As a physics teacher, I was immediately struck by their foresight of utilizing animations  and simulations for education. I’m currently doing my best to use these in my large lecture class (it’s difficult with a common course that needs to be okayed by multiple instructors and faculty) by incorporating physics simulations as pre-lecture assignments. I’m hoping that by encouraging students to play in a virtual world, we can elicit both a greater curiosity (and thus motivation) as well as a deeper understanding of the underlying physics.

With sims, students can perform experiments before they learn the “correct” physics. Sims also open up the opportunity to do experiments that are impossible on Earth. What would happen if we tried this on the moon? What would happen if there really were no friction (an assumption that we physicists think makes problems easier but sometimes results in students being confused because the predictions made by our models don’t correspond to their real life experiences). By letting students experiment with changing the
parameters of the experiment, they can CREATE and test their OWN physical models instead of just adopting the ones told to them by an “expert”.

If you’d like to play with some science and math sims (do it!), one of my favorite resources is PHeT!

Can we ditch the dirty looks without ditching the teachers?

As Ted Nelson leads us through his view of traditional education, I’m drinking the kool-aid right with him. Yes, our educational system DRAINS our students of their curiosity, creativity, and motivation! Yes, we need to change (I’m not ready to fully give them up) the arbitrary divisions between subjects. Just adding computers to our current educational practices isn’t going to make any significant changes. Indeed, we need to hone in on the individual interests of our students instead of treating them as one homogeneous bunch.  Agreed, teacher’s dirty looks have no place in our schools…but I think the role of teachers, as mentors, guides, motivators, and role models gets lost in Ted Nelson’s view.

New media could potentially fill a wonderful void; students would no longer have to study in an isolated room with a textbook. As a physics teacher, I see media as bringing students a virtual lab that they would otherwise not have access to, they could get immediate feedback on their problem solving, and they could link up with other students/teachers at any time. But the role of physical social interaction, both with the teacher and the student seems to be missing from his view. Where are the students learning how to work in a team? Where are they communicating their ideas?

I’m also worried that if students are purely self-directed, they may never even be introduced into topics that they might find fascinating! While specialization can be “efficient” is it really the best solution? Isn’t it important that each student has some content literacy in all subjects in order to be an informed citizen? The role of the teacher is to motivate them to learn something outside of their anticipated areas of interest. How about we help reform our system to help the teachers utilize (and maybe develop!) new media effectively?

Consciousness: I know it when I see it?

I love life’s intersections. I’m currently taking an Educational Psychology class (how much do I love that VT faculty can take courses for free?!) and we were discussing consciousness. The idea of functionalism arose and it made me think of our seminar and the idea of artificial intelligence. Basically, functionalism is the idea that as long as something functions like consciousness, it is consciousness. While part of me cringes at the thought that we could call machine processing consciousness, I’m also at a loss at how we could recognize or define it without this sort of pragmatism. It’s almost as if we were to try to establish a definition, I think we’d purposefully adopt a definition which a priori excludes this sort of machine “thinking”. Is this sort of Turing test good enough? Is our mind more than a collections of our neural networks? If there is some sort of collective emergent property, is this fundamentally different from the emergent properties of an ant colony? What about a series of data and processing which lead to artificial intelligence? I’m now wishing I spent some time this weekend reading the Alan Turning essay in our text, but alas, as it stands, I still need to find some time today to finish the assigned reading! Maybe over break..

All of this reminded me of a Radiolab that I heard years ago (is anyone else obsessed with Radiolab?). (The picture should be linked to the episode)

This hour of Radiolab, Jad and Robert meet humans and robots who are trying to connect, and blur the line.
We begin with a love story–from a man who unwittingly fell in love with a chatbot on an online dating site. Then, we encounter a robot therapist whose inventor became so unnerved by its success that he pulled the plug. And we talk to the man who coded Cleverbot, a software program that learns from every new line of conversation it receives…and that’s chatting with more than 3 million humans each month. Then, five intrepid kids help us test a hypothesis about a toy designed to push our buttons, and play on our human empathy. And we meet a robot built to be so sentient that its creators hope it will one day have a consciousness, and a life, all its own.

Stolen from Radiolab.

Stolen from Radiolab.