How to help students graduate

U of T is middle-of-the-road, according to the author of a study released last week on the generosity of Canadian universities’ course-withdrawal and tuition-refund policies.

When asked about U of T’s tuition refund policies compared to other Canadian universities, Brock professor Felice Martinello said, “U of T was virtually right in the middle in the schools I looked at. However, you’ve got to bear in mind that you’ve got different [refund policies] across different faculties. I concentrated only on Arts and Science.”

“Tuition refunds are fairly complicated schemes,” he added. “Generally speaking, however, refund generosity did decrease over the years.”

Martinello’s study shows that students attending post-secondary institutions with later course withdrawal dates and more magnanimous tuition refund policies are more likely to switch between programs or schools before second year.

In other words, schools that want to increase persistence and degree completion in students’ first-year programs—and keep them from going elsewhere—should set early withdrawal deadlines and offer limited opportunities for tuition refunds. But more relaxed policies may ensure that more students complete university.

These factors “allow students to make adjustments to surprises and shocks, while learning about PSE [post-secondary education],” the paper reads. The study was done as part of the Measuring the Effectiveness of Student Aid project.

Students’ year-to-year persistence was also estimated to be higher in larger universities. “Despite higher competition, students were less likely to leave larger universities,” Martinello said. “Even though I adjusted the data for entering averages, you still get higher-quality students, and hence more competitive peers. Data showed that instead of wilting, students improve the standards of their own work to meet those of their peers.”

Competitive peers can also be intimidating. “The fact that there are so many more people who have a lot more industry knowledge than me is actually quite demotivating, as I realize that even if I study twice as hard, I will still only be average,” said Ruba Ayyub, a second-year specialist in finance and economics.

Another study, conducted by professor Matthieu Chemin of L’Université du Québec à Montréal, investigated the effects of a student assistance policy change in Quebec in 2001-2002, which decreased the student and parental contribution requirements for student loans.

More students received grants and entered into post-secondary education as a result of the reform. But the study documented that “despite findings of increased persistence due to the reform, no corresponding increase in graduation rates was observed.” This suggests that students who are able to access university education through financial aid may need other systems in place to reach graduation.

Martinello cautioned that his paper is only a pilot study. “Results are fragile, meaning that if you change the specifications, the results change a lot. This is basically just a preliminary report as no one has done anything like this for Canadian universities before,” he said.

U of T’s tuition refund schedules can be found at

Nobel prizes and ignoble deeds: the Fritz Haber story

The Prize:

The 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Fritz Haber for the “synthesis of ammonia from its elements.”

The Science:

Nitrogen is an important component of the rich, fertile soil needed for growing crops, though farming also depletes fields of this nutrient through plant uptake, leaching, and soil erosion. Farmers traditionally used crop rotation to maintain nitrogen levels in the soil, but by the early 20th century, farmers had responded to increased food demands with high-yield, single crop farming. Such farming practices require more nitrogen than can be fixed in the soil naturally. Stores of nitrate discovered in Chilean mines temporarily fed the agriculture industry’s appetite for nitrogen, but fears that the mines would run dry had many chemists wondering how to produce fertilizers chemically.

Nitrogen gas makes up over 78 per cent of our atmosphere but is relatively unreactive due to its strong triple-bond molecular structure. Chemists in the early 1900s struggled to use this vast source of elemental nitrogen to produce more useful nitrogen compounds like ammonia, a complex of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3).

The first chemist to achieve this feat was the German chemist Fritz Haber. In 1909, Haber revealed the first Haber Synthesis machine, a “table-top” apparatus (engineered with the help of Robert Le Rossignol) that produced liquid ammonia at the rate of a cup every two hours. Once produced, ammonia can be oxidized to produce the nitrites that are useful as fertilizers.

The Haber synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) requires some extreme conditions: high pressure (~250 atmospheres), high temperature (~500˚C), and that the entire reaction happen over an iron catalyst. Even under these optimized conditions, the reaction is inefficient in terms of the amount of ammonia it produces, though the reaction is also exothermic, meaning that it releases energy on formation and this energy can then be captured and recycled to heat the un-reacted N2 and H2 continuing the process.

In 1913, the German chemical company BASF began industrial production of ammonia based on the Haber method. BASF enlisted Carl Bosch to convert Haber’s model to an industrial scale and Bosch subsequently won a Nobel in 1931 for his work. Today the industrial-scale reaction is known as the Haber-Bosch process.

The Significance:

Inexpensive, readily available ammonia changed the world of agriculture. The adaptation of modern agriculture to methods that require the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers has been dubbed the “green revolution.” The high-yield production of corn, rice, and other food staples led many countries (including India and Mexico, which had previously been facing famine) to become agriculturally independent. Today, fertilizer manufacturers produce over 100 million tons of ammonia annually through the Haber-Bosch process. It is currently estimated that over one third of the global population relies on the Haber synthesis for its food.

The Haber-Bosch process also has a controversial side. Scaling-up the Haber process to an industrial level enabled Germany to mass-produce an artificial alternative to Chile saltpetre, the key ingredient in gunpowder at the time. During the First World War, the Triple Alliance controlled almost all the Chile saltpeter in the world, as most of the mine owners were British. Germany diverted most of the ammonia produced in its factories into synthetic Chile saltpeter and then into munitions. The Haber-Bosch process kept Germany in the war for years longer than would otherwise have been possible.

What you may not know:

Many were surprised when the Nobel was awarded to Haber in 1918. After developing the method to fix nitrogen, Haber joined the German war effort. Under Haber’s management, Germany developed its chemical warfare program and he personally witnessed the first use of poison gas at Ypres, Belgium in 1915. It is thought that his wife, also a chemist, committed suicide in reaction to Haber’s promotion of poison gas. Haber had a very successful career in chemistry in Germany, but in 1933 he was forced to step down from his position as a result of anti-Semitic Nazi laws. He died shortly afterwards.

Mental assessment ordered for hydrogen-van man

A Scarborough man will not face criminal charges over a bomb scare that evacuated a large chunk of northern Scarborough last Monday.

The problem began when a van belonging to 27-year-old Centennial College student Shaun Morris was towed from campus and moved to a lot on Markham Road. Police report that an agitated Morris soon called them.

“[He] was worried about the vehicle because it had some kind of alternative fuel engine,” said college spokesperson Rosanna Cavallaro. The vehicle, it turned out, was equipped with a home-made hydrogen fuel tank.

The situation escalated when police discovered that Morris had parked the van next to a propane tank. After consulting with Toronto fire officials, they evacuated everyone within a 1.6-kilometre radius of the van while a bomb crew disarmed the fuel tank.

Nobody was injured, and police later downplayed the threat.

Formal charges will not be laid against Morris, but he does have to stay in police custody for up to three days in order to perform a psychiatric assessment, in accordance with the Mental Health Act.

Source: Toronto Star

Blues lose in thriller

Drawing 1,832 spectators to the Varsity Stadium Friday night, the Blues made their fans proud. Despite a 53-25 loss to the Guelph Gryphons, the Blues held on strong, keeping the Gryphons close for most of the game.

Friday’s game stood in stark contrast to the last time the Blues faced the Gryphons—just under a year ago—when the Blues were shut out with an upsetting 30-0 score. The picture didn’t look much brighter after the first two games of the season, with a 36-0 loss against Laurier and a 30-3 loss against Windsor.

In the third game of the season, the Blues really stepped it up.

For the first touchdown of the season, Zac Hord pulled Toronto ahead of the Gryphons after the first quarter, giving the Blues a 7-5 lead. When asked what was different this time, Blues player of the game and quarterback Andrew Gillis said, “We definitely executed today. We had a game plan and we followed through with it.”

The Blues maintained their lead until a field goal by the Gryphons with just under three minutes left in the half put the Blues narrowly behind with a score of 9-7.

Toronto was able to keep up with the offensive surge until the end of the third quarter, when a touchdown by Guelph with one minute left pulled the win farther out of reach, with the Gryphons leading 25-14.

Although the last quarter solidified Guelph’s victory, an impressive touchdown by Toronto was a highlight of the game—scored on an amazing 64-yard pass from back-up quarterback Jansen Shrubb to Jonathan Wright demonstrated the enormous potential of this year’s team.

However, it still wasn’t enough to keep up with the Gryphons. “The big thing is that we have to play four quarters. That’s something we have to work on, just like the coach just said in the lockers,” emphasized Gillis. “We have to stay in the game for 60 minutes and we can’t take any time off.”

Describing a lack of confidence as the team’s biggest challenge, Gillis asserted that a Blues victory could really give them the boost they need. “[The team] is still young, so we have a lot of potential.”

Despite a decisive loss, it is undeniable that there was an air of excitement in the stands from Toronto fans. Three games into the season, the Blues have shown that things are going to be different this year.

“Anything could happen,” said Gillis, looking forward to next Friday’s home game when U of T takes on the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

U of T student interns for Nelson Mandela

This summer, Victoria Hill went to Johannesburg as an intern for the Centre of Memory Project. Part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the project is committed to documenting, publicizing, and contributing to ongoing struggles for justice.

Hill, in the second year of a Master’s in information studies, worked on archiving materials, including a few thousand papers on Mandela’s clan’s role as mediator of the Burundi peace process.

“I’ve learned that archivists cannot shy away from politics and power struggles,” she told the Bulletin. Hill is working on establishing First Nations community-based records management and archives programs in Canada.

Source: The Bulletin

Blues refuse to be badgered

In a 3-2 loss to the Brock Badgers on Sept. 15, the Varsity Blues men’s baseball team proved to be inconsistent. The first run scored by the Badgers was caused in part by an error by the Blues’ third baseman in the second inning. This run was costly, and eventually proved to be the difference in the game.

“We made a good effort, but unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the score today,” said Blues starting pitcher Tyler Wilson.

Wilson looked strong, and would have pitched the whole game had other pitchers not needed the work. He showed character on the mound, steadily improving as the game progressed. “I felt more comfortable as the game went on,” said Wilson. “I started feeling better on the mound and my pitches improved as we got deeper in the game.”

On the offensive side the Blues looked overmatched by the Badgers pitching, not scoring a run until the seventh inning, despite enjoying a few good opportunities along with home-field advantage. Whether they were tired or overwhelmed, the Blues lacked intensity through the first five and a half innings. Only after the two-run outburst in the fifth by the Badgers did the Blues seem to come alive at the plate. Suddenly feeling a sense of urgency, team veterans held successive player meetings in the dugout during which they yelled “wake up!” at each other in an attempt to instill competitive spirit into the team. Although these pep talks led to Blues’ runs in the seventh and ninth innings, they weren’t enough to defeat the Badgers.

The lack of intensity was apparent not only in the players, but in the coaching staff. Down 3-1 with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Blues shortstop David Fallico laced a hit past the Badgers third baseman and into the outfield for a single. Fallico, who hasn’t been caught stealing this season, led the team with ten stolen bases (which was six more than the rest of the team combined). Shockingly, he wasn’t given the green light by the third base coach to steal second, and so remained planted on first. Having a runner on second base with one out would have eliminated the possibility of an inning-ending double play and a hit to the gap in the outfield would have easily scored the speedy Fallico. Plus, having a runner in scoring position capable of either stealing third or scoring on a single adds a potential distraction for the opposing pitcher. Whether the lack of a steal was a case of oversight or indifference, it has to call into question the drive of the coaching staff.

However, there are several reasons for fans to remain optimistic about the 2009 Blues squad. In a post-game interview, Wilson spoke of not having enough starting rotation spots to house all the pitching talent on the team. Although currently they are in the lower half of the standings, when asked about his team’s chances of making a playoff run, Wilson was enthusiastic and optimistic. On Saturday the Blues built on some of their potential by defeating the Laurier Golden Hawks 9-7 at home in Scarborough.

The Blues are a mix of young and old players in need of some support. Defensively, they were fairly shaky and inexperienced at certain positions. The coaching staff needs to train players to effectively approach each at-bat, as the hitters were often outclassed and did not recognize the umpire was calling all outside pitches as strikes. Finally, this Blues team needs support from the fans. Taking a trip out to the Scarborough campus is a majestic experience as the field is truly a diamond in the rough. The play on the field will soon catch up to the beauty of the surroundings. This team may go on a hot streak, and with their deep pitching staff, and potential for timely hitting, they will certainly catch on with the fans.

Ryerson eyes Maple Leaf Gardens as new athletic centre

In a spring 2009 referendum, Ryerson University students voted in favour of coughing up an extra $126 per year in athletic fees for new facilities. Little did they know the new digs might be the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens.

“We are now actively engaged in searching for an appropriate site and are looking at a number of options, including discussions with Loblaw Companies Limited regarding Maple Leaf Gardens,” reads a statement issued by Ryerson last Wednesday.

Loblaw confirmed the same day that the two are in discussions over sharing the use of the historic arena. Although the supermarket giant purchased the building in 2004 with plans to convert it into a grocery store, the joint venture may preserve the site’s legacy as a hockey facility.

“Not only would Maple Leaf Gardens help varsity athletes, but also the student body,” said Graham Wise, head coach of the men’s hockey team at Ryerson, to the student paper the Eyeopener. The Ryerson Athletic Centre is without a proper rink. The Ryerson Rams practice at George Bell Arena near St. Clair and Keele, which some say is too far for students who want to catch a game.

Sources: Toronto Star, The Eyeopener

NDP cooperates with Conservatives, demonstrating the pitfalls of parliamentary democracy in Canada

I began last week’s column by stating unequivocally that there would be an election this fall. Though Canada’s political tides have shifted away from an election since I made this prediction, a fall vote remains a distinct possibility. Everyone would be well advised to keep their lawn signs handy and their campaign pins polished.

However, such an election will likely result in more of the status quo in our parliamentary democracy. Parties will only co-operate in order to maximize their political power, and true co-operation and representation will be left at the House of Commons door. One need only look at last week’s events to see why.

The major turn of events came when NDP leader Jack Layton hinted that his party might support the government in a crucial confidence vote. This, only days after Harper announced he would not engage in “backroom deals” with “socialists” and “separatists,” and after attacking Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s supposed agenda to co-operate with such social democrat scum. But to keep his government alive, the Prime Minister found himself suddenly making concessions on Employment Insurance in order to shore up NDP support.

The bizarre circumstance of a deeply conservative Prime Minister pinning the survival of his government on the support of a party that has been his strongest critic, with an Employment Insurance bill the very nature of which contradicts the ideology he has pledged to uphold, has many pundits’ heads spinning. Similarly, there has been an angry reaction on the left from those who view Layton’s support for the Harper government as a betrayal of progressive principles. It is as yet unclear what the long-term implications of this maneuvering will be for either party.

Of the two party leaders, Harper’s position is perhaps the more surprising. His party is leading in the polls and its chief rival, the Liberal Party, is under attack from all sides for its hawkish stance.

The NDP, however, were presented with a more difficult set of conditions. Had they held to their conventional position of no support for the Harper Government, they too would have been accused of being uncooperative and opportunistic, and would have been responsible for denying badly needed benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers—many of whom are their constituents. Yet the left’s visceral hatred of the current government, nurtured by two and a half years of anti-Conservative rhetoric from the NDP, has put Layton between a rock and a hard place.

The Liberals have made it clear they intend to fast-track the EI bill, meaning that a non-confidence vote could still topple the government this fall. It’s difficult to see how the NDP will maintain this most precarious of positions for long when the Liberals have declared, “there’s no turning back.”

Taking a step back from the nightmarish haste of recent events, last week not only exemplifies the dysfunctional nature of our current parliament, but the need for a complete overhaul of the parliamentary conventions and procedures that led us to this juncture in the first place. When Harper accused Ignatieff of harbouring a “hidden agenda” to form a coalition with the NDP supported by the Bloc, he again revealed his disdain for parliamentary democracy, which, in a country as multi-faceted as Canada, must function on the basis of co-operation between parties. Michael Ignatieff was quick to take the bait: no coalitions — we’re going it alone.

Under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine any party securing a majority. And if Canadians do return to the polls this fall, as is likely, they may find themselves with the same formula that produced last week’s stalemate: a group of regional parties unwilling to work together, no substantive discussion or policy, and a government which effectively represents less than one quarter of the electorate.