Tag Archives: science

On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:


Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.


That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.

Prelude to Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed by Bill Moyers

Cosmos featuring neil degrasse tyson

Tonight is an exciting night of television for anyone interested in discovering how the universe works. For those of us committed to sharing our understanding of the universe, it is particularly exciting and trepidatious to think about turning on the telly at 9:00PM tonight—tuning it to the Fox network (or National Geographic) of all places—for the reboot/revival, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of one of the most successful science documentary series on television ever: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

You can watch that whole original epic series on youtube now, in case you are of a younger generation who missed it entirely, or if you (like Salman Hameed at Irtiqua) want to relive the moments of your youth when Sagan lit that luminescent candle in the dark, and perhaps changed the course of your life. I can but hope (with no little trepidation) that the new Cosmos lives up to that legacy, and indeed takes it further to light up a whole new generation (of Fox TV watchers, no less) to the wonders of science.

If Neil deGrasse Tyson was able to excite Seth MacFarlane—the “creative engine” of juvenile, puerile, sexist comedy (making a ton of money) for Fox, who came up with the boob song (for Oscar 2013) which still makes me cringe—into putting his considerable wealth and clout into producing this Cosmos reboot with a lot more showbiz whizbang, and getting Fox to broadcast it (alongside NatGeo), then there is hope for many of us already excited about science but frustrated by increasing public ignorance of, and hostility towards science. But I don’t want to burden Tyson, or one show, with too many expectations – just… take me on an astonishing ride. That is all I ask! And that is what this trailer promises, so buckle in:

As you wait for the series to premiere tonight, you might also want to revisit this recent in-depth three-part interview with Tyson by Bill Moyers, which aired last month, and ranged widely, tackling not just the show and a cosmic perspective:

… but the nature of science, its increasingly irreconcilable relationship with religion, and Neil’s relegation of God to “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance”:

… to the dark politics of the US which has held back this country from remaining the leader of science in the world:

Join me, and enjoy the ride starting tonight!

Feynman’s Ode to a Flower, animated

Science only adds to our appreciation of the beauty of nature, no matter what the romantics and poets may say about the dispassionate clinical eye of science. A deeper scientific understanding can only lead to a deeper aesthetic appreciation of nature’s beauty.

“I don’t understand how it subtracts”, said the physicist Richard Feynman famously once when asked about the difference in perspectives and whether science diminishes our appreciation of beauty. Several years ago, I shared a video clip of that reply, what has become known as Feynman’s “Ode to a Flower”.

Here is a beautiful animation set to Feynman’s lovely Ode – enjoy:

[vimeo 55874553]

An American Age of Endarkenment

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.


It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.

That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.

It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.

It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?


India’s cheap rocket carrying its exciting mission to Mars, and a bid to claim the baton of space exploration seemingly dropped by the US after decades of leadership.

It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

Following the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace into… Facebook and Twitter?

What would Darwin and Wallace have been doing in this age of online social networks? Or more accurately, had these social networking tools been available to them in their century? Would they have maintained active Facebook pages to share stories (blog posts, really) from their adventures on the high seas, and their many fascinating discoveries about the animals and plants they encountered? Would they have tweeted their emerging insights into the process of Evolution by Natural Selection, or revealed them one Facebook update at a time?

Darwin FB

If you look at the sheer volume of correspondence these gentlemen maintained during the 19th century (Darwin’s letters; Wallace’s letters), and the number of books they wrote for the public (i.e., non-academic readers), you’d have to think the answer to all of the above questions would have to be a fairly enthusiastic “yes“! Well, except may be that last one about sharing the theory of evolution, which Darwin (at least) might still have preferred to keep under wraps. In general, though, even a cursory reading of the biographies of these gentlemen naturalists makes it clear that they were really plugged in, well connected with their contemporary networks of naturalists (amateur and professional) and scientists throughout the western world, as well as in the remote countries where they traveled collecting rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.

Would Darwin have even heard of Wallace’s independent discovery of the principle of Natural Selection if not for the social network of the day, which led the latter to mail Darwin a copy of his paper on the subject? And it was Darwin’s own network of friends (like Huxley) who knew about his earlier discovery of the principle, who made sure he got the credit he deserved. 

And without the extent of Darwin’s correspondence and social connectedness, would we have the wonderful story of Darwin’s last act of kindness towards a beetle collected by a fellow beetle-fancier and show salesman, narrated wonderfully by David Quammen in one of my absolute favorite radio segments: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus?

Which is why I believe that Darwin and Wallace and the many active biologists of their generation would have absolutely been blogging about their work, and would have been early adopters of our 21st century social communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter and Google+. I am delighted that someone has set up twitter accounts in both their name (@cdarwin; @ARWallace). And I believe we modern day biologists have much to gain by following in their footsteps, and making the most of these tools to not only communicate our discoveries, but to also build collaborations, bring large datasets together, and in so many other ways, actually further the very process of conducting our science.

My own collaborative research and writing ventures over the past decade have relied greatly upon my being active in the blogosphere, and on twitter and Facebook. Yet so many of my colleagues remain skeptical of the value of online social networks, and continue to consider it a waste of time. The snootiness of some in today’s academic ivory towers towards such common communication baffles me. But their ranks are shrinking every day as more and more of my friends and colleagues are beginning to use Facebook and twitter, some of them even setting up blogs.

And so, when my friend Sue Bertram (blog, twitter) recently asked me to help write a paper addressing our luddite colleagues to tell them about the value of online social networking tools, and also how to use them and make the most of them, I jumped at the chance. We had fun writing the paper during our respective parallel sabbaticals: me bumming around in India, Sue surfing along the central California coast. Indeed, we would have had a much harder time writing this paper if not for twitter and dropbox, the two pillars of our collaboration (in this instance). I am happy to announce that our paper has just been published in the Future of Publication section of open access online journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution!

So point your browsers this way and download today:

Bertram, S. and Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6:22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f.

We hope you find it useful, and welcome any thoughts or comments you might have on the paper – either on the journal website or right here, under this post.

Carl Sagan on our Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan would have been a mere 78 years young today. He’s long gone now, dead at much too young an age, and deeply missed, but we still have his words resonating through our pale blue dot of a planetary home:

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

Why teach kids to walk when we have invented the wheel?

“Is it still necessary for kids to learn their times table when they can pick up their iPhone and ask Siri what is 20 times 2?” asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

A new set of national standards, called the Common Core, has sought to answer that, offering states a guide for what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of each grade level.

The ultimate goal is to get every child college and career ready. That means, cursive is out and keyboarding is in. Repetition and rote learning are passe while critical thinking is, well, critical.

Literature and novels see less class time than literary nonfiction and informational texts, including essays and speeches. Spelling gets a cursory nod, with the caveat that kids can consult “references.”

via New education standards end rote learning, cursive.

Oh boy… I’m not really looking forward to the next generation(s) of unimaginative students who will come to college ostensibly able to ‘think critically’, but unable to solve “20 times 2” in their heads, or spell anything correctly (or even write by hand) without looking up “references”, nor have even read any good works of fiction!

Now I’m all for moving away from rote memorization and towards critical thinking and information processing skills, don’t get me wrong. But doing the times tables in our heads, or spelling words correctly, ought to be like breathing and walking, really. Its been some millennia since we invented the wheel and a century since we even motorized them – but we haven’t given up on walking yet, have we? So why do these school administrators think we don’t need to use our brains for basic tasks like arithmetic and language, which are among our unique abilities as a species?

“You kind of make choices on what you’re going to spend significant time on,” said Maria Santos, Oakland Unified deputy superintendent.

In sixth grade, for example, that means “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research,” or “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”

That sounds reasonable enough, and can build skills my students rely on considerably as I make them read, research, reflect, and write (both technical papers, and less technical blogs) a lot in my ecology and evolution classes. But let’s hear what that school administrator has to say again:

In other words, the new system focuses less on learning facts and more on using that information to synthesize and create new ideas, said Domenech, a supporter of the national standards.

“What we’re trying to do is to take the level of learning to the higher levels of cognitive development,” Domenech said. “What (students) have to learn now is not how to get the data, but what to do with it when you have it.”

Whoa – come again? Students don’t have to learn “how to get the data“, other than from the internet and “references”? Are you serious? Say goodbye to preparing them for careers in science then, because here it is all about how to get the data. But then again, the Governor of California is ready scratch a whole year of high school science requirements in this state, so I guess the whole point is moot anyway. Let us prepare, instead, a new priesthood that will only sit around interpreting already published information rather than gathering any new data, because that’s all been done, apparently, in this pinnacle of human civilization we now occupy.

Can the human brain even build or maintain the capacity for “higher levels of cognitive development” without the solid foundation of basic numeracy and literacy? Yet this is in the new national Core Standards, this lack of “dwelling” on the basics?!

But the Common Core doesn’t skip over the basics, such as multiplication tables or spelling, it just doesn’t dwell on them, Domenech said.

“We cannot lose sight of the basic skills,” he said. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t spend 12 years teaching basic skills.”

Oh – so you do think the basics might be important – but just not enough for teachers to “dwell on them” all that much in class. We already get students coming to college utterly lacking in basic writing and maths skills, so how is not dwelling on these basic skills going to “get every child college and career ready“, exactly?

At least some of the local teachers are finding ways to “adapt” to these new standards without losing sight of the basic skills, which I guess is a strength of the American school system with its varied local control. Then again, its this same local control which allows many teachers to “adapt” to science standards requiring the teaching of evolution while actually teaching creation myths in the biology classroom. So there is that.

Perhaps I am overreacting, based on the reporting in just one article. If so, I sure hope some teachers will stop by to tell me if there is more to these new national common core standards that actually address the existing holes in how and what kids are taught, than simply getting rid of some basics to replace them with an over-reliance on technology and the internet. Please, tell me there is more…