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May 2007

Next Year

I've signed up to be an academic advisor to the engineering freshmen again, am looking forward to that. I've really enjoyed the contact with the freshmen this year, and hopefully will write a couple of posts about students' freshman year if I have enough material. It turns out Lehigh is following closely the recommendation of the Boyer Commission on reinventing undergraduate education; for instance, we have an inquired-based "introduction to engineering" course freshman year, to help students decide on their major. I've also signed up to help facilitate the discussions organized by the Office of the First-Year Experience for the freshmen on the biography of the Dalai-Lama, since he will come to Lehigh in July 2008. (I still find the name "Office of the First-Year Experience" a bit puzzling, but hopefully I'll get used to it before the seminars on the book start!)

Looking back on my three years at Lehigh, what I've enjoyed most is the opportunity to make a difference in students' lives. And, quite frankly, not everyone needs a teacher to make a difference in his or her life - most kids are perfectly successful all by themselves. But I can think of half a dozen students for whom it has really mattered that I taught or advised them, and when all is said and done, I'm happy if I've helped just five or six or seven kids out. Not everyone can take pride in such a tally - some people never even help one kid in their whole life, and the thank-you notes I've received make it all worthwhile. I only wish that other people were a little more respectful of all the time I spend advising students and setting a good example.

I am now going to get back to a schedule of 2-3 posts a week as originally planned. Next post (in a few days) will be on quantitative models in business - since it's summer on Lehigh standards I will post more often on business than education until the school year starts again. Enjoy!

Getting in the way of the American Dream

My first year in Boston, I had a friend who had just dropped out of the PhD program in biochemistry at Tufts with a Master degree. She was Russian, but her status in the US was assured by her being engaged, and soon married, to an American. I remember her so well because from my own biased perspective, it seemed that failing the qualifying exam, because of one's own advisor no less (and hence not being allowed to continue in the doctoral program) was the worst possible thing that could happen to anybody. The PhD was the end goal; there was no reason whatsoever not to want one, people who dropped out became some kind of second-tier individuals, looked upon by the PhD candidates. And guess what? My Russian friend was perfectly happy. She admitted being very disappointed at first, very hurt, but later recognized that it was the best thing that had happened to her, as she was more inclined towards business than towards science and wouldn't have enjoyed spending hours in the lab.

I repeat her words to myself as I see my own students. I supervise Master's and PhD theses, as well as undergraduate projects, and of course getting used to the level of Lehigh's doctoral candidates after five years at MIT has taken some time, but we do have some superb students. We also, unfortunately, have some who are - well - not so good, even if they seem to have potential on paper. What makes the situation so difficult in the case of international students is that they are rarely told about their fate early enough in the academic year to transfer to a lesser institution, so cutting their funding means they have to pack their bags and go back home ten time zones away feeling like failures. And it is hard to impose such hardship on another human being. At the same time, funding has become extremely tight in recent years, and in contrast with industry where a supervisor doesn't feel he's paying his team out of his own pocket, I really take the money out of my own university accounts (I have one account for each source of funding: startup package, NSF grant, etc). So it becomes a lot more important for a research advisor in academia to see her team perform than it is in industry: once my money is gone, I have to apply for another grant and talk with industry sponsors, for instance, and since money is awarded based on past results, I need to get a decent return on investment on every single dollar. (In academia ROI is measured in terms of publications.)

The part of my job I dislike most is having to tell a student he or she should find another advisor, which is a polite way of saying he or she is not meeting expectations. Many Americans, in my own limited experience, tend to see grad school as a continuation of college, an extension to figure things out rather than a goal in itself, and are generally not as disappointed as foreigners; they also do not have to worry about staying in the US. Foreigners view the news as the brutal death of their American Dream. Initially, I had naively expected most students entering the program to exit with the PhD, so I hadn't given much thought to the best way of letting some go, but that should have been part of my advising plan from day one. So starting next year I will require of all my students to earn a Master of Science with thesis the first year they work with me, even if they already have a Master degree, and will only renew their funding if they are able to show me during that first year of work together (their second year in the program, as they are funded by the department their first year) that they can succeed as researchers. I think some convince themselves when they start working with an advisor that they just have to hang in there forever and at the end we'll be forced to give them a degree. But someone who doesn't understand English at a point that I have to write everything in detail step by step on a piece of paper for him/her to know what he/she has to do, and who is only able to solve tiny problems in Excel and make tables but doesn't derive theoretical results and doesn't think by himself/herself, even someone who is a hard worker, really shouldn't get a PhD. There is another issue, though: in contrast with industry, where people are hired to perform a specific job, an advisor-advisee relationship evolves a lot within the three or four years of its duration, and it is perfectly normal for a new student to have a hard time working by himself or herself as long as this state does not last for years. So how do you know whether a student is only slow to catch up to what getting a PhD means or whether he simply shouldn't stay in the program? Well, you don't. You take a chance and you hope you're not destroying anybody's dream in the process.   

Head Start

There was an article in the New York Times last week on college-prep courses, which apparently fail to prepare many high school students to college. That reminded me of all the advanced placement credits and transfer credits from nearby community colleges many students have already earned when they enter Lehigh; some even gain sophomore status before setting foot on campus. (I am an academic advisor for the engineering freshmen, so I keep an eye on such things.)  By contrast the students who have neither taken any extra course nor scored high enough at the AP tests seem a little behind on paper, just because of the contrast with their classmates. So now that the schoolyear is over, did the extra preparation pay?
Well, yes - in my sample, engineering students without any credit at all before entering college had an average GPA, at the end of freshman year, 0.34 point lower than that of their classmates who had transferred at least a few courses. But does that mean students learn college material better in high school? Of course not. The numbers don't validate the quality of the courses students have taken beforehand; instead, they suggest that the students who take AP courses and attend a community college in high school are the type of students who strive to do well in class once they're in college. The full picture might be a bit more complicated, though: a number of highly successful kids owed most of their AP credits to humanities and social sciences, not exactly relevant to the core curriculum in the School of Engineering, and maybe the students didn't transfer to Lehigh the engineering credits they had earned in order to see the material a second time around - that can't have hurt their GPA. (I have no idea whether that is the case.) There might not be too many freshmen left out there who succeed the old-fashioned way. When will we see GPA-obsessed students start college in one institution and then apply to another one after a year or two as if they were just graduating from high school? That essay to Harvard would certainly sound a lot more polished and thoughtful if the kid were two years older than the other applicants.

The Nostalgia Business

Commencement season is upon us - speeches are made; degrees are received. Graduates’ parents secretly hope their kid will never fail even if the speaker insists people learn most from their mistakes. Madeleine Albright delivers an exhortation to leadership at UNC, which echoes the text of her 1995 address at Wellesley - some messages never get old. (She returns to Wellesley on June 1st.) At Lehigh the blind alpinist Erik Weihenmayer talks about developing an internal compass and leaving a legacy. The talks fill college kids in cap and gown with the awareness of possibilities; Commencement is the day where they feel they can do anything if only they set their mind to it. Students hug and parents cheer. This is all very moving.       

Seen from France, where I come from, the tradition of cap and gown is "typical American", by which we mean that the Yankees had to put on a show (preferably loud and colorful.) An engineering school I know in the Paris area did not even have a graduation ceremony until the late 1990s and when a business school imitated the Americans by requiring a cap for the ceremony in the early 2000s (no gown), students jeered that the school was selling out - education is not entertainment. But what strikes me here is that engineering schools in France (the equivalent of Ivy League colleges in the US) are funded by the government, and hence have not come to depend on alumni donations to pay their operating costs or attract world-class professors. I received the very first letter of my alma mater soliciting money in the history of the school two years ago - a change of heart (absolutely radical on French standards) motivated by the globalization of education: French engineering schools want to attract top foreign students to increase their own international visibility, but the government only pays for the studies of French nationals and the schools have to raise funds to create fellowships for foreigners.

Which brings me to my main point: is Commencement, in its full cap and gown glory, the first attempt by American institutes of higher education to breed the nostalgia that will keep alumni's pocketbooks open for years to come? It can't be just out of the goodness of their heart that places like Lehigh organize yearly reunions for young alums. The more alumni recall good times with former classmates, the more connected they feel to their alma mater, the more generous they become with their money... And it all starts on Commencement day, when their university tells the graduates that, thanks to the education it provided them with for many years, they can now dream big and reach for the stars - only the cold of heart would not feel grateful. I wonder, sometimes, whether Commencement speeches make a difference, whether Harvard could trade speakers with Stanford without changing the course of history, whether anyone out there feels the address she heard when she graduated impacted her life in any kind of major way. I don't have much hope in the answers. But, as it turned out, the fact that Madeleine Albright talked at UNC last week did matter - at least it did for Jason Ray's parents when she mentioned the kid, who died in March before a school basketball game, hit by a car in New Jersey. (He was the UNC mascot.) Albright took the time to learn one thing about UNC that would resonate with the graduates. Let's face it: she might be a veteran of the Commencement address, a foot soldier of the university nostalgia business, but at 70 since last week, the woman still has class. And if the only benefit of the cap-and-gown exercises is to put role models in front of the graduates, well, that's not a bad thing to start out in the real world with.

Adult Ed and Globalization

About a year ago I hailed a cab at the Lehigh Valley Airport late at night after coming back from D.C., and I knew right away that the driver had a story to tell. I knew because I have used that cab company countless times (there are only two of them in the area anyway, and only one that is allowed to pick up passengers in Bethlehem), and all the drivers until that day had been burly white males in their fifties with tattooed; they had turned out without exception to be former members of the military forces with tours of duty in Vietnam and the Gulf War. (Apparently they can no longer stand authority when they return to civil life.) That driver, however, was Caucasian but about forty, he did not have any tattoo and he spoke very well – picked his words with care, made thoughtful comments. In summary, he looked absolutely out-of-place driving a cab in the Lehigh Valley. I told him my theory about the taxi drivers in the area being former Marines and the like and he confirmed that all the other drivers he knew had served in the military - and the dispatcher too. Then he talked about his previous job. I remember the evening so vividly because he said he had worked for a telecommunications company for a decade in some kind of white-collar position; he had been sent overseas to train his foreign replacements, who were cheaper, and after training them he had lost his job. He had known his days at the company were counted so it had not come as a surprise, and when he described it all he sounded neither bitter nor angry, just resigned. He had been a cab driver for just a few weeks, still needed to figure out what he would do next. I didn't know what to tell him. 

So how do you deal with globalization without turning a number of Americans into resentful unemployed? Jobs that were thought as secure have become commodities (think about computer programmers), and people migrate towards careers heavy in “soft skills” to give themselves a competitive advantage – after all, you can never perfectly replace something that you can’t quantify. One idea I would like to explore further is the role of universities’ continuous-ed programs in helping employees remain marketable despite the fast pace of change. The current model of post-baccalaureate engineering education relies on the master of science (or engineering) and the doctorate; once you have earned them, you are done for life. Nobody earns a Master of Science in the same department twice. In previous decades the employee gained on the job whatever experience was needed to further his training, but in today’s environment it might not be possible for him to learn new concepts fast enough to keep his expertise ahead of the global pack's; once all other factors have become equal employers overwhelmingly select the cheaper service provider. The questions then become: how to stay an expert in today’s world, and how can universities help? What was taught twenty years ago has little in common with what is being taught now, but advanced degrees typically require significant investments in time and money that few employees with families (especially college-aged kids) and worries about job security would be willing to take at that point in their career. So what can we add to the current system of continuous education to create a structure that is flexible enough to match employees’ commitments, but also rigorous enough to provide state-of-the-art training and broad enough to help workers reposition themselves in the changing marketplace? I am not talking about attending one evening class out of curiosity here. Instead, this calls for redeveloping a branch of continuing education into certificate-granting programs that would be taught by the same faculty as graduate-level courses, in the same way as executive MBAs are taught by the same faculty as “regular” MBA students. Adult education should become an integral part of all universities’ mission, not to introduce more laypeople to new topics for fun, but to help highly skilled members of the workforce remain at the top of their game. Executives aren't the only ones who could use a bit of training after the age of forty.

The Popularization of Engineering

A while back I wrote a post on magazines providing readers with access to knowledge of some sort through expensive conferences, with the New Yorker Conference (organized by the New Yorker magazine) providing an excellent example. It appears that the conference sold out weeks before it was held; the $1,200 price tag for one day and two nights did not deter the crowd - I can't wait to learn about next year's price... $1,500? $2,000? Anyone could have learnt about the topics covered (intellectual property, art, architecture, genetics, wireless communication...) by herself, as I doubt the presenters got into many details, but of course few laypeople have the time, or the inclination, to research sixteen (yes, sixteen) different fields. From my perspective this is the true advantage of such a conference - it forces attendees to hear about topics they would not have bothered learning about otherwise, thrown in with the topics the attendees came for.

Take engineering. The profession is currently trying to rebrand itself as the science of problem-solving, broadly interpreted. The National Academy of Engineering has a whole website devoted to the greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth-century, and another one to determine the engineering challenges of the next hundred years; the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science created a website to win over business people to "the science of better" (someone's attempt to explain what operations research - my field - is supposed to mean; I call it "quantitative models for better management".) But who is visiting these websites? People who already knew about them - who had some preexisting level of interest in engineering. They do little in reaching the rest of the population because they are not "bundled" with non-engineering sites that would attract a broader range of viewers. Conferences such as the one organized by the New Yorker can contribute to the national debate by educating management in science and engineering, even if it is just by giving a flavor of the issues at stake.

The truth is, the average arts major or MBA graduate isn't going to pick up the Scientific American just for fun; it is not too far-fetched, however, to picture her opening The Economist and the New York Times, and after a long look at the other news, giving their science section a try. We will be a lot more effective in raising the general public's awareness of engineering if we use general-purpose media and events, rather than create websites that only the like-minded will pay attention to. The profession itself is in part to blame - most engineers feel that explaining what they do in layman's terms distracts them from their work. But, to use an expression coined by Shirley Ann Jackson, engineering faces a "quiet crisis": the United States aren't training enough students in the field to replace the baby-boomers about to retire, and the youth will not view engineering as an appealing career path unless the profession  gains a better reputation. (No, engineers aren't technicians. Really.) Engineering needs its Carl Sagan, so that isolated efforts such as the PBS series for children "Design Squad" can be promoted with the full authority of a specialist - well-intentioned programs won't amount to much without an unofficial spokesperson for engineering whom the young and not-so-young can relate to. In the meantime, I'll dream of the day when The Economist devotes one full page every week to an engineer or a scientist, the same length it now spends on CEOs in "Face value". I might dream a while.            

The New Yorker's new website

The New Yorker has a new website at last! I don't even know when it happened; I lost faith in that website a long time ago. The old ugly site was still online earlier this year so this change can't be more than a few months old. (If you never saw the old website, let me just say it looked like it had been designed in 1995.) I didn't think I would ever write this but it looks quite good now - overly wordy at the bottom with all the titles of the articles, but what can I say, this is the New Yorker. Articles are free for anyone to read, which suggests that the magazine is moving further away from its traditional model of subscriber-based revenue and, instead, wants to extract more money from advertisers and from attendees to its special events (the New Yorker Festival and the New Yorker Conference - more on that one in my next post). Or maybe the marketing staff is just clueless - even the New York Times requires a free online registration to view its content.  It does strike me as funny, though, that the only direct input readers have (besides writing letters to the editor) is on the caption of a cartoon through the weekly caption contest - no readers' comments here (you gotta have values in life!) and contributors' blogs are not hosted on the New Yorker's website; the magazine only provides links to them.

So let me suggest a way to involve readers without having to cave in to popular pressure - no comment at the bottom of the page, I promise. Every year, the New Yorker should award a readers' prize to the best reporting feature published in its pages within the last twelve months. Given their taste for organizing events to shore up the company's bottom line, the marketing people could even turn it into a public affair, with journalists reading their nominated piece and people making speeches and advertisers drinking champagne. I am suggesting this for a very selfish reason: I want to vote. And my vote is going to "Enemy of the State: The Complicated Life of an Idealist", by Jianying Zha, sister of Jianguo Zha, who has been imprisoned in China since 1999 for trying to organize a political party. It was published in the April 23rd, 2007 issue. Read it! (Maybe there is an advantage to putting the articles available to anyone on the Internet after all. At least for you - I am a subscriber.) Read it and don't forget. Because while we all enjoy making fun of the New Yorker's website, its journalists can still teach us a lesson or two.

This is not L.A.

[Note for all of you stumbling upon this page because you are looking for the address of the Bieber bus stop/park-and-ride in Hellertown: on Route 412 when you reach the junction with Route 78 there is a road opposite the ramp for 78-West, between a gas station and a Wendy's. Take that road; it is called Silvex Road. The park-and-ride is immediately to your left after the Wendy's; the entrance is before the road turns and goes under the highway. To get tickets you need to stop first at the Exxon gas station near the Route 78 East ramp on Route 412. If you are coming from Bethlehem, the gas station is to your right after the 78-East ramp. You need a photo ID to buy the bus tickets. Have a great trip to New York! And now, on to the column...]

I had been warned not to come after seven and showed up at five-thirty just to be on the safe side, and by that I mean five-thirty in the morning. What else could I do - I needed to go to New York City on a weekday, I needed to leave the car at the park-and-ride, I needed to find a parking spot; I didn't have much of a choice. Or at least that's what other people had told me, and I didn't quite understand what they had been talking about until a couple of weeks later when I pulled into the lot around noon. I had come to pick up a friend and slalomed between Chevy Cobalts and Hyundai Accents, left and locked in the middle of the way, outside any white marking on the ground but also away enough from the cars that were rightfully parked, so that their owners did not have to fret about getting towed. SUVs checkered the grassy slope nearby; the side of the road also proved popular, and a stretch of gravel across the street.

It looked like pure chaos. I could almost feel the rage of the commuter about to miss the bus, get into trouble at work, because he couldn't find a place to leave his car. This time of day the bus runs every half hour and thirty minutes make a big difference if you don't beat traffic to the Lincoln Tunnel. On a weekend morning it takes one hour and twenty-five minutes (I timed it) for the bus leaving Hellertown, Pennsylvania, right off Route 78, to reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, but if you get stuck with too many other commuters entering the city on a weekday, you might as well double that. Until a couple of years ago this did not matter to Pennsylvania residents at all, because they did not drive to New York City for work. Three, four, five hours spent in a car, day in and day out? They would have laughed out loud - this is not L.A. But the sky-rocketing home prices in New Jersey have pushed middle-class families farther east, and the Lehigh Valley is looking more and more like an exburb of the Big Apple. The park-and-ride supposedly started overflowing about two years ago, maybe because new residents recognized that three hours a day on a bus meant three more hours of sleep. (Really, this is not L.A.)

That morning at five-thirty I parked and walked to the boarding point. When I came closer I noticed the bags. They were lined up in one row, stretching along the curb, one satchel after the other, almost evenly spaced. I frowned: there was nobody around. A car pulled into the lot and stopped near me; a woman opened the passenger door and, without getting out, placed her handbag at the end of the line. Then she closed the door and the sedan pulled away. That's when I noticed the cars idling on the parking lot - drivers were dropping off their spouse, but the next coach would not arrive for twenty more minutes and that was time they would wrestle from their schedule, they would spend chatting about the kids or listening to the radio. The children would grow up in a big house with a yard and the parents had done the right thing, but there remained twenty more minutes before the official start of the day and no one would take that from them. Their bags were holding their place in line because the coach might fill up and they didn't want to wait for the next one if they could avoid it. (First, the struggle to find a spot for the car; then, the struggle to find a spot for oneself.) After five years in Boston I stared at the satchels in disbelief: didn't it occur to these people that someone might zoom by and grab a bag? Weren't they worried their belongings could get stolen? But it wasn't even six in the morning and the thieves were asleep. This isn't L.A., this isn't New York either, just a small town getting swallowed by the big city seventy-five miles away.

The Bieber bus rumbled down the street; the commuters emerged from their cars and waved their spouse goodbye; they recovered their bags, exchanged greetings with one another and took their place in line. Then they smiled at the driver, the same as the previous day and many days before that, whom they viewed by now as an old acquaintance, a friend maybe, a family member. "Good morning! Good morning!"