Monday, March 29, 2010

Complexity is Everywhere

I just had an amazing week on the garden island of Kauai, HI.  The weather was great (sunny, hot).  My wife and I went hiking in the Waimea CanyonDSCN1231 We hiked the Pihea Trail along a rim that gave us spectacular views of the Na Pali coast and down to the Kawaikoi Stream.  It was jungle like and surreal. DSCN1252 We kayakedDSCN1264 up the Wailua River and then hiked a mile or so to the Secret Falls. DSCN1305 I guess they’re not a secret anymore.  Along the way we learned about a tree (some call it the “walker tree”) DSCN1285that literally walks towards water over time.  Look at its roots.

Being coffee lovers, we decided to visit the Kaua’i Coffee Company and learn about how coffee is grown, harvested, and prepared.  Wow, that is a complex process.  From coffee cherries DSCN1345 (didn’t know that) to beans in a store is an unbelievably complex process (check out their tour).

My wife loves gardens and flowers so we took in the National Tropical Botanical Garden tour of the Allerton Garden.  Besides coffee, chocolate would be our next love and we were able to see a chocolate (actually cocoa) tree DSCN1446(I didn’t know it grew on trees, did you?).  The process from harvesting the cocoa pod to chocolate factory is very complex.

One more example from the Allerton Garden.  We were privileged to see the Madagascar Periwinkle plant DSCN1402 which scientists have figured out how to produce a medication used to fight leukemia. 
What amazes me about these examples is the complexity of nature but then how people have figured out how to take what they find in nature and turn it into useful products.  I find it a bit mind boggling actually.

Technology plays a major role in making complex processes practical, efficient, and affordable.  Educated people design good processes and effective technology to make the processes possible.  There is a lot of talk about how our education system isn’t preparing students for the future.  But is it?  When you look back at the history of coffee, chocolate, or the Madagascar Periwinkle plant, and the processes required to take these from nature to product, people seem quite capable of figuring it all out with the education they received.   Perhaps the complexity of the problems of the 21st century will exceed our current education system’s ability to prepare minds to tackle them. 

What do you think, is our education system really broken and incapable of preparing students for the future?  Is it in need of repair?  Or does it need to be replaced with something very different?  Remember that
“the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”, Alvin Toffler.
Isn’t that really the key to our future and how education can prepare our students?