Effect of Good Teachers

This NYTimes article alerts us to work done on the efficacy of good teachers. The conclusion: good teachers are good. The article mentions “poor performing” teachers and the some comments debate about what do do about them, now that there is proof that good teachers are good.

A couple of thoughts. First, the effect is quite modest for an individual student, an increase of about $4600 in LIFETIME income. To me, the modesty of the gain underscores the notion that one teacher is just one variable in a sea of about 1000 variables, including socioeconomic status, family situation, race, peers, administrators, etc. But cumulatively, over a teacher’s career, this results in about 2.5 million in increased earnings.

Maybe “good” teachers should get this figure as bonus on retirement. Not kidding, but wouldn’t it be peachy?

Of course the question remains, how to weed out the bad apples. This seems the exact opposite tack to take. Our best and brightest (and medium best and medium brightest) are choosing “professional” careers. Teaching, in this country, has not garnered the respect of a profession, because it is historically low-paying. [Actually, most jobs once (or currently) dominated by women are underpaid, and that’s another article I’ll get to some day.]

Can we please just raise teachers’ salaries and attract the good ones, rather than focusing on weeding out the bad ones?


Dad can affect baby’s health

I saw this blog post referencing an article I wrote for the Raleigh News & Observer.

 I really just wanted to make 3 comments on it:

1) The blog post really goes where I never ever expected it to go, which is why I had to share it.

2) The author uses my first name. It appears only women are prone to this infantilizing treatment. Yay.

3) It would have been really cool to have made this one research paper part of a longer story explaining epigenetics. I think a good percentage of newspaper readers (sadly not 100…) get genetics, and epigenetics would blow many of their socks off. If they are above a certain age (not very old!) they certainly wouldn’t have learned it in high school and perhaps not even in college.

On a darker note

This is a refreshingly honest piece about adulthood and a scientific career.

 I think it points to a reason a lot of women leave academia. If you never felt welcomed in the first place, had to make more effort to network, and so on, leaving does not seem to be a weird proposition. It might easier for some women to throw their hands up and be done with it, just as its harder for them to stay in the game.

 I imagine many male “failed perfectionists” feel the same way as the author: work is fine but it has become work, and their life has become the interesting piece. But as they’ve been in the science club for some time, the pressure to conform, “man up,” and often provide for their family beats out the desire to do something different. It’s easier for them to stay in the game, harder to leave.

 I know, I’m doing a bit of armchair psychology and generalizing. But I’m wondering how many women who leave academia are written off as having done it because they had babies, when perhaps they just had a similar experience to the author. And what I guarantee is that few men who leave academia are assigned such motivations.

AWIS 40th Anniversary Meeting, Session Summary


The Frontiers in Sustainability Panel at the AWIS 40th anniversary conference consisted of three speakers, all from different areas of environmental science.

The first speaker, Ms. Kristen Graf, is the Executive Director of the Women of Wind Energy organization (WoWE). Ms. Graf started out as an engineering major intent on developing wind technology, but realized the technology itself is already developed. However, fossil fuels and nuclear energy still dominate the generation of electricity over renewable energy sources. The relative proportions of nonrenewables and renewables have actually remained fairly stagnant even with all of the media buzz and politicking surrounding renewables. This has happened despite wind power growing in popularity worldwide. Puzzlingly, this stagnation has occurred despite the increase in wind turbine production in the U.S. So why is this? These U.S. produced turbines are being installed in rapidly developing nations such as China and India. She addressed the need to keep some of the turbines here, both for the economic impact as well as the environmental impact. (She echoed Nancy Jackson’s remarks earlier in the day: if science jobs in the US are in peril, then improving opportunities for women in science in the US is bleak.) Ms. Graf’s interest in effecting this change in wind power usage led her to leave engineering and ultimately to WoWE. She stressed that there is only a small window of time left to act on issues related to global warming. Ms. Graf presented some real examples of success (Cornell and Denmark) in using renewables.

Dr. Helen White was the next speaker, and is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College. She presented the audience with an interesting environmental mystery that only a chemist could solve. Dr. White’s most recent research involved collecting samples from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While much of the media coverage of the event focused on surface tragedies, such as the plight of birds, the impact of the spill on the deep sea was rarely mentioned. In the deep sea near the spill, brown oil flocculates were observed. In the same area, biologists noticed deep sea coral with rare tissue damage: the polyps were literally falling off. The biologists attributed this damage directly to the spill. Dr. White was skeptical of the causation; there is a lot of oil found naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to address this from a chemist’s perspective, she traced the source of the oil. After all, oil is not just one compound, it is a mixture. So oil from different sources will have different chemical signatures. After testing several samples using a novel technique called 2D gas chromatography, she determined the spill was not to blame for the coral damage. This result was unpopular with the biologists, but the evidence was striking. In doing this work, Dr. White found a new mystery to solve: she found some quite improbable chemical signatures in some of the oil samples. Her next quest is to uncover this mystery. She speculates that there may be undiscovered biodegradation pathways in the deep sea.

The last speaker was Dr. Cat Shrier, President and Founder of Watercat Consulting, LLC. Her company focuses on finding innovative approaches to sustainable water management. Dr. Shrier emphasized the need for the water industry to pay attention to the whole water cycle. While the main goal might be to deliver water to customers, issues such as water waste, integration with nature, energy cost of water, and energy production from water should be given higher priority. However, water utility companies tend to be very conservative and not supportive of public discussion. Dr. Shrier underscored the need to fight this, to create open spaces for education and public discussion. She mentioned her website for this, waterwonks.com, which will be unveiled soon. The conservatism and close-mindedness of the water industry naturally creates huge problems for women in this industry. While there are more women coming into the pipeline, there is a dearth of women in management positions. The industry is also self-regulated and there is no national association, making it difficult for these issues to even be raised. She stressed that these problems in the water industry are not history, they are happening now. Dr. Shrier believes the ultimate solution is to stop treating diversity as a nonessential, secondary issue. However, she admitted being unsure how to make this change happen.

All of the speakers touched on issues facing women in science that warrant a separate summary. Institutions, companies, and government all need diverse voices to make change and to be successful. We need more women leaders. As an example, we are woefully lagging behind other developed nations in the percentage of women holding an elected office. Women need mentors and to be mentors. Dr. White supervised an undergraduate woman for the research she presented. Ms. Graf mentioned a dark quote from Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Further, we need men to be involved. Dr. Shrier noted that women cannot be solely responsible for their success or failure, as so much of career success has to do with standing on the shoulders of others. Lastly, all of the speakers testified to the importance of speaking one’s mind, whether it’s a call to action, an unpopular viewpoint, or bringing up a topic isn’t normally discussed.