Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Making tough stuff fun

This summer I took my kids, 15, 13 and 8 to the Museum of Science in Boston. They love the exhibits that let them interact with things. One of the things they like is the computer room. There we discovered the West Point Bridge Design software. Turns out this is a completely free piece of software whose purpose is to "provide middle school and high school students with a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering."

Being aimed at kids, there is also a contest involved, where kids use the software to design the least expensive bridge that can successfully carry the simulated weight of traffic across it.

What is interesting about this software is that while it works like a game, it is very sophisticated - during simulated load tests, it shows both compression forces and tension forces. When the design is poor, the bridge fails in a catastrophic way! But the software allows potential bridge designers to learn from their mistakes, not guess at the solution through trial and error by providing information on stress failures and pin-pointing issues. You can change the thickness of a member, or change its metallurgy, and the software provides a graph that shows what the change means to the strength of each member.

When I was in college, I had friends that were studying to be civil engineers. They spent a lot of time working on the math that supports these concepts. I bet they would have loved to actually see how their design decisions are affected by forces pulling and squeezing their designs. In fact, one of the highlights of their coursework was when they built a bridge out of balsa wood which they then subjected to stress until it broke. But this exercise came after a whole bunch of math and other pre-requisites.

Wouldn't it be cool if instead of starting with loads of math, potential civil engineers started by actually designing stuff? Yes, the math is required - but linking it to experience (even if virtual) would really make it stick. This approach is sometimes referred to as experiential learning. The idea is to engage students in direct experience then use the results to focus their energies on reflecting on what happened. It is natural for people to want to correct their own mistakes - it is what makes games so popular - when you "die" in a computer game, your natural instinct is to try again. But the difference between games and formal education is that games are safe, so you are willing to try again.

Imagine potential lawyers in mock trials, potential airline pilots getting access to life-like simulators, or potential army doctors working on virtual patients! Like the Bridge Building simulator, I recommend putting the play forward of the formal learning as a way of creating stronger connections between the tangible and abstract, and even better is where the two can be combined.

More on this topic to come in future posts!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Learning and problem solving

Welcome my first post!

I wanted to start with a personal example to illustrate the theme of this blog - learning is more than just attending a training class - learning happens when we need it most and by applying what we know to solve problems. I am often reminded of Richard Bach's quote: "You teach best what you most need to learn."

Here's the story: I was working from my mother-in-law's house in Arizona. Since she doesn't have a wireless hub in her condo, I was using one of the several unrestricted wireless hubs in her tightly knit condo association. Unfortunately, it only worked for a little while before the Windows PC I was working on gave me the infamous blue screen of death.

I restarted the system and started again. A few minutes later, the same thing. Now it is the definition of insanity to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. But I needed to get my work done, and all my files and setup is on my laptop. Now what?

I started again and this time wrote down the error code that appeared in the blue screen. When I was back up again, I searched for the error code using Google. One of the links was the support page for Microsoft. I entered the code, and learned that to get more details, I would need to download their stack trace tool. At this point I should mention that I am not a Systems Administrator, nor do I play one on TV, but.... I know enough from my background as a computer programmer, a brief stint as a systems administrator and technical instruction development to know what a stack trace is and what it can tell you.

Ok - so minutes later I looked at the crash file that Windows produces when it dies and found out that the it was my Intel wireless device that caused the crash. Eureka! After using Google to search for he error code with the part number of the Intel wireless card, I found a few people had the same issue on their laptops and had solved the problem by upgrading the device driver - the program that each physical device in a computer uses to talk to the operating system.
Over to the Intel website, I located the support page for the Intel wireless card that I had (again through a search) and upgraded the device driver to the latest version. Success. And the process took maybe 20 minutes (minus the time for the computer to crash and reboot a few times due to the existing issue).

So here's the point: I didn't need a technician. I didn't need interesting but irrelevant information on the architecture of an Intel wireless card. I didn't need a 5 day instructor-led class on Windows PC repair. I did need to get my PC working so I could finish what I needed to get done. I did use my background on the process of troubleshooting from an error code to the stack dump to the specific device. The information I needed was available on the internet. And with that information I constructed my own solution to solve the problem with my PC. I was able to synthesize the information to create a solution, one of the higher order skills in the taxonomy Bloom's cognitive domain.

Much of the training I've seen for kids is designed around problem solving - encouraging the use of what is available in the game to solve the problems. Most training for adults seems a bit more constrained and focused on getting product features to work. There are several obstacles to overcome when build learning "courses" that would emulate the process I followed and that is the focus of this blog. Along the way I will be posting examples of really good learning programs that encourage the building learning process - working with what you know to create unique solutions to problems.