Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Brainstorming About Pedagogy

So today was another Wanderers meeting, at Linus Pauling's boyhood home on Hawthorne. Eve Menger and George Hammond, both accomplished chemists, presented their ideas for a new introductory science text book aimed at non-science majors, prompting a lively discussion among the many scientists present.

I took a plastic bag with some favorite writing examples, including one purchased yesterday for 20% off at Barnes and Noble, where I became a member for $25 (netting another 10% discount, plus no sales tax, because I live in Oregon -- and thank you Subaru, for picking up the tab on that drive train job): Head First Design Patterns (ISBN: 0-596-00712-4). This book is the latest in the Head First series, which O'Reilly is justifiably excited about. I know Guido'd like to see a Head First approach to Python, but the market is more Java-centric these days. Fortunately, if you know Python, a reading knowledge of Java is not hard to come by. I also bought Ruby In a Nutshell, Ruby being, like Python and Perl, another scripting language, with a big following in Japan.

What's special about this book (pre-figured in Who is Fourier?, another title in my bag), is the attention given to the proper care and feeding of the human brain. Without pretending to any advanced neurological theory, the authors (with background at Disney) intersperse clever graphics, scrawled handwriting, jokes, stories, puzzles. Why they do this is spelled out in the Intro, and raves on the back (hi Ward) are testament to the effectiveness of their approach. I'd say the "for dummies" series (with wanderer Allen Taylor one of its authors) has also pioneered in this direction, but with O'Reilly there's not even the pretense that the readership is dumb. One of my favorite graphics is on page 12: this arms-folded, somewhat defiant-looking young woman has this thought bubble: "I don't see why you have to use an interface for FlyBehavior. You can do the same thing with an abstract superclass. Isn't the whole point to use polymorphism?" Hah, I love it.

Anyway, George and Eve were very open to this kind of informalizing, yet purposeful innovation. Allen pointed out that Head First is a trade book, not a text book -- a distinction publishers sometimes worry about. I also had Concrete Mathematics in my bag (a true text book), which I thought prototypical in its use of marginalia to make things friendlier. Beyond that, it's more typical of math texts: austere, intimidating, a monument to the authors' intellect.

The Hammond-Menger approach to energy as a unifying theme is also refreshing: the sun powers earthly operations, and we take in a lot of that energy as calorie-laden foods. Relating physics to personal human experience is also our approach in First Person Physics, which will have a precessional impact with or without NSF funding.

The geek channel I've been brainstorming (including in this blog), takes these kinds of pedagogical advances to the next level. We won't be abandoning book learning, but high bandwidth audio-video will tap into even more brain power. As David Feinstein pointed out, 60% of our brain circuitry is about visualization, and 20% of that is about sensing motion. So if you supplement your pedagogy with moving pictures (e.g. animations), you're ipso facto making your audience more intelligent, and your content more illuminating. Bill Nye the Science Guy always stands out in my mind as a great pioneer in this direction.

George and Eve also circulated copies of A Dangerous Signal to Science, an editorial by Alan Leshner of the AAAS (Science, Vol 306, 24 December 2004, page 2163). Many wanderers expressed their concern that fear parasites are draining the budget for civilian science education, leading to a dumbing down of ordinary Americans. That's all by design of course. If Americans were more science-savvy, they wouldn't be such easy prey for those capitalizing off Pentagon waste (e.g. unnecessary soldier deaths), thereby undermining our long term social security, which is not their concern (yet it is our president's, who, like Reagan, is no dummy -- something the Russians could tell you).

Followup 2005.1.20: per email from Eve and George, I fixed their surnames. Plus I watched the USA's presidential inaugural this morning. Although cameras picked up protestors being escorted away by police, the corporate media I heard was too busy manufacturing consent to comment -- an interesting novent given the content of the speech itself (which was right on the money in a lot of ways). My family is honoring various boycotts today, our way of helping Cheney defend the Constitution against foot-dragging domestics -- LAWCAP slowpokes that're hardly moving compared to an up-to-speed USA. Last night, I watched Inside Iraq again, using the external Sony DVD drive on KTU2.