Friday, February 23, 2007

Critical Thinking And LEGO Robots

It's amazing what can happen if people think.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching some local school kids demonstrate their LEGO robots. They were part of a team from an area middle school. These bright, culturally-diverse 6th, 7th, and 8th grade boys (and a girl) competed on a state level and won awards for their ability to build a robot of their own design to perform specific tasks that the competition demanded (such as traveling a short distance to trigger devices or drop an object into a specific location), all out of parts from LEGO robotics kits. Though the obstacles the robot had to overcome were pre-defined, their robot design and programming was formulated on their own, with minimal assistance from the team coach and high-school kids who acted as mentors. Maybe they could have learned something by being told exactly how to build and program the robot from a specific blueprint, but I guarantee they learned more about robotics and, generally, critical thinking, by coming up with their own design and testing it.

Beats the hell out of the "spaceships" I built with LEGOs at their age!

Education is a marvelous thing, as it gives you a toolbox of knowledge from which consider the world (like a box of LEGO blocks), but that knowledge is useless if you can't learn to apply it creatively (like making a friggin' robot out of them). I think back to my organic chemistry classes as an undergrad, for instance, where I was forced to memorize very complex chemical reactions and structures, only to regurgitate them on the next test before cramming my brain with more information. Within a year or two of taking the class I doubt I could have remembered even 10% of what I learned. A decade later I might have recalled only a few bits and pieces. As a scientist, I have been taught to think critically, not just about science questions, but about all things. It's in my nature to question things (even if it makes me look cynical in the process), but as my Organic Chem class illustrates, even science has obstacles to overcome.

Recently, a professor at Ohio State University tested the role of critical thinking on his introductory-level biology students:

The 300 or so students were taking a lab class on the role of enzymes in biology, and fell into two groups. The first group of students was given prepared enzymes and step-by-step instructions on how to test them. The second group was given a raw turnip from which they had to extract the enzymes themselves and then come up with a plan of their own to test them, exercising their critical and creative thinking. In the end, they were asked a simple question, "Where do enzymes occur in nature?" The correct (and simplistic) answer: "In living tissue." Only 23% of the "step-by-step" group got it correct, compared to 83% of the "critical thinking" group.

Said the professor, "The students in the first group were just as intelligent as those in the second group. They just lacked confidence. No teacher had ever asked them something as simple as how do they want to display what they saw in the experiment. They had always been told how to do that. Educators thought they were doing students a wonderful favor by giving them step-by-step instructions."

And that was at the college level! How often do you think the average grade school student in America is asked to think critically about the information they are taught? How much is rote memorization? In this day of standardized testing, I'm doubtful critical thinking raises its shy head, even in science classes.

And we wonder why people adhere to horoscopes, latch onto the latest fad diets, or believe anything presented on the evening news as undeniable fact. Come on, folks! Critical thinking and creativity drive innovation and reveal the truth behind the veils of ignorance. Think back to your favorite class in school. I'd bet my left thumb that it was one where you got to be creative and didn't have to cram your brain with memorized details, yet learned a lot.

When I saw those kids and their robots, hope sprang eternal. Will they now apply the abstract lesson they learned and raise their hands more in class, questioning why the teacher said what she did?

The 8th-grader in me is dying to get one of those LEGO robot kits.


RBH said...

I was pleased to see that story. Steve's a friend of mine. It's a damned shame he's not still running the Ohio State Intro course.

CC: INAP! said...

It's one of those questions you don't really think about. I mean, enzymes are everywhere. Just the other day, I was at the "organic" co-op and they were selling drinks with added enzymes. I'm wondering just how much of them can resist denaturing in the stomach acid.

I agree, though, that science education is sub par even in the college/university setting. Sure, we can memorize the TCA cycle and the apoptosis pathway, but we're not taught how to incorporate that into real-life situations. Even the Ivy Leagues are not immune from this scrutiny.