The other day I was reading an article, waiting for Curiousity to set-down on Mars. The author described two types of learners. Not there are only two types, but the author had identified two specific types of learners, “Novice” and “Advanced.”
Suppose the nature of a project is to build the 2nd Generation Mars Rover. Engineers, geologists, chemists, physicists, whoever, gather to design and discuss the component details. Over the following 6 years the “iRover 2” evolves. Prototypes are built. Components designed, engineered, and fabricated. Software written. Problems and dilemmas addressed and solved.
August of 2019 sees three new rovers rolling over the Martian terrain capturing data in unprecedented detail. New cameras, new optics, new compression algorithms, new and robust materials reduce weight yet strengthen these new Rovers, Larry, Moe, and Curly. Larry, Moe, and Curly are semi-intelligent (like their namesakes) but unlike their namesakes, using the latest in state-of-the-art GPS and LiDAR for land navigation and route-finding, augmented by a flock of Albatross-class Mars drones capable of flying aloft for years collecting atmospheric aerosols and moderate-resolution LiDAR data.
NASA in 2019, as in 2012, finds unparalleled success in these endeavors. Costs have been minimized while the results are simply phenomenal. The scientific community revels in the unprecedented success of the scale and complexity of the Martian ecosystem of robotic vehicles charting our neighboring planet.
Yet, some are not enthusiastic. Engineers, chemists, computer scientists speak out against any more investment in Mars.
What did we really achieve? they ask.
Too much money was spent on these sexy missions with no real tangible benefits.
Yes, I helped write code; yes, I helped design and fabricate materials; yes, some new alloys and processes were used to improve strength and radiation shielding.
Could not the funds have been better spent on something else?
Those are some paraphrased responses I either read or heard in subsequent to the successful Curiosity landing. Those also tend to exemplify the voices of those who fall into the “Novice” learner category
Enthusiastic folks intoxicated by the Rube Goldberg inspired deployment of Curiosity see … the future. By the future, I mean “possibilities” and “potential” for growth in all sorts of new and unique fields. The commercial and industrial applications of Science, Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry fill adult minds with child-like fervor.
Every molecule of sweat equity poured into Curiosity translates lessons learned.
How much did we, and be we I mean Humanity in the form of NASA employees, engineers and the lot who all chipped into to make Curiosity a success, learn from our experience? How much will we learn? Whatever we learn from Curiosity may pale in comparison to what has already been achieved in simply getting a 1,500lb remote-controlled vehicle across 535 million miles of space and safely down and operational on another planet.
Advanced learners do not only see the problem, or task, at hand. Advanced learners see the task as an opportunity to learn something about the process. Even though Curiosity landed August 2012, the technology built into Curiosity was benchmarked to 2004. Like the Space Shuttles. I had more computing in my personal computer than at least two Space Shuttles. Perhaps all of the them.
But, Advanced Learners are not merely concerned with the nature of the task at hand. No, the entire process becomes an ecosystem for learning. Organizing teams, leadership, team management, the “human-side” of technology is only one part of the system. The technology, the engineering, and all of the other sciences come into play. What did we learn about what worked? Why did it work, and work so well? What did we learn about what broke? Why did it break? Now, and this is the key point, how can we take the sum total of our experience, both the tangibles and intangibles, and apply our ecosystem of knowledge to new and different problems?
But, to be an Advanced Learner does not mean putting a remote-controlled laser-arm buggy on a distance planet. To be an Advanced Learner one only needs to look around, really.
Curiosity is not about exploring Mars
Here is an article from Floating Sheep about a group of college students who mapped tweets. What has mapping tweets to do with anything other than tweets, beer, and church?
Floating Sheep are a team of geographers. One of the team corralled some students and they all learned how to use the Twitter API and pull out geo-located tweets. The tweets of interest fell into two specific groups, those which dealt with “beer,” and those which dealt with “church.” A marvelous idea on the surface and as the article suggests a great way to introduce students to spatial statistics and research.
As I pitched this idea around, I discovered many folks who didn’t see the need to map both “beer” and “church.” Almost to a person, no one really saw the need to map beer and church and the inherent spatial auto-correlation between the two.
The mapping project was not about “beer” and “church” just like putting Curiosity on Mars was not really about putting Curiosity on Mars. These are not simply Proofs of Concepts, these are Proofs of Fruition, the fruition of hopes, dreams, and ideas made manifest. The maps of “beer” and “church” could have easily have been about “beer” and “DUIs” or “tequila” and “pregnancy” (I’d like to see that spatial auto-correlation). On a more serious note, the maps could have been about “weapons” and “dark knight” or “shoot” and “Obama.”
Learning how to map the relationship between beer and church is not about mapping the relationship between beer and church. That is a side-effect, a by-product.
Curiosity is not about exploring Mars; that is a by-product. Everything which went into developing Curiosity was the real reward. The International Space Station is not about the International Space Station.
All of these endeavors are about putting our minds to work in uniquely challenging ways and expanding our potential to continue putting our minds to work in uniquely challenging ways.