I've just watched a physics video that made me discover something important about myself. Had I better teachers growing up, I'd be a scientist now instead of a business technologist. I'm a little sad about it and need to vent.
Quick story: back in high school, when I was working with my counselor on where I would go to college and what I would study, I remember explaining how I wanted to be something called a business analyst, a very new career that I was just starting to read about. It combined my passion for computers (which I developed in junior high) with a passion to, one day, run my own business like my father.
My high school counselor, without looking up the career with which he was unfamiliar, strongly suggested I not pursue it. "You're only a B student in math. To be good at computers, you must not only take AP math courses (which I was) but also get As in them." He was an excellent high school counselor, even though he was genuinely intent to guide me away from my dream. There is no better way to motivate or push me harder than to tell me I'm not capable enough to do something I want to do.
Fast forward to college: I had a VERY fun time, so much so that, admittedly, I didn't apply myself as hard as I knew I could. (Quite an expensive way to have fun.) Undergrad life was just too much of a blast and the subject-matter and teachers were completely uninspiring, with one exception. I talked my dean and a professor teaching a graduate-level artificial intelligence class into letting me take the AI class. That I loved and aced (even though the neural network I built didn't work as an effective stock market picker). You see, when I was an undergrad, there wasn't any degree that allowed you to take both business and computer courses. You either got a computer science degree or a business degree, and I didn't have enough electives to fit in everything I wanted (while being required to take a bunch of worthless Liberal Arts classes). I didn't want pure CS (especially considering how long and to what extent I had been programming), but I also didn't want pure business. (T-accounts? Snore. My marketing class was so boring that my professor brought a pillow to every class which he would quietly insert under students' heads when he found them sleeping during lecture.) I talked the business school dean into letting me create my own degree, taking a combination of business and computer courses. Shortly before I graduated, because it was then clear business and computers were merging, my school formalized an MIS degree that combined both.
Over the years, I moved through a reasonably successful career of computers and business. But early in my career, I went back to get an MBA because I realized from working how many opportunities I missed to get educated in certain important areas. But this time I was going to take courses I wanted to take. About a month before graduating b-school, I was called into the office because I'd neglected to select a major. "Why do I need to declare a major?" I inquired. The administrator was stunned without an answer, until she finally came up with this: "Well, we have to know what to put on your diploma." I couldn't have cared less, but I asked her to look through the classes I'd taken to see if I had enough courses in any subject to declare a major. After looking through the computer, she told me I had enough courses in marketing and policy studies to declare a double major. "I want to major in marketing and policy studies," I responded. To this day, I still have no idea what policy studies means.
My affinity for computers was solely my own. No one ever encouraged me to pursue computers as a career. I don't have any regrets about the path taken. But over the years, as I've seen videos about science - especially physics - I've often wondered: what would have happened had I pursued science?
Free science school
Have you looked recently at all the amazing videos of college lectures available online for free? I browse through sites like MIT's Open Courseware and am blown away at the mammoth quantity and quality of lectures available. Why in the world does anyone even go to college anymore (other than to drink cheap beer and have fun)? The education you can gain from these videos is enormous. And the best part is you don't have to waste your time taking silly, wasteful courses that aren't of any interest to you or your career. (Don't give me that "well-rounded" crap for taking Liberal Arts courses. I won't even debate an argument that is completely without merit.)
Recently, I watched Professor of Physics Emeritus Walter Lewin's last lecture titled "For The Love of Physics." There isn't any doubt in my mind: had I teachers like him in high school, my career would have been in physics. Neither in high school nor in college did I take a physics course. Every science class I took, from grade school through high school, was boring. My teachers were uninspiring. The most fun I had was burning my science fair project during the science fair. (The room completely filled with smoke. People weren't happy.)
Professor Lewin is brilliant, and I don't just refer to his subject-matter knowledge. His ability to communicate concepts is amazing. It doesn't matter if you can't even spell science. I don't believe it's possible to walk away from watching his video and not be completely and utterly inspired. If you are a teacher, no matter what subject or for what age, you must watch this video. If it doesn't drive you to become a better teacher, you absolutely made the wrong career choice and need to get out immediately. This is how a good teacher performs. This is your standard of excellence.
Something you'll notice about his technique: he always supports his explanations with a demonstration. Why does the sky look blue while clouds appear white? Watch him demonstrate light scattering by smoking four cigarettes at the same time, keeping the smoke in his lungs for about thirty seconds (so the smoke particles become small water drops), and then blow it out (a "terrible demo" he calls it). Why does the sun look red? He creates a sun with sulfuric acid to show you. Why doesn't the heaviness of the weight (or bob) of the pendulum change the period, but the length does? Watch a 75-year old man swing on a pendulum (in pain) to demonstrate. It's amazing.
He claims his lectures were always different from the mean, and he attributes this to his eccentricity. As his lectures get viewed about 2 million times each year, perhaps we should substitute eccentricity testing for standardized testing. If it's possible to teach eccentricity, it should be a required course.
His regiment for preparation demonstrates both his love for the subject and his passion for getting his students to love physics. He says the average preparation time for each 1-hour lecture is about 40-60 hours. Two weeks before a lecture, he performs a dry run in an empty classroom with everything on the blackboard he intends to write. He lectures as if there is a full audience. Then he sharpens it. One week before the lecture, he dry runs it again. At 5:30 AM on the morning of the lecture, he goes to the classroom and dry runs it yet again. He then gives the lecture at 10 AM and 11 AM to students. If you're a teacher rolling your eyes at this point, you don't have what it takes.
At the end of the lecture, someone asked what advice he has for a student wanting to become a physicist. He answered: "You have to love it. And if you don't love it, don't touch it. And if you hate it, it is because you had a very bad teacher. I make every student, and not only at MIT, but all over the world, I make them love physics." I walked away from his one-hour lecture loving a subject I know nothing about.
With just a little exposure to these types of videos, your kids will want to pursue STEM
Margot Gerritsen, from Stanford University, starts off her lecture "Mathematics Gives You Wings" (during homecoming weekend!) thanking people for coming ("I'm very tickled that you're here") because she knows she's competing with a football game and the start of a baseball game. ("I'm keeping a very close eye on the time as I know the first pitch is at 4:57..."). She wants to get everyone out before then so as to not keep people from what they otherwise enjoy.
I couldn't help but to shake my head. Here she is discussing why, at the surface (boundary layer) of an airplane wing, the air isn't moving even though you're going 500 MPH, and that this produces an immense amount of force that lifts the plane... and there are people worried about missing the first pitch of a baseball game? Guys hitting a ball, running around a field, and getting paid more in one year than most scientists make in their lifetimes is more exciting than learning how a plane flies? Really?
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be made exciting with good teachers. You are learning about the rules that describe how the universe operates. You're trying out new ideas to see what works. You get to play - not mindless play: thinking play.
It was a waste of time, effort, and money to get an MBA. It improved my thinking skills a little, but I don't believe much. I didn't go to business school to learn business. I went because I wanted to learn about subjects I didn't know and thought would be useful and interesting. Which leads to something I just discovered about myself: although I don't have regrets, I now know I would have enjoyed science - especially physics - much more than business. Sure, I probably would have been frustrated about the lack of money, but it would have made me very happy. And who knows what I could have accomplished?
I don't blame my parents for their lack of direction (they had a child with cancer to deal with). I blame my teachers (and the overall public school system which hires and directs them). Had I teachers like Professor Lewin, my life would have been radically different. What can be done to motivate teachers like him to teach at a junior high or high school level? By college, it's too late. You were accepted into a particular major, which was decided long ago. We need teachers like him much, much earlier in life.
In my browser's bookmarks, I keep a folder called Learn Something New. Sadly, except for the occasional video about topics like the universe in a nutshell from the brilliant mind of Michio Kaku, I rarely take the time to explore it. (So much to learn, so little time.) The bookmarks include:
- Hippo Campus
- MIT OpenCourseWare | Physics | 8.01 Physics I: Classical Mechanics, Fall 1999
- Khan Academy
- Feynman 'Fun to Imagine' 1: Jiggling Atoms
- Academic Earth
- How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist
- Three Lectures by Hans Bethe
- Free Science and Video Lectures Online
- Astronomy 161 - Introduction to Solar System Astronomy
- Think Stats: Probability and Statistics for Programmers
- Motion Mountain - The Free Physics Textbook
- List of Free Science Books
- The Theoretical Minimum
It's said that you're never too old to learn. I would love to spend so much more time learning from all of these amazing, free resources. However, at this point in my life, I am able to readily summon all sorts of excuses as to why I can't allocate the time. Where's my high school counselor when I need him?
As someone who isn't a scientist, there was a single word that came to my mind as I watched Professor Lewin's video: romantic. (And it had nothing to do with him teaching why sunrises and sunsets are more beautiful when there is more pollution.) I imagined how romantic it would be to watch some of these videos with a woman who also appreciated learning. What could be more romantic than sharing a new learning with your significant other? Maybe it's just me - I happen to find knowledge sexy and incredibly stimulating. (Yes, I admit I'm a hard man to date.)
When his first questioner called it a "beautiful lecture," he didn't even remotely do it justice. Professor Lewin ended his last lecture with tears in his eyes after demonstrating his rocket. It brought tears to my eyes as well. With no one else in the room, I said "bravo" out loud.
If you prefer to spend most of your life in the pursuit of the non-substantial, the easy, the insignificant, the drone of the common, this will mean nothing to you. You needn't waste your time watching this. But for those of you who dream of the heroic, the seemingly magical, the sexiness of learning, the beauty of pure intellect...
Here's a box of tissues.