume that large American chemical companies have a handgun in the workplace policy and that American universities must have a no handgun on campus policy but I am also surprised that handgun related incidents at research group meetings are not more common. Rage happens and access to handguns could not in anyway make dealing with a group member in a rage any easier.

My American cousins remain in my prayers. Take care, make good decisions.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Group Work

The reality of teaching a chemistry laboratory is that for reasons of economy and sound pedagogical principles, group work, in smaller and larger groups, is fairly common. Part of my job in assessing student work is often noting in my records if a student in a group is a leader, follower or floater. What I had not perceived was a probably sub-conscious selection process that distributed the "super students" among the groups with the weakest students in the hopes that their example would inspire. A false hope. Indeed, just this last semester I had a "super student" come to me and ask to work alone not in a group because "no matter what group you put me in my mark will be lower than if I worked alone". I explained the pedagogical theory and that it was a required component of the course that would be factored into her subjective evaluation. Honestly, she narrowed her eyes and in white-lipped fury told me that she thought I was being unreasonable. She was my first super-student-home-schooled-mark-lawyer. Why do I feel this is just the beginning of a new demographic?

Just 16 years to retirement I am at my career Wednesday.

Anyway, Betty is a cool little comic that occasionally has some material relevent to education and last week the series was on group work. There is some truth here.









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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.