Math and Science, Learning is Improvisational

Tomorrow I’ll be leading a workshop at the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program at Arizona State University. It is part of the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center (MCMSC) directed by Carlos Castillo Chavez and at which I am a newly appointed associate research professor. The workshop will be different than most lectures or talks delivered to these high achieving students from across Arizona and the Navajo Nation.

We’ll be talking and playing with what it looks like to learn, and in this case learn mathematics and science. As many who have been in talks with me have heard, learning is a creative and improvisational process. The group, in improv an ensemble, must work together to create a scene. They do this by paying attention to each other, listening, and making use of everything to create something new and to make each other look good.  The classroom, the teacher, the students have to work together to create conditions where learning can happen.

My concrete example comes from Kung Fu Panda by DreamWorks, watched recently with my friends who are 3- and 5- years old. The master Shifu decides that yes, this panda, Po, is the Dragon Warrior. Now, the question is how will Panda learn the skills he needs to become who he is. Yes. He has to BECOME who he is. There is learning and development that has to happen. Master and panda have to create together the learning. Master, a skilled teacher, improvises. He accepts who Po is, a panda who does amazing feats to get food. A wonderful back and forth ensues between them, where together martial arts experience and love of food, a master and a panda create the Dragon Warrior.

What does any of this have to do with learning math and science? The programs at the MCMSC are skilled at creating a learning environment with their students. An environment that has masters (mathematicians, scientists) and pandas (students), love of food (math and science) and a summer long dance that creates Dragon Warriors. Only these Dragon Warriors are becoming mathematicians and scientists.

What does it mean to create an environment where we, scientists, mathematicians can create our learning? For developmental learning, learning that helps us become who we are, we do things that are seemingly unnatural, odd, and awkward. We can feel silly, stupid, smart, bewildered. To optimize our learning, we want to get better at using our collective expertise, inexperience and vulnerabilities to create new understandings, and new abilities together. My goal tomorrow is to facilitate the work that these serious math and science professionals have to do this summer: learn and develop.

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