Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ultimate Reflection

I will never blog again. Blogging is just not natural for me. I do not express myself through writing. Some people said that they sometimes found it difficult to write when the prompt didn't inspire them, but at other times the writing flowed naturally. The writing never flowed naturally for me, even when the prompt provoked a strong internal dialogue or an interesting opinion. I literally have to sit at the keyboard and force the words out every time. Maybe I don't think linearly enough, or maybe I'm secretly a babbling lunatic, but I have to jump around the page, writing down multiple ideas at one time. This is after I've picked a topic, after I know what I'm writing about, and after I have some semblance of a plan for what I'm going to write. I'd still rather gouge out my eyes than write a blog post. It feels like trying to walk on my hands blindfolded or being lost in a cornfield with no shoes or eating Raisin Bran with eyeglass screws mixed in. It's uncomfortable, disorienting, and exhausting.

The only time the writing even came close to flowing was during my post about how it feels to be freshman, a post which I am not including in this 'best-of' because I don't know whether or not I agree with the conclusions I drew in it. The beginning of the post was great--telling the story of my first few weeks on campus was almost fun, even though I was writing it; however the point of the post was to describe freshmen's opportunities to interact with upperclassmen, and I don't really think I accomplished that at all. I just can't imagine that my experience freshman year is generalizable enough to comment on all 7000 freshmen's chances to talk to juniors and seniors, especially since I was definitely not seeking those relationships myself at that time.

The first post I am including is this one about zebra mussels. I think this post is pretty indicative of my writing before the course. I wrote in report format: that is the only type of writing I knew. I think I was able to provide a detailed picture of the situation, and I think my writing was competent; however, I don't think that my tone was at all developed. I was writing a report, not a blog post. I was being objective, not subjective. I was telling about a situation, not commenting on it. No matter how well or poorly written the post was, it missed the point of the blogging medium.

The second post I am including is this one about alignment. By this time, I think that I had developed more of a blog-type voice. I was writing more from my point of view rather that as an outsider. I was voicing an opinion, not just fact. I think some of my personality came through, especially at the end. I really am a humorous person, although I wouldn't guess that that has become apparent through my blog or my interactions with others in the class. The one sentence that I wrote all semester that best reflects who I am and my attitudes toward the world in general is the last one of the post: "The pessimist in me wants to return to the rowing analogy: When we pull together, we go places, but we're all still slaves on a Roman Galley." Incidentally, I feel much more qualified to write a 'worst-of' than a 'best-of.'

The third post I am including is this one about thought processes and communication. This post was a long time in coming. I had been struggling with issues regarding communication the whole semester, and they really came to a head when I was writing my book review and receiving feedback about it. I just couldn't seem to communicate what I thought about the book in any sort of manner that allowed others to pick up on it. I don't think my views of the book were not valuable, and I don't think they were any less valid for being mostly negative. At the same time, I just couldn't convey what I thought without sounding as if I'd entirely missed the point of the book. I also tried something new with this post: I brought in an idea that I'd been thinking about outside of class; that is, the mental and physical selves (which Senge talks about too on p151-156! The theme is echoed throughout the section on mental models, though I don't think the terminology arises again) . I tried to write what I knew rather than trying to develop entirely new ideas. I tried to be an expert for a bit instead of always venturing a novice's guesses. Ironically, this post about communication had a rough comments section with some failures of communication present.

The last post I am including is this one about learning. I really liked this post because of the serendipity that allowed me to write it. I had some well-formed ideas about my own learning, but I didn't have any way to make them interesting. I had no story. I had no framework for expressing my ideas. I went to the EWS computer lab after one of my classes to sit down and hash out the blog post, and that was when I inadvertently chose a seat next to someone who was taking some of the classes I took freshman year. It provided me with a perfect 'grab' for the beginning of the post to get the reader's attention. It allowed me to write about more abstract ideas through a concrete example. The situation gave me a grounded topic to write about--something I've struggled with all semester. This was the closest I ever came to actually wanting to post something to my blog because I had a current, relevant situation in my life to write about.

I learned a lot by blogging. I developed a new skill. I am proud of what I've written. I am glad I took the class. I still don't think I will blog again. Writing a post feels like running a mile: it's a huge chore, but I feel like I've improved myself. Even though I do think I will continue running, blogging is simply too painful for me.

shared vision

I don't think I have the proper perspective to comment on shared vision at the University. What is the University's vision? To promote education? To graduate well-educated students? What would it mean for me as an individual student to be compliant with this vision? Would that entail simply being committed (or even compliant) towards being a good student? What would being committed to the University's vision entail? I don't have the answers to these questions.

I do think that I can comment on what it means for an individual student (namely myself) to be committed towards an education.

I like to think that I am a committed student. I try to find value in all my courses beyond boosting my GPA and fulfilling my graduation requirements. That isn't to say that I am not also a compliant student: I study for exams; I learn what is asked of me in the way I'm asked to learn it. I memorize facts for closed-book exams. I prepare equation sheets for technical classes. I go to lecture on a regular basis. I complete my homework.

During this process, however, I am continually asking myself whether I am learning. If what's asked of me simply isn't cutting it, I'll do what I think I need to do to learn what I think is important. One way I really know that I am committed to a class or a subject is if I revisit the material after the class has ended. Whether reading Indian Country Today three years after my Introduction to American Indian Studies class, or helping students with calculus and physics, I can see my commitment to the material when I continue to pursue it after the course has ended.

These ideas tie in closely to the ideas of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, presented in Senge and the subject of a previous blog post. Commitment is closely aligned with intrinsic motivation, and compliance can have aspects of both.

One example of commitment vs. compliance vs. apathy in a classroom setting is the very class I'm writing this blog for: Designing for Effective Change.

Students committed to their blogs didn't need a prompt, or at least not much of one. They had taken complete ownership of their writing. They understood the blogging process and its facility in helping them learn. They wrote not necessarily what was asked of them, but what would help achieve the goals of blogging and of the class that they had internalized.

Students compliant with their blogs saw the value of blogging in terms of helping them learn. They were more than happy to write a blog post every week, and they generally felt comfortable following the prompt. They did not take the authority to write whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They constrained themselves to the system set in place by the class, and they used it to work towards the goals of the class.

Apathetic students didn't care about the class or about blogging, and didn't do much of it.

In the case of the class, part of the shared vision might be the promotion of blogging as a tool for fostering intellectual discussion--those committed to this vision will probably continue to blog. Those only compliant with this vision may not. The apathetic students still don't care.

In terms of engagement vs. disengagement, language which we've used throughout the semester, both commitment and compliance can produce engaged students. Whether or not this engagement is enough to buy into the shared vision of the University, I do not know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dave's Multimedia Project: Mental Models

Made some minor changes: the pacing is slightly faster, and some images that didn't transfer well have been fixed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Multimedia project--Mental models

Some of the art (namely a smiley face and some music notes) did not transfer well. I will attempt to fix it tomorrow.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hand washing: a new tool

I was reading the "Best of What's New 2009" article in Popular Science, and one innovation seemed to be of general interest to everyone concerned about the hand-washing problem: the Xhale HyGreen.

The Xhale HyGreen is essentially a tracking system of healthcare workers' hand-washing habits. Every time a worker washes his hands, a sensor at the hand-washing station detects the alcohol from the alcohol-based sanitizer. The detector then sends a message to a wireless badge on the worker's shirt pocket. If a worker enters a patient's room without having washed his hands, the badge vibrates and displays a red light to remind them to wash their hands. Additionally, all the data from both the hand-washing events and the patient-interaction events are collected and stored, indexed by the worker's badge number and the patient's room.

This system adds personal accountability into the mix. We talked a lot about the reasons why healthcare workers fail to wash their hands, and inconvenience of the hand washing stations and lack of salient consequences are the main reasons I remember. This system adds salient consequences. A hospital's infectious disease staff can track each employee's compliance with hand-washing policies. Additionally, patients will know if a worker has failed to wash his hands and can advocate for themselves. It's sort of a nanny system, but maybe that's what healthcare workers need. The system doesn't seem to add any barriers to hand-washing, just consequences to its absence.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's tough to be a freshman

The first couple weeks of your freshman year are a whirlwind. Everything is new. It's the first time you are on your own. It's the first time you've lived in a dorm. It's probably the first major lifestyle change you've had to make in your life up to this point. It's kind of surreal: it feels like summer camp or a retreat. It feels impermanent, like a dream from which you will soon awaken. It does not feel like the next phase of your life. Classes are starting, and they are completely different from high school in every way--the way they're taught, their scheduling, the number of them you have to take, and the number of people in them. You're getting lost on campus. You are meeting hundreds of new people--in your dorm and classes especially. You barely have time to think.

You can't anticipate some problems you'll face because everything is so new. Typical problem: "What do you mean I 'missed' dinner? It's only 7:45! I usually eat at 8 or 9! How can I even 'miss dinner'? If the dining hall is closed, then just what am I supposed to eat?" You are dealing with the bottom rungs of Maslow's hierarchy. You are asking everyone around you for advice, but they are probably all freshmen, too. You don't know what to ask, let alone whom to ask. The RAs are helpful, and can help you navigate your new life, but there are not many of them. They are also most useful only when dealing with dorm issues--dining, roommate troubles, transportation trouble, etc. You'll outgrow them quickly.

A push from your RA will send you to quad day. You were overwhelmed before; now the inundation of new information is practically overpowering. The crowds are oppressive. The upperclassmen yelling at you from their booths are intimidating. Everyone wants a piece of you. You write your email down countless times on mailing list after mailing list. You're drowning in free pencils, fliers, cups, pamphlets, and even a houseplant from the horticulture club. The sheer volume of opportunities on campus leaves you in awe. You leave quad day dazed, and wondering just what you're in for with this whole college thing.

You didn't know it, but signing up for RSOs was your one chance to meet with upperclassmen on a regular basis. You won't see many of them in your dorm. You will see even fewer of them in your classes. RSOs do have upperclassmen. What's more, if you find that one day you're needing some career or academic advice from an upperclassman, your one hope was to sign up for a particular RSO: your professional society.

A love of Seinfeld, or the month of October, or skydiving can unite people, and these things are the basis of some RSOs; however, the bonds of friendship formed through these organizations may not be the most useful for establishing a mentoring relationship in terms of education and career goals. People in your professional society (e.g. Biomedical Engineering Society) have been through what you are going through. They know your curriculum. They know what is out there in terms of careers. Often it is part of the mission of your professional society to help freshmen like you who need guidance.

If you missed quad day, don't worry. You're probably being forced to take ENG100 or BUS101 or LAS100. You can be sure that your TA (who is probably an upperclassman, not a grad student) will present you with the opportunity to join your professional society. The class itself will also act as a sort of guide, introducing you to campus and your major. You will learn about what it means to be a student and the opportunities available to you. You will be presented with even more information, and you will need to take it, sort through it, and figure out what you still need to know.

This struggle to deal with the new realities of college life is strongest during those first few weeks, but it persists. Just as the newest freshmen don't even know to ask or worry about what time the dining hall closes, freshmen in general don't know what to ask about their major, their field, and their life goals. They don't know what they should be asking about. They don't know what is important. They can't be proactive about their careers because they can't anticipate the opportunities they'll have, let alone the problems they'll encounter.

RSOs, especially professional organizations, are a great way for freshman to learn to know upperclassmen, who can help them sort through the sensory overload of their first two semesters. The college introductory classes (ENG100, etc.) are also a great tool to get students thinking about why they are at the university, and what they hope to accomplish during their undergraduate careers. Only when freshmen get this initial understanding of what it means to be at their university, in a specific college, studying a specific field, will they have the tools to seek out formal mentoring or continue the informal mentoring that can help them successfully harness the opportunities at the university.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm sitting in the EWS [engineering workstation] computer lab on the fourth floor of Engineering Hall. The guy next to me is pretty busy doing Physics 212 homework online (electricity and magnetism), and he has so much going on that his papers are spilling over onto my desk. One of these interlopers is an old Differential Equations exam. This guy could have been me, way back in second semester freshman year: same classes, same problems, same computer lab, same paper overload.

Ever curious, I take a closer look at the diff. eq. exam. The visible problem asks the student to find the general solution for the homogeneous problem given an inhomogeneous linear second order differential equation, y'' + (w^2)y = x cos(x). The exam goes on to ask the student formulate the first step toward solving the equation using the method of undetermined coefficients.

I took the class Differential Equations, and I like to think I learned something about the subject of differential equations from the course: It was an important pre-req that has been built upon in many of my subsequent classes.

There's a problem, though. I can't remember what it is that distinguishes the homogeneous differential equation from the inhomogeneous one. I certainly can't remember the method of undetermined coefficients. I can't solve this exam problem. I know that I learned these concepts, in part because I was tested on them while I took the course, in part because I've learned higher level concepts in later courses that use these concepts as building blocks, and in part because I have the hard-to-define feeling of simply knowing that I had learned them. But if I learned it, why can't I solve it?

Which brings me to the topic at hand: How do I know if I've learned something? I know only if I'm tested--in an academic setting or in any other experience in general. I know I've learned something if I approach a situation I've encountered before in a new way. I know I've learned something if I act differently than I would have before I learned. I know I've learned something if I can apply what I've learned.

This makes it sound like I must be cognizant that I'm applying what I've learned, and, in the vast majority of cases, I think I am. Whether it's something small, like the fact that the hot and cold faucet handles are switched in my grandparents' bathroom, or something large, like a cultural awareness fostered by Introduction to American Indian Studies, I think that I am usually aware that I am acting in a new way based on what I've learned.

[A 'small' thing would be something that only impacts a few of my actions/interactions/aspects of my life--like washing my hands when I visit my grandparents. A 'large' thing would be something that impacts me daily--like my perceptions of culture, my perceptions of my culture, and my attitudes towards interpersonal interaction.]

This sentiment of learning manifested as changing behavior is certainly not new. Virtually all of my classmates wrote variations on the same thing in this past week's reflections. [I was going to link to all of them, but that would have been ridiculous, so you get this obnoxious aside instead.] All had slightly different takes on the subject, but the essence of most of what I read was that learning is proven by demonstration of that learning, or as I would say it, that learning involves the changing of thought processes, and that the outward manifestation of these changes is behavioral.

If you are so inclined, see my previous post for my views on the workings of the mind. From this lens, learning is like trying to communicate with yourself: you can only learn if you are able to overcome your current thought processes and forge new connections in your brain. People have different learning methods because different things help them to form these new connections--for some (e.g. me) the auditory stimuli of a lecturer combined with diligent note-taking and a receptive attitude is the preferred combination.

A quick dip into the internet (<10 min.) has reacquainted me with homogeneous differential equations and the method of undetermined coefficients. I was able to 're-learn' this material much faster than I learned it the first time. I think that this is because the connections to deal with differential equations already exist in my brain; they had just become re-discovered. Someone exposed to differential equations for the first time would obviously need much longer than 10 minutes to decipher the problem given on this exam, much less begin to solve it. The upshot seems to be that learning isn't permanent: just as connections can be made, so too can they be lost.

Incidentally, for anyone who cares, the solutions are:
y=A cos(w*x) + B sin(w*x)
yp [which is the particular solution] =(Ax+B)cos(x) + (Cx+D)sin(x)