Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Education Links

There will be knitting and sewing posts coming soon.  But exhaustion (& a possible infection) and commitments at work and home preclude blogging.  If you follow Space News, today's headlines give a clue.

I would like point out a couple of education links from the NYT.  From Fish to Infinity is the first in a promising series explaining the beauty of math to the uninitiated. Steven Strogatz promises:
Crazy as it sounds, over the next several weeks I’m going to try to do something close to that. I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.
A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand.
This column has generated 470 (mostly positive) comments so far. One curmudgeon (#51) took exception to the sentence about numbers having personalities.

Hmmph!  How can he not notice  that some numbers are more gregarious than others? In fact, some numbers (and I won't name any names) are downright unsociable.

The other unintentionally hilarious article is about grade deflation at Princeton.

OMG, less than 40% of grades handed out last year at Princeton were As.  Compare that to the 50% in 2004, when the grade deflation policy was instituted.

Let me put that in perspective.  In Organic Chemistry for sophomore chemistry majors at Berkeley, the grading curve was a strict 15% As, 25% Bs, 45% Cs;  the remainder got Ds & Fs.  One can be above average and still earn a C.

Moreover, my TA, who had been a Harvard undergrad, said that he couldn't believe what was expected of sophomores at Berkeley.  Undergrad O-Chem for Chem majors at Harvard was taught at the level that Berkeley taught the biology majors.  The sophomore O-Chem class for chemistry majors was taught at the level and pace of graduate O-Chem at Harvard.  My second semester TA, a CalTech undergrad, said that our classes were very similar in content and pace to his undergrad classes.

There are also huge differences in curves between departments.  The math department at Berkeley used to cross-list upper division and graduate classes, pitting undergraduate and graduate students against each other on the same curve.  One professor apologized to the undergraduates, saying that he gave all the As and all but 2 Bs to the graduate students.

No wonder another professor, who gave me a C+, offered to write me a letter of rec for grad school.  I questioned if he had me confused with another student.  He replied, "Of course not!  I remember you as one of my stronger students."

(The departmental secretary later told me that typical successful undergraduate students pass that course on their second try.  Only a few pass their first time, as I did.  After the third failed attempt, the department gently suggests those students select another major.)

Coincidentally, I recently read What Does It Take to Get Into Graduate School? A Survey of Atmospheric Science Programs (full pdf).  It had a few interesting tidbits.  The minimum GPA required to be admitted to the graduate programs that participated in the survey varied by major and undergraduate institution.  The lowest acceptable GPA named was 2.7 for math majors.  For non-science majors, the minimum acceptable GPA could be as high as 3.7. 

In the interest of full-disclosure, my undergraduate GPA was 3.14.  No, I didn't plan it that way, but there is a certain humor in a math major earning a GPA = π.

It didn't limit my prospects for grad school.  The Princeton kids should spend less time whining and more time studying.  Graduate admissions committees know what's what.

The difference in mean grades between science and non-science departments within the same school has a dark side.  I want to discuss that, and how I am trying to do something about it.  Another time.


  1. If only I knew then what I know now! I recall being horribly shocked and upset when I got a C+ in Org. chemistry at UC Irvine. I'd never gotten less than a B+ before in high school. Now you tell me that's GOOD. Lazy Princeton people!

  2. I'm with you on the grade inflation issue. I went to the University of Chicago for undergrad. We didn't grade inflate, either. Adjusting from high school was hard, but looking back, being graded realistically gave me a lot of confidence when I did well. I knew my As were hard-earned.

  3. I remember that cum laude honors, etc. were determined by GPA across the entire school of engineering. And there was one department that had serious grade inflation, making more than 50% of all the graduation honors from that department.


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