Month of October, 2010

Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?

October 29, 2010 - 10:07:41 AM

I don't think the reasons elucidated below by Kathi Sierra are limited to the United States. Her blog Creating Passionate Users is excellent! The Graphics are a riot. JA

 

Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?

Whatweteachflat
If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering.

Toward the end of his life, legendary mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked 100 of the top scientists of his time how they did whatever it was that they did (math, physics, etc.) Hadamard's survey found a massive disconnect between how we teach math and science and how mathematicians and scientists actually work. The majority of his contemporaries apparently claimed that using the logical, left-brain symbols associated with their work was NOT how they did their work. These were simply the tools they used to communicate it. What they used to do the works was much... fuzzier. Intuition. Visualization. Sensation (Einstein talked of a kinesthetic element). Anthropomorphizing. Metaphors.

We are in sooooo much trouble.

What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. Obviously this doesn't mean nobody learns to do it... we have plenty of expert engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, who become great either in spite of faulty teaching or because they lucked out and had excellent, clueful instructors and mentors. But we also hear more and more teachers, experts, and employers railing against the sorry state of our advanced technical educations today. The problem is, many of these same teachers, experts, and employers have a tough time articulating what's wrong, let alone how to fix it.

And what do we do to try and improve things? We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization. We work and test them even harder on using the tools for communication (e.g. code) rather than the tools for thought (e.g. intuition, visualization, etc.)

Our educational institutions--at every level--need drastic changes or we're all screwed. The generation of students we're turning out today need skills nobody really cared about 50, 40, even 20 years ago. Where we used to prepare students for a "job for life", now we must prepare students to be jobless. We must prepare them to think fast, learn faster, and unlearn even faster ("yes, that drug was the appropriate way to treat the XYZ disease, but that was so last week. THIS week we now realize it'll kill you.")

The Waterfall Model of education is failing like never before. We need Agile Learning.

Three of the many people who've been leading the charge on this are Roger Schank, Dan Pink (his "Whole New Mind" book is a must-read), and computing/learning guru Alan Kay. One of my favorite Alan Kay notions is something like this, "If you want to be a better programmer, take up the violin." He claims that the more time he spends playing music, the fresher and better his approaches to engineering become. He's an outspoken critic of engineering students focusing too early in their education, because he believes that with a more liberal arts education, you get metaphors and ways of thinking and seeing that are vital to your later engineering work.

I'll end this with two quotes:

From Jason Fried:
"Hire curious people. Even if they don't have the exact skill set you want, curious, passionate people can learn anything."

And from Jacques Hadamard:
" Logic merely sanctions the conquests of the intuition."

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

[UPDATE: Martin Polley brought up the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, and if you haven't seen it already--I urge you to check it out ASAP!

Mark Fowler was surprised that I didn't bring up the book What the Best College Teachers Do, and I can't believe I left it out of the post. I believe it is the single best book on helping someone learn. When we had our most recent author's bootcamp, it was the one book we gave to all attendees. Thanks Mark.

I highly recommend the comments to this post -- they're insightful on all sides, agreement and disagreement and all points in between. And before you tell me I'm advocating for throwing out fundamentals, memorization, facts, logic, etc... PLEASE look again at my venn diagram ; ) This is about brain balance, and addressing much more of the brain than just the narrow channels that are the parts of the brain that actually "talk." ]

Posted by Kathy on November 2, 2006


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Operation Hope: Winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

October 29, 2010 - 11:40:36 AM

Operation HopeThe Winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuler Challenge is Operation Hope, submitted by Allan Savory on Behlalf of the Africa Center for Holistic Management 

"This project demonstrates how to reverse desertification of the world’s savannas and grasslands, thereby contributing enormously to mitigating climate change, biomass burning, drought, flood, drying of rivers and underground waters, disappearing wildlife, massive poverty, social breakdown, violence and genocide."

ENTRY APPLICATION: PDF

WEBSITE: Africa Center for Holistic Management

WEBSITE: Savory Institiute

VIDEO: Lecture at Trinity College,Dublin (1hr)

SLIDE SHOW: Project team in the field in Africa

Critical Need Being Addressed

"Viewed holistically biodiversity loss/desertification/climate change are one issue not three. Without reversing desertification, climate change cannot be adequately addressed. This project has demonstrated that livestock can reverse desertification, even during droughts, over the largest areas of the Earth’s land – the grasslands and savannas."

Description of Initiative

"Our work established a previously unsuspected cause of desertification – that humans of all ages and cultures make decisions using the same core decision framework. Flaws in this universal framework made world-wide desertification inevitable. Modifications, explained in "Holistic Management" A New Framework for Decision Making" Savory & Butterfield Second Edition 1999, Island Press, make reversing desertification possible."

"This work, begun in the early 60s gave erratic results. Since 1984 when the decision-making piece of the puzzle fell into place, as long as the process is followed results in restored grasslands have been consistent and can be guaranteed."

"In this particular project ACHM has demonstrated on 6500 acres of grasslands in Zimbabwe the process of reversing desertification. Livestock have increased 400% using holistic planned grazing and we now enjoy open water, water lilies and fish a kilometer above where water has been known before in the dry season. The livestock are integrated with Africa’s big game avoiding competition and wildlife are on the increase. Currently, we can barely keep pace with grass growth even in dry years. This is greatly influencing scientists, NGO’s and pastoralists from all over Africa."  READ MORE »


Groasis Waterboxx Enables Trees to Survive in Arid Regions

October 29, 2010 - 01:20:22 PM

Waterboxx wide

Using the principles of biomimicry, the Groasis Waterboxx enables plants to establish themselves and survive even in the most arid regions of the world, just the way nature does it. Pieter Hoff, founder of AquaPro and inventor of the product, hopes to use the new device to combat hunger, desertification, and climate change.    

 

Hoff has developed a round, 20-inch-wide container crafted from polypropylene that is placed over a two small seedlings. The container is a resevoir for enough water for a full year of micro-drip irrigation. The chamber, which is designed to prevent evaportation, collects rainwater but also maximizes the formation of dew droplets. In some climates dew may be the only frequent source of plant moisture. The Waterboxx design effectively capatures and tranfers condensation into the water reservoir.  A wick goes into the ground beneath the box, slowly dripping 50 ml of water to the plant’s root system everyday.

Waterboxx Cross SectionAs the plant grows, its roots reach deeper and deeper in the ground, eventually finding their own water source. If all goes well the box can be removed after one year.

Popular Science selected The Groasis Waterboxx as  as one of the top 10 inventions of 2010.

These three videos explain how it works very well:

http://www.youtube.com/user/Groasiswaterboxx#p/u/3/lGnhZEye-to

http://www.youtube.com/user/Groasiswaterboxx#p/u/13/mimakdbmd_k

http://www.youtube.com/user/Groasiswaterboxx#p/u/28/HRF2bUBPA90