The art of education.

The photograph is that of the students at the Ahmedabad University, a new private university that is creating opportunities by bringing in multi-disciplinary and inclusive skills to students. Here are the students showing off their work, education in practice, solving real problems like pollution, water and social issues, to visitors. How often have you seen students so happy?

Education is an exponentially evolving field, more so now then ever before. Needless to say that it is a very very serious business too, with the future of civilization being in how and what the students learn. At any given time, there are a large number of new ideas and a constant struggle between the old and the new.

When I was a PhD student, computers were quite new, Physical Research Laboratory had just bought some new apple servers. Internet was just a few years old. I had a very amazing supervisor Dr. Sitaram who was the wizard, not only of theory but also of computing. There were a large number of people who doubted the power of computation in learning and saw computers as a menace rather than an aid. Now when I see the range of computers and internet in education, the past feels like the stone-age.

Do you have an experience where some ideas looked impractical but turned out to dominate the field despite the common consensus?

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From Kabir

Here is one (not quite exact) translation of a verse from Kabir. Interestingly it reads quite a bit like Zen writings.

When I had an ego

There was no teacher

Now there is teacher

I am not there

The path of love

is very narrow

two can’t walk it.



Learning while teaching

So I was walking in the class one day. Looking at how students are making progress in their work when I see this bright student, hunched down, trying to evade thinking about the work at hand and distract themselves and their group with other trivia. I stand beside them, pick up the knitting which is their constant companion and possibly a selected stress buster activity, discuss the piece with them, appreciate it, linger a little more and ask, “Is Mathematica behaving ?” They seem to de-stress a bit, the problem is with Mathematica not them. It is the software that is being dumb, not them.

I had asked this question because I had seen them previously put mathematical as the lowest point (way down below the white-board, somewhere near the ground) in the previous project. We look at the code together, they appear to have done everything right. The answer from Mathematica is {}, Instead of a list of two functions. I am fond of this student, they understand math well and love working with whacky symbols. In an earlier interaction they had come up with a nice visualization of a mathematical system. I also remember that they with a friend had invented a bunch of novel symbols with which they had programmed Mathematica in the previous project  (which was the major reason for Mathematica confusion and their pain). I try to rewrite some of the Greek symbols as alphanumeric and arrange brackets, run a simple test. The test gives correct result, the problem at hand still outputs {}. Then they remember  that they have seen two theta symbols behave differently, we replace one of the symbols and voila, the solution appears.

The group chimes together, Mathematica just tells you, you are wrong but not where you went wrong, that is so annoying. I tell them we should shoot a mail to Wolfram, and request them to update Mathematica so that it gives feedback.

This exchange is particularly interesting and amusing to me because during the previous project, the group leader had to make an impassioned appeal to the class to provide feedback on the course so that required course correction can be made.  Feedbacks are important, from the coding platform or from the class. They play a very useful role in course correction.

   This particular group had been struggling before too. They had written an equation

 \hat{i} =  \sin(\theta).

I asked them how can a vector be equal to a number ? so they corrected it to

 \hat{i}  = sin(\theta) \hat{\phi},

 I again point out that magnitudes of both sides do not equal, so they write the correct standard formula for rotation of basis but say they are not sure how to verify it, I show them two ways of doing it “either put various angle values to check that the equality makes sense, or use geometry”. They seem to be satisfied with it and start working in the right direction.

Story of Nachiketa

One of the best part of childhood was to listen to mythological stories. One of my favorite stories was that of Nachiketa, the curious child. I shall narrate it here as I remember it, I believe there are many different versions of this story and mine is by no means authentic.

Many years ago there was a small boy named Nachiketa. He was very curious and wanted to understand a lot and loved to ask questions. His questions usually happened to be deeply philosophical. One thing he really wanted to find out, was what is the nature of the soul. Someone told him that the only person who can explain what soul is, is the god of death “Yama” himself.

So little Nachiketa decided to visit Yama and find out. He prayed and prayed (or may be traveled through a difficult path :)) till Yama was appeased and granted him a wish. Nachiketa asked the question that had been bothering him, “please explain to me, what is the soul?”. Yama tried to divert the boy to other things but Nachiketa was decided, he wanted his particular question to be answered. Finally Yama said that he is not allowed to explain to Nachiketa what is a soul, but what he can do instead is to tell him what soul isn’t.

Thus Yama started enlisting the number of things that a soul isn’t, “It is not body, it is not thoughts, it is not heart,…” etc. etc.. Then the story teller would tell me that the list is still not over. Yama keeps on going, saying Neti Neti (Na-ti which in sanskrit means, not this).

I like this story especially as it impressively demonstrates the futility of definition by negation in an un-bounded universe.

The Expo Day

It was a nice sunny Sunday yesterday when I took a walk in the Expo at the Ahmedabad University and had a great time talking to various student teams.

Arduino and robots, fun in the Sun

Enigma oh yea….sss, a prototype of the famous WWII encryptor

The CPU for the Carbon Cafe

The carbon cafe measured the carbon footprints of various habits like food and travel. The cafe was very busy but I got a chance to say hi to the students doing the cafe calculations.

Extreme weather all over the globe.

A team had mapped extreme weather events all over the globe. The volunteer was very enthusiastic and quite knowledgeable.

I took dozens of photos and videos but even after two hours I had visited only about half of the teams. A morning very well spent. Good work ISP team.

Tech Enabled Education

Tech enabled education

Trialogue

When some of the online tools and resources are used in the classroom, the student experience becomes quite rich. Following are screenshots from some of my courses

mech-moodle1

I made my lectures available on moodle which is a course management software, and made them available on the internet to everyone, not just my class. There was a discussion forum for students to interact and ask questions and all course related material, including attendance and grading was available from anywhere.

emt-moodle1

It was possible to give quizzes which were flexible in the sense that students got randomly selected questions from a question bank and could answer the quiz on their mobile phones. The quizzes got corrected instantly and could be accessed by students from anywhere.

Interesting open source resources made the courses interesting. I used quite a bit of media from wikipedia. The rewards kept coming in interesting ways. My favorite is that…

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Designs in Action

Affordable designs in action

Trialogue

We had been debating pros and cons of getting students work away from home.

  • It makes them connect and work with new environments and cultures, against it increases the responsibility of faculty members for students wellbeing.
  • It makes them independent versus how do we enforce discipline?

So when the opportunity presented to accompany the Olin colleges ADE (Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship)  team at their “cycle-rickshaw project” site we happily grabbed it. Prafullbhai, the then VC of the Ahmedabad University was very upbeat about learning from the experts and gave us all necessary support.  I am glad we did, because the experience was amazing.

worling-hands-on-1

One cold winter morning, I found myself waiting at the airport for one of the team members, the chirpy and irrepressible Radhika, after I picked her up, chatting about books from Rand to Tolstoy, we draw down to one of the tiny streets of the…

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