Did curiosity kill the cat?

In my first blog post for this course, I see it only fit to reference my favorite blog on education: Math With Bad Drawings by Ben Orlin. (I expect I will reference it a number of times in this course.)


Unfortunate Metaphors for Teaching

If our current educational system is dry food, connected learning proposes to be cat nip.

Connected learning, as I understand from the videos we watched in class, is characterized by a deep curiosity that is encouraged and explored in the classroom, in discussions with friends and mentors, and in free time on the internet and in books.

Learning driven by curiosity can be addictive. In fact, it can drive us wild. It led me to read about the Estevez/Sheen family tree while watching West Wing last week. It led me to take a math class that was way over my head last semester. It’s also what has driven me to this point in my education and it continues to lead me on my path toward a career in academia.

I hope that most of us graduate students have felt this curiosity at some point. I hope that we can improve our educational systems to emphasize curiosity and connection. I hope that we as teachers can put away the dry food and find the cat nip.

How do we engage that curiosity? When was a time when you experienced unbridled curiosity? What helped it and/or killed it?

More than just ethics

For a course that I took this semester, we were asked to investigate a professional organization’s Code of Ethics for a blog post. Here goes:

I am currently only a member of one professional organization: the American Physical Society, and their guidelines for professional conduct is pretty standard and are mostly about authorship.

In researching this topic, however, I found a professional society whose Code of Ethics I’d much rather discuss: the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The post I’d like to discuss is not the official Code of Ethics (that can be found here), but comes in the form of a blog post on their website, which comes up adjacent to the official statement. The less formal tone of the post proves to be more effective at communicating principles of ethics to the community.

SIAM: Professional Ethics: Taking the High Road by Dianne P. O’Leary

I highly recommend reading the whole post, but I’ll discuss two sections which stuck out to me from the post. The first section is regarding Professional Integrity. She gives straightforward and helpful statements regarding how to conduct oneself in an academic career. Two of these statements particularly stood out to me:

An old labor rallying cry says, “A full day’s work for a full day’s pay.” Every job has its pleasant and unpleasant aspects. (For me, the worst part of professional life is dealing with academic dishonesty.) But in accepting a job, you agree to perform all of its duties, not just the pleasant ones.

The idea that doing the unpleasant parts of one’s job is an ethical responsibility struck me. I think it is just part of growing up, but this is particularly challenging to me. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, so I like to imagine the job that I want and the life that I want. Even as a graduate student now, there are parts that are exciting, and parts that are unpleasant. This is not to say that I’m not in the job that I want and the field that I want. It is just to say that life comes with rough edges. To me, growing up means dealing with those.

The physician’s motto—“First, do no harm”—is also relevant to our profession. This means that any product or idea you deliver must be as correct as you can make it, with no known but unannounced defects. Your mathematical model may be used to determine load limits on a building or safeguards on a nuclear stockpile. Your computer program may be used as a module in a hospital’s drug delivery system, or as part of a guidance system in a passenger aircraft. You must do everything you can to ensure that your work, if used as you say it can be, will perform as intended.

The second quote is really quite wonderful. If we oversell our ideas in a scientific paper or aren’t clear about the shortcomings of our code, there could be terrible consequences. Honest presentation of one’s work helps protect from potentially doing harm. It also allows the work to speak for itself.

Dr. O’Leary’s essay on ethics concludes with a section on values. This is the part of the essay that will stay with me for a long time.

“Some people live to work; others work to live.” Whether your job is the greatest joy in your life or just a duty, it is worth reflecting on the broader impact of your work. Maybe your research won’t win a Fields Medal, and maybe you will never be SIAM’s John von Neumann Lecturer, but you can use some of your creative energy to see that your efforts have some positive value. When all is said and done, if you have encouraged an at-risk student, written a clear textbook, helped a staff member or a more junior colleague, or organized a conference that catalyzed new research, you have made contributions that could far outweigh your technical ones. Whatever your values, bring them to work.

I am in graduate school not just to learn to be a researcher, but hopefully to serve college students and help them grow through a critical period of change in their lives. It is refreshing to hear someone raise the fact that our personal interactions can have a greater impact than our scientific contributions. It is so easy to get caught up in the work that we can easily forget this as future faculty.

If we don’t include someone as an author or oversell our own work, we are doing harm. If we take the time to just sit with a colleague or student going through a hard time, we are doing immense good. This gets not at the rules of ethics, but at its heart.

Through all of our work, whether we realize it or not, we are impacting people. Let’s do so for the better.

Communicating Science to, well, Scientists

A few weeks ago, in a course that I’m taking, we did some fantastic and thoroughly entertaining games to practice communication, and had an excellent discussion about why it is important to communicate science with the general public in addition to our fields through journals and conferences.

Communication with our field is vitally important. This is how ideas are shared and science grows.

Communication with the general public is vitally important. It helps the insights gained from our research reach and impact those who can actually do something with it. It also helps Mom understand what we do all the time. And Mom wants to know what we do all the time.

There is a 3rd community with whom we need to be constantly communicating and sharing our work: scientists in other disciplines. There was an article in Scientific American last year discussing just that: (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/communicating-science-to-the-publicand-to-other-scientists/) and another blog post for this course which inspired this blog post (http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/professpath/2015/11/02/communicating-science-to-two-different-audiences/)

In our focuses on the first two communities for communication, we need to remember this third community. One of the best methods for scientific advancement comes from applying techniques commonly used in one field to a problem in another discipline. The Lorenz attractor, a canonical problem in chaos and dynamical systems, came from attempts to model atmospheric convection in a meteorology department. There was an article last month entitled “Why mathematical biology is good for mathematics” (http://www.ams.org/notices/201510/rnoti-p1172.pdf) that discusses how science has stimulated many areas of growth in mathematics. By sharing our ideas with scientists in other disciplines, not only do we allow for more uses of our tools, we often find new problems to grow our own field. Interdisciplinary research is not just something that Universities are doing because it gets them funding. Interdisciplinary research is essential for the development of science.

Assume my research provides an interesting tool that you could use on yours. By sharing with you, I gain new applications for my research and you gain new tools to look at problems you’ve been thinking about for a long time. This is the obvious result of interdisciplinary research. However, there is another key impact at play here: by testing the limits of my tools on your research, it allows my research to grow. This is one aspect that Michael Reed’s article discusses: The problem of the planets created the discipline of dynamical systems. The heat, wave, and Maxwell’s equations drove the development of partial differential equations. By drawing the comparison to the way physics has impacted mathematics, he opens our eyes to the potential, and much of the past, of the ways that biology can impact the field of mathematics.

It is essential to share our science, and not just for the sake of getting it out there so that others may hear it. It is essential that we share our science so that, with new perspectives, our science itself may grow.