Category: STEM

Do you often find yourself in a large lecture course required for your major and lose focus ten minutes in? Do you wonder if it’s even worth going to class, and decide your time would be better spent studying (or sleeping)?

In a previous column, I proposed that the current method of teaching undergraduates is increasingly at odds with mounting evidence from both education research and neuroscience. This column, I’ll be proposing a few easy and evidence-based fixes to make lecture courses not only more fun and engaging for students, but also easier for professors to teach in a more effective way.

My advice boils down to one simple idea: turn lecture courses into a hub of social activity. If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty of how to implement this technique either as a student or professor, stay tuned for next week’s column — this one is going to focus on the scientific rationale behind my advice.

It might seem counterintuitive that letting students engage in ‘distracting’ activities like talking in class results in greater learning, but education research has been supporting this idea for decades. One recent meta review of over 400 studies showed that engaging active learning techniques focused on social activity in lectures boosted not only the overall average grade, but also most improved the grades of those at the bottom of the class, without decreasing the high scores of those at the top.

Essentially, social learning has a ‘rising tides float all boats’ effect.

The most well-tested way to implement social learning comes from the well-studied ‘flipped classroom’ technique. In this approach, the ‘lecture’ component of the class is assigned as homework to be completed prior to the class, most commonly as a video file and more rarely as an interactive online assignment or textbook readings. In class, students are assigned to work on problem sets or discuss the material in groups, with the professor and TAs as facilitators who ‘check in’ with groups by answering questions and offering guidance. This model actively encourages cooperation and lively discussion among classmates. Sounds more fun than your normal lecture, right?

Now for the neuroscience. Humans are fundamentally social animals, with much larger brain regions dedicated to analyzing and understanding the emotions and motivations of other people. Social activity is so important to us that our ‘default’ brain network, the one that activates when you’re daydreaming or not thinking about much at all, overlaps heavily with your brain’s go-to area of activation for social activity, the mentalizing network. Your brain ‘wants’ to be in this state, because historically, cooperation with peers has been mutually beneficial to survival.

Social activity is in fact so rewarding that interacting with other people triggers a huge release of domaine, the same ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter responsible for chemically induced highs. Amazingly, the release of dopamine can also enhance the brain’s ability to create and store new memories. So to sum up, feeling happy while learning is not only positive for your well being, but can actually help to improve your memory.

It’s no wonder that social activity plays a massive role in our lives and correspondingly holds a massive influence over our brains. But by forcing students to unnaturally focus on fast-paced and unvaried information flow, traditional lectures put an unduly heavy strain on the brain’s working memory network.

As a lecture goes on, the brain’s pull to ‘wander’ gets more intense, and focus is eventually lost. Social learning works so well because it hijacks this drive to socialize and redirects it towards learning. By engaging the default/mentalizing network, group work enhances a student’s ability to focus for long periods of time, and the extra dopamine released from socialization helps that information be better retained.

Engaging in more socialization can have many positive side effects as well. Long-standing issues in the Columbia community revolve around the oppressive stress-culture and feeling of loneliness experienced by many students.

While switching to a social-learning based classroom environment won’t magically fix these issues, many sociological experiments on undergraduate populations link stronger social bonds to myriad positive outcomes, including but not limited to increased student happiness, improved levels of student well-being, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and more successful career outcomes post-graduation.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that encouraged socialization in the classroom can lead to more casual conversation and foster friendships outside of the classroom’s confines, creating a stronger and healthier community in the process.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, I advocate for Columbia professors opening a dialogue around the efficacy of the lecture course and opening their classrooms to experimental techniques. Decades of support from educational research combined with exciting new evidence from the emerging field of neuroeducation combine to form a compelling case for social learning.

A small amount of effort in redesigning course curricula and pre-recording lecture segments can pay off in happier, more engaged students who are not only excited to learn, but can also retain information better and for longer. For both professors and students, incorporating social learning in the classroom is a win-win.
*While based in pre-existing research, the hypothesis about social learning put forth is my own original work and is further explained in a long-form scientific article (The Case for Social Learning). Contact the author for further information.

Photo Courtesy of James Xue (SEAS ’17)

“I’m bored.”

This is the cry of every student who finds themselves swimming in the ocean of free time that is summer vacation. As much fun as it is to sleep the mornings away, it gets old after the third week. So what exactly should you do with your newfound free time? Why not spend it becoming acquainted with a subject you’ve never tackled before? Never fear if you didn’t apply for summer classes. There are plenty of quality learning resources available if you have a computer and internet access. The following resources are primarily video-based, though some include outside exercises and quizzes that you can use as supplementary materials. 

CourseWorld (Free)

What do you do when you want to learn about a topic but Wikipedia isn’t good enough? CourseWorld is a not-for-profit online resource committed to giving a quality liberal arts education to anyone who wants it. The instructional videos, mostly curated from YouTube, cover everything from religion to freelance writing. If you’re looking to learn about a specific topic, say Korean literature, this is the place for you. The site allows you to make an account and queue up your videos for later viewing if you’d like. It’s easy to search for the videos you’re looking for based on a keyword, and the site includes courses, or a related series of videos, for most subjects. The site draws primarily from documentaries, lectures, and discussion panels. 

Coursera (Free, starting at $49 for course certificate)

Miss the hallowed halls of Columbia and wish you were still in class? Coursera can help. The website offers massive open online courses, or MOOCs from universities like Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and our fair Columbia. They’re completely free, and you can take as much (or as little) from the courses as you’d like, as instructors don’t give students grades. Coursera’s courses are true blue college courses, which means it carries the workload of a college course. Keep that in mind before you sign up to take ten of them at the same time. It might be hard to motivate yourself to stay inside and watch videos when the pleasant weather of summer beckons from outside.

Compared to CourseWorld, it might be a little more challenging to wade through Coursera courses if you’re looking for specific information. On the other hand, by the end of the course, you’ll be a verified mini-expert. Also, when you sign up for a course, you can sign up for a special track that will award you a certificate at the end of the course. This special certificate track costs money, but there are scholarships available. The site offers everything from computer programming courses to foreign language. You must make an account to view videos, and Coursera takes its honor code pretty seriously. 

Lynda ($25 a month, free for Columbia/Barnard students)

Want to up your internship game? Lynda is a site that offers a multitude of courses in business and technical skills, all taught by industry experts. You can choose to watch videos independently, or if you’d like, you can choose to be on a “learning path” that will give you the skills of a certain occupation once you’ve finished all the videos. Examples include how to become an project manager and how to become an iOS app developer, though there are many others. The material here isn’t usually as engaging as the material on the other two sites, though Lynda is the only website to offer courses on “soft” skills like leadership. When you finish a course, you can post an acknowledgement of this fact directly on your LinkedIn profile. You have to make an account to view videos. You can access Columbia’s Lynda portal here.  

Fight the summer brain drain with these three online resources. Each site draws its strength from the particular method it uses to teach you and you can pick the best site depending on your individual needs. Just remember: you can can always learn, even in the summer. 

Photo Courtesy Josh Schenk, CC ’19

I care about grades. I care about grades a lot. I pretend not to because our culture is such that appearing to care about school is a character flaw. But so is not doing well.

Today, I skimmed this article about how the “world is run by C students” — an opinion I’ve heard before, but widely ignored because I know it doesn’t apply to me. But for some reason today, I opened it up and skimmed through it.

Bill Gates, Joe Biden, George W. Bush, the list rattled on. They have “run the world” despite being “mediocre” students.

“So why can’t you?,” The article argues.

It’s an interesting perspective, one meant to be encouraging to the students whose intelligence does not quite correspond with academia, but it’s one I feel uncomfortable thinking about. Maybe it’s because while I’m not the straight-A student this article juxtaposes, I’m also not a C student — but I could be. If I didn’t feverishly overwork myself, in fact, I would be.

But the thing is, I’m not Bill Gates. I’m not Joe Biden. I’m not George W. Bush. And I don’t mean that in a literal sense or even to allude to the fact that I might not be as ‘smart’ as them. I’m not them because I can’t get away with mediocrity the same way they were able to.

Women, People of Color, Low-Income students don’t get to just let school happen to them. We don’t get to be mediocre. If we are, suddenly people question our existence in academic spaces. If we are, suddenly people use us as examples of how systems of affirmative action are flawed. We become reduced to another cog in the supposed unfair system.

But no one ever uses the mediocrity of a white students to condemn white supremacy. No one uses the mediocrity of men to condemn patriarchy. No one uses the mediocrity of rich students to condemn classist education systems.

We don’t have the privilege of individualism — we represent the groups we are a part of, and we must prove our existence over and over again.

That’s a lot of pressure to carry.

So I do care about grades, and I care about grades a lot. And it’s not because I think grades are an accurate representation of my intelligence. It’s not because I get some sort of sadistic pleasure from stressing myself over grades. It’s because I just can’t afford to do poorly. I can’t afford to “waste” my college education because doing so means risking my chance of future financial stability. It means risking all the work my parents and I have put into getting here in the first place.

And that’s just something I can’t play around with.

So when I hear my peers joke about how unimportant an assignment is, I’m reminded that I don’t have the luxury of mediocrity. I’m reminded that for them, getting C’s is a choice and not a result of educational inequality propelled by my class and racial identities.

I don’t have the luxury of shrugging off my sub par academic performance because, for me, the consequences are much higher. And for me, even my hardest work is oftentimes not enough because I didn’t spend thirteen years of primary and secondary school preparing me for the academic intensity of college.

So perhaps it’s true that C students are the ones who “run the world.” Perhaps these articles are right and being a C student is a pre-req for high-level success. But let us not forget the first requisite of all: privilege.

Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. There’s no doubt they’re brilliant men, but before we rattle on about how C-students and college dropouts are running the world, let’s not forget the position these brilliant men were in to accomplish all that they did. Let us not forget their maleness, their whiteness, their wealth.

The intentions of these articles are good. By reminding college students that “grades aren’t everything,” maybe we can comfort the over-worked and hyper-stressed students struggling to get through college, even if only for a brief moment.

But maybe we can accomplish this without undermining the hard work students put into school — especially those whose existence in college is already revolutionary, and especially for those whose only option for financial stability is struggling through an education system that was never built for them.

So maybe these students aren’t the future tech personality giants, but their presence and work is no less crucial for the future of our society.

Let us never, ever forget that.


This post was originally published on Medium.
Lesley Cordero is a junior in Columbia Engineering studying Computer Science.
The Lion is Columbia’s only publication that pledges to post all submissions (even anonymous ones) that meet our submission criteria. To respond to this Op-Ed or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

This week, ColorCode was pleased to learn that Professor Kale revoked the Robocop competition and issued a full apology for the original assignment, which, as he writes, “failed to provide adequate context” for a data set laden with historical and political racial trauma. We appreciate Professor Kale’s explanation of the assignment’s intended impact––to lead students to interrogate the policy implications of ML classifiers trained on racist data––and hope that future assignments can convey this lesson with the clarity that this assignment lacked. We sincerely applaud Professor Kale’s timely and appropriate correction, and hope that all professors at Columbia can follow his example in responding to student concerns with empathy and accountability.

 

Since our last statement, some of our peers have questioned whether the assignment’s revocation has deprived the class of an ethics lesson in handling politically challenging data sets. Lessons should not come at the cost of direct harm to the most marginalized groups involved. While we agree with Professor Kale’s professed intentions in assigning the Robocop competition, we stand by our original assessment (with which Professor Kale himself has agreed): that the assignment in its original form could not have produced the intended pedagogical outcome and discussion on data responsibility in Machine Learning. And while this particular incident has been sufficiently redressed by Professor Kale himself, we think it’s important to locate the Robocop assignment in the context of a larger department and school that excludes and silences Black students and students of color. We are studying computer science in a department with few Black students and no Black faculty, in an engineering school that builds on a legacy of close collaboration with the U.S. military and NYPD, at a university that is gentrifying Harlem to build its newest science center. From casual remarks about our intelligence by classmates, TAs, and professors, to academic policies not intended to help the most marginalized of us succeed– these experiences contribute to an academic atmosphere that repeatedly dismisses and delegitimizes our pain by “intellectualizing” academic work with horrific, racist implications and impacts. Computer Science at Columbia is steeped in a history of racism that still persists today. Within this context, an assignment “welcoming” students to a “future” of “cyborg law enforcers” trained on racist, violently-collected data is inexcusable.

 

We therefore point to the Robocop incident as evidence that massive reform is needed within the department to support Black students and other students of color, low income students, and other marginalized people in STEM. Professor Kale’s swift response gives us a lot of hope that change can happen here at Columbia. We will continue to hold professors, departments, and the university accountable to the impact of their academic work. We join Mobilized African Diaspora in demanding greater academic support for marginalized students of color, especially the hiring of Black faculty in Computer Science and SEAS. We also ask that SEAS as a whole reaffirm its commitment to its most marginalized students by expanding course offerings on research ethics and incorporating requirements in African American Studies and Ethnic Studies. We ask this with the recognition that technical knowledge is dangerous without an analysis of race and power. Finally, we urge current professors to build on pedagogy and research that is explicitly anti-racist and anti-oppressive, that gives students the opportunity to work on projects that uplift and liberate communities of color and other marginalized people.

 

We thank the following groups for their explicit support (running list). Please reach out to colorcodeboard@gmail.com if your organization would like to co-sign:

National Society of Black Engineers– Columbia

The Lion

No Red Tape

Students for Justice in Palestine

Divest Barnard

Photo Courtesy of Color Code

On Thursday, the ColorCode committee learned that Columbia University Computer Science professor Satyen Kale assigned to his Machine Language (COMS 4117) class a competition “to produce the eponymous cyborg law enforcer.” Drawing on data from the NYPD’s “Stop, Question and Frisk” records, students have been asked to create a machine learning algorithm to “decide when a suspect it has stopped should be arrested” based on characteristics ranging from “sex” and “race” to “suspect was wearing unseasonable attire”, “suspicious bulge”, and “change direction at sight of officer”. Stop­ and ­Frisk is a violently racist program that allows police to stop, question, and frisk any pedestrian who arouses “reasonable suspicion.” Numerous studies and investigations of the NYPD’s own data have shown that Stop­ and ­Frisk disproportionately targets Black people. It has torn apart Black communities in the city and contributes to a system of mass incarceration and policing that brutalizes, incarcerates, and kills Black people across the nation. The program has even been deemed unconstitutional by federal courts.

That a Columbia professor would ask students to implement a program that reproduces and aids Stop­ and Frisk policing with zero acknowledgement of the violence and harm inflicted by the actual program­­–and in fact suggest that machine learning algorithms like this constitute “the future” of machine learning applications— is an egregious example of racist, ahistorical, and irresponsible pedagogy. Data are not apolitical. Algorithms are not objective. To teach technical skills without also teaching anti­racist, anti­oppression developing principles is unforgivable, despicable, and dangerous. For us, as students of color who also are coders, entrepreneurs, and engineers, assignments like this confirm feelings of exclusion and isolation accumulated over many semesters here–­­­being one in a only handful of Black students in a lecture hall, for example, or graduating from SEAS not having had even a single Black professor. It confirms the department and university’s disregard for our wellbeing as students of color, which always is intertwined with the wellbeing of our communities.

Moving forward, ColorCode demands that this Machine Learning assignment be revoked, and that the professor issue an apology addressing the concerns above. We demand that students in the class be provided with alternate ways to receive credit. We demand that the professor and the department acknowledge these concerns, apologize, and make significant, structural changes to ensure this does not happen again. Finally, we support the demands of Mobilized African Diaspora/BCSN and in particular add our voices to demand that the School of Engineering commit to hiring more Black professors and underrepresented professors of color.

ColorCode is a group focused on getting people of color into the technology sector. To respond to this op-ed or submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com