Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Want free cash? "Tutor" some children with Hollywood Hendon

All one hears about these days is that the State of Illinois doesn't have a pot to piss in money-wise. My future retirement is regularly plundered to make ends meet, various programs go unfunded and the state struggles to meet its obligations to honest providers of services. It turns out though, according to a lengthy expose in the Tribune, that money appears to fall off trees if you want to tutor needy children after school, particularly if you are a buddy of Rickey "Hollywood" (as he likes to be known) Hendon. A noble idea perhaps, if it is actually carried out. Tens of thousands of dollars have been handed out by the State Board of Education without apparently any attempt to establish accountability. Qualifications to receive money: some association with Hollywood. It is not even necessary to be able to spell or construct a grammatical sentence, let alone have a real plan.

Needless to say, the aforementioned Hendon has no shame about stealing taxpayers' money from across the state and handing it out to his cronies. It's Chicago: if not him then someone else.

It's all very different from the days I obtained a Technology Challenge Grant from the state and I had to account for every penny that they gave me. It did not seem that important, however, to have obtained any concrete results from the money, provided it had been spent according to what the budget had ordained.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

NU - The expensive choice for summer crash courses

The long hot days of summer must be here; not necessarily evidenced by the weather, though it has been hot the past few days, but by the types of articles that make it into the Tribune's main section. Saturday's paper featured a lengthy piece on summer science courses at Northwestern, written in such a way as to suggest that this was something really unusual. Perhaps that is the case at one of the world's most prestigious educational institutions, but at the humble COD it is standard practice during the short summer session to offer the first year chemistry course (or the second year organic) in ten weeks. NU is on quarters and they offer three classes in 9 weeks (3 weeks each). Okay, that is one week less than our two five week semester classes but, hey, that is NU after all.

We refer to them affectionately as the "suicides," though I am not aware of any actual evidence to support that appellation. As the article noted, the casualties are usually heavy: during the first half this summer, 10 out of 24 fell by the wayside; but unusually 22 out of 24 are still hanging in there. Many, if not most, of our students visit from other universities to take the course at a massive discount. I would like to tell the Tribune author that a student could take the classes at COD for maybe $1500 compared with the $9K shelled out at NU. Before you all come back with the old community college line, I should tell you that many of the students find the COD experience to be better than their "real" university education, and many tell me how well prepared they are for tests like PCATs and MCATs. So I think we do something right. It might lack the cache of NU but COD, at least in chemistry, provides an excellent value-for-money education. It's more than just ash trays.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is that nanotechnology in your trousers or are you just happy to see me?

I thought the SL of this post might be a good title for a talk on nanotechnology I gave to a group of youthful students recently but respect for political correctness got the better of me. One could only wonder at the scope of the sexual harassment suits that might follow such an opening gambit. The days of risque banter in the classroom are long gone I fear.

This was the first talk on nanotechnology I had given and I had spent a rather anxious Sunday putting it together. It is the intention to offer a course, that I have designed, in the fall, although the reluctance of some of my colleagues in the division in supporting this venture is slightly surprising to say the least. In a review of the program that is currently underway, one advanced the suggestion that nanotech should be dropped! FU2 dear. I'm not sure of the identity of the individual though I have a pretty good idea.

My fear is that COD is a day late and a dollar short in the nanotech field, as readers of the Tribune might have seen a large article last Sunday on nanotechnology education with a focus on Harper College and its new program unfolding this fall. We have a lot of work to do. The skeptics will wonder how many students will want to sign up for this program and ask how many jobs are out there for these putative nanotechnicians. These are fair questions; I am also interested to know the answers. But if the answers are vague is this a justification for not trying to build for the future? Whatever the reality that nanotechnology eventually becomes, surely it will be something more than nothing, for it is so broad and so varied. This is very different from the superconducting bubble that swelled up so dramatically and faded with quiet disappointment a couple of decades ago. Sadly there are still not trains running on rails of liquid nitrogen, nor will there ever be. As I trudge between the dull red brick of Argonne's aging buildings, I am reminded of the superconductivity conference I attended in the late 80's: the first meeting I ever attended at which fashionably dressed bankers mingled with scientists, eager to buy in to a piece of the action. Looking beyond the obvious hype associated with nanobots and other far-fetched fantasies, the real applications of nanoscale materials across society in both technical (cancer treatment) and mundane (waterproof trousers)applications for me make the choice a no-brainer.