Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Unfinished business with India

Out of the destinations of my upcoming 13-week adventure (primary stops being India, Thailand, Singapore… more details later), I’m most excited about the Indian portion.  I don't know if I have a favorite place but India left the biggest impression on me.  My first trip there in May 2011 wasn't easy or even a very productive.   I barely could do any sightseeing because even the natives didn’t want to go out in the record breaking heat, I got sent home early with shingles without having the chance to buy any souvenirs or see the Taj Mahal which was one of my primary goals of the visit.  For my research, I was supposed to interview female students and professors about their interests in science.  I conducted many of these informally and learned a ton but it took a week to get access to a digital voice recorder with moldy batteries and multiple attempts to secure working batteries of the proper size repeatedly failed so I never got to document any of the interviews.  But even when my mom picked me up at the airport, when I was barely alive and really out of it, I told her I had to go back.   Partially because India and I have unfinished business.  But I went to meditation this morning, and the reflection beforehand helped me articulate why I’m so drawn to this crazy country.
            The teacher was talking about a New York Times article that her husband forwarded, where they interviewed a scientist who fabricated data and who was relatively open about his motivations after getting caught.  I can’t find the article she was talking about but supposedly, he said his first experiments were so messy and unpredictable that lying about his data was his way of clinging to the belief that the world should be logical and orderly. 
Although this doesn’t excuse his actions, as a scientist, I can relate to his struggle of striving for order in an unpredictable world.    The neat ability of Newtonian mechanics to predict how fast something would be going at the bottom of the hill or how high a projectile would rise was one of the main things that first attracted me to physics.  It’s definitely comforting to be able to predict aspects of how nature is going to behave.  So I was happy with that.  And then I learned about quantum mechanics and it blew my mind.  There are inherent, unavoidable limits to what we can know and often, the best we can do is discuss probabilities of things happening.  Fortunately, much smarter people than I have struggled to come to grips with its implications.  Richard Feyman said, “I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics.  Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.  Nobody knows how it can be like that”.   So quantum mechanics shocked me and depending on the day, I either love or hate that nothing can be known for certain.  On a good day, this vision of the world resonates with my experience with the world- sometimes life just seems so arbitrary and random.
But living in the US, where life is pretty good, most things proceed in a logical manner and I usually feel surrounded by a superficial semblance of order.   And I keep fighting a battle that I’ll inevitably lose to make things make sense.   But in India is a country of ironies when nothing makes sense and you just need to deal with it.  For example, I’ll be teaching at the largest corporate training center in the world that specializes in Information Technology but they told us we couldn’t expect computer access for our students.  In 2011, the entire staff got detained from leaving the country because they didn’t check in with the foreign visitor’s office because their 6-month work visa fell on the wrong side of the 180-day limit.  For better or worse, life there is governed by a fairly arbitrary bureaucracy. 
Living there, I had to rely on others to help me secure clean water and safe food, stay safe when walking around and I definitely felt fairly powerless.  But there was also something incredibly liberating to exist anonymously in the chaos (as anonymously as a blonde with a squeaky voice can exist in a country full of brown people).  What you see is what you get in India.  They are making strides to develop the country and I saw some gorgeous shopping centers, a really nice airport but two feet away, you see beggars lying on the streets surrounded by trash and dogs and it’s not obvious whether any of them are alive.  Everything can’t be good for everyone all the time and it’s kind of refreshing how brutally honest India is about revealing the good, bad and the ugly.  Even their gods and goddess aren't pretty.  
I guess the take-away message from meditation this morning and my rambles here, is that the truth isn’t always logical or pretty but there’s something freeing about surrendering control to the chaos and seeing what is real instead of what you think should be there.   Traveling helps reveal what's actually there because it is easier to pay attention when you’re in an unfamiliar place and looking at life from another angle.  I think the truth's easier to find in these third world countries who don't have as much of an established reputation and are muddling through the mess, trying to find their place in the world.  
So in closing, I know India is going to drive me crazy sometimes.  And I'm going to love it sometimes, because I've met amazingly generous and inspiring people (see this video on "Indians in 90 seconds" if you don't know any Indians personally).  It's going to be a mixed bag and that's a good thing. Mark Jenkins described it better than I ever could:
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

Friday, 12 April 2013

MIT... international education in the US

So Boston isn’t exactly “around the world”… Boston is probably one of the cities where I feel most at home because it is filled good memories and people I love.  But I'm currently here to collect data from  MIT  for my Singapore summer project that will hopefully happen (but that’s another story) so I thought it warranted a post.
Some background on the project- I proposed to look at how the educational innovation SCALE-UP evolved across three generations of implementation.  SCALE-UP at NCSU is where teaching introductory physics to large enrollment classes in a studio-style classroom with active learning techniques began.  MIT adopted it, added 3-D visualizations and gave it a new acronym TEAL “Technology Enriched Active Learning”.  MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) worked together to establish this new university and implemented TEAL there.  This case study seeks to explore some of the cultural factors, situational constraints, student and instructor characteristics that affect the adaption of reforms domestically and abroad.  Hopefully it’ll result in the compilation of some resources and advice to streamline future implementation efforts, especially in Asia.
One of MIT's TEAL classrooms.  So spacious compared to NCSU!
I met with the two main professors who worked hard to bring TEAL to MIT in the beginning.  One is an older, quieter man, currently serving as the associate department head.  Back in his scientific hayday, he helped put a satellite in orbit around Neptune and realized it was unlikely he would do something that awesome again so he decided to switch his focus to improving education (which made even more sense when I learned his wife is the head of the teaching and learning center here).  The other one is incredibly energetic, enthusiastic and in charge of keep track of the course materials for the nine sections of the course.  He’s going to be in Singapore for the month of July and he's looking forward to working together there so that’s exciting.
In order for TEAL to fit the culture of MIT students and faculty, they didn’t try to fully flip the classroom so there was still a significant amount of lecture in the three classes I observed.  Their main goals for using TEAL was to improve the attendance rate (~40% for lecture courses) and reduce the failure rate for physics that was higher than any of the other core courses.  Those goals were accomplished successfully but initially there was a lot of student complaints about having to learn a less familiar way.
One thing that completely surprised me was that introductory physics at MIT had no lab associated with the physics course for 30 years!  Supposedly, adding lab activities to the TEAL class was kind of awkward and unwieldy in the beginning.  Now they’ve reduced the number of actual experiments to focus on developing important concepts, which works much better.  Re-integrating lab elements into introductory physics helped interest faculty in teaching in these classrooms in the first place.
It was fun to watch MIT students at work.  The ethnic diversity amazed me- I asked one of the professors what differences he noticed when he taught international students at Singapore (because he actually taught the class there last summer).  He laughed and said, when you work at MIT, you’re always teaching an international population.  Whites were definitely in the minority.  These students were incredibly bright, even though this wasn't the physics course for majors.  During the in-class whiteboard problem solving sets, some individuals completely solve the fairly complicated four resistor problem almost instantly.  However being surrounded by supersmart peers makes it incredibly high pressure environment, especially for freshmen who were the geniuses of their high school.   The professor who is currently acting as department head said he’s become an expert at diagnosing the signs of clinical depression.  I can't imagine having to worry about students committing suicide under your watch when in an administrative position like that.  I would have never wanted to attend a school this competitive- the relatively high suicide rates are semi-reminiscent of when I was in India.  Kinda sad…
MIT's been in the back of my mind as a shoot-for-the-moon place to work for a couple years especially if I wanted to serve in a more curriculum development, education research type capacity.  The professor said currently have 30 million <!!!!!> dollars available for spending on educational innovation.  Currently, they're trying to figure the MOOC situation (Massive open online courses).  It is an exciting time for education to be such a hot topic in a school where people don't bother thinking or talking about that.
Problem solving time!  The next time I'll write, I'll probably be in India, or at least en route!
Their student center- crazy looking building