June 10, 2013

THE WEEKLY BLAB

Volume 7, Issue 35 – June 10, 2013

Polytechnic Summit Report

As many of you know, I was at the Polytechnic Summit last week, held at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.  Boston is usually very nice this time of year, but I had heard that there was a heat wave the previous week and the temperature there was higher than in Atlanta.  To make up for it, the week of the Summit had tropical storm Andrea deliver 3-6 inches of rain, depending on where you were.  Fortunately, the heaviest rain came late at night, so it wasn’t all that bad–just a few drizzly days during the Summit and really nice afterwards.

We left Atlanta on Tuesday at 12:40 on Delta.  I had paid a little extra for the “extra legroom” seats, which are worth the money, in my opinion.  The flight was pleasant enough, and when we got to Boston and went to pick up the rental car, we got upgraded to a Chevrolet Impala, which is a nice car.  We buzzed over to the hotel we were staying at in Natick, MA, which we found with no trouble.  We were staying in Natick because Jill wanted to visit her family in Worcester, and Natick is not only halfway in between Worcester and Boston, but is also on a commuter rail line connecting the two.  The Natick Mall, which is HUGE, is less than a five minute walk away.

My parents were also flying into Boston the same day, visiting a friend of theirs who lives in Cambridge.  I tried to call them to see if they had come in safely, but their cell phone kept cutting out.  I had called my cousin Ifat (who lives in Newton, MA, also close to Natick) a little earlier, hoping to get together with her family for dinner, but they were out.  When she called me back at about 9 PM, she mentioned that my parents were at her house for a visit, so we hopped in the car and had a late get-together.

On Wednesday morning, Jill and Mark went off to Worcester with her cousin Meryl.  Meanwhile, I drove down Route 9 to Wentworth, and promptly ran into a huge traffic jam.  I had forgotten how bad Boston traffic could be, and this brought it all flooding back.  I was cursing myself for not having taken the Mass Pike.  After about 20 minutes of 5 mph or less non-movement, the traffic eased up, and I got to Wentworth about 30 minutes later.  I later learned that there had been a tractor-trailer that had blocked the entire Mass Pike, which had diverted some of the traffic onto Route 9.  So, I had chosen the better route after all.

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Registration at the Summit took only about a minute, and several SPSU folks were sitting in the cafeteria area doing some last minute things before the Summit began.  First up was the keynote speaker lunch, and the keynote speaker was Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate.  I was sitting at the “head” table with President Rossbacher, Chancellor Charles Sorensen from U-Wisconsin Stout, Sam Conn, Wentworth’s Assistant Provost Chuck Hotchkiss (who was organizing the Summit) and a bunch of empty chairs.  Why were they empty?  Because two things had happened to complicate the life of our Wentworth colleagues:  the president of Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology had died unexpectedly (so Wentworth’s President Zorica Pantic and Governor Dukakis were at the funeral Wednesday morning), and famous mobster Whitey Bulger was going on trial, the jury was being selected, and several Wentworth folks (including their provost Russ Pinizzotto) were in the jury pool.  All was well, though, and President Pantic arrived just a little late, and Governor Dukakis a little after that.  We had our lunch, talked about public transportation in Boston and Atlanta, and Governor Dukakis gave a brief speech on the importance of STEM education in preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

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The Summit then began with a bunch of workshops and panels, and I attended one celled “Flipping Out on Critical Thinking:  Engaging Activities Across Disciplines” that was given by our own Beth Stutzmann and Donna Colebeck (ETCMA).  They did an excellent job describing some “flipped classroom” activities they do in their courses.  A little later, I went to a panel on “Blurring Boundaries of the Polytechnic and Applied English Classrooms: Affirming Learning Through Intercultural Practice” by SPSU’s Jeff Orr and Iraj Omidvar, as well as a Tunisian faculty member Nadia Abid (Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanities of Sbeitla),  who joined in via Skype.  The talk was really interesting, descibing some blogging about everyday activities carried out by students from SPSU and Tunisia, and how what was everyday to one group was highly unusual or even incomprehensible to the other group, due to the very different lives that they lead.  It was a good example that even the most innocuous things are still culturally and societally loaded, and led to an interesting conversation.

After, I took the T (Boston’s Subway system) to the Prudential Center, and joined Sam Conn for a beer at Legal Seafoods, the favorite seafood restaurant in Boston.  At 6:00, President Pantic hosted dinner there for President Rossbacher, Chancellor Sorensen, Provost Pinizzotto, and several others.  The food and the company were very nice, and I finished off a seafood sampler (three types of fish, shrimp, and scallops) with an excellent piece of Boston cream pie.  We then dashed over to the Lenox Hotel (where many people were staying) for the official SPSU toast, sponsored by President Rossbacher.  About two dozen people were there, each wearing a glow in the dark wristband, and each having a good time.  I left the party at about 10 PM, since I had to drive back to Natick, but others stayed until midnight, I heard.

Thursday presented a complication.  Just like Atlanta, you never know how long it will take you to get anywhere in Boston.  I was presenting a talk at 8:45 AM and didn’t want to be late.  I decided to take the Mass Pike into the city and just to be on the safe side, left at 6:30 AM.  Naturally, having given myself sufficient time, there was no traffic whatsoever, and it only took 20 minutes to get to Wentworth.  After a leisurely breakfast, I went up to room 426 to set up the powerpoint, and of course the room was empty, lights out, and no laptop computer.  I went out into the hall to find help, but in the meantime, the IT crew came and set everything up.  I plugged in the thumb drive and all was well.  The talk, “Good Design is Good Citizenship:  From Social Engagement to Scholarly Engagement” (with coauthors Rich Halstead-Nussloch (IT) and Bill Carpenter (ARCH)) was about the various ways we’re trying to encourage scholarly engagement at SPSU, and was well received.

Later in the same session, Russ Pinizzotto gave a talk called “Inputs and Outcomes: A Comparison of Polytechnics in the United States”.  He started off by saying that several of his results would be controversial, but “here they are”.  His paper looked at the various polytechnics in the US (not just those like us, but including places like MIT, WPI, VPI), and found that relative to input considerations (mainly SAT scores in Math and English and tuition costs), they fell into about 7 groups.  Most of the schools participating in the Summit were in groups 4 and 5, with MIT in group 1 and WPI in group 3.  He then looked at a number of output characteristics (average graduate salary, six-year graduation rates, retention), and calculated a qualitative comparison scale weighting the outputs equally.  On this scale, WPI came in first, Wentworth came in something like 5th (if I’m remembering right), and SPSU came in last.  The low result was almost entirely a function of our low graduation rates–schools with students with the same average SAT scores as ours would be predicted to have much higher graduation rates.

I could make lots of excuses for this–low availablility of needs-based financial aid, that the first-time-full-time grouping isn’t very representative of our overall student body, that Georgia public schools don’t prepare students very well in STEM fields, etc.–but let’s face it: our graduation rates are nothing to write home about, and we have to do better.  It’s small consolation that they’ve risen by 50% since 2005–they were terrible then and they’re now up to merely bad.  We need to build a culture of graduation expectation (and doing what’s necessary to achieve it, without compromising rigor) on campus in all our degree programs, and we have a ways to go.

At 10:30 AM, Sam Conn and I copresented a paper titled “Space, Modality, and Technology: A 3-Dimensional Framework for Converged Learning”, talking about how face-to-face, hybrid, and online modalities are parts of a larger continuum of instruction.  A Rubik’s cube sort of three-dimensional graph (modality vs. technology vs. type of space used) defines a number of cubelets of course modalities that can be individually optimized by best practices, with face to face/no technology representing one corner of the cube and with converged instruction representing the opposite corner.  The paper was  well received, and followed by two papers on “flipped” classroom instruction.

One of the interesting papers I heard in the afternoon sessions was “Integrated Project Design: An Achitecture/Construction Management Project based Learning Opportunity” about Wentworth ARCH and CM students collectively designing a culinary arts school.

On Thursday night, the special event was a tour of the underground part of the Big Dig, the name given to the moving of  Boston’s central artery (similar to I-75/85 going through Atlanta) from being an elevated highway to underground.  The project cost $14 billion, and is notorious for its cost overruns.  It was really fascinating to see the inner workings, though since the main elevator was out of commission, we had to climb down tons of steps to reach the bottom level and climb back up as well.  Still, it was well worth it to see the massive fans and equipment, as well as the service tunnels, slurry walls, and various other features.  We even got to look out a side tunnel to see the oncoming traffic hundreds of feet below ground.

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(a) One of the major tunnel spaces, (b) lots of stairs, and (c) a big fan at the Big Dig

Friday was the last day of the Summit.  In the morning session, I attended several talks about mathematics education: “Improving Retention in Engineering Calculus”, “NSF STEP Grant to Improve Performance in Early Mathematics Courses”, “Mathematics Education in Extreme Social and Cultural Environments: Prison Education”, and “A First Year Math Course for Applied Math Majors at Wentworth Institute of Technology”.   The main take-aways were that students taking applied mathematics courses had greater engagement and did better than those taking “standard” courses.

The next session featured descriptions of courses focused on “The Philosophy of Science–A Humanities Course for the STEM Student”; an interdisciplinary course (between “History and Culture of Boston” and “Municipal Planning”) that looked at an interesting historical event–Boston’s Molasses Flood; a course focused on four controversial topics for the future (brain enhancement, extension of the human lifespan, sentient robots, and bio-engineering of children); and a discussion of why students taking a course on Science Fiction never seem to analyze (or even notice) the science in the stories.

The final session featured keynote speaker Ken Reardon, about how he and the University of Memphis has implemented a project to provide fresh produce into “food deserts” in the poorer neighborhoods in the city.  Too often, he said, the projects that the universities propose providing to urban areas bear little relatioinship to what the people who live in those areas need, and most often, never get implemented.

I’ll be meeting with various people who attended the Summit and seeing what we might want to try at SPSU that we heard–after all, the main purpose to having these Summits is to learn from each other.  Congratulations to all SPSU presenters at the Summit–you all did a great job.

 

Afterwards…

Saturday, we drove down to Cambridge to get my parents, and it was off to Magnolia, Gloucester, and Rockport for the afternoon.  The remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea had moved out by noon, and the rest of the day was just beautiful.  The three towns are Jill and my favorite places in the Boston area, and it was great to be able to see them again.

Sunday morning, we got together with my parents again at cousin Ifat’s house for a nice Israeli-style breakfast.  Ifat’s son Stav was doing his finals for getting a black belt in karate (he passed the tests, and was awarded the black belt that afternoon).  We left around 1PM, dropped the car off at the airport, and took the Silver Line bus to South Station, walked around Boston a bit, and took the 5:40 train to New London, CT.  It’s a short walk from the station to the ferry terminal, where we caught the boat to Orient Point on Long Island.  Jill’s sister Ellen lives about five minutes from there in Greenport, so we’re visiting her and will finish up in New York City before coming home.

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Sunset over New London, CT on the ferry

Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s trivia challenge focused on Mickey Mouse.   Our winner was Scott Larisch, with all five correct!  Here are the answers:

  1. Mickey’s girlfriend’s name.  Minnie Mouse
  2. Mickey’s dog’s name.  Pluto
  3. Name of first cartoon distributed starring Mickey.  Steamboat Willie (though it was actually the third Mickey Mouse cartoon made).
  4. What name Walt Disney originally wanted to give Mickey—his wife talked him out of it.  Mortimer
  5. Cole Porter song featuring the words “Mickey Mouse”.  You’re the Tops

 

This Week’s Trivia Challenge

There isn’t one.  The quiz will return next week.

 

 

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