Friday, October 28, 2011

Midterm Self-Assessment

As we roll in to the middle of the semester, I'm starting to get a clearer picture of the hard data (grades) from what I have observed via anecdotal evidence. There's a clear Gaussian distribution of students of what I would call the average 70%, with 15% on either tail, making up the very good and very poor students. So far, I'm very pleased with this for a number of reasons.

The pressures to curve the class are non-existent. This is pretty important to me because that's a direct correlation to whether I have the class on the right trajectory. I feel like the average engineering student should be getting between an 80 and a 90 in a class, with the below average in the 70s and the above average in the 90s. If the entire class is in the 90s, then I'm not making the material difficult enough for the very good students and that's a disservice to them. If everyone is failing during the midterm, not only is there pressure to curve the class upward but it also drops morale, which can erode student confidence and evaluation scores.

Most students are pleased with the class, based on informal polling. I ask for feedback anonymously (or not if the student doesn't mind) after every large assignment. A handful of students use this to vent with things like "this assignment sucks" and "I didn't learn any of this crap". But the majority of the responses have been positive in the form of constructive criticism. Comments like "I think this aspect wasn't explained clearly and the notes were equally unclear. Can you give a better example next time?" are things that I can directly use during the next course to make improvements. Also, after these assignments, I do let students know about some of the changes for subsequent semesters so they know their comments haven't fallen on deaf ears. I'm thinking this could be a key part to get good evaluations which always looks better than bad evaluations.

I feel like I've covered more material and required more work from the students and they've responded positively. I've added some changes from previous semesters, beefed up the writing requirements, and had more lectures. Students have grumbled a little bit (who doesn't love more work) but most have grudgingly admitted it's been for their benefit. This also means I have a heavier time commitment for this class than previous semesters under different instructors but I think it's been positive for both the students and myself.

Now, with that said, there's definitely room for improvement. I've been waiting until the last minute to make up assignments and lab manuals, which is not a good trend to start. Also, there are a few more topics I should have covered during the lecture part of the course which would have benefited the students and probably saved me a few headaches. I've been late on getting information to the TAs but I don't require grading from the TAs so I don't think they're totally mad at me yet.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased so far. I only hope that I can keep this up for the rest of the semester and have the students be successful in the course.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Research Group Dynamics

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss the dynamics of building a research group and put forth a few key ideas that I focused on in the beginning. If you have comments, they're greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More on the Vibram Five Fingers

Yesterday, I had a relatively off topic post at Engineer Blogs discussing why thinking outside of the box is a good thing for engineers. I used the Vibram Five Fingers shoes as an example of how this can not only be a concept but come to fruition (and the the market). I thought I would go completely off topic today because I'm dealing with stupid BS that I don't want to deal with and I would rather talk about something enjoyable.

I'd like to say I'm an avid runner but I just don't have the time any more. I'm probably more than a weekend warrior but less dedicated than someone with a regular training schedule. I used to have a bunch of minor foot/ankle/knee/hip problems that were always nagging me. That was until I bought a pair of Nike Free.

Slipping on the Nike Free was like a caressing glove for my foot. Two things were immediately apparent after my first run in the Free: 1) the separation of the sole compartments means your foot conforms to the road and you feel more and 2) there's no way in hell you can run heel-toe in these shoes. Maybe smaller runners don't have this problem but I'm nearly 200 lbs and there's not enough padding in them to support that kind of impact. This essentially forced me to run completely on the ball of my foot, which is no easy task. It took a few weeks but I definitely can see the difference between running only on the ball of my foot versus heel-toe. Many of the annoying aches and pains in my feet/ankles/knees/hips have mostly gone away. Also, it forced me to change my stride to be more efficient and my running times have dropped significantly.

But I still wanted a more natural feel, so I tried a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers and went on my first run two days ago. My initial impression of the Five Fingers was that they were extremely weird. There's no padding or cushioning and depending on the model, you either get a nearly flat bottom or a modified tire tread. In these shoes, there's no margin for error with heel striking. If you cannot run only on the ball of your foot, then you're not ready for these shoes. Also, the separated toes aspect is insane, crazy, and totally works. I thought I would have issues with my toes slipping out of their little compartments but had no issues with it.

For a test run, I did my normal 4 mile loop, which is all on the side of the road or sidewalks. My normal time is somewhere between 27:30 and 30:00 depending on how hard I'm pushing it. The course is mostly flat with only minor hills. For the first 2.5 miles, the shoes were great! I was able to feel the road more. I definitely felt more twigs and small rocks that I normally don't. And it's very hard not to run fast in these shoes. I had to constantly restrain my effort because I was concerned something might go wrong and I didn't want to have to walk 2 miles back to my house. After about 2.5 miles, I started to notice a few problems, namely blisters forming under my big toes. Part of this problem was from me pushing it too much (I should have only ran 1 or 2 miles) and part of it was having the trail version of the shoes which has a significant tread under the big toe. You can see how that looks in the figure below.
I slowed down and tried to run on the grass next to the sidewalk, which was pretty difficult because it was dark and I couldn't see where I was stepping. I hit a few ditches (com'on people! fix you lawns) and decided to deal with the blisters and stay on the sidewalk. Even then, I was still under 29:30 which is at least an average run for me. In the future, I plan on using these on the trail runs that I do on weekends where the toe will (presumably) sink in to the ground and not cause blisters.

The last comment that I'll make about the Vibrams is that they are definitely not for the inexperienced runner. I run exclusively on the ball of my foot, even for long runs that last an hour or more. Also, my guess is I'd be somewhere near 5 minute mile run if I was really racing that distance. I'd like to think that qualifies me as someone who isn't bothered by the lack of heel striking in the shoes. But nothing could prepare me for the cramps, aches, and overall workout that my calves feel right now. The 2nd day after a race or hard run is really when you feel it and I'm definitely hobbling around. My calves haven't had a workout like this since I started with the Frees, and even then it wasn't this bad!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn!

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss why older engineers' perspectives of young engineers are ridiculous. They're akin to saying "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" and they have no idea how good they've had it for decades.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What's the difference between 18 and 27?

Now, I know what you're thinking... 9. On the surface, that technically is correct. But those of you who are astute will say "0" is the correct answer. Let me add a little more context to the question. When you're thrown in to the deep end and you're floundering, does it really matter if the pool is 18 ft deep or 27 feet deep? Nope, you're either going to sink or swim.

I raised this classic tenure-track-sink-or-swim question in this frame during a recent round table discussion with the other new engineering profs and some senior/established profs. Because I really feel like it's either sink or swim and that's it. That's not to say I think SnowU is the type of institution that hires 5 junior faculty and will ultimately fight it out for one tenured position. I think that's a ridiculous way to run an academic institution. But rather, I get the general feeling that either a person has it or doesn't have it, and it's not going to be something the institution does that determines that.

Needless to say, this definitely got some strange and awkward looks from the other newbies. Aside from being shocked that I had a more cutthroat view of academia, the common comments from both the newbies and round table leaders was that they didn't think it was a good thing to jump into the deep end. That, using the same analogy, I should find the stairs and take a more measured path towards the deep end, but ensure my head stays above water.

While I think I was/am prepared for the position, I feel I am continuously tested/challenged by the amount of work, scope of the work, and depth of the work. On the sink-or-swim scale, I'd say I'm treading water, but definitely waaaay in the deep end, which has the potential to be good but also the potential for a spectacular failure.

But if this approach is successful, (and for those of you who have done this) do you think it will have better lasting effects than if I just waded into the pool and learned how to swim that way? For example, I see it similar to higher salary effect for starting a new job. That is to say, if I can swim in 18 ft or 27 ft, then when I'm established, handling the even higher workload with being a tenured faculty member will be easier.

For those of you who have passed the tenure hurdle, how crazy is this approach? Is my assumption correct that handling more in the beginning will mean I can handle even more later? If you're just starting out like me, what has your approach been? Is it similar to this or different?