Santiago Sanchez

Photo Credit: Carlo Nasisse and Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

When radio-televisionfilm sophomore Holly Cook first came to UT, she had never taken a formal health or sex education course. Cook, who attended Clear Lake High School in Houston, learned what she knew about sex from her father, who is a biology teacher, and from friends and the Internet.

Cook’s story is not unique. Many Texas high schools do not offer any sex education whatsoever. Most high schools that do offer sex education focus heavily on abstinence. Across the board, UT freshmen arrive on campus with wildly varying sex education experiences.

“The breadth and depth of how sex ed is taught is really determined locally, so you can have quite a difference in approach within one county,” Texas Education Agency spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe said. “In one community they may only talk about abstinence, and in the other ones, they may have lengthy discussions about all the different types of contraception. ...It can impact [students] pretty dramatically.”

Five years ago, Texas stopped requiring that high school curriculums include health class, in which sex education was usually taught. When sex education is offered, the state’s guideline is that the curriculum must “present abstinence as the preferred choice of behavior for unmarried persons of school age” and “devote more attention to abstinence than to any other behavior.”

Beyond that, sex education is up to the discretion of each individual district, Ratcliffe said. The result is a state-wide patchwork of sex education levels. In summer and fall 2014, the University enrolled 6551 first-year students from a combined 908 feeder schools.

Santiago Sanchez, Plan II and biochemistry sophomore, attended Seven Lakes High School in Katy, where a health course was required. Sanchez said the course emphasized abstinence above all else.

“I do not consider my sex education to be have been ‘good’ or useful,” Sanchez said. “How to properly put on and store a condom – the latter was not covered at all, if I remember correctly. Consent is another critical component of sex education that was, at least, conspicuously absent from my school’s curriculum.”

Michelle Zhang, Plan II and business honors freshman, took sex education as part of an optional health course her sophomore year at Westwood High School in Austin. She said she does not recall learning safe-sex or contraceptive methods.

“I just remember it being really weird for everyone, and I remember, ‘these are different STDs, and here are the symptoms for them,’” Zhang said. “It made me pretty scared about STDs, so they accomplished one thing.”

Although he took an online health class while at Highland Park High School, Thomas Mylott, Plan II and American studies junior, said the majority of what he learned about sexual behavior came from his parents, on the Internet and a middle school program promoting abstinence.

“My parents instilled in me a good sense of being responsible,” Mylott said.

Susan Tortolero, a public health professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health who researches sex education in Texas, said she has found even the best courses are only so effective on students and, ultimately, parents have the most influence on sex education. The type of sex education taught is not as important as the effectiveness of the curriculum.

“It really only matters if the curriculum is effective in making behavior changes,” Tortolero said. “There have been some abstinence-only programs that have been shown to be effective in changing behavior.”

Last month, the Texas House approved a budget amendment that would move $3 million from the state HIV and STD Awareness fund to further fund abstinence education.

The amendment will not take effect unless it is included in the final state budget jointly determined by the Senate and the House.

UT does not require that students take health classes — or any classes — that address sexual education. The extent to which sexual issues are covered for all incoming students is at freshman orientation, when orientation advisers act in a play called “Get Sexy, Get Consent.”

Still, Zhang said, she feels she figured out what she needed to know eventually.

“I feel like most of the dialogue surrounding sex doesn’t come from class — it comes from the people around you and living life,” Zhang said. “Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with who you hang out with — and with the personal experiences everyone has.”

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Bills proposed in the state House and Senate would require a class’s median or average grade be posted alongside a student’s individual score. 

Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco), the main proponent of HB 1196 — or what he calls the “Open Transcript Bill” — said in an email the bill would reveal grade inflation on college transcripts at Texas public universities and colleges. The policy would not be applicable to classes with 10 or fewer students. 

Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) filed an identical bill to Turner’s, SB 499. Her staff declined to comment.  

Turner said his bill would increase transparency in higher-education grading.

“Grade inflation is a serious problem among post-secondary universities, making it increasingly difficult for employers to evaluate potential candidates and nearly impossible for parents and students to determine the true value of their college investment,” Turner said in an email.

Some students, such as Edwin Qian, management information systems and economic senior, agree that posting the median or average grades on transcripts would work to prevent grade inflation at universities.

Qian said that while there are situations in which having the average or median grade could be detrimental, such as  receiving an ‘A’ when an ‘A’ was the average grade, having the class score present could be beneficial.  

“For students in programs such as computer science and engineering, where the courses are a little more challenging and difficult, they might want that on their transcript because it would show that the average of the course is actually a ‘C,’ but, guess what, I got the ‘A,’” Qian said.

Santiago Sanchez, Plan II and biochemistry junior, said he does not support the idea of showing average or median grades on transcripts. He said in some difficult classes in which the average grade is an ‘A,’ displaying the average would mislead others into thinking the class is easy.

“I just don’t think it would be helpful, and it could hurt people if that context gets misread or misunderstood,” Sanchez said.

UT astronomy professor Derek Wills said it would not be difficult for professors to include the class’ composite grade, even in large lecture classes. However, Shelby Stanfield, vice provost and registrar at the Office of the Registrar, said posting median grade averages to transcripts is not quite that simple on the administrative side.

According to Stanfield, to accommodate the legislation, many details would have to be worked out, including combined class grades across the  University.

Stanfield said some of these changes include rewriting the registrar software to determine the scores. He said they would also have to look at courses with multiple unique numbers within one course, such as a lecture course with labs.

“It gets real complicated because the way our curriculum is set, not simply every class is its own stand-alone entity,” Stanfield said.

Stanfield said it is unclear how the median grade would be interpreted in other states that don’t require the class scores on a transcript.

“We would want to make sure that in doing this we do it for the intents and purposes behind the legislation and not have any unintended consequences that would actually work to our students’ detriment,” Stanfield said.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

The University appointed Dan Stanzione as executive director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center, or TACC, July 1 and ahead of what is expected to be a busy year for the center.

Stanzione has served as TACC’s deputy director for more than five years, and his recent appointment to the executive director position comes after serving as acting director since January. The center’s stated mission is to design and provide extremely powerful computing capabilities for use by the open scientific and engineering research community.

Stanzione has supervised the creation and implementation of multiple of TACC’s computing systems in the past, and, in addition to his new direction duties, he will serve as principal investigator for the execution of Wrangler, the center’s upcoming data analysis management system. Wrangler’s primary focus will be memory and data-intensive applications.

“We want to let people solve their problems and solve these problems faster,” Stanzione said.

Santiago Sanchez, a biochemistry and Plan II junior in the Freshman Research Initiative, said he has used TACC resources to streamline computational problems in his research. Sanchez said some simulations the group has run would be too large in data size for the initiative’s internal computers to run efficiently.

“TACC allows us to supercharge our simulations and then transfer the vitally important information to our own disks,” said Sanchez.

Charles Jackson, a research scientist at the UT Institute for Geophysics, said TACC resources have allowed him to run a variety of experiments simultaneously and scale up his climate models, which produce huge terabyte-scale data sets.

“TACC is really good at running hundreds of experiments at a time,” Jackson said.

Large bodies of data and their consequential bearing on the STEM fields, as well as other areas such as the social sciences and business, are not lost on Stanzione and TACC. Stanzione also stresses the importance of large data sets, or "big data," in the future, saying big data represents a conglomeration of problems and technologies people will need to solve in all areas of life in coming years.

“There has been an explosion of data in science, as well as outside of science,” Stanzione said

Sanchez said big data has the potential to become central to decision-making in multiple fields, including business analytics and healthcare. 

“I feel we’re moving into an era where no decision will be made without petabytes of information behind it,” Sanchez said. 

At the helm of TACC, Stanzione has an expansive plan for growing TACC’s technology and ubiquity.

“My main goal is to diversify what we do,” Stanzione said of his concept for TACC’s future.

Stanzione’s plans for the close future include expanding staffing, launching Wrangler next January, creating event space for public exhibitions, and opening up a new building that will include more meeting areas for groups of scientists and engineers utilizing TACC resources in their work.