The Scary Time Saving Black Boxes

The year was 2002 and I was a gangly 13 year old boy fidgeting in my seat at the back of an Algebra class.  I was being taught how to calculate minimum and maximum points along a quadratic curve.  I listened for the period wrote down the homework problems for the next day and then moved on to the next class at the bell.

That night as I tried to do my HW I quickly realized that the lesson did not stick and I was lost.  I asked my dad for help and he wanted to know if I could graph the functions so I could see what I was trying to find.   As I pulled out my TI-83 I said “Yah sure but I need to know the coordinates of that point”.  While I was navigating the 2” x 3” screen he pointed to something, said “I bet that could help you”, and walked away.

We had just discovered the Max/Min function on the TI-83 and I proceeded to use my calculator to answer every question on the homework in less than 5 minutes.  I had opened up an extra hour that day for exploration and adventures and I quickly set off to add a new section of wall to my latest and greatest fort.  By discovering the time saving potential of my TI-83 I was able to redirect my efforts to a new learning experience.  One I was intrinsically motivated to teach myself.

10 years later and after 5 years of engineering instruction I now understand why my teacher gave me almost no credit for the assignment.  He wanted to see my work.  My response was “I don’t have any.  My calculator did the work”.  While I can see the “importance” of showing my work and can now even see the fundamental lessons that I was being taught by those tedious hand calculations.  At the time I wanted to know why I was penalized for finding a more efficient way to solve the problems I had been assigned.

The teacher wanted to ensure that I understood how the calculator was getting to that answer.  The teacher placed a large emphasis on the basics and by showing my work and learning these basics I can now see that I built a foundation upon which to add more complex problems and calculations.  However as things get more and more complex at what point are we no longer able to understand all the inner workings of the black boxes that we use every day?  I am currently typing on a device which to me still represents a large black box.  I feel confident that I could understand most of its inner workings IF I wanted to commit the time to it.  But that’s JUST IT I have decided that it is not a good use of my time to understand the inner workings of everything my computer does for me.  I have made the conscious decision to spend that time learning something else.

Do you still wash dishes by hand?  The dishwashing expert estimates that a standard family of 5 who eats 14 meals at home each week saves on average 4.95 hours by using a dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.  True TI-83’s and dishwashers have totally different applications but they are both time saving devices and time saved is time that can be used elsewhere?  Why is the skill of washing dishes by hand no longer of paramount importance?  That’s up to you to answer.  Dr. David Knezevic just gave a talk on “Changing the way engineers work”.  He alluded to a set of tools that have huge time saving potential for engineers working in industry.

One category of those tools are apps for engineers and I was excited when I heard that you can now download something on your smart phone that can perform almost every calculation that I was asked to do in Mechanical Design 1.  This would have definitely saved time but at what cost?  Do those fundamental principles deserve as much emphasis as they are getting or could these concepts  be conveyed in a way that captures their essence but opens up time for exploration elsewhere in the curriculum?

I don’t have an answer.  Instead I encourage everyone in the teaching profession to be wary of trusting the black box 100%, while being conscious of the potential positives of time saving technology.  I wonder if the near future will see a shift take place where tedious hand calculations in the “Basic” courses become as important as being an efficient human dishwasher.  Imagine the “Time savings” and else could you spend that time teaching a “Student”?

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