Do we need physical textbooks?

After an 18-year hiatus from teaching, I had the chance to teach an applied statistical techniques course this past spring. Feedback from the students was mostly positive, and the negative comments were expressed as constructive criticisms which I found insightful and actionable. For myself, the overall experience was positive, and I’m looking forward to building on the work and teaching the class again next year.

Along the way, I’ve also been tackling some data analysis problems using R, and a common theme has become apparent between teaching the class and my work—textbooks are obsolete.

For the course, only online materials from two sites were used as “required” readings, and except for the one weekend when the host website for one of the online books went down, there were no issues. (This did cause some stress, and fortunately, the site had provided all the material for download; however, the possible need to distribute this material made me temporarily question my selection of using only online materials.)

The other primary reading for the course is using a relatively new format called Bookdown. If the platform sustains support from the developers, this may revolutionize the way technical books—especially textbooks—are published.

When looking for a “book” on forecasting, I was pleasantly surprised to find a resource that had both a physical copy (available on Amazon, of course) and an online version. And while the theme for this new book was distinct, at the bottom of the page, there was an acknowledgment “Published . . . with bookdown,” which was the same method as the book above.

In addition to online books, online videos (mostly hosted on YouTube)  are providing content on implementation. Need an example of how to implement that function call in R? Someone has probably recorded a demo on that very topic. In teaching the class, I felt less like the disseminator of information and more like the curator—presenting content in an organized manner that allowed the students to gain new knowledge and skills.

I still buy books and having an option to buy a physical copy is definitely a plus, but it’s quickly moving away from being a requirement. It has never been easier to learn something new.

Volunteering your time

As professionals, time is a valuable commodity.
I don’t particularly like that statement as the word “commodity” implies abundance; however, we do trade commodities for money, and in the case of time, most of us trade our time for a salary.

Memory chips are a commodity. Apples are a commodity.
We treat time as a commodity, but it should be a treated as a resource.

Resources are limited. Copper and gold in the ground are resources. Clean water is a resource. While oil is treated as a commodity due to its historical abundance, at some point, it will be priced based on scarcity or the increased difficulty in extraction.

Time? Perhaps it depends on your point of view. As an employer, time is a commodity—I can purchase time at a market rate from any number of providers. As an employee, time is a valuable resource that is limited and always decreasing.

Taking time to volunteer means donating your most valuable resource to an organization that, hopefully, doesn’t treat it like a commodity.

I now work on both sides of this equation—I ask people to volunteer their time, and I donate my time to other groups. As someone who now asks folks for their time, I have become more aware of the value of my time. I don’t want it wasted. I want it to help the organization and its mission.

If you are a volunteer, I encourage you to consider taking a leadership role in an organization you support. Most likely, you’ll be asked to ask of others. I’m confident it will put a new perspective on how you view (and value) your time.

Story Time

A collection of facts is not a story. If you have the chance to give a presentation, why would you talk about only facts? What is the story?

As scientists, we like to focus on facts—facts are safe, they aren’t up for debate. Facts (i.e., data) are what we agree to before we start the discussion; the discussion that follows can focus on the interpretation of the data, but the facts—the data—is not up for debate. (At least by the time you get to the point where you are giving a presentation.)

When we think of a story, we probably assume three acts: a beginning, a middle, and the end. But framing a presentation in this framework can cause worry to a business audience. It’s often helpful in this setting to provide the bottom-line-up-font (BLUF). Yes, it gives away the ending, but this technique creates a useful top-down narrative that anyone with too many meetings on their calendar will appreciate.

If you want to engage the audience—whether one, five, twenty or a hundred—tell us the story behind the data. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out tale, but it needs to be enough to provide context and justify the time commitment you are asking us to give.

The War on College

The Republican Party has openly questioned the value of higher education, and the four-year college degree — ironic given the vast majority of their leadership attended college. The data does not support their position.

Some info:
The U.S. average salary for skilled trades (from the website):
Plumber: $20-$26 per hour
Electrician: $20-$26 per hour
HVAC: $18-$20 per hour
Machinist: $15-$18 per hour

Or, $36,000 to $52,000 per year (midrange of $44,000). The higher paid positions are for Master level positions which require approximately four years of work and exam that occur after 3-5 years as an apprentice and an exam. So the process is not quick and easy. Average apprentice pay is $14-15 per hour.

The U.S. average salary for engineers (civil, electrical, and mechanical) is $65,000 to $72,000.

The U.S. average annual salary for
Biotechnology research associates: $50,000
Chemist: $52,000
Software developers: $75,000

Not into science? the U.S. average annual salary for
Accountants: $49,000
Graphic designers: $41,000 (Senior Graphic designer $61,000)
Human resources specialists: $49,000

The median salary for workers between the ages of 35—44, arguably prime earning years (from

a high school diploma is $32,000
an associate degree is $42,000
a bachelor’s degree is $61,000
a master’s degree is $70,000
a doctorate or professional degree is $100,000

It is possible for a high school graduate to earn over $100,000? For individuals between 35—44 years of age, that number was 4% of those with earnings. For those with a bachelor degree, it was almost 23%!

It is helpful for young people to have options, but they should be aware of how their education level dramatically impacts the potential for financial independence.

The current educational system produced the income distributions summarized above. Efforts to drive more people to “skilled trades” will lower the number of people available to fill higher salary positions that require a bachelor’s degree or greater. It’s those higher salary positions that drive the U.S. economy and the current Republican war on education is short-sighted and self-serving.

“Pick a line!”

With ski season quickly approaching, this quote came to mind.

It’s exciting to visualize the line you want to take when standing at the top of a mountain—especially when you’re pushing down a familiar, challenging track. But even well-worn trails will have unexpected obstacles. A tight line may swing wide, a fast cruise may be interrupted by ski-school, the deep powder can hide a branch that stops your progress.

Second to worse case scenario:  you clip-out, reset, clip-in and continue. (The worse case scenario is someone takes you down the mountain.)IMG_3383

Seems like a good metaphor for life.


When will “talent development” be a real issue?

I would like to step back for a moment and look at the general trends in undergraduate and graduate education in the sciences.

Today, the U.S. is not producing enough science and engineering graduates. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics reports (September 1016), the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded increased by 63% between 1995 and 2015. The number of undergraduate degrees granted, as a percentage of all degrees, in the physical sciences and engineering increased only 52% and 57%, respectively. One bright spot, biological and biomedical sciences did see a 72% increase. Looking at the numbers, 358,000 students received Bachelor degrees in business compared to 98,000 for engineering, 30,000 for physical science and technology, and 105,000 for biological and biomedical sciences in 2014-2015. If the demand for scientist continues to grow, the shortage of talent will continue unless more students develop the skills needed for these industries.

Today, STEM graduates have a multitude of professional opportunities. As a chemist, I’m happy to see that unemployment is quite low, with only three to four percent of chemist or chemical engineers seeking employment (ChemCensus: 2015, American Chemical Society). High employment is excellent news for chemist and scientist in general; however, the number of chemists employed with only a bachelors degree has decreased significantly over the last 30 years, and this trend reflects the changing work environment.

When we think of the traditional path, students would complete their degree and move into the work force and be expected to execute specialized tasks: preparing samples, running analytical test, monitoring processes, etc. Today, employers expect their STEM workforce to not only have strong STEM knowledge, but also understand program management, be articulate communicators—both written and verbal and be able to work with marketing, sales, and business development groups.

Many of these skills, if not most, are not fully develop in an undergraduate STEM program. The good news today is that students have many paths to advance their careers.

The simplest option is to develop these skills while on the job. Larger companies often have corporate learning centers with structured training programs that deal with non-technical job functions such as corporate communication, best practices for meetings, project management, corporate sales training, marketing fundamentals, and basic finance. Technical training might include advanced Excel, SAS, or database workshops. Organizations may also sponsor graduate certificate programs. These are opportunities where one is getting “paid to learn.” (If you are looking at employment options, these benefits are worth asking about and using.)

If learning on the job fills one side of the scale, full-time graduate school is on the other. In the physical sciences, this has traditionally been the realm of doctoral programs while engineering has favored the master’s degree. The National Center for Educational Statistics (September 1016) reports, of the total number of master’s degrees awarded in their field of study, engineering has been steady at approximately 30% over the last twenty-years, while physical science and science technologies have decreased from 20% to 16%. Biological and biomedical sciences have seen master’s degrees increase from 9% to 11%. For doctoral degrees, engineering has remained steady at approximately 7% of total degrees awarded in the field; physical sciences at 15% and biological and biomedical sciences at 7%. Full-time study for both the master’s and doctoral degrees require a substantial time commitment—two to four years for a master’s degree and four to eight years for a doctoral degree. While the student’s research may focus on academic problems, there are excellent opportunities for those who can make the transition to non-academic careers. Unfortunately, outside of engineering, graduate degrees focus on academic research.

An increasingly common path for STEM graduates who enter the workforce is to find opportunities “outside of the lab” where they leverage their technical and analytical skills in the world of business. For many scientists and engineers, pursuing an MBA can round out their skill set and open doors to management careers.

In the late 1990’s, there was recognition that physical science and science technologies would benefit from a professional master’s degree; this led to the formation of the Professional Science Master’s initiative in 1997 that now includes over 356 programs at 165 institutions (including one at the University of Utah where I work). A significant difference between PSM programs and the traditional physical science M.S. or Ph.D. is the focus on industry based projects and internships as part of the degree in place of an academic thesis—while still completing graduate level courses in their scientific field. Additionally, students supplement their science courses with graduate level training in communication, leadership, writing and other areas often neglected in traditional STEM programs yet valued by employers.

There is a consistent message, both from businesses and policy makers that leading industries (biotechnology, data science, cyber security, software engineering, and others) can not fill high skilled positions. Why?

We need to work with students early. These careers require people to follow a challenging academic path that probably starts with high school math. In these new jobs for the 21st century, you WILL use algebra every day (and statistics and calculus, too). Strong math skills developed in high school are a good proxy for success in undergraduate science and engineering, but a four-year science degree is not enough in fields where the technical and intellectual challenges are large. Modern industries have moved toward specialization since the industrial revolution, and now that specialization takes longer than what can be obtained in a four-year undergraduate program. Everyone—students, teachers, employers—needs to understand the road to success is long.

It takes WORK to push through scientific and technological challenges. It can be mentally (and physically) exhausting. I often find myself in the role of “coach,” and it is rewarding to see determined students working to advance their careers by developing new skills. They will be positioned to fill the employment needs of today’s industries. It is emotionally satisfying when you succeed in solving problems—which what most scientist and engineers do.

Science Education: 1990 to 2017

In 1990, Shelia Tobias published “They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier.” Billed as “An occasional paper on neglected problems in science education,” the book was published by Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science. I vaguely remember reading the book around 1998 at the beginning of my teaching career; however, after deciding to leave academics, there was no need to think about the topic. Until last year, when I met the author at a national meeting focused on Professional Science Masters programs, and I decided it would be interesting to revisit the book.

Anyone who is preparing students for college should read this book – particularly, if your students are in the typical “college prep” track course work in calculus, physics, chemistry, etc. The book not only attempts to address why able students don’t pursue careers in science but also why students leave the sciences and pursue other studies.

The methodology was unique with seven recent, non–science graduates hired to “seriously audit” first–year chemistry and physics courses. The practices described by the participants are in line with my experiences as an undergraduate science major, with my observations as a Teaching Assistant in graduate school, and as faculty at a state university. As I started my teaching career 20–years ago, making changes to the status quo was not overly encouraged and this was one factor in my decision to leave academics.

So what’s happening today?

Unfortunately, in some areas, not much has changed. Although my impression is akin to someone looking through a single, transparent pane in a broad framework of stained glass, discussions with both my daughters during their first-year chemistry courses indicate the primary focus is still on problem-solving. To be successful, you need to recognize the problem and have the right tools in hand to solve it; asking “why” is less important than asking “how.” Why is it important for citizens to understand science? Why do scientists challenge the status quo? Why is the scientific method important? However, on a positive note, the uber–competitive environments of the past seem less so, and student collaboration is encouraged. (Maybe, over encouraged.) Additionally, the number Department, University, and online resources allow students to learn the topic in ways that better fit their learning style, although making students aware of these resources is difficult.

That college students from 1990 were turned off by the teaching pedagogy was my main take away from the reading. The importance of strong math skills being the second. I don’t believe a revolution occurred during my absence from the University classroom; furthermore, the need for strong mathematical skills is still important and should now include vital digital tools such as spreadsheets and graphical analysis. Reading this book only reminded me of the enormous amount of work still needed to improve science literacy and participation in our country.