Monday, April 6, 2015

George Church, PA '72 on academic freedom in secondary education

I can think of no better way to kick off this blog than to call our attention to a bit of advice offered by one of my personal heroes, George Church, PA ‘72.

A few years ago, Sally Holm and I had the opportunity to interview George for the Andover Magazine, Winter 2012 issue (pp 24-27). We were obviously quite curious to hear what he had to say about his education and teachers. What were those early, critical influences that helped to shape such a famously fearless and intensely productive mind? We never imagined George would offer us an entire afternoon’s worth of heart-felt remembrances. Giants can (sometimes) be even bigger in person...

George: ….But he gave me one of his books, and he said, “Here’s a book that I did my Master’s on.” It was a very advanced [math] book. “Just see what you can do with it.” And that was it. He didn’t lead me through. It turns out it was on linear algebra. But I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be able to handle it. So I did it. I programmed it into the computer. I translated the math into the computer, and I wrote a linear algebra program that later I would use with similar concepts. I still use it in my lab today.

Christine: You were given an unbelievable amount of flexibility, at a pretty critical time in your academic development.

George: It was amazing, but I don’t think this was a school policy.

Christine: Would you say that’s something that you still love about your research? The academic freedom?

George: I try to pass this on to the next generation. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying. If you’re getting straight As, you’re not trying. You should follow your dreams. They’re not such bad things. They’re not something to be scared of. And if you dream big dreams, you’re probably going to get some distance into your dreams, whatever they are. And if they’re little bitty dreams, that’s where you’re going to end up. But you need the right environment, where everybody around you is taking risks—a fair number are failing and a fair number are succeeding wildly. And both of those are acceptable outcomes.

Check out my link to Student Research here and in the header above to see what high school students can do with a couple hours of academic freedom, and a chance to learn from trial and error, each day. In the posts ahead, I will offer resources I’ve found that help make this possible - from companies that give us massive discounts to professional research groups who regularly support our efforts. Most importantly, I look forward to sharing insights I've gleaned from working with some incredible kids and hearing your thoughts. 

To wrap up today's inaugural post, I’ll leave you with my favorite part of our interview with George...

George: I could go on for hours about PA. It was a formative time. It was just like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where it changed from black and white to color. I mean, literally I was starved, in so many ways—socially, athletically, academically, in almost every way imaginable. And then I went to Andover, and it just totally changed overnight.


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