Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teaching. Show all posts

15 August 2012

220. My first few lectures in Australia...and the importance of thermodynamics

I'm not an expert on anything. It's not a matter of false modesty, but an observation based on the fact that I come across new things on a regular basis, even within my field of research. When I do, I try to learn.

But to learn new things I need a toolbox - a set of skills that I rely on to put anything new into context. The toolbox for a chemist is basically thermodynamics. Simple, applied thermodynamics. As a chemist you can get away with memorising the expression for Gibbs free energy and the general expression for rate laws, and you can do a whole lot of fun/damage.

I'm only at the beginning of my current class, and I'm an inexperienced lecturer, but I had a bit of a shock today discovering that my class -- second semester of the second year at a 'good' university -- don't feel comfortable dealing with free energies and standard potentials.

The origin lies in the idea of students as clients here -- universities want pass rates in excess of 70-80%, while most of the faculty likely experienced a first year as undergraduates where the Gen Chem class (which did thermodynamics until you eyes were bleeding) had a failure rate of 60% or above.

We might have thought it was harsh to fail that many students at the very beginning, but the result was that the more inspired/motivated students made it through, and the ones who weren't willing to dedicate the effort necessary to become professionals got a kick in the pants to look for majors that actually interested and inspired them.

If something interests you it  becomes 'easy' -- either because you instinctually  understand it, or more likely, because you simply put in that extra effort to teach yourself.

Instead, the impetus to pass as many students as possible -- and to get 'good' student feedback which will help your promotion -- means that the students are never challenged. 'Difficult' topics are avoided and taught late in the course or ,increasingly, not at all.

Rumour has it that one of the reasons why some Australian universities are adopting a Bologna-inspired model is because they can use the masters section of the education to cover the things the students should have learned as undergraduates --- and thus still produce graduates with the skills that their chosen major indicates that they should have.

It's pretty damning.

The consequence is dire -- some scary example of PROFESSORS -- that is: professionals entrusted with teaching the next generation of scientists and engineers -- in the STEM fields who don't appear to understand basic thermodynamics or more specifically: entropy and the distinction between open and closed systems based on their use of thermodynamics to 'disprove' Evolution. They may be appearing to be capable professionals in every other sense and may well do 'good' research. The individuals may be appearing to do capable research in every other aspect and may be wonderful people, but their use of the 2nd law of thermodynamics as an argument against evolution is just misguided.

Andrew McIntosh -- Professor of Thermodynamics(!) and Combustion Theory at Leeds. Website.
Stuart Burgess -- Professor, Department of Engineering at Bristol. Website

In fact, the list here would presumably include mostly people of a similar persuasion. While I've seen Andrew's and Stuart's writings, I feel comfortable commenting on their opinions, but since I am not as confident about the rest of the people on the list, let's just highlight the fact that it include people from (the universities of) Sheffield, Cambridge, Liverpool and Cardiff.

Or what about this letter:
The fact that the signatories mention their affiliations is an obvious way of trying ot use those affiliations to attach significance to their views.

Anyway, here's MC Hawking's take on it: