Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ego, Disease, and Brawn: NetLogo Models of Ethnocentrism, Virus, and Muscles

Seeing as everyone seems to be so hyped up on the Swine Flu epidemic, Bommi, Kapeesh, and I decided to explore the Virus model. There are sliders for the number of people, the infectiousness of the virus, chance recovery rate, and the duration of the sickness. Following the extending the model instruction, we added sliders for the carrying capacity of the population as well as the average lifespan of the people in the model. Population density as determined by the people slider had a great effect on the contagiousness of the virus. When population density was really low, about 20, almost everyone remained healthy and eventually the infected person died and left the population disease free. When other variables remain the same, and population is increased to about 225, the population oscillates between a high level of infection and a low level of infection for the first 175 weeks. At this point, I was surprised to find that the levels of infected people, healthy people, and immune people eventually plateaued at stable rates; the number of healthy people being 1/5 that of the infected population. It is interesting to consider population density in the context of developing countries-- in particular India and parts of Africa like Zimbabwe--where the population density is extremely high and levels of infection are also high. The next step for me, if I were to continue to alter this model would be to add the variable of whether or not one knew of their viral condition, similar to the "getting tested" slider on the AIDS model.

We next looked at a model for muscle development...seeing as all of us are so naturally brawn rather than brain oriented. The most intriguing part of this model was the section that addressed the question of genetic ability that factors into the development of muscle fiber. One is born with a set number of slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Slow-twitch fibers allow for greater endurance whereas fast-twitch fibers allow for greater overall mass and strength. Consequently, when percentage of slow-twitch fibers is set at 90%, the level of intensity can be set high at 90% and the maximum interval of days between exercise is 5 days with 8 hours of sleep. The anabolic environment (green background, muscle building) is highest at this level however the muscle mass plateaus as shown by the relatively small diameter of red circles representing muscle fiber. Conversely, when slow-twitch fibers was set at 10%, the muscle mass was high but the intensity of the workout had to be lowered greatly in order to compensate for the individual's low endurance.

The Ethnocentrism model is essentially a model to represents the classic Prisoner's Dilemma using many more variables including the cost of giving, the gain of receiving, and the probability that an immigrant will cooperate with someone different from him or of the same background as him. Most variables create the expected results: if one raises the cost of giving, the number of people willing to cooperate drops quickly, whereas if one raises the gain of receiving, everyone starts cooperating. If the level of cooperation drops low enough--because either of these variables are at extremes--than the population will slowly start to die off. The most interesting variable in this model which I did not account for before was the mutation slider that changes the likelihood of mutation across generations. When mutation is low, as is the case with our current society, then populations will progressively become more segregated and cooperate only with those of their kind, or those who they can gain from. Cross-ethnicity cooperation is low. However, if you leave all the other variables untouched in the same conditions, and then raise the mutation rate, the population will become more and more integrated as offspring are not learning which groups to cooperate and defect from, but they must re-learn ethnocentrism anew.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Emerging Creativity: NetLogo and all those extra turtles.

To Mindstorms and Beyond

"All through her creative process, she was mindful of the most natural and comfortable design for the actual use of the device. As an added bonus, she programmed the Cricket to play music while one would get their nails done. Her project, even though may not have appeared technical or scientific at first, had much science, engineering, industrial and artistic design. These types of projects present an excellent path into and preparation for scientific thinking." (Martin et al. pp. 13-14)

The quote above refers to one child's endeavor to create a nail salon using the tools she had learned from LOGO. It emphasizes not only her ability to logically think about the processes involved in her creation--ranging from the types of sensors she needed to use to detect hand presence to the most efficacious motion of the buffer cotton--but also, the project required that she used creativity to generate ideas for alternate uses of technology and the skills she was learning. I recently watched a video on TED by Ken Robinson about how schools are crushing creativity in exchange for teaching skills. While the chicken and egg discussion could be had in reference to fact/skill learning, there is something to be said about learning creativity. Again, this balance needs to be struck between concrete and abstract knowledge.

James Flynn attributes the "Flynn effect" (rising IQ scores in the 20th century) to the shift from concrete practical knowledge during pre-scientific revolution to abstract ideas post-scientific revolution. However, he also notes that if one was to have a person from the 1950s and a modern day person---each without knowledge of a car--fix a motor, it is likely that the 1950s participant would succeed due to his concrete knowledge. This idea, to me, reflects the use of LOGO and NetLOGO as a way of returning to concrete knowledge behind the black box of a computer. In this way, the computer itself can be broken down to its constituent parts. However, Flynn also argues that the reason why modern society has been able to move on to abstract thinking (assuming that we believe that abstract formal knowledge is more "advanced" than concrete practical knowledge) is because concrete knowledge is already being performed for us by technology. So, the question remains, to what extent do we need to dissect the black box if the black box allows us to think a step further? Or, can we even get to that next step if we do not know how the black box came to the "simple" conclusion first?

Thinking in Levels

"However, as long as students hold tightly to the deterministic mindset, they will never develop a complete understanding of “emergent levels,” since they will miss the key role that randomness plays in the mechanisms of emergence" (Wilensky & Resnick, 10)

While I agree with Wilensky and Resnick that emergent levels are a good way to conceptualize larger phenomena, I'm wondering about the ways in which emergent systems could be applied to other subjects. Could it be applied to literature or a field where individual entities are not self-governing? In many ways, teachers already take an emergent approach to teaching writing, as they focus first on the individual cells (words) and then the larger phenomenon (the paragraph, the essay). These concepts are not hierarchically learned but rather learned in levels of parts and a whole. The most intriguing element of using NetLogo models for studying real world phenomena to me is still the element of the unexpected, the randomness component. When creating a model of a larger phenomenon it is easier to enforce what one thinks will happen, however when each individual turtle is given simple rules, unexpected phenomena will emerge.

Moreover, I wonder about how this ideal would be implemented in collectivistic cultures? Would it be more accepted across the board merely because collectivistic societies already see communities as the individual entity working for the good of the whole?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tangible Tech

Eisenberg attempts to develop Mindstorms a step further by suggesting not only integrating computers into life like Papert first suggested, but rather by integrating computers and technology back into the tangible environment of life. He suggests ways in which designers should aim to make programmable glow in the dark string that the child himself could program to change color on his wall. Or the use of memory metal to make new shapes at certain temperatures. It is an attempt to make the tangible world of the child into a “Mathland” that Papert first advocated, not only on the computer screen, but literally outside “the box.” I like the idea that technology can be integrated into the cuddly “security blankets” that children carry around with them because they can’t bear to separate from them. I know that I got particularly attached to my yellow turtle, cow, and clam in my Microworld program.

Moreover, there has actually been considerable research suggesting the importance of tangible objects in a young child’s world—in particular, blocks—that support Einsenberg’s suggestion to integrate technology into fabrication tools. Blocks aid a child’s cognitive and physical development. They allow a child to not only deconstruct a larger idea but also construct a new idea from base elements. Unit blocks such as the ones Einsenberg talks of have been shown to be important tools for children to symbolically represent themselves and their limitations within the world.

However, with the addition of technology, the children will be able to transcend these limitations in ways that will help them to realize impossibilities that may soon, with the aid of technology, become realities. Perhaps, a child exploring ideas of balance and gravity may become an avid astronaut but is currently too tethered to the realities of gravity on earth to imagine the possibilities that exist outside his current environment. Thus, I agree with Einsenberg that as education moves toward integrating technology into its curriculum, it is integral to fabricate tangible counterparts for the ideas explored on screen, just as the original turtle existed as a robot that could be touched, held, and moved manually and electronically. In particular, I remember using blocks of various lengths to illustrate algebraic models and it helped me to understand how an “x” could be multiplied to create an x2 square or an x3 cube.

Edwards spends a significant amount of his article discussing language that surrounds microworlds, as they have been said to “represent” and “embody” elements of mathematical and scientific ideas. While Eisenberg discusses the importance of a microworld as being a controlled environment where rules pervade and experimental error can be more or less be controlled for, Edwards finds microworlds to sometimes be limiting. He quotes diSessa as explaining the importance of discovery in a microworld: “As diSessa has noted (diSessa, 1982), it is during moments of surprise, when the unexpected happens, that the power of a microworld is most apparent” (67). Consequently Edwards reprimands programs like Geometer’s sketchpad because it has pull down menus from which children can automatically create triangles and squares instead of programming them. However, Edwards fails to mention that the purpose of that program was to discover more advanced geometry principles, and in this way it helps streamline the learning if triangles and squares can be created simply so that angles, rotations, and transformations can be explored.

While I agree with Edwards that computer programs disguised as games can be great ways for children to learn, I would advocate Eisenberg’s idea of fabricated tools to help that cognitive development. Edwards himself talks about the importance of kinesthetic cognition, and as a dancer, I am not one to argue. Lastly, Edwards brings up a great point about the calculator as a potential tool for exploration. While it was originally set up to make more complicated calculations simpler, children who discovered the factorial button outstretched the borders of their current knowledge. This idea of using tools in alternative ways is something that should be advocated in learning, not reprimanded.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

À la tour Eiffel

Tribute to La Tour Eiffel.
When the temperature sensor on our Gogoboard got hot enough, Mr. Turtle turned yellow
and retreated to the top of the tour where he'd shine every hour on the hour.
Inspired by the light I'd see every night brushing my teeth when I was abroad.

Big Idea: Technology in Education

I have always been an avid supporter of teaching processes for solving problems in school rather than teaching facts that can be recited when called upon. It probably has something to do with how I was taught early in elementary school to "discover" the ways in which a problem could be solved. I remember figuring out key algebraic equations using blocks that represented an "x" quantity and a "y" quantity. However, I quickly found that it is useful to be able to quickly recall some core bits of knowledge if I was to move forward in learning concepts, or what Papert calls, "Big Ideas." Consequently, I struggled in high school to exercise my "memorization" muscle in order to concentrate on the next steps of the problem solving process.

However-- the fault I find in teaching processes is that with the way that children are taught to learn and to test, children will apply the process of memorization to the processes they have learned. The main fault being that while they may have "discovered" the process in the first place, and therefore gained syntonic knowledge over alienated or dissociated knowledge, they still are not generating new processes. Assuming that tests remain the best way to assess a child's learning (which I don't believe they are), a child will have to learn to assimilate the process he discovered using the memorization technique he used to apply to facts. Thus, in teaching processes have we, as educators, in fact escaped the problem of memorization?

To extrapolate this idea to programming computers--I can understand how LOGO would be a great way to teach logic as a line of command will always result in the same outcome. One can rely on its stability as a concept. The big idea being that a child is able to discover the meaning of "zero" in a hands-on way. Yet, is the straight forward input-output model the best way to approach learning seeing as this model does not reflect problem-solving in the real world. There are times when certain actions (inputs) do not lead to the same results (outputs). This is where the role of the teacher is paramount. The teacher accommodates for the fact that a child may think differently and therefore may come up with multiple different ways of solving an equation. It is this teacher who allows the child to write in an answer and explain his reasoning in a multiple choice test if none of the a,b, c, or d answers appeal to him--of course, the answer being within reason. In this way, a child can learn facts, processes, but also ways of imagining new approaches and new processes to solve problems. That is what our education system needs to aim to accomplish: a step away from memorization and a way of valuing the answers that fall in between the lines of a five paragraph essay rather than the ones that fit into age-old models. The question remains; at what point does an educator allow the child this freedom, when does she remove the scaffolding to see whether he can stand on his own.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Balance: Inspired by Papert's "Gears" Essay

I do not spend a lot of time sitting. I have never been the type of person who could sit still in one position for very long. I was always moving, changing, and restructuring my position. As I write this, I have already changed my position, twice. It may seem odd then, that a chair could have such an impact on my cognitive development. However, upon reflection, the chair may have worked in ways unknown to me until now.

When I was young, I did not play with toy objects very often. I was an only child who was occupied most of time by playing with other people—older people—or my stuffed animals, who were also people to me at the time. Consequently, I learned at an early age how to be interested in conversations that were well beyond my understanding, or at least feign interest in them anyhow. I was fascinated in the relationships (both spoken and unspoken) between people around me. My world became a whole network of people and their respective relationships. I learned to contextualize myself within my surroundings and by my own relations with others. And I tried to learn, to sit, while the conversation proceeded. I learned to sit, or rather recline, in this one chair in my living room.

The chair is a sleek, black, modern recliner in the style of a Scandinavian design. It is beautiful and well beyond my young aesthetic competencies. When people first set eyes on it, they immediately want to sit in it, and lament, “Well doc, let me tell you…” Something about the chair invites a sort of psychoanalytic feel; friends of mine, when I got older, referred to it as “The Psychologist Chair.” It amuses me now that here I am, doing research and majoring in Psychology at one of the greatest research universities in the nation. Yet, I am inclined to think that this recliner had more of an influence on my reasoning skills and my overall development of thought processes than its obvious connection to Psychology.

The chair is not your average recliner. It can adjust to accommodate different levels of reclining; however, in my youth I had to employ all my strength in order to slightly budge this seemingly immutable object. If I wanted to shift the chair, I really had to commit to the endeavor! I quickly learned, however, that there was a limit to my abilities to shift the chair one way or the other. There was a balance that had to be struck. When I pushed on the foot end of the chair the head end would react in a certain predictable way. However, if there was a third factor obstructing motion—say, a person sitting on the chair—the trajectory of movement of the chair would be greatly altered. This elementary interest in this chair later led to my investment in other types of causal relationships both in the social domain as well as a spatial domain. Now, as an undergraduate, I am interested in the correlations between observable events as well as unobservable occurrences. What drives a person to suffer through an initiation process they don’t truly believe in, in order to be a part of a group? What is the neural basis for this decision and how can it be contextualized by the social situation? Furthermore, how are children taught to ascribe to these codified ideals of how to sit, walk, learn, and dance?

I should also mention I am a dancer. I have danced for the majority of my lifetime. My kinesthetic intelligence has greatly affected the way I view even analytical problems. Consequently, I think that this conception of balance played a large role in my understanding of other correlations. When a change occurs in my environment I am always interested in finding the source of the change. Whether a physical or social change, I learned from watching this chair balance that every action had a counter reaction. Kudos to Newton's Third Law. The notion could even be abstracted to ideas of chemistry suggesting that when pressure increases density must also increase. My way of understanding space and time became dictated by my notions of dance and the way that these two elements synergistically collaborate to create art. I believe in art and its power to provoke change. My creative sensibilities have definitely dictated the way that I approach problem solving now.

This concept of change, revision, balance, and homeostasis were all inspired by my lack of ability to sit still and be complacent in that one lovely recliner. This has developed into my constant struggle to ameliorate situations; complacency was never an option for me. In many ways, I view my life and my education as a entity of balance. A balance that is constantly changing and evolving to reflect the conditions of its environment.