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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Organisms: Diversity and Interactions

June 7, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This fall, I've agreed to teach the online course I co-developed with Buzz Hoagland. It's an ecology course for practicing middle-school teachers working toward a Master's Degree in Science Education. Today, I met with Kathy Davis to talk about some of the new approaches I'm planning to try.

When I taught it previously, I was somewhat disappointed with the outcomes -- too many students would fade during the course and fail. Kathy has assured me that this was the result of students being subsidized and, now that students are paying their own way, they're more likely to be serious. (This isn't to say I didn't have serious students before -- some of the students were among the most dedicated I've ever had.)

One of the biggest challenges was getting student groups to function effectively. I'm hoping that using Organic Groups in Drupal will provide additional support for students working together closely. I'm also going to clarify the nature of the group work so that the nature of the interaction is more clearly circumscribed.

I'm also planning to add concept-mapping to the activities of the course. There is an excellent concept-mapping software package that allows group interaction and simulataneous editing of concept maps. The challenge is going to be reducing the other work required in the course to provide enough time for students to work on concept maps -- they're very time-consuming. Still, I think it may help make the conceptual structure of the course more concrete. We always knew what it was, but we worried that students sometimes came away with many of the conceptual relationships still vague.

Time

June 4, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Over the past couple of years, I got drawn into various leadership and governance activities. I got sucked into the vice-presidency of the Esperanto League for North America and of my local union (in addition to being the president of the regional Esperanto organization and chairing a couple of faculty senate committees, etc). The result has been that I've gotten stretched too thin. In July, I will rotate of the board of the MSP. When the "kandidatiga komitato had asked me about Esperanto-USA, I had originally agreed to continue to serve -- assuming no-one else wanted to do it. (When they had initially asked me, it was pretty clear they were scraping the bottom of the barrel). I was suprised when the ballot arrived and they had found someone to run against me! After being initially dismayed -- since they had clearly violated the spirit of my agreement to be a candidate -- I was relieved to know I wasn't going to have to do it anymore and I withdrew as a candidate. I'm free!

Esperanto-USA has serious problems. The main problem is that it doesn't really do anything. It's a placeholder for Esperanto activity in the US, but the real activity has largely routed around it by setting up the Esperanto Studies Foundation. ESF runs NASK (the summer Esperanto course) and is about the only thing that does any research or advocacy. Esperanto-USA does do some stuff. They have a membership (declining). They run a catalog bookstore. And there's a newsletter. It's an old-style social organization, like the kinds that have been dying out all over the country. Indeed all over the world. No-one really knows how organizations like these can survive.

It used to be that to participate in the Esperanto community, you needed to have some kind of guide or entr

Semester trails off

June 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The semester is trailing off into summer. I wasn't happy with how the semester ended up for my students. Some of them aren't happy either. I've felt bad for a few days -- wondering if there wasn't something more I could have done. But over the last couple of days, looking at the data and seeing to what lengths I went to rescue people, I've satisfied myself that I really couldn't have done much more.

I've replaced almost all of the computers in the BCRC. There is one left to go, but I've decided to replace that one with the workstation I had been using, so there will still be one PowerPC computer available for people who want to use the old Classic software, like PAUP. I've moved most of my stuff over, but want to check for another day or so.

On Thursday, Lucy and I start driving West. We're planning to visit Kalamazoo first, then head to Champaign for a few days. Lucy is going to stay in Champaign while I head on to BioQUEST.

I wanted to take my bike with me so we got a new bike rack for the cool car. We picked it up the morning and it works great. We should be able to take both our bikes and reduce the amount we have to drive around once we reach our destinations.

I also wanted to get Daniel his new bicycle before we left. His birthday isn't until early July, but seemed silly to wait to get him a new bicycle when he's really outgrown the one he's using. So we went to the store this afternoon and picked one out. We got him a mountain bike with cross-training tires. We were able to ride home from bike store (as is appropriate when you get a new bike) because I could carry my bike to the store on our new rack.

Daniel is very pleased. There is still plenty more he wants to get, however: a cyclometer, a light, toe-clips, and a camel-back hydration system to start. Tomorrow, we're planning to take a long ride and have a picnic lunch while we're out.

Faster

May 31, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I had originally intended to take a long ride today and made arrangements to be out of the office until 3:30 -- I needed to get away from the office for a bit anyway. But then it turned out that Charlie has a public science presentation at school about sustainability. So, instead of taking a long ride, I decided to try a faster ride.

The wind was out of the north, so I rode north into Sunderland. There is a long hill on the way into Sunderland, which blocks the wind to some extent and, since one isn't going all that fast anyway, the wind doesn't make as much of a difference. I remember this hill seeming more difficult in the past. On the other side of the hill, there's a long downhill run into Sunderland -- right into the teeth of the wind, but no problem since its downhill. In the middle of Sunderland, I turned left onto 47 and headed south. I took a quick break at the Millhouse Farm Market for a cup of coffee and started flying south. With the wind behind me, I could spin along at 15mph (which is pretty fast, for me). I love the way it's so quiet when I ride with the wind. Eventually, I turned back east to get home, but I rode around 13 miles at an average speed of more than 10mph -- I had been averaging less than 8 up until now.

Maybe I can fit in that long bike ride this weekend...

Short ride day

May 28, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Daniel kaj Lucy ?e restoracio After the long ride yesterday, I decided a short ride was in order today. Lucy, Daniel and I rode downtown to the Lord Jeff and had drinks and a light meal. I had a glass of chardonay and we shared an appetizer. It was another beautiful day and we had a wonderful time sitting in the shade and chatting in the warm breeze. The only downside was a nasty blower that the Lord Jeff has right by their exit that would run every so often, drowning out conversation.

I could have ridden quite a bit further, but this was perfect. It's all uphill to downtown, so after our brunch, we could practically just coast home. Tomorrow the weather looks like it will be unsettled. I'm hoping to get work taken care of before noon and have the rain finished up by then as well, letting me take a long bike ride in the afternoon. I think I'm about ready to circumnagivate the Connecticut River.

Long bike ride

May 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I took a long bike ride today, leaving around 10 and getting home around 2pm. I wasn't riding all the time -- I rode to the bridge along the bike trail and then explored the new extension into Northampton. I rode along King Street into the middle of Northampton and past to Northampton Bicycle. Then I rode back and turned right at the middle, went under the tracks and along past Joe's Spaghetti. I had a hankering for fried rice, but the Chinese places weren't open yet. So I rode back along the bike trail to Whole Foods and stopped there. I couldn't find fried rice, but I did see a weird "forbidden black rice salad" that looked cool, so I got some of that and some clam chowder. The last 5 miles were the toughest: its the endless hill part of the bike trail and then there are two small climbs at the end of the bikeway connector and by Computer Science. It looks like I rode around 25 miles, all in all. It was about the right amount for the day.

The bike trail is one of the best things about the Amherst area -- it gets a lot of use. There is work going on near the bridge to smooth out the places where roots have created rough patches along the trail. Some places are so rough that you can barely ride, but there are only a few places like that. It's a very restful way to ride a bike, without having cars zipping by just waiting to clip you.

Afterwards, I had planned on going to my office to finish off grades, but the weather is just too nice. It's sunny and cool with a very light breeze -- simply perfect weather. Maybe it will rain tomorrow and make it easy for me to sneak into the office for a couple of hours. But not today.

My class is like a bog...

May 25, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Chatting with Phil this morning, I realized that my class is like the boardwalk at a bog. A handful of students just stand at the trail head and never walk out onto the boardwalk at all. A fair number of students just tramp on through. They start on one side and walk straight through to the other side, staring straight ahead the whole time. Some pay so little attention to where they're going, they miss a turn, fall off, and get sucked down into the mud. Others look around and discover cotton grass gently waving in the breeze, beautiful delicate orchids, interesting carnivorous plants, fascinating biological diversity, and compelling natural beauty -- they have a great time and some tell me it was their favorite experience at the university. All the while, I wave my arms and try to get people to look at the cool stuff or run around trying to pull people out of the mud. As the mud closes over them they say things like, "Why did you make us walk on this boardwalk anyway? Why couldn't we just drive around the bog on the highway?"

Grades

May 23, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I started grading yesterday -- I wrote some SQL queries to extract entries for each of the blog (journal), forum (Perfect Paragraph), and Comment postings that students wrote along with a time stamp. By subtracting the time of the first one and dividing by 604800 (the number of seconds in a week), I could see which week each event happened in. There should have been at least one journal entry, one perfect paragraph, and three comments each week. Minimally. Sometimes students try to write a bunch of stuff at the end to make it seem like they've been engaged all semester. Sorry -- I'm not that stupid.

It's been a rough semester. The students seemed like they were playing chicken with one another: waiting to see who would crack and actually do some work; hoping that someone else would write the stuff they were supposed to write. Tomorrow, when I actually assign grades, its going to be bleak. I've never had so many students with missing work before -- and not just one or two things. I've occasionally had one or two students that didn't complete all of the assignments. This semester, it's much worse than I've ever seen before. But I don't really have a choice. I wrote the syllabus and now I have to follow it. To do anything else wouldn't be fair to the students who did do all the work.

I had a long conversation with Randy today. One of my key goals has always been to put students into a position where they understand that they need to learn stuff and then support them in learning what they need to know. In reading the reflective essays this semester, I see a substantial number of students who said, "I didn't know about X (trees, for example), so it was hard for me to do anything". What? Excuse me? If you don't know about something, you find out! What's the question? Haven't you ever heard of the library? Or the internet? Or the bookstore? The essence of being an educated person is that when you find you don't know something, and you need to, you go find out. I guess the students were playing chicken with me to: waiting to see if I wouldn't fill in the pieces they didn't know for them. And, in many ways, I did.

I've never contributed so much to a class's research project before. I've usually left it to the students to organize and conduct. Since I'd made an arrangement with the tree warden, however, I felt more responsibility than usual, so I wrote the methods for the students and volunteered to go with them into the field to help them collect data. Only two groups took me up on the deal. (Although another group asked me to meet, but then didn't show up and left me sitting for an hour). Sigh...

I'm not sure what to do next time. I had some great students this semester: as interesting and capable as I've ever had. But several of them had terribly disappointing experiences when they got paired up with partners that did nothing. It's hard to know what to do.

Death Note

May 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Alisa got the boys a copy of Shonen Jump a week ago. In it, Charlie saw an ad for a live-action version of Death Note, a manga and anime series he likes. It was being presented in a limited run for two nights only. When we checked, we found that it was being shown in a theater not too far away, so we reserved tickets on-line, and went to see it with a couple of his friends.

Death Note is about a college student who finds a notebook that allows the finder to kill people. By writing a name in the book, the person named dies. But the writer can also include details of how and when the person will die. There are elements of the impatience of youth and how power corrupts, and the question of whether crime merits the ultimate punishment all wrapped up in a dramatic bundle. I can see why teenagers are fascinated by the show.

Other than three dozen people who turned out on a rainy night for Death Note, the 15 theater complex seemed nearly deserted. I noticed that the airports I travelled through last wek also seemed nearly deserted. I think the recession is already deeper than anyone recognizes. We've entered the rabbit hole and now the question is just how deep does it go...

Good to be Home

May 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I arrived home shortly after noon and spent the rest of the day taking deep breaths and thinking how glad I was to be home. I had a nice time -- the people were wonderful and welcoming. And it was very stimulating to see all the interesting things they're doing. It was also interesting to hear their story: they started out working with early adopters, who were excited by the technology and wanted to push it to see how far they could go. Now they spend most of their time working with people from the middle of the curve, who are less interested in cutting edge technology and pedagogy.

DonacoWhen I got home, Alisa had a small gift for me. She'd originally intended to get me "Good vs Evil Unicorns" with "Destructicorn", but then found this one that seemed even better. You can see a bunch of similar sets on this page. The story on the back of the box is even better. "[...] millions of years ago, penguins, snow seals, and koalas ruled the earth. For sustenance, they feasted upon [...] sea mammals. [...] Now, once a year, Narwhal leave their homes to embark on a treacherous migration [...] and leap out of the water to spear the deadly koalas from their perches high in the Eucalyptus trees." Note that it has four magical tusks: the boys like the red one best, which "drains the blood of its enemies".

KuniklidojWe also went out to check on our nest of baby bunnies. There seem to be four or five of them in there. They are insanely cute. They're growing really fast and, before too long, are going to have their eyes open. The kids simply love them and its been fun to know that mom is still taking care of them. I hope they make it -- baby bunnies don't have very good chances of survival, in the long run, I suppose.

Headed home

May 18, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm sitting outside the Velvet Cloak Inn in Raleigh waiting for the taxi. It's a beautiful day to be travelling home.

My talk yesterday seemed to go quite well. When I realized that the guy before me was going to be talking about large course redesign in Chemistry, I worried that my talk would seem repetitive or redundant. I needn't have worried. The themes of what we said were consistent, but we talked about stuff from completely different perspectives: he talked more about the process from an organizational standpoint. His primary issues were the forces that gave rise to the redesign and the organizational difficulties in getting the different stakeholders aligned. It was a very interesting talk, but he didn't really talk much about pedagogy at all. I felt like the audience got a good overview of the issues.

Afterwards, he met with the chemistry faculty and I met with the biologists. That meeting was intense, but good. There was a dean and the director of one of the technology units, plus several faculty, technologists, and course design people. They grilled me on the rationales behind various choices we'd made. They were very focused, because they're just starting a redesign here and are beginning to pilot the use of "clickers". I hope I was able to be helpful.

The chemistry guy said that his meeting was tougher: the group seemed divided and weren't clear on the pedagogy. "They should have attended your talk," he said. I thought that was nice.

DELTA

May 17, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm in North Carolina for a couple of days, invited by DELTA. They offer a summer institute for faculty on education and I'm speaking tomorrow on course redesign. Afterwards, I get to meet with the Biology faculty for a couple of hours to have a conversation about technology and course redesign. I'm really looking forward to it. Prior to our previous contract, I usually travelled and spoke 2-3 times a year on science education and technology. In the previous contract, though, they refused to fund any professional development, which is how I justified attending conferences to speak. Since then, I've essentially only spoken when I've been invited, which generally happens only once or twice a year.

While I'm here, I've made arrangements to meet with the local Esperanto-speakers. Several of them are out of town, so it sounds like there won't be very many of us. The plan is to go out for dinner -- it sounds like there are several nice places nearby.

The past few days have been extremely busy. George and I have been working on getting the new printer set up, many, many students (including mine) are finishing their projects, and I needed to get my slides put together for the talk. In the end, I did them last night. I had gotten them started weeks ago, but it always seems to come down to the last minute. I can keep polishing them tonight and tomorrow.

I started to use my laptop at Bradley, but when I plugged it into the wall, it didn't recognize that it was plugged in -- even though someone else plugged into the adjacent plug had power. I was worried that I might have to chase around and find a relacement charger. Luckily, it was just a fluke and I'm in good shape.

The hotel is nice, but the wireless signal doesn't quite reach my room. In many ways that's better anyway, because it encourages me to be in the lobby out among the people.

Princesses

May 15, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Phil referenced an article recently where all the girls wanted to be princesses. It reminded me of the time Charlie was in a community theatre project. He was about 6, as I recall. There were maybe 15 kids who participated, of whom only two were boys. The guy who ran it had done this sort of thing before and when we saw the performance, I was amazed, because he really let them drive the story. It wasn't a particularly interesting story, because it was just snippets of all the stories that kids are exposed to in our society, but it was fascinating to see what the kids would come up with. The girls were all princesses, except for one who was a queen and another who was an empress. Charlie was a cowboy and the other boy was a pirate. The pirate tried to capture the ship that was carrying all of the royal girls and they were defended by Charlie and eventually the pirate recognized the error of his ways and they were all friends. The kids essentially didn't say anything: they just acted out while the guy narrated for them. But the story had clearly emerged by the guy giving them free rein to be what they wanted to be. Everyone wants to be a princess? OK! Everyone can be a princess! What's wrong with that?

Over the past 10 years, there has been a huge attention to girls in the media: Miyazaki's stories all show powerful girls, Lilo & Stitch, Mulan, Kim Possible, etc, etc, etc. At times I've been a bit disappointed that girls have so much interesting new media available for them whereas there are few that show boys going much beyond traditional roles.

Moreover, they don't address the key aspect of misogyny, not against girls themselves, but against girlish behavior. People get angry when girls want traditional roles for themselves to the point where being feminine is portrayed as bad and weak. This is especially true for boys: I read a book called Whipping Girl that talks about this at great length: Almost everything about being a girl is portrayed as bad in our society. God forbid you should throw "like a girl" -- Even if you *are* a girl, but especially if you're a boy. We're closing off a whole side of human behavior and devaluing it. It's a book well worth reading.

Post MTA

May 14, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Each year I go to MTA, I have a sense that we could be more effective if we organized sooner. This year, we did a reasonably good job, but there's still room for improvement.

The issue that dominated the convention was organizing to defeat the referendum that would eliminate the income tax in Massachusetts and decimate education and local services. The Committee for Small Government wants to force a reduction in government spending and has hit on an attractive sound-bite: get rid of income taxes. They claim the average savings, per taxpayer would be around $3600. They don't tell you that someone earning a million dollars a year saves $53,000 and that the lost revenue would about equal the discretionary spending in the state budget (ie, the money that the state contributes for local services, like police, fire, and education).

In 1980, a referendum was introduced that limited the amount that property tax could be increased in the state. Proposition Two and One-Half had draconian effects on education. Across the state, nearly 10,000 people were cut and many young teachers were driven out of the profession. Class sizes increased People who had lived through that time spoke eloquently at the MTA meeting about the results. This referendum would probably have similar effects.

At that time, there was a perception that Massachusetts residents paid too much in taxes. This time, I think people are more aware of our precarious circumstances. There is deferred maintenance all across the state: our public buildings are in poor shape already and the roads and bridges are falling apart. The biggest risk is people believing they can "send a message" by voting for the ballot measure. If it passes, it really will be a disaster for the state.

Shiny Floors

May 12, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Last night, the janitorial staff came in to strip and wax the floors in my office and in the BCRC. This morning, the room smells like floor cleaner and the floors are all shiny. It was a huge amount of work yesterday to get objects up off the floor and today there will be an equivalent amount of work today to get things put aright. I really like having a clean floor, though.

There is only one class meeting left in the semester. The students are pushing their way toward having final projects finished. The first of the data has been posted in the repository, but there are still groups in a whole variety of intermediate states. I feel for them trying to pull it all together at the end. One student was frustrated by how tedious the data analysis was. Good science almost always involves a lot of tedious work.

Last night, Alisa and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We went to Chez Albert in Amherst and had dinner together. The food was wonderful and I was pleased to see they had my favorite beer, the De Ranke XX Bitter. After dinner, we walked to the common and watched them setting up the carnival rides.

Tomorrow, I head to Boston for the Annual Meeting of the Mass Teachers Association (MTA). I've gone three or four times before. Each year, we've sent a larger and larger contingent from UMass. I am convinced that we derive real value because MTA has real influence in the legislature. This year, there was a proposal to raise our health-insurance premiums that was removed from the budget after substantial pressure. MTA has been particularly good at these kinds of defensive actions. But Higher Ed is just a tiny sliver of the organization that is dominated by rank-and-file public school teachers. By sending a full contingent and being active in the organization, we increase our visibility and keep our issues on the agenda.

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