August 7, 2015

Helping Students Bridge the Experience Gap

If you have found your way here I would love your opinion on an idea I have to start a website that would help give students experience with projects actually performed by entry-level employees in different fields. The idea stems my desire to give my students real job-like experiences in the field I teach - biology.  I then thought everyone could benefit from this website, not just students.  If you have any thoughts please leave them in the comments.  Thank you!

Background: Currently there is a gap between what students learn in school and the capabilities businesses are looking for in new hires. Students who enter the job market are dismayed by their inability to obtain jobs after they have spent years getting an education intended to make them successful. Businesses also struggle to find prospective employees with the abilities they need for their company.

Objective: To give students experience with tasks performed by entry-level employees, and provide businesses a means of screening prospective employees and supporting education by providing entry-level projects for students to complete.

How this will be accomplished:  A website will be created with three sections, one for students, one for teachers, and one for businesses.  Businesses will have an area to post entry-level projects, such as blog posts, presentations, etc. and the information needed for students to complete projects in the project queue on the website. The business section will also have an area to review and accept or reject completed projects, and then provide students with comments that can go in their profile on the website for other prospective employers to view.  Businesses could also look up profiles of prospective employees to read comments provided by other companies, or to view all the work that a person completed for their company.

The student section of the website would be where their profiles are located, and the access point to the project queue where they could reserve a project to complete. The reservation process is important so multiple students are not working on the same project at the same time. Students would be given a set amount of time to complete the project based on its size. If a submission was not completed by the due date the project would be sent back to the queue for other students to complete. Once the project is completed the student would send the project to a reviewer.  This reviewer could approve the project, which would mean the project was well done and abides by the criteria the company provided, and send the project to the company. The reviewer could request revisions to the project and send it back to the student for re-submission. The reviewer could also reject the project and return it to the queue for another student to complete. In the profile students could also upload or write a resume, but most importantly there would be an area to highlight comments and badges, such as a gold badge in blog writing for a blog post that went well beyond expectations, received by businesses after completing their project. If the student did not like a comment received by a company they also have the option to hide specific comments here. 

Finally there would be an instructor section of the website where teachers could log in and review projects posted to the queue. Based on their course objectives, the instructor could then reserve a group of projects for their students to complete for their class. If students do not select all the projects the instructor reserved she could return the ones not in use to the queue for other students to complete. The instructor could then choose whether they want to review the project or if they want someone from the website to review the project prior to submission to the company.

Here are my questions that I would like comments on:
1.  Would businesses use this website?  Are there entry-level projects that your company might give to interns or new hires that could be completed entirely online?
2.  Does this website give students experience that would make them more appealing as a potential employee?  If not, could you give details on how the website could be changed to do that.
3.  How should the website generate an income to keep it running?
      a.  Charge the business for each completed project based on the estimated time to completion so the student could get paid for their work, then the website would take a small percentage.
      b.  Charge the business for certain options, such as making review prior to submission to the business optional.  We could also highlight certain projects or companies and charge for that.  
      c.  Use advertising as the sole means of income, though this will not generate much in the beginning.  
      d.  Other ideas are welcome.

Thanks for your thoughts!  Hopefully we can get this website running and give our students some good experience to help them get jobs after graduation.

May 11, 2015

Why We Should Teach Evolution Earlier in Biology Classes

I was recently presented with the chance to redesign an online introductory biology class.  The was a very exciting opportunity for me!  I started by thinking about what I wanted the students to take away from the class.  I also wanted an overarching theme the students could refer back to and place the information from each chapter within a broader picture.  What theme would do that?  Well that answer came easily.  Evolution!  As Dobzhansky said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Great, I had a theme.  I went back to my textbook and realized that evolution wasn't taught until chapter 13!  That was well over half way through my class.  Sure it was mentioned in the introductory chapter.  It was briefly mentioned as a side note here and there in other chapters, but it was not used as a means to connect topics together in the early chapters on cells.  A lot of the facts surrounding cellular evolution are still unknown, but based on what we know about evolution of populations and species couldn't we speculate in these chapters so students could have an educated guess about how and why cells have evolved to have the organelles they do?   

Adult Learners Need More Context
Right now these cellular chapters are full of a lot of facts about how things work together.  Answering the whys and hows of where cells and their organelles came from would give students new to biology more context to help them place and retain the information in their own knowledge base.

It has been argued that we don't need evolution to make sense of certain biology topics.  Presenting cellular biology to a student without answering the how and why questions though leaves much to be desired for an introductory education.  Including some speculation on the hows and whys will allow the students to take their thinking about biology to a higher level.  They will be able to start asking how and why questions and speculating on answers themselves.  Socially constructing biology facts by discussing these questions with others.  

This need to integrate evolution into earlier chapters of introductory biology textbooks is directly related to the principles of andragogy established by Knowles for adults learners.  In particular, once a new concept is established adults want to use it for problem solving.  If we are discussing cellular organelles, students can understand what the nucleus does and why it is important, but how and why did it come to be there?  That is critical information to help them evaluate biological systems and relate them to other systems they know.  

Evolution Can Inspire Creativity
Bloom’s taxonomy is used to help design activities that require students to use higher order thinking skills, such as creating something new, to encourage retention of the information.  Below is a table that shows some biology activities that were designed to meet the highest level of thinking in Bloom’s revised taxonomy with and without evolution integrated into the project.  The activities that integrate evolution into the project increase the depth of exploration by the student into the subject.  

Class activities without evolution
Class activities with evolution
Create a cell and describe how leaving out an organelle would impact cellular functions.
Create a cell with primitive organelles and describe how evolution will act to transform this cell and its organelles into a modern cell.
Design a user's manual for a plant or animal cell. Include descriptions of all pertinent structures and functions.
Design a user's manual for a plant or animal cell. Include information on how structures/functions of the cell will allow the cell to evolve and why evolution is important.
Create a sales pamphlet of organelles from eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.
Create a sales pamphlet of organelles from eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells aimed at selling the organelles to a primitive cell who wants to evolve into a modern cell.
Redesign the process of passing genetic information in DNA to the phenotype. Use or modify any cellular components to improve functioning and write a paper about how your new cell functions better than current cells. If you do not choose to make improvements write a paper describing why you didn't make any changes.
Redesign the process of passing genetic information in DNA to the phenotype. Use or modify any cellular components to improve functioning and write a paper about how your new cell functions better than current cells and speculate on why evolution has not produced the changes you imposed. If you do not choose to make improvements write a paper describing why you didn't make changes and how evolution impacts you decision.

Including more ways students are able to explore a topic increases their ability to be creative with their final product, and they will be able to recognize connections with other topics.  Fostering a passion for biology, and other STEM subjects, requires the ability for students to see the connections between topics themselves and then transfer that knowledge to new topics.  The more connections they can make themselves the stronger their internal motivation to continue in the field will become, another important part of andragogy mentioned by Knowles.  More moments when they go, “OH! I get it!” may be all we need to help retain STEM students.  In biology, I think integrating evolution into the curriculum earlier will make a big difference!

May 3, 2015

Bringing Species Back from Extinction - How Far is too Far?

Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) - Mauricio Antón
By Mauricio Antón [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are currently working on how to bring extinct species back to the wild.  The passenger pigeon may one day make a reappearance in the United States.  This was an abundant species, whose demise was recent (early 1900s) and largely due to human impacts such as hunting.  What other species should be brought back from extinction?

Work is currently underway to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction.  Is this a good idea?  The woolly mammoth lived nearly 10,000 years ago.  According to a TEDx talk given by Hendrik Poinar, the scientist in charge of this project, "there are swaths of habitat in the north of Siberia and Yukon that actually could house a mammoth."  He emphasized the ability of these animals to survive great changes in climate during their time, so maybe they could survive today.  Poinar also states that "we have to think very deeply about the implications, ramifications of our actions, and so as long as we have good, deep discussion like we're having now, I think we can come to a very good solution as to why to do it."  For some species I agree.  I'm not sure about the woolly mammoth though.

Environmentalist Stewart Brand is in favor of de-extinction.  In a 2013 TED talk he said, "humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years.  We have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage.  Most of that we'll do by expanding and protecting wildlands, by expanding and protecting the populations of endangered species.  But some species that we killed off totally we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them." 

Brand wrote an article for National Geographic where he mentions the woolly mammoth project, "In their absence, the grasslands they helped sustain were replaced by species-poor tundra and boreal forest.  Their return to the north would bring back carbon-fixing grass and reduce greenhouse-gas-releasing tundra."  

Just because we can bring back a species doesn't mean we should.  The climate has been changing, causing shifts in species ranges.  What used to be ideal habitat for an extinct species may no longer be a good home for them.  What about the change in species biodiversity that occurred when the species was lost?  Will the extinct species be able to find its former niche in the same location?  You can't simply return a species to a habitat that has adapted to function without it.  Returning woolly mammoths to the tundra and boreal forests is not going to convert them back to grassland.  Ecological succession has proceeded in their absence, creating a habitat that may not support their survival.  It is likely that all the animals would die.  

Before returning extinct species to the wild, plans need to be created, and measures of success need to be clarified.  What type of protection would species brought back from extinction receive?  If chicken DNA is used to help reconstruct the DNA of passenger pigeons, would the new passenger pigeons receive no protection because chickens are common?  Maybe they would receive no protection because they are a genetically modified organism (GMO).  Many humans are fearful of GMOs.  How do we convince a population that is scared of GMOs that the new passenger pigeons we want to reintroduce to their backyard are ok?  What would prevent these people from killing off the pigeons due to fear of genetic modification?  What actions would be implemented if the population starts to decline again for any reason?  How do we stop trophy hunters from killing off newly introduced woolly mammoths?  Just the chance to see one in the wild would attract a lot of attention.

In Brand's National Geographic article he also mentions that the revival of extinct species will help improve our understanding of why species went extinct.  This point has great potential!  If we can compare the DNA of a species that went extinct to species who survived at that time, there might be differences that would suggest a cause of extinction.  We could then look for these differences in modern species to help us identify ones prone to extinction.  

Do we need a live animal for to help us identify characteristics that made an extinct species prone to extinction at its time?  I don't think we do because we couldn't replicate all the environmental variables that impacted the species when it was alive to really understand those factors that helped push them toward extinction.  Why not just study the animals that are still alive that we are trying to save now?

In a study published May 1 in Science called "Accelerating extinction risk from climate change" author Mark C. Urban suggests that "extinction risks will accelerate with future global temperatures, threatening up to one in six species under current policies."  That is a lot of species!  Information to help us identify those species will improve their chance of survival.  But what if humans are one of them?  

April 26, 2015

The Changing Shape of Printing - How Will We Use 4-D Printers?

Textiles; a pair of large presses for block printing calico. Wellcome V0024211
Image from Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

We have come a long ways since the old days of printing!  Right now 3-D printing is becoming very popular.  3-D printers are not a staple item in all schools, but the 2015 Horizon Report predicts that makerspaces, that include 3-D printers, will become more widespread in the next two to three years.  These makerspaces provide students with places where they can put theory into practice and apply the knowledge they have gained in class, like creating prototypes of objects they have designed for class.  3-D printers can also be used by instructors to print models needed for demonstrations in class, such as a heart model that can be taken apart by students and reassembled without damage.  3-D printers are even in space now, where astronauts can use them to create objects, like a wrench (the file for the wrench printed in space is available here, if you want to print your own space wrench!)

Now, with time still left before 3-D printers are common place at universities, 4-D printers are being used!  According to a press release on EurekAlert!, these printers work by using materials that can be triggered to change shape after printing when they come into contact with a stimulus, such as water or heat.  Researchers at the ARC Center of Excellence for Electromaterials Science created a valve that closes when it comes into contact with hot water.

This is not the first time 4-D printing has been used however.  Stratasys, MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, and Autodesk have been working with 4-D printing too.  Stratasys' website discusses research on transforming 1-D, 2-D, and 3-D printed items, made from multiple materials, into other 3-D configurations.  You could have a 1-D or 2-D item printed in one location that can be moved to another location, say space, before it takes on its 3-D configuration.  Even the folding of proteins can be studied using 4-D printing by printing a 1-D strand that will self-fold.  You can view the video of a self-folding protein prototype on MIT's Self-Assembly Lab website, along with some other 4-D printed items taking shape.  Skylar Tibbits, who created the Self-Assembly Lab, gave a TED talk in 2013 where he said, "this is like robotics without wires or motors."  That makes 4-D printed items more durable for outdoor use.

What other possibilities await us with 4-D printing?  Could we make working hearts for medical students to use?  Could we have structures on buildings that change shape when they reach a certain temperature, such as self-opening awnings?  What about water conservation?  Could we use 4-D printers to create items that trigger crop irrigation only when water is absent?  Certainly a material that can change shape or trigger an event based on temperature or water presence will be useful for studies related to climate change.  How would you use 4-D printed items?

April 24, 2015

Does Hiring Adjuncts Instead of Full-time Faculty Really Benefit Universities?

The number of adjuncts in schools has been increasing.  Schools seem to think that hiring three or four adjuncts to teach the same amount of classes as a single full-time faculty member saves them money.  It is true that if adjuncts are restricted to teaching only a few units that the school doesn't have to provide insurance.  But are schools really benefiting from this hiring strategy?  Lets take a look at some factors related to a school's decision to hire many adjuncts instead of full-time faculty.

The Difference Between Adjunct and Full-time Faculty Pay
According to full-time college instructors make anywhere from around a low of $40,000 per year to a high of $100,000 or more per year.  Let's assume a new full-time faculty member has a reasonable starting salary of $50,000 per year.

I have seen adjunct pay ranging from a low of $565 per unit to the upper $900s per unit.  We will assume we are talking about a mid-range adjunct compensation of $750 per unit.  Using adjuncts to teach a full-time load of 21 units each semester, or 42 units each year, the school will pay $30,500 each year.  This saves $19,500 yearly over hiring a full-time instructor...  Or does it?

The Cost of Hiring an Adjunct
There are a LOT of people that can be involved in hiring a new employee.  There's the administrative assistant who posts the job, the faculty who review the applications, the dean who has final approval, the human resources staff who have to deal with the new hire paperwork and background checks, the staff associated with training new hires, and finally the faculty who have to help get the new hire settled within the department.  The number of people, and the time each one spends on hiring a single adjunct, can really add up!

Let's assume that a single person, who makes $50,000 per year, posts a job vacancy announcement and reviews the initial applications as they come in.  It would not be unreasonable to estimate s/he puts in maybe 10 hours towards hiring a single adjunct, likely more with contacting those selected for an interview, sitting in on interviews, and notifying candidates about the final decision.  That equals about $240 of the school's money that went toward hiring a single adjunct for that single individual involved in the hiring process.

How did I get that number?  The yearly salary for the individual ($50,000) was divided by 52 to get the weekly salary.  That number was then divided by 40 to get the hourly salary for the employee.  Since s/he spent 10 hours on hiring, their hourly salary was then multiplied by 10 to get the total cost for this individual involved in hiring the adjunct.

It is likely that there are other people involved in the interview process though.  Let's say only two faculty members review the applications and participate in the interviews as well.  These are faculty that are not new to the school, so they make $60,000 each year.  If they put in 8 hours each toward hiring a single adjunct, less than the previous person because they are not in charge of posting the vacancy or contacting the interviewees, that is about $290 for each of them.

Total so far: $820 just for hiring one adjunct.

Who comes next in the hiring process?  Someone who makes more money, that's for sure!  Maybe someone who makes six figures.  After the initial review is over a big-wig makes the final decision.  Let's say s/he spends an hour looking over the top applicants and making the final decision who to hire.  That equals about $480.

We are now at $1,300.

Now we have to hire that new employee.  One person in human resources is the contact for the new employee.  After answering all the new hire's questions, filing the completed paperwork, getting them signed up for direct deposit, doing background checks, and all the other things they do that are unknown to me, let's say s/he put in five hours (underestimate likely!) toward hiring a new employee and make $50,000 per year.  That is $120 toward hiring the new adjunct.

That brings us up to $1,420.

Next comes training for the new hire.  Let's assume adjuncts have to take some kind of class which requires five hours of direct contact time with the trainer.  If the trainer makes $60,000 per year this equals about $145.

We are at $1,565.

Last comes time with current faculty getting acquainted with the department and the class the new hire will be teaching.  Let's say about three hours of time is spent helping get the new hire settled by people who make $60,000 per year.  That is about $87 spent helping the new hire get started.

Now we are at $1,652.

Now we have a new adjunct who is ready to teach a class.  Yeah!  It was so cheap to hire them!  Or was it?  Adjuncts may teach anywhere from 3 to 11 units each semester.  If a full-time employee can teach 21 units each semester we need to hire two, three, maybe four adjuncts!  If we hire three adjuncts to teach all these units, that is about $4,956 spent on hiring them.  Now it is getting pricier!

High Turn Over
Adjuncts may have high turn over as well.  I was recently told by my lead instructor that five people have taught my class over the last five years.  Wow!  So these hiring expenses occur yearly!  Universities save $19,500 each year by hiring the equivalent number of adjuncts to teach a full-time instructor's load, but spend almost $5,000 each year to hire those adjuncts.  Monetarily we have not achieved any benefits for the school to make these adjuncts full-time faculty yet.

"Full-time Professionals" May Mean Teaching is Not a Priority
One benefit often emphasized by universities about having adjuncts teach courses is that the students have access to a full-time professional in the field.  So the adjunct may have another full-time job?  Hopefully they do, because they don't make much as an adjunct.  Are they a pharmacist?  Maybe they make coffee at Starbucks.  The question is how focused are they on their class, and are the students really getting a good education?

If an instructor is not able to return assignments in a reasonable amount of time students suffer because they can't learn from their mistakes and apply the knowledge to new assignments right away.  Is the class organized?  Does the instructor provide clear rubrics for grading assignments so students know what is expected?  These are problems that can occur in any class, but adjunct positions require a lot of time that full-time professionals may not have to dedicate to a class.  

While this idea that adjuncts are full-time professionals is a nice thought for parents sending students off to these schools, the AAUP emphasizes that adjuncts being full-time professionals is not the norm.  For schools that like to boast this benefit of adjuncts, I question whether a full-time professional would dedicate the same amount of time to a class that a full-time instructor would.  Even another adjunct trying to make teaching their career may have more time for the class.

Instructors and courses are discussed among students.  If a class is an "easy A," students will know.  If the instructor is disorganized, students will know.  If an instructor is great, has a well designed course that really allows students to explore a subject, students will know that too.  Having good instructors essentially leads to free positive advertising for the school, bad instructors will lead to bad advertising.  The experience full-time instructors have may help improve student retention and increase class sizes, bringing in more money to the school.

Employees Could Focus on More Productive Tasks
What about the time spent by the people involved in hiring that could be focused on other aspects of campus success, such as working on programs to bring in new students or retain current ones?  The conversion of adjuncts to full-time faculty should be seen as one of these improvements too.  Increasing the number of full-time faculty members could also increase employee job satisfaction, leading to happier instructors and better classes for students.  Happy instructors also enjoy talking about their job - another form of free advertising for the school.  Certainly investing in full-time faculty would help bring in more students and increase interest in job openings, leading to a better pool of candidates and increasing the school's success.

Other Jobs Could be Cut if Adjuncts are Made Full-time Faculty
If there aren't as many new hires coming into a school some of the jobs in human resources could be cut.  There wouldn't be as much paperwork to deal with and fewer people would be necessary to complete all the tasks.  It is common for businesses to have anywhere from one HR employees for every 100 employees to one HR employee for every 200 employees.  If a school employs 400 adjuncts, it may be possible to consolidate at least 300 of those adjunct jobs into 100 full-time positions.  This would save $50,000 - $100,000 each year if one or two HR employees were no longer necessary.

So Who Wins?
I don't have monetary estimates for these last few points.  Different programs at different school will be better than others at recruiting new students.  Any instructor, adjunct or full-time, could be good or bad no matter how much experience they have.  A lot may depend on who is in charge and what their priorities are.  Given the right knowledge, and good management personnel, I think the conversion of adjuncts to full-time faculty would benefit schools.  If you look at the numbers provided above this may not appear to be true, but other factors such as student success and faculty happiness have a big impact on that success and need to be considered as well.  What do you think?