The Christmas Blizzard of 2009 at UMBC – A Pictorial

This weekend’s major snow event buried UMBC – but not so much as to keep campus from opening. Here are some images from this morning:

This is what I woke up to Sunday morning:

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Winter Commencement, Regalia and The Mad Scramble for Graduation Tickets

In less than two weeks, I will publicly receive my undergraduate degree in History from UMBC. I officially graduated in August, and my diploma came in the mail in October, so, yes, to some degree (no pun intended), this event will be anti-climactic.

Still, I figured, why pass up a chance to celebrate one last time? It’s also a celebration for my wife and children, who had to endure the not-so-slight inconvenience of Dad returning to college. After a day of teaching History at Cardinal Gibbons School, rather than return home, I would head to UMBC for class. For me, taking classes was, for the most part, a blast. I loved my History classes, enjoyed my other Humanities classes and tolerated well the other GFRs. For them, it was a family often short one person.

Because they shared in my burden, it’s important that my wife and three children also share in the public culmination of that achievement. I would’ve liked for my parents to have been there also, but my father died seven years ago, and my mother’s back won’t allow her to sit through the ceremony (we’ll pick her up afterwards for the big-deal restaurant lunch we have planned). My mother-in-law, who I am very close to, also wants to be there, and I’d like her to be there too. This, however, is a problem.

If your commencement from UMBC is this Spring, it will be held at the 1st Mariner Arena (capacity 13,500). If your commencement is in December, it will be held in the Retriever Activities Center (capacity 4,000). This disparity in available seating creates a scarcity in graduation tickets, with each graduate receiving four tickets only. If you were doing the math one paragraph above, you now know my dilemma. I need one more ticket. (The university offers overflow seating in Lecture Hall III, where those voted off the island will have to watch by closed-circuit broadcast, but this is hardly an acceptable option for just one family member.)

The four tickets I was issued

Obviously, I’m not the only person with this problem. Apparently there are so many graduates looking for tickets that the university has set up a bulletin board outside of the Bookstore. Here you can pin your desperate plea for extra tickets, in much the same way that prayers are inserted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Board of Faint Hopes

That's mine, right under the sign

(If anyone knows a December graduate with a ticket to spare looking to make an easy $20, please let me know.)

Also, I get a commencement pass of my own:

Front

Back

Another part of the commencement experience is the regalia. The regalia I’ve been given comes with a long black gown, a gold sash (signifying that I’m graduating with Honors), a tassel and a really strange cap. I’ve already tried on the cap at home, and there’s absolutely no way I can wear this cap without looking like a twit. I can’t figure out how the tassel is attached, or where it hangs.  As you can tell, I’ve never worn regalia.

My sixteen-year-old son Zachary is an excellent amateur photographer (he’s been published in multiple newspapers) and he’ll be bringing his good camera to the ceremony. I’ll also make my guests patiently wait so that I can have my picture taken with True Grit. (Again, how many times in my life will I get to do this?)

After that, we’ll head to my car (I’ll use student parking, since I have a student pass due to my Graduate Student status), pick up my mother and then it’s off to The Olive Grove in Linthicum, which has become the traditional celebratory restaurant for our family.

While we’re there, I’ll be preoccupied examining the digital photos on Zachary’s camera to see how idiotic I looked in that funky cap.

Proposed Math Requirement Should Be Reconsidered

In today’s Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a former math professor, says that he wants to see university-bound high school seniors forced to take challenging math courses. His object is to better prepare students for college and for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers. It is his hope that forcing students into math classes will produce more STEM majors at the university level.

If the object is to channel more students toward math and technology careers, then we should be spending more time identifying likely prospects far earlier in their lives, not using a “one-size fits all” approach after having ignored differences in aptitude for a child’s first three years of secondary school.  As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it is usually clear by a student’s sophomore year whether or not he or she will be a math scholar. The 300 lb. gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that many of our children are just not equipped for advanced math courses, and for them, surviving basic math classes is challenge enough. Compelling kids to take advanced math courses will not change this, and is patently unfair to a student who will derive no real benefit from it.

This brings me to a second ugly truth that mathematicians hate to admit: very few adults retain and use advanced math skills in their daily lives. In the Sun article, Skip Fennell, a professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in defending the proposed requirement, says as much. “If you don’t use it, you lose it…” Mr. Fennell, this applies to nearly everyone who isn’t in on a STEM career path. More to the point, many kids never had it to begin with, and won’t miss it as adults.

The narrow utility of advanced math skills sits in stark contrast to the broad and sweeping utility of English language skills. Whereas mastering calculus is of dubious value to the majority of graduates, being able to use language at a high level is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to do more with their lives than settle for low-paying, menial work. Additionally, I can personally attest to the weakness of our high school graduates in the areas of reading and composition, and these students (and their instructors who are forced to slog through their papers) suffer as a result. It may even be true that a STEM major at the university level will spend as much time crafting sentences as equations, and yet we hear nothing of increasing requirements for this critical, and universally necessary skill.

If this suggestion becomes reality, there is little doubt that those students with an aptitude for mathematics will enter college more prepared for STEM classes. But not every college-bound senior has this aptitude. If we truly want to be about the business of creating STEM scholars, then we had better get on it while our children are still in elementary school, rather than penalizing them as high school seniors.

For my part, I would rather see our educational system geared to identifying each student’s strengths at an early age and then directing their coursework to produce citizens highly equipped to succeed in life. Not every child has the intellectual makeup for success in math and science; to act as if they do does both the student and the national economy a disservice. Rather than requiring every peg to fit into a round hole, why not invest time and treasure in identifying the peg’s shape, and then creating holes that fit?