ASU KEDtalk: Designing Earth's future

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Ariel Anbar spent years studying our planet’s past. Then a simple question inspired him to consider our role in designing Earth’s future for the better.

Sep. 20, 2017

Video transcript

Ariel Anbar, President's Professor and director of the Center for Education Through Exploration:

Thank you. I’m Ariel Anbar, a President’s Professor at ASU, and the director of the Center for Education Through Exploration. I’m here to talk to you about two of the most profound changes this planet has ever seen. One happened a little more than 2 billion years ago. It made the planet what it is today. The other is happening right now. It will determine our future. I want to talk to you about how these changes are similar and how they are different. And how they compel us to rethink how we teach and learn – to rethink our entire approach to education – as we go forward into the future.

Today, the air is loaded with oxygen. But it wasn’t always that way. During the first half of Earth’s history, there was almost no oxygen in the atmosphere or the oceans. Maybe one molecule out of a million was a molecule of O2! That world was drastically different from the one we know today. It was a world on which only microbes could survive. No animals. No trees or plants. Probably little or no life on land at all.

Things are very different today. Today, one out of every five molecules in the air is O2! From one in a million to one in five is a massive change! That change began 2.3 billion years ago. That was the time of the Great Oxidation Event. That transformation paved the way for more complex forms of life and – eventually – to us. It was one of the most dramatic changes in our planet’s history.

Why did this change happen? We are pretty sure that the Great Oxidation Event was a result of ancient bacteria figuring out how to harness the energy in sunlight through photosynthesis. They capture energy from sunlight to grow and power themselves. In the process, they make oxygen. Photosynthesis was an incredible innovation, because there’s a tremendous amount of energy in sunlight. Figuring out how to capture that energy transformed the kind of life that could exist on this planet, which transformed the planet itself. In fact, one of the best ways to look for evidence of life on other worlds is to look for the O2 molecule in their atmospheres.

The evolution of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is what my students and I have studied for 20 years. We invented new ways to tease information out of ancient rocks. We discovered some of the earliest evidence of oxygen in the environment. The National Science Foundation recently gave us $5 million to continue exploring this topic. Pretty successful, right? Then one day my son asked me one of those questions that stopped me in my tracks the way that a child’s question can. “Dad, all this Earth history and astrobiology stuff you do is cool, but how’s it solving any problems here at home?” So I started thinking about it harder. What does the past teach us about our relationship to the planet? How does it matter in the future?

That brings me to the second of those profound changes I mentioned before. The one that is going on right now. It’s us. It’s what we humans are doing to the planet. That’s what my son was talking about. He’d heard some people say we are destroying the planet. He’d heard others say that’s all a lie. Neither claim is hopeful or inspiring! I tried to step back and look at it like a scientist on an alien planet studying life on Earth. What would she say? That alien would say that we humans are the latest evolutionary innovation in life’s long history. What is the essence of our innovation? It’s our big brains combined with our hands. Big brains plus hands equals the ability to design, and to build. On the back of the biological innovation of big brains and hands we have built our technological civilization. A civilization that’s changing the planet just like the bacteria did. To feed the hungry we turned forests to farmlands. To tame the rivers and quench our thirst we built dams and canals and drained great aquifers. To shelter ourselves and go about our work we built great cities, vast roads and all manner of machines to move ourselves around – in the process tearing down mountains for their iron and coal. And in doing all that, we’ve changed the makeup of the water that we drink, the air that we breathe and the climate in which we live. Just take a look at the night side of Earth from space – the way that alien scientist might look at us – and it’s inescapable! Human beings are reshaping planet Earth. How did we do all those things? The key was that using our big brains and hands we invented clever ways to harness energy. Burning wood, and then coal and oil. Nuclear reactors. Wind turbines. Solar panels. Energy. Remember that first innovation – the rise of oxygen due to the invention of photosynthesis? That was also about energy. So, what these big changes have in common is that they are driven by innovations in the ability of living things to obtain and use energy. When those bacteria figured out how to capture sunlight they wound up changing the world forever. A couple of billion years later, some apes figured out how to make fire. They wound up changing the world as well. Geologists are starting to recognize the magnitude of this change by giving our epoch a special name: The Anthropocene, which means “the age of humans”.

Some people find this depressing because they think the Anthropocene is inevitably a bad thing. But it’s not. Because we aren’t bacteria. Those brains that give us the ability to harness energy also give us the ability to shape the way the planet is transformed. We can design our future. A future in which we don’t just survive, but thrive! So now I’m not just studying Earth’s past and the prospects for life beyond this world. Because of my son’s question, I’m also engaging the future of this world. The key to thriving in the Anthropocene is learning how to think and act differently. Which brings us to how we teach and learn. To how we need to rethink our approach to education.

Today, when we teach in our schools and universities, we focus on students mastering knowledge. We teach as though kids enter school as empty vessels, and our job as teachers is for them to leave as full as possible of facts, vocabulary, processes, procedures and equations. Because for hundreds of years that is what was important for our success. To do all those things we just talked about, we needed millions of people who knew a lot. Is that what we need in the future? Of course, we can’t give up on mastering knowledge! But that’s not enough. Because in the Anthropocene, we’re wired together. The future demands that we each know when and how to use knowledge, how to obtain it on our own when we need it, and how to figure out how to use it, wisely. That’s much harder to teach, and to learn.

It’s like when my daughter first learned to walk. When she was a toddler, it was enough to know how to get around without falling. She didn’t really care where she was going. All that mattered was that she knew about this amazing new ability she’d discovered in herself! But as she grew into a teenage ballet dancer she came to care a lot – and had to learn a whole new set of skills that aren’t easy. Because dancing isn’t just about knowing how to move. It’s about learning when and why to move in all sorts of different ways.

As a species, we need to make the transition from toddlers to teenage dancers, on a planetary scale. We need to teach and learn how to solve problems. How to evaluate the quality of information. How to think critically. How to persist through failure. How to tackle problems that no one has solved before – or maybe even realized existed before! How to be like an explorer, navigating the uncharted waters of the Anthropocene. We need to transform learning from mastery of what’s known to exploration of the unknown.

How are we going to do that? It turns out that we know how to do it. It’s called “active learning,” where students don’t sit in a lecture hall. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and figure out how to do stuff. They explore. They ask questions. They follow their interests. They learn by doing, not by listening and repeating what they’ve been told. They aren’t assessed by what they can remember for a test, but by what they are able to figure out and do. But here’s the big problem: Active learning is usually done in small groups. But small groups won’t cut it on a planet of billions of people.

In the Center for Education Through Exploration that I am leading, a group of us are trying to do better. We look at the courses that you can take on a computer, and compare them to other things you can do on a computer – like great video games and movies and social networks and fantastic visualizations like Google Earth – and ask, Why can’t we build online education experiences like that? Why can’t we build online courses that have the narrative power of Star Wars, the interactivity of Halo, the connections of Twitter and Facebook – and the intellectual rigor of the greatest courses we’ve ever taken? Courses that engage us by tackling big questions that interest us? That take us on intellectual journeys that feel more like games than courses – where we learn by solving problems and overcoming challenges – and in the process learn how to solve problems and overcome challenges?

Our first experiment was an online class called “Habitable Worlds,” a science course for students who aren’t majoring in the sciences. Thousands have taken it over the past few years. It’s organized around one of those Star Trek questions that turned me on as a kid: “Are we alone?” The entire course is built around game-like simulations and virtual field trips that take you on an intellectual journey from the nature of stars to the evolution of life in Earth’s past to the future of our civilization. It ties together everything I’ve been talking about. How to take a big question and break it down to smaller questions. How to turn questions into hypotheses that they test by making observations. It’s not an easy course, but most students love it. And they tell us that they love it because it transforms the way they look at things.

Habitable Worlds isn’t the end. It’s not Star Wars meets Halo meets Cosmos – yet. That’s what we want it to be someday. We want HabWorlds and the courses that follow it to inspire a revolution in how we teach at massive scale. Remember that “Great Oxidation Event”? Our dream is to create a “Great Education Event”! For now, Habitable Worlds is a beginning. It’s our own way of learning-by-doing. It’s my way of answering that question my son asked – what am I doing to solve problems here at home? And of following my daughter, in learning how to dance. Thank you."


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