Tag Archives: Experiential Learning

Experience Shining its Light on Reason

I am an inveterate collector of quotations from books and newspaper/magazine articles, accumulated in two quite thick journals I’ve been keeping for the past 15 or so years.

The quotes I pull from my readings are not always the author’s best writing, but rather what jumps out at me in the moment, usually influenced by something related that I’m thinking about.

Thus a few lines from Mathew Thomas’s fine 2014 novel “We Are Not Ourselves” made it into the quotation journal hall of fame. One of the main characters is a teenage boy thinking about graduating high school and going on to college, hoping that higher education will provide insights into his own confused behavior that weren’t clarifying at home. Thomas writes:

He was having another of those inchoate ideas that he couldn’t entirely articulate to himself. He knew that these cloudy moments would come into sharper focus when he was away at college, where he would divest himself of the stultifying habits of personality and the false conclusions of biography and shine the light of pure reason on experience.”

Thomas’s character is thinking along the lines most of us consider higher education: a place where reason shines and intellect thrives. It’s an accurate reflection of how his character would think, but it may not represent the best way to teach and learn.

I wish the last phrase had been transposed to: “shine the light of pure experience on reason.” My own early postsecondary experience at the overly cerebral University of Chicago convinced me that reason unfiltered through experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The U. of C. described its undergraduate education as the “life of the mind,” confusing because getting out of their heads and into experiencing life is what students are seeking at that age. We hoped that through university we could learn what we felt about the world around us, be inspired to find a useful role for ourselves in the world, discover what love and friendship were all about and sort through emotions generated by the political, social, economic and cultural inconsistencies in the society around us.

It wasn’t facts or logic we needed to apply to experience, but rather trusting our intuition as a reliable guide to interpret our intellectual education. It’s not that reason is a bad thing, but reason untempered by learned experience is education in the shallows rather than the depths.

The confusion experienced by youth is caused primarily by a lack of experience. Learning from what we experience is a better antidote for confusion than reason, yet university education emphasizes academic learning over lived experience.

It wasn’t until I experienced scientific research that I learned the value of reason. My first years of university were a grade wasteland, peppered by C’s and D’s induced by a divide between the organized information I was presented with in class and my lack of experience to place course material in any context I could relate to.

But two research jobs changed that, the first studying brain evolution in 50 million year-old carnivore fossils and the second focused on the evolution of complex single-celled protists, events in organismal history that transpired about two billion years ago.

These were emotional experiences; as I travelled far, far back in time with the organisms I was studying, I began to feel the splendor revealed through applying science to unraveling the great mystery of where we came from. My courses began to make more sense with these visceral insights generated by doing rather than reading about research, and my grades improved.

Decades later, this template for learning through experience found a structural home in our SFU Semester in Dialogue program, with its brand “Experience your Education.”

But experience is not enough; we debrief and reflect on what the students have lived through, probing whether those experiences have shifted the way they reason about the world around them.

It’s experience shining it’s light on reason, diving into the depths where the deepest learning emerges.

Writing on the Wall

I am an inveterate collector of quotes, now on my second thick journal full of passages I’ve gleaned from books, newspapers, magazine articles, and conversations. The quote journals are fun to reread occasionally, as the phrases and sentences I’ve selected over the years reflect what was going on in my life at the time.

A few of my favorite excerpts have made it to my office wall, some calligraphied and framed, others as posters with sayings embossed over images. Perhaps my favorite came from Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. He spoke at dinner for a leadership development program, Action Canada, for which I was a mentor for about five years.

One of his sentences jumped out at me, and made it to my wall: “Real leaders want to do something, not be somebody.” I discovered later that the original quote came from a 19th century French philosopher whose name now escapes me. It resonated for me because I was mentoring emerging Canadian leaders and also had just taken on a leadership role at my university, directing the Centre for Dialogue.

I’ve thought about this quote often over the years, as the leaders I respect the most are focused on what good they can achieve in the world more than what rewards or honors might be bestowed. It’s in the how we do things that determine the somebody we become; setting out to be exalted as a life objective is one of the worst ways to build a life.

My Semester in Dialogue students provided a second favorite quote on my wall, as a framed gift at the end of one of our Semesters in Dialogue. They invented a new verb: Winstonize: to cut out half the words and get straight to the point.

They had received edited pages marked with dense red suggestions for three months, mostly brutally cutting phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs from what they thought was stellar prose. I took it as an honor to have a word named after me, although perhaps they were just making fun of my penchant for brevity.

I do indeed love writing, and increasingly have been teaching workshops called “Communicating with Impact,” with brevity, clarity and focus as organizing concepts. Much of the workshop content was developed at the Banff Centre about ten years ago, where I was a founding faculty member in the Science Communication program.

That experience improved my own clarity around what good communication means, partly reflected in what became an end-of-program tradition, a poster with pithy phrases that summarized the participants’ experiences. The 2008 poster that I have on my wall includes: Tell a story, It’s all about audience, Make it personal, Keep it ruthlessly simple, and Listen.

I’ve always been intrigued by what people choose to post; a careful tour of an office wall reveals volumes about the inhabitant. In my case, it’s pretty obvious what I value as a professor: encouraging students to find the unique thing in the world that’s most important for them to do, and providing the tools, especially communication skills, to facilitate achieving their ambitions.

 Knowing your point, and getting right to it, is the essence of a life well lived.

Arizona State University Experiences Education

I spent a couple of days at Arizona State University in Tempe a few weeks ago, working with faculty and staff on experiential education. It’s an interesting institution, committed on the one hand to an extensive curriculum of online degrees, and on the other to making the on-campus experience more engaging and effective.

Their online coursework just received a big bump from Starbucks, which announced this week that the company would fully fund the tuition for any employee who enrolls in an ASU online degree program. It’s great for employees, but also a boon for ASU by increasing tuition income at a time when Arizona universities are experiencing cutbacks by the state’s government.

Considering ASU’s online focus, it was gratifying to discover they also have a deep commitment to on-campus learning, with the administration, faculty and staff enthusiastic about implementing a more experientially focused curriculum. Some great ideas came up during my visit, during brainstorming sessions that built on the work I presented from our SFU Semester in Dialogue.

One concern of ASU, and many U.S. state colleges, is that they are required to admit almost any applicant from their state as long as they have met very minimal standards. Many freshmen arrive unprepared for university, both academically and in their maturity levels, so that retention of these students during their first year or two is a real issue.

We came up with an idea for a mandatory first-year course, “Who Do You Want to be in the World 101,” to address this problem. The course would begin with a research-based exploration of values, using novels, magazine/newspaper articles, movies, online videos and other social media as a stimulator for students to reflect on their own core values and the outcomes they hope to generate out in the world based on those values.

Their assignments at this stage would include written reflections and oral presentations, providing opportunities for faculty and their fellow students to provide feedback. Students would then revise their pieces, thereby building communication skills while improving their writing and speaking skills.

The second half of the course would be implementation, with an assignment to do a values-driven project with outcomes that contribute positively to the community. For example, a student with a core value of helping others might decide to focus on poverty, and work to establish a clothing exchange or help build housing for the homeless.

Students could work individually or in small groups, and again at the end of their project they would present their work and receive feedback, possibly in a forum open to anyone from the university or community. The hoped-for end result would be that participating students would move into the rest of their university education more confident, with a clearer idea of why they were in school, and improved research, writing and speaking tools that would serve them well in university and beyond.

Another interesting idea that emerged had more to do with the internal approaches ASU administrators and faculty members were applying towards curricular reform. I spoke with a number of Arts faculty who described experiential learning methods they used with their dance, painting, sculpture, theatre and other classes, but which hadn’t gotten much traction outside the university arts community.

It occurred to them that ASU’s strategizing around learning models might benefit from bringing arts-based approaches into the usually staid and formal meetings that characterize university committees. They’re going to approach the administration about sponsoring some more artistic explorations of proposed teaching and learning models, to better walk the talk around experiencing education.

One final thing that impressed me about ASU was the capacity of the administration to implement new ideas in a big way. A few years ago the university decided that traditional departments were old school, and they eliminated this level in many faculties and encouraged faculty members to regroup along interdisciplinary lines. They amalgamated many departments into larger schools, and every few years faculty either confirm that their current alignments are working or realign in fresh new combinations.

I can imagine myself as a bee biologist aligning with faculty interested in dialogue, agricultural policy, environmental conservation and dance, and then shaking that up every few years.

Arizona is a politically conservative state, so it was enlightening to find such an innovative and paradigm-busting institution in the midst of a conservative mindset. But then, Arizona’s deserts are like that as well: startling and surprising when you get beyond the superficial.

Culture Change

Universities are funny organisms, self-describing with language like “innovative” and “cutting edge,” but in practice being quite conservative in maintaining their internal status quo. Curriculum is particularly slow to change, with faculty perpetuating the style and content of their own teachers, graduating students who join the workforce with similar mindsets in each generation.

Culture change that alters traditional disciplines is unusual, but occasionally the sun, moon, earth and stars align and a new learning paradigm emerges with earthquake-like force, potentially shifting how graduates practice their craft.

I came across one such paradigm-shifting program the other day, Narrative Medicine at Columbia University (http://www.narrativemedicine.org). Their goal is to replace impersonal and high-turnover patient care with careful listening and empathic attention, but it’s the method that’s most interesting: the students read fiction in order to understand that astute diagnosis is about stories.

Through literature, the students improve in their narrative competence, learning to weave initially disconnected details together into a full tapestry of a patient’s health that leads to more accurate diagnoses. Responsiveness to patients also increases with improved awareness of the character, plot and setting behind their illness, just as empathy for characters in a novel increases as we proceed deeper into the story.

My curiosity piqued, I began seeking out other examples of culture-busting university coursework, and soon a friend sent me The Senior Reflection: When Art Meets Science at Stanford University (http://www.stanford.edu/~suemcc/TSR/index.html). This Biology Department course offers students the opportunity to do a creative project that connects a scientific subject with the arts.

One student wrote and performed a compelling prose poem about his conservation work with elephants, while a second created a mixed media sand art performance exploring the precarious position of frogs threatened with global extinction. A third student composed a jazz piece, “Improvising Infections.” Since the course began in 2011, dozens of students have used the creativity of art to explore their scientific interests while engaging the broader community outside of university.

It’s difficult to assess whether these and a few other university programs I found are curricular outliers or trendsetters, but their scarcity suggests that culture-busting coursework is still far from becoming a movement.

There is an educational crusade going on today, but it’s happening outside of traditional universities, through a growing cornucopia of social enterprises providing discipline-bridging programs in tune with today’s rapid evolution of how work is viewed.

One of the leaders in this new model is the Asheville, North Carolina group Mycelium (http://mycelium.is), whose tag line asks the questions “Is your education getting in the way of your learning?” They offer 12-week sessions in which participants, who are called “Change Makers” in their lexicon, identify their own project or life question and explore it through a custom-designed learning program.

Their Journey includes clarifying their question, raising funds, mapping out the skills and network needed to address their issue, three-day retreats with fellow Journeyers, and a tailored set of relevant workshops offered at various sites across the United States. An extensive support universe provides feedback, including a personal coach, a personal advisory team, a practice group in which to try out ideas, and Curated Connections to People in the Mycelium Network (capitals are theirs, not mine).

All is available for $4400, discounted slightly if you sign up early or with a friend, a fairly reasonable fee considering that a semester in a typical US university will cost five times or so the Mycelium fee. And they promise results: after 12 weeks, Change Makers will leave activated to do their project and connected to a community that can support their plan.

Once you get past the self-consciously hip jargon of Change Makers on a Journey with Curated Connections, the world of social enterprise education is more vibrant and imaginative than the more staid education offered through universities.

But both have value; students benefit from the knowledge transfer that universities do well, but need a change-making journey through which to find their own unique voice in the world.

A wise university would note the growth potential in these change making social enterprises and incorporate similar models into their undergraduate curriculum.

One Change Maker who participated in Mycelium, Kate Morales, summarized well where this potential sweet spot between education and learning at a university might reside: “My biggest insight was finding a learning structure that worked for me — something between the rigidity of formal school and the unsupportedness of wandering.

Mission to Learn

I fell into a fascinating website the other day, Stanford 2025 (http://www.stanford2025.com/#intro), describing a design team exercise to imagine what Stanford University might look like in 2025. The designers worked with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, asking groups to pretend it was the year 2100 and they were looking back at Stanford in the year 2025.

Each group was tasked with remembering what going to university had been like in 2025, after the 2014 design exercises had inspired some progressive changes in how students at Stanford learned. To focus the exercise, the design group prepared a basic toolkit and left the toolkit up on the website for anyone to use in a similar exercise.

I was struck with how different the imagined 2025 university would be, but also with how possible the changes were, with just some simple shifts in mindset and motivation. The one that really excited me was their exploration of purpose.

The “Purpose Learning” group described the current 2014 system as “Students declare majors and focus their studies on declared majors.” In 2025 “Students declare missions and couple disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fueled it.”

Statements made in 2014 like “I’m a Biology Major” morphed in 2025 to “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” A student with a double major in computing and political science in 2025 might develop a personal mission statement stating: “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”

The Purpose Learning group imagined Stanford connecting with the Olympics every two years, establishing seven new labs with each Olympic games focused on seven different local to global problems that the host city chose to concentrate on. Just as the Olympics attracts the best athletes, the Impact Labs would attract the best faculty, students and community members to create world-record progress on tough civic, environmental, political, social and cultural problems.

The outcomes for the imaginary 2025 students included:

  • Stanford graduates accelerated both their personal sense of meaning and outward global impact
  • Alumni fondly reflected on how their personal missions established at Stanford acted as an anchor as they charted their path beyond the Farm
  • An endless list of contributions to issues of poverty, health, infrastructure, renewable energy, global governance, space travel, artistic and cultural achievement, etc.

What really struck me about this vision was how much more it challenged students to make a difference in the world, as compared to the current paradigm of being taught information that can serve as a career substrate but isn’t particularly motivational to contribute towards the public good.

I have a related idea I’ve flogged around my university, only half seriously because I doubted there would be much possibility of implementing it. The idea is to create a capstone course called “Making the World a Better Place.”

In this course, students would do something in the community with their education that created positive progress, and they wouldn’t graduate until they presented their project to faculty. Students could work individually or collaboratively with other capstone students, reporting back each week for feedback and support from their fellow students and the Better Place faculty.

A final presentation and web-based report from each student or group would conclude the course, preceded by two or three dry-run presentations and drafts of their writing/website so that faculty could work with students to improve their speaking and writing skills. Success wouldn’t necessarily be required, although preferred, but at least a sincere attempt to accomplish something outside the ivory tower would be needed before receiving a diploma.

Turning education from majoring to missioning creates the expectation that life is not only about self-improvement but also about accomplishing a larger task that gives back to the community.

That’s a learning outcome I can get behind.

A Long Farewell

A moment took me by surprise this afternoon, although I should have expected it. I am no longer the Director of SFU’s Semester in Dialogue. After 12 years, it was time to pass the torch.

I’ve known this was coming for years, so my departure was not unexpected. Still, today feels quite different from yesterday. It’s always fascinating to see what the sink-in moment will be indicating that life has changed. Mine was saying goodbye for the afternoon to our Secretary Linda Bannister, and suddenly realizing that I wasn’t her supervisor any longer.

I’m not retiring, or even leaving; I have a year-long administrative leave coming up during which I expect to be into work most days, doing some writing and community-based projects I’ve been wanting to get to. I’ll be back teaching in some capacity when my leave is over.

Founding, directing and teaching in the Semester in Dialogue over the last 12 years has easily been the most affecting experience of my working life. The opportunity to mentor, to get to know hundreds of extraordinary students and provide a platform through which they could envision their own futures, has been beyond priceless.

The Semester has introduced me to the cornucopia of characters that make our region thrive, as we’ve had well over 500 community members in as dialogue guests. Urban planners and oil company CEO’s, government officials and anti-poverty activists, First Nations leaders and poets, they and so many others have graced our dialogue table. Their generosity with their time and willingness to interact has motivated our students to do more in the world than they thought they could, and provided role models for how to construct and effective and satisfying life.

I often joke that the Semester in Dialogue might be renamed “Making the World a Better Place,” as we admonish our students to treat their semester as an opportunity to give back to the community and make some positive change happen to the world outside their education.

There’s a Hebrew phrase “Tikkun Olam,” roughly translated as healing or repairing the world, and it’s that spirit that has guided me these many years in the Semester. I have no illusions that I can take much credit for world-healing, but I do know that our students can. The world is indeed better off with the projects, accomplishments and contributions our students have made through their Semester in Dialogue work.

My greatest satisfaction has been through the hundreds of students who found their voice and became more fully themselves through the Semester in Dialogue, who began to think more expansively about how much they could do, grew their motivation to have a positive impact on the world around them and developed skills to be effective agents for change.

I’m not really leaving, but still: all of you involved in the Semester have meant the world to me, and I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am to those many of you who have shared the journey.

Teaching More, or Teaching Better?

A cranky column by Margaret Wente appeared in the Globe and Mail last week, complaining that professors don’t teach enough. It blended a few sketchy statistics together with a warmed-over discussion of teaching loads, an issue that has been around the block a few times before.

Wente missed the more interesting conversation about what is actually going on at universities today. How much we teach may be important, but how teaching is changing is considerably more significant. It’s in the how rather than the how much that the most fertile conversations are percolating.

One steadily growing change at universities is that disciplines have become more porous. When I (and Wente) were in university, teaching was rigidly aligned in silos, biology students learning in the Biology Department with the occasional foray into Chemistry, History students taking History courses with the occasional required course in the sciences thrown in to provide the illusion of a broad education.

Universities still are organized into departmental siloes for convenience, but now strive to build webs of interdisciplinary teaching programs that connect diverse departments. In my university, for example, we have a program that merges molecular biology and business, training students who emerge primed to take on entrepreneurial positions in biotechnology firms.

Our Cognitive Science program focuses on an array of subjects including consciousness, language, learning, information processing and decision-making, at the intersection of Linguistics, Psychology, Computing Science and Philosophy. World Literature focuses on life in other nations, cultures and religions, drawing from English, Cultural Studies, History, Art, Religion, Psychology and Film Studies.

For professors, teaching in these programs requires more work rather than slacking off.  These interdisciplinary offerings exist in the interstitial spaces between fields, spaces that require more preparation and interaction with students and other professors than simply delivering a lecture in our own narrow discipline.

A second trend at universities has grown from students’ passion to learn from sources broader than just their academic professors. At SFU, for example, we now have a new category, Professor of Professional Practice, practitioners from whom students will benefit by exposure to their professional experience.

These new appointments are expanding how students learn by providing practical examples of what they might do with their education. A performing artist teaching in Contemporary Arts, a successful corporate executive in Business, or a federal fisheries scientist seconded to Resource Management, all add a dimension to education that enlivens the classroom and broadens students’ ideas about what they might do after graduation.

A third exciting trend, perhaps the most time-consuming for faculty to teach, is experiential learning, in which students go out into the world and do work that has real meaning in their lives. Student projects in our Semester in Dialogue program are prime examples of how university education can focus students on who they want to be in the world, often leading to employment.

One student created a video dance performance to explore gentrification in an impoverished Vancouver neighborhood, and was so inspired that she started a successful floral shop that employs residents from the community. A second conducted a project to reduce household waste and garbage from a few test households, after which our regional government hired her to scale it up to a neighborhood level. Another group of students became interested in reducing carbon emissions, and went on to create a thriving bicycle service delivering office supplies and groceries in downtown Vancouver.

There are endless other examples, but the point is this: experiential learning demands more faculty time and more intense interactions with students than preparing and delivering a canned lecture or the typical 5-minute encounter during office hours.

Probing, mentoring, advising, connecting; these are the kind of activities that more and more of today’s university faculty are engaging in, and they don’t show up on any statistical summary of faculty workloads.

The conversation about whether professors need to teach more is a dying discussion at contemporary universities, replaced by the more vibrant dialogue about how to make education more relevant and engaging than the lecture-heavy models that used to predominate.

It’s an exciting and provocative time at universities. I know I’m teaching way more than I used to, and loving every minute of it.

Leonard Radinsky

leonard radinsky    Leonard Radinsky

It was a fossil skull and some latex that provided my first exposure to experiential learning in school, in which information and experience merge into creative ideas, values are probed and transformed, character molded, and motivation to contribute to a better world inspired.

The skull was a 50 million year-old fossil from Wyoming and its discoverer was Leonard Radinsky, a paleontology professor at the University of Chicago where I spent two years as an undergraduate student beginning in 1968. Embodied within that time in Chicago is much of what is wrong, and could be right, about how we teach.

It was a curious choice to spend most of my freshman year carefully scraping the sand and dirt from a fossil skull rather than attend classes. The University of Chicago was and still is considered one of the world’s most distinguished universities, renowned for its “Life of the Mind” curriculum, exposing students to the entire history of human thought in science, arts, literature, history, and politics.

While the university attempted to immerse we students in the great minds, the city outside was close to a state of war, convulsed with protests against the war in Vietnam, recent police brutality at the Democratic National Convention, and the horrific poverty and crime spilling over from the adjacent black ghetto on the south side of Chicago.

The curriculum suffered from being “the best of,” a survey of what a team of distinguished academics considered necessary to become educated. We grazed at history, literature, science, and art, reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

We saw innumerable slides of classic sculpture and painting from cave days through the Greeks and on to Picasso, and recited poems to each other by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. We learned to write obtuse academic essays, and to nod sagely at each other’s witty insights without admitting that most of what we were writing and our discussions were lifeless.

It wasn’t the fault of the great books or art, which of course have much to offer. Rather, we were bouncing too quickly through the best of human thought, intellects trying to fire but without passion or life experience to provide context.

The flip side of my University of Chicago education was happening outside the classroom, at protests against the war in Vietnam and the university’s ownership of a three-block zone of abandoned buildings that buffered the campus from the surrounding ghetto. I sat in at the administration building, marched to end poverty and racism, and chanted clever slogans to show my solidarity with the oppressed.

These social and political experiences were engaging, considerably more so than the classroom. They provided the passion we students craved, but lacked the structured reflection that should be the bread and butter of a university education. We were enthused in the streets to change the world, a good thing in young and restless minds, but had no tools or skills to apply towards our good intentions.

Our professors missed the potential teachable moments, had little inkling that community and university could interact, and overlooked opportunities to connect academia with contemporary real-world events.

Lingering outside these two disconnected worlds of town and gown was a compelling personal reality: I needed to earn some money if I was to stay in school and maintain my student exemption from the U.S. military draft, which loomed as a heavy consequence of dropping out.

My salvation came in the form of an advertisement for a research assistant in the Department of Anatomy. Professor Leonard Radinsky was seeking an undergraduate student to assist in a project studying brain evolution in carnivores. I had no interest in brains, or carnivores, but it was a job, and since I was the only applicant, my lack of experience or any interest in the field were not barriers.

His project involved a narrow, highly academic topic of interest to but a few specialists, and no apparent relevance to the street protests that were engaging most of my enthusiasm. Radinsky studied the Tertiary era, especially 45-56 million year-old fossils from Wyoming, a time and place when the ancestors of current carnivores thrived while other then-populous lines of carnivores declined and disappeared.

His window into the information retained in fossils was to pour liquid latex into ancient skulls to create casts. He then examined the impressions on the solidified latex to deduce the size and fold structures of the long-ago brains. His work tested a theory rampaging at the time through the tiny community of brain paleontologists, that successful carnivores evolved larger brains and essentially out-thought the evolutionary losers.

Radinsky was deeply engaged in this esoteric line of work, yet also was politically and socially committed to social justice in the world beyond his laboratory. He moved effortlessly between expounding with great enthusiasm on an enlarged fold in the neocortex of an ancient mammal’s brain to why the university should provide free tuition to residents of the south-side Chicago ghetto that surrounded us.

My first fossil to clean and cast was from a line of carnivores that didn’t make it out of the Tertiary. Radinsky handed it to me casually, with no apparent concern that I would fumble and destroy this irreplaceable relic from an extraordinarily distant past. He put a higher priority on my learning than he did on the history that I might destroy in the process.

It didn’t look like much, covered by a concretion of sand and pebbles. I gingerly began to chip away and emerge the fossil within, feeling a responsibility for preserving the information embedded in the skull, focus and interest enhanced by the real consequences if my hand slipped or my attention wandered, infused with that sense of wonder and engagement that had eluded me in the classroom.

Slowly the fossil was revealed, after many weeks of meticulously slow and painstaking work, until I could pour in the latex and pop out the cast holding impressions made by the brain on its surrounding skull. It was a poignant moment, seeing the folds and valleys of an animal that not only was long dead itself, but whose descendants had gone extinct through the crucible of natural selection.

Radinsky brought the same qualities to politics that he lived in the laboratory. We went back and forth from brain evolution to what was happening in the streets outside, subjects not connected by topic but through a style of thinking based at the balance point between wonder and fact, emotion and information, passion and analysis.

Fossils and the Vietnam War held little in common, but the attitudes learned at the fossil trays through the tedium of slow, careful work on the specimens spilled over into dialogue about the tumult outside the laboratory walls.

Radinsky drilled down hard on developing ideas about the effective tools for political transformation, much as he probed the mechanisms of evolutionary change. Would taking over the administration building really advance the end of the war? Did we protesting students actually know anyone from the surrounding ghetto, or were we just as isolated as the official university from the community around us?

For Radinsky, revealing the secrets of ancient, now-extinct organisms was consistent with his political activism. He connected how science could and should serve humanity through systematic, rigorous probing and the wondrous information science reveals about how we evolved and our position in the contemporary world around us.

We need to find the equivalent of fossil skulls and latex for every student, connecting the rarefied intellectual discourse of the classroom and the emotional, issue-challenged world outside.

Our challenge is to expand learning beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries to inspire students to improve the world around them and provide the expertise and motivation to do just that.

Experience your education

I was a seriously underperforming undergraduate student at Boston University in 1970, bored by classes and distracted by, well, all the things that distract a young man of 20. But I needed a summer job, and as a Biology major I got it into my head to knock on faculty members’ doors to see if I could find a research position. I had a dim understanding that’s what biologists, at least the real ones, did for employment: they were paid to study things.

I began knocking, wearing my usual overalls, long and unkempt hair and beard, with only my pathetic transcript loaded with C’s and D’s to offer prospective employers. After being quickly refused and dismissed at every door, I finally found myself at Lynn Margulis’s office door. I had no idea that Lynn was among the most stellar evolutionary biologists of the last 100 years, and Boston University’s most famous scientist at the time. To me, she was just another door to knock on and face what I had come to expect as inevitable rejection.

But instead, she dragged me into her office, and spent most of that afternoon passionately and enthusiastically introducing me to primitive one-celled organisms. She pulled out old articles by LR Cleveland about the magnificent termite gut symbionts, and the work of then-obscure Russian protozoologists describing the most bizarre organisms imaginable. I didn’t understand more than 5% of what she was saying, but was hooked on her passion. And to my great surprise she gave me a summer job, and let me loose in her lab to do real research.

In spite of her stratospheric accomplishments and huge reputation, Lynn had little in the way of grant money, due to her reputation as a maverick and an outspoken critic of how mainstream science was funded and conducted. And, being a strong-minded woman in 1970’s science with what were then radical scientific ideas was not endearing to granting bodies.

But oddly she did have some funds to develop a new screening method for anti-cancer drugs. The idea was to examine how the potential drugs interfered with the growth of tiny hairs (cilia) that make up the mouthparts of one-celled organisms. These hairs are made of the same proteins that create the push-and-pull structures that divide cells. If a drug interfered with the mouthpart hairs, it might also interfere with the out-of-control cell division that characterizes cancer.

My first task was to do a 24-hr. experiment in which I shocked the cilia hairs to shed with chemicals, then followed their regeneration every 2 hours in the presence of various doses of potential anti-cancer drugs. Control cells would take about 8 hours to regenerate, and our hope was that the anti-cancer drugs would slow or prevent regeneration until at least the next day.

I began at 8 AM, checking the dishes of pond water in which the cells were swimming every two hours, recording the state of the hairs. It got to be dinnertime, then later, and it occurred to me that I would be up all night with this experiment doing my two-hour checks.

Fortunately I had friends in the neighborhood near the laboratory who habitually stayed up late imbibing various things and partying. I joined in, but returned to the lab faithfully every two hours to collect the data.

By the next morning I was over-tired and in a somewhat altered state, but dying to know whether the results meant anything. After the last 8 AM check, I took out a piece of graph paper and recorded each 2-hr. data point, and to my amazement the data formed a perfect straight line; the dose of drug was exactly related to how long it took the cilia to regenerate.

A perfect fit. Exactly related. Unusual in science, but a life changer for me. For the first time I understood that a well-conceived experiment could reveal something about the world no one had known before, unpeeling the tiniest, tiniest piece of the great mystery posed by the universe around us.

It was also my first experience in school with personal agency. It was a revelation that  even as a student I could make things happen, find things to study that made a difference in the world outside of what, until then, had been the boring classroom. It made me want to pay attention in lectures, to learn what I needed to know so that I, too, could be a scientist.

I’m often asked why I started an experiential learning program, Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue (www.sfu.ca/dialogue/semester), and Lynn Margulis comes to mind. Lynn passed away recently, after an illustrious career replete with almost every award imaginable, but it’s her faith in what students could accomplish that remains to me as her most lasting legacy.

I had the pleasure of introducing Lynn at a lecture once, and called her my fairy godmother. I think that’s about it: she reached out and touched so many of us with her magic wand, turning what looked like toads into princes with her unwavering confidence and support that we could be more, way more, than we thought we could be.

Isn’t that what teaching should be about?