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Public ratings

Colleges and universities should make their formal in-class student evaluations of teaching (SET) data publicly available online to provide more accurate ratings than the more informal assessments currently on the Web, conclude two University of Maine researchers after conducting a comparative analysis of and SET data.

In what is considered the first study of its kind, Theodore Coladarci, professor of educational psychology, and Irv Kornfield, professor of biology and molecular forensics, analyzed the correlation between the traditional higher education assessment method and the popular, the self-described largest listing of college professor ratings on the Internet. Their findings were published last May in the electronic journal Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation.

Many professors oppose the publication of SET data because of concerns about privacy and other potential negative consequences. But without the release of SET results, students rely on what is publicly available, such as, which can mischaracterize the true standing of many instructors, according to Coladarci and Kornfield., established in 1999, allows students to anonymously post 5-point instructor ratings in three categories — helpfulness, clarity, and easiness — and to provide general comments. Coladarci and Kornfield compared SET and (RMP) ratings of 426 UMaine faculty and found that two RMP indices — overall quality (the average of the helpfulness and clarity ratings) and ease — correlated "substantively and significantly" with their SET counterparts. For example, the researchers found that when an instructor's RMP overall quality rating was particularly high, "one can infer that the instructor 'truly' is regarded as a laudatory teacher," as measured by SET.

However, there is considerable uncertainty about the instructor's true status when the RMP overall quality rating is anything less than stellar. The researchers also note that RMP indices may be more trustworthy when based on many posts, but the fact remains that the Web-based assessments lack quality control, including the ability to satisfactorily represent an institution's student body. Because of this, Coladarci and Kornfield suggest that universities make their teaching evaluations publicly available.

Natural navigation

Through their lifetimes, amphibians move within and between habitats for a variety of reasons, including breeding, summer foraging and overwintering. But just how they navigate in their travels remains unclear.

Studies of spotted salamanders, and red-bellied and red-spotted newts, have documented the use of direct cues, like scenting water — directly detecting a resource they are seeking. Other lab-based research has explored the use of indirect cues for orientation, like the location of sunrise or detection of magnetic fields.

Now University of Maine scientists have found what may be the first evidence of the use of indirect cues by juvenile wood frogs in the wild. Just what those indirect cues are, and how soon they manifest prior to or during emergence from the natal pool, remains unanswered.

UMaine researchers studied 400 wood frog tadpoles from a pond where emerging metamorphs travel northeast to a forested wetland. When the tadpoles were relocated to a new pool with a southwest wetland, most of the animals emerged and continued to head northeast, retaining the same directionality as at the site where they hatched.

The results raise concerns that amphibians like wood frogs that rely on indirect cues could have less adaptability to habitat changes. Such inflexibility could lead frogs into ecological traps, according to UMaine wildlife ecologists David Patrick and Malcolm Hunter, and wetlands ecologist Aram Calhoun, writing in the Journal of Herpetology.

Exaggerating Success

People exaggerate what it took for them to succeed at a task in order to enhance or maintain their self-esteem, according to research by two social psychologists.

In four studies, three involving college students and one surveying psychology professors, psychologists Scott Eidelman of the University of Maine and Monica Biernat of the University of Kansas found that people are likely to cite more stringent standards for success. College students who met their exam standards and academics who earned tenure both exaggerated what it took to accomplish their goals, presumably as a means to deflect concerns about competence.

The researchers also found greater standard raising among those who succeed if their self-esteem is threatened, implying that the reasoning for exaggeration is a need to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments.

"Standard raising is a strategy to use when success is achieved but competence is questioned," wrote the researchers in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Because raised standards imply greater ability and effort, performers feel better about their accomplishments. In this way, they may get more from their successes."

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.

Reputational Bliss

In the world of business, the success of a firm hinges on maximizing its value — and reputation. But the reality is that a good reputation doesn't guarantee that all the firm's actions will be good for all concerned, including those deeds valued most by the primary beneficiaries or stakeholders.

Thus, the basic dilemma: What or who should management act for? And what normative guides should it reference in taking action?

Two professors of management suggest one basic normative criterion by which firms could seek both bottom-line success and responsible behavior toward stakeholders. That benchmark — the best of all possible worlds for business — is reputational optimality, according to Barry Mitnick of the Katz Graduate School of Management at the University of Pittsburgh and John Mahon of the University of Maine Business School, writing recently in the Journal of Business Ethics.

Such "reputational bliss" is possible when all externally held reputations of the organization are positive, the result of using moral directives to guide decisionmaking, according to the researchers.

In our society, Mitnick and Mahon point out, a reputation based on moral grounds is more valued and stable than one built solely on outcomes, including distribution of benefits. A firm is more likely to use moral directives to guide its actions if it is closely observed and in a highly competitive economic environment, and if its corporate leaders have authentic moral beliefs that demonstrate corporate integrity. Firms also will choose moral directives when the choice advances their reputations in the eyes of stakeholders.

Turning Potatoes into Plastic

Maine potatoes may be destined for more than the deep fryer if Maine-based manufacturer InterfaceFABRIC has its way.

The company, which currently uses biodegradable fiber made from polylactic acid (PLA) in corn, contracted the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Center to determine if Maine potatoes could be used instead as a starch source for the plastic production. The study found that the costs associated with converting potatoes would be similar to the current costs of converting corn, and would require little or no start-up or equipment costs for Maine's potato growers.

The research, conducted by Kate Dickerson of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and Jonathan Rubin of the Smith Center and UMaine's Department of Resource Economics and Policy further found that InterfaceFABRIC's current demand for PLA could be met using below-grade potatoes and potato waste from processing once tools and techniques are developed.

If produced, the new potato-based plastics would be nontoxic, biodegradable and renewable, unlike the many petroleum-based plastics currently in use.

Insight Lite: giddyap

At the University of Maine Aquaculture Research Center, Ph.D. student Søren Hansen is raising mostly clownfish and dottybacks. But he's also researching ways to cultivate seahorses, those cryptic little creatures with plant-like bodies that allow them to hide in aquatic grasses; camouflage is their best defense against predators. Seahorses boast a variety of other fascinating characteristics, according to Hansen:

  • Seahorses mate for life.

  • They are able to change color to blend into habitats and hide.

  • They like to swim in pairs by intertwining their tails.

  • Seahorses eat by sucking plankton and fish larvae through their tiny mouths at the ends of their snouts. Those at UMaine like to eat their food from small bowls placed at the bottom of their tanks.

  • They move by beating their tiny dorsal fins nearly as fast as a hummingbird beats its wings.

  • Females deposit their eggs in a special pouch on the male, where the babies grow until it is time for them to be born.

  • A seahorse can move each of its eyes independently, focusing in two directions.

  • Their genus name, Hippocampus, is Greek for "bent horse." UMaine researchers are raising common and lined seahorses, two of an estimated 35 species in the world.

UMaine's class opera: Figaro

Preparations have begun to bring The Marriage of Figaro to the Hauck Auditorium stage in February — and to classrooms across campus this fall.

Figaro is UMaine's first-ever "class opera" in a project that melds the inspiration of a class book with the University of Maine's operatic roots. The Mozart opera, to be sung in English, will tap the talents of music, theater and dance students and faculty throughout the School of Performing Arts. It also will be the springboard for discussions in courses on history, philosophy, sociology, women's studies, political science and French literature.

One goal is to involve as many performing arts students as possible "for a true school-wide production," says Stuart Marrs, chair of the Division of Music in the School of Performing Arts. In addition, other liberal arts classes are picking up on the opera's references to such topics as pre-French Revolution history, class struggle and Enlightenment philosophy.

Also scheduled around Figaro are guest lectures, study guides and postshow discussions with the cast, crew and faculty.

"Productions like this have the potential to bring everyone — students, faculty and departments —together," says Professor of Theatre Tom Mikotowicz, the stage director for Figaro.

Figaro revives UMaine's classic opera tradition that, up until the late 1980s, featured an annual production. It also honors the long academic and performance career of music professor Lud Hallman, who has taught at UMaine since 1970 and will be Figaro's musical director.

Safe return

To help keep tons of medications out of the environment and away from children, the University of Maine Center on Aging has launched a pharmaceuticals return program with a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The mail-back pilot project is expected to remove 1.5 tons of unused over-the-counter and prescription medications from homes or the waste stream, according to Len Kaye, director of the Center on Aging. It also is the first step in implementing the Maine Unused Pharmaceutical Disposal Project, adopted by the state legislature in 2004.

An estimated 6,000 postage-paid mailers are now available to the public through participating pharmacies in four counties. In addition, an educational campaign is focusing on the hazards caused by the improper storage and disposal of unused medications.

The Maine project includes an inventory of the types and quantities of drugs being returned. The inventory data could be used by the medical community to change prescription practices in an effort to reduce the incidence of unused medications in people's homes.

The Maine mail-back and inventory aspects of the program are firsts in the country, according to EPA Project Officer Kathy Sykes.

Typically, unused, unneeded or expired medications are flushed down toilets or thrown in the trash, and ultimately can make their way into the environment. Since compounds in many medications are destroyed only through incineration, they often pass through landfill and wastewater treatment plants, and end up in waterways and groundwater.

Unused and unneeded drugs stored in homes also can wind up in the hands of children or thieves.

Halting hazing: update

University of Maine researchers Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden have moved into the second phase of their groundbreaking research on hazing with a survey of more than 14,000 full-time undergraduate students from 52 institutions from across the country — the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind. Allan and Madden hope the results of the survey will shed new light on the type and frequency of hazing behaviors, and students' perceptions regarding such practices.

"One important discovery that we made in the pilot survey is that our definition of hazing and the students' definitions are not the same. This latest survey and the associated student interviews are aimed at helping us better understand how students perceive hazing on campus," says Madden.

"Our goal is to make a difference in terms of the culture of hazing on postsecondary campuses, and we need to fully understand the students' views in order to have an impact."

The final results of their comprehensive, nationwide survey are currently being tabulated as Allan and Madden work toward developing recommendations for addressing the problem of hazing in postsecondary education.


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