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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Mark your calendars

March 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

On May 16, I'll be visiting NCSU in Raleigh-Durham to speak about course redesign. I've been invited because the Intro Biology course there has gotten fed up with trying to use the commercial course management systems and is looking at other options, including Moodle. I'll be speaking about the work we've done building course resources for faculty that provide a shared environment for collaborative work with and among students. I was excited to see an announcement recently that Moodle is rolling out tools to help build collaborative syllabi with student participation. That sounds really cool.

I assume I'll also be able to talk about our laboratory improvements and the transformation of the lecture, from a passive learning environment to a place where students work collaboratively on model-based reasoning problems. I have some time before me, but over the next few weeks, I'm going to try to pull together a group of images to build my presentation and try to actually generate some text that could get published somewhere.

Over the past week, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the cool stuff I've been able to be involved in at UMass Amherst. This semester, I'm having a great time with the writing class and the collaboration with Alan Snow, our local tree warden, to have students doing something authentic and relevant by participating in the Amherst Tree Inventory. It's been tremendously rewarding to see the new Bioimaging and Histology websites get filled with cool imagery. It's particularly great to see the looks on the faculty's faces when they experience the student excitement over wrestling with real data. In traditional classes, I always ask "But what are the students going to do?" When you let students do things, amazing things always seem to happen.

I let Kathy talk me into teaching Organisms: Diversity and Interactions again next fall -- So many people have told me how much they love the design of the class. I'm supposed to talk with Tom later today and see if I can get him to be a teaching assistant for the class. That would be really great -- I've gotten to work with Tom in so many contexts -- it would be wonderful to have them interact with the students as well.

Governor Patrick and high-stakes tests

March 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This morning, there were reports about our Governor and his comments at a public forum on public education. He indicated he supported high-stakes educational testing.

Trudy Knowles, a professor of elementary education at Westfield State and a member of the Readiness Project, spoke strongly on the issue of MCAS testing, which proved to be a favorite topic with the audience.

"The kids have checked out and we need to get them to check back in," Knowles said. "Right now they think the only reason they need to learn is to pass these tests.

"If you want to do something great for teachers, you need to give them back their classrooms so they're not focused on this test prep all the time," she added.

Knowles also commented on Patrick's extended school day idea, saying that she supported a voluntary extended day but "making it mandatory would be disastrous."

Patrick's response was that he supports high-stakes testing, but the question is, "Is the test that we have the test that we need?"

I think that's the wrong answer. Tests are always going to be misleading because they provide an incomplete picture and their scores can be biased more by taking simple-minded approaches to preparing for them than by providing genuine preparation for students to become life-long learners.

In Amherst, we're lucky because most students already come prepared to do well on standardized tests. My heart really goes out to kids who live someplace where schools are compelled to employ brain-damaged strategies like direct instruction. You can find lots of webpages about the wonders of direct instruction. It really works -- if your goal is to improve scores on tests. What it doesn't do is give students the ability to think flexibly about solving problems. As long as you ask students well-structured problems that require only the procedures given, it works great. But give the problems a little twist or wrinkle and you get nonsense. Unless you teach them how to solve *that* problem.

Of course, solving complex, real-world problems is what people do all the time anyway. You start early by trying to figure out how to get mom to let you out of the baby-prison she trapped you in so she could talk on the phone instead of paying attention to you. That's a complex real-world problem. So we all come prepared to do that kind of problem-solving. The trick is to get people to apply that kind of reasoning and effort to the abstract and academic problems presented in school. It's hard.

Last night, we visited a local vocational school. It brought back a lot of strange memories for me -- I realized in the morning that it reminded me a lot of going to school in Vicksburg. Its partly a class thing -- the men who ran all of the machine shops were just like the tradesmen I worked with when I did that kind of work. Most of the kids I went to school with in Vicksburg came from that kind of background. But it also was the focus on working long hours and making a lot of money to buy cars and motorcycles that the people would talk about as the goals that their students lives were organized around. Still, the entire focus of the shop is building community with kids that have common interests in doing real stuff: making things, fixing things, etc.

There's a real disconnect in our society around measurement. The public has been sold a bill-of-good with respect to educational measurement. We really can't measure most of the things that are important about a good education. By driving educational policy by measuring only the stuff that's easy to measure, we twist education into something almost unrecognizable as an authentic human endeavor.

Religion and experience

February 28, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm reading this interview with John Marks about his new book Reason to Believe. He talks about the experiences he had the led him to abandon his Faith -- he said "I'd been through this whole experience of trying to hold on to the faith, and at that moment, whatever was left just collapsed."

It reminded me of a time when I was on a biology field trip to Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. We were walking through a beautiful canyon with rocky walls covered with ferns and bryophytes. Small waterfalls cascaded in from the sides and flowed into a stream along the bottom of the canyon that wound along and over small cataracts of falls that cut through the sedimentary rock. It was a beautiful and breathtaking experience to walk through the forest, see the dappled sunlight reflecting on the canyon walls, and listen to the sounds of water and birds. One student asked "How could you look at this and not believe in God?" My immediate reply was, "How could you look at this and believe in God?" He saw the beauty of God's creation whereas I saw the evidence of natural processes acting over millions of years to form the sedimentary rocks, erode them away, and evolve the plants that covered them and surrounded us.

Looking back, I reflect that we were both wrong. I've come to believe that we must be suspect of any experience that confirms or denies our belief in God. Faith is an a priori belief that is a lens through which all experience is viewed. If you believe in God, you'll see evidence to support that belief everywhere. If you don't, you won't. There isn't any experience you can have that can bear on the fundamental questions.

The real issue is how we come to those a priori beliefs in the first place. Most people are indoctrinated by their parents and by the community around them. It seems only a very recent phenomenon for most people to see the vast range of ways in which religious indoctrination happens in different communities around the world. Unless you are prepared to be extremely ecumenical, we are all atheist with respect to most religions. Is there any experience we could have that would make us believe in Poseidon? And if we had such an experience, could we trust it?

Snowy day

February 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It's another snowy day in Western Mass. I had been dreading today because I had three meetings scheduled nearly back to back starting at 10 and not ending until probably close to 4pm. The snow shut the university down at noon and canceled two of my meetings. Score! I even left early, at 11am, in conformance with the university policy to have an orderly evacuation of the campus alphabetically by last name. As I write this in the early evening, the snow is still coming down.

There was a story in the news this afternoon about a boxer dog stealing a truck. Or, at least, shifting the vehicle into neutral and letting it roll across 5 lanes of traffic. They have good hearts, boxer dogs, but they're not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

With the various excitements of the past couple of weeks, it was nice to come home a little early and have some quiet time. I'm looking forward to the rest of the weekend at home too. Just what the doctor ordered.

Jury Non-Duty

February 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I was scheduled for jury duty today. I was summonsed to the court in Belchertown to appear at 8am. I got up at a normal time, but left early to make sure I was there on time. A grumpy officer made me empty my pockets and eventually frisked me, when I still couldn't go through the metal detector without setting it off. The process basically involved sitting there for a couple of hours (I took a book to read) until they dismissed us when it became clear that the cases on the docket were going to be resolved without going to trial. They showed us a funny video with a female judge who spoke like Elmer Fudd and kept talking about "wight to twial by juwy" and "wule of law". When they dismissed us, the officer explained that the card we would receive for our employers would state what date we'd served, but didn't indicate what time we'd been released. I went ahead and went back to work anyway -- but after lunch.

Today, Mary Carey had an article in the Bulletin about our Esperanto lunch with Jos

Busy four days

February 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

On Thursday last week, I drove to Boston and then spent the night. On Thursday, PHENOM held a rally at the statehouse to kick off this year's push to get the state to fix and fund higher education and to make it more affordable. Massachusetts has done a very poor job of supporting public higher education over the past 20 years: the buildings are falling apart, funding has declined in both absolute and real terms, and fees have increased something like 300%. The main needs-based financial aid program, Massgrant, used to cover 80% of a student's tuition and fees -- now its something like 15%. Ellen Story spoke briefly and encouraged students to stay active in politics.

Afterwards, I headed for the Hynes Convention Center to register for AAAS and then hooked up with Jim Lieberman and Jos


February 18, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The comic Rhymes with Orange is about frugality today. Unfortunately, their website runs two weeks out of date, so I can't send you to look at it. It has the caption "The Long Term Relationship" and shows a middle-aged couple in a card store holding hands. The woman says "I'll pick out yours. You pick out mine. We'll read them here, then go spend the five bucks we just saved on renting a movie." It's perfect.

The weather has shut down the public schools today. The University is closed until 11am. We got several inches of snow and sleet, which is changing over to rain. There is a skin of ice over everything, but its supposed to get up into the 40s. It's going to be a nightmare trying to get the driveway clear, but it doesn't look like it will freeze up for a day or two, so hopefully that will give us time. Still, its going to nasty getting into work today. Tomorrow, the weather looks fine for my trip to Boston.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a brief note to Chris Sanders. He's the guy who conceived of Lilo and Stitch -- one of my favorite movies of all time. Over the summer, he set up a website to showcase his art and more recently he's been blogging Kiskaloo, a new comic he's created (which I think of as something like a cross between Non-Sequitor and Calvin and Hobbes).

I sent him email because the boys and I watched a show about prehistoric proto-mammals that looked like the kinds of things he tends to draw. I got a reply from him today thanking me for thinking of him and mentioning that he'd been really interested in a Gorgonops fossil at the natural history museum when he'd been a kid. It was fun to get a reply! Go Chris!


February 13, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm excited that Jos


February 10, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The past week has been exhausting. I agreed to be on the middle-school principal search committee, but was surprised when it turned out that it would require 20 hours of time during the first two weeks of the semester. It's been difficult and has not earned my any popularity contests with people who expect me to always be there for them. That said, it's been very interesting and I feel like my input has been important. I believe the short-list of candidates would have looked different without my participation and that, in the long run, it may make all the difference. We interviewed three candidates on Thursday and I was so tired when I got home last night, I had a drink with dinner and then pretty much just went to bed.

I got to see what the next version of the Student Information System will look like. If you like the current system, you'll like the new system. Of course, nobody likes the current system. When asked about some of the obscure categories among the course groupings, we were told that there were administrative requirements for dummy classes. I facetiously asked if the administrators also took the dummy classes -- all in good fun, of course.

Unfortunately, next week doesn't look much better than this week. I have AAAS at the end of the week and then (hopefully) a visitor from Chile coming for a day next weekend. I can't ever seem to get ahead.

My class seems off to a good start -- the one hour twice a week schedule feels better than once a week for two hours. Seeing the students more often makes it easier to remember names and the shorter chunks of time seem more productive.

First weekend

February 8, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Maizpana SupoYesterday morning, I made one my favorite new dishes: Tortilla Soup. I think I first had tortilla soup at La Parilla Suiza in Phoenix. It made a big impression on me. Sometime last summer, I had the idea that I could probably make some, so I made up a recipe. I browned some chicken with some chilis, added a can of broth and a can of diced tomatoes, brought to a boil, and then added a bunch of lime juice with a handful of fresh cilantro crushed into a each bowl. Poured over tortillas and sprinkled with Mexican cheese, it's become a favorite in our house. I'm now making giant batches with a huge can of broth and two large cans of diced tomatoes.

The first week of the semester was something else. I've started teaching twice a week for 50 minutes, rather than once for two hours. So far, I like it better -- its hard to keep the students productively engaged for two hours straight. But it does mean getting ready and teaching twice, rather than once in the week. By Thursday, things were a bit quieter, but there have been almost constant demands on my time.

On Friday, we had icky weather, but took Lucy out for her birthday dinner celebration at the Indian restaurant. I've been careful with my diet since the start of the new year, but I took at day off and splurged. It was wonderful to have rice and papadum and pakora (as well as tandoori chicken and aloo gobi).

I've been reading In Defense of Food which resonates strongly with me in most ways: food is a lot more than just something to keep you healthy. It's nice to get together with people for a meal and food can be a comfort and a pleasure. I think his thesis that "food" is necessarily better than food products is silly, though. Some kinds of plant products (like apples) evolved to be food and are undoubtedly good for you. Lots of plants have created all kinds of secondary plant compounds, however, that are intended to keep animals from consuming them. We use a lot of these in food as seasonings (or as drugs!) but to say that eating plants is good for you, overlooks eating all the plants that aren't, like Deadly Nightshade or Jimpson Weed.

The real case against food products is not a prima_facie one, but one based on capitalism. The real problem with food products is that they are engineered, not to be good or good for the consumer, but to make the maximum profit for the corporation. By organizing our society around what people who can are willing to pay for, results in a wasteland of cheap crap that ruins our lives and the environment.

Super-fun pak

February 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It's the last weekend of Intersession and the students start up again on Monday. Today is the deep breath before the storm. Everyone has been running around getting stuff ready. I'm generally pleased with where we've gotten.

Yesterday, I had lunch with friends and was able to introduce Tom to Rodger. I've been wanting to make that happen because they clearly are of similar phenotypes. They both are full of ideas and can't wait to make stuff happen and get stuff done. I can't wait to find out what they do next.

I'm overjoyed that I'll be working with Tom this semester on updating the Biology Department website. I've been trying to get to that for more than a year, but simply haven't found the time. It's a big undertaking and you need substantial blocks of time to focus on it. It will be easier to find the time to do with Tom.

Not everyone loves me, though. I was hurt and disappointed recently by the lengths one faculty member went to in order to undermine and sabotage a project with me in order to avoid working with me. I recently heard someone describe this behavior as "they don't have enough time to do it once right, but enough time to do it twice."

On Thursday, Buzz and I met with guy in Computer Science about building data collection devices to track mongoose movements. It was a great meeting with a free flow of ideas and excitement. If we want to do it, we'll need to raise some money, but it would generate a lot of really interesting data.

Now it's Sunday, and I'm putting the finishing touches on my course site. It will still require a lot of work over the course of the semester, but I'm generally pleased. I've got a great new project for the students to work on and I'm optimistic that it will be my best semester yet.

Shopping experience

January 27, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Andrew Leonard recently posted about shopping with no human contact. I remember seeing a promotional video for self-service checkout systems that explained that, the systems wouldn't necessarily just eliminate jobs, but it would allow the stores to repurpose their staff from menial jobs to more customer-oriented jobs. Bullshit.

Technology is increasingly being used to replace human interactions. It certainly is the direction we've been going -- at least for the lower and middle class. In fact, I think most people prefer that. People are a PITA to deal with.

It was a shock to me when I visited Spain in the 1980's that few stores in Madrid even allowed you to browse. Most stores had their products inside glass display cases and you were not expected to look to see what they had, but rather to tell the shopkeeper what you needed and then to have him show you what products might meet your needs. The idea of "just looking" was utterly alien to them.

It used to be that sales people could offer useful insights to the customer. Recently Circuit City fired all of their most experienced salespeople. There was the perception that experience salespeople add more value because they presumably know the products and can more effectively answer questions. With the rise of the internet, I'm not so sure that's true anymore. Most people I know, compare features pretty carefully using the internet first and visit the store only to see and touch the products, to get a sense of the fit and polish. I tend to be skeptical of what salespeople have to say -- especially when you know they're being compelled to try to sell you "extended warranties" and other crap you don't need.

If you're really wealthy, of course, you can hire great people to pick out great stuff for you or harass people you don't like or whatever you want. And some stores, that cater to the wealthy, will continue to have highly-paid staff. But most people, seemingly, would really prefer to buy stuff at Voldemart and save a dollar or two.

Spring cleaning

January 16, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I came home early on Thursday, stayed home on Friday, and worked through the weekend to do some much needed spring cleaning. I picked up and reorganized the living room and the dining room. It took three days of relatively focussed and difficult work. I didn't really touch the junk room, but it's a start. We have a snug little house that's quite comfortable when it's not overrun with clutter.

I've also got a project I can sic Alisa on. We really need to replace several light fixtures in the house: two in the kitchen, one in the dining room, and one in the basement. We might also do something about the garage while we're at it.

Today, another Noreaster blew in and closed the schools and the University. I have enough work that I really can't take the day as a holiday, but I'll enjoy spending the day around the boys anyway, even though I'm working.

New Year

January 14, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

For a change, I'm actually staying up for the New Year. For the past couple of years, I've fallen asleep before midnight, but I'm awake this year. I napped for a while early in the evening with Penny asleep on my chest. I'm lucky it didn't suffocate me -- she's not a little puppy anymore.

The New Year is as good a time as any to be reflective. A high priority of mine has always been to have a balanced life: to balance work, Esperanto, and my personal life. In the previous year, I got way burned out on Esperanto -- when I did Esperanto-Day 2006, I spent 5-10 hours a week for months. In January 2007, I was so burned out on Esperanto that I did relatively little all year. This year, I want to try to strike a better balance: to be productive without getting over involved and burning out again.

One of my goals, which I've already started, is to write a wikipedia entry when I write a blog entry for Esperanto-USA. I've done it twice so far, drafting entries on Boxing Day and Saul Alinksy. That way, I can kill two birds with one stone.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Did something

January 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, as I had threatened, I actually did something. I've been remiss in updating the Esperanto-USA website, so today I brought it up-to-date. There had been a couple of drupal updates that I hadn't found time to install, I installed the Diff module, and I hacked in support for Klaku is like an Esperanto version of Digg, based on Pligg. There is a nice module to support Digg in Drupal, but there's nothing for Pligg, unfortunately. I just hacked in a link under each post to klaku -- it's not perfect, but it's something.

Lucy remarked that I only had two more days of vacation left. It's been a good vacation. I haven't thought about work much at all. I've checked my email a few times a day and responded to questions from my students regarding grades, but that's been about it. One person needed the combination to the BCRC and there was a reply from George regarding a link I had forwarded it, but that was about it. No crises, no disasters. Just peace and quiet.

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