Tag Archives: Science

Encouraging the Next Generation of STEM Professionals

In the most recent ASQ Influential Voices post, Bill Troy, ASQ CEO, asks: how should we encourage the next generation of STEM Professionals? I addressed a similar question in: Future Engineers and Scientists, which provides many details on this question.

The advantages of gaining science, technology, engineering and math skills (STEM) are fairly well known. However, even so, that is something to emphasize in order to encourage the next generation. While it is fairly well known it still helps to re-enforce and expand on the existing understanding. Some posts from my science and engineering blog on that topic: Engineering Graduates Earned a Return on Their Investment In Education of 21% (the highest of any discipline, math was next); Earnings by College Major, Engineers and Scientists at the Top; Career Prospect for Engineers Continues to Look Positive.

STEM careers often appeal to kids and teenagers (I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of Scientist, Apply to be an Astronaut).

Sadly we often discourage them with unnecessarily challenging education hurdles. It is true the education path for STEM is more challenging than for most careers. That is a reality that won’t change. If people are turned off by hard work, they likely wouldn’t like most STEM careers anyway. So that reality I think is fine. But the design of STEM education could be greatly improved to avoiding turning off many people who would enjoy the education and a career if the education process were better. I have also written about this previously: Improving Engineering Education, Primary School Science Education in China and the USA, Innovative Science and Engineering Higher Education, Infinity Project: Engineering Education for Today’s Classroom (providing middle school, high school, and early college engineering curricula), Engineering Education in the 21st Century, Research findings Contradict Myth of High Engineering Dropout Rate, Fun k-12 Science and Engineering Learning.

Those with STEM degrees have better career options than others (in terms of nearly everything: higher pay, lower unemployment and higher satisfaction with their careers). Some of the career options are more rigid than an average career, but many are actually more flexible and still have all the benefits. They have the opportunity for many rewarding jobs. This is of more importance for a sad reason: our failure to create organizations with a priority placed on respect for people.

Getting a STEM degree requires that students see the appeal of gaining those degrees and many do. Many students are turned off by either the hard work required to get such degrees or the less than optimal STEM education process (which often makes it much harder and also much less inspiring than required due to poor educational systems).

While continuing to promote STEM careers to the young is helpful and wise, we are doing this fairly well. Of course, everything can be done better, and we should keep striving to improve. But the main focus, In my opinion, should be on better education from k-12 all the way through the PhD level for STEM. It would also help if we stopped electing anti-science politicians.

Related: Science and Engineering Advantages for EconomiesS&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopMathematicians Top List of Best Occupations (top 6 are all STEM careers)Looking at the Value of Different College Degrees

George Box Webcast on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement

George Box lecture on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement at the Second International Tampere Conference in Statistics, University of Tampere, Finland (1987).

Early on he shows a graph showing the problems with American cars steady over a 10 years period. Then he overlays the results for Japanese cars which show a steady and significant decline of the same period.

Those who didn’t get to see presentations before power point also get a chance to see old school, hand drawn, overhead slides.

He discusses how to improve the pace of improvement. To start with informative events (events we can learn from) have to be brought to the attention of informed observers. Otherwise only when those events happen to catch the attention of the right observer will we capture knowledge we can use to improve. This results in slow improvement.

A control chart is an example of highlighting that something worth studying happened. The chart will indicate when to pay attention. And we can then improve the pace of improvement.

Next we want to encourage directed experimentation. We intentionally induce informative events and pay close attention while doing so in order to learn.

Every process generates information that can be used to improve it.

He emphasis the point that this isn’t about only manufacturing but it true of any process (drafting, invoicing, computer service, checking into a hospital, booking an airline ticket etc.).

He then discussed an example from a class my father taught and where the students all when to a TV plant outside Chicago to visit. The plant had been run by Motorola. It was sold to a Japanese company that found there was a 146% defect rate (which meant most TVs were taken off the line to be fixed at least once and many twice) – this is just the defect rate before then even get off the line. After 5 years the same plant, with the same American workers but a Japanese management system had reduced the defect rate to 2%. Everyone, including managers, were from the USA they were just using quality improvement methods. We may forget now, but one of the many objections managers gave for why quality improvement wouldn’t work in their company was due to their bad workers (it might work in Japan but not here).

He references how Deming’s 14 points will get management to allow quality improvement to be done by the workforce. Because without management support quality improvement processes can’t be used.

With experimentation we are looking to find clues for what to experiment with next. Experimentation is an iterative process. This is very much the mindset of fast iteration and minimal viable product (say minimal viable experimentation as voiced in 1987).

There is great value in creating iterative processes with fast feedback to those attempting to design and improve. Box and Deming (with rapid turns of the PDSA cycle) and others promoted this 20, 30 and 40 years ago and now we get the same ideas tweaked for startups. The lean startup stuff is as closely related to Box’s ideas of experimentation as an iterative process as it is to anything else.

Related: Ishikawa’s seven quality control tools

He also provided a bit of history that I was not aware of saying the first application of orthogonal arrays (fractional factorial designs) in industry was by Tippett in 1933. And he then mentioned work by Finney in 1945, Plackett and Burman in 1946 and Rao in 1947.

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You

The webcast above is from the excellent folks at Crash Course. This webcast provides another view into the area of Deming’s management system on the theory of knowledge (the one most people forget), how we know what we know and how that belief isn’t always right.

Two of the four components of Dr. Deming’s management system were about our brains (psychology is the other) which makes a great deal of sense when you think about how focused he was on the human element in our organizations (and the others are viewed significantly by how they interact with our brains – how we view variation, how we often fail to look at the whole system when drawing conclusions, etc.).

I believe most people don’t give nearly enough attention to theory of knowledge especially and also psychology within the context of an organization. They are a bit messy and vague and dependent and not easy to create simple cut and paste instructions for how to manage. This webcast takes a different look at it without connections back to management but I think most people need to spend more time thinking about these ideas. This video can help you do that.

If you are constantly (multiple times a minute in this video) seeing the connections with Deming and how the points relates to management that is a good sign. If not, that probably means you should spend more time reading and thinking about the theory of knowledge and psychology (see managing people posts).

Related: Customers Are Often IrrationalRevealed preference versus stated preferenceHow We Know What We KnowThe Neuroscience of DemingIllusions: Optical and Other

George Box Articles Available for a Short Time

A collection of George Box articles have been selected for a virtual George Box issue by David M. Steinberg and made available online.

George E. P. Box died in March 2013. He was a remarkably creative scientist and his celebrated professional career in statistics was always at the interface of science and statistics. George Box, J. Stuart Hunter and Cuthbert Daniel were instrumental in launching Technometrics in 1959, with Stu Hunter as the initial editor. Many of his articles were published in the journal. Therefore we think it is especially fitting that Technometrics should host this on-line collection with some of his most memorable and influential articles.

They also include articles from Journal of the American Statistical Association and Quality Engineering. Taylor & Francis is offering these articles freely in honor of George Box until December 31st, 2014. It is very sad that closed science and engineering journals block access to the great work created by scientists and engineers and most often paid for by government (while working for state government universities and with grants organizations like the National Science Foundation[NSF]). At least they are making a minor exception to provide the public (that should be unlimited access to these works) a limited access to these articles this year. These scientists and engineers dedicated their careers to using knowledge to improve society not to hide knowledge from society.

Some of the excellent articles make available for a short time:

The “virtual issue” includes many more articles.

Related: Design of Experiments: The Process of Discovery is IterativeQuotes by George E.P. BoxThe Art of DiscoveryAn Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box

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Introductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results

The video shows Stu Hunter discussing design of experiments in 1966. It might be a bit slow going at first but the full set of videos really does give you a quick overview of the many important aspects of design of experiments including factorial designed experiments, fractional factorial design, blocking and response surface design. It really is quite good, if you find the start too slow for you skip down to the second video and watch it.

My guess is, for those unfamiliar with even the most cursory understanding of design of experiments, the discussion may start moving faster than you can absorb the information. One of the great things about video is you can just pause and give yourself a chance to catch up or repeat a part that you didn’t quite understand. You can also take a look at articles on design of experiments.

I believe design of experiments is an extremely powerful methodology of improvement that is greatly underutilized. Six sigma is the only management improvement program that emphasizes factorial designed experiments.

Related: One factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial DesignsThe purpose of Factorial Designed Experiments

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Richard Feynman Explains the PDSA Cycle

Ok, really Richard Feynman Explains the scientific method. But his thoughts make the similarity between the PDSA cycle and the scientific method obvious.

1) Plan, hypothesis.
You make a guess about a theory (in using the PDSA cycle this step is often missed, while in the scientific method this is of the highest priority). You make a prediction based on that theory.

2) Do the experiment

3) Study the results

If the results disprove the theory you were wrong. If they results don’t disprove the theory you may have a useful theory (it can also be that your theory is still wrong, but this experiment happened not to provide results that disprove it).

Step 4, Act, only exists for PDSA. In science the aim is to learn and confirm laws. While the PDSA cycle has an aim to learn and adopt methods that achieve the desired results.

Richard Feynman: “If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong, in that simple statement is the key to science, it doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are (who made the guess), or what his name is, if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

Actually far to often “PDSA” fails to adopt this understanding. Instead it become PA: no study of the results, just implement and we all already agree it is going to work so don’t bother wasting time testing that it actually does. Some organization do remember to study results of the pilot experiments but then forget to study the results when the new ideas are adopted on a broader scale.

Related: Does the Data Deluge Make the Scientific Method Obsolete?Video of Young Richard Feynman Talking About Scientific ThinkingHow to Use of the PDSA Improvement Cycle Most EffectivelyUsing Design of Experiments

One factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial Designs

Guest post by Bradley Jones

Almost a hundred years ago R. A. Fisher‘s boss published an article espousing OFAT (one factor at a time). Fisher responded with an article of his own laying out his justification for factorial design. I admire the courage it took to contradict his boss in print!

Fisher’s argument was mainly about efficiency – that you could learn as much about many factors as you learned about one in the same number of trials. Saving money and effort is a powerful and positive motivator.

The most common argument I read against OFAT these days has to do with inability to detect interactions and the possibility of finding suboptimal factor settings at the end of the investigation. I admit to using these arguments myself in print.

I don’t think these arguments are as effective as Fisher’s original argument.

To play the devil’s advocate for a moment consider this thought experiment. You have to climb a hill that runs on a line going from southwest to northeast but you are only allowed to make steps that are due north or south or due east or west. Though you will have to make many zig zags you will eventually make it to the top. If you noted your altitude at each step, you would have enough data to fit a response surface.

Obviously this approach is very inefficient but it is not impossible. Don’t mistake my intent here. I am definitely not an advocate of OFAT. Rather I would like to find more convincing arguments to persuade experimenters to move to multi-factor design.

Related: The Purpose of Factorial Designed ExperimentsUsing Design of Experimentsarticles by R.A. Fisherarticles on using factorial design of experimentsDoes good experimental design require changing only one factor at a time (OFAT)?Statistics for Experimenters

Problems With Student Evaluations as Measures of Teacher Performance

Dr. Deming was, among other things a professor. He found the evaluation of professors by students an unimportant (and often counterproductive measure) – used in some places for awards and performance appraisal. He said for such a measure to be useful it should survey students 20 years later to see which professors made a difference to the students. Here is an interesting paper that explored some of these ideas. Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors by Scott E. Carrell, University of California, Davis and National Bureau of Economic Research; and James E. West, U.S. Air Force Academy:

our results indicate that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes. Academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous value”added but positively correlated with follow”on course value”added. Hence, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess a doctorate perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course but perform worse in the follow”on related curriculum.

Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value”added and negatively correlated with follow”on student achievement. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value”added in follow”on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

These findings have broad implications for how students should be assessed and teacher quality measured.

Related: Applying Lean Tools to University CoursesK-12 Educational ReformImproving Education with Deming’s IdeasLearning, Systems and ImprovementHow We Know What We Know

Statistical Engineering Links Statistical Thinking, Methods and Tools

In Closing the Gap Roger W. Hoerl and Ronald D. Snee lay out a sensible case for focusing on statistical engineering.

We’re not suggesting that society no longer needs research in new statistical techniques for improvement; it does. The balance needed at this time, however, is perhaps 80% for statistics as an engineering discipline and 20% for statistics as a pure science.

True, though I would put the balance more like 95% engineering, 5% science.

There is a good discussion on LinkedIn:

Davis Balestracci: Unfortunately, we snubbed our noses at the Six Sigma movement…and got our lunch eaten. Ron Snee has been developing this message for the last 20 years (I developed it in four years’ worth of monthly columns for Quality Digest from 2005-2008). BUT…as long as people have a computer, color printer, and a package that does trend lines, academic arguments won’t “convert” anybody.

Recently, we’ve lost our way and evolved into developing “better jackhammers to drive tacks”…and pining for the “good ol’ days” when people listened to us (which they were forced to do because they didn’t have computers, and statistical packages were clunky). Folks, we’d better watch it…or we’re moribund

Was there really a good old days when business listened to statisticians? Of course occasionally they did, but “good old days”? Here is a report from 1986 the theme of which seems to me to be basically how to get statisticians listened to by the people that make the important decisions: The Next 25 Years in Statistics, by Bill Hunter and William Hill. Maybe I do the report a disservice with my understanding of the basic message, but it seems to me to be how to make sure the important contributions of applied statisticians actually get applied in organizations. And it discusses how statisticians need to take action to drive adoption of the ideas because currently (1986) they are too marginalized (not listened to when they should be contributing) in most organizations.
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Extrinsic Incentives Kill Creativity

If you read this blog, you know I believe extrinsic motivation is a poor strategy. This TED webcast Dan Pink discusses studies showing extrinsic rewards failing. This is a great webcast, definitely worth 20 minutes of your time.

  • “you’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity… This has been replicated over and over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators, if you do this then you get that, work in some circumstances but in a lot of tasks they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm.”
  • there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does
  • “This is a fact.”

What does Dan Pink recommend based on the research? Management should focus on providing workplaces where people have autonomy, mastery and purpose to build on intrinsic motivation.

via: Everything You Think about Pay for Performance Could Be Wrong

Related: Righter IncentivizationWhat’s the Value of a Big Bonus?Dangers of Extrinsic MotivationMotivate or Eliminate De-MotivationGreat Marissa Mayer Webcast on Google Innovation