What’s your Intelligence?

The other day I went running with my 13-year-old son, Louis, in Rock Creek Park. It used to be that we’d go running and I’d adjust my pace, and maybe even our course, so that we could run together–so that Louis wasn’t chasing me through the woods. This run, however, was different. From our first steps into the woods it was clear, I had become the hound chasing the fox. The fox slid through narrow turns and over obstacles, while I, the clumsy hound, tried my best to keep up lumbering along with my tongue out and haunches flailing.

Now let’s make no mistake, I still have some chops as a trail runner, and this was my trail. The Pulpit Rock trail we were running is a narrow, winding, root- and rock-filled path. It takes you up and down some steep hills, and along the creek. It’s a ton of fun. From years of running the trail I’ve become attuned to its twists and turns, roots and rocks, and seasonal changes. But Louis has a natural grace and ability at 13 that I never had. Small for his age, his physical intelligence is remarkable for a boy who can’t find his socks when they’re on his feet. It’s something I’ve always known about Lou, but watching his feet fly over the trail–from behind, which is where I was for most of this run–I was able to see how smart his feet are.

We do don’t often think of physical acumen as an intelligence, but what else would you call it? Perhaps because it comes so naturally to some we see it as a gift rather than intelligence–and like any intelligence it is a gift. But it’s a gift that must be used, explored and fostered if it’s going to grow and develop.

I encounter students–boys mostly, but by no means exclusively–who don’t think they’re smart, but who can run like the wind, climb without fear or consistently toss exquisite layups. We encourage them on the court or out on the rocks. We stand in awe of their abilities and their fearlessness. It goes beyond our awe of youth, these people are physically brilliant.

Physical intelligence is just one example. I also know young people who shine outdoors. Put them in the woods and they come to life. Then there are those people who can manipulate clay or wood or some other material in almost magical ways–pulling beauty and function from what many of us consider a lump of dirt or firewood.

As educators we spend a good deal of time talking about how we can harness a students love of sports, nature, art… you name it, in the service of teaching math or writing. And I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. But what we essentially tell that person is “You know the way your smart at (fill in the blank)? Well, that’s nice, but it really doesn’t mean a lot. Here’s how you need to be smart.” Is that really the message we intend to send?


Crows are well known for their intelligence. In fact, the entire Corvidae family is renowned for being the smartest of all birds and some of the smartest of all animals. The secret to their superior intellect has been located in their brain for the first time, according to a new study from Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder from the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. – See more at: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/crow-brains-reveal-secrets-their-intelligence#sthash.welnXqx2.dpuf

By Third Grade…. Is that what matters?

Yesterday NPR discussed President Obama’s proposal for universal early childhood education. A popular argument for universal early childhood education cited by Gene Sperling, an economist who I really admire–as much as one can admire an economist–is that spending on early childhood education save taxpayer dollars down the road. Sperling sites research suggesting that every dollar spent on high-qulaity pre-kindergarten education saves between $4 and $17 down the road in terms of things like higher wages and decreased juvenile delinquency. Nice, right?

This morning, continuing their look at the President’s proposal, the station showcased Georgia’s early adoption of universal early childhood education legislation. Critics of the policy point to the added cost and evidence that by third grade the gains seen due to early childhood education basically even out. In other words kids who went to pre-k are performing at the same levels as those who didn’t.

Aside from the point that the evidence is arguable on that last point, I think both commentaries point to a common but pretty disturbing perspective: That the value of the child can be measured–should be measured–in future achievement. Essentially we are saying, it doesn’t matter so much what high-quality early childhood experience means to a child, unless it translates into higher test scores, higher wages, or increased employability later. We value the child on for his or her future potential, not for the inherent value of that child as a person. I find that to be one of the saddest comments on our educational system and our society as a whole.


Patterned by Nature: North Carolina Museum Translates Nature’s Patterns into a Moving Work of Art

Patterns exist all around us. Finding and interpreting them is most often a matter of close observation and creative, thoughtful documentation. In North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences, Sosolimited and Plebian Design have found an interesting, engaging and quite beautiful way of using technology to demonstrate recurring patterns in nature.
Read the full post here. Excerpt below…

Patterned by Nature – Transparent pixels in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Some time ago Sosolimited and Plebian Design set out to create a large scale transparent LCD sculpture for a science museum atrium. Each pixel was designed as a piece of glass that could independently change the transparency of: from opaque black to transparent. The sculpture was designed to curve up through the atrium of the museum and display down-sampled patterns from nature, along with a high fidelity soundtrack. Almost two years later, its wonderful to see this project finally come to life.

“Patterned by Nature” was commissioned by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the newly built Nature Research Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The exhibit celebrates our abstraction of nature’s infinite complexity into patterns through the scientific process, and through our perceptions. It brings to light the similarity of patterns in our universe, across all scales of space and time.

The 90’x10’ “ribbon” winds through the five story atrium of the museum and is made of 3600 tiles of LCD glass. It runs on roughly 75 watts, less power than a laptop computer. Animations are created by independently varying the transparency of each piece of glass. The content cycles through twenty programs, ranging from clouds to rain drops to colonies of bacteria to flocking birds to geese to cuttlefish skin to pulsating black holes. The animations were created through a combination of algorithmic software modeling of natural phenomena and compositing of actual footage.

An eight channel soundtrack accompanies the animations on the ribbon, giving visitors clues to the identity of the pixelated movements. In addition, two screens show high resolution imagery and text revealing the content on the ribbon at any moment.

Patterned by Nature was created by Plebian DesignHypersonic Design & Engineering, and Sosolimited.

Living in Pictures: Of sharing and the act of living

Karen Rosenberg notes in Everyone Lives, In Pictures, her New York Times analysis of Instagram and similar photo applications, that a new cultural norm has arisen in photography. She quotes Susan Sontag’s collection of essays “On Photography.” In 1977 Sontag wrote:

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

“But”, as Rosenberg notes, “that was before smartphones and social media; before the imperative to share our photographs; before Instagram, purchased earlier this month by Facebook for $1 billion. The act of snapping a picture is no longer enough to confirm reality and enhance experience; only sharing can give us that validation.”

Rosenberg’s article reminds me of something that happened a while ago, when I took a group of students hiking on the Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls, Maryland just outside Washington, DC.

As we entered the trail from the northern side a student asked if she could listen to her Ipod while we hiked. I told the group that I’d really prefer that we not be hooked into technology during the hike. In other words, not cell phones, no texting, no music or apps. The one exception I was willing to make (and which I generally am willing to make) was the used of electronic devces for taking pictures.

So we began our hike. We scrambled over boulders, walked shaded paths and climbed a pretty steep wall, all before we stopped to eat lunch. As we came to an overlook where we could see the river below us and across to the Virginia side, I saw one of the students, thumbs working hard typing away on his smartphone.

I reminded him that we weren’t going to be e-mailing or texting while we hiked–or at all in the woods.

“No, no…” he said, “It’s alright, I’m not texting, I’m just posting my pictures to Facebook.”

Beauty and Humor in the Natural World

In nature, form follows function… beauty and humor follow form. Some would argue that art is simply a comment (or multiple comments) on the form and function found in the natural world. And while I’m not qualified to make any definitive arguments on the nature of art, two projects that have that have recently come to my attention demonstrate pretty clearly how the artistic eye (and in the first case, also the scientific eye) uses close observation to create beautiful and even humorous images.

The form in nature that follows the specific function of individual proteins, inspires Maja Klevanski, a.k.a. May K, to create sparse black and white drawings that often humorously reflect the very function of the proteins she studies as a doctoral candidate at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Germany. In the “Drunk Girl” drawing below, Klevanski  illustrates the job of the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzyme.

ADH enzyme

Drunk Girl
Protein Data Bank ID: 1ADC
Protein Name: Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH)
Organism: Equus caballus (Horse)
Title of Drawing: “Drunken Girl”

This time the drawing doesn’t have exactly the same look as the protein, but it is involved in the very same activity, in breaking down alcohol.

[Roman] asked me to draw an ethanol molecule. But as I can draw only proteins, I suggested him that I could draw the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), an enzyme which breaks down ethanol in our liver. How much alcohol we can stand, directly depends on the amount of ADH in our body. Thus, to all proud hard drinkers: It’s not you coping with all these alcohol amounts… always remember that there are these sweet little ADH girls in your body without whose help you would be lost.

Tree Ring Print: Bryan Nash GillBryan Nash Gill’s relief prints of tree cross sections draw art from the very simplest and most common natural objects. Gill sees the beauty, as many of us have, in the concentric growth rings of trees. He has developed a process for transfer the life and history represented in the rings to a new media, creating in the truest sense wood cut prints, with a beauty attributable to, but separate from the natural object from which the pattern is derived.

Gill and Klevanski share the artist/scientist’s penchant for close observation, along with the  the creative vision to produce something new and original that speaks directly to their works’ origins in the natural world.

Soundscape Ecology /  In Dialogue

I was going to write about this article from the New York Times Magazine this week. But I think the link below does just as good a job as I would have done, saying what I wanted to say.

Soundscape Ecology

Last summer I had the opportunity to organize ateliers for the NAREA Summer Conference at Asilomar. In my introduction (see below) I talked a little about a new field in science: soundscape ecology. The NY Times ran a story about current research this weekend: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?pagewanted=all

read the rest:  Soundscape Ecology /  In Dialogue.

Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.




stemsteam valveIn order for America to remain competitive–or more accurately, to regain our competitive edge–we need to focus on education. Specifically, we are told we need to focus on STEM education–Sience, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Prophets (as well as charlatans) of growth, economic development, and good public policy from the White House to the school-house to the work-house tout the importance of STEM education to the nation’s future. These advocates of a new American exceptionalism see a future tied to the steady progress of science, the power of innovative new technologies, the efficiencies of enlightened engineering and an understanding gained through the judicious application of mathematical principles to an ever-increasing cauldron of useful data. In large part, they are correct. Our educational system is hopelessly out of date, we are not educating students for the present let alone for a successful, self-directed future. STEM education recognizes the need to keep up with new discoveries and changing technology, to build an understanding of the hardware Unfortunately, this vision of the future comes up wanting in some important ways, with STEM education reifying false partitions between the “serious” disciplines of science and mathematics, and the more “liberal” and “fine” arts–the very areas that are spurring new innovations that will shape our future.

A growing chorus of voices, however, is not so much eschewing the call for STEM education as it is questioning the completeness, and yes even the wisdom, of an educational paradigm that neglects the arts. This chorus calls for reconsidering the STEM movement, to develop a more complete STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Art) paradigm of education. The reasoning goes that without arts education, future workers will lack necessary creative and collaborative skills that are increasingly important. John Tarnoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post does a good job making the argument that many of the new jobs created by the technology boom are in fact in creative areas. “Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas,” Tarnoff notes. And those workers are not always easy to find.  There is, therefore, a basic economic argument for creating systems and policies that encourage STEAM education.

But is an economic argument the only way to justify STEAM focused education? I won’t get into a long discussion on the nature of education (publicly funded education in particular), or ask whether we shouldn’t be considering factors beyond worker training when developing goals and drafting policy– educating an informed and able citizenry for example, or promoting democratic ideals and ethics. No, what I’m talking about is a more basic principle, but one that continues to be demonstrated as we evolve socially, culturally, and technologically. I call it the principle of connections.

We too often divorce the “hard science” disciplines from the arts (and here I include the liberal arts), just as we often assume that “nature” and “technology” (or even industry) are mutually exclusive, perhaps even conflicting ideas. Throughout history, however, such dichotomies have been consistently discredited. It is equally as wrong to assume that the engineer or scientist lacks creative capacity as it is to write off the observational, technical and analytic skills of the artist or philosopher. From Leonardo da Vinci to E.O. Wilson our greatest scientific thinkers have also often displayed immense artistic talent, each grounded in their abilities to observe, analyze, document and most of all imagine. In fact scientists and engineers are among the most ardent advocates for STEAM over STEM thinking.

There is one more connection, I’d like to add to this discussion, though. That is making, or the manual arts (would that be STEAMM education?). Shop classes, home economics and all forms of manual learning (what we might call labor) continue to be stripped from our school curricula in order to make room for more reading, writing, science and math. From a purely economic standpoint this makes little sense, especially in light of the Obama administration’s focus on bringing manufacturing strength back to the American economy. From an educational standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of disastrous. Instead of stripping manual arts from the curriculum we would do better to more thoroughly integrate them into every aspect of learning. Math, science, art and all the rest would likely benefit from providing hands-on experiential opportunities for students to learn. Take students out of the classroom and away from the textbooks and computer screens for a significant part of each day and lets see if achievement (not to mention satisfaction) doesn’t increase.