Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fear of flying

Dell has a disturbing new ad out, and even more disturbing has been its response--"[t]he Dell ad makes its technology feel human."

I just spent a wonderful week as a Siemens STEM Institute fellow,where at Discovery Education  Hall Davidson and others showed us how to manipulate images just like this girl did. Most of my kids will love this, for a few moments, anyway, then on to something else. (Dopamine's half-life is about two minutes.)

But it's not science. Beyond knowing a few keystrokes and where to find the software, it's not learning.*

During this same week, we got to spend some time behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institute, where we saw passion and joy as scientists described what they do. Turns out real live scientists like to hold things--skulls, nuggets of gold, dead fish, apples. Their passion was palpable, but even more notable was their joy!

Here's an exercise we picked up, one worth doing as a department.

Take an apple or two, real ones, pretend you've never encountered one before, and describe it. List as many of its qualities as you can in a few minutes. You will likely scribble down dozens.

Now observe an apple model--you can use one of the plastic ones, which wholesale around 35 cents a piece. Scratch off all the qualities you listed about the real apple that can't be found of the fake one. The list gets dramatically smaller.

Northern spyes, my choice for hard cider, via Village Voice.

Now do the same thing with a photograph of an apple. You're down to a few words, maybe red, oblong, with a stem attached.

And finally, this:

To most of us, the word conjures up vivid memories of what we know of "appleness"--but the word itself means nothing to someone who has never seen an apple.

What is the purpose of public schooling?

If it is to produce "career and college ready" corporatizens, then mastering manipulation of the digital world becomes the goal. Virtual flying becomes meaningful, and an apple's visual appeal matters more than its taste--how else explain the dominance of the ironically named Red Delicious over the plain looking Roxbury Russet?**

If it is to produce joyful citizens in a community, with all its human warts, well, then, Bloomfield and thousands of towns like us are trying to hang in there with our gardens and plays, our cooking and sewing classes, our wood shop and photography classes, our bands and choirs, our art shows, our sense of community.

Our motto is generations old, and can be found on the floor of the foyer as you walk in:

Learn to live

If you want to fly, you need to build something that will let you do just that. You need to risk failure, ridicule, broken bones and even death--Orville Wright himself was involved in the first fatal airplane crash (which he barely survived--Lt. Thomas Selfridge did not).

The girl who jumped off the roof with an umbrella in the Dell ad will not be satisfied with a green screen fantasy--she likely will lead a happy and productive life despite the casts and sutures she'll accumulate along the way. Not all dreams need be so risky--but dreams should not be avoided because of the risks.

Green screen lives are safer in some ways--hard to fracture a femur playing Angry Birds--but, it turns out, are far more dangerous in the long run.

Our sedentary screen lives are literally killing us--when we require children to sit still, when we ask them to watch a screen, we are shortening their lives.

From Advanced ICU Care newsletter, Spring, 2009

Beyond that, deferring life to virtual reality kills living long before a heart stops beating. Technology can keep that same heart beating a little longer, in a small cubicle surrounded with screens whose job it is to keep that heart going--a heart that stopped working long, long ago.

 *It's a great tool for story-telling, and story-telling belongs in science class--Hall Davidson is a master story-teller and gets this. Dell, at least in the ad, does not.
**Yes, I know, hardiness and ability to survive shipping also matter. If you're going to make cider, though, I strongly recommend Northern spies.


Tom Hoffman said...

This is a step back from even Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Anonymous said...

Also, using software is not the same as computing. Consumer vs. producer. If I can provide real experiences for my students, that is more than anyone else has done or them. Real life first!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting into words my suspicion that working with real things...straws, 2L bottles, tape, rubber bands, bowling balls, eggs...is still an OK way to do STEM learning. I resist going virtual. Too much is lost, especially a real sense of accomplishment, when a virtual water bottle rocket rises from an online launcher vs a real water bottle rocket soaring into the air. This being said, I am all for tech tools that help enrich the real learning or tell the learning story to others. What success stories can you tell from your classroom about learning with real stuff vs virtual stuff?

Anonymous said...

This is awesome! Our students can be competitive in the digital age and be aware of their surroundings! Science lives!

Self Replicate said...

dopamine, such a jokester.
I love that apple test idea.

doyle said...

Dear Tom,

Just about everything education on screens has been a step back from MS Flight Simulator--made me sad to hear that they're ending its run.

Dear andylammers,

I agree--making things matters.

The success I'm looking for is lifelong, beyond the end of June. I'm still not convinced kids learn a whole lot of science from virtual experiences. OTOH, some virtual tools (like MS Flight Simulator) are wonderful tools for those who plan to immerse themselves in the world. Just don't fool yourself into thinking MSFS even remotely approaches the real thing.

doyle said...

Dear Ms. R,

Thanks for the kind words--I don't worry so much about our competitiveness. If a child gets exposed to the real world and the awe of science, there's a fair chance she'll latch on to a life aimed that way.

Still, it's her life.