Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Potted Plants

In the Sunday New York Times Magazine, "The Ethicist" fielded a query from a grad student who wondered about the practice of offering undergraduates extra credit to attend a conference hosted by their department. At the conference, "high-level" talks were presented; talks that most of the undergrads would be unlikely to understand.

The grad student thought that the undergrads were being exploited, as the main purpose of offering them extra credit was to increase the number of people in the audience, thereby perhaps convincing the university to increase funding for the conference in future years.

The grad student disapproved of this practice, and The Ethicist agreed, stating "You might as well fill the audience with potted plants."

Like many of you, I have given many talks attended by undergraduate students (and others) who did not have the necessary background to understand everything I presented. In some cases, these students were there by choice, and in some cases they were there for extra credit. Most typically, students lured by credit (extra or not) are undergrads, but I have also given lectures to audiences that consisted in part high school students who were required by their teacher to attend a Science Talk given by a Real Scientist.

Were these students potted plants? Perhaps some were, but many were not. The fact that at least some students are paying attention and trying to understand as much as they can is particularly obvious in settings in which questions are encouraged, even from non-experts. For students not comfortable asking a public question, there may also be opportunities for questions and other interaction after the talk. These can be very interesting discussions.

And even for those students who are unable to understand much of the content of a talk, there may be some value in attending a talk or a conference. In these settings, students get to see other academics in action, get a sense for the content and style of presentations, and observe how researchers interact with each other.

I encourage undergraduates who do research with me to attend conferences, including national conferences in our field. These students attend talks, many of which they don't understand, but they report being intrigued by the whole conference/cultural experience. I have also found that undergrads are quite adventurous about which talks they attend, sampling talks on topics that represent a wide range of sub-fields, to see what's going on, what's hot, who is interesting, who is not. Some of it is boring and much of it is puzzling, but it's also kind of fascinating.

I therefore disagree with the conclusion that undergrads who have insufficient background to understand high-level academic talks are passive potted plants, as many probably are getting something out of attending a talk or conference in their general field of interest.

Even so, to avoid the possibility of potted plant syndrome among extra credit-seeking undergrads being exploited by funding-hungry conference organizers, perhaps the experience could be enhanced somehow. Perhaps the students could be prepared in advance for some of the talk topics. Perhaps the students could meet some of the speakers after the talks for additional questions in a less formal, more undergrad-friendly environment. Perhaps speakers could be encouraged to spend the first couple minutes of each talk giving background information at a more basic level than they otherwise might. Perhaps everyone would find that more interesting.

I think the attending of talks and conferences by interested undergrads should be encouraged. I don't tend to give extra credit in my classes other than a 1-2 point fun/strange question at the end of exams, but, as long as extra credit isn't a significant portion of the grade, I don't have any problem with there being some sort of credit given for an academic experience that might well be enriching.


Anonymous said...

I whole-heartedly agree! I don't give extra-credit in any of my classes. However when I happen to give a class lecture on a topic that could serve as background information for an up-coming seminar speaker, I always encourage my undergraduate students to go. They generally only understand the first 15 minutes or so, but I think it's still very educational. Most of them are too intimidated to ask questions of the seminar speaker, but they often come to me afterwards to ask follow-up questions during my office hours. And the undergrads working in my lab are encouraged to attend conferences.

Anonymous said...

Well said! When I started doing undergraduate research, I attended every talk I could in my area. I didn't understand the majority of it. But, I furiously took notes - not on the high-level topics, but a list of words that the speakers used that I didn't recognize. I looked them up later. After a few months, I started to be able to understand what they were talking about.

PS said...

as someone with 14 years of research experience, *I* still go to a lot of talks that I do not have adequate background for. (As should any serious researcher interested in continuing intellectual growth).

lack of background is not nearly as important if it is a topic that genuinely interests you -- eventually you will learn enough, and meanwhile even the incomprehensible talks are teaching you something, if only a little.

Anonymous said...

This issue is VERY close to my heart. I also think it applys to department seminar series'. My grad school friends and I are very optimistic at the start of every talk. We discuss the importance of the speaker in the field, the topic, etc. After 5 minutes of the talk I am looking at the clock wanting to go. The only thing that keepse there is the free beer after the talk (later in my grad school career I would just come to the last 5 minutes so I could get the free booze). Then after the talk the grad students would talk about how boring the talk was, then discuss what bar to go too.

This is true for most grads, undergrads and,yes, profs!

Anonymous said...

As a botanist, I welcome all opportunities to interact with my potted green brothers and sisters.

Seriously, I went to several seminars as an undergrad at a large public university, and even a conference. There was some extra credit involved. I didn't understand everything, but it was a great experience. We were especially encouraged to go to talks by Famous People -- and I'm glad we did. I still remember some of those seminars. It was an incredible opportunity.

At my current small expensive university, the undergrads regularly outshine our grad students. The grad students are obliged to attend all seminars, but I wouldn't be surprised if the undergrads are absorbing more.

Anonymous said...

eehhh? This grad student is seriously out of touch. Does he think there's some kind of magic ascension that occurs during the summer between senior yr of undergrad and 1st year of grad that makes one suddenly go from "potted plant" to complete understanding of the most "high-level" topic?

My undergrad program required for graduation that we attend seminars at neighboring schools and write up summaries during our 3rd and 4th years. I got a lot out of it. Maybe I didn't understand all the technical details (not that talks really have much tech. detail anyway), but I usually followed the significance and the major findings just fine.

Anyway, if presenters aren't able to make their talks understandable to a bright student with an undergrad degree in their BROAD field (e.g. Physics, Biology, etc), they're doinitwrong.

Janice said...

As a historian, most of my talks (and my colleagues') are at least potentially accessible to all. But some conferences and talks are more accessible than others.

I agree that, with sufficient preparation (such as an introductory talk given in the class meeting before), many undergraduates can gain something valuable. But that takes a lot more work than simply offering them extra credit for showing up to pad the attendance numbers!

Anonymous said...

The ISMB conference is usually preceded by a one-day student-run conference, which is often the first conference that many of the students have attended. The student conference usually has a number of grad student speakers and a couple of talks by established researchers. There are usually also a panel on some mentoring topic chosen by the student organizers (like job searches). This provides a gentler intro to professional conferences, especially for the students from the developing world.

I encourage undergrads to attend research talks and (cheap) conferences, even if some of the talks are over their heads. One advantage of being in bioinformatics is that the audience is usually split between biologists, computer scientists, and statisticians, so every decent talk explains the problems in much clearer terms than in most fields, where everyone is assumed to know everything already.

Casey said...

Shouldn't credit require some sort of work on the students' part? I don't think you should get points for showing up, at the University level. Perhaps a written assignment or simple report on their favorite talks? If they don't have the necessary background then they would have to be prepped for this, of course.

Anonymous said...

Glad you brought this up, because I read that column and had similar thoughts.

Some undergrads will be inspired to learn more...perhaps by going to grad school themselves. At the very least, it exposes them to what occurs in that field.

As a high school student I used to go to the public-invited science lectures at a local (nationally recognized) college. Most of it was over my head, but I loved seeing people speak so passionately about their research. At that point I already had an interest in research, and I think the exposure to the lectures made me more confidant in my college choice.

Anonymous said...

I attended a HUGE conference when I was applying to grad school and it reaffirmed that I was on the right track. Attending lots of talks on different topics just during this one conference helped me narrow down what types of things I wanted to do while in grad school (read: stuff in talks during which I didn't fall asleep). It was a broad introduction to the types of research done in my field that I didn't get from my small department at my undergrad only SLAC.

Principle Investigator said...

I'm at a SLAC, so it's a bit different, but I always offer extra credit for attending and writing up department seminar talks. And a speaker who can't convey the background, methods, results, and significance of his/her research to bright undergraduates will have lost most of the faculty in attendance as well.

Anonymous said...

I remember well a talk by a Nobel laureate I attended just after graduating from college, while working as a technician in a lab. It really energized me about my work. I also attended a small meeting in my field during that time, and the excitement I felt at being able to be an active participant in that meeting is still with me today.


1. If a Biology major does not understand what I say in the first 10 minutes of my talk, I did a terrible job of introducing the subject!

2. If Biology major interested in my field does not come away from the rest of the talk with at least a sense that exciting questions can be asked and answered, and technology allows powerful approaches to address these issues, I also failed.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

Good speakers will be able to make the main point of their research understandable to most intelligent audiences and attending such conferences will give undergraduates important insights into the research world. And I also learned a lot at my first conferences from listening in at the coffee break/dinner etc. I really can't imagine that the department is really just trying to fill up seats. It makes me think that both the grad student writing and the ethicist responding are very negative.

engineering girl said...

Even if the undergrad is nothing but a potted plant, it can be an educational experience - they can figure out that they're not cut out for research. A lot of people apply to PhD programs for the heck of it and think they want to do research but end up hating the next 5-6 years of their lives. If they had gone out to explore what the life of a professor is really like, they might not have wasted so much time. Of course there are different options for PhD grads besides academia...but self-discovery is better done earlier than later.

My personal experience has been similar to most of the comments here. Even when I didn't understand everything, I learned something, even if only about how presentations are organized. I attended a seminar in high school and I didn't get the details but got the high level stuff and gained an understanding of how research questions in the field were posed.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with you... but to be fair to The Ethicist, the letter writer was a classics grad student and believed that her beginning students didn't know enough Greek or Latin to understand what was being discussed. Being literally unable to understand the subject is somewhat different than just having the discussion be a bit over their heads, hence the potted plant analogy.

another young FSP said...

We have our upper level undergrads attend a one research seminar. If the speaker is halfway competent, a potted plant will understand at least part of the introduction. That's what introductions are for - providing the background so that people outside your field can understand your research interest.

And if the undergrad coursework is halfway relevant to their field, even if they don't understand the finer points of the discussions, the undergrads will have moments of recognition. Aha! That's why my prof spent an entire lecture making me learn this basic principle! It's background for what this RealScientist is discussing! People care about it! Maybe that is the case for my other coursework as well!

Even if the students do not take away from that seminar what the speaker was trying to convey, it can still be a good pedagogical tool.

Anonymous said...

When I was a grad student Stephen Hawking came to speak. He filled the largest lecture hall on campus and the plaza outside, where they set up speakers. Only about 5 theoretical physics professors understood a word he said.

Anonymous said...

"as someone with 14 years of research experience, *I* still go to a lot of talks that I do not have adequate background for. (As should any serious researcher interested in continuing intellectual growth)."

Totally agree (not that I have 14 years of research experience, but that as a grad student I go to a ton of talks that I understand very little of, and I have a sneaking suspicion this is the case with plenty of faculty as well)!