Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parenting Month 10: Socializing

Baby party by LugerLA
Baby party, a photo by LugerLA on Flickr.

After last month's Thailand trip, our hope for this month is that all that contact with other people would make things easier at daycare and such. And it has. T no longer cries the entire time he is at day care or with other caregivers. He even interacts with the other kids there. We were confident enough to host a little party of babies at our house and he did well.

And he even learned to share. Unfortunately, his friends taught him to share whatever they got sick with while we were gone, so he would not miss out. And he came back and shared with mommy and daddy. So our house has been a house of coughing and sneezing for much of the past month. And it has morphed over time so what we all have now is probably different than one we had at the beginning of this mess.

Now that school is starting for both of us, we finally are into the full swing of life with a baby. Two adults with full time jobs and baby at full time day care with no grandparents around. So far, he is handling it well, except that he does not sleep much while at day care. Hopefully that will also improve.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Alternatives to the scientific method

I've been taking some time over the past two weeks having lunch with some students who were working with me for the summer. As part of this, I ask them what they thought about the experience of working with researchers and their own roles. I also discuss the project and where what they did fit into the overall goals.

One thing that surprised them all was that there was an alternative to decision-making through the use of models and analysis. And that using models and rigorous analysis was not always accepted or desired as a way of understanding our world and making decisions. Even important and complex ones.

1. Analysis by argument/logic - There is a reason that study of the natural world (what is now science) used to be called natural philosophy. This is analysis through reasoning and providing explanations for observed phenomena.

2. Perception as truth - The belief that what is perceived is what is true. This was argued by a number of friends of mine in graduate school who were members of a faith based group. It also is the justification of truth being arbitrated by those with societal power.

The contrast is the scientific method, which involves

i. Propose a hypothesis
ii. Identify a consequence from the hypothesis
iii. Develop and conduct an experiment that can test the consequence and potentially disprove the hypothesis
iv. Revise the hypothesis

Why would someone use (1) or (2) in making decisions instead of the scientific method?

a. Easier. (1) or (2) can be done much faster.
b. Lack of capability. Utilizing the scientific method required personel who are trained in developing hypothesis, identifying consequences, and designing experiments to test the hypothesis in the domain in question.
c. Power. (1) and (2) can be used by those who have built up power in a domain. Related to (a)
d. Disbelief. A large segment of society does not believe in the scientific method and prefers other sources for establishing truth.

(a) and (b) tend to be the basis of outreach by analytical groups within companies and academics. They often run into (c), which is subverted when top leadership has experience with having analytical groups assist decision makers in the past (one common example is if an executive served in the U.S. military) (d) tends to be the target of groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) or more politically oriented groups such as the Ben Franklin's List (see New York Times, August 8, 2011, Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic)

In large part those of us who are trained and teach and use the scientific method forget that there are alternatives, and people choose to follow those alternatives for reasons. I think that working with the high school students who don't worry about sounding ignorant (after all, they are going to go on with their lives, and there is never any shame for a high school student to tell a college professor in private that they don't understand something)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lessons learned: working with high school students

In the New York Times Education section there was an article on how high school students are looking for experiences over their summers beyond the usual summer job (For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers). This summer I had three high school students working for me on various projects. They had come through my department chair, who was aware that I had more project ideas then money and suggested them to me.

Over the course of the summer I had them working on a mix of grunt tasks and substantive ones. I think a lot of times high school interns end up doing data entry or manual labor tasks. And I had them doing such things.

  1. Entering data from forms written by teams that were in the field (i.e. on foot when they collected the data)

  2. Entering data into a spreadsheet model from multiple sources (census, address lists, etc.)

  3. Developing process maps from a process description

  4. Running a simulation and performing sensitivity analysis

  5. Debugging and running linear programming models and analysis

Some thoughts

  1. Clearly the high school students (juniors and seniors) I am seeing are taken from the top. I was impressed by their desire to carry out the tasks. I had to gently remind one of them that I wanted to know about difficulties as well as progress, because I actually did want the tasks done. (or there were alternatives if something was impossible. The difference between a school assignment and a research project is that research projects do not come with guarantees that they will succeed.) I have a hard time with graduate students who give up too easily.

  2. I could have pushed harder. While high school students typically do grunt work, I had them running models. Talking to them at the end of the summer, each of them said they may have been able to do more technical work. One of them had started learning R in the middle of the summer (for someone else). I think that if I started teaching them programming Python or R at the beginning of the summer, we would have found reason to use it at some point, and do it better then trying to learn programming when a specific task came up.

  3. They were very eager and inquisitive. Lots of good questions. Which came in useful since I wanted to have better documentation of the models and they would ask about what they did not know (because it was not in the current documentation)

This was a good experience. I don't have much experience working with kids (to me, everyone before college), so this was a good one. From talking with each of them over lunch, it was for them too.