28 May 2011

Will Chancellor Martin Make Peace?

Photo by Eric E. Johnson
The Wisconsin State Journal reported yesterday that the proposal to split UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin System is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Several key legislators have publicly stated that the proposal will be stripped from the biennial budget and the Madison campus will remain a part of the greater University of Wisconsin.


Thankfully, Chancellor Martin appears to be accepting this development with some dignity (rather than accepting a better paying position at another university, for example, and suggesting on her way out the door that this is what happens when people don’t listen to her). In response to the legislators who claim to remain interested in administrative reform, Chancellor Martin said, “I'm focused on ensuring that these flexibilities, as we call them, that all the campuses get are actually still meaningful when the vote is taken.”

Did you catch that? Yes, she said it. All campuses.

It’s about friggin’ time.

13 May 2011

A (Scientific) Miracle on Graduation Day

UC Berkeley, College of Engineering

I wanted to share this story as a follow up to my recent post on the creativity and imagination inherent, yet under-acknowledged, in the STEM fields. I suggest taking a look at the article in full.

Austin Whitney, a young man paralyzed in a 2007 alcohol-related car accident, will graduate from UC Berkeley this weekend. Along with his classmates, he will cross the dais, accept his diploma, and shake hands with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. And, again like his classmates, he will do it on foot.

Thanks to some remarkable innovations developed by mechanical engineering faculty and graduate students, Austin will be able to walk across the stage with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. The research and achievement themselves are remarkable but I thought it was worth noting that the team behind this breakthrough have made it clear that research and design in this case have not been an exercise in knowledge and progress "for their own sake."

Throughout the research and design process, which Austin has participated in for the last several years, the team has focused on questions of usability, reliability, and affordability. They weren’t simply focused on making the fanciest contraption possible and adding lines to their resumes. The temptation to flex some design muscle was there of course and at least one of the researchers acknowledged the challenge of avoiding over-engineering. But, as another researcher explained, “Our goal was to create a workhorse device able to faithfully handle the most essential tasks of daily life.”

The result, Austin said, is “much more than just steel and circuits – it has been built with compassion and a great devotion to the idea of touching lives all around this world.”

It’s just one more example of the way in which university-based research – including work in the STEM fields – is not, at least not when it is at its best, about useless abstractions and journal publications. The great innovators and practitioners on campuses around the world work tirelessly to balance the purely intellectual value of new knowledge and technology against other, very human concerns. They do it with a deep-seated desire to make the world a better place… not on paper or in the lab but in the lives of real people and communities. For that, I believe, they deserve more credit than they get.

And, by the way, can I get a “GO BEARS!?”

* * *

Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2011. Where ever you are and whatever your field of study, accept your degree and celebrate your achievement with pride. (However, as Austin Whitney would remind you, please celebrate responsibly and safely.) As you head out for your next venture, take the best traditions of higher learning with you. You never know… by combining your knowledge and achievement with creativity, compassion, and a desire to accomplish meaningful and relevant things outside of yourself, you might perform something close to a miracle.

09 May 2011

Relevance & Empathy

John Dewey
(Andre Koehne, 2006)
Somewhere between my first survey course in the history of American education in 2007 and my last seminar, Classics in Education, in the spring of 2011, I’ve developed a fondness for John Dewey. I’m not necessarily a Deweyan expert nor do I think he always gets things right. But, I nevertheless find myself frequently offering commentaries like, “This is what John Dewey was saying when he wrote….” My wife reeeally likes it when I bring Dewey to the dinner table. I just can’t help myself. It’s hard for me to disagree with someone who believes that education is on-going. That it’s a process. And that, above all, it is experiential.

Experience & Education (1939) is one of my favorite works by Dewey. In it he attempts to explain that education through experience (i.e., “learning by doing”) is only one part of effective and meaningful learning. Educators must also concern themselves with education as an experience. Traditionally, this argument translates into discussions of learning environments where topics and activities are stimulating, age-appropriate, and presented to learners in a way that resonates with them. Education and schools – as experiences unto themselves – ought to be relevant to the learners.

In the past week, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to another issue of relevance in education. Materials, tasks, and the environment, need to have appeal and relevance for students but educators are part of the learning experience too. Teachers need to make themselves relevant to their students’ experience.