THE clear path out of poverty

The path to higher earnings, future financial stability, home ownership, and out of poverty is education.

The decision to pursue education beyond high school happens at 18 years of age, a time when young adults are too young to make the decision alone.

If parents push for college, it is more likely to happen and the path opens.

If parents don’t, the young adult is likely to remain in the same socioeconomic status as their parents.

It only takes one generation in a family to leap to the next level of education for future generations to follow.

This is simple cause and effect. It is logical. You may argue loudly with your emotions but your yelling cannot dent this fact.

If you want to argue that higher education is too expensive, you are dodging the challenge and casting blame instead of stepping out of your situation. There are loans and grants and scholarships available.

If you want to argue that you didn’t get into college because of poor grades, poor SAT scores, poor reading comprehension, poor math skills, or whatever, you have to look to your previous choices. Was it not cool to appear smart so you didn’t even though you were? Was it easier to get through school by avoiding college prep courses? Were there kids in kindergarten who could read and add while you were learning letters and numbers and colors–so you always felt behind and it wasn’t fair? Did you drop out of high school for a minimum wage job that will keep you in poverty for the next 70 years of your life? FOR THE NEXT 70 YEARS OF YOUR LIFE. You can’t change the past or the financial situation of the family who raised you, but you can learn the way for your future children by blazing the trail for yourself.

There are technical colleges, 2-year colleges, that you can go to at any point in your life. If you are 30 and think your chance for college and a better life have passed you by, you are wrong. Go to school. Find a path out to a better job and higher pay. The 2-year school can get you into the 4-year school and then into graduate school. Do not tell me you hate school. Find something you like to learn and study that. It will be very different from being forced to study everything in high school when you were an immature teen with social pressure to be like the crowd. Adults do not care about that. You are an adult.

Arguing that you are down and out and sad and poor can make the world pity you when you want respect. You deserve equality and respect is abundantly available to be earned. You are just as intelligent as those other 18-year-old high school graduates whose parents made them go to college when yours did not. You know you are. I teach students just like you, so I know you are too.

No matter where you come from, what successes you skipped in the past, what fears and doubts you use as a shield to keep from trying, you have the capacity to do as much and as well as anyone else in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. I know you so I know you can do it.


2020 hindsight

2020 hindsight

If you are the town crier in your circle of family and friends, the one who watches all the news and has a fully-informed and horrified view of the COVID-19 pandemic, do not read this. Instead, just give this to the naysayer in your life. You know, that person who scoffs at you for asking them to wash their hands, that Baby Boomer who won’t change their life just because of some virus, that oblivious Gen Xer, all of our precious Children of Millennials, or whoever you know who is convinced and annoyed by your perceived overreaction. Let me talk to them. I have a math lesson for them on this day, the Ides of March 2020, the day the number of worldwide cases of COVID-19 outside China has surpassed the number of cases inside China.

In our normal lives we have little to no experience with exponential growth. Our puppies, our hair, our bank accounts, and our waistlines all grow rather linearly–at a somewhat constant slope. Remember slope from high school math? Change in y over change in x? When x is time, a slope is a rate like speed–miles per hour, dollars per hour, words per minute. For the spread of a virus, if the number of diagnosed cases per day is constant, the number of new cases per a given amount of time would allow simple prediction of the number of expected cases at any given future date.

The spread of COVID-19 is not occurring at a constant linear rate. The growth in the number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States of America is more accurately modeled as a power function.

Only 5 days ago there were 1000 confirmed cases in the US.

Today, as we approach the 9-week mark since the first confirmed case in our country, there are about 3200 cases in the US.

Based on a simple mathematical model on Excel using numbers from, where x = number of days since the first confirmed US case, the number of cases on a given day in the future can be approximated as 5E-17 x^11.032. Hence, the US may reach

30,000 cases by the end of March,

and half a million (500,000) cases by April 23, 2020.

Half a million. This is a relentless rate. Unstoppable. And likely (terrifyingly) underestimated, as many of us who have or will contract the virus will not be tested or tallied in the total.

I give you these numbers so you don’t have to wait for your 2020 hindsight. I hope you do all in your power to change the mathematical function, to slow the spread of this disease. Simple things you can do. Wash your hands. Stay home. Don’t put another human at risk. Think of everyone and yourself.

Do everything in your power to prove me wrong. Let’s get to five weeks from now and point at Laura and laugh at her ridiculous prediction. Please.

If you are not yet sufficiently afraid, I give you one more number. At the current rate of spread if we change nothing and insist on living our own way, ALL OF US, every American, may contract the virus within 26 weeks of the first noted case in January 2020.

All of us.

The 26-week mark is in mid-July 2020.

Lay low.

ides of march 2020




college math

college math

Welcome to college math!

No, I am not referring to calculus. Or tuition. For this college math, let’s look at how long it takes to learn college level material.

Remember high school? High grades. “Never had to study.” Remember that?

In high school your teacher presented material, organized the textbook topics into an outline, gave you some practice, some homework, retaught, gave a quiz, allowed you to retake the quiz…all before the test. That repetition that the teacher did for you was the “study” part that you thought you never had to do.

Well, in college, your high school teacher won’t be there to reteach and reinforce and make you practice. In college, it is up to you to study.

So many college freshmen don’t know how to study because they don’t think they ever did it. In college you have to do all the things your teacher did for you in high school. Outline the chapters. Complete practice problems, plus do some extra ones. Organize your time. Pre-read before lecture. Re-read after lecture. Over and over as many times as it takes until you know it.

So here’s the math. Let’s say it takes 10 hours to “learn” a chapter of material and there are 10 chapters of material in a certain course. Assume in the 15-week semester that 100 hours of total exposure are required for the course. Well, kids, it’s not a secret: there are only about 36 hours dedicated to lecture meetings for an entire semester, and some of that is taken up with quizzes and other activities, so your professor has about 30 hours total to present 10 chapters of material. That’s 3 hours per chapter. In some of your classes it will take you more than 3 hours just to read a chapter once through. You should plan on your own time to spend at least twice the length of time you sit in the lecture hall in order to really understand the material, and in some classes for some chapters it’ll be more like triple the lecture time.

That’s assuming you actually turn off your phone and Facebook and engage in lecture. If you don’t do that, you can take those wasted hours and add them to your out-of-class effort.

More math: you’ll probably only be in classes about 20 hours per week. That leaves 40 hours to do what you must to succeed. (Yes, college is a 60 hour work week. So is a typical salaried career in America. I didn’t invent this. I’m just the messenger.)

So, yes, you do know how to study. And hopefully this little math lesson explains why the homework questions (and exam questions) are so much harder than the introductory ones presented in lecture. A college degree is an amazing accomplishment because it must be earned. Acceptance to college is the first step, offered only to those qualified based on how well they kept up in high school. Don’t waste your chance.


Wrapping up another semester: I think we need a bigger bow

Some days I start a blog post not knowing where I’m going or why I feel the irresistible urge to write. Perhaps I am lonely and hope someone will listen. Perhaps I am tired and hope someone will listen. Always we want someone to listen. But who can listen when nobody even makes eye contact anymore? The only way to reach deep into another human these days is to worm your way into their phone.

Hi. It’s me. In your phone.

Am I lonely? I don’t think so. Am I sad and tired? Yes. Absolutely. (Am I caffeinated, shopping, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, baking? Not yet, but I’m the mom, so that’s coming.)

It’s that time of year when the end of semester stress feels too steep to climb, when watching my students so sad and exhausted and stressed all seems too mean to be somehow linked to me, when I know the end is close, but I can’t see it because of the mile-high wall of work in the way. It’s that time of year when I’m impressed by all the science my hundreds of students have learned in fourteen weeks, and glad I was there to help them, all while I fight the urge to defend myself by insisting I’m just the messenger–I didn’t invent chemistry.

Really, I didn’t. It was here before humans. I just love it and want to share it. If I stood at the BiLo professing about nucleophilic attack or enol tautomerization, solubility rules and hydrogen bonding,  no one would listen, even if I swung a little bell and stood by a red bucket. But in college I have a captive audience and they even pay me (a little) to talk about what I love so much. So while I’m so happy with my job doing what I love, my students are struggling, just like all of us did when we were in college.

The pattern of a college semester is the same whether you are studying or teaching. There is an incessant pace to keep, much like being chased by a train, where slowing down is not an option and sleeping seems like a good way to get run over, so it’s avoided. There’s way too much to do in too little time, and thank God for football or none of us would ever stop working. My own stress is manageable because I’m stupendous at time management and organizing my days. My students’ stress is another animal. Some have never felt academic pressure. Some don’t study or pace themselves or plan their time or even think about next week until they crash into it. Others study constantly and never rest. They forget to eat and live on coffee. If each of my 350 students dumped a mole of their stress on me, I’d crumble or drown or ionize completely, depending on the weak intermolecular forces holding me together.

Here’s what’s coming: Long extra office hours that are never enough, snuck in while I try to meet my deadlines. Writing, proofreading, timing, copying exams and quizzes. Grading hundreds of quizzes. Review session. Two exams on a 13-hour day. About 15 hours of grading 2000 questions about mechanisms and organic reactions while teaching. Then, writing final exams while holding office hours and still teaching. Proctoring and grading final exams. Calculating and posting quiz averages and final grades. Then dozens of requests for a personal meeting to seek a higher (unearned) grade from dedicated students who think it “doesn’t hurt to ask” while each time I enforce my own syllabus and say “No” a little part of my soul disintegrates, and it does hurt.

The end is near, so I’ll take a moment (before planning the next semester) to remember the rosy beginning. The best life is an intelligent life. Never stop learning.

Dear fellow teachers (and your students)

As the next school year looms and I prepare to begin my 22nd year standing in front of a lecture hall full of one hundred (or more) eager and engaged students, happily professing about my favorite topics, I thought I’d prepare a pep talk for fellow teachers.

Then I thought I’d make another pep talk for future students.

And then I realized students and their teachers all need the same skill set, the same advice, to survive the demands of a semester.

Teachers, remember your students have many other courses, deadlines, labs, meetings, and responsibilities besides your homework. Be gentle: allow for a fumbled ball, a missed assignment, an absence. Consider excusing or dropping a low score. Consider it an outlier.

Students, remember your professors have many other courses to teach and lectures to prepare, hundreds of other students, meetings, committees, spouses, children, pets, and responsibilities besides grading your quiz. Be gentle: allow for an error during lecture, a math error in calculations, a typo in the grading spreadsheet. All of these things are fixable. Your professor is a human, just like you.

Students, learn efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Listen. Take notes. Ask questions. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Study before you have to. Do the homework before the due date. Be responsible and in charge of your life. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month, remember the summer. Successful mastery of content in college courses requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. As long as you’re a student, there will always be another summer.

Professors, teach efficiently. Go to class. Turn off your phone. Slow down. Write clearly. Ask for questions. Check for understanding. Keep a detailed personal calendar of deadlines and tests. Make a daily list of things to do. Prioritize. Post office hours. Open your door. Write assessments well before they’re needed so you can make them better. Be responsible and in charge of your life. Successful college instruction requires a huge commitment of time and energy and dedication. If fun doesn’t fit in for a few weeks or a month or the entire semester except on weekends in the football stadium, remember the summer. Oh, the beautiful summer.

Professors need patience. Your students don’t know much when you first meet. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each who asks for help, all of them can do it.

Students need patience. With themselves. Learning is a layering process. Some concepts will take multiple attempts of study to comprehend. These multiple layers come in the form of reading, thinking, trying, listening in lecture (going to lecture), reading again, working problems, asking for help, failing and trying again. Freshmen are astounded by the levels of challenge that they face in their first semester. If you are patient, and give as much as you can to each of your courses, all of you can do it.

Students need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and try and study. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because the lectures continued in your absence. Stamina will get you through.

Teachers need stamina. There won’t be many breaks. Even the weekends will be filled with things to read and write and grade and prepare. When you take a break due to illness or exhaustion, your courses will feel even more challenging when you return because nobody continued your lectures in your absence. Now you are behind. The end of the semester will not be extended. You have to teach and grade and prepare even faster. Stamina (and coffee, chicken soup, candy bars, adult beverages) will get you through.

Professors, a sense of humor can help. Most students appreciate your attempt at humor. Even when they’re laughing at you, instead of with you, at least they’re laughing. Sacrifice yourself for their sake. They are surely in more pain than you are. Ignore the three who scowl and growl for fifteen weeks–nothing can make them smile and they’ll be annoyed that you tried. But for the rest, laughing in your lecture or in your office may be the only time they smile for weeks.

Students, a sense of humor will get you through it. Laughing releases good molecules into your tired brain. (Dr. Lanni can draw them for you.) Find a reason to laugh and someone to laugh with.

Students, find the courage to ask for help. There are office hours, and tutors (some free!), and organized study groups with university-paid peers. There are advisors and RAs. You are not alone.

Teachers, especially new ones, find the courage to ask for help. Experienced instructors have dealt with almost every unique situation you will face: crying students, crying and angry parents, huge stacks of papers to grade, lesson planning, cheating, lying, lying about cheating. Ask someone. If they don’t know, or are busy, ask someone else. You are not alone.

Students and professors, just remember everyone is doing the best they can. When they wish they’d done better, encourage them instead of making them feel worse than they already do. Respect each other, and we can all get through this, maybe laughing along the way, and reaching the impossible goals we all set for ourselves.

The best life is an intelligent one. Never stop learning.