What I remember from high school — and why

high school memoriesHigh school feels like a dream. Fifty years later, few distinct memories remain. I’ve only stayed in touch with one friend from those days, so there’s almost no reinforcement from reviewing and remembering the past. And yet there are some experiences that still retain power. Let’s look at three and explore why they endure.

Mr. Crooke’s holes

We knew almost nothing personal about our high school teachers. So I was surprised one day when our physics teacher, Mr. Crooke, told us that during World War II he had helped to develop some of the earliest rockets. His job was to figure out the best fin designs. This was long before the days of computer simulations (or computers for that matter), so Mr. Crooke experimented by drilling holes in the fins and then firing the rockets to see how straight they flew.

This captured our schoolboy imaginations, and for the next few weeks “Mr. Crooke’s holes” were a frequent topic of conversation.

I liked physics class because we did actual experiments and it offered the possibility of understanding the strange and confusing world in a rational way that seemed comforting to me. But this unexpected personal story cut through the dry presentations of facts that filled most of my childhood education, and it stuck.

Mr. Crooke told us that one of his rockets was displayed in the London Science Museum. Fifty years later, I spent a day at the museum. I examined every rocket, but, sad to say, couldn’t find the one with Mr. Crooke’s holes.

The biology class I’ll never forget

In class one day I was asked to publicly announce my score on a ten-question biology pop quiz. “Six” I said, and I heard loud gasps. The class of twenty-three students was shocked. I was supposed to be smarter than that. Although it has lost its emotional impact, I still remember the shame I felt at that moment.

In my school, the unspoken classroom rules were do what the teachers tell you and don’t make mistakes. Transgressions were followed by public shaming.

It took me many years to realize how much my education environment relied on shame. Because the emotional cost is high, it’s a rotten way to motivate learning.

Inventing an electric bicycle

Back to my physics class. (Hey, I became a physicist.) One day Mr. Crooke gave us a homework assignment for the week: design something that involved physics. I remember having a hard time thinking of something that would actually work. The evening before the assignment was due, I thought of inventing an electric bicycle.

Although there are some Victorian era patents for electric bikes, they were never mass-produced until recently. I certainly had never seen one when I invented mine. I remember drawing a bicycle with an electric motor bolted on, connected by a chain to the rear wheel. The battery was mounted on a little platform behind the bike. The details of the controls were conveniently omitted.

It amuses me that, thanks to the development of powerful lightweight batteries, my fanciful and impractical “invention” in the 1960’s has become the commonplace e-bike of today.

High school memories

These high school memories of mine have endured because they all include an emotional component of one kind or another. We may learn wondrous facts in school, but it’s the stories, experiences, and associated feelings that trigger memories that live on.

Is that true for you?

Cooperative Learning: Lessons from neutrino physics and pair programming

leptonic weak neutral current

As an experimental elementary particle physicist in the 1970’s I was lucky enough to work on what turned out to be one of the most important physics experiments in the second half of the twentieth century. Exploring the rare interactions of neutrinos in a huge bubble chamber at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, required labs in five countries to view and hand-digitize millions of filmed particle tracks projected onto large white tables. Only a few of these images were expected to show the crucial events we were looking for, so it was important that we didn’t miss anything important.

Gargamelle film scanning table
Gargamelle film scanning table

When you’re staring at hundreds of similar images, one after the other, for hours on end it’s easy to overlook something. So how did we minimize the chance of missing an infrequent crucial particle interaction?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Every set of film images was scanned at least twice on separate occasions by different staff. The resulting set of information on each image was then checked to see if all the viewers agreed on what was going on. If they didn’t, other staff viewed the film again to discover who was right, thus catching missing information or interpretative errors. Statistical methods then allowed us to calculate how accurate each scan operator was, and even to predict the small likelihood that all viewers would miss something significant.

This approach allowed us to be confident of our ability to catch a few, very important particle interactions. The best evidence for our results—which provided the first confirmation that a Nobel Prize winning theory unifying two fundamental forces in nature was indeed correct—was based on finding just three examples.

Another example of how people working together can create more reliable work is pair programming: a technique that became popular in the 1990’s for developing higher quality software. In pair programming, two programmers work together at one computer. One writes code while the other reviews the code as it is typed in, checking for errors and suggesting improvements. The two programmers switch roles frequently. Pair programming typically reduces coding errors, which are generally difficult and expensive to fix at a later stage, at the cost, sometimes, of an increase in programmer hours. Many software companies creating complex software find that the value of the increased quality is well worth any additional cost.

While these two examples of cooperative work concentrate on reducing critical mistakes, it doesn’t take much of a leap to see that working together on a learning task may increase the accuracy and completeness of what is learned. As a bonus, the two (or more) learners involved receive an opportunity to get to know each other while they share an experience together. With the right design, there is little downside but much to be gained from learning with others rather than alone.