Saturday, May 7, 2011

Probing life and learning

On Friday evening, a large crowd gathered at The Laboratory at Harvard for an exercise in fast-paced, big-time brilliance. At Big Ideas for Busy People, ten scientists each had the floor for five minutes to discuss their work’s significance. Five more minutes for questions followed each presentation, while a prominent countdown clock marshaled the time.

The ideas introduced by this group of Harvard and MIT researchers spanned topics as varied as multiverses and optigenetics. These engaging speakers dipped into the origins of life, the roadblocks of rote learning and the reason why we might be able to call our era the most peaceful of the human species’ existence.

Two main themes seemed to crop up several times in the discussion: the search for life in the universe, and the importance of innovative learning.

Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT, introduced the idea of multiverses and suggested that our universe could be one among many. A few minutes later, MIT Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences professor Sara Seager talked about the search for other earths and signs of life. As for discovering what’s out there, she said “We’re on the verge,” and added that there are probably billions of other planets in our galaxy. It’s only a matter of time before we find them.

Searching for life isn’t always so far-flung: Harvard biology professor Colleen Cavanaugh sees humans as a kind of habitat for other, smaller forms of life called microbes. Within the body’s 100 trillion cells, microbes like bacteria flourish. Whether harmful or helpful, these bacteria in our bodies mean—as Cavanaugh puts it—that we are not alone.

Moving beyond the search for life both big and small, a different cohort of researchers gave talks that related to learning. Sanjoy Mahajan, Associate Director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory, started his presentation by encouraging deviance. “It’s best not to follow the rules,” he said, and went on to introduce the idea of “street-fighting mathematics.”  This approach to math education encourages thinking on your feet and estimating instead of memorizing formulas and multiplication tables.

MIT mechanical engineering lecturer Amy Smith pushed this idea of learning further, and talked about “creative capacity building.” Her work in Uganda attempts to change a culture of dependency into one of innovation, where people are provided with the tools to build their own small technologies like corncob cutters and sugar cane presses. “This is the way kids should learn,” she said, sharing her view that training schoolchildren in Uganda to think and create should trump efforts at education that hinge on memorization.

From these five brief discussions, only half of Friday’s offerings (find summaries of all topics here) a search for life and a push for creative education shared the stage. These two themes on the eve of the Festival ushered in a few of its valuable broader aims: using science to reach beyond our current limits, and to think broadly about new possibilities.

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