Archive for the ‘For Scientist/Engineer Parents’ Category

The Starless Skies Part 1

The Starless Skies Part 1

By James H. Choi
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Dear Sabio Parents,

Those parents who were born in the 1960s or 1970s lived in a singularly unique moment in history.  We were born in the analogue world, from which we witnessed with our own eyes the change into a completely digital world.  This change has far bigger implications than enjoying the convenience of GPS navigator, or streamed HD video on demand.   I call what has emerged the “Starless Sky Phenomenon.”

Think back to the real sky when we were young.  Well, even then, many cities were already polluted, and we cold not see the sky.  Today, we can see them even less.  But this is true of not only the sky above us, but also of the world at our fingertips.  Take a clock for our first example. When we were young, clocks were made of gears; they were not digital.  So if we were curious, we could open the clock and see its machinery move.  One favorite lie that I believed until I opened a clock myself was that its minute and hour hands could be switched so the clock would read incorrectly.  I tried to do this myself and realized the clock hands could not physically fit; they couldn’t be installed the wrong way.  At any rate the point is we could actually peer into the clock and therefore understand its causes and consequences: the wound up spring turns this, and that in turn pushes this, and this in turn pushes another thing.  Of course, we had no understanding of how the bi-metal worked to compensate for the temperature difference and such.  But nonetheless we were able to look at them, and understand it in its first approximation. the modern watches.  Except for the very expensive ones that we should not open at all, these things are electronic.  There is a single chip inside of which even the chip-makers cannot see what is happening.  If this chip breaks down, even its designer cannot fix it.  That person just has to buy a new one.  The mechanism is more than completely hidden because it is not there.  This is the world into which our children are born and in which they will grow.  When I was in college, I was able to change oil and even tune the car.  I used the timing gun to tune the firing of the spark plugs.  I didn’t do this out of fun; I worked on the car because I didn’t have money to send it to the mechanic.  Nonetheless this taught me the principles of how the car works.  Today, many of those functions are delegated to built-in computers which — by design — completely out of our view, and understanding.

Or take one final example: a radio.  Back when I was in elementary school, I was able to peer into a radio in my bedroom to see the vacuum tubes, capacitors and wires running between them.  I didn’t understand how radios worked.  For example, I knew nothing about RC filters or frequencies.  Yet I could still build my own transistor radio by following the schematics, connecting wires to match the ones I saw.  I gained confidence (however unfounded) that I could look into something and figure out how to recreate or control it.

But these days we don’t have vacuum tube radios with clearly visible components.  We carry nano iPods that can’t be opened.  Even if we could open one, we would not understand what’s inside.  Furthermore, we’d have no clue how to make one ourselves even if we had a schematics.  This is totally opposite from back in the days when I was in high school, when students built their own amplifiers.  These days students don’t have such opportunities.  They might not even know what an amplifier is.  Instead they just have a personal MP3 player with which they lock themselves in their rooms and shut out the world.  They lack the motivation — or even notion they are capable — of building such an electronic device.

What does this all mean for the education of our children?  I believe that the current generation is benefiting from the unprecedented wealth of these digital devices and electronics.  At the same time, they’re completely shut out of knowing, or even wondering, how things operate.  They don’t have to worry about how an operating system works or how to install a device driver.  Everything is automatic.  Many of my online students don’t even know whether the computers they are using are PCs or Macs.  To them, it is a box that works.

I believe that this lack of access to how things function leads to a lack of curiosity.  When a student sees only the final, sleek design of a device, there is nothing to trigger their curiosity into how it works.  Indeed, today they select devices not on how they function but rather, largely, based on design and looks.  The fruits of an engineer’s labor are so completely packaged that they are invisible to students.  Therefore students less and less want to become engineers and increasingly want to become consumers.

When the first Apple 2 came out, the boot-up screen was the BASIC language interpreter.  In other words, you had to know some computer language to use that computer.  When the first PC came out, all you saw was an unhelpful C prompt flashing A:>.  To make the machine do your bidding, you had to know how to program AUTOEXEC.BAT file.  But these days, PCs and Macs work right out of the box.  In becoming easier to use, these machines had their technologies become completely inaccessible.  Students today don’t have to know anything to use one — so therefore they don’t.

In the eyes of the current generation of students, software is something you use, not create.  You download apps for free.  And whatever you need is likely to be available, yours for searching.  Students lack a desire to write programs because they rarely reach the state of “need.”

So what should parents do in this completely digital world?  Unlike our generation, these students don’t have any reference point for what pre-digital means.  They were born digital and will stay digital.  Our digital age was supposed to make people more connected and productive.  The young generation might be connected, but, judging from how my students use computers, digitally productive they are not.

Parents have to reveal the hidden machinery behind technology.  We must open the curtain, which is not easy to do, to teach students how to be not just consumers but also producers.

I will discuss specific steps parents can take in subsequent parts of this series.  Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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