Archive for education

It is time for America to switch to Celsius

One of the most tedious parts of science education is familiarizing students to the International System of Units (a.k.a “metric system”). We would realize substantial gains if we were to incorporate any aspect of that system into the standard American language, but too many people just don’t see any reason to exert any effort towards learning a new system. While efforts to introduce the system have floundered (such as converting from miles to kilometers), I think American society has finally reached the point where conversion to the Celsius system is achievable.

To achieve this, we can take advantage of two big changes of the past generation:

1) A large minority of Americans now attend colleges, particularly at large public universities.

2) Digital display screens are now ubiquitous.

If you combine these with the continued, if not growing, importance of the natural sciences in our economy, then we have the right conditions for a change.

The strategy that I devised (over a cup of coffee) goes like this:

The core of this push would be the science departments at higher education institutions. Technology companies may also be interested in contributing. On university campuses, digital thermometer displays could be placed at popular locations, both indoors and outdoors. In addition to displaying the current temperature in Celsius, they could also display forecasts. The presence of forecasts would give students incentives to learn how to interpret the Celsius system. Given that many university buildings already have large flat-panel displays gratuitously distributed around the campus, the initial cost of implementing this system should be minimal. Even installing new specialized thermometer displays should be a reasonable cost for universities. Emphasis would start with science departments, then expand across the university, then into community colleges, secondary and primary schools.

Technology (especially software) companies could incorporate Celsius thermometers into their products. Any retailer or other manager of public space could install Celsius thermometer displays.

I think that converting our temperature-measuring system will be substantially easier than converting other systems, such as distance- or weight-measuring. The primary reason is that temperature is typically of public interest (e.g. a weather forecast), whereas measurements of distance or weight is typically dependent on an individuals idiosyncratic needs at a particular moment. The public nature of most temperature measurements makes it easier to offer an unsolicited measurement to others. A further advantage is that the Celsius scale incorporates intuitive reference points (water’s freezing and boiling points).

I’m excited about this… let’s see if anything will come of it (as if I have the time or clout to organize a campaign like this).


Why I deleted my ResearchGate account

Several months ago, I was excited to discover ResearchGate, and online community for scientists. I was initially attracted by the discussion boards, which included a lot of useful technical feedback. I set up an account, and proceeded to use the service occasionally and share my expertise. The service was not terribly useful to me, but it seemed to be growing and improving, so I was happy to play along. A couple of months ago, I noticed that I could not see anything on the site without first logging in.

I have finally decided to delete the account. Here’s what I told them:

I was originally attracted to Research Gate due to the discussions. Like any other professional/technical discussion board (e.g. StackOverflow), I expect public discussions to be truly public — not controlled by the service. I am very disappointed that Research Gate has placed a virtual wall around its content.

This is a deal breaker for me. I will not contribute content to any service that tries to take control of that content.

Too many companies are trying to make a buck by gaining control over our social interactions. This is sick, and ResearchGate does not offer nearly enough benefits to keep me on board through this process. I hope they will change their business model and recognize the users and content creators as true “members”, not just a commodity to be fed into a pipeline. If not, good riddance.

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Software Carpentry workshops

Software Carpentry seeks to train biologists in the basics of software design. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend when one was held at UC Berkeley, but I suspect that this is exactly what is needed for most biologists.


Houston Community College in Qatar

Ever since I heard of Qatar’s “Education City” (when Carnegie Mellon University joined), I had been under the impression that Qatar was turning to foreign institutions to provide education to the country’s elite. It turns out that they are also turning to American institutions to provide broader access to post-secondary education. Houston Community College in Qatar is currently hiring Biology professors (no, I’m not applying).

It seems that the College has been offering classes for two years now, and there has been some turn-arounds for the college. I hope things go better in the future. It looks like the world is changing: I hadn’t thought that Qatar would care for community college education (not that I really know anything about Qatar), and I hadn’t thought that a Texan community college would represent part of American academia in an Arab country.