Here are some key elements to my approach to research.
Fortunately, people report having a lot of fun in college. Unfortunately, they report much of this fun occurs in the non-academic aspects of their experience. Many professors sigh at this and wish their students spent more time on homework, and less time on drinking and other fun. In other words, they feel that their students should have less fun outside of the classroom. My mission is to make the academic parts more fun. The best way to do a lot of work, is to think of it as fun. For too much of school, we treat education as something that is necessarily the opposite of fun. But many of us who spend our lives in school find it very very fun, and want to find more ways for everyone to have the same kind of fun that we do. Even the things that we do not enjoy (like grading exams, or entering data, oh how we hate grading exams and entering data), we do with the motivation that it will lead to our students’ fulfillment and therefore our own.
Scientists can wax poetic on the sacred role of science in our society and the awesome power of the scientific method as an engine of discovery. It is of course good to have a lofty moral mission of finding truth and creating knowledge, but scientists are people too, just like anyone else, they need a way to make a living. One goal of working in a research lab is to acquire the training, skills, and connections to have a career in science. None of the truth-finding and knowledge creation would be possible without support and resources for people to make a living doing so.
Many a good career in science can be made by working out the details of a narrow scientific problem. This is necessary. Thomas Kuhn called it normal science. But a goal of a research lab should be to be useful, to apply the knowledge that we have. In this lab, I hope to apply some of the research on learning to K-12 education.
The goal of science is to create new knowledge. This means knowing something that no one has ever had before. Novelty is not easy, so this often requires framing one’s question narrowly enough to have a definitive answer. It also requires enough of a background in the area to know what experiments have been done before. In the news and in popular imagination, science appears to be long periods of waiting punctuated by eureka moments. In reality, the practice of science is full of what Steven Johnson called “long hunches” and gradual, small, reinforcing steps.
Most of the outcomes and rewards of scientific and academic work are distant, abstract, and apparently unconnected to the effort that we put into the tasks. But our brain craves reward that is immediate, and obviously connected to our effort. To remedy this, our lab will make things, whether they are illusions, demonstrations, or improvements to the lab itself or the department. When the rewards are public and immediate, the effort is seen as more worthy.