TED Conversations

Matthew Wieder

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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Can we "engineer" our own interests through repeated exposure?

This week in my Bioelectricity class we learned about muscle contraction and how individual muscle twitches build on each other until tetanus (complete contraction of the muscle) is reached. Muscles are made up of small individual contractile units called sarcomeres which when they contract by themselves change the length of the muscle and produce a force that is negligible. However, when the sarcomeres contract in unison, the tension force produced is great enough to allow us to perform all of our normal day to day activities.

We also had a discussion in class about science education and how to get more young people excited about science -- often times in class there was a certain interaction with a role model who provided key influence either in a positive or negative direction.

This led me to think about the idea of life changing experiences. Is it ever a single experience, a specific interaction with a teacher or other role model that leads us to the career choices we make or, are we more influenced by the small events and sets of circumstances that "sum up" and provide this life altering influence?


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    Mar 29 2012: Small events have lesser and lesser effect on us as we grow older as we lose our physical & psychological elasticity. So while those small events may nudge us toward/away from something as children, it's the more dramatic singular interactions/events that take us in a new direction as adults.

    How to get more young people excited about science? We have to remind ourselves that all children are born researchers/experimenters. We disrupt their exploration & discovery of the world by giving them theories and continue to spoon-feed ever more complicated theories without showing the connection to the world in terms of applications. How about a "Discovery Education" model. Students come to class and have to solve a real-world problem like how much paint they have to buy to color the room or what the height of a building is (using sunlight & proportions).

    If we want science, we have to let students re-discover the theories/formulas. It is absolutely possible that some of these students may develop some new formulas in the process that we haven't considered yet. As for repeated exposure, sure, as during childhood.
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      Mar 29 2012: Cal,
      I definitely agree that there is a certain period in a persons life when they are most susceptible to influence by experiences. As we get older we become more and more set in our ways, more sure of our likes and dislikes. If we desire that more students in the United States will take interest in math and science it is imperative that we find out exactly when this critical stage in a person's life is so that we can give them the most positive experience in the sciences at this point, hopefully setting roots for a future career in this same field. The greatest way is through great teachers, who take interest in the students successes and failures causing the students to take pride in their own studies in the same way, and opening their eyes to the incredible accomplishments that have occurred in the sciences, inspiring them for the future.

      As for your comments about changing the structure of current education model, your views seem to be very in line with Ken Robinson (TED talk listed in related talks above) that in some ways the current educational system squelches the creativity of students.
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        Mar 29 2012: Thanks Matt. Yup, I'm with Ken. We certainly are way overdue for a process of redefining education & schooling. One of these redefinition ought to be who is a (great) teacher. As you say, they play a very critical role. A teacher ought to LOVE the subject s/he is teaching & continues to be a student of that subject all his/her life. Students have to be infected with that love for long-term engagement.

        Also, there's a precedence in the history of the American culture that we can learn from & perhaps reuse. They were comic books & science fictions. I think an argument can be made that a boom in sci-fi post-depression and comic books post-WWII helped the US get a man in the moon. The connection is this, the adults who eventually got us there were able to do it because they grew a passion for science as children living through those eras. For this generation, it may not be either of those mediums but how about a science based RPG or electronic lego like http://littlebits.cc/thebits presented at this past TED?

        As for hitting that critical period, I say hit'em with all we got at 9th or 10th grade as they come into high school. It gives them a bit of time to think & prepare for what to pursue at university
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          Mar 31 2012: I think 9th or 10th grade is too late. I am convinced that many children's aversion to mathematics begins in grade school when it is often introduced as a subject in which imagination plays no part. Mathematics as a field is a wonderland of puzzles, often with multiple valid approaches. I think if mathematics were introduced so as not to stifle childrens interest in it when they are still little, we would see very different outcomes in mathematics and in career directions.Adolescence also is a crucial period for the forming of identity, as kids try to figure out where they fit socially and within the big picture of the world. If science were represented with integrity during adolescence, by which I mean it would be taught as it is- an experimental discipline, young people would have a much more valid picture of the adventure that field actually is rather than a sterile view.In short, I think experiences of subjects in early life likely matter a great deal- not just seeing the subject but seeing it represented with integrity.
          This is not simply a matter of schools. Children hear messages from adults in their lives like, "I could never do math," often delivered with a laugh. This sort of cue is potentially destructive.
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          Apr 2 2012: Cal and Fritzie,
          I completely agree with you regarding the educational system. It has become so standardized and rigid that there is no room for creativity or passion. It reminds me of "A Mathematician's Lament," a book by Paul Lockhart in which he describes the problems of the math education and curriculum (Link below). To demonstrate his point, he compares it to a fictional society in which art is taught in elementary school by memorizing colors and brush techniques, without students ever actually painting something original until college or beyond. In math, and in many other subjects, students are so bogged down with the rules and specifics of it that they never get the opportunity to experiment and enjoy the subject. If we were to present math, science, or other "boring" subjects in a fun way starting at a young age, perhaps kids would have a positive outlook reagrding them.
          Link to an except of A Mathematician's Lament: http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf
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          Apr 3 2012: Cal and Fritzie,
          I also completely agree that it is necessary to create the spark for loving to learn (not just science and math) at a young age. However, I do believe that even if the spark is there, most people are forced to be "pragmatic" when it comes to their career choice. I see so many bright students, especially engineers, choose to go into non-engineering and non-research fields simply because the pay is much much better. As Fritzie said, this mentality comes from hearing so many people claim how they were never good at math or put much effort into their school work and still were able to succeed. What does it say about our culture that we reward Hollywood actors and overlook scientists completely. Entertainment is a form of art and art in itself is a beautiful creation of the human mind, but at the same time, so is science which is sadly, continuously undermined. It may be a bit off topic, but I thought I'd post a link to a poem that has spoken to me ever since I came across it in a book. Titled "Pretty Good" by Charles Osgood, I feel it completely reflects what our educational system is currently like: http://holyjoe.org/poetry/osgood1.htm

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