Moving Facsimiles of Ourselves?

I’ve picked up a new podcast I dig: Big Ideas from TV Ontario.  It bills itself as the only television program in North America dedicated to the art of the lecture.  The current episode is “No Educator Left Behind” by Mark Federman.  It’s decidedly worth a listen.

Part of Federman’s talk gives a very brief history of media, including how the first mass media was media for Catholic Mass.  Media for Mass led to media for the masses.  He goes from their to Gutenberg’s press through a series of steps to bring us to the Internet.

A key point was the evolution of the movement of people and ideas.  Reframing his ideas got me thinking that the next societal revolution may be moving interactive facsimiles of ourselves around the world.  If that’s right, the consequences for how we live our lives and how we learn are profound.

And I think it needs to be right.

I’ve pondered for a long time how folks who think of themselves as the most scientifically literate in the world justify their typically huge ecological footprints.  An experience at the year’s Geological Society of America annual conference highlighted the issue for me.  It was in Houston in October.  The temperatures were in the high 80s.  Jim Hansen, the eminent climate researcher, was a keynote speaker.  The auditorium was filled with scientists who had flown from all over the world to participate in this meeting.  The auditorium was also probably about 65 degrees F.

Hansen’s legacy can probably justifiy his world travel.  That is, his work helps us understand better what to do because it is both well done and widely known.  For most of the other thousands of people at this meeting (myself definitely included), I have to wonder about the balance of costs and benefits.  I like to think my work is about helping to build understanding of the social and natural world so that we can live purposeful, useful lives that make the world a better place.

Fundamental to that, I strongly believe, is using less stuff and especially burning less stuff.  If we’re routinely hopping on jets that burn scores of tons of fuel to get us to our professional meetings to work in hotels and conference centers that are absurdly oppositional to the climate of their region, are we offsetting that by giving and going to presentations and chatting with our colleagues in the bar?

So, how does that relate to the title of this post?  Well, conferences really are often great places for professional development.  You get to talk with the people in the world who are experts in your field and that likely makes you better in your field.  But I think the cost is too high.  It’s not sustainable.

As technologies like Second Life, iChat, and Skype mature, we become able to interact with our colleagues at a distance.  With Skype, iChat and and other sorts of conferencing software you can, right now, host conference sessions and do them very well.  The most valued things that go on at conferences is often the hallway and cocktail lounge one on one and small group interactions.  Second Life can simulate that reasonably well and gets better at it all the time.

If we think about how the economy has evolved, the winners have typically been those who can move things that people care about.  Moving agriculture products to market; moving materials to and from manufacturing facilities; moving people to wherever it is they wish to go and moving  ideas about has driven much productivity in our history.  We moved from moving people and things as key in the last century to moving information in the new millenium.

Now we’re on the cusp of being able to move representatives of ourselves to anywhere in the world (with highspeed Internet access) and to control the actions of those representatives as they interact with people and their facsimiles.  Now, that’s not energy neutral.  Server farms are huge energy consumers, but sending those virtual representatives around the world surely takes far, far less energy than moving the real people around.

So, buy some stock in Second Life… and think about what it means for how people learn and teach in a time when our students have always had Google and IM at their disposal.

Some things I learned at the Scientific Applications with Google Earth Conference

Last week, I attended the Scientific Applications with Google Earth Conference at the University of Michigan.  Here are some things I either learned or learned that I need to learn:

Basic Technical Tips & Info:

  1. Gigapan stuff is cheap and looks easy to do.  I’ll order the unit.
  2. You can copy a Google Earth placemark into a text editor and pasting it will yield all the code which you can manipulate and paste back in to Google Earth.  This also works with polygons, paths and overlays.
  3. You can use Google My Maps to create placemarks with rich text, embedded youtube videos and pictures easily then download the placemarks into Google Earth.  (I already knew about the ability to upload pictures into Picassa, geotag them and download them as a Google Earth file).
  4. GPS cameras are coming in more and more options.  This Ricoh camera looks dreamy.

Things to ponder/explore further:

  1. Making phylogenetic trees in Google Earth is cool.  the link takes you to a project where Avian Flu’s mutation and movement is being tracked.  The ‘About’ page has a quick introductory video.
  2. Google Earth Pro licenses appear to be given away relatively easily to non-profits.
  3. It’s possible to make bar graphs in Google Earth where countries (or other regions) can stick out as bars on a spherical base (the Earth).  These can pull data from the web and change with the data.  See: http://www.gearthblog.com/blog/archives/2007/02/world_oil_consupmtio.html, for example.
  4. I need to follow-up with the guy from Wisconsin who does this stuff: http://aqua.wisc.edu/glct/maps/Panoramas/258.html (which didn’t work for me in Firefox, but did in Safari).
  5. Education was oddly represented – Steve, Roberta and myself were nearly the only folks who had any obvious grounding in K-12, though there were some other folks who did some professional development.  There were others who wanted to do things but were perhaps naïve – i.e., “I wanted to work with kids to do _____, but NSF wouldn’t fund me because I don’t speak Educationese.”  The odd (thin) representation of education at a Google-sponsored conference where education was a strand represents opportunity.
  6. Most of the people who were vocal in the sessions were interested in doing tremendously cool but typically very content specific things that took a long time to create (things that required substantial technological skills).  What our project needs is the power to create things that are pretty cool, local to the teacher and can be created very quickly.  Google Earth has great power to serve both kinds of projects.

Things to do soon:

  1. I need to investigate Google Base; Google’s database program.
  2. I need to make a template for a Powers of Ten lesson in Google Earth.  This would be a good starting place for teachers who are Google Earth novices — based on Eames’s Powers of Ten, but with a local center.  As I relearned last year, a shocking number of high school kids can’t locate themselves, their city or their state on a map.  Starting out the school house door and zooming to maps of progressively larger area can yield epiphanies — I could see the light bulbs come on for several kids.

Other things that don’t fit under the above headings:

  • The virtual fieldwork poster was well received.  I had good conversations with about ten people and all feedback was positive.  One strong suggestion was to make the keywords in the database “True keywords.”  I understood this to mean a system that recognizes typos and suggests corrections.

The value of fiddling and the power of amateur work

This post deals encourages you to revel in being an amateur.  The first bit introduces a video on why we don’t understand things that we should (and some videos that support that assertion) and the second bit discusses what that has to do with reveling in the amateur.

The First Bit: “Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do”

A while back, a link to Jonathan Drori’s TED Talk “Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do” was posted on the Earth science teachers’ listserve, ESPRIT.  The video is a good one.  If you’re familiar with the Private Universe Project, you probably have some understanding of the first two thirds of the video.  Here’s the video (If the video doesn’t play, click the link to open in a separate window.):

Jonathan Drori: Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do

Drori references the Private Universe videos and if you’re unfamiliar with them, they are very much worth a look.  Note too, the list of ‘Related Resources’ on the page.  Minds of Our Own has more videos of the Harvard and MIT grads.  You need to log in to learner.org to watch these videos, but registration is free and simple and gives you access to a fascinating library of materials.

The Second Bit: Reveling in the amateur

What I liked about Drori’s video was praise of the amateur (and the partial dismissal of the professional).   He says that good scientific interpretation — good science learning — is grounded in the amateur in the best sense of the word; from the root of the word, meaning “of love and passion.”  He also noted that the overly polished presentations in some science museums actually obscure the science

In developing educational materials, I can’t help but worry about slickness. We need enough of it to, as they say, attract eyeballs.

But I think it’s a min-max problem.  You don’t want the student-curriculum or teacher-curriculum interaction to be about the slickness.

If you go to the exhibit hall of NSTA, slickness rules.  It’s cool, in a way.  If a science geek (like me) wants to have fun on the exhibit hall floor, there’s plenty of fun to be had.  But we shouldn’t be enticed by the shiny baubles.  (I hope that flashing LED necklaces don’t really help the sales of textbooks, but I strongly suspect that they do.)

I think there’s great advantage in teacher made materials and I think that teacher made materials can beget student made materials.

And student made instructional materials are the bees knees.

In developing educational materials like Virtual Fieldwork Experiences, slickness needs to be subservient to pedagogy.  The value of familiarity and pride that comes from creation often trumps the value of spiffiness.

This post, perhaps, is a long way of saying: Just do it.

Make the stuff — whatever the stuff may be — labs and worksheets, curriculum maps, virtual fieldwork experiences and whatever kind of equipment you can.  Revel in being able to do it even if it isn’t all that spiffy.

Of course you don’t need to make everything — there is a lot of good stuff out there — but probably not enough stuff that’s relevant to the science that’s local to your school or home.  Homemade equipment or curriculum is almost always cheaper too.

So, revel in being an amateur:

  • Take pictures of the science you can see.
  • Make VFEs.
  • Make equipment.
  • Write curriculum materials that are focused on where you live, learn and teach.

The learners you work with will see you as someone who immerses themselves in stuff that matters and you can better figure out how to immerse them in that same stuff.