clevermynnie: (and then?)
This semester, my advisor is low on grant money with which to pay my salary, so I am teaching a course. I didn't want to teach undergraduate labs again, because they are so poorly run that I feel like I have to fix them, but the system isn't set up to fix them, as I learned the last time I tried. So instead I am the TA for our intro mechanics course that's aimed at pre-meds. I don't have to grade anything other than exams, I just run recitation sections (which, when I was an undergrad, we called "discussion"). The students have homework that isn't collected or graded, which is due right before recitation. In the next lecture after recitation they have a quiz on the homework. So the idea is that recitation is all about problem-solving (which makes it even more stupid to call it "recitation"). I am thinking a lot of small group work on either the trickiest homework problems or some other problems that I dig up, most likely both these things. I'm excited to be doing a new type of teaching, even if I'd prefer to just be focusing on research right now.

I'm also leaving on Wednesday to go to Chicago for a nanocrystal science workshop. I'm presenting a poster, along with two other students from my lab, and our advisor is giving a talk. I think the conference should be very interesting, although again I would almost rather focus on research right now. I have a really cool project idea that I proposed to my advisor (who hasn't responded) and I want to get moving on it. Nevertheless, I think a lot of the talks should be interesting, and some big-shots will be there, so hopefully it will be professionally worthwhile. And, I haven't been to Chicago in more than ten years; I'm definitely going to try to squeeze in some sightseeing. The other students and I are staying in a hostel in Greektown (to keep expenses down), and that should be a lot of fun. I have a list of museums and sights to try to get to; I imagine this will be like Boston, where I did see a fair amount but not as much as I wanted because of the limited time and work demands.

Also, I really like that you can watch Berkeley Webcast Lectures from anywhere. I have been watching EE (electrical engineering) lectures recently, work-related, and they are so interesting! It's also a better option at this point than sitting in on the classes would be, because I can skip around to stuff I want and not have to wait 4 months for everything. It also makes me realize that I thought I knew what modern EE people do in their careers, but I had oversimplified a lot. What they really do is even more impressive.

I think EE is the field that's closest to mine that I really adore. Which is why I am dragging my physics research EE-ward.

Edited to add: MY PAPER GOT INTO APL! BOOYAH! :D
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
This'll be my first semester at grad school not teaching, excluding last summer when I didn't do anything but research. I really enjoy teaching, but it is frustrating to come up against limitations in the curriculum, and frustrating to feel that only by putting in a lot of time can you do a good job. I was at a luncheon about TA issues, and we were in small groups sharing various trials. I mentioned that it bugged me that good teaching requires a lot of time, but I see a lot of other TAs doing just enough to get by, totally uninterested in doing a good job. The other TAs I was talking to were shocked, and asked 'why would you be in graduate school if you aren't preparing to teach?' I had to explain that it's different in the sciences; in the humanities the only real profession for a Ph.D. is professor, but to be a physicist a Ph.D. is just your foot in the door. So it'll be nice to have a little time off. I did get my teaching evaluations from last semester back, which were something like 2 mediocre reviews and 40 of high praise; I feel very happy in my teaching capabilities. Though it would help me further to teach a lecture class. But I'm not preparing for a teaching career anyways.

What I am doing that's a first is taking courses from the materials science department. See, for condensed matter physics my department offers surprisingly few electives, even fewer for me because I took an equivalent course at Berkeley (solid state physics). And I need an extra elective because I skipped out of math methods but still need the same overall number of courses. So this semester I'm taking nanofabrication, and after today I decided to audit nanomechanics/nanotribology. Both seem to have a lot of interesting information that is not taught in physics classes because it is 'trivial consequences', like how temperature affects x-ray diffraction or why resistance is so different at small scales. It is a little silly, though, how much they avoid talking about quantum mechanics directly, and it is weird to me that anyone in a graduate physical science program would not be familiar with the Pauli exclusion principle. Another bonus, though, is that the nanofabrication course actually has a series of labs, which I am really looking forward to.
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
I had a lot of things to finish up at work last week, like submitting my reimbursement papers for the physics cookies and writing a paper for the seminar I took (which I wrote about spray-on-foam insulation for the space shuttle, which was really interesting). I also had a positive development in the teaching frustration front. I was talking with the other TA for the lab-only class that had me so frustrated, and he had the idea of discussing the course with the undergraduate chair, since it's primarily undergraduates who get screwed if the labs are bad. He was sympathetic, and eventually told us that if we put together some documentation of the state of the lab and ideas to fix it, he would show it around and try to drum up faculty support. What we gave him last Friday was firstly, a page discussing the problems that the labs have (poor instructions, lack of time available, boring lab selection) and their potential solutions (rewrite labs, allow students to work at home, throw away the worst labs and replace them with something fascinating). Our main suggestion here was to make a TA position that only has one section to teach (1/3 the normal teaching load) but has the responsibility of rewriting the labs in a brief, clear, standardized fashion and testing them on the students. We also each rewrote a lab the way we think they should be done, to demonstrate. I really hope that this goes somewhere, because it's fixable without needing work from overworked professors or lab staff, with a little intelligence in how the matter is approached. The TA position we suggested would also be an ideal resume piece for anyone wanting to be a professor, so hopefully some graduate student who is not me will volunteer. Though I would trust myself the most not to botch things, just because I have background in writing. One can't do everything oneself, though.

I still have those damn NDSEG essays to write, but I guess I'll be writing them in New Mexico. Fine, whatever. And I tested the cryostat today with high hopes... urgh, more failure. In July, it got down to 90K, which is good performance. I ordered new copper pieces to take better advantage of the geometry, and in October couldn't get below 150K with them. Most people in my group agreed that my vacuum wasn't good enough, so I spent two months replacing gaskets, eliminating tiny leaks, until I improved it by two orders of magnitude. And today when I add liquid nitrogen... 210K. WTF, science, WTF?? When I return in January, there will be some angry experiments involving dipping copper into liquid nitrogen and measuring the temperature, because I'll be damned if I'm going to try it in vacuum again until I have more insight into what's wrong.

And finally, I am trying to pack today and not forget anything, but it seems that I'm getting sick. Right before flying too, so I can infect everyone on my two planes. Sorry, everybody!
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
My students are starting to turn in lab evaluations. Since they aren't my personal evaluations, I can peek at them now and see comments about how my students love me but hate the lab. One person wrote along the lines of, "I don't want to be an asshole about this, but these labs are really worthless. If it weren't for Jessamyn I wouldn't have learned anything." And I'm glad they all think I'm doing a good job; I feel confident about my teaching skills. But it pisses me off so much that the labs are like this!

The people who are responsible for them are 2/3 incompetent and disorganized, and even if they did an overhaul I really doubt it would help very much. On top of that, edicts come down from the professors that make things worse, like turning in the lab during class instead of being able to take it home and work on it. And the writeups are just so bad, and nobody takes responsibility. On top of that, there isn't even a discussion section for the course, just lecture and labs. Aren't you people here to teach these kids physics? Don't you want them to take a spirit of rational inquiry or at least a basic understanding of the world around them away from this, instead of a sense of confusion and mismanagement? It makes me so mad, because no one whose job it is care, and there's no incentive at all as a graduate student to try to do anything about it. Maybe we have less graduate student manpower than a bigger department would, and maybe we have to operate within the constraints of the resources available to us. But everyone keeps passing the buck, and the results are wronging a lot of students who are paying good money to learn something, and driving people who might otherwise have loved physics. Amazing lab experiences were what kept me in physics; would I have stayed if it had been like this? Not in a million years.
clevermynnie: (Default)
I am getting a little burnt out on teaching labs. Maybe it's that I have so many more labs to grade now than I did before (due to individual reports instead of group reports), or maybe it's because I don't really like mechanics labs, or maybe it's that it isn't new any more. Certainly a big contributor is that the labs are really poorly written, which they were last year, but now the students are required to finish in two hours instead of getting two days to do the lab report. The labs haven't been modified at all, so they are now poorly written and way too long. Plus with my lab-only students, they have had physics before and done well in it so they complain that the labs are easy but long and picky. I have to agree with them.

So I'm trying something new, where I cut out some of the less interesting analysis sections of the lab and give them a worksheet of problems from this awesome book, Jearl Walker's Flying Circus of Physics. There are four problems, and they have to at least try two, but for any they get correct they get extra credit (the problems are kind of tricky). This should also help give their grades more spread so that assigning letter grades isn't completely arbitrary. It's more work for me, but today they seemed to enjoy it. Making people discuss interesting physics and get into it is the whole point of teaching, right?

There's a fun essay about the demos that Jearl Walker does/used to do here, and some disturbing photos here. He's pretty awesome.
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
Daria, a friend of mine from high school that also went to Berkeley, came out to Philadelphia over the weekend with her boyfriend Simon, at the end of a weeklong east coast trip to celebrate getting a job. It was very fun seeing them; on Saturday night we went out to the Continental Midtown, which is a very cool bar with tasty food, to celebrate Daria's birthday. We went with some friends of Simon's who also live in Philadelphia, including a professor in the computer science department at Penn who was a postdoc with Simon's group at Berkeley. Then on Sunday, we walked around Philadelphia, following loosely the walking tour I have developed for when people visit me. Simon left Sunday night but Daria came with me to Penn yesterday, and we walked around and ate a late lunch at Bubble House, a restaurant on Sansom which I like more and more.

I was talking to Steph last night, who told me she had to get a rabies vaccine because there was a bat in their apartment. I have to admit that bats were not something I thought that civilized people had in their houses, and before I moved here, I also thought it was very unusual to have mice, rats, or roaches in your house. And yet now we have had all three (though no bats yet). When I was a kid, all we had were spiders and the occasional lizard, but maybe that's because we had cats to scare the larger rodents off.

There's been an interesting development in my teaching situation. I am teaching these two lab-only mechanics courses, for students that got a 5 on the AP Physics exam but need lab for some reason. Although last year my students turned in their labs two days after the lab class, now we are supposed to make them turn in their labs at the end of two hours. The labs are the same, so it's just not nearly enough time. Combine that with the fact that these kids have forgotten a fair amount of the physics they learned, and the result is that I don't think they learn nearly as much as when they can take the lab home and just spend an extra hour on it. I brought this up with the professor in charge of the class, and he responded very nicely, saying he agreed with me completely and felt really guilty, but apparently it's a jurisdictional issue and the engineering school will be all bitchy if we give lab-only students too much work. He did say, though, that I could change the content of the labs however I want. Like, if a lab isn't that educational, I could cut it partially or completely and insert something I think would be more edifying. I am still sorting out what I could do with this, though; it's a lot of freedom. What do you wish you had done in physics lab?
clevermynnie: (Default)
That's it! I'm done with my first year of graduate school.

Wednesday I had a not very difficult biophysics final (open-note, so anything I didn't remember immediately I had plenty of time to look up). I helped proctor the pre-med physics final... I brought a book to read during the bulk of the test, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. I did not realize in advance that this book is highly pornographic and mostly about sex and drugs (though it makes lots of political and philosophical statements). It's a little weird to be reading a book like that while proctoring, and I was afraid one of the profs would ask what it was or peek over my shoulder. Hmmm.

Party Wednesday evening, then physical therapy Thursday, and meeting with my advisor today. My taking so long to pick an advisor, and actually investigating two groups (going to group meetings, meeting students, everything) seems to have thrown people off and sent mixed signals. I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I waffled for so long on it, but honestly everyone told me that was fine to do if I decided by the end of the semester. So why are there bad feelings now? My advisor seems really cool, still, assuming I can make sure her students like me.

I had a really nice walk this evening with Ben, while he smoked a cigar. We walked up to Rittenhouse Square, which is amazingly green now (finally!) and sat and talked while the sun went down. Philly is a really nice walking city.
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
Midterm last Friday ended up fine, which is good. Now I've just got some problem sets and a bunch of finals, and then I'll be done for the semester!

On Tuesday I proctored a midterm for the pre-med physics course I'm teaching. I have to say, graduate-level coursework is not too dissimilar from undergrad coursework, just more work and more focus solely on physics, but teaching is what really makes me feel old. It is pretty funny to watch students freaking out for an exam when you aren't invested at all in whether or not they do well. I didn't even have much too do, since I was prohibited from answering questions because I hadn't written the exam. I just graded labs and occasionally moved the mouse on the computer that was projecting the time, so it didn't go to sleep.

Speaking of which, the lab I taught this week was really cool. It was the optics lab, but instead of having some lenses on an optical bench, they used this model of the human eye, where you could move around the retina to simulate near and far-sightedness, and one of the lenses had astigmatism, and that sort of thing. I think it was much more interesting than a comparable straight lens lab would have been, although because it was a new lab and hadn't been tested on students yet, some parts of it were nearly disastrous. I like teaching lab, but working with the lab write-ups can be very frustrating because they're so bad, and the resistance to changing them is so high. The lab manager told me she'll pay me $20 an hour to revise them, if I want, so I may take some time at the end of the semester to do that.

I want to do research!
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
As previously mentioned, my classes have started up again. I have a good deal of free time this week, partly because teaching starts next week and partly because problem sets are rarely due the first week. But I seem to have a lot of reading to do: background for biophysics, review for electromagnetism, current stuff for quantum. Plus a backlog of New Scientists and New Yorkers which I'd like to read.

Two bits of good news in terms of positive feedback, though. First, I had this paper for liquid crystals last semester, which I wrote on cholesteric liquid crystal displays. I'm a pretty good writer, but I'm not nearly as good as technical writing... I can do it, but it takes more effort and concentration than essay-style writing does for me. But that's obviously something which I'd like to improve, as it's important to my career, so I went to see my liquid crystals professor to ask what he thought of my paper and whether he had any advice for things to improve. He actually told me that it was his favorite of the final papers he received for that class, and that he didn't think anything needed improvement! I was really happy to hear that.

Additionally, I got a summary of student comments on my teaching last term (this constitutes my evaluations), and they were pretty overwhelmingly positive. A lot of comments on how helpful and competent I was, and a few people said they could tell I really wanted them to get the material. It's nice to read a lot of nice things about yourself. There were three less positive remarks (out of 30 or so): one which said that the poor quality of the labs consistently undermined my teaching, even though I was great; one which said that at the beginning of the course my answers were too vague, though the person commented that I got better; one which said that I was afraid to give a 10. The first one, the quality of the lab write-ups, is something I want to talk to people here about and try to change. The second one is probably accurate; I was nervous at the beginning of the semester and got a lot more comfortable as the semester wore on. And the third, about being afraid to give a 10, is definitely a problem with me not communicating my grading effectively enough. A lot of other people remarked that I graded tough but fair (elation! just what I was going for!), but this one person probably got that impression from a conversation I once had with some students about what constituted a 10 and how many had been handed out in the course as a whole. I should make it more clear that I'm perfectly willing to give out a ten for a perfect lab (that's the idea, in fact), and actually I did give out one last semester. It's just that most labs have at least small mistakes.

This semester I'm actually going to teach three lab sections instead of two, which nets me an extra thousand dollars. And apparently I will again be helping to grade the main course, which is tedious but obviously necessary. I'm teaching second semester pre-med physics, on the principles that (a) pre-meds aren't as bad to teach as I was told they'd be, and (b) electromagnetism, even in watered-down form, is way more fun than mechanics. I hope I can help revise the labs so that future semester have it better.
clevermynnie: (Default)
Ew, so I came into my office today in order to grade the homeworks for 101, and the heater near my desk is emitting a strange smell and dripping water onto the carpet. It smells burny and gross, and initially I thought I had some food going bad in my desk or something. Plus half of the homeworks weren't in my mailbox, so I couldn't do half of what I had planned.

I will not miss grading.

Ben and I had planned to get out this weekend, but on Saturday morning Ben came down sick... but not with the stomach flu! No, he got a regular cold, which mostly incapacitated him. So all we really did was go food/clothes/shoe shopping, and sit around our house and make tea, play cribbage, that sort of thing. I'm sort of afraid that I'll get the cold he has now, and obviously he won't get the stomach flu, because he would have gotten it by now. We've been watching some shows on our netflix, namely Cowboy Bebop and Rome (the HBO series). I like the art style and the music in Cowboy Bebop a lot, although the episodes we saw had a theme of, main characters stumble into elaborate plot, have some hijinks, and eventually let a huge bounty slip from their fingers. Rome is... well, it's very well-done, and although it feels similar to the many other classical civilization movies/tv shows I've seen, it's much more realistic, though that often means it's really gross. For example, we see people crucified much more graphically than I've seen (though I never watched The Passion), we see a soldier casually raping a shepherdess before going home to his wife, we see pornographic theater... we see all sorts of things that are definitely historically accurate, but are also often excised from tv shows.

I also played WoW some this weekend, and I mention this specifically for Erin and Josh... priest is a really fun class to be! My main is a shaman, but I am playing some with a priest that I initially created with Ben, and it's really cool... you can spec so that you hardly ever run out of mana, and you have lots of protection tricks that are far superior to what other classes have. You have a really good ranged weapon (wands) and even though you suck at melee, I don't even really notice. Plus priests are one of the most sought-after classes for endgame stuff and instances, although I'm not sure I'll really get this character up to 60. It just takes so long. But they are really fun to play.

teaching

Nov. 30th, 2006 05:25 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
Things I have been called (to my face, anyways) by my students:

*Miss (my last name)
*Dr. (my last name)
*TA (my last name)
*Hey yo
*(my last name)-san

But my favorite was on two lab reports at the end of the semester, which listed "TA: The Jessamyn". Italics NOT MINE.

I don't get evaluations until January, under the theory that if I receive bad evaluations I will change all my students' lab grades to sixes. But I did have to give lab evaluations (which evaluate the structure, write-ups, and experiments of the lab class, mostly independent of the TA). What I learned from sneaking a peek at those is the following:

*our lab writeups really suck
*about 10% of my students think I should explain the lab more at the beginning of class
*for about 25% of my students I am the primary source of information about the lab (not necessarily good since the lab writeup is much more detailed than I tend to be)
*around 20% of my students had an overall bad lab experience

Some people wrote really detailed comments, which is great, and most of them didn't mention me at all. I am gratified that my only mention in the comments on the lab was by a student who was very unhappy with the lab section of the course, and ended a rant on how badly designed they were with 'thank god our TA knew what she was doing'.

Of course, what this reveals is something I already knew, not related to me... our lab writeups suck. The experiments themselves are quite well-designed, some exceedingly so, but the instructions are often vague, conflicting, confusing, or outright ridiculous. I suspect this is because the lab managers are clever and think a lot about how to teach students fundamental physics concepts, but are poor writers. If I were a theory student, no question, I would ask to help rewrite them in a future semester of TAing. As an experimental student, I can wash my hands of the whole thing after this year... but it would be nice if we had clear undergraduate labs. I would feel good about helping to do that.

Hmm.

work stuff

Oct. 17th, 2006 06:45 pm
clevermynnie: (Default)
I regraded that homework that they wanted me to regrade, and tried to prevent it from filling me with bitterness. I felt very much like I was being punished for trying to actually grade accurately, instead of blowing through it quickly and giving more perfect scores. Then one of my lab groups turned in a report which not only shows poor understanding of the physical principles the lab was based on, but also completely neglected error. It is the first fail that I've handed out since the beginning of the term.

One thing that makes the time I spend grading each week feel a little futile is that most of my students have about the same cumulative lab grade. Which is to say, the difference between the best group and the worst group is about 5%. I don't know that telling them that would make them feel good, though.

Oh, and one thing that rocks about it raining is when I walk to campus before it starts, and then can spend my whole day in DRL since all my classes are here. It's rather convenient.

In brighter news, I was actually invited to give a talk at SLAC, as part of an advanced instrumentation seminar. Apparently the guy organizing it remembered my talk from APS-CA! It's really exciting, though what sucks is that I may not get to go. See, I suspect that one reason he picked me is that he thinks I'm still at Berkeley, so transportation expenses would be negligible. I wrote him back saying I'm at Penn, and would like to go if SLAC can defray my travel costs, and I guess we'll see what he says. I might try for a grant from GSAC, alternately, but that is less likely to succeed. Obviously, if I could go, it would not only be super-exciting and awesome, but also give me a free ticket to see my friends in Berkeley.

I have a wicked to-do list before my midterm Friday and Joao and Gersende's arrival, so I guess I'll get back on that. Bah.
clevermynnie: (al fresco)
Firstly, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to understanding error. Everyone is having a hard time with it--categorizing it, reporting it, properly calculating it--and I think it comes down to the fact that the more lab work you do, the more intuitive it becomes to calculate error for everything, often with great care. Because it gives data meaning, dammit.

Secondly, I love students who make the effort. I love the students who got a low grade on their writeup and came to talk to me about it, why it happened and what they needed to improve, and let me elucidate the comments I left them. I really just want everyone to learn to write up experiments clearly, thoroughly, and concisely.

I've had a couple disheartening exchanges, like where a student who didn't understand instrumental error thought it was 'arbitrary', and firmly resisted my attempts to tell her it was just the opposite, or the student who didn't want to do part of the lab because 'we already know it's not the best way to do it' even though the point of experimentalism is that you don't know anything, you just have hypotheses, which you prove or disprove with DATA, not suppositions.

I thought I would have a hard time dredging up enthusiasm to teach classical dynamics. But it turns out that I am passionate about teaching the experimental method, nay, the spirit of scientific inquiry, because it's one of my deepest loves in physics and the sciences in general.
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
I really want to take a short trip to Berkeley to see my friends and the place I miss so much. But even on unpopular weekends to travel, it would be about $300. I don't know if it would be very responsible of me to toss that away for a weekend... but I really want to go! *sigh* Maybe I should look for a longer chunk of time to spend, but ironically, I can't go for fall break because that's precisely when Joao and Gersende are visiting.

My courses are going alright. Stat mech and liquid crystals are very similar: somewhat difficult, great professor, just got the first homework that's due next week. I've seen stat mech before, but Vijay's version is from a very different perspective. I'm liking both of them, though... they're interesting and engaging.

Quantum isn't quite as great... I'm much more familiar with the material, and it's a little boring at times. The professor is condescending, too. But I'd rather have a condescending professor who overexplains things than a completely incomprehensible one. I maintain that either no great professors teach quantum, or that quantum turns great professors into okay ones. The homework is menial, not unreasonable, but very long. Bleah.

And teaching is great; it's easy and relaxing. But grading sucks! It takes forever and I have a hard time balancing the desire to give students useful feedback with the desire to finish quickly. I'm hoping that if I give lots of comments early in the semester, they'll improve and I can be more terse later on.
clevermynnie: (wealthy young woman-about-town)
My free time has drastically plummeted due to TA training. Yes, I will be controlling young minds. :D

I'm teaching Physics 101 lab... the lab part is fortunate, because lab is fun, but it's intro mechanics, which isn't my favorite part of physics. Plus it's the version for life sciences people (thinks Physics 8A at Berkeley) which means I may be loaded down with pre-meds. Joy. The training was somewhat useful... there are so many resources here for students having problems, as well as for graduate students trying to teach more effectively. It makes me wonder if those same resources were available at Berkeley and we just didn't hear about them as much, or if they weren't there at all. I had to give a short presentation and be critiqued, which went fine. But I cheated; I didn't present on what I'll be teaching, I just did an intro to CCDs. I continue to proselytize for the cause.

I'm taking classes too, starting next Wednesday: Mathematical Methods for Physics, Quantum Mechanics I, Statistical Mechanics, and a research seminar designed to help me find an advisor. Quantum and stat mech are graduate versions of courses I've already had, and I'm a little worried that the math class will be boring.. it's required, but I have a bachelor's in math already. I guess I'll wait and see how the syllabus looks.

Joao and Gersende are coming to visit in October, hooray. :) They'll be staying with Ben and I because Gersende has a conference at Penn. We have to do more touring of Philly so that we know where to take them.

Still no internet at home, but it's getting closer. Argh. Our house is wonderful and living with Ben is the best thing in the world. I'm so excited for grad school to actually start!

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