Studying in these times of information abundance
Its been over a month since I arrived to the University of Southampton UK, to study a MSc in Unmanned Vehicle Systems Design (aka. Flying Robots or Drones). I am so thankful for my reality now, because I always had the dream of studying abroad and never went for it. When I was about to graduate from my BEng I thought that I’d never be able to do it. But no! I did have the chance to take an exchange course at Stanford and Berkeley for a few weeks (months) and it was amazing. And now I’m here living the life of a student, in my tiny room, with crazy (but cool) flatmates, walking with my schoolbag from the halls, to the library and the cafeteria, and then to parties and pubs for an entire year!
But don’t think this is pure happiness, Ive been having quite a hard time letting go of things that I have at home. Im not talking about family or friends, im talking about my inertia as a guy that has the drive and anxiety to “do” stuff rather than to “study”. Ilumexico is probably the best example, a solar energy company that I cofounded a few years ago and that is about to finally become a huge positive impact-platform for sustainability and social integration in Mexico. Of course I still do tons of stuff for this project, but its not easy to sync and keep updated with everything that happens and also there is the physical presence factor that is still sometimes needed. I know my partners are doing a great job and when they go away for their masters they will understand too.
Another hard time Ive had is with the migration back form the “entrepreneurial” world to the “academic” world. I was sooooo happy making things, building stuff, doing, impacting etc. that going back to studying and learning theory is quite disappointing I must say. Yes, this is an MSc (Science is about theory) and we will build prototypes and get our hands dirty… ok, but that is just the tip of a very large iceberg of differential equations, computer fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, probability, complex systems design and optimization that are taught in a way that lacks absolute “stickiness” to my brain. I have confirmed that I go by the “use it or lose it” principle, where learning can only truly happen when you generate experience by doing it, moving your body and not only your mind. Otherwise its just a matter of memorizing concepts that will be stored in the “Ive heard of it but don’t remember how to use it” part of the brain. You can argue that one needs a strong foundation of the principles behind the things you study, and therefore the theory is required before putting in practice things that could be dangerous or at least not completely appreciated if just approached without introduction. I agree, and I think the answer is that there is no need to balance theory and practice. They should be taught -at the same time-. Im not talking about “real time” simultaneous learning and practicing, but rather a combination of knowledge need, search and generation thanks to practical application of itself. Did you learn how to walk in “theory” first and then in “practice”? how about biking? or talking? singing? Nature has a very obvious way of generating growth and we can see it in plants and animals. Take a tree for example, it doesn’t grow a huge set of roots first and then grows the branches and the leaves and the fruits. Most trees grow tiny fruits when they are young, they are practicing with real not theoretical fruits. Or animals, we don’t develop an adult sized skeleton and later grow the muscles and organs and skin. Growth is done in multiple levels -at the same time-.
Ive had the chance by now to know both academic (school) and work (enterprise) worlds and I must say that there is still a lot to learn that school can’t teach. Especially nowadays with such a powerful tool like internet; videos, forums, images, etc. all with higher information density than Books (with all due respect for Books with capital B). Why are we still going into these huge molds called classrooms? the answer is: becasue there isn’t any better way…! Think about it… its easy to bitch about the outdated teaching system, but do you have a better idea? and is that idea doable now? is it realistic? In a few years, computers with basic AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) will generate the optimal knowledge content specifically designed and “cured” for each student in a way that best fits his or her way of learning. Interactive audiovisual content will be given to students and they wont take it as “lectures” or “class”, it will be more like Youtube but with more useful and interesting information. Machines will consider personal preferences and interest, with pedagogical, psychological, and emotional feedback form human experts. Degrees and knowledge levels will become blurry, and the new added value for students wont rely on the amount of years it took to do a PhD, but rather the multidisciplinary combination of complimentary disciplines multiplied by their depth of knowledge. What is a good engineer without a designer? and viceversa! Can a medical doctor take an MRI without the help of a physicist that modeled the magnetic energy in the machine? Can they both actually create it without the help of skilled technicians that have the ability to build, solder, assemble, paint, program and fix it? what if you could be all of them -at the same time-? That would be nice, but … how can you be a Davinci in these times of information abundance (flood). You can’t learn everything that interests you, you cant read an entire library, at least not yet. And you need to focus you attention and skills into something that can be useful for you and the world. There is no point in knowing something but not using it. Again, use it or lose it. So in order to become a multidisciplinary expert you have to do one thing from the beginning… and I mean from before you are even born, and that is: Know yourself. We finish elementary-, high-, grad-, postgrad- school and we still don’t know what we like, what we want, what we are good at… who we are. We follow our parents, teachers, friends, idols, but rarely we learn something completely by ourselves. Many times we want what “cool” people want or what TV or video games tell us to want, those are big teachers, probably bigger than school.
To know yourself you have to learn to listen, to filter the signal out of the noise. We are bombarded by paradigms and stereotypes all day, but inside there is still a dimm voice saying what we really want. If we practiced to listen to ourselves in a more serious, meticulous and meaningful way, considering instinct, intuition, gut feelings, and of course empirical knowledge, we would know what we want at early ages, and we would be able to update our goals and interest -at the same time- as we live through them.
There is no end to learning, you graduate when you die. Its up to how much you listen to yourself if you fail or pass.