Damn it, Texas!

14 12 2010

I always thought that school boards are made up of dull, but sane and reasonable people who make good decisions about education. Then I heard about the Texas Board of Education. They have been debating for several months about the curriculum of public schools throughout the entire state. The debate is mainly between extreme conservatives on the board and the remainder which consists of moderates and liberals. The conservatives on the board feel that current textbooks, having been written by “academics,” have an unfair liberal bias and that by making certain amendments, they will restore balance to the classroom.

Specific examples of the Texas school curriculum that will be changed are, “stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” Doctor Don McLeroy, a board member, insists that, through these changes, they are restoring balance and that, “academia is skewed too far to the left.” Dr. McLeroy has degrees in electrical engineering and dental science, which leads me to question what makes him think he is qualified to say there is a liberal bias in history, economics, or biology. Dr. McLeroy even attempted to give Republicans credit for the civil rights movement, which he claims some Republicans supported. While this may be true, social conservatives in the United States consistently fought that movement.

Another board member, David Bradley, is quoted as offering $1,000 for a charity of one’s choice if that person can present evidence of a constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. It’s been over four years since high school, so I could be wrong, but…

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
U.S. Constitution – First Amendment


“…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
U.S. Constitution – Article 6, Section 3

I learned this at my public high school. I’m not normally one to rub a legal document in someone’s face, but Mr. Bradley’s comment begged it. I do it without apology.

There are many other aspects of the new curriculum that are not right. There is the virtual exclusion of Latino historical figures. There is an amendment to require the teaching that the Venona papers confirmed the presence of Soviet spies in the United States, somehow justifying Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt in the 1950s. Because of Thomas Jefferson’s opinions on the separation of church and state, his role in inspiring revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries was cut from Texas’ curriculum.

There are too many things to mention all of them here. I value the education I received in public school. All of my teachers were very fair about how they handled historical events, evolution, public opinion, etc. They did not sway far to the left or to the right, nor did the textbooks. I feel sorry for Texan students and I fear for the future of education across the United States. Texas is a large purchaser of textbooks and textbook companies will be more inclined to produce one set of textbooks for the entire country. This does not necessarily mean that those companies will be compelled to print books that conform to Texas’ new curriculum. It just means that they will feel some pressure to put some conservative spin into a vital teaching tool.

Thank you for reading this wall of text. It upset me enough that I had to get all the way through this.


Uncertainty is not an excuse for ignorance

20 10 2010

It would be arrogant to say that science has had its heyday and that all the big discoveries are behind us. The universe is as complex as it is large. The need for good science will never go away.

Imagine if we had stopped physics research after Newton had worked out calculus and classical physics. Imagine if we had stopped biology research after Henry Gray published his text book on human anatomy.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant person. He figured out the motions of the planets and worked out his now well-known three laws of motion. He discovered that the planets do not revolve around the sun but the planets and the sun all orbit around a common center of mass. In the process of doing this, he had to come up with differential and integral calculus.

However, Newton was confounded by something. He and other astronomers kept detailed logs of the planets’ motion in the sky. They indicated that the planets’ orbits were not constant; they were constantly being perturbed by the gravitational pull of the other planets and other objects. According to all the math he had done up to that point, he found that the planets should be knocked out of their relatively stable orbits. Rather than try to solve the problem, he supposed that there was a divine hand in keeping the planets in the proper places in the sky.

The is the tragedy of Isaac Newton’s life. He was undoubtedly smart enough to figure out this perturbation problem but he did not. It was another 200 years before a comprehensive description for perturbation theory was established.

Because we might be amazed at what we have discovered or that we do not know what we will discover in the future, that does not mean that we should not expect to discover anything. The universe is huge and our understanding of it is anything but complete. Until we are absolutely certain of everything, then scientific advance has to continue on.

There are only 40 hours in the week

5 10 2010

For anyone who has gone to school while working full time, this post will be old news to you. For those who have not yet and are considering it, then listen up.

I recently attempted to work full time as a web developer while going to grad school full time for my master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction. It ended badly. I was forced to drop of my classes so that I can actually do my job. By trying to do both work and school at the same time and full-time, I attempted too much at once. Clearly, it is important to limit what you attempt in one semester.

Many students, especially undergrads, work a part-time job. I did when I was an undergrad. I have a new theory about how to decide how much work and school you can handle. I think that it is pretty simple. Take the maximum number of hours you would be willing to work at a full-time job and take this as the maximum number of combined hours you would spend on work, school, and other things at the same time.

For example, I’m willing to work 40 hours per week at a full-time job, which is exactly what I am doing right now. Working 40 hours per week really takes all of my energy, so that is the safe maximum for me to attempt. When I try to mix work and school in the future, I will take into account my credit hours and the number of weekly hours required by my job. If I am taking 15 credit hours, then I shouldn’t try to work more than 25 hours per week. I need to work 30 hours per week, then I should not sign up for any more than 10 credit hours.

Learn from my failure. For most people, it is simply impossible to do both work and school full-time. Some people can handle it. I cannot.

Do what you love

21 09 2010

Note: Before reading this post, please note that this started out as a personal writing piece that I never really intended to share, but I decided to put it out there, anyway. I normally write about technology, education, science, or ethics, things that affect everyone. I have avoided personal stuff here for the most part, but I have decided to share this.

In the time since I graduated from high school in 2006, I have struggled to figure out what it is, exactly, that I want to do with my life. I think that most people struggle with this question. Some even struggle with it until the day they die.

When I first launched into college, I was a freshman at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, a commuter campus in downtown Indy. I was not completely of my major, which was geology at the time. It just seemed like an area that I was somewhat interested in and that I could get through with relative ease. After my first semester, I started to reevaluate my options.

Before I started at IUPUI, I considered attending Indiana University’s main campus in Bloomington, about 90 minutes from my home and family. It was also slightly more expensive as I was living with my family and did not have to pay room and board at IUPUI.

After falling asleep a few times in my only geology course and not really getting into the subject like I had planned, I realized that that was probably not the area for me. So, in February 2007, in my second college semester, I applied for an inter-campus transfer to IUB and changed my major to Astronomy/Astrophysics.

In the fall of 2007, I had one astronomy course and I loved it. It was a Monday-Wednesday-Friday course that started at 8:45am, pretty early for me. Still, the material was fascinating and I loved every minute of it. I really got into the course.

The other courses were not as thrilling. I had to take a liberal arts class, in gender studies. It was a relatively easy course and I showed up and did pretty well. Still I tolerated it.

I took a 200-level introductory physics course for science majors, which went smoothly enough. Some of the material was challenging and frustrating at times. Still, I think I am better for having taken that course.

That fall ‘07 semester brought me the only F I have ever earned in a course, EVER. It was Calculus I. having taken several years of algebra and pre-calculus courses, I was not accustomed to calculus’ different notation and wildly different concepts. Coupled with homesickness and a bit of depression, I did not do well enough in that course to pass. In a four-month semester, my GPA had slipped from a 3.7 to a 1.8.

Despite wanting to remain at IUB and work on my astronomy degree, I recognized that I was not performing academically and burning through my college savings twice as fast as I was at IUPUI. With no astronomy degree program at IUPUI, I changed my major to Informatics and moved back in with my parents.

The Informatics decision was an interesting one. I think it was a decision made through pragmatism, rather than passion. I was told that most employers just want to see a bachelor’s degree on your résumé, no matter what it is in. Compared to that one semester in the astronomy program, six semesters in the informatics program was a cakewalk.

The courses were so easy that I could take 16 or 17 credit hours, work full time, and not really be pressed for time or energy. I was exposed to programming languages, information organization, applying technology to the real world, and a few other things while in the IU School of Informatics.

I learned a great deal, but through all of that, I could not shake the nagging feeling that it was all bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the program and the people I worked with. However, I did not really know what my major was about. None of the informatics courses that I took really provided a clue. They were really all over the place.

My interest in astronomy never really went away. After two and a half years, two jobs, an internship, and graduation, I was still thinking about that elusive astronomy degree. On the cusp of graduation in May 2010, I was weighing my options. I still had about $20,000 to work with if I wanted to continue my education. I had an option: continue down the Informatics path with a master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction or go back to Bloomington and earn my Astronomy/Astrophysics degree.

After a friend pointed out that, with an advanced degree, I could make enough money to send myself back into the astronomy program, I went with the HCI option and later took a PHP development job in Carmel, on Indianapolis’ north side. I planned on working full-time and going to grad school full-time.

I was quickly overwhelmed at my job, and then again in school. There simply were not enough hours in the day for me to eat, sleep, go to work, go to class, and prepare for the next class. After the fifth week of classes, I dropped all three of my HCI courses so I would have more time for work and also because my interest in it had been waning in the several months after I applied.

So, here I am in my cubicle at MediaSauce, less then three days away from an important deadline on a site, really wishing I was not here and regretting some of the decisions I made, but not regretting the things that I have learned from them. I firmly believe that everyone should find something that gives their life meaning and make that their life’s work. This is reflected in a speech that Steve Jobs made in a speech at the 2005 Stanford University commencement ceremony.

I have a rough plan on the drawing board that will get me out of this gig and into one that is less ambitious, one that will let me work on my continued education. I plan on returning to Bloomington as a part- or ¾-time student, while working an easier job that does not demand so much of my time or energy.

My prospective major? Astronomy/Astrophysics of course, with a master’s degree following. I had already planned on doing this, just not this soon. HCI is out of the way and the major that I have wanted for three years is within reach. I do not expect it to be easy, but, with the work and study skills that I have picked up, along with some other life experience, it might be easier now than it was last time. I was told by the undergrad Astronomy advisor at IUB that department heads are more likely to accept students going for their second bachelor’s degree because they have already proven they have what it takes to get through that degree program.

If I start next semester, Spring 2011, I could theoretically have my astronomy degree by May 2013. With the part-time job I am trying to get, I would be able to cover all of my living expenses, possibly even my tuition.

When I communicated this plan to my mother, she seemed concerned that I was aimless moving from thing to thing, without any idea of what I want to do. I am 23 years old. I have no idea what I want to do. I just know that I have over $15,000 in savings, some respectable technical skills that can be applied to a part-time job, a passion for science and science education, and a renewed determination to
earn my Astronomy degree.

When I asked for an alternative to my solution, besides remaining in the job that I don’t really like, she had nothing. If someone points out the risk in your reasonably well-laid life plan and cannot offer an alternative, it’s best to tell that person to STFU and then move on.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.”

-Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

Note to universities: Hire better instructors

15 09 2010

In my four years in college, at IUPUI and IU Bloomington, I have found a fatal flaw that consistently plagues higher education: bad instructors.

In an institution whose sole raison d’être is education, one would think that there would be strong priority for seeking out effective instructors and lecturers. I have found that this has been a hit-or-miss endeavor for IU.

There seems to be a school of thought that a school can simply toss a grad student or a PhD into a classroom full of new undergrads and they will be good instructors. A PhD does not a good teacher make. A person might be an expert in whatever field it is that they are teaching, but if they lack the ability to communicate their knowledge effectively and make sure the students understand and retain that knowledge, then they are not good teachers.

In my junior year, while in the Informatics program, I had a PhD student as an instructor for an introductory PHP/OOP course. This class was a disaster. She knew all about Object-Oriented design, but had never taught a class before nor did she have any clue about what would be involved. This resulted in her simply mumbling through her weekly slideshow and expecting each and every student in the room to understand perfectly. She also took to posting line after tiny line of PHP code on her slides and just flipping through them expecting us to instantly know what it meant.

When I took Calculus I during my sophomore year, this time at IU Bloomington, I had a Chinese-born grad student as the instructor for my recitation session. Because she was so soft-spoken, I was forced to sit in the front row to even notice when she was speaking. Unfortunately, her accent was so thick that it was nigh-impenetrable. I do think she was doing her best. I also believe in having an international perspective in American academia, now more than ever. However, if a class is going to be taught in English, then the instructor should be capable of speaking loud, clear, intelligible English. Likewise if the class’ language is Spanish, Chinese, or Finnish.

I would like to state that Indiana University and IUPUI are excellent universities and most of their instructors and lecturers and fantastic. Jason Sisk, Barb Hayes, and Joseph DeFazio are all people whom I had as lecturers at IUPUI and I think they are great teachers. However, if one has a bad instructor, it can ruin the class. That is the reason I am writing this post.

What do I think makes for a good instructor? Here is a short list of the most important qualities, listed in no particular order:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Perfectly fluent in the language that is being used in the course (normally English in the United States)
  • Deep and broad knowledge of the course’s topic
  • Enthusiasm for the subject
  • Enthusiasm for teaching the subject
  • Openness to criticism of teaching style and willingness to change
  • Excellent communication skills

In a nation where the education system is in decline, good teachers are in demand, now more than ever. University departments need to try much harder to only hire lecturers who have good teaching skills, possibly even requiring some kind of educational certification. The idea that a PhD or a researcher can just walk into a classroom and be a great teacher is flawed at best and reckless at worst.

Universities: hire good instructors. Don’t just toss a grad student in front of a class. I would wager that you will see higher grades and happier, more productive students.

IUPUI’s HCI grad degree program is not suited for its students

14 09 2010

This is just me blowing off steam about my failure to succeed in grad school while working full time as a web developer.

The people who set graduate course criteria, especially at urban campuses like IUPUI need to keep in mind that most of their grad students will be working full time while going to school. This means that professors cannot treat students as though they are only taking one course and have nothing to do but work on course material.

I tried for five weeks to make graduate school and a full-time job work, but there simply are not enough hours in the day. I will admit that a small part of my decision to drop out was my fault. However, most of it came down to physics and my need for sleep.

It seemed to me that the Human-Computer Interaction Master’s program was not set up to accommodate students with regular jobs at all. This surprised the hell out of me, considering IUPUI’s history as a commuter campus and its beginning as a grad-only campus.

Unfortunately, I simply do not have enough time to complete my coursework and deliver quality material at MediaSauce, so I am about to drop out completely. I am now completely burned out on HCI and web development and right now I do not want to be involved with either for a long time.

The School of Informatics needs to retool its grad programs dramatically in order to make them more easily accessible to workers who want to expand their education. Not all of us wants loans or have scholarships to ride on.

The education of Patrick Proctor

19 08 2010

As someone who is not psychologically prepared to leave school after over 16 years, I have created a rough draft of my educational “Master Plan.” This could be childish rationalization talking, but I think that one should not simply stop after a bachelor’s degree. If you have a reasonably well-paying job, try to stay in school and broaden your education. People often do this with a Master’s degree or, sometimes, a PhD. I am talking about moving beyond a single area of specialization.

I recently graduated, just three months ago, with my first college degree, a Bachelor’s degree in Informatics from Indiana University. Two years prior, I began making plans to stay at IUPUI for graduate school. Then I became inspired to go back to IU Bloomington to finish my Astronomy/Astrophysics degree, which I abandoned during sophomore year. My long-term personal education plans look something like this now:

Okay, so that does look a little crazy. Also, I plan to be working full- or part-time while doing this. Yeah, I’m certifiable. I plan on spending all of my 20s working on degrees in two vastly different fields of study with no real idea or plan of how to apply this knowledge and experience to the real world. Things will work out, I am sure of that.

I will reevaluate my plans as I go, of course. I will keep deciding whether this is really the thing I want to do. I think that if I continually decide this is really the thing I want to do, it can only lead to good things. Who knows? Maybe by the time I start working on my second Master’s degree, IU will decide to give me a volume discount on degrees.