LIFELONG LEARNERS


The man had a lot of miles on him.  Smelling of tobacco and woodsmoke, my age or a little older, I had been helping him understand the rules of exponents.  His partner joined us briefly, and I wondered what both of their goals were.  I should have asked.  Then a young man in his late 20s or early 30s walked in to the lab, and since I was the only tutor in an uncrowded room, asked if I could help him solve a math problem he said his teacher couldn’t.  I had an “Uh Oh,” sort of moment, thinking I would face something awful, but the problem itself was fairly straightforward:

percent of opening= (air mixture-x)/(outside air temperature-x).  Solve for x.

It didn’t seem too difficult, and I solved it.  Then he said, “Oh, I forgot, this is an absolute value problem.”  Oh.  That made it a little more difficult, but I worked it out and came up with two solutions, which absolute value problems have, both of which checked, and looked at the rest of the problem, commenting, “so this might be how a thermostat works, right?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “This is a cooling unit, and this equation solves for how much the damper should be open.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I’ve just learned something.”

“This type of cooling industry has only been around for two years,” the young man said.  I didn’t ask him details, but without too much effort, later I found myself looking at Heat and Mass Exchange (HMX) technologies and found something that looked very much like the equation the student gave me.  Efficiency of cooling systems has increased significantly, to 60%; what I was reading sounded like science fiction.

I’m not surprised.  When I substituted in math in Tucson high schools, I told the students that they would be working at jobs that not only didn’t exist today, they couldn’t even be imagined today.  This student would have a job which didn’t exist when I moved here.

Thomas Friedman writes about these changes in Thank you for Being Late.  Friedman is a successful columnist leagues beyond my limited success, but I can relate to how chance meetings or chance thoughts can help create a column or produce a major change in one’s thinking.  Friedman writes how technology has moved well beyond the ability of society to adapt to it; technology is exponentially increasing, but our ability to adapt is linear with a small positive slope.  This is difficult for many, especially the twenty year-olds who entered the labor force and didn’t realize they would have to be lifelong learners.  The current president was elected in large part from many who think that somehow all we need to do is bring back the high paying jobs that were once available for people with limited education.  At best, those jobs are now modestly paying, higher paying being reserved for those who have learned enough to navigate Friedman’s “Supernova,” a term he likes better than the “Cloud”.

My student was becoming a lifelong learner.  Like the elderly man learning exponents, he is at the community college obtaining math skills that he never learned when he was younger.  The job he has is not likely to be his only one.  The days of being in the same field for 40 years are not gone; Thomas Friedman is still a journalist.  The days of doing the same work for 40 years are mostly over, except in simple work, the kind that is likely to be automated.  Journalists no longer queue up at a telephone to send a story.  It’s streamed.  In energy production, rather than having miners underground, the entire earth over a seam can be sadly removed.  But even coal’s days are numbered, at least as a primary source of energy.  I think most fossil sources of energy days’ are numbered, not because of climate change, but because the technological advances in cleaner energy are so rapid that they are competing favorably, even despite a non-level playing field.  Solar energy efficiency has doubled in the last 30 years to 20-45%;  I remember when it “jumped” to 6%.

The ability to connect and to do things is greater than ever before, but one must have a decent education, meaning STEM subjects and ability to write decently,  communicate, good interpersonal skills, and…., willingness to keep learning throughout one’s lifetime.  Put bluntly: you never finish school.  This isn’t going down well in places that were once manufacturing hotbeds, like Middletown, Ohio, in A Hillbilly’s Elegy.

Not only will people need to become lifelong learners, they must be collaborators, requiring social skills, too. We need well-educated socialized  graduates with proven competency, a tall order.  Here’s my world:  recently, a friend asked me to look at a paper she and three others wrote. She is Colombian, now in school in Germany, has learned 2 languages in the past 5 years, and studies VaR (Value at Risk) near Berlin.  The paper was written in decent English, 5000 words and well referenced.  I had never heard of VaR before, although I should have, for it is a statistical financial measure.

Education is different.  Research has exploded, open source software common, and people all over the world are collaborating.  I have my name on a meteorological paper written about pollution in Tabriz, Iran, because I helped an Iranian learn English.  She’s now living in Spain. A journalist friend of mine in New Delhi has changed jobs twice since I’ve known her, and she works hours that even I in my medical training didn’t work.  I’m not well connected, but through teaching English on various web sites I communicate at least weekly with people on five continents. I’ve communicated in German as well as English, and I’ve been offered teaching English jobs in both China and Brazil.  I bet I could get one in Iran too, if I dared go. A couple snowshoeing with me yesterday teach English in China, because the energy market crashed here.  She’s from New Zealand originally; both know a smattering of Mandarin.

A Kurdish woman I know in Iraq couldn’t find work as an engineer, so she re-invented herself as a travel agent and doing well.  A Syrian asked me to help her sister with her English writing.  How she survived the past six years I have no idea.  The next paper I get from her sister will be an essay about the war.  A friend is German, on her way to Moscow to prepare for the launch of a satellite she helped design to one of the Lagrangian Points (equidistant from the Earth and Sun) to look at X-Ray radiation.  Still another is Russian, learning two languages to be able to become a translator in Europe.  Another emigrated from Iran to Australia, has a permanent stay card in Australia and hopes to become a medical professional.  I helped with some geometry problems a while back.  I get all sorts of perspectives about America, good and bad.

If I were young, I’d be learning at least two other languages, probably German and Russian, and maybe studying abroad.  In this era, having connections world-wide is important and  not too difficult to obtain, given the connectivity today.

Education must be flexible with new courses quickly developed to understand new knowledge.  How we determine competency must also change, a piece of paper less important than proven skills.  Home and online study will be important, but isn’t the answer.  One needs a guide, a mentor, and a teacher all rolled into one.  How America will address education will be painful and very different from not only what it is today, but likely what we can even imagine. We will be required to deal not only with the Supernova-Cloud, collaborate internationally, but simultaneously educate people with limited means, financial and neuronal, so they have some floor under them to keep them grounded, rather than to looking for a wall to hang on, to quote Mr. Friedman.  Stay tuned.

Thank you for coming into the Math Lab, young man.  Had I not met you, I never would have seen so clearly what Mr. Friedman was writing about.  I don’t have the answers for society; I don’t even have them for me, but Mr. Friedman did write that knowing what questions to ask would be essential in the new world, and we statisticians make our living not by having all the answers, but trying to ask the right questions.

 

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