Losing science majors

Plenty of students come to college planning to major in a science, but not many finish that major. This is a particular problem when national leaders have been championing the need for more science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) training in recent years, including during this year’s State of the Union Address. Where do we stand now as compared to recent years in terms of numbers of majors with this training? What will it take to increase the numbers?

As for where we stand now, there was an interesting post by Alex Tabarrok over on Marginal Revolution comparing numbers of majors in various disciplines over the past 25 years. He shows that while the total number of college students has increased 50% over that time, the STEM fields are still graduating the same number of students as 1984. No growth. All of these additional students have gone into non-STEM fields. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, I do not agree with the conclusions of his article overall, but the data he presents is important to consider.

How can we improve the situation, though? Christopher Drew, writing for the NY Times, highlights a few potential solutions in an article last week.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.

The article points to one obvious reason for this: these subjects are hard and require a lot of work, usually resulting in a significantly lower GPA than non-STEM friends. While this may seem like a cop-out, we shouldn’t downplay the work. Consider a student majoring in chemistry or genetics, whose roommates are not. Our major probably spends twice the hours in classes and labs every week, and that’s not taking into account the out-of-class study time. It’s hard to see your friends making memories without you. I’m not advocating any change here, just that we become aware of this social pressure. This may support the idea, though, that providing things like science student living situations may be worth considering.

Where the article really strikes me, though, is the suggestion that students have to slog away at mastering the basics before they get to do the “fun stuff”, by which they mean something involving an application. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be any way around this, because of course students need to walk before they run, right? I’m starting to wonder if that’s necessarily true, or whether we as faculty members are sticking to the familiar paths and failing to imagine ways to incorporate the “fun stuff” even at the earliest levels. That’s one reason I’m excited about some of our initiatives here at OWU to grab students and lead them to some interesting questions that intersect with that introductory material. Could a program like Course Connections be part of the solution? Maybe, we’ll have to see where that goes.

I also want to suggest that there is a major problem at work behind the scenes, though, having to do with students’ expectations for their careers and their perceptions about what their options are. But that will have to wait for another post.

Local food goes hydroponic

When I think of food grown in a greenhouse, my mind tends to think of bland, spongy hot-house tomatoes that were harvested and gassed with ethylene and shipped from too far away. This never made much sense to me, because I could imagine growing much higher profit foods near a large market for fresh foods if a little technology were applied. I recall having an extended conversation with one of my Ph.D. advisors about just such a plan. His training was in both biology and electrical engineering, and he envisioned refrigerator-sized devices in which restaurants or households would one day grow their own greens all year round. In the past few weeks, I’ve read a few articles about companies that are aiming for the same target.

In one example, a company called Gotham Greens has transformed an abandoned rooftop bowling alley in Brooklyn into a production greenhouse with an advanced hydroponic growing system. Rooftop gardens are really fascinating, but most that I’ve heard about are not growing food at production scale. Gotham Greens provides fresh greens and herbs to NYC restaurants and upscale grocery stores, and it sounds like they sell everything they can grow already and are looking for more roof space.

In another example, a company based in Atlanta called PodPonics, retrofits a hydroponic system into standard shipping containers. They claim they can grow an acre’s worth of produce in a 320 square foot area. Their system is more intriguing to me because they’re supplying not only the hydroponic solution, but also controlling CO2 and regulating temperature, humidity, and pH. And because all of this is within a closed container, they’re also delivering the light. Their vision is to be able to install these near major distributors and feed fresh produce directly into the supply chain.

To me, this is an interesting twist on the concept of local food, although probably not what most people envision for that concept. I’m most intrigued by the PodPonics concept, mainly because I could see these pods being plugged into a power source in Fargo in January and cranking out a better salad than one shipped in from Salinas, CA or South America, and that’s worth paying attention to.

Lytro cameras and research imaging

All of the tech blogs are abuzz over a new kind of camera by a company called Lytro. Rather than focus on a plane in space to form an image, the Lytro captures an entire light field in front of the camera, allowing you to focus on any plane in the field after capture. To get an idea how it works, go play with their photo gallery and come back.

As someone who uses images as data to understand how plants grow and respond to stimuli, I’m very intrigued by this concept. One of the obvious weaknesses of our current methodology is that we usually limit our growth analysis to a 2-D plane because it’s tough to capture 3-D data. To get an idea of how this problem has been overcome in the past, see the article by Randy Clark and others from June 2011 in Plant Physiology (see Figure 1 in particular). If I understand this technology correctly, it could overcome that limitation in an elegant way and allow us to collect full 3-D data sets with a single, inexpensive camera. I’ll be curious to get ahold of one and try it out when they ship early next year.

Herbicide Tolerance in the Fields

I’ve had a chance to drive I-71 through southwestern Ohio a few times this fall, and I can’t help but notice the explosion of weeds in the soybean fields this year. I’m guessing almost all larger growers are using Roundup-Ready soybeans, a genetically-engineered cultivar that allows growers to control weeds with the potent herbicide, Roundup. This herbicide is actually an enzyme inhibitor which, when present, prohibits the plant from making aromatic amino acids, killing them. Roundup-Ready crops have a gene originating from bacteria that encodes the target enzyme. This variant of the enzyme is less inhibited by Roundup, allowing the crop to survive even in the presence of Roundup.

Because of its combination of specificity and relatively short half-life in the soil, Roundup has been considered a once-in-a-lifetime herbicide, not likely to be matched anytime soon. And now, because of misapplication and overuse, we are seeing the artificial selection of plants with tolerance for Roundup, rendering it an ineffective herbicide in certain locations. The implications of losing Roundup are huge, as it has been a key enabler for no-till agriculture practice, which helps improve soil structure and reduce soil erosion.

Steve Jobs quote

I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud of a showing for the crown of creation. That didn’t look so good, but then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And a human on a bicycle blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me, what a computer is to me is, it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

–Steve Jobs

RNA in Food Alters Metabolism

In what I would consider a bombshell finding, researchers have demonstrated a new way that food can influence our metabolism. For the first time, researchers have identified microRNAs that originated in grains of rice circulating in the blood serum of research subjects. MicroRNAs are short sequences of RNA that can bind to messenger RNA sequences and cause their degradation, thus influencing gene expression. From the article:

Like vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients derived from food sources, plant miRNAs may serve as a novel functional component of food and make a critical contribution to maintaining and shaping animal body structure and function.

Not only did the researchers simply identify miRNAs from plants in human blood plasma and serum, they also demonstrated a physiological effect in a mouse. Using bioinformatics, they identified a number of candidate targets that the specific miRNA may interact with. One of the candidates is involved in cholesterol metabolism, and by feeding the rice to mice, they were able to observe a change in cholesterol processing within 3 hours of feeding.

There are so many implications to this finding, I’m not sure where to start. One of the first thoughts that came to mind was the ongoing discussion surrounding organic foods. I have always been of the opinion that there could be only slight advantages, if any at all, to eating organic fruits and vegetables in terms of the actual food quality itself, assuming any potentially harmful substances had been removed from conventionally grown produce. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that there could be significant differences between the microRNAs actively expressed in organic crops compared to conventional ones? And if that’s the case, their influence on human health could be dramatically different.

I guess this same research group had shown several years ago that microRNAs that are secreted from cells can circulate in blood and influence expression elsewhere in the body, so in some ways this work is following on the same idea. Depending on where this work goes from here, and how wide-ranging the implications turn out to be, this seems like the kind of research that can attract serious attention from the Nobel folks. Makes me wonder why it’s in Cell Research and not the flagship of the same publisher, Nature.

Citation Software Automates the Wrong Step

Yesterday I read with interest an article on the Chronicle’s blog Lingua Franca about citation software. In it, the author argues for the importance of consistency in citation style and notes that most academics try to accomplish that through the use of citation management software. However, because the software is misused, the quality and consistency of citations is degenerating. The proposed solution is better training, especially of current students, who will one day be the major manuscript contributors and copy editors. I argue that the problem is with the tools themselves, in this case both the citation management software and writing environment, and that there are two potential solutions.

At first blush, citation management seems like a problem just begging for a software solution: citation information is highly structured and its insertion into a working manuscript should follow a set of rules. Various software solutions have done a good job at data entry and management. Programs like Papers, Sente, and Zotero are my favorites in this regard. I’ve been a Papers user almost since its release due to its lovely and highly useable interface. All of these programs (and many others) are very good at managing references.

But the second part of the equation is inserting a citation into a manuscript, and I still find this process entirely too fragile. As pointed out in the comments at the original article, much of this frailty is because of the thousands of citation styles, many of which are not even internally consistent. When I choose a particular journal from the list of 1400 supported formats in Papers, though (if my journal is on the list, which it usually is not), I expect the citations and bibliographic information inserted to be perfect. It is almost never perfect, so I argue that the existence of the named journal in the style list sets up a false expectation: automatic = perfect.

One solution to this problem is to focus so much on the details that the software is capable of every possible rule and permutation, which is the direction this seems to be going (did I mention there are 1400 named styles in Papers?). But if these styles don’t produce a picture perfect citation, with not a comma out of place and the correct abbreviations and colons and bolds and italics, you’re in for trouble. What I have found is that, at least for the volume of writing I do, I can format my citations by hand as fast as I can correct that misplaced comma, as long as the program spits out a citation that is close enough. This is getting better, largely because of concerted efforts to standardize the definition files that make the rules (CSL files). With online tools that make editing CSL files easy, this is getting better and better. But it still seems so fragile. The focus in this system is still confounding display and content, so we’ve automated at the wrong step in the process.

I guess I’ve taken all these words to say that I think we’re doing it wrong. I wonder why we haven’t greatly simplified the display of citations, relying completely on DOIs and endowing our display software to present human-readable citations based on a lookup of the record associated with the DOI? At least this would move the complexity of styles out of the users’ hands and onto the network. I’m thinking here about doing for citations what the combination of HTML and CSS does for web pages: it separates the display style from and content, which is really what we mean when we talk about citations and their style. We want to display certain information from a citation in a context-dependent way. Why not build that into our reading software?

Scientific Stupidity

From a great essay on scientific stupidity:

The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite.

While the essay specifically addresses the change in perspective required to successfully complete a Ph.D., I couldn’t help but to think about the same idea from the standpoint of an undergraduate institution. So much of the focus at this level is on establishing the foundations of modern biology, getting students prepared so that they can begin identifying questions at the frontiers of biology for themselves some day. The ways in which we go about helping to lay those foundations will have a tremendous impact on how easily they make the transition from student to discoverer. If we show them that the things we know today were unknown yesterday, that somebody took a chance and waded into the infinite sea of possible explanations and began rejecting some, then I think we have done our students a service.

Using Poll Everywhere for Classroom Clicker Questions

A couple years ago, we combined 2 of our 3 intro biology courses into a single organismal course, providing me the opportunity to start teaching our introductory cell biology class. When I began working on my prep for the different class, I was interested in introducing more teaching methods that have proven to be so effective in science education over the past decade, but because all of the material was new for me to teach, I defaulted to the more familiar lecture-driven approach. Now that I have been through the course twice, I felt more comfortable trying some of these new approaches this fall.

So what are these “new approaches” I keep alluding to? I mean, for example, things like Just-in-Time teaching, pioneered as a means to teach college physics; clicker questions to test and challenge students during class; more activities during class that enable students to really think and develop understanding of the material, rather than act like scribes and copy down everything I say. I’ll try to write more about my implementation of the first and third approaches later, but I want to focus on my incorporation of clicker questions for now.

My first problem with implementing clicker questions was, I don’t have any clickers. And neither do my students. Instead of asking them to buy one on top of their $169 textbook, I did some research about asking clicker questions without clickers. Most of the options involve the web, as I expected, but one of them, Poll Everywhere, also includes the option for respondents to use text messaging as a means of response. I figured most of my students would be able to get on the web in class, but all of them would at least have their cell phones, so this is the path I chose. Plus, this way maybe they or their parents could deduct the cost of their SMS plan as an educational expense, right?

Poll Everywhere is designed with a number of use cases in mind, including everything from taking a live poll of an anonymous audience to classroom use. Because I wanted to use the response data as part of my students’ grade, I needed to sign up for a paid plan. This allows me to see a list of participants and associate a response with a given student. The registration process for my students went smoothly, I emailed them a special link that took them to an account creation page and automatically associated them with my class. Those students using text messaging to respond had to text a unique code that linked their cell phone to their account.

Now that all of those logistics are settled, it works like a charm. I can pose a question in class and the results show up in real time, just like the purpose-built clickers would but with one big advantage. I can ask open-ended questions in addition to multiple-choice ones, and students can text in their free responses. This works great for big picture kinds of brainstorming, then I can collect all of the responses and, for instance, make a word cloud of them. I have used this to have the class identify the “unifying themes” in biology, and to add a few that they overlooked.

That brings me to my last point, which is the usefulness of this tool. Only two weeks in to the semester, I have seen it uncover 3 misconceptions that I could help the students correct on the spot. The first is the one I mentioned above regarding some themes in biology that students overlooked. The second was a point of confusion between electron orbitals and energy levels (see above). The third was confusion about what an isomer actually is. I am admittedly a novice at constructing sound questions for this kind of assessment, but if I have already found these misconceptions, I’m hopeful that this approach will bear even more fruit as I improve at it.

Inkling Updates Worth Talking About

I have written previously about my impressions of two electronic textbook platforms, CourseSmart and Inkling. Most of my impressions of each platform still stand: CourseSmart has a larger catalog, faithful preservation of the printed page, and lousy legibility; Inkling has better navigation through their ‘card’ metaphor that breaks each chapter into sections, excellent typography and graphics, and a small catalog of titles. I wanted to return to this issue again because, as with all things tech, the picture is evolving quickly.

Inkling just released version 2.0 of their platform just as classes are resuming here on campus, and they are touting the enhanced sharing capabilities as one of the major new features. I suppose if I were a better instructor, I would annotate my copy and share those notes with the world, but I tend to use the book much more as a reference, as I suspect do most of my students, so I’m not sure how critical this feature will prove to be in the sciences. But in playing with the sharing feature even a little bit, it seems too clunky for most of my students to bother with. It isn’t integrated with any existing social networks, instead offering an apparently random collection of users for you to follow, presumably because they have the same text. Alternatively, I could type in an email address to find a specific person, but this seems like reinventing the wheel when I’ve already done that elsewhere.

The big news to me is that, somewhere along the way, Inkling introduced the ability for instructors to request a free copy of one of their titles, which was one of the weaknesses I mentioned in my previous entry. Their hope is that by getting their product in front of instructors, they will gain a recommendation. This is no different than the rest of the textbook publishers providing free desk copies of textbooks for review. In truth, I placed links to all electronic versions of the textbook on my syllabus page this year, but Inkling was the only one I specifically called out on the first day of class, demonstrating some of its nicer features for the class. Why? It offers a great user experience, and it doesn’t expire.