Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Activists and Engineers

Tufts is an activist’s college. You can hardly walk across campus or read The Daily without encountering arguments about the Middle East, sexual assault, racial or class privilege, the LGBT movement, or any other social movement. Don’t get me wrong, these are worthwhile causes and injustices worth correcting. But nevertheless it becomes grating. Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, and it’s tiresome. My housemate summed it up when she said, “there are eight sides to every coin”. My campus doth protest too much.

What if I’m tired of ambiguity? What if I just want to curl up into my own little corner of knowledge marked “Engineering” and make things that work? Unfortunately, I don’t get the choice.

Today was the final project presentations for my Visualizations class. The field straddles art and science. One one hand, we learn about the human visual system, the mathematics of multidimensional data, and the coding techniques behind certain graphics. On the other, there are many subjective design and aesthetic choices to be made. What questions do you ask of the data, and then how do you present them to the user? Success is cruelly defined by whether the target user can navigate and learn from what you produce, which is as definitive as any physical phenomenon but much harder to predict or explain.

Later in the afternoon I attended a colloquium by Mike Eisenberg (computer science and cognitive science, U Colorado). He spoke about education technology that does not involve traditional screens. He asked how we can design physical spaces and materials to be conducive to science and math education. My mind wandered upstairs to the electric engineering lab, where I had been the beneficiary of an obsessively-organized collection of resistors and capacitors in constructing a complex circuit for another final project. I then thought back to the machine shop where I built robots in heigh school, which was called “Chaos Central” for a reason. Tools did have their homes, mostly, but old robot parts hung from the ceiling and it was never truly clean. Much as I would like to fantasize about a large, organized workspace to host my own robot team years down the line, I realized that chaos is part of the equation, even (especially?) for engineering. Eisenberg read my mind, rather literally. He said that although math and science are rational disciplines, the paths into them are anything but. The apex of his talk used language quite similar to what I have previously used on this blog: if only we could find the perfect way to present material, the universal narrative, education would be a solved problem. But we can’t, because it’s idiosyncratic, subjective,  and personal. My head reeling, I wondered: how can we eliminate the stigma and misconception that the sciences are dull and austere? They are anything but.

Then, later that night, I attended a talk given by Daniel May, Director of J Street U. Try this one on for size: a Jew, speaking mostly to Jews, about the right of Palestinians to a state, because it was the right thing to do. (Liberalism defined). Some of the questions he fielded were from even further left. The conflict has been notoriously divisive, even by Tufts standards, so it was pretty jarring to hear reasoned and well-articulated criticism of Israel. The larger point was that this was not a utopian undertaking but rather meant to be merely a more perfect union, an improvement over the status quo.

I have nothing against those who take up advocacy of Cause X, but I realized tonight that it’s not my narrative. Zoom out enough and you get “righting wrongs”, a banner most college students will happy walk under. But zoom in just a bit on Tufts and you get “righting social wrongs,” and that’s not what I’m in to. I want to right intellectual wrongs. I want to change education, to end the stigma over science and math, and stop those who deny the ways in which we have made such tremendous progress. Homeopathy upsets me. The antivaccination movement infuriates me as much as any other activist trying to end the senseless deaths of children. And the fourth-grade “science” quiz that’s been circulating the internet makes me livid.

The secret to life is education. It’s really that simple. Yet I feel that my chosen institution of education, for all that I love about it, has a subtle yet core value not quite aligned with mine. Change doesn’t begin in a foreign country with one of the most intractable conflicts of human history. Luckily, Tufts realizes that engineering and education don’t take place in a vacuum. I can’t treat people as robots or build robots without thinking of people (although many do). On the other hand, I do not want to fight against every injustice every committed. There just isn’t time or energy. The political causes I support have objective grounding: if you can’t get someone to accept a fact, how can you ask them to accept a person? Everyone at Tufts wants to save the world, but maybe the engineers will actually make some headway.


The first day of physics class

Prompted by a video of math teachers watching Khan Academy, another math teacher and a media theorist have put up a small prize for similar critiques of the Khan’s educational videos. The first such video appeared hours later, by physics teacher Joseph Kremer. Watching it, I realized Khan’s approach is more flawed than can be fixed by an updated video.

What Khan doesn’t realize – or if he does, it’s not clear in the video – is that there are many building blocks to what he’s doing that he just expects the viewer to have.  It was the small things that tripped up the impersonated student. Yes, the Khan Academy has an elaborate prerequisite system, but since most users are teens frustrated on homework problems googling for help, who find the videos on YouTube and not on Khan’s website, there’s no guarantees about who’s watched the “required” videos. This is why the continuity in the classroom is so important.

There’s a moment where Khan is equivocating about time vs. change in time. Kremer makes jabs at this, and his feigned confusion is justified.  The idea of change was a fundamental idea in physics that Khan has neglected to give its own video. I wonder if Khan is aware of the importance of the distinction between a quantity and change in the quantity, because if he was, I doubt he’d be so flippant about it. As I stewed about the poor quality of Khan’s video, I realized that I could present this idea very well – but I’d need a classroom to do it.

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Hacking Medicine

Max. Go to this!!!!!! Serious!!! Register now. Please. U Wont regret!!

That, and a link, comprised the email I got from brother-in-law(-to-be) telling me about a conference called Hacking Medicine that took place last weekend. I had my doubts about getting in, but I applied, and somehow I was accepted. Long story short, I got to spend two days with a roomful of incredibly smart and awesome people at the MIT Media Lab. Continue reading

Walk the Solar Sytem

One of my favorite childhood reads bills itself as a geography museum in a book. In the introduction, it says that “education is basically a do-it-yourself activity. You can’t really learn something until you’ve held it, rattled it, smelled it, dropped it once or twice, and then, if it won’t kill you, taken a bite out of it.” To drive the point home, there’s a (fake) bite taken out of that very page. The book has spinners, activities, puzzles, a bag of real rice to illustrate global poverty, and not a single multiple choice question. (In case you’re wondering, it’s Earthsearch by John Cassidy, and I’m keeping my copy.)

One such exploit is walking the solar system. “Outer space is a Nothing whose dimensions completely boggle the mind,” it says. “It is a staggering lesson,” Earthsearch continues, “but you have to learn it through your feet. Your eyes cannot learn it. Don’t even try.” Continue reading

Welcome home, Atlantis.

For the last time, that is.

If it’s any consolation that the shuttle program is ending, we got a neat picture out of it (courtesy NASA):

There goes the shuttle and – is that thin layer the atmosphere? Continue reading

More thoughts on educational videos

There’s a lot of disagreement surrounding Khan’s teaching style because there is a fundamental disagreement about the goals of education. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I’ll start by providing some vocabulary. A problem is solved mechanistically and has a right answer. A puzzle requires creativity, consideration of nuance, and the ability to work in multiple ways simultaneously. Puzzles have multiple routes to a single solution. Sometimes the difference between a problem and a puzzle is the person (or machine) solving it. By contrast, a wicked problem has no solution, nor a clear set of rules, nor a finite number of solutions.

Just about any of the “big” issues of our time are wicked problems: war, poverty, climate change, population growth, and yes, education. I’m inclined to say that the ultimate goal of education is to teach students how to tackle wicked problems, to the extent that such skills can be taught. You might think that this means encouraging creativity trumps everything, and you’d be half wrong.

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David and Khanliath

For those who don’t know, the Khan Academy is a non-profit organization that has published on youTube more than 2,000 short videos explaining everything from single digit addition to linear algebra to the French revolution. Founder Salman Khan has a background in math and comp sci from MIT and business from Harvard. Bill Gates and Google have sponsored him, and he’s given a TED talk. He’s 34 years old.

Sounds pretty neat right? Here’s one of his videos:

Couldn’t get through it either? Continue reading