Reflections on Listening

This week, I read Freire’s “Teaching Is A Human Act” document and found it quite poignant. The “Caring For Students” section resonated with me because I had recently discussed the semester with other GTAs in various courses. Although we serve in different capacities in different departments, we all concluded that instructional staff (GTAs included) are emanating a lack of empathy and care for the students, intentional or not. We placed instructors into 2 camps:

  1. Those who truly care about the students. These instructors have made considerable structural class changes to benefit the students, routinely check on the students, are genuinely trying to adjust to Zoom (regardless of how successful their transition is), and generally exude a more positive vibe. We thought the latter was a personality trait…but Freire disagrees. He argues teaching naturally brings joy, so in theory, every instructor should be at least somewhat amiable. But there’s the second camp:
  2. Those who truly do not care. We concluded that due to the extremely polarized nature of online classes, anyone who doesn’t fit into Camp 1 is automatically placed here. Pre-COVID, a professor could lie halfway between the camps, but the divide seems to have segregated professors distinctly into one camp or the other.

Even those who are firmly in Camp 1 may exude apathy or a lack of empathy due to the bland nature of online teaching. Many of us are scrambling to pump out as much material as possible as quickly as possible, leaving essentially no room for anything but content, content, and more content. It makes the rare dad joke seem infinitely funnier than it should be. The students have a valid argument — from their perspective, it’s hard to continuously watch videos which are both lengthy and dry. Because communication is limited to emails, it’s easy to misinterpret the tone. Freire correctly states that not being a therapist or social worker doesn’t excuse him from ignoring one student’s suffering. The sentiment certainly holds true today, but how would one put that into practice? Many of the concessions we’ve offered may actually be doing more harm than good (flexible deadlines and lengthy grace periods seem to be sending procrastination to a record high), and yet it still doesn’t feel like enough. As a future educator (hopefully), I can’t help but wonder where the line between being accommodating and not sacrificing the integrity of the course lies.

Feire certainly has some out-of-the-box ideas. I enjoyed these readings and will probably dig up another one of his writings.

Reflections on My Freshman Engineering Course and PBL

As we begin to study case, problem, and project-based learning (PBL), I can’t help but reminisce about my freshman year at VT. All Engineering freshmen enter under a generic major, “General Engineering,” and must pass a sequence of freshman-level courses to declare a specific major such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Two courses in the freshman-year sequence are the “Foundations of Engineering” classes. In each class, students learn elementary computer programming, computer-aided drawing, and a smidge of project management culminating in a semester-long project. I took the Foundations of Engineering sequence in 2015-2016, just a year (or two) after the courses were significantly overhauled. From my understanding, the redesign emphasized the semester-long project. In the first semester course, our team had to program a robot to track a short yet incredibly windy path. In the second semester, our team had to design a “drone” (aka a water rocket).

In retrospect, I wish those classes emphasized PBL more. It felt like we only scratched the surface of PBL and project management, which made me even more conflicted when picking a major; I didn’t know which major would cater to the environment fostered in those classes. That might’ve been by design. Because every enrolled student is a “General Engineering” major, the classes are intentionally broad to sample each major. This, coupled with the inherent dearth of material in a PBL-intensive class, might’ve proved problematic to the Foundations of Engineering instructors, and in my opinion, those issues definitely manifested themselves in the classroom.

One of this week’s readings was a paper published by Dr. Murzi Escobar on his implementation of a PBL class for civil engineering seniors. It was a fascinating to read and even more fascinating to extrapolate the results of the paper to the Foundations of Engineering courses. In the civil engineering PBL class, students worked in teams to solve a real infrastructure design project under the guidance of industry experts. Having an industry expert guide our design process would be an incredible resource to utilize as a freshman in the first-year courses. Obviously, that’s probably asking for the impossible, especially since industry titans are likely hesitant to partner with freshmen. If not industry contacts, how about faculty contacts?

Second, the paper’s results implied a lack of team organization early in the semester. Perhaps this could be addressed by stricter guidance by the instructors. I recall my Foundations of Engineering instructors set rigorous guidelines for us to follow and penalized us harshly when we deviated. While we complained at the time, I’ve come to realize our team never had any functional, organizational, or logistical problems once we overcame the initial (yet seemingly insurmountable) challenge of getting our act together. Perhaps that was the intent, or perhaps our team was just an outlier. Either way, I believe strict structure is a universally disliked but objectively important component to a highly functional team. I mean, who actually likes making Gantt Charts??

The most interesting takeaway from the paper was how communication strategies evolved over the semester. Teams were required to archive their communication logs. When reviewed, students realized they were too wrapped up in cross-platform communication. In today’s era of Zoom, Slack, Discord, GroupMe, and who knows what else, restricting communication to one dedicated channel seems to be of utmost importance. It truly is amazing how easy it is to cause undue panic by accidentally sending a message to the wrong channel/audience. Unlike my lofty “have industry partners work with freshmen engineering students” aspirations, this can be immediately implemented in lower-level classes because these communication channels are universal.

It’s interesting to see how PBL can influence a senior-level course. It’s also interesting to consider how those concepts can be extrapolated down to freshmen, who have a wildly different set of learning objectives. The one constant: every engineering student loves to see how their major applies in the real world. That’s the goal of PBL, so I’d like to study this field more to see how it can benefit students — especially in a virtual era where teamwork is heavily restricted.

How To Adopt Inclusive Pedagogy?

Inclusivity is vital more now than ever. A learning environment should be a safe space. My intent as an educator is to create a learning environment characterized by a positive outlook. I, too, am concerned about our world and our society, and am deeply disturbed by what I see. However, I have made the personal choice to have a positive outlook during these trying times.

I know that there are students for whom it is harder to adopt a positive outlook. News that is upsetting to many can be deeply traumatizing for some. In many ways, it is a privilege to state that I’ve made a choice to have a positive outlook. But if I can create an environment devoted to learning and positive ideas which can be experienced inclusively with everyone in the class, then I think I will have achieved something meaningful for everyone.

Unfortunately, some students struggle to adopt a positive outlook for a multitude of reasons. Understanding why is proving to be an arduous challenge. I mainly attribute this to my lack of exposure to other worldviews. I grew up in a middle-class family, was never plagued by any major health or familial issues, and came to VT for college (like many others in my school district). During undergrad, I majored in one of VT’s flagship programs, primarily befriended classmates. It wasn’t until after graduation when I realized I unintentionally never sought out extremely diverse perspectives, opinions, and/or schools of thought. One of the resources on this week’s page was Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). I decided to take the “Gender-Science” IAT; my responses unsurprisingly “…suggested a moderate automatic association for Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts.” Although my teenage and early college years were perfectly stereotypical, I lacked diversity, which is now proving to be problematic when trying to relate to students.

Thankfully, we live in an era where accessing information takes milliseconds. Being at home gives us more time to pursue our interests. I’ve taken this time to culturally and globally educate myself. It’s been fun and enlightening, and I can definitely sense the payout of being aware of new perspectives. I hope to carry this mentality with me when I leave graduate school, as workplace cultures are a totally different beast.

What’s My Teaching Voice?

Sarah Deel’s article was profound. She detailed some of the minutia many GTAs tend to overlook when first starting their assignment. The article was relatable; it was reassuring to know we posted similar questions. However, I still don’t feel confident enough to fully define my teaching voice. I’ve been a GTA for a few semesters now, but my style evolves each semester. Perhaps I’ll be able to solidify my core teaching tenets by mid-semester, but for now, I’ll list two of what I think are my most prevalent strengths:

  1. Adjusting my teaching style. I like to administer frequent surveys to assess my strengths and weaknesses. Currently, I send an optional weekly survey to my students and have already received valuable feedback 4 weeks into the semester. Thankfully, students have been very specific about changes they’d like me to implement (such as speaking slower), so I haven’t had any real difficulty tweaking my style. I also plan to give a survey after the midterm.

I’ve found that students appreciate the surveys because they’re never required. The weekly surveys are optional, so students are free to give feedback whenever they feel is necessary. We clearly emphasize that we don’t use surveys as a participation grade or even to decide if we bump borderline grades at the end of the semester, so there’s no pressure for students not to participate. As one would expect, survey participation is high at the beginning of the semester and drops exponentially. I don’t find this problematic, as adjusting to the class in the beginning of the semester will set the tone for the rest of the semester.

2. Drawing the line between “friend” and “teacher.” I served as a Resident Advisor in my undergrad, so that gave me a wealth of experience toeing the fine line between being a friend and being a mentor. It’s certainly not easy and it’s not always fun, but it’s a necessary part of the job. Deel struggled with forcing humor, nonchalance, etc., and I definitely think that’s at the forefront of new teachers’ minds. Being young certainly helps, especially in the COVID era. As a fellow young adult, I follow more than my fair share of meme pages, watch too much Netflix/Hulu/Disney+, play an alarming amount of video games, and share the general sentiment felt by American teens in these times. Pop culture, therefore, is an afterthought to me, while an older GTA (or even full-time instructional staff) will lack the relatability crucial to forming a strong rapport with students. In addition, I’m from Northern Virginia, which is clearly an advantage at this university. I stayed in the same department for graduate school (Mechanical Engineering), so I’ve also found it incredibly worthwhile to discuss my experiences in the undergraduate program.

This segues nicely into discussing how the class I assist contextualizes this point. I’m a GTA for a 400-person introductory coding class for Mechanical Engineering sophomores. It’s the gateway class for the major, so there’s an abnormal pressure to this class since failing can tack on an extra semester or year. Obviously, a 400-person class presents nightmarish logistical challenges which everyone on the staff avoids like the current pandemic. We’ve implemented an incredibly strict “no late work, no extensions, no nothing” policy. Essentially, we release assignments at least 1.5 weeks before the deadline and put the onus of submission on them. The students who excel at time management/organization/coping with online learning breeze through and submit it within days, but that sadly only represents ~20% of the class. The remaining ~80% wait until 15 minutes before the deadline. When over 300 students all attempt to submit their HW, Canvas inevitably crashes. It’s essentially a toss-up to see whose HWs successfully submit and whose HWs are lost to the deep, dark rift of the intra-Canvas interwebs. For the first HW, ~10% of the class got a 0 by default from not submitting their HW by the deadline, and our emails were absolutely inundated with extension requests, pleas, and narratives lengthier than some dissertations I’ve read. We committed to a “no nothing” policy at the start and that was clearly communicated, so we put our foot down and braced ourselves for the onslaught of scathing diatribes. Much to our surprise, we only received a few.

Am I sympathetic? Absolutely. “Zoom fatigue” has hit me hard, too. However, I don’t feel that bad because I connected with my students early in the semester. Now, when I tell them I have to give them a zero, it’s not coming from some soulless keyboard warrior hiding behind the screen; it’s coming from someone who happens to hold a semi-authoritative-but-mainly-focused-on-learning-because-I-was-once-in-your-shoes-and-genuinely-want-to-help role. And that dampens the sting quite significantly.

There are lots of tangents here (not unlike the current draft of my thesis), but I think this is a good starting point. I’m excited to read others’ blogs and discuss the plethora of perspectives we carry!

Fostering Creativity in Research

Last semester, one of my professors encouraged us to be more creative after he randomly asked us what our individual superpower would be. Most of us stuttered at first out of shock, but were able to assemble an answer after a few minutes of thinking…except for me. I managed to piece together a terrible answer in the heat of the moment, but it dawned on me that I’m terribly uncreative. My professor pointed us to a LinkedIn article explaining the need for creativity in an increasingly innovative world. His overarching message was that as researchers, we should be inquisitive. After we finish an experiment, we shouldn’t publish the results and coast; we should be asking ourselves how we can improve the experiment or create another hypothesis that uses similar methods. I never thought of research that way; I thought that most people just shelved projects after completing them. But the truth is, finished projects may prompt other researchers who read your papers to carry on your work, so it’s important to also hold that “wanting to do more” mindset. This is something I struggle with; I just finished writing a paper and had the “what do I do now?” chat with my advisor, which went horribly since my advisor was under the impression that I had a host of ideas for another research paper. I’ve always wondered how graduate students formulate their research topics. Maybe that comes with experience, or maybe some students are just naturally more creative than others. Regardless, I know I need to change my attitude towards creativity, so I found two great documents (1,2) on how to boost research creativity. I’ll highlight three tips I found especially interesting:

  • Do literally anything other than research. Work out at the gym. Go to an amusement park. Walk around the park. A sudden activity change can stimulate creative ideas. As someone who gets easily bored sitting in the lab all day, I will definitely adopt this. I pledge to take multiple short strolls around campus next year to clear my brain. Maybe this will help instill some research ideas!
  • Develop strategies to combat perfectionism. This boosts productivity and minimizes perfectionism. Creativity requires you to deal with the ebb and flow of research, so preventing perfectionism helps manage creativity. This is sort of counterintuitive, and as a semi-perfectionist, I was surprised (and slightly disappointed) to learn of this.
  • Mentally exhaust yourself. This is also incredibly counterintuitive, but research has proven that humans become more creative when the brain is tired. I’ll have to read more about this, because I think that this can quickly spiral off-track, which is definitely undesirable in graduate school.

Over the rest of the semester, I’ll read more articles about fostering creativity. I hope to share some tips I’ve gleaned with the rest of the class in a blog post near the end of the spring!

Some Fun Ways To De-Stress

It’s not a secret: graduate school can be incredibly stressful at times. There’s pressure to publish, teach, win grants, network, and more. Since the Finals Week-induced stress is approaching, I thought I’d share some of my favorite activities to do around Blacksburg.

To preface this list, I love reading Next Three Days to find activities. As the name implies, it’s a comprehensive list of all of the activities happening in Blacksburg (and the NRV) over the next 3 days. I’ve found a few of the items below from this website!

  1. Farmers Market: Every Saturday, there’s a small Farmers Market near Champs and Idego Coffee. Vendors are local, prices are low, and food is tasty! They occasionally have live music or other socializing events (there’s a tomato tasting event soon).
  2. Running on the Huckleberry Trail: This 7.5-mile trail leads from the Blacksburg Community Library to the mall in Christiansburg. It’s not steep, and you’ll often see other joggers and bikers. It’s pretty scenic once you get to the Foxridge area; I recommend you venture out (walking, running, or biking) at least once, especially now that the weather is favorable.
  3. Venture Out Challenge Course: I’ve only done this once, but I had a blast. This is basically a small obstacle course that promotes teamwork, strength (mental and physical), and problem solving. It’s meant for a group of people, so I would encourage bringing your labmates or friends. One downside is that it can be costly depending on how many people you have (fewer people –> higher cost), but it’s incredibly fun and a unique way to spend a few hours.

Regardless of how your relieve stress, it’s important to be consistent and know what helps you blow off steam. Best of luck wrapping up projects, classes, and the school year!

Reflections on Being a Physics TA

I’ve been a Physics TA for the past 2 years and have learned a lot about myself, my teaching styles, and how to develop course content. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve gleaned:

  1. Review all of the material beforehand, even if you think you know it thoroughly. There were many times where I brushed off looking at homework questions because I assumed I would be able to solve them off the top of my head since they were “simple.” Nope. This is especially critical if you’re a TA for a class you took long ago or don’t have direct exposure to anymore.
  2. Your demeanor can make or break a student’s experience. I’ve seen two “stereotypes” of TAs: the ones who are hard, rigid, and follow the rules to a T, and the ones who are more lax but probably don’t care about the class as much. It’s possible to be a great TA in either stereotype, but it’s also important to think about it from the students’ perspectives. It may be appropriate to be strict if students are misbehaving, but I personally see no reason to not be relaxed in the classroom/lab. It makes the atmosphere less tense and students can focus more on learning the big ideas rather than fretting over minor details.
  3. Frequent communication with professors is vital. It builds a strong rapport, makes it much easier to suggest course or grade changes, and you can probably ask for a reference at the end of the semester.
  4. It’s okay to make mistakes. Students typically hold the misconception that TAs are subject matter experts and may become frustrated when TAs can’t immediately solve their problems. Making mistakes is human, and sometimes, it may help students to learn what they shouldn’t do. I vividly remember setting up a problem incorrectly because I made a faulty assumption. Some students approached me after class and said they would’ve made the same mistake, so it’s possible to still help them even if you don’t arrive at the right answer.
  5. TAs don’t receive SPOT scores, so implement alternative methods to obtain feedback. I had students fill out a Google Form regularly, and that helped me gauge my strengths/weaknesses. Regular feedback is important because it allows you to experiment with pedagogy to help as many people (yourself included) as possible.

I’ve had a great time being a TA and would definitely like to try being the Instructor-of-Record for a Physics course one day. I hope you can find these tips useful, implementable, and attainable!

Why Is Tuition So Expensive?

Many foreign countries offer free or virtually free college, including Norway, Sweden, Germany, and France. However, American colleges are known for their absurdly expensive college tuition and yearly tuition increases. A typical private American institution can cost upwards of $60,000/year, which is more than the country’s median household income (~$56k/year). I was curious to learn the reasons why college is so expensive and came across two articles (1, 2). Here are the most surprising or critical reasons:

  1. Higher tuition means colleges can offer college tuition discounts. Realistically, very few students can afford to pay full tuition. Colleges can leverage that to offer tuition discounts (financial aid packages) of varying amounts. Some may only have to pay $5k, others will pay $20k, some may receive a full ride, etc. Admissions officers can then build a freshman class composed of accomplished, competitive students who are all vying to receive financial aid. This is an incredibly common tactic used commonly by private universities since their tuition tend to be exorbitantly higher than tuition at public universities.
  2. Similarly, yearly tuition raises are common because institutions are aware of government-sponsored student loans. According to the first article, federal student aid accounts for most of the college tuition increases between 1987 and 2010. Most, if not all, students are eligible for loans, and there have been more types of loans to respond to the increase in student demand. For instance, unsubsidized loans are a relatively new concept.
    It’s a simple principle: if students can borrow more money, colleges can charge more. And because there are more ways to borrow money, colleges can take advantage of this to raise tuition.
  3. State funding can’t keep up with enrollment. Many state governments have cut funding to higher education institutions and allowed colleges to raise tuition to compensate for the deficit. Studies have shown that when state funding is constant or increasing, tuition remains level. But when state funding decreases, college tuition increases. 80% of American students attend public universities, so government budgets don’t play a small role in determining tuition costs. Although state funding has been increasing slightly, university enrollment has been skyrocketing in comparison.

This annoys me because it feels like higher education institutions are becoming heavily monetized. Some of the methods and logic universities use (such as the tuition discounts outlined in Point 1) feel sleazy. Point 3 is the most intriguing because I attend a public university that will face an over-enrolled freshman class next fall. I’m wondering by how much tuition will be raised if we don’t have enough support from the state.

Should ETS Be More Transparent About the GRE?

After our thorough in-class discussion of the GRE earlier this semester, I found myself thinking about the utility of standardized admission tests. These tests are administered to a range of students: high school students typically take the SAT and/or the ACT for admission to an undergraduate program, while college students typically take the GRE for admission to a graduate program. There are other standardized tests, such as the LSAT (for entry into a law program) and the MCAT (for entry into medical school), but I will focus on the GRE, as it was the crux of Monday’s dialogue.

Some arguments I’ve read in support of the GRE (and standardized tests in general) claim that it “levels the playing field,” because each curriculum varies wildly. Simply put, there is too much variability within programs. Two baccalaureate engineering programs may be ABET accredited, but that doesn’t guarantee all of the course content at one university was taught at another. Comparing standardized test scores directly pits applicants against each other while ignoring scholastic differences. However, someone who has a higher GRE score doesn’t mean he or she is smarter than someone who didn’t score as well; it is used to predict students’ performance in the first year of graduate school.

I find it interesting that ETS (the producer of the GRE) can use this test to predict student performance. The word “predict” is heavily rooted in statistics, and such a powerful claim must be substantiated by mountains of data. I’m not sure if that data is publicly available, but I’d like to see how exactly ETS correlates GRE scores with graduate school performance. Some commonly used metrics might include GPA and scientific productivity (number of publications, grants awarded, etc.). While statistically valid to an extent, there are many hard-to-measure and/or not easily quantifiable metrics to consider to obtain a full measure of “success.” Such metrics include cognitive maturity, program rigor, mental health status, social adaptability, creativity, and advisor agreeableness, to name a few. Each factor has the ability to impact a firmly quantitative measure that the GRE may use to measure success (like GPA). For example, moving to a new institution for graduate school made it hard for someone to make friends or study effectively (social adaptability). I wonder how ETS incorporates these more qualitative metrics into their analysis.

In class, I asked Dean DePauw why finding GRE scores was significantly harder than finding SAT scores across institutions. For instance, Stanford’s undergraduate mid-50% SAT scores are easily found on the Incoming Freshman Profile, but the mid-50% GRE scores are not mentioned anywhere on the graduate admission page. Someone responded and said GRE datasets are publicly available online through ETS (or some other site, I can’t exactly remember), but I find it odd that such data isn’t readily available. This goes hand-in-hand with my question asking if ETS should be more transparent with the GRE (ranging from developing questions, releasing scores, and even analyzing their data to improve their test).

One major issue arising from transparency is ETS’s business model. ETS still needs to profit, and providing too much insight into the company would certainly derail the company. Since ETS is a major distributor of GRE preparation supplies, divulging “test secrets” would not benefit their business model either, since competitors could buy the book and copy the contents. It’s a fine line to balance, and I don’t believe there’s an easy solution, but perhaps being more transparent about question development will make studying and taking the test less aggravating.

(Disclaimer: I have not taken the GRE, so my views in this article stem from what my classmates, colleagues, and friends have said about the test, as well as the hyperlinked articles in this post.)