Process knowledge and STEM education

I recently subscribed to The Prepared, a weekly newsletter that collects interesting articles about engineering, manufacturing, industrial processes, and supply chain. (I can’t exactly remember how I found it, most likely through this other newsletter. So thank you to Robin Sloan for introducing me to it.)

I’m loving the newsletter. Teenage choices led me into the sciences, but I think if the coin-toss had landed differently, I could just as easily have headed towards engineering instead. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by engineering, a world that is almost mystical in its strange-but-familiar quality. My fascination with this mystique manifests in weird places, primarily in my world-building for fantasy worlds, where I write a disproportionate number of world-building encyclopaedia articles exploring technomagical engineering and materials and industry.

So this newsletter gives me a window into real-world thing… and boy, have I fallen through this window, down the rabbit hole of long-form articles, into engineering Wonderland.  This is amazing, fascinating new stuff to me. I have no doubt that ideas gleaned from this newsletter are going to appear in my world-building and novels.


So it was through this newsletter that I read this fantastic long-form article which articulates many thoughts I’ve developed, in one way or another, mostly through my job. And it’s the thought that process knowledge, or tacit knowledge, is the most important skillset out there, that every person has to learn in their vocation, but is completely neglected in formative education. Mass education is rife with acquiring theoretical knowledge and learning how to apply them to scenarios, but the successful transaction between theory and application is a process – and learning process only comes from repeated hands-on exposure.

I never cease to be grateful that my vocational choices have led me to work that isn’t entirely desk-bound, where I have to execute theory into application in the physical, tangible world.  It’s also given me first-hand experience at how anaemic, how attenuated is the current education system at cultivating process knowledge. While I think that process is impossible to teach, it can be (and indeed, has to be) learnt, and the learning is best measured by producing physical, tangible outcomes.  Tracking and quantifying process, however, is elusive and too subtle for the brute-force theory-to-application methods in mass education, so it doesn’t get tracked, if it gets noticed at all.

That article focuses primarily on technological innovation and doesn’t address education, but I think the loss of manufacturing and industry in Western nations has direct repercussions on STEM outcomes in education. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in this government about how the nation lags in STEM outcomes compared to world-wide standards. But STEM achievement is primarily bound up in process knowledge, as the article states.  How can you effectively learn STEM processes if manufacturing is shutting down all over the country and has moved offshore?

Because science, engineering and technology is about manipulating the physical world, which is embodied through manufacturing and industrial processes. Moving bits and bytes in a disembodied, abstracted space can’t hold a candle to manipulating the physical world, with my body and equipment, into products and outcomes that can be evaluated by the five senses and spatial analysis.  In the physical world comes tangible, embodied risk, and therefore, the greatest opportunity for embodied, embedded learning.

Over the years of working in secondary education and tertiary academia, I’ve concluded that process knowledge, not theory nor applications, is the most important thing to be teaching people both young and old. If I had to stay in the education sector for the rest of my life, I want to end up in the trade and vocational schools. Because, in this nation where manufacturing is but a shadow of what it once was, trade school is a place where process knowledge still stands a chance of being valued and taught in any meaningful way.  At the end of the day, humans live in a physical world, human civilization is built on physical processes.  Even in a post-human world where human consciousnesses have been uploaded into computers, someone still has to keep the power on.

Apropos of an avian gossip session outside the house

Do crows know that their voices sound horrible? Do they simply not care? Or are they oblivious, and sing out because that’s just what they do?

I like to think they know they’ll never win a birdsong competition, but they sing out anyway, because they are joyful.

Similar post here.

Beastwatching in the urban jungle.

I went out walking in the city this morning, not far from the CBD.

Rising above an open park, some three blocks away from me, was a skyscraper. It was massive, multi-tiered, and like many buildings in this city, under construction. It bristled with scaffolding at every tier, themselves rising up at different (unfinished) heights, and there were two construction cranes sitting on the tiers, plus one more tall one on the ground.

Construction was under way, the cranes were lifting — what, I couldn’t see, it was on the other side of the skyscraper. As they laboured over this mysterious burden, they spoke to each other in groans and creaks and grinding of metal upon metal, a speech audible from half a kilometre away, a wordless language I didn’t and could never understand.

I thought of whales and whalesongs.

So I stopped for a minute to watch, from a distance, these inorganic creatures in their natural habitat, going about their lives, and speaking all the time. A strange song of (un)life, the sound of (in)organic industry and growth.

The machineworld has an unnatural, alien beauty that the natural world simply doesn’t have and the organic mind doesn’t comprehend. Who will have eyes to see this mystery? And what mystery was the cranes lifting up the skyscraper’s tiers, that they spoke about it the whole time?

I never saw the cranes’ burden. I had moved on, a little creature leaving those greater creatures crying and moaning to each other as they grew and raised the superorganism of the city into the sky.

Postscript: A week later, I passed by the same way. Nothing stirred around that skyscraper. The cranes were still and silent.

(Apropos of writing a post on Bullet journalling…)

The sum total of my life can be measured in the volume of notes I’ve made over the years. I’ve generated reams and reams of notes about every aspect of life, both in analogue and digital form. All of it is ephemera: important in the moment, inconsequential in the long run.

This isn’t counting my novels in various states of completion, the “meta” notes and outlines surrounding those novels, my world-building encyclopaedias, and a decade of private hand-written journals.

The digital ephemera alone makes a memoir. It’s a totalizing record of my personal life. Someone can look through all of this, and know me so intimately. I’m glad none of this is online or accessible to anyone else.

There’s a scripture in the Bible that goes:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.

Book of John, chapter 21, verse 25

Boy I get it now. Jesus isn’t the only one doing that many things. The written records of my life are filling books already. And I’m still in my prime years.

The world cannot contain the fullness of a single human life.

I saw a wizard yesterday. 🎵

A fiddler playing a Celtic reel live. The sound was like a a clear brook spilling over rocks, like a diving falcon.

I’d not seen real live wizardry, until I saw his fingers moving on the strings. Brilliant. Just spectacular.

I wish I’d recorded his playing, but it was a concert and against the rules. Still, would’ve been worth breaking the rules for. Hopefully the magic will live in my soul, even if I can’t hear its sound again.

Not the concert I heard. But behold that fiddling wizardry.

At the wedding.

It was the latest in a string of incredibly cold days this week: frigid, overcast, drizzling continuously. But it didn’t stop the wedding from being, in a word, splendid.

Both are not native to this land. She speaks five languages, and spoke all five that evening, welcoming family and friends from all over the world come here to celebrate with her. He speaks one language which is not his mother tongue, yet the majority represented there were family and friends from all corners of the city and all parts of his life, also come to celebrate with him.

She was a vision of beauty — but when is she not? She is, and will be, always beautiful and elegant and refined and a friend like no other. I’d only ever seen him in tracksuit, shorts, or the most casual of clothes, but as his brother said during the speeches, he looked sharp and handsome and wore the suit wonderfully on his wedding day. Splendour, embodied.

Many splendid sights were beheld, but the most endearing sight was seeing L., white-haired and slightly stoop-shouldered, carrying off an enormous bouquet of roses at the end of the evening.

(Each table at the reception had a huge vase of white-and-blush roses, each bloom larger than my two fists pressed together. There would’ve been hundreds of roses in that room. The guests were taking them away afterward. Who would not want to take home a memento of that day’s beauty?)

And as he was bearing away this giant bouquet for his wife and daughter, this man who’s not of any blood or ethnic relation but who has become something like a father to me in this city, said to me, “All things work for the good of those who love him, our Lord Christ. Don’t forget that.” A current caught, a thread pulled, a pot stirred, a word in season.

What a wonderful day.

Diversity on Micro.blog, from a minority viewpoint.

There’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the Micro.blog community about its apparent lack of demographic diversity. This thread was the latest that got me thinking.

I’m the minority in just about all of the diversity categories the Micro.blog community has defined for itself, except that English is my first language. (There, I’ve outed myself.)

From my point of view, M.B’s diversity challenge comes out of Indieweb’s own priorities and values. Decentralization, independence, tech-centrality, building your own bespoke blog/website with home-grown/open-source tools… to me, these values originate from a particular paradigm and method of engaging with the world. This paradigm is itself shaped by the wider culture. To put it in reductionist and stereotypical terms, the “self-made” webmaster who builds a self-contained website, independent of the centralized aggregate (and by extension, The Man), using home-grown tools, falls very much in line with the values of the American Dream.

M.B can’t be reduced to stereotypes, of course. But there’s also a bar to entry into this social-media network, and it’s a distinctly technophilic, first-world, Western bar. One needs the finances to have your own webhost/domain or pay M.B to host it, the technological know-how of building your own website and establishing social-media capabilities on said website, and most importantly, the _desire_ to have a blog/online presence independent of the centralized aggregate, before you can even begin to join the M.B social-media community.

These are many hurdles. The way I see it, they all come from the Indieweb movement and how that movement was birthed in the first place.

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An example of some hurdles I faced getting into M.B.

Many Indieweb pages have a certain “look” in my eyes: American, technophile, and Apple-centric. M.B’s signup/landing page has “that look”. I remembered thinking, when I first landed on Micro.blog, “Heh, looks like yet another American-Silicon-Valley-Mac-exclusive-technophile enclave.” But after reading about the Indieweb movement and realizing that it encapsulated some of the things I missed from the old Web 1.0, I understood my first impression (like all my first impressions) was prejudiced and reductionist. Being a non-technophile with only basic HTML/CSS skills (enough to know the meaning of what I’m copy-pasting, not enough to interpret the meaning for troubleshooting purposes), M.B currently offered the simplest “in” into microblogging and self-hosting according to Indieweb principles. And I was tired of being spread out over WordPress.com and Twitter anyway. So I signed up for hosting to try it out.

A hosted M.B may have been my simplest “in” into Indieweb, but I face another hurdle in USD $5 and the monthly currency conversion and fees involved. It is not a big hurdle. I can afford it. But it is still a reality for someone not living in North America, and every month the hurdle reappears and I have to face and jump over it. And not for much longer: I recently got a domain/webhost on a local provider, and a big motivation was to remove this USD $5 hurdle, even if it meant spending a bit more effort to setting up my domain. I understand this cash flow is necessary for this independent M.B community to survive and thrive, which is why I supported it. But I’m willing to bet that this USD $5 is a significant barrier to getting non-technophile, non-North-American voices heard on M.B.

Finally, the Indieweb value of decentralization is, by definition, in tension with “social media”. And people are complicated and have diverse motives and priorities: not everyone who has an Indieweb-type website desires an Indieweb-type social media hub to broadcast their activities. Personally, I’ve always had a disinterested attitude towards social media: it’s the necessary, annoying evil I have to put up with when getting my content out on Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram. So far, I’m only interacting on M.B because of proximity, ie. I have to go through my Timeline to get to the “Add New Post” button. I appreciate what goods M.B has brought and is bringing to me currently, but in the big scheme of life and things, I have other priorities, and between blogging and social media, the latter will be first to jettison. If I follow Indieweb’s in-built inertia of decentralization and move my blog wholly to my domain, M.B runs the risk of losing my voice — a tiny inconsequential one, but still a voice. Well, so be it, then. Independent and decentralized means that a person has the freedom to self-select out of a community.

Just a few examples of structural barriers; I’ve encountered a few more on M.B and getting my head around Indieweb worldview and ideas at large. I don’t think that is necessarily a problem: it’s good to face challenges and figure out how to conquer them, and allow my paradigms be challenged in turn. But while I’m willing to put in effort to overcome them and live with the discomfort of facing them constantly (sometimes repeatedly), someone else may not.

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Is M.B a privileged place? Perhaps. (I abhor how that good word, “privilege”, now carries so much inflammatory, politicized baggage with it.) Rather, I’d say M.B has hurdles that are technical and structural, born out of the wider Indieweb cultural milieu, itself a specific, particular culture. And these hurdles, and that culture, end up sifting the potential entrants to allow a certain, particular demographic through.

I don’t know of any solutions. I’m not sure that removing the hurdles I mentioned above will necessarily be good or right. Maybe they will be! But maybe they won’t. These cultural boundaries are currently, for better or worse, part of (but not necessarily the whole of) what makes M.B the place it currently is. Every culture, in defining the boundaries of who/what it is, will inevitably exclude a subset; “I am X” necessitates such a thing as “not-X”.

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There is another discussion happening on M.B currently: whether or not to show your Followers, and how to implement tags/”tagmojis”. It’s not an accident that those are happening simultaneously with this discussion on diversity, because they’re all about the same thing: M.B is trying to find and define its identity. From identity then comes culture, and from there, the extent of diversity the culture can contain.

The boundaries of every culture are always being contested, from within and from without. To know what boundaries to bend, and which to maintain, involves knowing (or at least, having a vision or ideal of) who we want to be. These are good discussions happening on M.B. We will see what emerges.

Chariots at the airport.

Was at the airport a few days ago. The flight was substantially delayed. I had time, so I decided to walk down the concourse to the end of the terminal.

The concourse went on straight ahead. There was a trick of reflection and lighting, for I saw it go on and on, off the ground and into the night sky. Indeed, the wall at the end of the concourse was a big glass pane looking onto the flight runways. I was hoping to walk through a portal into the air and into another world, but I had to content myself with just looking.

It had gotten quieter as I walked down the concourse, until there were no people around and all human voices were gone. And now, the un-human sounds of the airport and runways came to the fore: the bass roar of jet engines, the moaning of the wind (for it’s been a windy, cold day), and the groaning creaks of the building under the assault of the wind and time.

Beyond the glass were airplanes, in a row. In the gloomy runway lighting they looked like gargantuan chariots of titans, parked and waiting patiently until they would be summoned to fly. Airplanes are mundane things, but tonight I was indeed looking through a portal at another world, and those mundane things became strange and grand.

Then the boarding call came through, and I had to go.

I went running yesterday. It was partly overcast, shreds of sky amidst dark, grey-blue clouds. Yet the world was not gloomy, rather covered in a gauzy veil that made everything bluely luminous, and the muted colours suggested depth and richness instead of washed-out obscurity.

It was very cold, but my hands were warm. My hands are only warm during winter when I’m exercising.