Monthly Archives: March 2011

Follow-up to the hot sauce task

This post is a brief follow-up to the hot sauce task I did in my statistics class. I collected all of the measures from my students (17 students). Then, I calculated the average (or mean) for everyone in the class. It was 6.58. I then ran a t-test to compare that mean to the previously published mean (7.2) that was collected from individuals in Rochester, New York.

After collecting this data, I told my students information about their sample and the sample from previous data. Our sample was a group of undergraduates at a conservative Christian university in the South (Texas). Our comparison sample (the 7.2 mean) was a sample of undergraduates from a university in Rochester, NY. I asked my students if they could think of what they would hypothesize the difference to be between these two samples. Very quickly, my students started to state that they would hypothesize that Texans would rate the sample as less hot. “Alright,” I said. “Let’s test that.”

So to test it, I had my students run a one-sample t-test (described in my previous blog post) to test our hypothesis. What do you know? We found that our sample (mean = 6.58) rated the hot sauce as significantly LESS spicy than our comparison population (mean = 7.2). As soon as we walked through this example, it was like the light came on in several of my students’ heads. For once, they were the researchers. They were the ones who made educated guesses about something based on the available information they had. Then they formed statistical hypotheses to test these guesses. Finally, they ran a t-test and saw that we could be fairly confident that Texans rate the hot sauce significantly less spicy than New Yorkers. The key to this learning exercise was to make sure that my students were the agents of action. They were the ones taking the entire research process from beginning to end.

Since running that exercise in class, I have had my students continue to be the researchers. I give them various scenarios or pieces of information and make them form hypotheses about the data. Then we test it! I have noticed a significant improvement in comprehension of this material compared to last semester’s students. It’s amazing what will happen when you invite your students into the research process. By allowing them to become the investigators, I have not only seen them comprehend the material better, I have seen them become interested in testing various questions. This class exercise has left me a very satisfied instructor indeed.

Let them play games! Online games as a learning tool

Because we exist in a fairly technologically advanced world, we are often faced with competing for our students’ attention. They log on to facebook, email, and other sites to avoid listening to us, their professors. Despite my frustrations with students’ lack of attention to our (the collective “we” of teachers) lectures, I have to say that I do not always blame them. I can understand how, for students, showing up to lectures represents passive learning. And most students, understandably, have no interest in passive learning. The whole reason learning is exciting is because it’s active and engaging, or at least it ought to be and can be.

One major pitfall of modern academia is that it often overlooks opportunities to allow education to be enhanced by tools available to us today. One such tool that is becoming an increasingly valuable one is role-playing games. I recently blogged about a few great online and mobile device games here as good examples of this. A major advantage of role-playing games is that they are engaging, forcing students to take on a real-world role, even if momentarily.

One such game I recently came across was Spent, an online flash (browser-based) game developed by Urban Ministries of Durham. I found out about the game through my good friend and colleague, Jordan LaBouff. Jordan is quite technologically savvy and brilliantly incorporates technology and active learning exercises into his teaching. You can view his blog post on Spent here.You can view other posts on teaching and learning from him at his blog.

Spent was designed to demonstrate the difficulties of climbing out of poverty, which is a situation that nearly 14 million unemployed Americans face today. At the beginning of the game, you start with having lost your job, your home, and you are only left with $1,000 in savings. To top it all off, you are a single parent. First, you must decide on what job to apply for. There are a variety of options, each with benefits and drawbacks. Some jobs require you to have certain skills (e.g., be able to easily lift 20 lbs, typing skills). After obtaining a job, you must choose housing. You can live closer to the city (where you work) or further away. The further away you live, the less your rent costs but the more you spend in gas. Living closer to the city decreases fuel costs, but rent is significantly higher.

As the game progresses, you are faced with difficult decisions while you are left with your meager $1,000 (but only approximately $300 after paying for your housing). Difficult decisions begin to emerge, such as: Should I pay for health insurance or just risk it? Which bills should I pay because Ican only afford to pay 1-2 bills out of the 3-4 that I have?

The further into the game you get, the more difficult these decisions become. For instance, your child is seen as a bright student and gets selected for the gifted and talented program,  but you must pay $50 for his or her books and fees. Rent is due and you can’t afford the $50. Do you tell your kid they can’t be in the program so that you can pay your rent? Alternatively, what if your family pet gets sick? You can pay $400 to get him or her fixed, $50 to put him or her to sleep, or pay nothing and watch your pet suffer. You only have $230 in the bank and pay day isn’t for another few days. What do you do?

Countless decisions like this must be made as you try your best to make it through one month on your small salary. With each decision you make, a blurb pops up informing you how decisions like the one you just made affect countless Americans in poverty. As I played the game, I had a sudden revelation:

Morals are expensive and not everyone has the luxury of paying for them.

For instance, at one point in the game, I accidentally hit someone’s car. The damage was going to cost me $500 to fix, I only had $435 in the bank, and my pay day wasn’t for four more days. So what did I do? I chose the option to drive away. I would consider myself a fairly moral person, but I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do in this scenario so I violated my own morals.

In another situation, my mother needed $100 to fill a prescription that she needed, but I denied her the money because I didn’t have it in the bank. I felt awful, putting my fictional mother at risk for severe medical problems or even death possibly. Later, I ignored my own health by going to work sick and ignoring a heart problem because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill to go see the doctor.

The game also does a great job at demonstrating how difficult it is to eat healthy when in poverty, thus perpetuating several problems among the poor such as obesity, malnutrition, etc. Spent gives you the option to buy several different things at the store but it has to last you a couple of weeks and you have to be able to afford it. Most of my friends know me as an extremely healthy person who buys very expensive foods, mostly because my groceries are produce and unprocessed foods. In the game, however, when I went to put things like apples and carrots in my basket, I couldn’t afford them. Instead, I grabbed spaghetti, bread and peanut butter, and ramen noodles. I was only able to let myself buy one healthy thing: a bag of apples.

Spent struck me as the perfect game to utilize in a course I teach in the Fall called the Examined Life. In this course, we spend a few weeks of the semester discussing what is called the “social dimension.” In this dimension, we expose students to the reality of prejudice, poverty, and other social problems. For years, we have been trying to find a way to illustrate the problem of crawling out of poverty first hand. What I like about Spent is that it does this, while also incorporating the real loss of pride, morals, dignity, and often family members (i.e., your pet) that poverty brings with it. I played it a couple of times, and I had to make countless moral and personal sacrifices. Even after making these hard decisions, the bills still caught up with me and I was ultimately trapped by poverty. Thus, this game demonstrates that poverty is a game you just cannot win.

Spent gives a realistic look into how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. Even though I tell my students this, I think this first-person role playing game does a better job of allowing students to learn by doing rather than hearing. Spent allows students to play the role of someone stuck in poverty, making hard decisions about his or her imaginary family. Even though I was only pretending to have children in the scenario I was in, I was heartbroken to tell my kids we couldn’t afford the school lunch, knowing they would be mocked and telling one of my children he or she could not be in the talented and gifted program because “Mommy can’t afford it.”

I encourage anyone out there, especially teachers, to play this game. And use it as a learning tool. You will be amazed how much more your students will remember from this game than from a lecture telling them about the difficulties of poverty. Let them see what it is like to be Spent.
*Note: Another nice thing is that an opportunity is provided at the end of the game to donate $5 to help pay for a day’s worth of food for someone living *Spent*.

Stats that are real!

Today was a fun day with my statistics students. Today was the kind of day where I didn’t view my students as just students but rather as colleagues who can learn with me and from me, and I can learn from them in return.

It all started because I’m currently working on my dissertation and in desperate need for some ratings of a hot sauce I’m using in one of my studies. Previous research demonstrates that the hot sauce is rated, on average, a 7.2 out of 9 (1 = not hot at all, 9 = extremely hot). As I was mixing what is to me tasty hot sauce, my first thought was, “This isn’t that spicy.” Then I realized, maybe people in Texas don’t view this hot sauce (which is a very exact, previously published mixture of two brands of hot sauce) as hot as those in the original research (individuals from Rochester, NY). After all, we live pretty near the Mexican border, and spicy is the name of the game here. It was then that I realized, I’d better pilot test this stuff to see if people rate it as hot enough.

But where to get those ratings? I, of course, asked my lab RAs because the carryover for learning about research seems really obvious there. You’re my RAs, rate this sauce, let’s see if it’s different than past ratings. However, I suddenly realized the other day that rating the hot sauce would be the PERFECT way to illustrate a one-sample t-test to my statistics class.

What is a one-sample t-test you ask? Basically, it’s a type of statistical test you run to see if a mean you got from a sample of people is statistically different from a mean that has been previously seen across other studies, etc. So, what better way to illustrate this point than to have my students rate the hot sauce? Then, we can compare their mean (which happened to be 6.58) to a previous mean of the hot sauce (7.2) to see if those are STATISTICALLY significantly different. It’s a fun, informative way to have them actively involved in the research process. And hey, I get useful data in the meantime.

To begin this exercise, I gave them the hot sauce and had them be blind to anything about it when rating it (to get the most accurate ratings). Next class, I plan on telling them what the previously published version was (mean = 7.2), where it was collected (Rochester, NY), and asking them to create their own hypotheses. For instance, should we hypothesize that our ratings would be lower, higher, or the same as previous ratings? Why or why not? They may discuss regional differences here. For example, hypotheses could include the following: I hypothesize that our ratings will be lower because we are in Texas, where people have a higher tolerance for spicy foods. From their, we will learn how to formally test it using a one-sample t-test given the information I have (mean, number of people in my sample, etc.). I’m curious to see how it turns out and what hypotheses they come up with. Either way, hopefully it’ll get them to stop staring at me blankly when I mention a one-sample t-test. Now, they’ll get to “live” it.

I’ll put up a blog post after I finish the exercise, so stay tuned.


Why isn’t the university really a place of openness and diversity?

As my time spent in academia has increased, I have become well aware that the university is a place that prizes itself on open discussions, diversity, and allowing each individual to express him or herself. Well, unless you go against the majority. At some universities, such as the one I attend (Baylor), the majority are fairly conservative Christians. Although you can be a liberal Democrat or nonbeliever or something outside of the range of “normative” here, it is not desired that you publicly discuss those opinions or beliefs.

But the same thing happens to the university as a whole, which is surprising to me. Anyone in higher education realizes that the higher you go (graduate student, Ph.D. candidate, faculty member), the more liberal the climate gets. And most liberals, especially those in academia, highly value openness and discussion. But again, that only goes as long as you don’t express beliefs that are unpopular. Recently, Jonathan Haidt, a political and social psychologist at the University of Virginia, gave a talk in which he highlighted the hostility held toward political conservatives in the field of social psychology. Haidt recently blogged on the topic, reminding us that there are real people suffering from this type of discrimination.

In some ways, I cannot speak to this topic because I am in a more conservative climate, but it did occur to me that at national conferences, this is often the vibe. For instance at a recent conference I attended in Washington, D.C., on several occasions, individuals made comments such as, “Yeah – as if anyone here is a conservative” in reference to my data that supported a more liberal leaning in political opinions about universal health care. These comments were made in passing as if to say, “Conservatives aren’t very bright people, and we are all clearly educated individuals.”

I began to wonder if the assumption lies in the data correlating IQ with liberal leanings politcally, but in some ways we may be confusing correlation with causation. Being smart does not MAKE you liberal or vice versa. Rather, academia has created a liberal climate which often attracts intelligent individuals.

In some ways, I think this is a perfect example of social psychology. Wherever there is a majority, no matter how moral or focused on equality, we will always oppress or discriminate against the minority. Isn’t it funny how we, as humans, are so influenced by our own social situations that we conform to them, even when that means going against our own morals? The question, now, is whether we will embrace the reality that conservatives may feel discriminated against and move forward. Or will we continue to be victims of majority group influence? Interesting questions to ponder and good for me to remember the minority.


The frailty and resiliency of the human condition

I’m veering a bit from my normal topics on this blog post, but I feel that the recent disasters in Japan merit a bit of comment, or rather, reflection and respect for those who have lost so much.

With the recent disasters in Japan, I am struck both by how frail and resilient human life is. At first, natural disasters like this remind me of how fragile humans are. Our mere existence and lives seem solely dependent on the world around us acting as we expect – how the world “should” work. But when the world does not act accordingly, human lives are shattered. Family members and friends lost, homes destroyed, businesses completely put out of business in minutes. As I hear personal testimonies from those I know and love living there and as I watch news coverage on the horrific event, I am heart broken at the pictures and images I see. These images depict the frailness of human life. Pictures like this one:

In this picture, a Japanese woman is weeping in the midst of ruins. It causes a bit of a pause, of sadness, of empathy in me. I can not look at this image and remain unmoved. It remains impossible for me. I begin to imagine what it must be like to lose my own loved ones, my home, my belongings, my job, my business, my LIFE. And then I am stirred. Stirred to help. Stirred to love. Stirred to find a way to stand in the gap for these people. Can I go? Can I send money? Can I pray? As these thoughts race through my head, I am then struck by the juxtaposition of human frailty with human kindness. Sure, there are some jerks out there who just don’t care. But for the most part, we as humans grieve when our fellow humans suffer. And then more hopeful images begin to emerge. I start to see people helping each other:

I think this picture depicts so much of what humans ought to be and can be at their best. We ought to be ones who aid and comfort those who are weaker than us or more broken than us in the moment. Those who need help because they have no means to help themselves. In this picture, a strong, grown man helps an innocent young baby. That is human kindness. That is human goodness. I believe that is God in us.

Even more than this, I am in awe of the resiliency of the Japanese people. Amongst so much tragedy and terror, they have remained calm, perhaps hopeful, but always pressing forward. Several accounts keep depicting how striking it is that the Japanese have maintained order, respected others (little to no looting, etc.), and generally been resilient to the whole situation. At the same time, I hope they feel the freedom to break down, fall apart, and mourn their losses. But I hope we, as their fellow humans, can step in the gap and be the resources, prayers, and shoulders on which they cry. That’s the resiliency of the human condition. Although our lives are frail and weak, we can rely on others to pick us back up and say: “It’s ok. You are loved and cared for.” May we keep remembering that and pray for those in Japan.

Princeton this Summer: Summer Institute in Social Psychology (SISP)

I just found out that I got into the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) summer program for graduate students, the Summer Institute in Social Psychology (SISP). SISP will kindly be hosted by Princeton this year, so it looks like I will be escaping the dreadful Texas heat for a little Northeast this summer.

Upon receipt of my acceptance letter, I was completely elated. It is so wonderful to be able to look forward to a two-week long intensive training, research, and collaboration time with fellow graduate students. I am hoping that this meeting will build bridges for lifelong collaborations of interesting research projects.

In reflecting on how overwhelmingly excited I got upon receiving my letter, I thought to myself, “I ought to bring this same type of excitement to my students in my own classes.” And so I have come up with a new idea. In my introductory stats lab, I am going to form various research groups. Those research groups will then come up with their own research questions, I will help them find measures for it, then we will collect data! Then, I’ll take it a step further and say that they all have to start forming research collaborations – finding out how to complement what they research with something another group does and then come up with a NEW research question. This way, learning becomes interactive and fun while giving them a taste of the scientific community.

Oftentimes, I think students believe that we, as scientists, sit up in our labs and do all of our work on our own. However, one of my favorite things about my field is that it is highly collaborative. I constantly work in teams and brainstorm ideas and refine theory, writing, research design, analyses, etc. with other colleagues. I want my students to jump in on this excitement too. I will keep you posted on how it turns out. Let’s hope they get as excited about it as I am!


Why is the university not necessarily a place of freedom?

When I first got into this business (academia), it appealed to me because it seemed to be a place where freedom of expression, learning, and innovation would naturally take place. However, I’ve recently been placed in the middle of some interesting politics within the world of academia. I am being exposed to the dark side of over-regulation and filtering, and it makes me ask the question, “Why?”

Fair warning – this post has a lot of questions with not too many answers. Please feel free to jump in with answers.

Why would we want to filter all content of our students? Why would it be so important to make sure that their blogs, websites, and other internet content is never seen by anyone outside the safe hub of their classroom? Aren’t we missing the point? Isn’t the point of the internet to make connections with people you otherwise would not make connections with? Yes. But I think the university gets too caught up in regulation and “safety” to see that point clearly.

And seriously? Have we no trust for our fellow humankind? Do I really believe that my fellow student will post porn and other adult content on his or her blog? Or could I take a risk and place my bet on students that they would rise to the occasion of a public domain  to express themselves intelligently? I believe most students will provide intelligent, well-thought out points to contribute to on-going class discussions. And as most social psychology research demonstrates, people act differently when being watched or monitored. So that porn you’re worried about – they’ll probably save that for when they’re by themselves anyway. But not everyone thinks this will be the case.

So what does it mean that higher education, the UNIVERSITY!, is not always a place of freedom and innovation. Perhaps it is the misunderstood bureaucracy I am dealing with, that I simply do not comprehend. But when returning to the question of why, I am always left with this answer: “fear.” Fear is quite a strong motivator. However, it rarely results in good outcomes. So I stand here, perhaps too fearless, hoping for the academic freedoms and trust in humankind to expect good things from blogging, connecting, and being a part of the online community.