What's the Matter?

My daughter has been studying “matter” in science. This is the unit that discusses physical changes between phases (arrangements of molecules,) versus chemical changes between compounds (arrangements of atoms). It also discusses electrons, protons, and neutrons.

She wasn’t getting it. It was all just so many meaningless words, and symbolic coding isn’t her forte. Not everyone learns the same way, and everyone can benefit from working with the same material presented in different ways. In dealing with this, it is necessary to use not just different words, but different input entirely, which are processed by different parts of the brain. My daughter thinks very geometrically, so we were able to construct a series of visual scenes portraying the material. Napoleon said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and Mindard’s famous map of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia shows that a diagram can sometimes be worth a thousand pictures.

In the phase-change scene, we draw a bucket of water in the middle, a tea-pot on one side, and tray of ice cubes on the other. We drew labeled arrows from solid to liquid and liquid to gas, and back again. (“Melting,” “Evaporation,” “Condensation,” and “Freezing.”)

We also drew the classic old 1950’s nuclear energy picture, with angry-faced (negative) electrons in an elliptical orbit around smiling (positive) protons and neutral neutrons.

It worked.

I tired to show that two atoms that were the same (e.g., same numbers of neutrons) formed an element molecule, and that two atoms that were different formed a compound molecule, but I really needed animation to make it stick. I also didn’t really succeed in explaining (or even drawing) that the atom picture was deep inside the ice, water, and steam. I really needed some animation, or better yet, some controllable toy that would allow her to see the change in scale. (Something like the orders of magnitude interactive exhibits (or here), or the changes in scale portrayed by Spore.)

I also looked in vain for on-line pictures and exhibits that did what I wanted. This is a very common unit in science education, and I didn’t see anything that approached it in what seemed like such an obvious way. I’m sure that it exists, and I do hope people will point out examples here. But I couldn’t find them when I needed to.

One of our design goals in building stuff with Croquet is to make it much easier to produce and share such exhibits. It isn’t terribly difficult for specialists to construct such stuff with Flash-related tools. And it isn’t terribly difficult for an IT specialist to make a Web site with such exhibits. But my experience is that this is not good enough. More precisely, it is good enough for things that people really want to make a lot of money from, but it is not good enough for less “important” things, like primary-school public education. This is why Brie is designed to allow ordinary users to make such stuff from found geometry, pictures, and behaviors. Even without Brie, a lot of this can be mocked up by ordinary users by assembling and arranging pictures and text, and then having specialists create any needed behaviors.

In many cases, no special behaviors are needed, or we can build-in a common set of behaviors (e.g., transitioning from one picture to the next as a slide show). Following the science unit, my daughter was working on a social studies lesson on the nature of trade between 17th century France and the Huron of North America, and how that related to the Dutch and their trade with the Iroquois. This time, the textbook suggested that the students construct their own diagram. We drew Minard-like weighted arrows to show the directional movement of furs vs pots/guns, and how that spread out through other Indian groups that the Huron and Iroquois were competing over. This doesn’t require any animation at all, but can be made just from geometric arrangements of text and pictures (including pictures of arrows). I think such diagrams ought to be very common in education, and that there is huge value in having the students construct the diagrams themselves rather than just viewing them.

Once created, such things can be shared and put in other contexts simply by copying them and carrying them to other environments. You click on the “copy” affordance of the object, and then the “grab” affordance of the copy. Then you walk to the world you want it in, and click “release”. There’s no upload, download, publish, save, or any other specialist mumbo-jumbo.

But there’s one thing more that comes for free with the Croquet environments we’re building. The experience is shared. Even if someone builds and distributes a cheap CD or Flash-exhibit with this matter lesson, each user is still working individually. Regardless of how it is produced, even an identical activity is better in Croquet because it can be interacted with simultaneously by more than one child.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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