Saturday, April 11, 2009

sprout: integrating outreach and research

Hi blog!

A real live blog post! Amazing!

Before I dive in...

1. I feel really good physically. Better than I have in 3 years by far. My last post on diyHealth gives rough overview of my trip to Palo Alto, but I am blown away by how I feel. The latest iteration of how good I feel is watching myself order books like crazy. I used to really resist books because reading was so painful, and lately I've been ordering tons. I've begun to integrate reading back into my life again! It's only been a week where reading has been fluid, so I haven't fully grasped what a big deal this is, but after 3 years of reading being intensely painful, it is such a relief. My god!

2. I've toyed with the idea of writing up thinking about sprout that I want to share with our group (see, !) as blog posts -- as a way to simultaneously document and share new ideas. I don't know how to post to sprout's blog, not quite being settled back into the computer world, and so I thought I'd post this here (and I have no idea what merits a sprout blog post anyhow. This is just a straightforward half-edited jumble of thinking.)

With that appetizing introduction, let's move on to sprout!

Sprout, from when I last left off, has morphed into a community science center / open science studio / radical science space. Meaning we want to …

1.make science personal. (have people answer questions which are personally meaningful to them, whether or not they fall traditionally into the domain of science.)

2.make science accessible. (help anyone who's game turn their problems into questions and questions into answers, whether or not they identify as a scientist.)

It may be a stretch, but I think in those two ideas, we have the finer grain points we want to hit:

In terms of science being personal

* to investigate most problems deeply, you have to throw away traditional boundaries of science -- of chemistry and physics and biology and so on. Most problems call on some huge mixture of all kinds of knowledge and methods of inquiry, be they labeled as scientific or not.

* you also completely open up what's fit to be called science – the qualifier is that it's personally important to you, not that it's already established as something that merits investigation by the scientific establishment. This means you can investigate small things, beautiful things, practical things, huge things, household things, city-wide things... and so on.

And in terms of making that personal science accessible

* inspiring anyone to do science: we want to end the idea that experiences in your schooling get to determine if you do science or not in your day to day life. The criteria here isn't credentials or grades – it's having a problem you wish you knew more about. That inspiration will start a dazzling event; a class, an interactive workshop, a stunning lecture, or just a friendly introductory tour.

* Allowing anyone to do science: to this end, we want a place where someone can come whose never used computers before comfortably and help them find the path to becoming a programmer. This involves creating a very approachable space – one that doesn't reek of machine shop ego and white male sweat – and creating the pathways for people to learn a skill that someone not only doesn't know, but could also be quite intimidated by. Pathways could include documentation of tools, providing mentors and apprenticeships, having classes, and so on: ways for people to get started.

* Making new open-source tools (and opening up old ones) for science: we want ultimately, for science and curiousity to be a lifestyle, something that's a part of your everyday life. Doing this means taking the tools and processes we find powerful and opening them up to the public, for mass use and mass feedback.

So we've got our two big goals. A question that we've been stuck on is: you could view sprout as having a mission of research: changing how and what science is done on. And then a mission of outreach: getting each and every person to want to do science, and then doing science! The conundrum was – where's the connection? One could easily see a space that just does either piece, and that being plenty. Instinctively though, both feel right in order to truly propagate the idea of “science as an everyday lifestyle”: it needs both a new look at what scientific inquiry could be, and a way to get that out to everyone (bringing it into the streets!) Either on it's own seemed isolated.

I wanted to write this post to flesh out an idea that's been growing in me. Alec recently hit on the idea of describing sprout as a “Constructionist research lab.” It's an exciting phrase, because it marries the learning philosophy that seems to truly work (learning by being an active creator of what you're learning) and was the foundation for camp with our goal of an adult-geared science space. To my knowledge, Constructionism hasn't been taken into the adult world yet (though I haven't looked much into it.)

I've been thinking about well, really, what does that phrase mean? It's flashy and exciting … but how would I explain it. I decided to start with the traditional “what is constructionism?” approach, to remind myself of how this thing I get so intuitively excited about is defined.

In looking, I hit on the following definition:

“Constructionism, a theory pioneered by Seymour Papert of the MIT Media Lab, holds that children learn best when they are in the active roles of designer and constructor, like the kids building the sand castle on the beach. But the theory goes a step further. Constructionism, Papert says, adds "the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context in which the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe."

I don't know if the definition is obvious, but a simple example is that a child learning about electricity they will do best when able to use this knowledge in an exploratory way, say by building something out of batteries, lights, and motors. The process of building guides the child through the various ideas of a circuit being a loop, of different electronics parts needing so much voltage and current, and so on. The natural environment provides its own feedback: the child is able to actively create her own models about how electricity works and what could be happening and keep trying them out until – ! – it works! Or something unexpected happens – and there's a whole new set of theories to explore and mental models to create and experiment with.

Coming into sprout, what excites me is to take the language usually applied to constructing children's materials and apply it to a research lab. What I wanted to explore in writing was the claim that we can marry the ideas of making science personal and science accessible by saying that a member of sprout is someone who values both working on what's personally meaningful to them and sharing it.

What's interesting here is the formal idea that doing outreach is deeply integrated into the research process, not separate from it. Sharing doesn't serve the end of an auxiliary outreach goal, but is acknowledged as the best way to learn – make models of what you're working on and share them.

Going from the definition of sprout being made of people who see sharing as integral to research, I see a lot of ideas that this ties up:

* the organization needs to support sharing: If sharing is how you are understanding your work, then the facilities need to be as designed to share as they are to work. Its just as important to get good science equipment as it is to get the word out and welcome visitors.

* work needs to be documented and open: Sharing work isn't for the sake of an auxiliary goal – to disseminate your findings – but also incorporated into how you research. You ask a question, you figure some things out, you share, you get new ideas, and you keep going. Documenting your work isn't something done out of a higher standard that feels abstract and annoying when you're in the middle of your research: it's part of how you research.

* sharing can mean teaching: So far, classes have seem like something added on to satisfy our outreach demands. But taking a body of knowledge and distilling into a class is both a way to disseminate knowledge, and also a widely acknowledged way to understand it more deeply (“you don't really know something 'til you teach it...”)

* and sharing can mean apprentices or other new relationships: I'm extremely eager to forge new and revive old ways for people to work together at sprout. Sharing could just as well be in the form of taking on apprenticeships or bartering time in general. A one-on-one relationship is yet another mode to share in; personal relationships can be the basis for sharing one's work and thus furthering it.

This formulation of the members of sprout recognizing sharing as a part of doing science seems like one way to pull a lot of what we want sprout to be doing together: documenting, reaching out, teaching, and creating new informal ways of learning. It doesn't quite feel solid yet, but it's an idea I wanted to explore.