How do you teach a skill? Humans have been educating themselves far longer than can be measured. You’d think that, by now, we would have developed education into the most refined of sciences. Doesn’t quite look that way, though, does it?
From the top of the pedagogic food chain to the very bottom, education has always been a rigid and bureaucratic collection of disparate agencies, organizations, belief systems, and individuals with no cohesive collective driving principles. If millennia of science and centuries of engineering prove anything, it is that all processes must be checked, examined, and tested constantly to ensure that they have their assumptions right, that they are moving in the right direction, and that they achieve their objectives with the highest reliability and lowest human cost.
Is this what we have today?
Despite spending far more than half a trillion dollars a year on education, we have a dismal record of academic achievement, with criticism of our systems countered by entrenched defense of the existing ways of doing things. No matter how many times we read in the news of falling test scores and ever poorer standings in international comparisons, we steadfastly maintain and expand existing ways of teaching.
Might it not be time to try something a little different?
Here’s an idea: make learning as easy and as convenient as available technology allows.
Technology has created an opportunity for just that, at virtually no cost. We propose adding a specific capability to education, carefully focused on a single objective and incurring microscopic risks. It displaces nothing in current use in our schools and adds to available opportunities without threatening anything other than the most dismal and trivial of our existing educational processes.
It brings effective and free education to those presently without access to training in software development. It enables those with a strong interest and the drive to learn to do just that. It does not compete against our schools: the only existing resources currently providing this kind of training are either amateurs on the Internet, with less than no talent for teaching, or commercial quickie courses, most of which charge very high prices for extremely cursory training.
It is possible to do better.
If there is a question to be answered, it is, “Why hasn’t this been done already?”
At this, someone will inevitably leap up, screaming, “But it has! There are zillions of Java tutorials on YouTube!” Our count of Java tutorial videos had to be stopped at 37,433,728 when our researcher dropped dead from exhaustion, but we are willing to concede the zillion figure. And therein lies the problem. While statistical probability alone argues that some of these videos must have genuine pedagogic value, there are so very few of them and so very much dross that the likelihood of a given student of programming stumbling across the good videos lies somewhere within kissing distance of no chance at all.
Listing the flaws, defects, and inadequacies of YouTube tutorials could occupy an entire afternoon. We all have better things to do. Rather than struggle through enormous numbers of trash videos or make do with very overpriced paperback books from Wiley and O’Reilly, the solution lies in adapting the proven capability of the classroom-teacher paradigm to the incredible power of the Internet to make learning resources available to anyone with a rudimentary command of English and a computer with broadband access.
The solution lies in creating teaching resources of the highest quality, not the lowest, using methods optimized for developing the student’s skills rapidly and with fidelity to best programming practices, including (especially) intensive testing and thorough documenting. The solution lies in covering everything needed by the nascent programmer, eliminating the endless search for answers to questions that the amateur YouTube video presenter never thinks to address. The solution lies in leaving theory and arcane detail to the university-level courses and concentrating on pure “how-to” instruction, using very real-world application examples.
We know that this works. We have done it on our own. What we did ourselves, everyone else can, as well.
Pottery and sculpture, using fired clays, may rival cave painting as mankind’s oldest art form. In 2011 and 2012, ep5 investigated the idea of a documentary on pottery. This grew into a proposed instructional series demonstrating the fundamentals of working with clay and firing it in kilns to form a variety of handmade objets d’art.
We spent a good deal of time with several distinguished potters, one a professor at a local college. The proposed television programs never happened. We talked to a great many companies in the field, and, while all professed enthusiasm for the idea, each also admitted a degree of impecuniousness completely at odds with spending that much money on public television advertising.
Gee. It didn’t cost all that much, not as television programs go...
In the course of the preliminary development work, we made a few small videos as both auditions (screen tests) and demonstrations. To see these, please click the blue vase from the noted Wizard of Clay atelier →
Sculpture is defined as the art of making two- or three-dimensional representative or abstract forms, especially by carving. Equally, it can be done by not subtracting away from a block of material but by addition, by the careful and meticulous putting of material into place, guided by the sculptor’s inner vision of the finished work.
Pottery, fired clay, is one of the oldest materials for sculpture. Consider the graces it brings to the art. The material is readily available at a reasonable cost. Unlike a block of Parian marble, clay can be handled in convenient, manageable bags of dry powder, mixed with water and pug milled into a singularly workable plastic medium that can be shaped with precision and revised to bring the work as near perfection as the sculptor’s art can achieve.
When the artist has shaped the clay into the form envisioned, several hours’ exposure to high heat transforms the mutable and plastic clay into a hard, rigid artifact that can endure for millennia. Not only has the artist the freedom to create realistic or other-worldly shapes, he, or she, can enhance these shapes with all manner of color by selection of both the glaze and the way the glaze is fired. Just as music takes the form of whatever sounds one human can create and another hear, sculpture gives tangible and palpable realness to an artist’s imagination. Well, it’s palpable unless the gallery puts up their “Do Not Touch the Goodies” sign.
For a documentary to be called “Sculptures in Clay”, we recorded in the studio of sculptor, Bill Stewart, an artist long noted for his whimsical totemic figures. A collection of his work was given a place of honor at the county airport in the airline terminal building. It singlehandedly enlivened an airport remarkable solely for its inexpressible dullness.
For one and a half years, ep5 produced a public radio series on science. These interstitials, the short items used at the top of the hour to fill in the space between full-length programs, ran one and a half minutes, some two minutes, a very few of them somewhat longer. We produced one episode per weekday, distributed in monthly releases. This grew into a proposed half-hour weekly series.
This new radio series would expand upon the original “Ninety Second Science” theme with the depth and detail made possible by the greater amount of time available for each story.
How would Wow! I Didn’t Know That! distinguish itself from other science-based radio programs? By appealing to the grown-up desire in all of us to know more about intriguing and peculiar phenomena in science, without having to endure childish clowning around or silly mannerisms. We firmly believe that science can be made both interesting and entertaining without dumbing it down.
Engineering has long been seen in one way: it’s a man’s world. This is changing, but the pace is glacial. Public television has an opportunity to encourage young women to take another look at engineering when thinking about career choices.
A dry recitation of the advantages of such a career doesn’t work. Instead, we will demonstrate in hard steel how the imagination and knowledge of the engineer is translated into machinery that works. In this instance, the machine is an on- and off-road all-electric car. It will utilize extremely advanced fuel cell power1 and be designed to tight performance specifications with a high level of efficiency, based upon the Superleggera principle2.
The project will show viewers the entire process, from sketches on a restaurant napkin all the way to the test track, the boondocks, and the open road. The presenter will be a woman, as will some of the engineers, welders, fabricators, and machinists.
1 Actually, a balanced combination of metal-air fuel cells, ultracapacitors, and batteries.
2 Not to be confused with the “Superleggera” coachwork concept developed in the 1930s by the Italian coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera.
It began in 1881 as a narrow-gauge railroad connecting the towns of Arcade and Attica in western New York. In the winter of 1957, the normally placid Tonawanda Creek flooded and tore out the center of the railroad’s single north-south track, cutting off Attica and the connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad main line.
How the Arcade & Attica Railroad survived and continued to function makes an intriguing story with more questions than answers. Is there a place in today’s economy for a railroad only fifteen miles long and having, essentially, a single customer?
It’s a story worth telling in a one-hour documentary. We’ve made several full-length mock-ups for the project. To see them, please click here.
For a quick look at some of this project’s footage, tickle the old steam locomotive!
The success of an idea often hinges critically on its timing.
The US Congress passed Obamacare in 2010 while the Clintons failed to get even the idea of a national health care plan off the ground in the 1990s. Eastman Kodak, inventor of the digital camera, lost its hold on the imaging market, failing to understand consumers the way founder George Eastman did with the Brownie a century earlier.
Apple’s Lisa and Ford’s Edsel represent high quality goods produced at a time when the economy was not ready to accept them. Buggy whips, serial radio dramas, pagers, and Palm Pilots litter the historical landscape alongside the detritus of other ventures washed away by the tide of history.
Starting in the obscure village of Scottsville, New York, there lies a barely visible trail of remnants of one of those ventures - the Genesee Valley Canal. Abandoned stone locks collect rain water in stagnant pools and stand in mute witness to the impact of poor timing.
Did the canal’s misfortune arise simply because of all those nasty railroads, or were there deeper factors at work? Did contractors sell the state legislature, never the cleverest band of monkeys at the best of times, a highly exaggerated view of how easy the canal would be to construct? Did that colony of rattlesnakes at Letchworth bring the project to a halt for a while? Was it madness, given the engineering technology available, to attempt to route the canal through one of the biggest river gorges in the East? Were the navvies to blame? After all, plenty of them were foreigners, and whom better to point the finger at? This makes a singularly good story, and we’d like to tell it. Oddly enough, although we propose this as a project for public radio, it would work even better as a public television documentary. History always has greater impact when it can be seen as well as heard.
To contact us about this project, please e-mail us at email@example.com.
Ever wonder what it’s like to work on one of those freight trains you encounter occasionally at grade crossings? Does the job have any of the glamor and adventure that you saw in it as a kid? Our vast film crew (all one of him) spent a day with the conductor and train driver of the Livonia Avon & Lakeville Railroad’s daily freight run to Rochester to interchange with CSX at Genesee Junction. There was no narration. The story unfolds visually, accompanied by the banter of the conductor and engineer as well as the ordinary sounds heard on a locomotive.
It was very modest . . . but it worked.
So, we made it again! This time, with a story and narration, a little drama, some humor, a helping of dark and bloody history, and, at no extra charge, some philosophy.
And, it worked even better!
- a scene from “To the Junction and Back” download copy
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