Hard Sciences

Allan Edmonds is a professor of mathematics at Indiana University Bloomington with research interests in geometric topology. His most recent work investigated the topological symmetries of four-dimensional manifolds and questions about when certain three-dimensional spaces can be found inside of particular four-dimensional spaces (incorporating the three standard dimensions plus time).

Andrew Hanson is an associate professor of computer science at Indiana University Bloomington who has previously worked in artificial intelligence at the research organization SRI International, as well as in theoretical physics. His current research interests include perception, scientific visualization applications in mathematics and physics, and the design of interactive user interfaces for visualization applications.

Christopher T. Haynes is an associate professor in the computer science department of Indiana University Bloomington. His research is focused on programming languages, especially type systems and symbolic computation.

James Musser, an assistant professor of physics, Indiana University Bloomington, is a particle astrophysicist who studies rare components of cosmic radiation. At present, he is collaborating on a study of electrons and positrons emitted by high-energy astrophysical sources, a search for massive neutrinos, and a search for magnetic monopoles.

John Phillips is an associate professor of biology at Indiana University Bloomington. His research interests include the sensory basis of behavior and neuroethology.

Moderator: Roberta Neiger

RCA: How do you use technology in your research?

Edmonds: My use of technology centers on the personal computer, hooked into the university network. I make significant use of e-mail for communication with colleagues around the world. I also use sophisticated word processing, in the form of TeX, for writing and typesetting technical and mathematical material in an efficient and elegant way that is easily shared electronically.

Perhaps more substantively, I make use of various sophisticated computer programs that have turned pure mathematical research that formerly required mainly pencil, paper, and eraser into virtually a laboratory discipline in which the computer plays the role of the laboratory. For the most part the computer does not prove theorems; rather it enables one to make preliminary calculations and explore examples and special cases that lead to conjectures, which eventually are susceptible to proof in the classical sense. I have done some of this with True Basic, a modern form of a well-known programming language. More important has been the development of computer algebra systems, like Macsyma, Mathematica, and Maple. These are very powerful programs that enable one to use the computer interactively much like a powerful combination of blackboard and calculator.

Phillips: I use computers in my research for data acquisition--for taking physiological data and digitizing the signals. This provides greater accuracy and speed than I can obtain with manual measurements, and it allows signal averaging on-line, so it is essential for detecting weak changes in nerve cell signals.

I also use technology, though it is not elaborate, for statistical analysis and graphic presentation. This is mainly for storing signals from extracellular and intracellular nerve recordings in the vision system of lower vertebrates and insects, and for processing data and displaying the results.

Hanson: I use high-speed computer graphics, and for me, computers are both the object and medium of my research. To understand a complicated geometric object, I can draw a picture of it with the computer. This is essential, since with a computer you can make pictures of things that cannot be represented any other way. On the computer, you can also make the object's appearence change by distorting it or pulling it in a way you can't with, say, a plaster model.

Haynes: As a computer scientist, my research explores ways of improving our use of computer technology. In particular, I study the design of programming languages and seek better ways of translating abstract ideas for structuring computuation into a form suitable for both realization by technology and human understanding. Critical advances in my areas of interest are usually made at a theoretical level. I use technology extensively, however, in the form of programming languages to embody abstract ideas, word processing tools for expressing ideas using English and mathematics, and worldwide networking for sharing work with colleagues.

Musser: My research requires the use of rather sophisticated electronic and software tools, some of which are available either as commercial products or through the physics community, and some of which must be developed specifically for a particular project. An example of the former is the simulation software in common use by all high-energy particle experimentalists. As experiments become increasingly complex, obtaining a reasonable probability for a successful outcome depends upon a careful simulation of the experiment prior to carrying it out, and a large number of tools have been developed by the physics community for this purpose. In addition to these pre-existing technologies, some technological innovation is normally required to conduct an experiment. In my case, this has included the development of electronics, including the design of custom integrated circuits, used to read out and process the data from our experimental apparatus.

RCA: Do you use technology in your teaching?

Phillips: I don't use technology in teaching, and I feel there are limits to what it can do. It should not be seen as a substitution, but as something that augments other forms of teaching and can allow students to visualize processes. In the courses I teach, from introductory biology to graduate seminars, it is always difficult to get students to pose alternatives and come up with different ways of describing things. That's what science is all about, and it is best communicated by a human being. Even if you err on the side of giving a less complete description of a process, you're ahead if you get students to understand and to take intellectual risks. Instructors must make it clear that describing a process is fundamental, but it doesn't make you a scientist.

Haynes: Frequently, in education, especially in computer science, students must learn abstraction, and in that area, technology can often work at cross purposes. For example, a great many problems in computer science are posed as programming exercises. When students have access to computing resources, they often try to write programs before they have done nearly enough abstract thinking about the problem. Some students just try possibilities until they get a program that works on a given example. What they have done may have nothing to do with the description of the problem. Cornell University has countered this by prohibiting students from using computers for this kind of work in some courses.

Musser: That problem exists in physics, too. Young people continuously fall into the trap that they think it's possible to jump into problems of great complexity right off the bat. They try to simulate a system with ultra-sophisticated computers, but unfortunately, they don't understand the underlying problems. They skip steps that could be done with a piece of paper and a pencil.

RCA: How do you counter this problem?

Musser: Part of the teaching process should be to encourage students to think about problems clearly before they jump in with computer simulations.

Phillips: Another way of saying that could be that part of the teaching should be done explicitly away from the technology.

RCA: Are there other detriments to using technology in the classroom?

Hanson: I've heard wonderful lectures by instructors who stood stock-still and used their voices in a way that made you close your eyes and think, this is not a lecture, it's a performance. The technique of using one's voice was just as important as anything I could do with a $10,000 workstation.

Haynes: There is something intangible about the physical presence of another mind. Having the same monologue delivered off a CD-ROM would not have the same effect. One of the most central aspects of learning, for me, was to try to internalize the thought process of the instructor who had experienced and thought deeply about an issue--just being in his or her presence was worth a great deal.

Edmonds: There's something lacking when you present the class with a slide worked out, as opposed to a professor working at the board in real time, and maybe making a mistake or two, and correcting himself along the way. I worry about that when we think about installing fancy computer equipment.

Phillips: Too much media also prevents undergraduates from seeing themselves in your position. Ultimately, you want them to assume your role in science and mathematics by challenging ideas and generating solutions. Part of that is a human projection of themselves onto you.

RCA: Couldn't that be captured through media?

Hanson: It's a question of second-order technology. On the one hand, we have the reality of a live individual standing in front of the class trying to communicate ideas to a live audience. If that's been done once, you could try to capture it with some kind of technology and see it again and again. If the methods used to convey the ideas in live performance worked, then clearly, they must share something with the same performance on tape. But that doesn't always follow.

Musser: I think you'd find you'd lost a great deal. There's been some experience like that in the astronomy department, where they taught purely through these techniques--a professor rarely appeared in the classroom. Even though the lectures were riveting, it was impossible to hold students' attention without a human presence.

Haynes: I've watched a fair number of well-done television documentaries which have engaged me more than many lectures because of the exceptional skills of their moderators. Some personalities can make material work remarkably well even on TV, but those personalities that work well with some people can irritate others. Carl Sagan is one example. He made the subject matter intriguing to some people, while putting off others. Some viewers even found themselves engaged and irritated at the same time.

Phillips: I use three or four films to take people to different parts of world, and to do certain things that I can't do, but there's a trade-off. When I'm present, any student can stop me and ask a question which may crystallize the whole topic for him. All these things have strengths and weaknesses and we have to use a mix of them.

We must remember that all students are different and some will learn best from lectures, some from simulations, some from talking to their friends, some from a picture. We should offer as many ways as possible, and technology is just one more way.

Hanson: I use films occasionally, but I have some misgivings about them. They often remind me of Sesame Street in that they are carefully paced, just like television commercials. This results in a problem I see even with my own children. When they must sit down and work out something relatively complex, without a constant change of scene, they lose interest. The media's spoon-fed stimulation is so rapid that children or students cannot learn the discipline of a long attention span.

Musser: Part of our job must be to stretch people's attention span.

Phillips: And that stretching is not just quantitative; it's qualitative in that students don't only need to be patient enough to take more time, but they must understand that there are certain things they can't do in a limited time frame.

Haynes: It may be that there are two different kinds of attention spans, passive--how long you can sit as an observer, and active--how long can you work on a problem. By giving students excellent problems, and letting them work individually, you can develop their capacity for mental focus, which is a prerequisite to active participation. Computers can provide students with challenging ways of actively solving problems. Developing the passive aspect may be more difficult.

At any rate, the lecture system is not working. The fact that technology can replace the teacher in many contexts can free the teacher to interact with students on a one-to-one basis. We ought to have master teachers developing high-quality material, which other teachers can help students absorb.

RCA: What particular challenges face instructors who choose to use media in the classroom?

Phillips: Time is the greatest limit to the use of technology in teaching. You have to make a major decision whether you're ready to devote a great chunk of time to develop something that will meet your specific needs. The development of packages that allow you to produce technology-dependent media effectively will be extremely helpful.

Hanson: With current authoring technology, I don't see how anyone can afford to make courseware unless it is sold in thousands of places, in which case you are a manufacturer and not an educator. I use media in various ways in teaching, but there's a big difference between courses in which I simply write on the blackboard and those in which I use transparencies, intermix transparencies and 35-millimeter slides, or mix in a couple of videotapes. The technology can add essential points about material, especially in graphics courses, but it can also be a distraction.

Hanson: Here at IU we have the CICA group, which helps you add media in the classroom. The people there are extremely talented, and they understand how to use the cutting-edge software and hardware at their disposal. For you or me, learning to use just one piece of that software could take several months.

Edmonds: I'm still concerned about the value added with such great expenditures of time and money. I'm not sure that in many disciplines, you're not best served by a textbook. There's some subtle judgment going on here about what makes students learn. The assumption is that by having buttons to press instead of pages to turn, your students' eyes will stay open longer.

Haynes: This can also backfire since you're able to present material much faster than it can be absorbed. There is a reasonable match between the rate at which I can write things on the blackboard and the rate at which students can take notes. But there's clearly a mismatch when there's a slide up there.

RCA: Would you incorporate prepared materials into your teaching if they were readily available? How?

Hanson: The best use of prepared material may be in adapting snippets which can relieve professors of doing something complex or something which is not their particular strength.

Phillips: Technology and media may play different roles in introductory versus advanced courses. Perhaps in an introductory undergraduate courses, a live lecturer is more important than in, say, an advanced evolutionary biology course, where simulations can be extremely useful. After all, we're dealing with a heterogeneous mass of students. Some traditional teaching works well with some students and not at all with others. Different approaches might reach other students, depending on their levels and individual personalities.

(Information on the MEGA collaboration)