Friday, July 19, 2013

I've got to write this guy a letter

Gardner, this one is for you.

This post is centered around a few scenes from my favorite episode of the West Wing.

[Opening scene. The President of the United States and his Press Secretary having a conversation]

President: Galileo five!

Press Secretary: Yes, sir.

President: Just the name...

Press Secretary: Galileo five!

President: You can feel the adventure.

Press Secretary: Yes, indeed.

President: NASA's great at naming things.

Press Secretary: They are.

President: Mercury, Apollo, Atlantis, the Sea of Tranquility, the Ocean of Storms...

Press Secretary: Good names!

President: First time I heard 'Galileo V,' the way the imagination immediately... Say the name.

Press Secretary: I said the name.

President: Say it again. Your imagination, like a child, will explode with unrestrained possibilities for adventure.

Press Secretary: [with gusto] Galileo V!

Professional vs. Personal
"A good idea will keep you awake during the morning, but a great idea will keep you awake during the night."

Until the last year or so I've never had much of a problem keeping my work life and my personal life separate. Sure, I was friends with people from work, and as a graduate student much of my personal life has been on hold waiting for the day I finish my degree and "life can start." I've enjoyed my job researching jet engines and made a lot of professional contacts along the way. Every once in a while I've had the chance to work on an idea that was extra exciting for me (a big challenge, something new and creative, etc..) but for the most part its been a job that I work, enjoy, and look forward to leaving behind to go home for the night or weekend.

Then I started teaching.

Something snapped. Seeing someone who truly wanted to learn and being able to help them along is something I'd never really trained for (or wanted to do). But the feeling I get when they're struggling and finally "get it?" The magic of watching someone conceive an entirely new idea? Experiencing raw creativity and curiosity? The opportunity to show someone what they are really capable of? There is no greater high in the world! My "imagination, like a child, [explodes] with unrestrained possibilities for adventure!"

Maybe I've found what Sir Ken calls "My Element."
"... the Element - the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together. [People who have found their Element] are special [because] they have found what they love to do and they are actually doing it."
-Ken Robinson
"The Element" (emphasis added)

I lose sleep over teaching. Not because I'm stressed about it, but because it drives so deep that I can't put it down. I can't wait to explore a new idea or a better way to inspire/encourage learners.

I quickly found that I'm not the only one.

And what a great community of "In-Element Educators" I've had the privilege to be a part of! They are questioning how we do things in education, challenging the short comings of our methods, and striving to improve, inspire, ignite. My discussions with them are the high-points of my "work" day. And when you make professional contact with someone who speaks into your deep passions, it can't help but get personal. We're not just talking about my 9-5 job anymore. And it can be risky. Many are strongly opposed to change and like "business as usual". At one point early on, so was I.

Ok. Back to the West Wing. A little plot synopsis (spoiler alert)

So the President is excited about a new Mars lander called Galileo V that is supposed to land on the Red Planet today. He's scheduled a special live "classroom" event in which he will be speaking with a NASA panel to K12 students, answering their questions sent in by email (which, in the time the episode aired, was an amazing concept. Children being able send a message instantly to the President, and have him respond instantly on TV!). One problem: during the landing process NASA loses communication with Galileo V and it looks like the highly disappointed President will have to cancel the event to avoid media embarrassment. 

At the same time, the President must attend a concert performed by the Reykjavik Orchestra for some political reasons, and he's dreading it.

Aid: After intermission, they'll be performing the world premier of a piece...

President: Played on teapots and gefilte fish.

Aid: ... by a new Icelandic composer. They told me he got so nervous when he heard you were coming that he was rewriting the piece until 6 o'clock.

President: If he wants more time, I'd be happy to take a rain check.

Aid: I thought you liked classical music.

President: This is not classical music. It's not classical music if the guy finished writing it this afternoon.

[Later, after the concert. The Press Secretary approaches the President]

President: Did you hear the end of the concert?

Press Secretary: I didn't hear much of the concert at all. How was it?

President: Well, first of all, let's not kid ourselves. The Reykjavik Symphony can play. These guys have some serious game. In this particular case, their talents were tragically misapplied to an atonal nightmare of pretention, but after the intermission... [looks up at the night sky]

Press Secretary: After intermission?

President: They played a piece by a new composer. First, I wasn't hearing it. I had 19 different things on my mind, but then I did, and, it was magnificent. It was genius. He built these themes, and at the beginning, it was just an intellectual exercise, which is fun enough, I guess, but then in the fourth movement, he just let it go. I really didn't think I could be surprised by music anymore. I thought about all the times this guy must've heard that his music was no good... I've got to write this guy a letter.


Look at the progression of the President's thinking. First, because he is busy with his own concerns and has his own idea of what is best, he mocks the new composer's music. Next, whether he wants to or not, he attends the concert. He's distracted and doesn't really listen, but the skill of the players captures his attention. He comes to appreciate the "intellectual exercise" presented by the composer. Then he marvels at the final execution of the idea, inspired by a new idea in an area that he thought was out of fresh ideas. He stops to consider the adversity the composer must have faced, the discouragement from his critics.

Change is hard. Change threatens those who are established and comfortable. More often than not in education, I see changes happening from the bottom up. Lone teachers trying something new that works. Taking it to their superiors and making a case. Sometimes it sticks, other times they're told that "their music is no good." The result: changes happen far too slowly for any current students to benefit. 

Unfortunately, our system cannot be improved through incremental changes. What we need is a radical rethinking. A peaceful revolution. An educational renaissance.

Universities are funny places.

They're constantly evolving. Few places in the world have such a huge turnaround rate. To borrow some words of wisdom from my advisor: 
"The job of the university is to get rid of its best talent."
We try to recruit promising talent (in the form of incoming freshmen). Then we try to develop that talent over 4-ish years through classes, research experience, clubs, and senior capstone projects. Finally, when they've started to gain some serious muscle and honed their talents, we send them off to take on the world. Until recently I thought that this idea applied only to students, that institutions like tenure insulated the faculty from so much motion. Not quite true. The university is a crucible. As we are refined our positions shift, sometimes internally, sometimes we move on. As our "best talent" moves on, it makes way for rising stars to take their shot. And I think that's how it should be. We are all in this place to grow and pursue the best version of ourselves. Students. Faculty. Staff. Administration. The growth process requires motion.

The time is now!

We have a limited amount of time with the people we come in contact with here. Lectures are 50 minutes, office hours are finite, semesters end, and we probably won't see most of our students ever again. We may only get this one moment to make a difference. This instant is precious, cherish it, maximize it. We cannot afford to take it slow, make small changes, incrementally improve at a rate that maybe our grandchildren will benefit. We can't afford to resolve to be better tomorrow. That wastes today. Be better right now, it could be one of a very few moments in time that you get to spend with that student. Let us take our (fun) intellectual exercises and really let them go, so that we may marvel at the execution of a game-changing idea. Let's surprise ourselves. A friend of mine recently said:

"If you can measure the size of your impact, you haven't made much of a difference."

The closing scene:

Press Secretary: Mr. President, about that televised classroom tomorrow...

President: I'm gonna wait up for a while. See if we hear anything. It's out there somewhere... it's so close.

Press Secretary: I think you should do the classroom either way.

President: Yeah?

Press Secretary: We have, at our disposal, a captive audience of schoolchildren. Some of them don't go to the blackboard and raise their hand 'cause they think they're gonna be wrong. I think you should say to these kids, "you think you get it wrong sometimes? You should come down here and see how the big boys do it." I think you should tell them you haven't given up hope, and that it may turn up, but in the meantime, you want NASA to put its best people in the room, and you want them to start building Galileo VI. Some of them will laugh, and most of them won't care, but for some, they might honestly see that it's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand. And that's the broader theme.

My friend, I'll miss you. Raise your hand. Your music is surprising and beautiful. Meanwhile, here, we will put our best people in the room and start working on Galileo VI.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

In honor of our recent reading, "Time Frames," by Scott McCloud, I proudly present:

Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!!!!

Well... that was fun!

If for some reason this isn't working, try downloading the file directly (pdf):
Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Changing the Message: Grading vs Reviewing (Part 4 of 4)

Continuing the saga....

Rigid Grading Structures

OK, I recognize that this is a touchy subject, so I'll tread lightly (for now). The heck with that, let's get dirty!

"You, my friend, are going towards turbulent flows."
An Anonymous Friend
Today, after telling him about what I'm writing 

We follow rigid grading rubrics hoping to be "fair" to everyone. The problem is that these grading structures put us "fairly" off base.

"Grades tend to diminish students' interest in whatever they're learning. A "grading orientation" and a "learning orientation" have been shown to be inversely proportional...
Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they're doing will count towards their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks...
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students' thinking. They may skim books for what they'll "need to know." They're less likely to wonder, say, "How can we be sure that's true?" than to ask "Is this going to be on the test?"
Alfie Kohn, 2011 

What do we value?

Rate of Learning?
Imagine the situation in which a student learns the material at a slower pace than others in the class. The student earns a poor score on the first exam. This feedback inspires the student to try a different approach to learning and (s)he grasps the material in time for the final exam. Following the rigid rubric, this student's grade will be lower than another who learned the material faster, even though both may be leaving the course with the same understanding.

What is the message here? What do we really value? The rate at which a student learns? Rate of production is a crucial concept to efficient manufacturing.

Get it "Right" the first time?
Students are penalized for making mistakes. The result is that students are afraid to try anything unorthodox, or explore.

"I just want to know what formula to use to solve the problem the right way."
There is a high level of pressure on students to get things "right" the first time. Our RED PEN feedback system helps drive this home. If a student misses a question, points are lost and final course grades are affected. GPA drops and that homework problem or test problem just influenced the rest of my life. (OK, that's a bit extreme, but its the logical end to the thought).

The Root of the Problem

We have a need in education to determine how a student is doing. Students need feedback so that they may improve upon problem areas. Educators need to see how their students are doing so that they may assess the effectiveness of their teaching.

There is a long list of other reasons typically thrown up in the case for grades, but I think they are rubbish. One of the big ones is that "if we don't grade it, students won't do it." Yes, let's hold our students hostage with threats against their future success rather than providing true motivation.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
W. B. Yeats

I think we may have started, long ago, with these two goals in mind. However, our "factory model" education system has polluted those goals, mainly due to the fact that we are trying to educate so many people. Call the EPA (Educational Protection Agency)!

Scaling Issues

With a large class, the task of providing feedback is not trivial. Graders must streamline the process by providing the least amount of feedback possible. They look over the work, think about what the student did, and try to scribble something down to let them know where mistakes were made. If only the student could hear the grader's thoughts! (In light of what I'm about to say, I think they call this foreshadowing)

Very rarely is any positive feedback given. For the most part, graders write down just enough to justify the score on the assignment. I don't fault them for this, they simply don't have the time to give meaningful, content-rich responses to each student's work.

The problem is that, from the students' perspective, this type of feedback is more a slap in the face than constructive criticism. Rather than a teachable moment, we offer up judgement and discouragement.

I have not failed. I've just found 1000 ways that won't work.
Thomas Edison 

Let's change the message.

Learner-Centered Feedback
(Stop Grading and Start Reviewing)

With tablets and pen inputs for computers we have the ability to record ourselves as we mark up a document. Imagine marking up a student's electronic homework submission. The grader no longer needs to write a detailed response to help the student learn from issues. The grader can record his/her thoughts in audio format while marking up the work.

Rather than grade the work we can review the work and provide meaningful feedback (audio) to the learner. I think if we did this right, it would actually save time for grader. Most people can speak much faster than they can write or type.

We could add "content area" tags to individual homework problems. Over time, the student's aggregated results would point out sticking points in a particular course and focus the student's study/improvement efforts. If a visual representation of this were available to the grader small bits of encouragement could emerge: "I see that the First Law is starting to click for you, good job!"

I can see clearly now....

Synced with the interactive Degree Path Sheet, a student would have a much better view of where they are. With our current approach most students can't see what's going on. All they see are a few "red x's" that leave them feeling less intelligent, or that "I just don't understand Thermodynamics." Truth is that's usually not the case. Maybe the real issue is a small part of it that creeps up in most problems.

OK, enough words...

Let me show you an example of what I am picturing, from an engineers perspective (sorry, I haven't graded anything else!):

If you kept track, I spent about 2 minutes providing feedback on this problem. In a class of 60 students, with an average of 10 homework problems per assignment, this translates to 20 hours of grading work. Interestingly enough, that's the exact amount of time that my grader logs while providing RED PEN feedback right now.

A few things to work out:

First, I'm laughing at myself for using a RED PEN while making this video. I imagine a better system in which I can use "cursor points" or a "focus bubble" to show what I'm looking at.

Second, the "tags" idea isn't a worksheet, but I'm not Java programmer. The check-mark image was supposed to represent clicking on tags.

Third, I DO use a red pen while grading currently. This idea is new for me this week, and I hope to implement a refined version of this system next time I teach a course.

Fourth, I DO collect the homework for a grade. I'll explain...

Some other things you might have seen:

Did you notice that the numerical answers were provided with the problem statement? This is a trick I use to maximize the self-learning for my students. With the answers to homework problems available, students know whether they've got it or not long before they turn it in. Assuming they start the work early enough, they can find the help they need before turning in the assignment.

Did you notice that I showed two submissions from the same student? I actually do this as well. In my course I try very hard to encourage my students to make mistakes and learn from them. This learning business is messy and most of what sticks in our minds comes from getting things wrong at first.

I allow my students to re-submit the work as many times as it takes, and they can earn full credit on every problem even if they don't get it until the last day of the semester. Effort and engagement is encouraged and rewarded. Based on their feedback, this is working as I hoped it would!

Closing: The Message

Once again, the "Medium is the Message." I hope that by taking advantage of the digital media tools available to us, we can shift the message that we send learners. Let's send the message that experimenting is a good thing. Let's send the message that mistakes are a good thing. Let's send the message that our students deserve more than some messy red pen graffiti all over their work.

At the risk of starting a riot:
STUDENTS: Like what you see? Are you tired of getting RED PEN all over your work? Demand more from your teachers!

Try turning your homework in written completely in RED PEN.

Changing the Message: Degree-Level View (Part 3 of 4)

Continuing the discussion on changing educational media to change the message we send.

Degree Path Sheets

ME Department

The degree path sheet is a very helpful tool for students. This single page summarizes all of the courses that they need to take to complete the degree, including links (connecting lines) to pre- and co-requisites. As I pursued my undergraduate degree I referred to this page very often. (Side note: In my day the form was in black and white! I've always wanted to say that...)

I think we can take advantage of the digital medium and do better.

Add more information 
(information that's already available elsewhere)

Couldn't this be an interactive web app? Imagine being able to click each course and find useful information. Linked to the scheduling system, times that the course is offered could be displayed, along with the number of open seats. Click the one you want to instantly add it to your schedule. The entire app could sync with the student's transcript, showing completed courses and grades. Courses could be "clickable" only if the pre/co-requisites are satisfied. Selecting a course could automatically select co-requisite courses.

Professor bios could be linked displayed, allowing students to pick their teacher based on research interests and examples used in class. We could add lecture previews, student reviews, links to course materials, and publications by the professor. Previous class projects could be linked, letting prospective students see what those who have come before learned.

As a student progresses, the system could "learn" her/his preferences and recommend certain elective courses or professors that align with the student's interests and learning styles.

The learning management system (even though I don't like the current one much) could be linked in, allowing the student to use this page as a launch to current classes. Information such as current grade and how much of a course grade remains could be available. GPA (which I also don't like) scenarios could also be computed.

If we got to a point where students could truly customize their education, a % Complete bar could indicate how much of the course they have completed based on the learning modules they have selected. The division between subjects and the need for completing a course in a certain semester could be eliminated. Imagine this entire sheet broken into smaller chunks of concepts that add up to form a uniquely-designed curriculum.

How ready am I for this course?

A preparedness index could be fashioned based on a student's past performance in prerequisite courses. Suggestions for important background material that the student found challenging in the past could be offered as study aids over breaks, before the course begins. If we changed the way we grade (see next post) the system could point out specific areas that the student should work on. Example: the introductory course I teach uses first-order ordinary differential equations, but that's about it from the "Differential Equations" course that is listed as a prerequisite. If a student struggled with that part of Differential Equations we could flag it for them.

Perhaps over time this is an answer to a challenge facing almost ALL courses: we spend the first 1/3 of the semester reviewing concepts from previous courses.

A Liberal Education

If you take a close look at the degree path sheet, you'll see classes marked "Area 1" and "Area 2" etc. As part of a liberal education, we have 7 Core Areas that students must engage with to complete a degree. As a student, I never took the time to read the description of these Areas (take a look at the link). The truth is that the idea behind each is beautiful and very exciting. Why can't these show up on the interactive degree path sheet as well? I wish I had seen the inspiring ideas behind these requirements, rather than just "toughing it out" through some required "useless" courses. They get at the heart of the difference between education and job training. The available courses that satisfy an "Area" during any given semester could also be suggested/shown.

My Story is Different!

One of the big drawbacks to the rigid degree path sheet is that very few people follow it. We all have extenuating circumstances (drop a class, change majors, take a co-op) that put us "off schedule". In a year of teaching, I've met very few students who are actually "on track."

This sheet serves as a constant reminder that students are off track, or that they are somehow "doing it wrong".

 Why not make each class "draggable"? Students could slide the courses around, and maybe even add a "solve my schedule" function that charts a path to degree completion based on current standing and course availability.

The New Message

The point here is that with some application of fairly standard web design, the message we send is completely changed:

"We recognize that you are a unique individual with a unique story, and we want to meet you where you are at and help guide you along. You don't have to fit our mold, because there is no mold to fit. Your education is important to us, and you are in the driver's seat."
ME Department (modified)

Kaizen Was Here (Part 2 of 4)

Continuing to think about "The Medium is the Message"

(Wiki, modified)

A recent experience confirmed in my mind what the Communications Department has been saying for a long time:
"The Medium is the Message"
The way that information is presented has a strong effect on how we view it, feel about it, remember it, and use it.

So here is my question:

What message are we sending our students?

Who's important in this room?

"Save your drawings for art"!????? Heaven forbid a student expresses creativity outside of art class! Nick, thanks for the beautiful image: "I'm a robot." I'm reminded of Ted Nelson:

"Material is dumped on the students and their responses calibrated; their interaction and involvements with the material is not encouraged nor taken into consideration, but their dutifulness of response is carefully monitored."
No More Teachers' Dirty Looks
Theodor Nelson, 1974


How well does this represent what you've learned about <insert any subject here>? What level of engagement was required to prepare for this type of exam?

These all-too-familiar images are a result of choosing the "easy solutions" to a problem that has plagued education throughout human history: "How do we scale this? How do we teach 50 people to be <insert a field here> with one teacher?"  Rigid classrooms built around the "Sage on the Stage", multiple-choice exams, and Scantrons are VERY convenient for the teacher/administration, not so great for the learner.

Welcome to the degree factory.

One Size Does NOT Fit All

The idea behind industrialism is that we can streamline a process to produce a large quantity of the same product. As students hoping to find a place in the world after graduation we spend our time in the factory attempting anything we can to come out different than everyone else. The very idea behind our efforts is to break out of the manufacturing model. That's the basic question asked in most job interviews: "What makes you uniquely suited for this position?" We want to have a good answer.

(Let me be careful here, this is an example. The true goal of education is much more than job placement)

What I've learned From Social Media:

Good or bad, we are enthralled with social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, and Pinterest have permeated our lives. My theory to explain this is simple:


The overarching message of Social Media is that people care about me and what I have to say. I am NOT a number without identity, lost in the masses. I'm a member of a community that is concerned with what's happening in my life. My thoughts are important to someone.

For the last century our educational system has been built around a factory model. Input people and some (unfortunately limited) resources and out come "educated" graduates. For the most part we've been OK with this, having never experienced anything else.

Social media is awakening a higher value in uniqueness and individuality. We won't be tolerating the faceless and almost anonymous educational experience much longer. I hope the institutions of learning can prepare for it.

The Rigid System

I've already expounded on the idea of customizing education, and letting students take the role of designer. Education needs to move from a "factory" towards a "custom shop" mentality.

Improving education requires flexibility. Our current system is rigid. We give rigid lectures with little to no interaction on the part of the students. We assign rigid textbooks that are arranged according to the authors' view of the "best way" to learn a subject. And we march through the book in a linear fashion, moving down the assembly line. We give rigid homework assignments that have one right answer forcing students to figure out what someone else has done, rather than creating something new.

These rigid "material delivery systems" do not permit much exploration, learning at different paces, or different interests.

The message is clear:
Do it our way.

On the one hand, we need systemic change in our approach to learning. On the other, some fairly small changes can have a large impact. I'm reminded of the idea behind dimples on a golf ball. The dimples make small changes to the airflow around the ball, leading to HUGE improvements in drag. Sometimes changing the ball is the answer. Other times we can make intelligent small changes that give dramatic results.

The Medium is the Message

The examples above certainly streamline the process of teaching, allowing us to offer the same education to a large number of students. The problem is that these edifices also communicate a subtle, but deafening, message. The result: lack of creativity, exploration, and individual thinking on the part of the learners. We tell students that the ideals are important and then crank them through a system that penalizes or discourages these 21st Century Aptitudes.

Presented in the following posts are some thoughts I've had recently about small changes we can make that could have a far-reaching impact on our students. They are just some examples of the important idea:

We have the technology to redesign our educational media, completely shifting the way learners think/feel about learning. And it's not even that hard to do.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Galaxy Reconfigured (Part 1 of 4)

(or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society)

I may have mentioned that I am participating in a seminar that is discussing the impact of the new forms of media made possible by the computer on life and education. We are working our way through a collection of "essays" written over the last century that discuss the ideas and possibilities that computers offer. One of these essays is entitled "The Galaxy Reconfigured, or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society", by Marshall McLuhan. The piece is followed up by what has become a communications theory standard: "The Medium Is the Message."

The engineer in me tried an experiment that I hope you'll find interesting. After I tell you about it, I'll give some more thoughts on education that it brought up (follow up post).

The Old Media Reader

If the book we are pulling these essays from can be called the "New Media Reader," McLuhan's essay ("The Galaxy Reconfigured") is certainly the Old Media Reader. Here McLuhan presents a history of media, ideas, and how we spread them and shape society. I made it through a whole page of the essay, filled with references to everyone from Quintilian to Arthur Rimbaud, before I gave up. I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. I take some solace in the fact that even people who study McLuhan haven't got a clue.

So I skipped to the next essay by McLuhan that was on the docket ("The Medium Is the Message"). This one clicked a bit, I think. One of the main ideas is exactly what the title says: the content (e.g. the words on the page) is not the main message, but rather the medium (e.g. book, newspaper, movie) communicates something much more important. Deep, my head hurts about the implications.

My Experiment: The Medium is the Message

I started out reading "The Galaxy Reconfigured" from the book. Its a standard textbook-sized volume, hard cover, no color. As I mentioned above, it didn't take too many references to 18th Century poets for me to lose track. I admit my literary background is a bit weak, and so the significance of the people he references was completely lost on me.

In this static, one-way-through-it book, I got the message loud and clear:


I tried something different. I scanned the article to PDF (hope Big Brother doesn't find out, but I'm not distributing) and tried to re-read the article on my iPad. 

Suddenly the whole thing felt different.

When I came across a reference I didn't understand, I switched over to the internet and searched for the person. Within a few seconds I had found articles, selections of their work, and biographies on these people. I found enough context to grasp some of what McLuhan was saying.

The message changed entirely:

It might take some work, but YOU CAN DO THIS, and it is BEAUTIFUL

By the end of the article, I saw how beautifully McLuhan unpacked the history of media and ideas, and actually appreciated his closing comments:

"Our most ordinary and conventional attitudes seem suddenly twisted into gargoyles and grotesques. Familiar institutions and associations seem at times menacing and malignant. These multiple transformations, which are the normal consequence of introducing new media into any society whatever, need special study..."
The Galaxy Reconfigured
Marshall McLuhan, 1962

Oh, I learned some new words too: parataxislinealsomnambulism, and chiasmus.

Ok, Ok, I know what you're thinking....

Obviously, sitting in a library or at my computer I could have done the exact same thing. The iPad didn't really do it for me. Fair point, but I don't typically read while sitting in front of a computer, and unfortunately I don't spend as much time in the library as I'd like. I take these types of articles with me, and read them as 15-minute mental "snacks" to break up a day filled with jet engines, pitot tubes, and thermodynamics. Lugging the full book around is cumbersome, and I typically don't carry my computer with me.

Can we do better?

Of course. Wouldn't it be nice if the iPad (or other tablet device) were capable of embedding those links for me? I'd like to be able to click any word, pull up a small summary on it, and go back to reading without ever leaving the "page" I'm on. We could embed other forms of media, links to commentary, current discussions, etc. My fairly linear march through the article could have been a much more valuable experience with a bit more flexibility that something like a computer is already capable of. 

By scanning and looking up the links myself, a word used frequently last week by Janet Murray comes to mind: Remedial. My little "trick" is a band-aid, barely scratching the surface of what the iPad/Tablet medium is capable of. Let's do better.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

-Jerusalem, William Blake

Continue the 4 part series: Kaizen Was Here (Part 2 of 4)

Monday, March 25, 2013

There is no spoon...

Sorry for the length, this is what happens when I get excited!

In my other life as a researcher, I've spent a lot of time lately working with 3D Printers. These amazing devices can literally put a bit of material wherever you ask them to in three-dimensional space (including when you ask for something not so smart, take a walk past the DreamVendor sometime and watch the students learning from their mistakes). 

There are a number of reasons that the scientific/manufacturing communities are abuzz with excitement over 3D printers:

  1. You can RAPIDLY turn out a prototype (sometimes 3D printers are called "Rapid Prototyping" machines) of a part you are designing, taking it from the computer screen and placing it in your hands to inspect.
  2. As materials capabilities improve, 3D printers can manufacture actual parts. We can now print in a variety of plastics, bio materials, and metals at high resolution (thousandths of an inch). In cases where special material properties are needed, we can 3D print a mold, and cast the part out of any material.
  3. 3D printing is essentially a zero-lost-material manufacturing technique. Manufacturers can save lots by eliminating virtually all scrap in their production processes. 
  4. Complex tooling and machining processes required to make parts typically lead to an economy of scale. Making a one-of-a-kind part requires a custom machine shop to produce it, usually at large expense. With 3D printing, one part costs as much as 100 of them (per part of course). 
  5. 3D printers can revolutionize the replacement parts industry. Imagine a world in which everything you purchase comes with the part files for printing replacement parts. "The washing machine broke and we need a new <insert name of a washing machine part here>." No problem, print it out and install it.

None of these exciting possibilities come close to the true power of 3D printing.

When I started working with 3D Printers, the parts I designed looked like parts that could be made using traditional methods.

(Original 3D printed concept, could have been made with traditional machining)

This was an interesting realization for me. We've all been brought up in a world in which we make things by starting with a hunk of material and hacking away at it until we have what we really want. I'm not much for metaphor and symbol, but isn't it interesting how destructive our creation of a new thing really is?

More down to earth, the processes of design and manufacture have always been tightly coupled. A designer that draws parts that cannot be made with machinists' tools wouldn't have a job as a designer for long. The job of sculptors and engineers has been to envision a thing trapped within a larger block of material, and to set about "freeing it". This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in most engineers' minds.

After getting my hands on a 3D printer, I started designing and printing parts that looked like parts made using traditional methods, even though I was not limited by my tooling to do so (and I am certainly not alone in this). These design decisions were largely subconscious.

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Abraham H. Maslow
The Psychology of Science, 1966 

Manufacturing constraints can and have kill(ed) creativity.

The real magic of a 3D printer is freedom of design. We are freed from the requirement to design parts that we can make using the machining capabilities available to us. We no longer need to design parts so that we can machine them from a solid block. Rather than designing for manufacture, we can truly optimize the part for its function.

It's taken a very concentrated effort for me to start scratching the surface of this new world of possibilities. Buried so deeply in my mind that I don't even know it's there is a thought process limiting my ideas to something I can turn out in a machine shop. We don't know how to think in a world of 3D printers that can literally put a bit of material anywhere you want it. We can't get out of our own way!

(123rf and

In an effort to correct this ingrained "thinking shortcoming", we have taken a new direction in my lab. We are letting the computer do the design work for us! Our creative contribution is in what we ask the computer to design and what rules we give the computer to design it. In retrospect, it fits well with what Vannevar Bush was saying in "As We May Think."

"... every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine."
 Vannevar Bush
As We May Think, 1945

I think that Bush was getting at the idea of using computers to save time; freeing us up to think about more important things than repetitive data manipulation. However, "computer augmented thinking" goes much further than this. The truth is that the parts we are designing in my lab can only be optimized for their purpose by considering an extremely large number of variables and fundamental physical principles. We are simply not capable of considering the entire complexity of the problem. Enter the man-computer symbiotic thinking. As Englebart said:
"By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems... [leading to] more rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.
... developing the new methods of thinking and working that allow the human to capitalize upon the computer's help."
Douglas Englebart
Augmenting Human Intellect, 1962

The largely automated design routine we have created is currently spitting out designs that we could have never pictured.

(Sample of what a 3D printer can do that traditional machining cannot)

(New 3D printed concept for the same purpose as above)
(Kudos to Kevin Hoopes)

And they cannot be made (easily) with traditional machining methods. And they work better than anything we've come up with "on our own." Thanks to 3D printers, the constraints on our thinking have been relaxed. I'm very excited to see where this will take us, and I am also excited to see how we might learn to think in a world of 3D printers.

What constrains us?

It's no secret that we live in a world governed by constraints. Some of these constraints are physical, enforced by the universe: "Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time." "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Other constraints are largely man made and I think that 3D printing can serve as a bit of a metaphor for life.

How many times each day are we guilty of doing something a particular way because "that's how we've always done it"? What man made constraints are governing the way that we think? Are these constraints valid or are they holding us back from thinking creatively and reaching better solutions? 

No More Teachers' Dirty Looks

Our educational system is built on an industrial model. We have a large number of people that we want to educate, and so we have created a system that attempts to streamline this process and crank out students at a high rate.

If the industrial manufacturing constraints limit our ability to think creatively in terms of designing physical parts, I wonder what the industrial model of education is doing to our ability to think creatively about anything.

"... we are coming to recognize that schools are we know them appear designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education. A child arrives at school bright and early in his life. By drabness we deprive him of interests. By fixed curriculum and sequence we rob him of his orientation, initiative and motivation, and by testing and scoring we subvert his natural intelligence.
Schools as we know them all run on the same principles: iron all subjects flat and then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plain. Material is dumped on the students and their responses calibrated; their interaction and involvements with the material is not encouraged nor taken into consideration, but their dutifulness of response is carefully monitored.
...It is not that students are unmotivated, but motivated askew... We know virtually nothing of human abilities except as they have been pickled and boxed in schools.
... The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school.
... Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting... Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources."
Theodor H. Nelson
No More Teachers' Dirty Looks, 1974

3D Printing a Curriculum

The power of a 3D printer is that it gives the designer the ability to put physical material anywhere in a physical space to build a custom part. The only constraints on the designer are his own creativity, and the condition that the part must be able to support itself (i.e. we can't have floating material, yet). Within this fairly open framework, the designer has an extremely large design space to explore.

Imagine an educational system based on a similar framework. We could "3D print" an educational curriculum, allowing the designer to place course material anywhere in an educational space to build a custom curriculum. 

Starting to flesh out the framework...

The magic would come when we empower the student to be the designer. We actually do this now, to some extent. Students are able to choose majors, double majors, and minors. Within those majors and minors, students have a finer level of control afforded to them through student-selected elective courses. Students can choose elective courses to build a specialization that interests them or meets their career goals.

For those who choose to attend graduate school, the freedom is expanded. Under the guidance of an academic advisor and some department-imposed guidelines, graduate students are able to choose all of the courses that build their curriculum.

3D printers enable a whole new realm of possibilities in custom, one-of-a-kind design. In the same way, students could design an educational curriculum that literally builds a new degree, custom to them, based on the concepts and ideas that speak to their goals and interests.
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Howard Thurman
In  Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled, 1996

Imagine a world in which a person could explore the inner workings of electrical engineering, augmented by studies in technological philosophy, and come out an expert not only in the design of electrical systems, but also a philosophy that guides what they design for the betterment of mankind.

Imagine a student that combines a love of music and engineering, studying both, to design completely new instruments that we've never heard of.

I'd love to meet a person who studied literature, sculpture, thermodynamics, and number theory.

These ideas, much like the parts I first made with a 3D printer, are barely scratching the surface. Once again, I (we) don't know how to think following this paradigm, yet.

Improving Resolution

One of the main trends in improving 3D printers over the years has been the fineness or resolution to which a part can be printed:

(Coarse resolution part)

(Extremely fine part, on the scale of a human hair)

Following the same trend, we can incrementally improve the resolution at which students have control over the custom design of their curriculum:

  • Majors
    • Electives
      • Courses
        • Units
          • Topics
            • Concepts

Starting with majors, we expand the freedom to choose elective courses within those majors. Moving from elective courses, we could expand the freedom to choosing all of the courses. Improving further, we could expand the freedom within a course to the selection of different units that apply. Moving to a still finer resolution, we could expand the freedom to selecting the topics and concepts within a specific unit of a specific course. Perhaps we could get to the point where we rid ourselves of the idea of a "course" altogether. After all, "subjects" are artificial:
"There are no "subjects." The division of the universe into "subjects" for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative convenience."
 Theodor H. Nelson
No More Teachers' Dirty Looks, 1974

Messy Education

When designing a part, we start with the overall objective, and select the components that comprise it, and then the fine details of each component. Along the way, we change our minds, swap out components, alter details, etc. The design process is usually very messy, and the final part is usually only distantly related to the initial prototype.

I opened by poking a little fun at the failures students encounter when working with 3D printers. We rarely get what we were asking for the first time. We rarely design things right the first time. Will the same be true in a framework that allows students to "3D print" their own educational experience? YES! Will it be messy? Absolutely! I argue that it is through these failed conceptions, misprints, and design changes that we learn the most about how the thing works, and where we gain the most power over our designs. We must build a system that encourages experimenting and embraces changing our minds.

"Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."
C. S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950

3D Printers that Print 3D Printers

Another interesting feature of a 3D printer is its capability to self-replicate. This recursive concept can make your head hurt, but it also points out a neat aspect of these devices: they may be the only self-replicating machine that exists.

In the same way, I believe we could use the 3D printing framework at a school to "3D print" another school, which would of course be capable of "3D printing" another school, and so on. Maybe this is just a way of saying that if an idea or method is good, it will spread. What I really intend to say is that we could change the way we do education, drastically.

There is always resistance to tearing down a system that "works." If one student who was able to design his own curriculum in this way chose to do so with a "focus" on teaching and learning, he could apply this method to his teaching and learning. Following a generational model, it wouldn't be very long until we were all thinking and learning this way.

"Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth."

"What truth?"

"There is no spoon."

"There is no spoon?"

"Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

Free y(our) mind(s).

More to come, comments welcome!

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Inspire Someone

I recently had coffee with a new friend that changed may have changed my life.

I say "new friend" meaning that we barely knew each other when we first sat down. We had met a few times in seminars around campus, and decided to grab a cup of joe when we arrived at a seminar and found that we were the only two people who showed up. Looking back I'm amazed that it happened at all. On this day it was a balmy 45 degrees in town, and raining harder than I've ever seen (strange fact: every time that I've seen this person since, its been raining...). I suppose most people had nice excuses for not coming, being busy with other work and not wanting to brave the trek through what could have been Noah's Flood. 

I almost didn't come myself. It was the end of a week in which I had worked a minimum of 12 hours a day (Winter Break, what's that?). When I saw the rain, I just wanted to stay inside (sure didn't help that I was wearing my favorite new sport coat and tie). I had LOTS of work to do, and this was just a seminar I wanted to attend, not a mandatory event.

"Maybe if I skip this, I can go home earlier." 

Once we arrived, we waited a few minutes to see if anyone else was coming. When it became apparent that we were the only people crazy enough to walk across campus in the deluge, we considered heading our separate ways to get back to the grind. I admit that I was relieved at the idea, I just got 2 hours of my work day back. Instead, I found myself swimming across a parking lot to a trendy coffee shop (you know, the kind with a broken glass door taped back together for the past 2 years because the hipsters that run the place think its a symbol for something? they're probably right). So there we sat, and he asked me a fairly standard question: 

"What makes Tony tick? Tell me your story."

What happened next doesn't happen very often. Most of the time when people ask that question, they really just want to talk about themselves. Usually, its lasts a few minutes and then splits off into a discussion of something else. We sat there for 2 hours, listening intently to each other's stories. Asking questions, laughing at the funny parts, empathizing and making light of the challenges we had faced.

I left that coffee shop and had one of the most inspired, creative days I've ever had.

When you're faced with a To-Do list that is weeks long, and you have something scheduled for more than 80% of every day, it can be down right impossible to stop and reflect. The time we spent over coffee was the first I had stopped to think about how I ended up where I am in so long that I can't remember.

Stopping to think about my journey had a couple strong effects on me. First, I realized how fortunate I am to be here. My home life is awesome. My wife and I are best friends, and we've come a long way together.  I could never have made it to this point without the love and support that we share. The truth is that I love my job, and I would probably do it for free (Boss, if you're reading this don't get any ideas...). Second, I got a chance to look over the challenges I've faced, and realized that I am much stronger than I think I am. Nothing about my experience has "fit the mold," nothing has gone according to plan. The whole trip has been very messy. I realized that I like it this way. I've worked hard, never knowing exactly where I was going, but feeling hopeful. And I ended up in a place that I feel ALIVE.

How to Inspire Someone

Do you want to find inspiration? Do you want to inspire those around you to do great things? Then do for others what my new friend did for me: Ask them to tell you their story. Listen, and mean it.

A funny thing happened while we were talking. We discovered some deep-seated common ground. We both have a strong passion for education and learning. Now we meet to talk about these things once a week, and we are working together on a project that I hope will awaken a whole new way of building creativity in education. For me, it very well may change the direction of my career, who knows? But that's a story for another day. One thing is certain: I won't let myself get too busy to have a cup of coffee with good company.

Thanks GC.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blogging and Brainstorming

Hello, Everyone!

So here I am, writing my first blog post for the world to see. It's funny how my online presence has morphed over the past few months, and so I think I'll start by telling you about it. Along the way you'll get to see what this whole "Tony Brainstorms" thing is all about.

I actually created the "Tony Brainstorms" pseudonym with blogging in mind. Blogs represent a low-risk, but public, forum for us to try out and refine new ideas. Engineers call this brainstorming. When we start to solve a new problem as a team, engineers usually begin with a brainstorming session. The team agrees to share every idea, no matter how ridiculous. During brainstorming, there is no such thing as a wrong or bad idea. There is great power in this form of free thinking. In most cases, out of the multitude of silly ideas rise a few great, new, unique ideas that can be pursued and refined into a solution that no one else has tried.

So I've got a name, now it's time to start blogging, right? Wrong. At the time that I created this blog, I really hated blogging! Here is what I was thinking:

"The internet has brought us a vast array of new information and sources that are very useful. Along with this new information has come a new ability: anyone can publish anything for the world to see. As a "connected" culture, we are able to instantly tell the world how we feel about the tuna fish sandwich we are eating, a breakup, a job promotion, gripe about a class, or share our thoughts on politics. Some of this information is useful to others, or at least interesting. The rest, however, represents a new form of pollution. I hate to cite statistics without sources, but I can't seem to find the article I read that says: We are now generating more written content in a day than was generated in the entirety of human history before the internet!
This information requires storage (i.e. huge data centers with operating costs, power consumption, etc...), indexing (Google, Yahoo, etc...), maintenance (both site hosts and individual "publishers"), and filtering (it takes me a long time to filter out the content I am not interested in). I read that a "google" search takes about the same amount of energy as boiling a cup of water. I wonder what the power bill will be for storing this post for the rest of time? We are going to need to solve these problems if we ever hope to be a modern, "green" society.
On top of all of this, I am way too busy to take up monitoring and contributing to blogs (Grad School is much more than a full-time job!). And lastly, I just don't enjoy it."

"So why did you create a blog?"

Mainly because I had to. I was in a teaching course that was exploring the use of blogging in education, and the blogs were to be an extended online discussion forum. During my time in that class, I wrote about a dozen blog posts. I saved them all as drafts and never published a single one. I couldn't get past the idea of publishing something for the world to see, and then changing my mind and not being able to take it back.

"What changed your attitude?"

While I wasn't blogging, I did begin building my online empire under the name "Tony Brainstorms," and it really took off. Tony Brainstorms has TwitterFacebook, and YouTube accounts. I've managed to join the conversation with people from around the world who are just as passionate about teaching and engineering as I am. On YouTube, Tony Brainstorms is approaching 2000 views, from all 6 continents that people live on (sorry Antarctica), 64 countries, and 36 states. These Social Media Outlets have brought me into a whole new world of connectedness that I've come to love. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and watching as mankind builds the most dynamic creation in history, I've become an architect. That's the beauty of the Web, we are all agents in the act of creation.


When it comes to engineering, the Brainstorming session is my favorite part. Before reality strikes and we must apply the concepts of physics and thermodynamics, before we have to solve fully-coupled non-linear transient differential equations, we get to spend a brief moment with our heads in the clouds asking only one question: "What If?" During this time of unfettered thinking, the magic happens.

I hope to treat this blog as a great big brainstorming session. Let's agree that in this place there is no such thing as wrong or bad ideas. Rather, they are leads to start thinking about concepts that could develop into great ideas. During brainstorming, we don't hold each other accountable for every word spoken, and we can always go back and change our mind on an idea or opinion. Who knows, at the end we may have something very unique, and a very interesting "paper trail" that chronicles how we got there.