Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Informed and Engaged (from Director's Notes, INSGC Observer)

This morning, I made some people happy.  Because INSGC was one of the sponsors of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture on September 19 (see other stories, this issue), I was (unexpectedly) provided with some additional tickets for the lecture.  Two members of the staff in my IE department had asked if I might be able to find them a seat, and I brought them the tickets this morning.  What pleased and enthused me the most is the level of excitement and pleasure they demonstrated when receiving the tickets. 

This is a great example of the positive experience that we at INSGC can bring to others when we support opportunities for STEM engagement.  As I have previously mentioned in my Director’s Blog (http://insgc-bc.blogspot.com/2013/08/locally-grown.html), the challenge may in fact be to identify what do our customers / prospective partners / students want to learn, do, or share.  Sometimes it is about going out to them; other times, it’s bringing them in to help us understand what excites them.  One INSGC-led project is attempting to take this approach within the context of a “research experiences for teachers” project.  Research (to me) is a grand exploration and scouting process.  There is a process of providing information about facts and formulae and functions, but real research is not just about piling those facts up.  It’s about having tools to go out and solve problems, and make sense of a context that you didn’t previously understand… perhaps a context no one has previously understood.   The process of education is not a passive one, as most inspired (and inspiring) teachers will tell you.  In my research group’s blog (http://grouperlab.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/eaten-up-with-curiosity/) , I recently wrote about being “eaten up with curiosity,” as Rudyard Kipling described Rikki-Tikki the mongoose. 

So, what does that sort of experience look like—the well-informed, effectively-engaged, continuously curious citizen as researcher?  Well, we have a historical grand exploration and scouting process, which set out from Indiana (Clarksville) in October 1803: The Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark.  Now, you would never send out people into the vast unexplored wilderness unprovisioned.  For the Corps, it was medicine and gunpowder and cartography equipment and notebooks: things to go exploring, and make notes, and bring back descriptions of what you found.  For an informed, engaged person, the provisions of research are equally important: analysis skills, mathematical techniques, understanding of physical properties and laws.  But no one would confuse the provisions for the expedition.  They are simply tools to allow you to do a better job exploring.  What’s out there?  What do we want to know?  How do we bring that experience back to others?  That’s a bit harder, especially when the territory is vast and your experience is greatly limited.  (There’s an ocean out there, or some magical destination that may or may not really exist.  Even after the Corps returned, it was hard for most people to believe things like the Badlands, or the Rockies, or the herds of bison, really existed—the explorers had experienced things far outside of the previous experience of those in the United States in 1806.)  And this is always a challenge of the researcher.  How do you share what you’ve seen and learned with others?

That is one way that I appreciate and enjoy Dr. Tyson: he engages people to do the exploration that they can, and he provides them with provisions to do more exploration if they choose.  The stories are accessible, and interesting, and entertainingly presented.  And it helps that stars are visible to lots of us, and we want to tell stories about them.  But Dr. Tyson doesn’t just entertain.  His informative examples are also powerful tools and provisions, useful for a journey of discovery.  I have come to see how vitally important it is to find out which exploration journey a person wants to take, and provision them for that journey, as well as other potential journeys and side trips not yet envisioned.  (One challenge that a high school teacher has, that I don’t have in my university lectures, is that I can make a better guess as to the range of journeys that an Industrial Engineering undergrad will be ready to take after I have tried to provision them with project design or statistics.  It’s still a pretty large range of journeys, so I better make sure my provisions will last, and they don’t leak away or rot over the years to come.) 

I love the process of exploration.  Through my career I have noted that more information, about more subjects, means more provisions that help me discover and document and describe more about those territories I encounter along the way.  Sometimes the information is challenging and new, but that’s okay.  Skis and snowshoes don’t seem to be that useful along the Ohio River in September and October, but I can be glad to acquire them along the way to North Dakota, or learn how to make them when I need them.  If it is our job to teach the excitement of exploration, and not just the excitement a specific person has for a specific subject, there is an added responsibility to learn about a variety of journeys, and get people ready and well-provisioned for those.  I’m pleased that INSGC is able to help with West Lafayette events this fall that excite and engage both kids (Dr. Kaboom, Purdue Space Day) and adults (Dr. Tyson and other general public visits by astronauts).  A broad set of offerings provides our audiences with a range of information and a span of topics that increase the value for more people, regardless of their area of interest.  In other words, a rich stock of provisions for a explorers set off on a variety of journeys of discovery and experience. 


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