To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Went to an American Chemical Society meeting last night. The local group is totally academic, except for me. I don't know how it happened that the Memphis group got such a good mix of academia and industry.

The speaker is retired from University of Washington, Seattle. He was here with his wife, which is not unusual for speakers, and usually the spouses are very interested and engaged people. After the meeting, he and his wife, and Carmen who is the professor at the local school who sponsors the ACS group, and I had dinner. And we talked about all the usual things - jobs, families, places we've lived.

Carmen asked if I would speak to her students some time about life after college. I said I would. I've had a different career trajectory than I would have had I gone to school past getting my bachelor's. One of the kids I met yesterday is a senior, she's having cold feet about what will happen after graduation (tell F about it), and I gave her a 45-second overview of my career path. The speaker told her she needs to hear stories like that from all kinds of people. Actually, all of the kids do. I've long thought it is very strange how we do education, although I don't know if we could really do it differently. It's as if kids get on a train in preschool, and the track runs through kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, at least into college and hopefully up to getting that bachelor's degree, and then the track comes to an abrupt stop and the kids suddenly have to get off the train and find a direction and a motive force. Some know what they want to do, of course, and they get off that train and onto the next one. Some don't make it to the end of the line, and of those, some do OK without their B.S. and some don't. But we expect 17-year-olds to make decisions about how they're going to spend the rest of their lives - and how do they know? How do they know what they even want to do? They don't know what all there is, or what they themselves are really like yet. Easier and safer to just stay on the train.

Anyway, Carmen is going to contact me about this and I suppose we'll talk about what I'll talk to her students about. I can think of several possible topics. In fact, I could probably talk their ears off, as F knows very well.

And I told Carmen my idea about teaching control charting; how I would do it if I taught a science course. I would set up a titration station to measure the chlorine in tap water. It's an easy sodium thiosulfate titration with a starch-iodine endpoint. The chlorine will vary a bit from day to day, hopefully within some reasonable range. I would have someone in each chemistry lab measure whatever the chlorine content is that day. The students would all cycle through doing that. They would plot their results on an Excel spreadsheet set up with date on the X axis and ppm Cl2 on the Y axis, and with horizontal lines showing the average, plus and minus 1 standard deviation, and plus and minus 2 standard deviations. It's not hard to set the spreadsheet up to do that; in fact, since you need about 20 data points before you start getting any decent stats, I'd probably let the students see if they could set that up themselves for extra credit. Then you could talk about upper and lower warning limits and control limits, and revisit what you learned if you took statistics (I never did, sadly) about how in a normal distribution, 68% of the data points fall within 1 standard deviation of the mean and 95% within 2 standard deviations; and confidence limits; and how many significant figures you can reasonably report; and how you'd do an investigation of out-of-spec results. Could the sodium thiosulfate have gone bad - can you restandardize it? (You can.) Could the amount of water taken for titration have been measured improperly? Did the tap need to run longer before the sample was taken? Is the starch solution still good? And so forth. It would be a good exercise and give them a running start, and help them stand out among their entry-level coworkers. Or probably even their experienced coworkers.

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