Thursday, May 19, 2016

Proffies' Public Push-back

These are a few years old, but I tender them for your consideration anyway.

La saveur: One day a few years ago, I got an email from someone who called himself Davis.

"hey carl, i have 2 do a report on the book parasite rex. and i kind of need help on chapter 4 i dont really get it! can u please help me?"

...But getting a string of words on your computer screen is not the same as learning, or as understanding. Once you find an article on, say, carnivorous plants, you need to read it deeply. Let the ideas sink in. The first time through, you may not appreciate how all the pieces of the story fit together into a whole. Read it again. Resist the urge to click away to Facebook after every sentence. Print the story out if you have to. Save it as a pdf if you have to. The more you focus on reading, the stronger your mind becomes.
The Article.

Commentary: I sometimes get these requests , too. My response is often similar to "I suggest you reread the chapter, and then if you have some specific questions, maybe I can answer them." I almost never hear from them again.

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Il sapore: Once in a while, I am approached about taking on a high school student over the summer. I always say no, for the same reason that I turn away most premeds: they want research "experience." ...High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university. That has nothing to do with why I am paid to work for the State of California, so I'll take a pass. But I don't let the high school students off with a simple "No, thank you." The Article.

Commentary: This one was linked from a comment here a few years ago, but as far as I know not discussed here. Colleagues and I have, over the years, hosted several high school students in our labs for summer stints. It's now occurred to me that the outcome is consistent with none of them having deemed our school good enough to attend. On the other hand, we don't have firm statistics on those who interned in labs at other schools and then matriculated at ours. I totally get that such unpaid internships favor the privileged. The sad truth is, if we paid them comparably to other summer jobs, in most cases they wouldn't be worth the money: their time with us is too short to learn the techniques and apply them well.

Brought to you by OPH.

10 comments:

  1. Concerning interning research students.

    Even with grad students their first summer of research work is a net loss: the time a senior and capable person spends supervising and mentoring them it worth more than the work they will produce. You can come closer to breaking even by supervising several budding lab monkeys on related projects, but that means the supervisor will get none of their own work done, which is rough on the supervisor (I was that guy a couple of times while I was a postdoc—my immediate bosses where understanding about the lost time, but I think it was a bad deal for my career).

    You only do it because of what they will produce in the future, but like other investments you would like to reap the rewards associated with your costs yourself, not hand them them to Dr. Snooty at Arghwon State.

    College sophomores and juniors can be encouraged to do a REU (assuming you'd be willing to write a letter of recommendation for them), where the host site gets to select from a pile of applications and is given money by NSF to support those kinds of activities.

    Given that I'm currently supporting undergrad research, the only way I would take on high schoolers is if you payed me enough to make up for the summer class I wouldn't be teaching. (Well, a colleague from the math department is working with a dual-credit student right now, but the kid is exceptional and they're getting a peer reviewed paper out of it.)

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  2. I've stopped accepting high school students in my lab because their parents can be a real hassle and I get no credit for this type of outreach. As others have said, I rarely get anything out of it for my own research and they never join my school either.

    The Small Pond Science article raises good points about privilege but the guy comes across as a real jerk. For the students who ask to join his lab, this is probably their first interaction with a real scientist. That can leave a lasting impression on them.

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  3. In my lab, there's never any "glassware washing" or "beetle counting" level of work to do. There's maintenance on the hideously expensive and fragile stuff. And Kids These Days are all thumbs. There's the dangerous stuff, the chemistry stuff, the troubleshooting and repair, the insane computer code written in archaic languages. By the time I get someone trained merely to be working safely, and then on top of that to have some inkling of what they're doing... Summer's over, see you later. I started to do supervised reading programs with these students. Hand them a pile of literature and see if they can get interested in what's going on in the field, give them selected textbook chapters. It takes me very little time to maintain a folder of readings to hand out to people, and maybe I meet with them an hour a week, encourage them to come to the group meetings and journal club. But yea, having someone take my time away from supervising actual students to back way, way up to hold hands with a high school student. Does not work. Go away, kid.

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  4. In my lab, there's never any "glassware washing" or "beetle counting" level of work to do. There's maintenance on the hideously expensive and fragile stuff. And Kids These Days are all thumbs. There's the dangerous stuff, the chemistry stuff, the troubleshooting and repair, the insane computer code written in archaic languages. By the time I get someone trained merely to be working safely, and then on top of that to have some inkling of what they're doing... Summer's over, see you later. I started to do supervised reading programs with these students. Hand them a pile of literature and see if they can get interested in what's going on in the field, give them selected textbook chapters. It takes me very little time to maintain a folder of readings to hand out to people, and maybe I meet with them an hour a week, encourage them to come to the group meetings and journal club. But yea, having someone take my time away from supervising actual students to back way, way up to hold hands with a high school student. Does not work. Go away, kid.

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  5. When I gave shows at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago in the early-to-mid '80s, answering phone and letter inquiries from the public, including kids, was a major other part of my job. I very much enjoyed it. Once at age 12, Victor Weisskopf wrote to Max Planck, who wrote him back (and apparently thought he was much older, since he addressed him "Herr Weisskopf"). Weisskopf said he always answered his mail from kids, since it had mattered so much to him. He later went on to teach Intro Physics at Princeton: he'd say, "I always find I've forgotten something."

    During the '80s, the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Lab mailed out free, gorgeous 8/5" x 11" photos from their spacecraft around the Solar System to members of the public who wrote to them, whether or not you'd asked for photos. They were eye-popping: in his TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan is shown in his former 6th-grade classroom, handing them out to kids who immediately start fighting over them, and then asking GOOD questions (such as "Why are planets round?").

    Things changed with the arrival of the Internet. The fraction of "Do my homework" requests quickly dominated the inquiries from kids. Again, I agree that suggesting readings, and offering specific help once the kid has done this, causes 99% of them to vanish without a trace.

    What hurt was when whole classes of kids would e-mail, because they had been told to do it by teachers. In 2009, having gotten tenure several years earlier at Fresno State, I e-mailed one kid back, and told him to print out my reply and show it to the teacher who'd told him to do this. In my reply, I suggested that a better thing to do would be to show students how to look things up themselves on the Internet, or in a library. THAT was a mistake: the teacher immediately e-mailed a complaint to my department Chair, and he screamed at me, so I promised both of them I would never e-mail another high-school student EVER again. I subsequently took to breaking the promise the next semester, when I took over as Chair.

    Have you noticed, though, that this behavior has greatly decreased in recent years? Sure, I still get the occasional "Do my homework" request from one kid, acting alone, but if memory serves, the 2009 incident was the last time I got e-mail from any student because a teacher told them to. Perhaps this means that the realization of how counter-productive this practice is to education has made its way around educational circles? One might only hope.

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    1. As far as high-school students in labs go, here's a post that I subsequently made about it:

      Why I will never, never, never, never, NEVER again take a high-school student into my lab—until next time
      Thursday, January 29, 2015

      In 2013, Terry Glynn posted "Why I don’t take high school students into my lab" to his “Small Pond Science” blog. Beaker Ben and I contributed comments (and I disagree with how Terry gets in the students' faces with social-class complaints, but I digress). One might therefore think I’d know better than to take a high-school student into my lab. It has many disadvantages, including:

      ● They almost never want to do research. They want “research experience,” so they can look good on a resume and get into a university more selective than mine. Never has a high-school student with a genuine interest in science, who does amateur astronomy or builds and flies model rockets (the way I did as a kid), asked me to help with a project.

      ● Getting this “research experience” is such a low priority for these students. High-school students who take AP courses are busy, all right, but they are occupied with everything other than what I need them to do.

      ● Often these students aren't interested in getting "research experience" at all. This is because the whole thing was their parents' idea.

      ● These high-school students will never, ever, EVER even CONSIDER attending my university as undergraduates. Suggest it, and they’ll give you a look like there’s a bad smell in the room.

      ● It’s pure charity work on my part. There’s no way I can get credit for mentoring a high-school student. Whenever a university administrator asks me to do it, I ask for release time, and I never get it.

      ● It’s hard enough to train graduate students and undergraduates to be productive in research. High-school students know even less, requiring even more of my time to supervise them. They are anything but "free labor" for me, as parents have claimed.

      ● None of the high-school students I foolishly idealistically took into my lab when I was a much-too-eager-to-please junior faculty member produced any result whatsoever, not even a wrong one. 

      Since getting tenure, I’ve been allowed the privilege of adding the word “No” to my vocabulary. So, why in the living name of Doug did I agree to take one again?

      It turns out that it’s not quite true that I can’t get credit for mentoring a high-school student. There is a way: have the student register in a class as a special student. One might think they would have more “skin in the game” than the volunteers who vanish when told to read three papers and then write a three-page paper summarizing what they understood by next week. One of my classes was in danger of being cancelled for low enrollment, so I said OK.

      This time around, I discovered another reason never to let a high-school student into my lab: if the high-school student gets any grade other than an A, you may be accused of damaging the student for life. Mercifully however, but not without drama, the student’s interest quickly turned to a field less competitive and more lucrative than mine.

      Other faculty in my department commented, “So you succeeded!” I suppose I should be happy. That’s not the only irony from this exercise, though. Another is that by the time the class started, it was so over-enrolled that my real students were constantly in each other's way.

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    2. Frod, now that I see that post, I get a sense of deja vu; however, I cannot locate the post from 29 Jan 2015 itself. Maybe it got yanked.

      Here's the CM post that originally linked to Terry Glynn's Small Pond Blog post

      From Noble to Unethical Profession: Are we all Supporting Unethical Institutions?

      It is quite apropos other discussions ongoing here.

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  6. By the way, I don't want to work for the NSF/REU program anymore, because they always expect me to work for free. I've mentored students at three different institutions for them, and while it is without an excellent experience for the students, I never get any summer salary, They also never paid me any summer salary, or even defrayed some quite substantial costs to me. This year, I told them no thanks: it seems to me a better use of my time to apply to NASA for telescope time on one of their spacecraft, such as Hubble Space Telescope or Chandra X-ray Observatory. Not only will they pay me to do that, but they'll likely support students, too.

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    1. That should be "...without a doubt an excellent..."

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  7. Re #1 (since I have no experience with #2, which seems to have received most of the attention): I'm always amused when students, assigned to "investigate" a particular professor's work (research), assume they need to interview, or at least email, that professor. In fact, given the number of students who take the course I teach each semester, we explicitly *don't* want them to do that, because the director of the writing program starts getting unhappy emails from faculty (especially those in popular/intro courses, who may be overwhelmed, and may not do much research anyway, because they're contingent, overwhelmed, etc., etc.).

    Instead, as the directions for the exercise make clear (but who reads the directions?), they're supposed to read faculty bios and perhaps take a look at some of the faculty member's published work, and draw their conclusions from that. Most manage the assignment just fine, but there are always one or two who just can't believe that more direct contact isn't required.

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