First Person: Passing on a tradition of learning
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
By Matt Logan ’12
Matt Logan ’12
A wise man named Jimmy Buffett once stated, “Indecision may or may not be my problem.” Although Buffett’s words never made it into an academic publication, I’m inclined to believe that he was barking up the right tree.
I’ve always believed – like Buffett – that I should never fully commit to anything unless it feels completely right. So in 2008 when I was accepted to multiple engineering schools and one liberal arts school, I ended up choosing the school where I felt I’d be able to explore more options before committing to a life of mechanical engineering. Not too coincidentally, I majored in physics, minored in mathematics, and will start working at an engineering company this summer.
What is the point, then, of putting myself through hours of Prehistoric Western European Archaeology research, Jazz Ensemble rehearsals, and trying to figure out what was going through Kafka’s mind when he decided to write Metamorphosis if I’m to arrive at the same conclusion regardless of the path (akin to a conservative vector field, for the math types)? My best guess is that the conclusion is actually not the same in this case.
In the past few months, I’ve spent some time mentoring a student at a local middle school with the goal of putting together a science fair project. I was contacted as a result of Whitman’s HHMI – Howard Hughes Medical Institute – grant, which is enabling Whitman to bolster our own science programs as well as those in the surrounding community. My mentee wanted to do an experiment that would measure what materials block sound best.
As a seventh grader, his conception of the physics of sound was a little off. I tried, in my time with him, to teach him about the propagation of sound waves and how they interact with matter. He is a really quiet kid, but as I explained the concept he lit up with question after question – intelligent ones too, like “What happens when a sound wave bounces off a wall?” This led me to explain wave interference to him using the example of throwing rocks into a lake. He understood all of it.
Some might argue that if my mentee wanted to learn about the physics of sound, he could have picked up a book and read about it. That’s not how learning works (unless you’re a fictional character named Will Hunting). Learning, in my understanding of it, happens in short bursts or epiphanies. In my conversation with my mentee that day, I passed on a tradition of learning that I’ve been immersed in for the last four years – learning through active, intense conversation.
I’ve always felt comfortable asking a ton of questions in class, and it helps that my average class size at this point is about eight. I ask questions because I sometimes need my professors to fill in little pieces of knowledge that are critical to my understanding of a specific concept at that instant. I am able and encouraged to ask questions all the time – in and out of class – and this creates a learning environment similar to the one my mentee had with me.
To connect once more with the words of Buffett, I’m advocating for a culture of indecision followed closely by inquisitive exploration. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want, but you better start asking questions while you can.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matt Logan '12 is a physics major, math minor from Santa Barbara, Calif. After graduating this month, he will start work at Key Technology in Walla Walla, where he will be designing optical systems for high speed food processing.