The quote in the title is from Woody Allen, and you’ll see below why it’s appropriate for this course recap. This past term I again taught “Physics of Energy and the Environment,” a class for non-science-major undergraduates at the University of Oregon. I enjoy teaching this topic and in some ways this round was better than usual. In some ways, though, it was considerably worse, reflecting trends that seem common across higher education. I’ll elaborate here; you can skip to the “Not so good things” section for the juicy bits. I’ll save the question, “How would ChatGPT do?” for my next post.
The goal of the course is to convey an understanding of how we use energy, how much energy we use, how energy use impacts the environment and, importantly, how physical principles underlie all of these. Roughly the first third of the ten-week term is about getting a quantitative sense of scale and learning basic physics like the distinction between energy and power (which escapes most journalists who write about energy issues). The middle third focuses on transportation: what does it take to move cars and why, which intersects ideas of thermodynamics and leads to the neat question, “How much fossil fuel does an electric car use?” The last third is on climate and climate change: What sets the temperature of the Earth?
I try to provide a lot of structure; there’s a mix of exams, almost-weekly quizzes, weekly homework assignments, readings and videos, in-class participation points (with little weight, more of a nudge), and a daily notes assignment. These “post-class notes” take the form of a paragraph the students must submit after each class, summarizing the key points. The aim is to get students to reflect and thereby solidify concepts in their minds. (I’m not this paternalistic in higher level classes, but I’ve learned that for the gen-ed student population, scaffolding is helpful and awareness of how to learn is severely lacking.) Thankfully, I had a teaching assistant for the course who graded the post-class notes every day; just scoring for completion rather than content is useless, I’ve found out in past courses. Students can also use the post-class notes submission to ask questions, either asking for clarification about the day’s topic or asking anything they’re wondering.
The syllabus is here.
I try to design the whole course with a focus on real-world, contemporary topics, often taking data and news articles from sources within the past few years or, sometimes, from the morning of the class.
In some aspects, the course was a success. As in all “gen-ed” courses, there’s a huge range of student interest levels. The most engaged students this term were as enthusiastic as the most engaged in any gen-ed class I’ve taught. The number of curiosity-driven post-class notes questions were possibly larger than ever, and it was fun to spend time answering them. Several students told me how much they enjoyed the class, and one emailed, “It was great to finally have a class I enjoyed learning about, and not mindlessly memorizing random facts to just forget them the next day.”
Not so good things
However, the least engaged students were stunningly dis-engaged, and there were a lot of them. Shown here are the number of in-class poll respondents vs. class number, for example:
A lot of students simply faded away — something I hear from colleagues as well. It’s not that class activities are superfluous; I don’t follow a textbook (there’s none that’s ideal for this course), so one really does have to show up, unless one studies notes from someone else or is disciplined enough to piece together readings from various supplementary sources. (I’d bet heavily that no one did this.) The next graph illustrates the consequence; shown are the overall course grades with letter boundaries dotted, lumping students into two bins: those with post-class notes scores less than or greater than 80%. The post-class notes score is basically a proxy for showing up and participating.
The difference between the two groups is striking. The ≥ 80% set has an average grade of B+/A- ; the course is not at all difficult. The <80% set has an average that’s nearly two letter grades lower! (Of course, the variance is large.)
Along similar lines, I devote one of the four class hours per week to open question time, mainly related to homework — it’s the day before homework is due, and students can ask about the homework problems, have me check their answers, etc. There’s no reason, therefore, to not do well on the homework assignments. About 15-20 students out of about 90 would stay for the question period. They seemed to find it very useful and I found it very enjoyable — there’s conversation between students and with me, and the lack of structure is pleasant. (I wander the room and people flag me down.) The students themselves wondered why more of their classmates didn’t come.
These trends regarding attendance were apparent midway through the course, and I pointed this out to the class. My pointing it out was almost tautologically futile, however: the ones who are listening are not the ones who need to be listening!
The mystery of apathy
I don’t blame the disengaged students for not caring. There are certainly plenty of things I don’t care about! I’m sure these students are fascinating and pleasant people (or at least, as likely to be fascinating and pleasant as anyone else). I am, however, perplexed: Why sign up for a class and almost purposefully try not to get anything out of it? Especially at a cost of $14,400 (Oregon resident) or $40,500 (non-resident) each in yearly tuition. From conversations, many colleagues note similar concerns about student engagement and performance.
Unfortunately I never have the opportunity to chat with the disengaged students. I supposed I could have cornered some after the final exam: “You! I’ve never seen you before; what are your motivations?” It probably wouldn’t go well, though. I can, however, guess the major driving factors: (1) a society that increasingly uses a college degree for meaningless and near-universal credentialism, pushing too many into higher education despite a lack of intrinsic motivation; (2) universities, including most public universities in the U.S., relying on tuition dollars and constantly expanding their administrative size; and (3) secondary education that is sufficiently watered down in many schools that students are misled about what learning and studying mean. Perhaps also (4) a growing awareness that college instruction is archaic in structure and often poor in quality, compared with what should be possible in the twenty-first century. Factors (1-3) and maybe (4) leave many students directionless and impoverished, and I feel sad for them.
About #2, I’ll note that like many schools, the University of Oregon just raised tuition by 4%, continuing the decades-long trend of price hikes. (In-state tuition in 2002-2003 was $4071, which is $6850 in 2023 dollars; our current cost represents a more-than-100% increase over 20 years.) How else can we afford to expand our ranks by three Associate Deans (announced a few weeks ago) while also patting ourselves on the back for helping students fight food insecurity?
I digress, of course, and I should leave the mystery of student apathy as an open question.
Things I liked: pegagogy section
I will end on more positive notes, especially since I did, in fact, enjoy many aspects of the class, as did many of the students.
I tried something I learned from a session of our science teaching journal club, several weeks of which this term were devoted to this (quite good) book: Remembering and Forgetting In the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, by Michelle D. Miller. The author made a module of activities about attentiveness and memory. I made the module available to the class and also allowed people to revise two of their midterm exam questions if they completed it. Eleven did, and they found the material surprisingly interesting. (I agree; it is.) I may do this again in the future. The original exam scores for the students who completed the module ranged from 53 to 95%; the median was 78%, slightly higher than the class median of 74%.
Things I liked: content section
I was again able to spend some time, though not as much as would be ideal, on nuclear power. This is definitely a topic where even a rough understanding of the magnitude of things makes a huge impact. Nuclear fuels have over 100,000 times the energy density of fossil fuels, which makes, for example the volumes of nuclear waste we need to dispose of far smaller than many people think — in the US, it’s about a tenth of a soda can of high level waste per person per year. (If we got all our electricity from nuclear power, it would be half a soda can.) Students, justifiably, are stunned that we don’t ramp up nuclear energy production. I agree; after teaching and reading about this topic for over a decade it seems glaringly clear to me that the long-term solution to energy and climate issues is solar power and the short-term solution should be nuclear power. But, as I tell the students, one can reach one’s own conclusions, as long as one puts numbers behind them.
I managed to squeeze in at the end of the term a bit about stratospheric ozone, whose human-induced depletion was a serious global environmental problem. Thanks to an understanding of the science and effective, coordinated policymaking by about 200 countries, ozone-destroying chemicals were banned and stratospheric ozone levels are returning to their normal levels. Ozone is important for blocking ultraviolet radiation, but the story is more important to this class as an example of successful tackling of a major environmental concern. Along similar lines, since it’s easy to be gloomy about climate change, I emphasized to the class that despite current problems, life is far better than it used to be! Statistically speaking, we’re all far less likely to be murdered, or to be extremely poor, and even the worst case scenarios of climate change are a picnic compared to most of human history. We also spent a small amount of time on a nice discussion of geoengineering, based in part on these articles published in 2021 and 2022. Ideally, geoengineering and carbon capture should be a larger part of the class — I expect that they’ll be part of our future — but 10 weeks isn’t very long.
In the next post, we’ll see how ChatGPT4 did on the final exam for the course. How did it do overall? Did it perform better on multiple choice or short answer questions? You can make your guesses, and stay tuned…
A leopard, based on this photo by “Tambako the Jaguar.” Rather than my usual approach of measuring things, I just stared at the photo and freehanded it. The face is a bit squat. It was fun to draw the spots.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy. March 28, 2023
4 thoughts on ““Eighty percent of success is showing up” — Physics of Energy and the Environment, Winter 2023”
Serious apathy and disengagement affect about 25% of my dental students, who should be very engaged in learning because their competence depends on their knowledge, skill, and attitude. I’ve spent thousands of hours grading practical exams and writing detailed notes, but students have picked them up and thrown them in the trash, without even looking at them. The inconsistencies, paradoxes, contradictions, and challenges of higher education are piling up, and, because of the cost, the public is beginning to take notice.
Even in a professional school (dentistry)! I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Your last sentence is great, and I wonder whether the “piling up” will lead to constructive change, or just more apathy.
Constructive change is not in sight; the apathy will be coated with a word salad of “excellence,” which is a word that has lost all meaning. Carol S. Dweck’s “fixed mindset” has taken hold in higher education. Double standards have not worked, so we quickly slipped to a new, lower standard. Maintaining any standard is difficult; it is not a passive act. Energy must be pumped into a system to sustain it. So, to make up for lack of student engagement, the faculty must pump in more and more energy, to no avail. Knowledge does not transfer across impermeable brain boundaries.
Your chart of “engagement” reflects a shocking decline in, what, a decade or two? I don’t know if that really reflects a broader trend in engagement. Not that I doubt engagement is low, but my experience during my undergrad 30yrs ago was that engagement was low then. Most students didn’t give a crap about learning anything. I think it’s possible that the trend you’re seeing in your data is a broader trend in society about the topic in general and perhaps about the intransigence in the political world to address it. Also I might guess that your data goes back just about to the emergence of fracking, so “energy shortage” fear has eased if not evaporated.
I TAd tons of labs in grad school and taught in community college for a year after leaving grad school. I feel like I always had very strong engagement relative to my own classmates when I was in those classes. My experience is that, beyond the intellectual upper crust of the class – the people who are always interested and engaged – there is a group that engages with the personality of the instructor. If you connect with them, they’ll work very hard. They want to impress you personally. Lots of kids that age are kind of, I dunno, maybe cynical is roughly the right word. It’s the time in life when they notice lots of bothersome contradictions in the world. I guess I found it natural to joke with them about it. Your topic is perfect for that. I mean first you have the undeniable reality of climate change, about which very little is being done – and much of what is being done is..mmm…not useful. But second you have the world awash in oil and natural gas, which were both “supposed” to be in decline by now. And of course third you have the contradiction of nuclear energy – an obvious source of a massive amount of energy which – like global warming policy – is being crushed by political stupidity on both sides of the aisle. So you have all these contradictions that you can exploit by mocking the dorkery that’s propagating misinformation about energy. Kids are very sensitive to those contradictions, they’re worried about it deep down, which makes it a great subject for humor and for engagement.
BTW, I left CC teaching because the pay is just terrible, but also because the people who do contract teaching are out of touch with reality. There was one guy at my CC who was like early 30s living with his parents teaching contract geography for six or seven years. I mean come on. Face reality. Teaching pay will never rise with people like that around. Then 20 years later they’re complaining bcz they have no retirement. Another funny thing about that: earlier this year I closed and withdrew the ridiculous $1600 in my TIAA retirement account. They do everything conceivable to stop you from taking that money out. I made an effort to do it about five years ago but got bogged down by their requirement that I have permission from the employer who deposited it!!! This time when they tried to pull that I said: I don’t give a (hoot) about that rule, I left that job 25 years ago, you will cut the (darn) check! Then amazingly she was able to discover that my termination was on file! It took less than a minute. That’s part of the racket. I’m sure TIAA is lobbying for dozens and dozens more university deans.