Thursday, January 21, 2010

Imagine That

Imagination is an interesting albeit elusive ability. What might the directive ‘use your imagination’ mean? When thinking about a reply to that question, you are using your imagination. Imagination is often considered to be a creative ability that some people have and some lack, at least on some occasions. However, the basic ability involves thinking – forming a mental image of something, especially something not immediately or directly perceivable. Surely that is the meaning that John Lennon had in mind in his song entitled “Imagine” in which he says, for example, “imagine all the people living life in peace.” Forming mental images is the essence of imagination. Ludwig Wittgenstein notes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we picture facts to ourselves (#2.1). We have the remarkable ability to create internal representations of external realities. He failed to note that we also picture things that are not facts to ourselves. In any case, this ability to create internal representations to make sense of our experience is the essence of a naturalistic or constructivist epistemology. This imagining ability is how we build up our understanding of things. As such, it is, or should be, a critical concern of educators and instructional designers.

In the Philosophical Investigations, published two years after his death in 1951, Wittgenstein notes a second important human ability – namely the facility to engage in language games. Language games involve a language, which has recognized rules and conventions, and its use in various human activities. While Wittgenstein’s early work lays the foundation for a constructivist epistemology, his later work lays the foundation for communities of practice and the attention given by educational researchers to legitimate peripheral participation (see Lave & Wenger, 1991 – Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation). Many have argued that Wittgenstein’s early work is completely at odds with his later work, but this progression from a constructivist epistemology to a socially situated constructivist perspective seems quite natural to instructional designers and educational researchers.

We have two remarkable abilities: the ability to create internal representations, and the ability to talk about these internal representations with others who have similar abilities. All of us have these abilities. Imagine that.

I mention these abilities and imagination on account of digital engineering technologies with significant educational potential demonstrated at the annual summit of the National Technology Leadership Coalition (NTLC – see held in January at the Punahou School in Honolulu. One of these technologies involves simple and affordable 3D modeling software (i.e., fablab Model Maker - linked to a very affordable and compact 2D printer ( that can cut, perforate, or print lines on paper using the Silhouette Fabricator. The software and printer were designed to be used in schools (or at home) by children (or adults who are just big kids with wrinkles) to support and facilitate the ability to imagine a three dimensional object, lay out specifications for its paper-based creation, and then print/perforate/cut the paper to be used to create the model. An open-source program that provides somewhat similar capabilities is Papercut – see Imagine that. We can ask children to imagine how they could create a three dimensional object from a two dimensional piece of paper, and then give them the tools to test their imaginations. Imagine what a learning experience that would be.

A second technology showcased at NTLC 2010 involved digital fabrication and 3D printing – Fab@Home (see developed at Cornell University and demonstrated by Hod Lipson. The 3D printer also could be controlled by modeling or CAD/CAM software. This printer is available for the remarkably low price of $1,600. Here is how it works – you will of course have to use your imagination. First the layout/specifications for the three dimensional object are entered into a modeling or CAD/CAM program. This layout controls the printer which is a customized version of an inkjet printer that uses tubes instead of ink cartridges. The tubes can hold any stuff that will solidify after exposure to room temperature air – this includes liquid metals and plastics, latex, and even CheezWhiz. Gee whiz. Really? Really! The printing occurs a layer at a time with each layer being about one millimeter thick. On each pass, the printer squeezes the molding material out of the tubes according to the specifications in the modeling program. Gradually, layer by layer, the 3D object is created. We saw bicycle chains, chess pieces with embedded objects, a metal impeller, and other complex objects that had been printed using this technology. Imagine that. For about $2,000 you and your students can be in the business of creating all sorts of objects. Cornell is pursuing this line of research in part due to its tremendous educational potential. Since modern engineers use similar tools to prototype and test various objects, it makes sense to train engineers using the tools, technologies, and techniques they will encounter after graduation. How obvious is that? The challenge was to create affordable technologies for use in university engineering programs, and it appears that Cornell has succeeded. Imagine that college students in Ithaca, New York can create plans for objects that could be viewed, refined, and printed/created by college students in Beijing, China. I am planning to purchase one of these machines and print myself a new brain. Imagine that.

Where would we be without imagination? What happens to children when their imaginations are stifled or not supported with affordable and powerful tools? Imagine all the people, learning all about the world … using powerful and affordable tools and technologies. Imagine that.

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