In July I teach a class in the Michigan Math and Science Scholars summer camp.  The camp is for advanced high school students who are interested enough to give up 2 weeks of their summer to learn some math and science.  For the last 9 years I’ve taught a class called Math and the Internet, where we focus on some of the mathematical ideas that have made the internet possible.  Jason Howald and I created the class in 2006, and for the last 5 years I’ve been partners with Sunny Fawcett.  Our undergraduate assistant this past summer was Kristen Amman, who set a new standard in parent outreach by blogging and tweeting every day.

One highlight of the class is when we build a machine out of breadboards, logic gates, LEDs, switches, and a lot of wire.  It is 2 days of work (6 hours a day) for the students, and in the end it allows them to post a message on the internet, with both text and pictures.  Basically, to use the machine to send a character, the operator keys in a 6-bit binary code on 6 switches.  Then she hits the clock button 6 times.  That cycles an index register through the numbers 0 through 5, indicating the active switch.  The dereferencer figures out which bit the index register is referencing, and puts the value of that bit at a particular location connected to a particular pin on the serial port of my computer.  Then some software (which the students write) reads that bit and the other 5, and concatenates them to reconstruct the 6-bit code, which then translates to a character.

Each student in the class works on one part of the machine, and then we put it all together at the end of the second day.  The details are interesting and someday we’ll write them up.  Here is a picture from this past summer.

But I wanted to write about a teaching issue I had.  We had one student who was a little iconoclastic, which doesn’t bother me on the face of it, because I am too, sometimes.  But he also felt he was a little “too cool” for the class, and that attitude can sometime spread to others and sap everyone’s morale.

I had that in mind when, after we announced with much fanfare the plan to build the machine, the student in question said, “It doesn’t sound very efficient.  Why not just use a keyboard?”

I didn’t handle this very well.  I was rather annoyed at the student for not appreciating the great adventure we had just laid before him.  I forgot, in that moment, one of the maxims of teaching: it’s not about me, it’s about them.

So I said something a little testy: “Well, it’s not very efficient to use you, either <student’s name>.”  I caught myself, and tried to explain that our goal wasn’t efficiency, it was exploration, etc.  We went on to build the machine successfully, and morale was pretty high, even in the student in question.  So hopefully there was no lasting damage.

Still, it’s been bothering me, and I’ve been mulling over in my head what I should have said.  Here is what I came up with this morning:

Back in the 70s there was this miniseries on the BBC with the rather pompous title of  The Ascent of Man.  (One must forgive the sexist title—it was not meant to be so.) The show was written and narrated by a Polish-English mathematician and polymath named Jacob Bronowski, and it dealt with the anthropological and technological changes which added up (as Bronowski saw it) to civilization as we know it.

There is one line that I remember best.  In the first episode, Bronowski summed up the show by saying:

The greatest force propelling the ascent of man is man’s desire to marvel at his own handiwork.

The truth is, people and technology advance for many different reasons. Sometimes people are motivated by money, sometimes by a desire to do good, sometimes by trying to impress someone else.  Sometimes things happen just by accident.  In the late 1970s James Burke created another British show called Connections, about technological advances, where he showed a lot of different ways things happen.

All that notwithstanding, it’s a “desire to marvel at my own handiwork” that motivates me most of the time.  I like to create something, and then step back and look at it.

A hundred years ago, most people made things, either for their job or at home.  Some portion of them took a lot of pride in what they made.  And occasionally, in the course of making something, they would get an idea how to do it better.  And sometimes that idea was good enough and general enough that it made its way out to everyone else.

Nowadays most people in our world don’t get to make things very often.  And a lot of us buy everything we use, because, honestly, it’s more efficient than making things yourself.  No argument there.

But, if we relegate the making of things to only a small class of people, we as a society take at least three losses:

  1. Fewer people are applying themselves to hard problems,
  2. We only get to use what that small class of people want to make for us, and
  3. Fewer people get to feel the joy of creating something and seeing it work.

So think of this as an opportunity to break the mold of being only a consumer.  If we can get the machine to work (and that’s a big if), it will be our creation, and no one else’s.

That’s probably too long for me to have delivered without boring them.  But it’s what I wish I had said.  I just spent a while looking back over it. 🙂