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Golden Scholars: Berkeley questions course evals and replicates plants

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UC Berkeley is recognized with all of the grants, a professor questions the use of course evals, and Berkeley researchers unlock a decades-long quest to duplicate photosynthesis.


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The University of California system will take steps to improve the inclusion of LGBT students on all its campuses (e.g., gender-neutral/inclusive restrooms and officially recognizing preferred names).

Read more about UC Berkeley's Stop Sexual Violence campaign.

Astrophysics code written by Berkeley Lab is being used to simulate how ancient stars died.

Tami Bond—who earned her master's in mechanical engineering at Berkeley—has received the MacArthur "Genius Grant."

Derek Lowcreator of the Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm (BRAD) that went viral a few years backdocumented his experience on an obscenely fancy $23,000 flight.

UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and UCSF have partnered up to kickstart brain research.

Speaking of, UC Berkeley has earned three of the first research grants from President Obama's BRAIN Initiative for $7.2 million over three years for three fascinating projects, detailed here.

Berkeley is pioneering the field of development engineering, which brings together engineering, business, and economics to use engineering to solve societal problems—because apparently some students aren't content with just excelling at one or two things.

On a scale of 15 19, how satisfied are you with course evaluations?

Remember filling out those course evaluations on the last day of lecture in VLSB? (As an anecdote, those are now filled out electronically, which is craaazy to me.) How seriously did you take them? Did you just throw it in your backpack and use it to write down that hawt dude's number somewhere by Dwinelle? Did you list copious details about every problem or strength of that class? Did you just lazily write down "bring more food to class" half-heartedly? Well, there's growing discontent with the usefulness of these surveys, according to UC Berkeley's chairman of the statistics department, Phillip Stark.

For one thing, there's response rate. Fewer than half of students complete these questionnaires in some classes. And, Stark says, there's sampling bias: Very happy or very unhappy students are more motivated to fill out these surveys.

Then there's the problem of averaging the results. Say one professor gets "satisfactory" across the board, while her colleague is polarizing: Perhaps he's really great with high performers and not too good with low performers. Are these two really equivalent?

Finally, there's the simple fact that faculty interactions with students and the student experience in general vary widely across disciplines and types of class. Whether they're in an an upper-division seminar, a studio or lab, or a large lecture course, students are usually asked to fill out the same survey.

An economics professor at the University of Switzerland agrees with Stark's views and set up a simple experiment that linked the evaluations submitted by a student for one class to their performance in the next course in that series (e.g., Microeconomics I, then Macroeconomics II). The study found that professors who received poor reviews had students who performed strongly in the next course. This study believes that students are more likely to give great reviews for easy courses and are just disgusted by the professors who make them work hard and have a better understanding of the material.

With a sample size of 1, I personally disagree with findings of the study. When I was a Berkeley undergrad (wayyyy back when), I based my reviews on the ability to teach and convey the material to the students; I also recognized the difference between bad teaching and lots of work. I also wonder if this study was applied to a normal group of students or if they were treated differently as part of the studywas every student forced to fill out the eval or did they get the same selection bias, did students know they were being studying for teaching evals.

So, what does Stark and his colleague propose for course evaluations in the future?

Both Pellizzari and Stark agree that student surveys should be used in a much more limited way, to capture student satisfaction. And they could perhaps be used to gather information on factual points like whether the professor showed up on time or canceled class more than once or twice.

In addition, they'd like to see other methods of evaluating teachers. As department chairman in statistics, Stark actually has implemented new methods and has seen interest in them spread across several divisions at Berkeley.

One approach is peer evaluation of teaching. They create a rubric and have past winners of department teaching prizes observe classes to gather information on teachers.

Anything plants can do, Berkeley can do better

So, how 'bout them greenhouse gases? We've got lots of that, don't we?

Researchers have been trying unsuccessfully for decades to convert all of that carbon dioxide into something useful, kinda like what plants do (using photosynthesis). Unfortunately, most of that failure has been focused around the first stepreducing carbon dioxide into something useful. Have no fear, because UC Berkeley is to the rescue!

Peidong Yang, of UC Berkeley and LBNL, led a study that found preliminary success with gold-and-copper bimetallic nanoparticles and identified two key factors for this step—its electronic and geometric properties.

"Acting synergistically, the electronic and geometric effects dictate the binding strength for reaction intermediates and consequently the catalytic selectivity and efficiency in the electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide," Yang says. "In the future, the design of carbon dioxide reduction catalysts with good activity and selectivity will require the careful balancing of these two effects as revealed in our study."

In other words, the electronic and geometric properties of the material determine how strongly it binds to either carbon dioxide or to the molecules that are the intermediates of the reaction and how efficiently it is able to execute the conversion of this reaction. By alloying these two metals, they can basically tinker with the composition to maximize its productivity.