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Let go and take risks

"Let go and take risks."  Advice we give our students on occasion, advice our parents suggested to us (sometimes in frustration and with anxiety), and advice we need to take ourselves. As professors we are always doing just that, "professing." This is a kind of preaching with a message, often with an inherent "you should" or "you will" phrase, and on a more generous day a "you might" approach.

We do this in our teaching. We show them, they write it down, we assign problems 1, 3, 5, and 7, from the back of the textbook session, and we make sure they do it the way the text showed them. Not much risk, not much letting go.

In SIMIODE we are about modeling in which case we are about letting students go. For some of us this is really hard – letting go,  both emotionally and intellectually. For if we invite them to create and they do not create in our own image (to borrow a phrase from religion) or they do not tow the party line we fault them in the time-honored way with poor grades. Also when a room fool of students are creative, but we can sense they are on a bad path or worse, about to go over the cliff, we want to help them, to save them, to “teach” them. We just have to let go and let them fail, but we have to be prepared to help them assess their work and to see how to improve. For example, we see they are making unreasonable assumptions in a model. Here we should let them go and do some “What if” work to discover the bad assumptions and change them accordingly. Sure we can be the “Guide on the Side,” but perhaps we might better serve their needs, by just stepping out of the room while they flounder a bit and then discover. Check back in every once in a while and ask individual groups to share their results with the class so as to have some calibration.

But most importantly, put students in a position in which your signal is strong and clear, namely challenge them so they have to take risks and make assumptions. Just let go and they will be fine.

Years ago my chemistry colleague at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Dr. Ed Motell, “designed” a chemistry lab for our Integrated First-Year Curriculum in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Ed had never liked the “cookbook” lab approach, but this lab was a real let go and all take risks. We were doing gas law stuff and so he issued the following complete narrative for the 3 hour lab:

                Define fizz and perform an experiment to measure fizz.

That was it. Nothing more.  I was the back-up faculty in the chemistry lab that day and three bright students who were notorious for “drifting away” had actually left the lab. Where were they?  Ed sent me to find out. I went to our NeXT lab first  (we were one of the first schools to adopt Steve Job’s new NeXT cubes) and there they were. They had constructed a sound studio out of the Styrofoam shipping cartons in which the NeXT machines were so carefully packaged and were using the computer’s built in sound recording to record the “sound of fizz” as they popped open can after can of various brands of 12 oz soda cans. Their definition of fizz was “the half-life” of the decreasing amplitude of the sound of fizz and they were comparing various brands with their new found metric. It was simply amazing, it was way out of the box – except it was in the NeXT Styrofoam shipping box. As a result of Ed’s letting go these students took risks and were very creative. Moreover, they were demonstrating the ultimate scientific method in their lab and today, some 30 years later I still have their lab write-up and look at it with wonder. My current wonder is this, “I wonder why more of us do not let go and permit our students to take risks.”

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