Is it possible for humanity to consciously direct our own evolution and if so can we evolve to be better, smarter and faster? Can we evolve ourselves to be able to sustain an utopic society? In my intro to psychology class one of the professors told the following story. A professor experimented on his own newborn by reading Greek poetry to him. He read the same couple of paragraphs to him every day until the infant was six months old and then stopped. When the boy turned ten his father started having him memorize Greek passages. He counted how many repetitions the boy would need to fully memorize a passage and found that those paragraphs that the boy had previously been exposed as an infant required half the repetitions that the new passages took. This story is anecdotal and would require a better designed longitudinal study to prove, however it was inspirational for me and one of many such stories in that class that convinced me to change my major from computer science to cognitive science. I learned in that class that if we utilize the power of our learning brains, the possibilities for achievement both individually and as a society could be endless. I became fascinated with the question of how we can harness our learning, and specifically how technological solutions could be combined with cognitive science research to take learning to new levels.
This may sound hyperbolic, and indeed such thoughts can lead to Matrix-like imaginations of possibilities. In my case they often do. However, back on planet earth, this interest guided me to take a digital electronics class to learn how to make electronic toys, child development classes to learn how memory develops, computer science classes for implementation, and education classes to learn about what is being done in this field. I also started thinking about various experiences in my life through the lens of this interest. I would like to write about a few of these experiences and how they all contributed to my interest in this subject.
Several summers ago I spent a month in Russia. My parents are from Moscow and on a whim I decided to go there to discover my roots. One of my goals was to visit parts of Moscow that my parents had told me about. This meant that I spent a lot of time on the subway going from place to place, taking pictures and meeting people. One experience on the subway changed how I thought about public education. The Moscow subway is one of the deepest in the world -- designed to function as a bomb shelter. This meant the escalator rides were steep and long. Along the way there was a city wide public announcement system that spouted such epitaphs as: "Protect the heritage of your Russian roots. Love the language of Pushkin and don't swear" and "Be kind to people. They deserve your respect as you do theirs". I was astounded at the blatant social brainwashing and quickly learned to disdain the announcements. Later on the subway a large group of rowdy teens came into the car. At the next stop a few older people stepped onto the train and none of the teens moved. A bit later an announcement came on, "Be nice to those older or weaker than you. Give your seat to the elderly or to those with young children." At the very next stop when some older people again came onto the car. This time however a few of the teens got up and let them sit down. I doubt they realized why they did this as even I had started blocking out the announcements.
I was confused after seeing this. Moscow was dirty and people were mean. They needed this basic sort of public education which their parents weren't able to offer because they themselves did not know it. Was this a dystopian brain- washing or was it an example of proper use of educational policy because it was for a social good? I was surprised how strongly I was affected by this seemingly small incident. I realized that an societal educational system must burden itself with teaching how to live in society and that society can be improved by this. However, at the same time it must walk a very careful line and not cross over into brain-washing. What is the role of education in society? This is not an easy question, but it does bear thinking about.
After my Moscow trip I had the opportunity to teach a few high-school students Russian. This was quite possibly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I had never taught before and approached it with a lot of energy, or so I thought. The students outpaced my energy level by orders of magnitude. They would jump to answer questions, blurting out answers and giggling with excitement. They were learning Russian for the fun of it, as it was not offered at their school and they just wanted to learn for themselves. It was inspirational to watch them and a rush to be needed by them, to be the source for their excitement, to be wrung dry by their questions. I am sure I learned a lot more from this experience than my students.
Moving closer to home, I have a three year old niece who is unbelievably adept on the computer. Not only does she have the physical coordination for moving the mouse and the knowledge of how to drag windows and files around but she is addicted to starfall.com. This site is a free educational site for kids. It has fun songs and graphics with a myriad of different exercises. She spends hours on the site. She knows her alphabet, can count fairly well, and has a great vocabulary. All of this without any pressure from her parents and, since she is too young for even pre-school, no school. When I was her age my mom would read to me certainly and we would do a little bit of alphabet work in Russian, but it was a struggle for both of us. What amazes me so much is how much time and effort she is more than willing to put in herself. She would rather play alphabet games on starfall than play with her toys. This is because the learning is a game in itself. Since she plays on the adult's computer she gets to play with a toy that belongs to her parents. Often she will exclaim, "I go work on starfall now!". She may use the word 'work' but she very clearly enjoys it (most likely she uses that word because her parents will often 'work' on the computer).
That a three year old is so interested in the animated colorful world of a computer game should come as no surprise. For me, watching her enjoy learning and easily grasping letters and numbers really underscores the potency of technology as a learning tool.
These few small experiences along with many others have all contributed to my interest in learning with technology. The digital electronics class I took this summer was perhaps the most fulfilling class I have ever taken. In groups of two we designed and built an electronics project from scratch. My interest in learning informed our choice of project. We were toying with the idea of using an accelerometer (a chip for detecting motion) somehow, and I was thinking of various toys that could be reinvented digitally. For instance the tilt-maze game is both ubiquitous and yet also not very interesting. Once you have the dexterity to beat it you might as well throw it out. How much more interesting would it be if you had to solve a moving maze and also take the shortest path through it for points based on the least number of steps taken. We implemented this game on a small eight by eight matrix of multicolor led lights. When it came to designing the levels for the game we realized that there were many more possibilities than we originally envisioned. The maze could appear to be a multicolor fire spewing dragon with a particular precious stone on his tail that is the target of the level, or it could be man eating plants that open in a certain sequence. Designing, programing and building this game was challenging and we stayed up many late nights. At the same time it was extremely fulfilling and made me very happy. By the end of the class we had a working game that people enjoyed playing and which also had an innovative brain puzzle aspect to it.
All these stories may appear disjointed, but the connection is that they all spurred my interest in new technologies for education. This leads to an interesting question: since I put a lot of effort into this interest and am contemplating grad school in related areas, does it make me happy? Mostly it has entailed work, exams, projects and sleep loss. On the other hand, just thinking about some of the possibilities ahead stirs up a great excitement in me.
I am convinced that this area can use a lot of work. For instance the area of math education is a prime choice for new ideas. I grew up with a math phobia in grade school. My teachers were terrible, using performance pressure and boring teaching to induce fear in their students. However, it is possible to have fun with math without the pressure and competition that seems to often lead to math phobia. One current research project that might help is siftables (www.sifteo.com). These are little cubes that can display letters, colors and number and react to each when in close proximity. Kids can play with the blocks that change and interact as they move them. A math game with siftables could display numbers and math operands and react as students move the blocks to form equations. Tangible media such as this has huge potential. The fact that this area is growing and new is exciting.
Still, exciting is not necessarily happy. In my case however, simply being creatively busy does make me happy. My parents are both artists and when I was growing up I remember in the evening after a late European style dinner ending around 10pm my dad would say, "ok I'm going downstairs to work some more." I grew up in a house where it was never OK to not have a project going. Now I find that I am unable to simply do nothing. Even when on vacation I have a hard time relaxing without some purpose tugging at me. I have noticed that during those times when I don't have a project in the works, I not only feel useless but almost physically feel sick. This is the antithesis of happiness. Thus being busy with projects in an area I am interested (especially one that can bring inspiration and learning to others) brings me a lot of joy.
It appears that a common thread ties together a lot of my recent college experiences. It has emerged slowly and is still not completely formed, but at least right now I feel a pulling that gives me a direction to work toward. This will most likely all change as I gather new experiences, but for now I enjoy it.