Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Using the "Universal Channel"

I've been in Pasadena,* CA, since Saturday doing a teacher-training workshop for the educational outreach program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL asked me to develop a series of technology-based activities related to Mars robotics, which would be linked from the back of a poster on the subject that was (and still is -- it's not finished, as I understand it) under development. The head of Mars Education and Outreach asked if I would be willing to train these teachers using these activities, since I'm one of only a few people in the NASA education "establishment" that actually understands and applies good educational theory to the products I develop. (Kind of sad, isn't it?) When I was developing these activities, I decided that too many robotics-based activities rely on the expensive electronic robotics kits, so I set out to find a low-tech way to teach the same concepts. You can judge my success for yourself by heading over to the Mars Education site.

The culminating activity of these lessons has the students (or the teachers, in the case) participate in a competition to develop a simulated "Mars mission" using these low-tech materials. The rules of the competition are fun and challenging (launch a payload to hit a 1-meter target, five meters away; travel to a site two meters away; retrieve a "rock sample" and return it to the lander; and finally launch the sample back to the original launch site), but the activity itself isn't really the point of this essay. After spending two and a half hours developing their mission plan by applying what they learned over the past two days, each team presented their design to the head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and his deputy. Yep, the head guys themselves judged the science and engineering the teachers had learned and decided which of their designs would get the nod as the winner. You can imagine the excitment -- and the pressure -- when the teachers found that out. I'm pleased to say that all the teams did extrememly well, and even the VIPs said it was a tough decision. These teachers had no engineering background at all, but really had a good time learning. It was fun to watch the lights come on in their eyes when they realized that not only had they really learned something fun and interesting during the workshop, but they could apply it in a high-level way. (Of course, having the head of the Mars program see the effect of the educational programs I've designed didn't hurt my career, either.)

What I find interesting and relevant to writing though is this: I think the reason the judges picked the winner they did was because the winning team presented a solid, cohesive "story" about their design, from launch to recovery. Most of the other teams talked about the various components of their design in isolation, but never really tied it all together into a cohesive whole. As I mentioned, all of the designs were good. Any of them could have accomplished the "mission." The winning team's presentation was compelling precisely because in was organized in a way that was easily accessible to their audience. This is another example of what I've referred to in previous essays as the "Universal Channel" that writers (and presenters, evidently) can use to tap directly into the human psyche. The team's presentation wasn't a story in the sense that they began with "Once upon a time," but it did have all the elements of plot, theme, message, and even character. Like all good writing, they cut out the extraneous issues that didn't further their plot or convey their message. The "characters" were carefully-chosen major subsystems of their spacecraft. By showing how these characters interacted to advance the plot, they made a very convincing case, something you might think would be difficult considering one of the major characters was a Big Mac box!

Learning the techniques of fiction isn't just important for us writers. It can be a powerful tool for anyone who wants to educate or illuminate his or her audience on a particular subject. Short of the much less pleasant psychological devices of torture and brainwashing (which I don't recommend, by the way), I can't think of any psychological mechanism more powerful than story for changing the outlook and perspective of your auience. When you write your fiction, don't write cotton candy stories, fun as that may be sometimes. Figure out how you want your reader to change as a result of your tale, and then write the stories that will accomplish that change.

It's as important in fiction as it is in education.

*Actually, only a tiny corner of one parking lot of JPL is in Pasadena. All of the rest of the lab is in La Canada-Flintridge, yet the whole lab has a Pasadena address. Go figure.

No comments: