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Archive for Problem solving

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

What a Great Gathering!

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

This past weekend I made my bi-annual trek to the Gathering for Gardner, a four day celebration of recreational intellectualism held in honor of Martin Gardner, who was for many years the Mathematical Games columnist for Scientific American.  Martin is a hero to generations of mathematicians, magicians, metagrobologists (puzzle lovers), skeptics, Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum scholars, and assorted polymaths, this conference is a true “gathering of the clans”.  And yes, it is as amazing as it sounds.

Martin Gardner (still going strong at age 95) was a hero to my father; I have vivid childhood memories of the yellow jacketed Mathematical Carnival, Mathematical Circus, and Mathematical Magic Show books that he kept on his bookshelf.  One of my grand ambitions when we started Binary Arts/ThinkFun in 1985 was to someday meet Martin… and one of my proudest achievements has been that we developed Visual Brainstorms 2 with him.  I have visited Martin several times and we are friends… wow!

Making this experience video was a lot of fun, thanks to all who were included.  And, to read more about the G4G9 experience, read the blog post from our own ThinkFun Puzzle Hunter, Tanya Thompson.

Categories : Problem solving
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FIRST Robotics Tournament

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

This past weekend I volunteered as a judge in the New Jersey Regional FIRST Robotics Tournament.  Sixty one teams competed, coming from as far away as Brazil.  The competition was played in three-team alliances, alliances playing against each other to shoot soccer balls through goals with some significant wrinkles thrown in.   The tournament lasts two full days.  Team objectives are to win the tournament and go on to the national championship, and also to compete for more than a dozen FIRST awards celebrating both technical achievement and team attributes.  These are presented at closing ceremonies each day.

The game rules this year were more different from past years than normal, which meant that veteran teams had to change their robots more, to make more fundamental design decisions, than what they were accustomed to.  Early rumors from the practice field were that teams were struggling, that a lot of things weren’t working… and the first matches were indeed low scoring without much action.  Some of us wondered whether the changes had gone too far, if and how the players could adapt during the course of competition.

These issues hit the judges square on during our Saturday working lunch, when we caucused about that day’s engineering quality awards.  What to do with well designed machines that met most of the criteria for an award, but that hadn’t worked on the field?  Would they be performing by day’s end or not?

We needn’t have worried.  Teams scouted the field to learn best practices, shared information, worked together, analyzed and adapted, and the quality of play went through the roof.  In the end the judges struggled this year with too much excellence, we had more teams deserving awards than we had awards to give.

We had grand debates as well.  Should the Entrepreneurship Award go to the young team with the big vision, the experienced team that was rededicating itself to greater service or the team whose written business plan most clearly articulated their plan?  Should the Quality award go to the simple machine that performed at outstanding levels, the more versatile robot that had mastered several game skills or the robot that had outstanding machine quality features but was average on pit quality & team integration?

In the end it was an outstanding experience all around.  If you want to discover the best of young America, get to know more about FIRST!

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