Engineering our Future, Re-defining University Education Pt.1

 

Written by David Wittekind, MS, Civil Engineering Advisor, New Earth University, School of Science & Design Innovation

The majority of the technologies that we as human beings currently benefit from are based on risks, research, and hard work done over the last hundred years or more. We have enjoyed great success at optimizing technologies to improve transportation speed, communications ability, machine computational performance, nano-sized manufacturing ability, etc. These new capabilities have led to great new scientific observations. The biggest obstacle to scientific advancement is not technological, it is that new discoveries don’t always agree with the contemporary scientific paradigm of “Accepted Knowledge”. This either results in outright suppression and ridicule by the scientific community1, or requires existing theories to be refined with ad hoc addendums, tweaks, special case exceptions, and liberal rationalizations. Lacking is the encouragement of new theories to be formulated and tested with the same zeal that orthodox theories are defended. To enable the next generation of profound scientific advances, we need to conquer social as well as technological boundaries. We need to take a risk with our generation, and that risk is to accept what we “know” may be incorrect.

The current scientific “establishment” is more akin to a belief system than the Socratic Method. The current attitude that humanity’s existing scientific knowledge is infallible is no more valid now than when it was “known” the Earth was flat. New theories and ideas need to be objectively examined rather than ridiculed. Otherwise today’s scientists and engineers become defenders of accepted knowledge rather than active participants in discovering the secrets of our universe.

“The ultimate ignorance is the rejection of something you know nothing about

and refuse to investigate.”

Dr. Wayne Dyer

The Electric Universe group states the current environment well: “It is easy to confuse theoretical assumption with fact. And today the tendency also conceals a tacit belief that, despite the mistakes of previous generations, we have the big picture right and the remaining task is simply to tidy things up a bit….The actual situation in the sciences calls for openness to new possibilities.” 2

The Electric Universe group has experience firsthand that when challenges are presented to existing theories, they are defended and dismissed often times due to scientists’ inability to process information that conflicts with 1pre-existing beliefs. 2

Gerald Pollack, a professor at the University of Washington has also experienced difficulty when challenging established theories: “Challenging convention is not a bed of roses, I assure you. You might think that members of the scientific establishment would warmly embrace fresh approaches that throw new light on old thinking, but mostly, they do not. Fresh approaches challenge the prevailing wisdom. Scientists carrying the flag are apt to react defensively, for any such challenges threatens their standing…Those few challenges that do gain a following are often dealt with aggressively: the establishment dismisses the challenger with scorn and disdain often charging the poor soul with multiple counts of lunacy… The consequence is predictable: science maintains the status quo. Not much happens. The edifices of science continue to grow on weathered and sometimes even crumbling foundations, leading to cumbersome models and even fatter text books filled with myriad, sometimes inconsequential details. Some fields have grown so complex as to become practically incomprehensible.” 3

The sentiments expressed above illustrate the need to alter how we receive observations that are not in agreement with current scientific theories. Anomalous observations are the most valuable of all to a true scientist, as they can lead to the next breakthroughs in understanding. Experiment always trumps theory. I propose the creation of a university that embraces ideas and information that challenge conventional science, keeps an open mind to new possibilities, and reviews established theories with the same critical eye given to new ones; in short, teaching objective observational science instead of the “established accepted doctrine”. Perhaps “teaching” isn’t even the appropriate word for the new university, more fitting might be “showing”, as nature speaks for itself.

 

New Type of University

What would this new university look like? It would take on a more classical approach to learning. Scientists were once called Natural Philosophers as they looked to understand how nature worked along with an element of philosophizing. The scientific method has brought rigor to evaluating philosophies (hypotheses) but has it diminished the wonder and openness of investigation by requiring a hypothesis. It is faulty to examine new phenomena with a pre-existing idea as to its behavior or function, it presumes knowing something about which you know nothing about. A hypothesis is actually a built in bias and prevents impartiality of observation. The null hypothesis is one attempt to go into research without bias. It allows for experiments to be guided by curiosity alone. However, curiosity alone may not be enough to stimulate impartial investigation of new, controversial phenomena.

 

Current University Research

Most current university research can be divided into two categories: applied research and basic/pure research. In most cases, applied research is guided/funded by industry and corporate interests. This is because companies fund research projects that may solve challenges they expect to face for a particular product. The motivation behind the investigational research is commercial, not purely scientific. With an already determined application in mind, research may not be “pure” in the sense that there is a pre-determination of the desired results of the study. Certainly impartiality is not existent in such a setting, even if performed by an independent party, the university. Companies may fund basic/pure research if somehow there is a product application in the future.

Most basic/pure research is aimed at furthering existing theories. To some extent, there are attempts to use new technology to accomplish the previously deemed impossible, but this is limited in scope to what is perceived as “now possible with the aid of new technology”. This doesn’t lead to any revolutionary new understandings of nature’s inner workings. What university begins with the premise- “Let’s do an experiment that shatters everything we currently know!” ?

 

Underground Scientists

There is a scientific underground of curious investigators that tinker in their garages, basements, or even kitchens. Their homes are a substitute for labs, classrooms, and manufacturing facilities. The aim is to learn about how nature works, investigate phenomena readily dismissed by mainstream science, or revisit old research; all based on empirical work (experiments). The advantage these “underground scientists” have over their industry counterparts is their minds are untainted by pre-conditioned beliefs about how things “should” work. Impartiality and open mindedness is a pre-requisite to true science.

This community is filled with people of various backgrounds, capabilities, resources, and understandings. Often there is collaboration and guidance from others with some experiential insight, but for the most part they are simply tinkering. Occasionally, there will be unexpected results or phenomena that are not understood. This often leads to wild claims, an undisciplined approach to recreate the results, and poor write-ups that don’t allow for peer duplication. There are some tinkerers that have more discipline and have made working proof of concept devices. In almost all cases the discoverer gets selfish and wants to “get rich” with a product, and ceases to share important construction details; or there is some underhanded conspiracy involved with the working devices and the technology is never released.

I am very familiar with this sub-community as I have been following this movement very closely since 2006. I recreated devices, I went to alternative energy/science conferences, and I studied all the books I could find. From 2008 to 2010, I worked as a technology evaluator for a group looking for exotic energy devices. We received numerous submissions. Each time, the inventor was certain that they had something very valuable. They performed their initial evaluation and were convinced it was something revolutionary. All too often they did a very poor job evaluating the technology and their claims were unsubstantiated. With proper work and evaluation techniques, their ideas may have turned into something. In addition, there was an even larger number of inventors who were unable to build their idea/invention themselves, but who were convinced it would be successful when built- essentially armchair theorizing.

 

New University Vision

The premise of this institution is this: teaching is done by nature, by experimental reality, not by conjectural theories.

The vision of this university is not only to break out of the mold of conventional “accepted knowledge”, but to improve upon and completely redesign the university model of education. This entails more than just the subjects being taught, but extends to all aspects of the university experience, as will be listed below.

 

Instruction Approach

Different people have different learning styles, and some people do not process information best from the paradigm of the professor lecturing for an hour on a given topic. Certainly instruction will be part of the experience, but there must be other stimulus as well: as much visual material as possible should be incorporated into instruction sessions, to offer the visual learner easier accessible information. In addition to experimental demonstrations, hands on models should be provided whenever possible to cater to the physical learner. In short, instruction should stimulate as many of the human senses as possible; this will ensure the maximal retention of material. Gone are the days of just showing up to a lecture and taking notes.

Classroom sessions should promote lots of questions in the course of instruction, the professors should not only ask lots of questions of the students, the students should be encouraged to ask questions about any curiosity that enters their mind, or if something is too abstract for them to comprehend, or if there is a concept they have trouble grasping. Good thought provoking or critical thinking questions asked by students should be given praise by the instructor. Critical thinking skills and independent thought should be valued over just the recitation of a lecture. The traditional “lecture” would be replaced by a more interactive classroom experience – participation is mandatory. Accordingly classroom sizes would have to be kept small – 15 people or less, to ensure maximum participation and to prevent students from being intimidated by asking questions.

In the same spirit, classes should not be held to rigid one hour time frames. The daily schedule of classes would be flexible enough to include large time intervals in between classes so that a given instruction session could extend longer if the students are having trouble grasping a topic. The goal would be to make measurable progress every day, with all students progressing at the same rate.

The absolute best way to really learn something is by teaching it. Accordingly, some of the lower division classes would be taught by upper classmen. This would ensure the upper classmen have a comprehensive understanding of the subject. The students would be coached by professors in how to put together and deliver an excellent lecture, and the professors would be present in class to address any questions or help moderate discussion. Basically the upperclassmen would do the teaching and the professor would be there to help guide them. The whole objective of the exercise would be to facilitate a positive, participatory learning environment. The upper classmen would be encouraged to forge relationships with the lower division students outside of the classroom, provide tutoring, advice, and generally ensure the success of newer students.

 

Re-prioritizing Objectives

One of the primary questions that must be asked when forming a university is – What attributes do we intend to impress upon our graduates? These attributes could include educational concepts, character traits, interpersonal skills, cognitive abilities, and life skills. Historically, universities have focused only on providing an academic education to its graduates. In this new university, it should be considered to not just provide an education of how to succeed in the workplace, but an education of how to succeed in life. From this new perspective, the university would embody a holistic approach to higher learning, an approach that teaches its students skills for being an intrepid scientist AND skills that promote a successful and happy life filled with healthy relationships.

Some of these life skills might include:

  • Techniques for dealing with difficult individuals
  • How to deal with adversity and criticism from others
  • How to resolve difficulties encountered at work/school/in relationships
  • The importance of having integrity and considering how one’s actions affect others and the positive impact this plays in not only one’s own life, but in society as a whole. “Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mahatmas Gandhi
  • Consideration of one’s life purpose and how to pursue it
  • How to use intuition to aid in making decisions
  • How to self judge and judgment of others
  • Techniques that promote self confidence and high self worth
  • Cognitive techniques for positively dealing with rejection and setbacks

Additional Skills that would aid in workplace are:

  • How to deal with “closed minded” scientists/skeptics/people
  • Interpersonal skills and how to effectively function and communicate in groups and meetings
  • How to foster positive workplace dynamics
  • How to promote creativity and individuality in other people
  • How to help “teach” these skills to co-workers
  • Being cognizant of “groupthink” and how to avoid it

Additionally, there are some “educational principles” that would be impressed upon students:

  • Question everything, don’t accept something as fact without validation
  • Always view theories as conjecture, suppositions, and models, not fact
  • Observation of nature is how to acquire true knowledge
  • Creativity, individuality, and critical thought is encouraged, rather than conformance
  • Have confidence to ask questions when you don’t know something
  • Your education is never complete, there is always something new to learn

 

  1. This concept is also known as Groupthink, the phenomena of individuals in social groups to suppress dissenting opinions in order to promote group harmony. [see Wikipedia])
  2. Thornhill, Wallace; Talbott, David; Thunderbolts of the Gods; 2005; Page 11
  3. Pollack, Gerald; The Fourth Phase of Water; 2013; Page xiii

(Pt. 2 will be released soon, read the full text here)

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