Thursday, November 27, 2008

King Toope

Vancouver Magazine has produced what it calls The Vanmag Power List 2008. There doesn't seem to be any real criteria, but I'm supposing the list is meant to designate the top 50 most powerful individuals in Vancouver. Coming in at #40 is none other than our President and Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope. I found his description to be quite interesting:

UBC, 100 this year, is the belle of today’s development ball. Market-housing construction yields ceaseless infusions into its dowry (funding all that research that’s meant to be the point of the exercise). The 7,000 housing units coming onstream will boost the population of the Point Grey isthmus to almost 20,000 in the next decade—an enticing tax base as the university contemplates joining the city of Vancouver. Builders aren’t the only suitors courting King Toope; this summer, a loose-screw student and some B-list thieves showed that campus security needs some tightening, presumably a priority with Thunderbird Stadium hosting its share of Olympics hoopla.

Position last year New
Last book read?
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
2008 low point? A UBC budget cut
Worst mistake? Eating 16 cinnamon rolls at one sitting
Six words for your tombstone? “He did his best.” (I know that’s only four!)


Kiss Your Scholarships Goodbye

Question: What happens during a time of economic downturn to a public university that relies on private funding ? Answer: It loses money. Lots of money.

UBC's Endowment, which is meant to provide sustainable funding to the University, has been generated predominantly by donations and the construction of market housing on campus. At other universities in Canada, which have smaller endowments than UBC's, it's already been projected that some will lose up to $100 million in endowment funds. Expected losses at UBC are unknown at this point, but President Stephen Toope has said that it will be considerable.

What does this all mean for students? Basically the decimation of student financial assistance and awards. The Endowment funds a lot of student scholarships, fellowships, and bursaries. It is projected that as much as 20% or more of the $9.6 million in endowed awards will be lost. Toope's "Letter to the UBC Community" is hardly reassuring, saying that despite this loss, the University's commitment to deliver financial support to students is unwavering.

But take a look at the numbers. According to Board of Governors' reports, financial assistance for needs-based support (like bursaries) has been declining since 2005. In fact, if you take into account enrollment and inflation, support has dropped by 43% over that time period. Meanwhile, tuition increased. How is that unwavering support? It'll be a start if UBC makes up for the loss of endowed student financial assistance through other sources, but I wouldn't be too optimistic.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Not Me. We.

If you've been paying attention to UBC rhetoric as of late, you will have noticed that UBC has adopted a new slogan. It was the title of this year's annual report and AGM: "Not Me. We." President Toope has been overusing this phrase to a point that is almost laughable. He uses it in a manner of speaking that just seems forced nearly every time he addresses the UBC community from Senate to Board to the Alumni Achievement Awards. I guess the point of the rhetoric is that we have to work together and individuals don't accomplish things on their own, or whatever. It doesn't really matter. I personally find it to be wholly uninspiring, somewhat disingenuous, and bland.

The interesting part is the origin of this new slogan. Of course it has been brought to us by UBC Public Affairs, the propaganda arm of the University, but a quick Google search shows that this slogan isn't even original. Here's a sampling of where it's been used:

Center for Family and Community Relations

We Not Me

Is this really the best Public Affairs could come up with?


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where Are All the Students?

Way back in 2004, the BC Liberals ambitiously promised to create 25,000 new student spaces in colleges and universities by 2010. Advanced Education Minister Murray Coell has recently stated that this projection has shot up to 32,000. More student seats means that more students will be able to attend post-secondary in BC. This is a good thing.

So how are we doing so far? In order to answer that, it's first important to realize that a student seat isn't actually a student. When the government says they want to increase student seats, they actually mean they want to increase FTEs (full-time equivalents). One FTE is equal to 60 per cent of a full course load. So, a student studying with a full-course load is counted as 1.4 FTEs and a student studying with a 30% course load is counted as 0.5 FTEs. This FTE business is used partially so that full-time students don't get lumped in with part-time students. The reason the government doesn't want to lump them together is that government funding is based on FTE. The higher an institution's FTE, the more funding they get.

The auditor general has released a report documenting the progress of the first two years (2004/2005 and 2005/2006) of the 25,000 student seat increase promise. The target for those years was the creation of 7,417 new seats. Only 4,004 were filled. In fact, only 6 of the 26 post-secondary institutions in the province met their targets.

There are also a number of problems with how the number of 25,000 was determined. It was solely based on future population forecasts for BC and included no consultation whatsoever with the institutions themselves. If you're going to set targets to increase the number of seats at post-secondary institutions, it just seems plain obvious that you would ask those institutions what their expected enrolment figures will be. Another problem is that each FTE is worth $7,200 in funding from the province. This flat figure does not take into account the cost of different programs at different institutions and also importantly does not account for inflation. $7,200 in 2004 is not worth $7,200 in 2010.

The broader premise of funding institutions based on FTEs also has complications. Those small, interactive courses that we all love are not encouraged under this model. For a post-secondary institution, it is most advantageous to cram as many students into a class as possible. They are also encouraged to focus more heavily on programs that maximize FTEs, rather than programs that stimulate a high standard of learning.

We should also ask: why is the Province not meeting its target of increasing the number of student seats? Well, the creation of these spaces is predicated on the belief that there is sufficient demand to fill these spaces. It has been shown, for a number of reasons, that there isn't. A student's decision on whether or not to attend a post-secondary institution is not primarily dictated by whether or not there is an open spot in the program, but rather by tuition costs, the student's or their family's financial resources, the education level of the student's parents, and how close the student lives to a post-secondary institution that meets their needs (See StatsCan report).

The 25,000 space goal is a good one, but it's not being supported. If we are to reach it, the Province will first need to take a long hard look at the issues of accessibility to post-secondary. Perhaps Campus 2020 will provide some insight.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

defunct CBC radio Orchestra finds home at UBC

Looks like UBC has stepped up on this one. Bravo!!!
For background, see this previous post.

MEDIA RELEASE NOVEMBER 18, 2008 National Broadcast Orchestra finds home at UBC's Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

The University of British Columbia announced today it will play a key role as a founding partner for the National Broadcast Orchestra, the privately funded successor to the former CBC Radio Orchestra.
UBC will provide ongoing use of the Chan Centre for the Performing
Arts at UBC as the Orchestra's performing home. The Orchestra will also develop
a strong relationship with the UBC School of Music.
UBC finalized this agreement with the National Broadcast Orchestra (NBO) shortly after the CBC Radio Orchestra's farewell concert on Sunday, November 16.
The agreement covers an initial period of three years and is subject to renewal provisions, says NBO Co-founder Philippe Labelle, the founder and CEO of Montreal-based ZeFridge, an online software platform.
During this initial period, the NBO will hold three concerts per year at the Chan Centre, to be broadcast nationally on the CBC. UBC and NBO will also collaborate on other projects and present other concerts.
Labelle began working with Alain Trudel, Principal Conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra, once it was made public in March CBC's plans to dismantle its 70-year-old Vancouver orchestra.
"The relationship with the School of Music will provide opportunities for UBC faculty, alumni artists and students to engage with the orchestra," said Richard Kurth, Director of the UBC School of Music.
"The National Broadcast Orchestra will be responsive to the needs and opportunities of the present and future, and will continue to give Canadians music that will inspire them," said Kurth, adding, "We hope that Canadians from coast to coast will support its initiatives, and listen eagerly to its work."
"If our efforts keep developing in a positive way, we look forward to building a regular presence of the NBO at the Chan Centre," said Sid Katz, Managing Director of the Chan Centre./ . . .2Katz added the new orchestra will pursue its crucial mission in providing an exciting new forum for music lovers all across the country.
"I would like to join my voice with that of my fellow Canadians and say how proud we are of the contribution to our national culture that the CBC Radio Orchestra has made over its unique 70-year history," said Trudel.
CBC Radio Executive Director Denise Donlon says the public broadcaster sees this as an opportunity to partner with private business, and that CBC will be providing support through concert broadcasts, commissions, rehearsal space and access to the CBC sheet music library.
"We wish the National Broadcast Orchestra every success in the future," said Donlon. "We've had very positive discussions with Philippe Labelle and Alain Trudel and have agreed that once the new orchestra is viable, we're prepared to offer continued


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Terry Talks

Coming soon to the Life Science Centre, LSC1, near you- Terry Talks! The project was developed by a couple of UBC students and professors who had the vision of getting some really cool students at UBC to present a talk about issues they found really interesting and important. There are a 9 students from difference programs/faculties speaking at the event, and if you're interested in checking it out, please visit ! You will find a neat video there introducing the speakers, and additional information about the event.

In the case that you're lazy, however, and don't want to click on the link (I will admit, I often do this), here's a summary:

Who (attending): you!
(speaking): awesome people!

Where: Life Science Centre, LSC1 (lecture hall) | West Atrium (exhibits)
2350 Health Sciences Mall
University of British Columbia (just in case- this is the Vancouver campus)

When: Saturday, November 22, 2008 from 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM (that's not this upcoming weekend, but the weekend after that)

How (much): free! AND you get a free lunch. That's pretty hard to say "no" to.

Why: because receiving an education is more than sitting in a lecture or a lab, and should involve your getting acquainted with some ideas out there! Plus, these people are really cool (I know two of them personally, and they're awesome and have interesting things to say), and have put a lot of effort in trying to put on a good presentation for you, so it would be really nice of you all to come out! :)

If you have any more questions, visit the website!

Oh, and if you're a science student looking for an elective- ASIC 200 is amazing and is run by the profs who were involved in making the Terry Talks happen- I took it last year and it's been the best course I've taken so far at UBC, so I would highly recommend it. I know it's a shameless plug, but seriously- aMAZing. So get in while (or if) you still can!


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Scaling Down

This practice doesn't seem to be used at all in science, but occurs all the time in psychology, where they want there to be a set average for all classes. I'm pretty vehemently opposed to scaling people down on exams, and I think most students agree. However, it's still used, and I wanted to really look into the reasons both for and against it.

It seems that the main purpose of the practice is to prevent mark inflation. If you let students do well, that just means that every year the marks will just go up further, and soon enough, everyone will be getting 100% on exams (or at least an 85), and standards across Canadian schools will be shattered as everyone scrambles to give students higher marks to guarantee their entry into graduate programs. Chaos will ensue as schools try to identify which students are actually good at the subject, undeserving students will get in at the cost of the capable ones, the genius will be lost among the mass of mediocrity. Or will that actually happen?

Well, first of all, under what circumstances do professors scale marks down?

1.) The exam was too easy, and too many people did well.
-I would argue that this is the fault of the professor. If you design any sentient being that can read and understand English and can apply basic principles of logic to deduce correct answers, it's a problem with the exam. Ok, I know this is an exaggeration, but still- why are we punishing students for the mistake of a professor?

2.) The exam was hard, but students studied hard and did well.
-There are classes where students know the material is going to be hard. There are also classes where there there just happen to be lots of good students (honours classes, for instance), who might study hard and do well. It does happen- and when it does, I don't think those students should be scaled down, as they could just legitimately know and understand the material better.

I would argue that the doomsday scenario profs envision won't actually materialize.

First of all, there's nothing to say that a high average one year, or even on one exam, will create this upward spiral of grading. Just because one year's class happens to do well doesn't meant that this is going to be an on-going trend. Setting the class average to be 65% every year is simply not accounting for natural variation among the student population. You might get a brilliant group of students one year, and a terrible group of students the next year. If the aim is to compare students from year to year, then setting a set average doesn't do much in terms of establishing a scale of comparison, as the average is so sensitive to individual marks.

I also don't see anything wrong with people doing well on an exam that's designed to test their knowledge of the material (i.e. a fair exam). Theoretically, in a good class, students will study hard for an exam, and do well as a result. Sure, not everyone will study- and those people who don't will do worse, and score below average- and also probably do significantly (p<0.05) worse. Even if the instructor did compose an exam that could have been written by a student who never attended class or did any of the readings and just wrote the exam based on previous knowledge- scaling down only penalizes the people who did do well and who studied hard. Sure, it might be unfair to the person who studied lots and did as well as the person who studied little- but that happens even on difficult exams- and it's still unfair to scale the hardworking person down. Plus, if you are scaled down because the exam wasn't hard enough, there's nothing to say that you would have done just as well on a harder exam. There's also always the opportunity to make the next exam slightly more difficult so that you actually test students' learning and understanding of the material rather than things like previous knowledge, if this was the initial problem. In the case that the average is 'too high' on the harder exam, I would argue that students who perform well on a it still deserve good mark, regardless of what the average was 'supposed' to be. Considering the fact that most exams are quite similar from year to year, it makes no sense to scale a class down on an exam that achieved the targeted average in previous years- all the high mark indicates is that students learned the material well. Scaling down then simply makes the marking unjust, and removes motivation to study, because at that point your mark and your effort in the course are no longer correlated, as the mark you get for the course is not actually indicative of the effort or knowledge you attained over the term, but rather is indicative of the average your professor wanted the class to attain.

Then there's the second issue- not being able to separate the genius from the simply smart from the average if everyone ends up doing well on an exam. My first qualm with this belief is that I just don't think there are all that many geniuses floating around, and those who are indeed of superior intelligence will be able to prove themselves in some other way (show their brilliance through other projects, or during their grad school interviews, or through reference letters, etc.). But more importantly, if you're scaling everyone down, you're supposedly scaling the geniuses down as well, no? Or if you're not using a uniform scale, and giving the person who got a 98 a 92, but letting the person who got 100 keep that mark- you're essentially saying that the person who got 100 is smarter than the person who got a 98. In this case, though, the initial difference could have been a matter of one student getting one more question correct, and that could be the result of a random guess and simple luck rather than knowledge of the subject matter. So really, if we're trying to separate geniuses from a group, we should devise a matter of doing so that doesn't involve punishing everyone else in the group, and that relies less on things like chance and luck. I'd also argue that tests shouldn't be targeted at the 0.00001% of us who are brilliant, but that's a bit of a tangent to be written about some other day.

So why do profs scale down? Why have a target grade? Presumably to ensure that the average is consistent across all schools, or to prevent high marks from becoming meaningless- to which I have several responses. First of all, unless there's some sort of pact between schools or departments to set an average, there is nothing to prevent one school from deciding to give all their students marks of 80% and up for any given course. A good application review system will notice this, and probably judge applications based on either other factors, or else by looking at how the student did compared to the class average. Secondly, this notion of marks becoming meaningless when they're too high- and I'd argue that no, this isn't the case. I find that on the whole, it's not all that difficult to do well in a psychology class, if you actually a.) come to class b.) listen in class (This seems to be a problem for some, which is why b.) is its own category. There are some people who like to learn through osmosis and come to class and sleep.) c.) do the reading and d.) do some studying (i.e. memorize some material and understand it). This normally, provided that the person understands and knows the material, is guaranteed to get the student at least a 80 (I think. I haven't done the stats or anything, so this bit is more of a conjecture. But I think that in psych, at the very least, it must be somewhat true, although I don't know error margins). In this case, I don't think the mark is meaningless- I think it's just something the student is proud of. Also, this doesn't apply to the GPA booster courses, where you're asked things that seem to be common knowledge (Believe it or not, things like "does the Sun revolve around the Earth?". Answer at the bottom of the page, if you are unsure). But even in those courses, people somehow manage to fail the exam, even without the prof scaling down... It is not unfathomable, however, that everyone engages in these 4 sequences. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, when students do well. Low averages are based on the preconceived notion that students will slack off, not study, or be generally unintelligent- all of which I would dispute. So why base expectations on preconceived notions that are bound to fail every once in a while?

I think my argument is pretty clear- maybe not as clear as it would be had I written this at any decent hour, but clear enough nonetheless. Don't scale down. I'd further propose that marks in general aren't always indicative of either learning or achievement in the class. I'd also argue and that marks on transcripts should be given in relation to the average class mark- this allows application reviewers to really judge how well the student is doing in a class. If the transcript indicates that the student scored an 85 on an exam where the average was 80, that something different about the student than if he/she scored an 85 where the class average was 60. I'd be interested in seeing some of these ideas argued, at the very least. They might certainly reduce the problems people have with mark inflation, and might serve as better indicators of students' performance- and that, unless I'm hugely mistaken, is what the marking system is trying to ensure in the first place.

Oh, and the answer is no. The Earth revolves around the sun. For the physicists out there, I know this is probably a simplification, and if you look at the world in 16 dimensions, you can arguably say that there's some sort of complex pattern of movement where the two bodies, based on Someone's Law, revolve around one another, or something along those lines. But for our purposes, "no" is the answer.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Labbing it up!

As a science student, I find labs to be perhaps one of the most interesting and important aspects of my undergraduate learning. Not only is this the one really hands-on thing I get to do with my undergraduate education, but it's the one time I actually get to feel like a scientist, the one time I get to interact with a smaller group of students and feel like I'm applying concepts from the classroom in a real setting. So this post is really to try to tell you guys about some of my experiences with labs at UBC, to highlight some of the weaknesses, but to also point out some of the strengths and great experiences I have had as a student.

I can't say I always loved lab sessions- particularly not first year physics. There are definite problems with outdated facilities and equipment, and I certainly have come across professors who make it quite clear that labs are run on a very small budget. Lab equipment, for some bizarre reason, is quite expensive- something like 100 enzymes (as in, 100 proteins) can cost $62, and that's for an enzyme that's pretty commonly used in a lab (in this case, I looked up Taq polymerase, a commonly used enzyme in biochemistry, biology, etc. labs). I definitely wish that more resources were put towards these labs. Having said that, I definitely think that there are some common labs that need reworking. In chem 211 last year, for instance, we spent lots of labs doing pretty much the same sorts of things- dilutions and titrations. Granted, these are important skills, but having spent most of first year doing these same sorts of labs, and then having to do the same labs again for half a year is hardly fun work, and I really thought that students could be exposed to a greater variety of experiments and skill sets in this course in particular. Other labs were great, though- chem 235 was well put-together, and really got students thinking about connecting concepts learned in class with experimentation. It also focused on a variety of different types of experiments, so I felt like I learned a lot over the course of the semester.

This year in particular, however, I've enjoyed the opportunity of getting to do some really amazing things in my physiology lab course. Some of the labs we get to do are really special, mostly because we're a small class. In my first lab this year, for instance, I got to operate on live rats. Yesterday, we got to go into the LSI and look at real, human brains in order to identify structures and cranial nerves and the like- these are the sorts of experiences that got me into science, and piqued my interest initially. In general, I've found both of my lab courses to be more applicable to the type of work seen I've seen (or have done myself) in a research lab- so it disheartens me to hear students complain about labs, and how silly they are, and about how much time they take, because I personally find them to be the ultimate learning experience. Some labs I think could certainly use some tweaking in order to figure out a way of spending money more productively, and teaching students a variety of skill sets rather than simply titration and dilution. On the whole, however, being in a lab, getting your hands on equipment and chemicals and so on is in and of itself important- and possibly the best kind of learning one can do, as you really get to synthesize concepts you've learned (especially if you've done the pre-reading and know why you're doing things). Even lab reports, as much as I sometimes complain about them, have been hugely helpful in getting me to understand material and see the physical manifestation of what I've learned from my textbooks and lectures. Learning to ask a question, try to answer it, figure out a way of doing it that's not simply outlined for you on a cookie-cutter recipe, and then figuring out why your results don't match up with literature or expectations really makes you think, and is a true reflection of what actual science is. Because science isn't about you telling others about what you know- it' about identifying what you don't, and figuring out a way to solve that problem, and going through obstacles along the way, and trying to explain what you've seen. It involves a great depth of analysis and knowledge and the ability to really understand the mechanisms underlying the process under investigation- and this is what I find most exciting about science, and it's something that we sort of get to do in our labs (although we're usually given the 'recipe').

I sort of wish that more students got to experience what I have- not simply other science students, but students from a variety of faculties. Some areas of study obviously aren't as conducive to labs, but anything that makes students really engage with what they're learning is, in my opinion, a great use of our tuition fees, and a great opportunity to really learn.