Thursday, January 30, 2014

Getting Sirius

As I was walking out to my car after work tonight, I couldn't help but notice, low in the southeastern sky, a bright star flashing multiple colors. I'm always impressed by Sirius on these clear cold winter nights (Jupiter's high and bright these nights as well!).

The view to the southeast in the mid-Hudson Valley on January 29 at 6:00 pm

I've written about Sirius before, three years ago now.  Worth a read (if I don't say so myself).

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to Succeed in My Classes

I feel remiss about not posting lately but my job has been crazy and that obviously has priority. Given that a new semester has begun, I thought I'd post the following. It's from a web page I have linked off my college website and is addressed to students who want to know how to succeed in my classes (many only ask the last week of classes when it's far too late to do anything!).

I want you to succeed! Everyone who takes my classes has the potential to get an A. Some of you may have to work harder than others but no one ever said life was fair. Science and math always came easy to me but I had to work harder in other courses - we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I feel terrible when I have to assign someone a poor grade but, in reality, I don't "give" grades, you earn your grade. The course outline all students are provided with has the grade breakdown and I simply enter the grades for all assignments, labs, exams, and papers into a spreadsheet which uses that to calculate your final grade.

Here are some strategies to help you earn a good grade in my science classes (and any of your college classes, for that matter).

Come to class - Let me repeat that because this is the most important factor in a student's grade. Come to class! It's my experience, every semester I teach, that students who don't attend class get poor grades. It's predictable. If you miss more than one or two classes, you will get a lower grade in the course. Why can't you just read the textbook? Because the material we discuss in the classroom is more than just a rehash of material in the text, it's my attempt to take the material in the text (which you should have already read) and fit it into a conceptual framework so that you can fully understand it and integrate it into your view of the natural world. In my earth science classes, I extensively discuss the local geology, the latest weather phenomena, and results from current NASA planetary missions. None of this material is in your textbook! Missing class, or being there in body but not in mind (i.e. napping, doing math homework, or texting your friend), is missing this educational experience.

Use the course outline - I spend a lot of time putting together a comprehensive course outline for each class I teach. The course outline contains my contact information, the address of the course web page, how your final grade will be calculated, test dates, homework assignments, textbook readings, field trip dates, and my policies regarding absences, missed exams, and late assignments. The course outline is my official "contract" with you outlining my responsibilities to you and your responsibilities to me. Read it at the beginning of the semester and refer to it least weekly. This way you can anticipate what's coming next and keep on top of the course. Every semester, I have students tell me "I didn't know there was a test Wednesday!" I'm not going to be sympathetic to someone who never looks at the course outline (or checks the course web page, or listens to announcements about the test at the beginning of previous classes, etc.).

Buy and read the textbook - I don't have required texts unless I feel they are important to learning the content of the course. Earth science is very visual and textbooks provide you with more images and explanations than I can provide in class. I know the books are expensive, and I try to choose cheaper texts when I can, but I have little control over what the publishers and bookstores charge for science textbooks. If you are having difficulty affording the text, talk to me during the first week of classes and I may be able to help by making you aware of sources for financial aid or by placing a copy on reserve in the library. Once you've bought the text, read it! Otherwise you truly have wasted your money. Keep in mind that reading a textbook is not like reading for pleasure. Textbooks are content-rich and need to be read slowly and carefully. Take notes on important points and jot down unfamiliar terms.

Take lecture notes - Don't just sit passively in a classroom. Learning is an activity, not a spectator sport, and does involve some work on your part. Taking notes is not just mindlessly writing down everything I say. Sometimes I say things in class that aren't worth memorializing in print! The best way to take notes is to come to class prepared. Make sure you've done the appropriate textbook readings and assignments. Scan the course outline before class to see what topic will be discussed. Review your lecture notes from the previous class. During the lecture, take brief notes and try to summarize what I am saying in your own words. Copy any diagrams or formulas I write out. Try to find some time soon after class to revise or rewrite your notes while the information is still fresh in your mind. If you miss class, ask a fellow student if you can copy their notes for that day.

Do all the assignments - I hate to say this lest it seem I'm encouraging the practice, but even a partly-done assignment will get a better grade than a zero. I try to make my course assignments relevant to the class as well so doing the assignments will assist you in learning the course material. I don't accept late assignments - once I grade and hand them back to everyone (typically by the next class), I don't accept any others. Also, don't expect grade inflation in my classes. I have pretty clear guidelines as to what you need to do to earn your final course grade and rarely make exceptions (usually only an incomplete for those students with documented extenuating circumstances like a health crisis).

Ponder the material - Think about the course material. Everything in earth science is relevant to your life in some way or another and you must have questions about the natural world or stuff you'd like to learn more about (tornadoes, earthquakes, radioactive dating, dinosaurs, etc). It always surprises me how people can sit in a classroom day after day and show no interest in material that is clearly relevant to their lives. Ask questions! Challenge me - see if you can "stump the professor!" If I don't know the answer, I'll try to find out - of course, if I had answers to some of the questions students ask I'd win a Nobel Prize!

Have realistic time expectations - A college credit is defined as three hours of work per week - one in class and two outside. That's why adding a three-hour lab to a three-credit class results in only one additional credit. This means that 12 credits (a full-time load) translates to a 36-hour work week. That's why 12 credits is considered full time - it's the equivalent of a full-time job (and 18 credits, or 54 hours, is like working overtime every week!). Simply showing up for class and spending a few hours of cramming before an exam (sometimes called bulimic learning) will not result in a good grade. You have to arrange your job schedule and your personal life so that you have adequate time to spend on each of your classes (not expect me to rearrange my class to fit your personal life!). If you can't do that, you'll either have to take fewer classes or be satisfied with lower grades. It's not fair, but that's real life.

Have realistic expectations about learning - College isn't like a supermarket where you choose various items (classes), pay for them (tuition), and then own them (acquire knowledge about that subject). Students are not passive customers, students are active participants in their learning. College is like a health club - you have to work to obtain results. If an overweight, out-of-shape person joins a health club and never comes, or only shows up to watch everyone else do aerobics, would they gain anything? No, they have to join in and work up a sweat. Even better results are obtained if they spend time at home exercising as well. As an instructor, I can't dump knowledge into your head, all I can do is facilitate your job of learning the material.

Have a good attitude - Students sometimes tell me that they hate science. It's a waste of time to tell me this. First of all, I have no sympathy because I can't even comprehend how someone could hate learning something as interesting and relevant to our modern world as science. Secondly, you're setting yourself up for failure. Psychologists tell us that repeating something negative to ourselves over and over (I'm stupid, I'm ugly, I hate math) will make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The good news is that taking a positive attitude (This material is interesting and I can learn it!) will have the opposite effect and help you to succeed.

Talk to me - I like talking to my students, just don't expect my undivided attention if I'm running from one class to another (the time when many people seem to want to chat). Stop by my office hour and I'd be happy to chat about anything you like. If you're having problems in the class, problems in other classes, or personal problems I may be able to help (or at least refer you to people who can help). My door is always open and I really do want you to succeed in my class (but I want you to succeed fairly, not by arbitrarily changing grades or assigning special extra-credit projects which I won't do!).

It's all about balance. For many of us, college was one of the best times in our lives socially but we also invested enough time and effort into academics to actually learn something and graduate. Study what you love and it won't be a chore!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ave Ianus

Janus (Ianus in Latin) was the two-faced Roman god of endings and beginnings - transitions and doorways.  As such, it's appropriate that the month of January is named after him.

The tradition of making resolutions for New Year's Day goes back to the ancient Romans who celebrated the New Year with a renewal of oaths to remain faithful to the Republic or the Emperor.  People would greet each other with good wishes and gifts of sweet fruits and honey.

Best wishes from me to all of you for the upcoming year.  I had a tough 2013 and sincerely hope 2014 will be better for me and for all of you as we transition through the doorway into new opportunities and blessings in our lives.  Happy New Year!