Scientists are not that smart

NY mag has posted an essay by Chad Orzel about scientists and society. I found it very thought provoking, but somewhat discouraging. For example, he notes that he plays basketball and enjoys even though he will never make the NBA but “science is something you’re expected to give up unless you’re ‘really’ smart enough to make it your career.”

I first encountered Prof Orzel through his book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. My then 14-year-old daughter read it and loved it. Alas, her next experience with physics (high school class) quenched the passion that was ignited by the book.

Final grades

Nearly every course one or more students send an email similar to the below immediately after final grades are posted.

My score is just below the cut off for a higher grade. Can you give me the higher grade?

The answer I usually give is

In every course there is someone who is has the highest score in a particular grade, this course it happens to be you.

Offense can be taken from such a curt reply, but none is meant. In fact it is a gracious reply because the question the student asked is wrong for at least two reasons. First, the situation (a student has the highest grade below a cutoff) is expected and unavoidable. If not that this student, then some other. If this score is adjusted, then a different student is in this situation. I understand and empathize with these students, but there is no reason for a student to expect or seek immunity from this reality.

Second, the student’s question implies that grades are arbitrarily assigned. While I often make mistakes that have to be corrected, I employ a deliberate, thoughtful, and transparent method to determining the grades.

Furthermore, I like to adjust the cutoff between grade to a large, natural break between student scores. As class size increases so does score density, so the probability of finding such a break decreases. Consequently, in large classes the highest score for a particular grade can be fractional percentage points below the cutoff. For obvious reasons this makes it doubly hard to swallow the lower grade.