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Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Language Instinct, The Web, and Me

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

This is another non-fiction book - an excellent pop take on the entire field of language acquisition in a nutshell. Soon after Sphere opened up the possibility of doing research in psychology to me, I came across the term Cognitive Science on a list of majors during a college career fair (I want to say it was at Carnegie-Mellon's booth, but I'm not sure). The person manning the booth explained to me what it was, and much like reading Sphere it made another piece just fall into place. That was it - the specific subfield I wanted to study, what I wanted to major in. Like magic, I'd wondered if it existed and now someone had just given it a name for me.

Knowing this was great, but also challenging as a high school student in the mid-90s. My high school had little relevant information for me - one psychology class generally considered a blowoff. The web was young, but it was still the best resource I had. What little I could find on the topic was from the websites of the various Cog Sci university departments - MIT, of course, had one of the most well-fleshed out websites at the time. And so I read essays by people like Marvin Minsky and Rodney Brooks on artificial intelligence, and browsed through lab web pages getting an idea of what sorts of research was happening. I also discovered the name Steven Pinker, and then I happened upon his book one day in Barnes & Noble.

Now, The Language Instinct did not lead me directly to my current research interests. In fact, you could say that it caused me to go down a path that was not successful, and was possibly a diversion. But even though I did not wind up researching language acquisition, it was a useful path for me at the time for several reasons. After I read the book, I was convinced that that was it, I wanted to research language acquisition, period. I also wanted to go to MIT to do it (and talked about it endlessly in my admissions essay).

So it led me to MIT, and that is certainly a part of my life that I am thankful for. It also led me to working in Pinker's lab, which is a terrific thing to have on your CV even years later, when your own work is much more impressive than the data entry you happened to do under a famous name. Pinker was even my undergraduate advisor, even after I'd left his lab and language acquisition entirely, and he was a good one who encouraged me to take the classes that interested me over anyone's idea of which were "important." So even though I later decided I was interested in learning much more broadly, and in application and design in addition to basic research, the mere act of reading this book had a huge and undeniable impact on the next few years of my life, and on my career path from there. (It's also just a great book for anyone with a passing interest in linguistics and/or learning and development.)

This is the fourth and final post in a series on the impact that informal learning has had on my life and career. To see all of these, click on the "Informal Learning and Me" tag.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sphere and Me

Sphere by Michael Crichton

I went through a phase about my freshman year of high school where my career choices were changing weekly. I read Jurassic Park and wanted to be a mathematician and study chaos theory like Ian Malcolm. I went to the zoo and decided I should design the habitats that zoo animals live in. But then I read Sphere and everything clicked into place.

I'd been thinking I was interested in how people think, how people learn, what is intelligence, questions like that. But when I heard the word "psychology" all I thought of was Freud and psychoanalysis and therapy - I didn't want to be a therapist. So I wasn't seriously considering a career involving psychology, because I didn't know that anything but clinical careers existed. But the main character of Sphere isn't that kind of psychologist - he's a psychology professor, a researcher. The rest doesn't even matter - what he researches, what happened in the book (though I do love the book). All that mattered to me right at that moment was that people do research, scientific research, about thinking and minds and psychology..

This was such a revelation to me. Having spent most of my life as a working class kid, in a family with no college degrees, I had no exposure to academia and research. Yes, I'd read Smart Girls, but that didn't seem like the kind of thing you build a career out of. That was the kind of research you do to write a book - you interview a few people, that kind of thing. I had no concept that Kerr had a whole ouvre of research beyond that, with dozens of publications in academic journals representing several strands of research.

And so that was that. This wasn't a fad or a phase this time - this completely fictional piece of work had opened my eyes to a very real fact. That thing I wanted to do but didn't think existed? It exists. And I'll do it.

Side note: Now one of my research interests is how people/kids interpret science in fictional media - why did I immediately accept that this character's career was real, while not believing that aliens were living at the bottom of the ocean? So the experience of reading this novel continues to influence my career 15+ years later.

This post is part of a series in how informal learning has personally impacted my career path. For the whole series, please check the tag "Informal Learning and Me."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Play, the BSC, and Me

When I went to college I had no doubts about what I wanted to do - study language acquisition (more on that later). But after a couple of years of classes and lab work in that, I realized that it was the kind of thing that is fun for me to read about when others have done the research, but I personally couldn't devote my life to it. So, like many college students, I suddenly found myself confused and directionless. I loved my major (cognitive science), loved studying the human mind, but I no longer knew what I wanted to do with it. I thought back to things that had attracted me as a kid - and the answer was obvious. Some might think it ironic that the experiences that led me to the design of learning environments, by and large, were not while I was in school, but I'm sure my fellow Informalists aren't surprised at all.

Claudia and the Great Search (Baby-Sitter's Club #35) by Ann M. Martin

Oh, the Baby-Sitter's Club. I was obsessed from the summer after fourth grade when I got my first one in the Scholastic Summer Book Club pack, til I entered high school and finally grew out of them. This was always one of my favorites, and it had nothing to do with the main plot (Claudia worries that she was adopted and searches for the truth).

The B plot of this BSC book revolves around Claudia and Emily Michelle, the two-year-old (adopted) sister of Kristy, a fellow club member. Emily Michelle is lagging developmentally and Claudia is hired to tutor her in things like colors, letters, and counting. Claudia realizes quickly that simply telling her these things won't work, and has to get creative in her strategies - basically, it's Claudia and the Introduction to Pedagogy. I loved it! I specifically remember one scene where she realizes that Emily Michelle has memorized the numbers 1-10, but didn't understand what counting really means and would count to 10 no matter how many objects you put in front of her. Somehow, that blew my preadolescent mind - who knew there was so much involved in learning to count, or that so much could go wrong? I would imagine ways to help a child through this kind of problem.

Even at that age, I knew that this book fit in neatly with other things I enjoyed. Like many children, I loved to play school. Like many children, I always wanted to be the teacher. I was a bit odd, though - I'd spend hours planning my lessons, writing up worksheets and creating schedules... and then get bored when it was time to actually do the part that most people would consider "playing school." All of the fun for me was in the planning, the devising of things for kids to do. (Because of this, I often wound up playing with my stuffed animals as students instead of other kids, because they didn't mind not getting to actually play their part.)

As I thought back to these experiences, it seemed obvious that designing learning environments was something I'd always wanted to do - I just hadn't realized that it was something I could combine with cognitive research and do for a living!

This is part of a series on the impact that informal learning has had on my life and career. To see all posts in this series, click on the "Informal Learning and Me" tag.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

iPad + Real Toys: It's About Time!

I saw something at Target the other day that had me really excited. Not because it, in itself, is a really cool toy - but it's the first I've seen of its kind, and it likely marks the beginning of what I think will be a very cool category of toys and learning tools.

They're called AppMates, and so far these Cars 2 toys seem to be the only ones that exist. The idea is simple - you have a physical car toy that the iPad can sense. You download the free racing app, and you can race your real car toy on the virtual race track on your iPad.

Like I said, not that awesome right now. But think of the possibilities! You could theoretically build a manipulative that was not only sensed by the iPad, but also could detect what was displayed beneath it, giving you two-way communication of a sort. I once had an idea for a book that would act as a companion to existing popular Nintendo DS games, outlining activities that combined the game with the real world to simulate scientific activities - for example, using Viva PiƱata as a location for doing observations similar to those a biologist would do in the field. That sort of idea plus this technology could do some really amazing things!

This post cross-posted to Hey Hey, It's an iPad Blog!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Smart Girls, Gifted Women, and Me

A lot of people dismiss informal/out-of-school learning as unimportant or frivolous. Sure, it's always good to learn more stuff, they say, but the important things you learn in school. Out of school, you might learn some fun factoids or pursue a hobby, and of course there's social development, but as far as academic subjects go, school is where it's at.

And for some people, that's true. But not everyone. I knew early on that I was seriously interested in things that weren't covered in school. By the age of 15, I knew I wanted to major in Cognitive Science in college… something I had no opportunity to study in high school whatsoever. Our school offered one semester of psych, but it wasn't even AP and was considered a blowoff class that no serious student would take. Pursuing my intellectual passion was something I had to do entirely on my own time. I'm living proof that what you learn outside of school can be at least as important as what you learn during class.

This month I'll be sharing some of those informal learning experiences that shaped my career choices in small and large ways. And the main focus of each post will be ... a book. A plain, old-fashioned paper book, the kind that gets forgotten about sometimes as we scramble to create new media learning environments. Don't get me wrong, I love me a good educational iPad app, but we should never forget the vital role books play in learning in and out of the classroom.

First up:

Smart Girls, Gifted Women by Barbara A. Kerr

This is a nonfiction book written by a professor at Arizona State (now at the University of Kansas) who studies giftedness and gifted education, a subject that I now have a master's degree in. The author attended a school for the gifted in the early 60s, and at her reunion was shocked to find that while most of her male classmates had advanced degrees and lucrative careers, most of the equally-intelligent women were homemakers. The book explores the research she conducted on her classmates as well as the lives of eminent women to explore the many pressures experienced by intelligent women that impact their career and life choices.

When my mom gave me this book at age 9, I was not part of the target adult audience. I started out only reading some parts over and over but skipping other "boring" bits, though by now I've read the whole thing as well as the updated edition.

This book didn't just teach me about the idea of intelligence, although that was a big part of its influence. I'd read other books on being a gifted kid, but this was the first time I'd read about actual research relating to it - and the first time I'd read anything about gender and intelligence or career choice. It very much opened my eyes to the inequalities between the genders that are pervasive in our society, and how even smart women have historically been pressured to give up their careers when they have children. This book got me seriously interested at an early age in intelligence as not just a thing that impacted my life but as something to be studied, and in the interplay between gender, intelligence, and career/life decisions. You can plot a pretty straight line from reading this book at age 9 and my Master's degree fifteen years later. I certainly wouldn't call it the only influence, far from it, but it was an informal learning experience that had a lasting impact on my thinking and my career.

This is the first post in a series on the impact that informal learning has had on my life and career. To see all of these, click on the "Informal Learning and Me" tag.