Will Teach for Food: A Forum on Our Future as Academic Laborers in Tennessee

I received this email last semester from a fellow adjunct professor within the Tennessee community college system. If you are an adjunct in the state of Tennessee or considering starting similar advocacy programs in your area, please see the email below for details on how to support labor rights for adjunct instructors and graduate students. There is an event this Saturday, February 7th, for those of you who are in the Knoxville/East Tennessee area.

Dear Roane State Adjuncts,

I hope this email finds you well-relaxing by a warm fire with a hot cocoa and a tray of deviled eggs. I am an adjunct at Pellissippi and Roane State Community Colleges. If you are reading you are checking your school email over break.  You are most likely a dedicated educator and committed employee.  Kudos for that.  This message is to update you on some current events that might interest you now that you have time to think for a moment about your job/ career and what you like about it and what you would like to see improved.

Here are two things you might want to consider
A: Fill out this survey:
This link is to a survey that the United Campus Workers (TN’s public higher ed union) has created.  It is private and all it does it try to collect info about our working conditions-both good and bad.
B: Join this discussion group:
This is a closed group discussion on adjunct issues among us East Tennesseans.
C. Come to this forum:
Saturday, February 7th at the Community Room at Barley’s in the Old City, Knoxville.
From 10:00 to 3:00 contingent workers (Adjuncts and Graduate Assistants) throughout East Tennessee will be discussing the complications of being an adjunct and ways to organize and improve working conditions.  It will be fun.  There’s no more football.  The weather will be drab. This is just what you need for inspiration as you stare down a long semester ahead of you. We are the backbone of teaching on our campuses. Join us to strategize for a bright future in higher ed!

Mark your calendars for this exciting event. More details coming soon!

P.S. This is in no way meant to be about just criticizing our schools. After having spent a year on the Pellissippi faculty senate and meeting with administration, it is more clear than ever that schools would like to see things improve for adjuncts.  We are too many, we make too little, and we deserve better.  YOU deserve better.
Nobody disagrees with this… at our school.
So where does the problem originate?
That’s the $15,600 a year without benefits question.
The answer lies at the state level.  If this is true then what’s the point of getting a clear message?  Well, for changes to be made, we need to be heard.  For us to be heard we need to speak up. For us to be listened to we need to speak together.
How does this happen?  Come to Barley’s in Knoxville (200 East Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37915) on February 7th and tell us.

In Solidarity,
Gabriel Crowell
Adjunct, Pellissippi & Roane State Community Colleges

Who inspired your STEM career? #ThankATeacher

Image credit: National Education Association

Image credit: National Education Association

This week has been Teacher Appreciation Week, a time that I reflect on those special teachers and mentors who helped me along the way. For me personally, I didn’t get excited about science until my first-year in college when most students had already picked their fields of study — it was due to an awesome general chemistry professor, Dr. Bond (yes that is his real name, so appropriate) who made science, well fun! He always had a demonstration ready that would illustrate a concept in a dynamic — and often exploding way! After that class, I knew I wanted a career where I could explore the world around me and learn new information every day.

If I run into a person who cringes at the very mention of science or math, my first reaction is to ask, “So did you have a bad teacher that ruined it for you?” And the answer is usually a story about a teacher who made life miserable for the individual. A difficult teacher can completely turn people off to the science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields, but likewise, an engaged teacher can inspire others to pursue these disciplines. These teachers who care deserve to be recognized for their dedication in sharing a passion for STEM.

Consider dropping a note (or tweet at #thankateacher) to your favorite teacher or mentor to let them know how much they helped you in your schooling or career. You can also make a donation to a K-12 classroom teacher on DonorsChoose.org in honor of that person. It’s never too late to acknowledge those people who actually took the time to make your life more interesting and successful.


Who inspired your STEM career? Use the comment box to share your story.

Take the Monkey and Run: Science, Evolution and the Public

Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

Yucca Plant
Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

The science community was buzzing last week with coverage of the Bill Nye (aka “The Science Guy”) vs. Ken Ham (aka Creation Museum CEO) debate on evolution vs. creationism. Instead of spending three hours watching the live-streamed event, I decided to focus on more constructive uses of my time (e.g., working on STEM outreach projects). Granted, I probably should have listened to a bit of the debate to be able to make small talk with other scientists, but for me personally, evolution is an established theory that no longer requires debate with people who refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence. Pitting science against religious beliefs in a bipartisan-type debate may also be a futile attempt to promote a science-minded society because it gives the false impression that people must abandon their religion to accept science. Instead, I think we have to focus on consistent and honest science communications with the public to keep them informed of new science and how to interpret the information to understand the world around us.

It is people like David and Sheila Spakes of the Spirit and Truth Fellowship of Knoxville in Tennessee who are organizing science cafés to regularly engage the public in open dialogue with science professionals that are doing the most good to advance public understanding of science. For their most recent cafe (which appropriately corresponded to Darwin Day celebrations), the Spakes invited Dr. Andrew Kramer, Department Head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, to discuss the discovery of “Skull 5” at an archaeological site in the Caucasus of Georgia — a finding that may add support to the single-lineage hypothesis of human evolution.

Prior to the find, scientists thought that the hominid family tree resembled more of an intricately branched tree with many bipedal, human-like species that each represent a terminal branch in evolution. With the new find of five skulls, most likely specimens of Homo erectus (our closest relative), who all had differing morphological features from each other but existed within similar geological time spans, it may be that many of the different “species” of our early hominid ancestors were not different species at all. They may have interbred to eventually lead to the current human population with all the physical variation that we see today. This new evolutionary perspective sketches a straighter lineage of human evolution, much like the shape of a yucca plant.

Throughout the Q&A session, Dr. Kramer interacted genuinely with the audience, patiently answering questions and explaining basic scientific principles to help us interpret the recent find. He also used illustrative descriptions, such as the image of the yucca plant, to describe an overview of Human Evolution 101 and to share his own perspectives on the discovery. As a non-expert in this scientific area, the event sparked my curiosity in the topic, and I am reading on the recent work in human evolution research. I hope that more scientists and public organizations will focus their outreach efforts on activities (e.g., science cafés) to interact directly with the public. So I ask the science community, how can we create sustainable outreach and communications programs to reach the public? Based on my experience, it seems that community-based activities may be the best approach. I would be curious to hear what others think on this topic.

(Disclaimer: The interpretation of the “Skull 5” finding and the topics at the science cafe are my own interpretation of information from this open public discussion and further fact checking may be required.)

Support science on your year-end giving list

coollogo_com-293383816If you care about science or a special scientist in your life, adopt a year-end tradition and include science on your annual giving list. Who made my giving list this year? Check out the list below for ideas to add to your own list and spread the word. If you are on Twitter, use the hashtag #supportscience to share the message through social media.

1. Contribute to your alumni associations and university foundations.

My list includes the alumni association or university foundation for both my undergraduate and graduate institutions. Many years ago, I made a promise that I would start contributing to the Chemistry Alumni Scholarship fund at Southeast Missouri State University that supported me in my undergraduate days. Last year, I started giving to that scholarship to support the future of young scientists. Plus, I have become a contributing member of the University of Illinois Alumni Association. Alumni connections are very strong and an important networking opportunity. Plus, most alumni associations offer very useful career development resources that will support you throughout a lifetime.

2. Get involved with citizen science projects.

If you are limited on funds, you can still support science by actually volunteering your time to citizen science projects that are open to the public. SciStarter features a collection of citizen science projects that anyone can do. Right now, you can get involved with projects such as the Christmas Bird Count through the National Audubon Society or record snowfall amounts this winter through the Snow Tweets project. I am going to spend a few hours this week stargazing for The Milky Way Project, looking through telescope imagery to classify infrared data that may provide clues on how stars form.

3. Donate funds to crowd funding science projects or non-profit science organizations.

I made a year-end contribution to Discover Life in America, my favorite non-profit that runs citizen science projects in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are identifying all the living species in the national park to aid biodiversity and conservation efforts, with nearly 1,000 new species to science discovered to date. You can also check out crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo, Microryza and Petridish for cool science projects and organizations that you would like to support. For example, you can support HiveBio, a new DIY biotech lab in the Seattle area who is crowdfunding through Microryza.

4. Help buy needed equipment for K-12 classrooms.

There are thousands of ambitious teachers who are trying to raise funds on DonorsChoose.org for equipment and supplies to enhance their K-12 classrooms. For example, this science teacher in Tennessee is raising funds to buy a 3D printer for her robotics team to design and make their own robot. You can even donate in honor of friends and family or buy gift cards to share.

5. Support the professional development of a scientist.

I pick the end of the year to renew my memberships in professional societies, including organizations that support a broad base of scientists. Two of my top choices include the American Association for the Advance of Science (AAAS) and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). But all of these membership fees add up quickly, so think about purchasing a professional membership or donating funds towards travel to a science conference for a young scientist in your life. A pre-paid money card with a note that the money is to be used to support their awesome science is good way to give, too.

*Reminder: In the U.S., charitable contributions can be deducted on your federal income taxes when you itemize deductions on your tax return. See this guide for more information, and as always, consult a tax professional for any questions.

Never too old to learn code



All around the United States this week, students have written hundreds of millions of lines of code during Computer Science Education Week, an initiative that pushes to make computer science part of the core curriculum in K-12 schools. The idea was conceived by Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, who developed the “Hour of Code” program to inspire ten million students to write one hour of code through tutorials and activities on their website.

From the controls that manage the electric grid down to the equipment that manufactures light bulbs, every aspect of our modern lives are powered by programming — and the people who have these skills are in high demand. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the number of computer-related jobs are projected to grow on average by 22%, with occupations like software developers to increase by 28 – 32%. Fortunately, current initiatives are pushing for computer science curriculum to be widely available in U.S. schools before kids even hit college or the workforce.

Traditionally, you had to major in a discipline like computer science or engineering for programming to be included as part of your official coursework. With the increased integration of modeling and informatics in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, there is also a high demand for researchers with basic programming knowledge, who can design new programs and communicate with computational scientists. (See this blog post to see how scientists can benefit from learning to program.)

However, it’s not just the younger folks or STEM professionals that need to learn code. Computer science training is a professional development need for employees in many fields. As an example, I recently took an intermediate-level Microsoft SharePoint training course to learn how to develop business tools on this software platform. The software is relatively intuitive for the end user, but the use of advanced features, such as creating workflows, requires some previous exposure to programming logic. I asked the instructor for some tips on how to learn Microsoft syntax and the mindset to develop logical workflow structures – his candid answer, “I recommend that everyone have taken a computer science course in college.”

Yep, I agree. But what about those of us who never had that option, is it too late to learn?

As my code-savvy scientist friends tell me, it is definitely not too late. More importantly, it seems that learning to program is more about developing a mindset to design solutions to real world challenges and not just memorizing a coding language because these dialects continually evolve. In my neck of the woods, the Tennessee Code Academy has recognized this need and developed an adult education course that focuses on a project-based approach to coding.

Whether you already know how to code or just ready to learn, here are few ways that you can promote computer science education in your community:

  1. Visit the Code.org website to check out how you can get involved. You can also read a recently released white paper on “The Future of Computer Science Education” that was compiled by TATA Consultancy Services and STEMConnector.
  2. Take some time to inspire others to code like teaching a neighbor kid how to make a simple game or website.
  3. Dedicate an hour to learn some code yourself. There are some great websites like Codecademy.com that are self-taught platforms. For more determined learners, look for computer science courses at your local community college or other training centers.
  4. Pick a coding project and just do it. For example, this ambitious artist learned how to code by creating 180 websites in 180 days.
  5. Donate funds to a classroom that is in need of computer equipment. There are thousands of classroom projects listed on DonorsChoose.org.

I would love to hear input from readers on this topic. Do you have any other tips on how to learn programming skills or to promote computer science education?