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Hunting Microworlds

One of the most difficult part of reading Mindstorms in 2014 is pacing yourself through the long sections where it seems like Papert is simply explaining LOGO to an audience that has never owned a computer. There’s a natural tendency to skim at these parts. We may not have wound up with the powerful computing future that Papert envisioned, but many of us went to school through the LOGO boom and have taught using Scratch, Turtle Art and MicroWorlds for a decade or more.

This time through, I tired to read those sections more carefully. While the physics Turtle and Geometry Turtle examples were still very familiar, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of a huge collection of other software microworlds.

Prompted in large part by my work with FabLearn, and my own late start with electronics, I’ve been trying to imagine what a true Papertian microworld for EE would look like.

I’ve seen a number of circuit simulation tools used over the years. I remember using Circuit Construction Kit with students in my first tech+teaching job, but there are plenty of others. However, this reread of Mindstorms has overturned my assumed relationship between simulations and Micoroworlds. In my cursory review of simulation tools, I didn’t see anything that offered the richness that Papert asks of “idiosyncratic microworlds.” Simulating circuits requires less physical dexterity, eliminates the cost and hassle of procuring parts, and allow fantastic “point-wise” inspection of elaborate systems. But they all fundamentally present an idealized form of the physical world. When used in context with circuit simulators, the world “simple” refers only to the number and function of individual components, not to the underlying principles that govern the simulation.

Then there’s Redstone.

Redstone is the building material for electrical analogs in Minecraft. I recorded that video in the summer of ’12 (aka ds106 SummerCamp!), and you can hear my apprehension in the first 30 seconds. Here’s this thing that’s kind of like electricity, which means you can build things that are kind of like circuits…. but they’re not real!
I couch my discomfort as teacher-fear, of not wanting to push my students down an “incorrect” path. In reality, that discomfort is coming from the friction between my own hastily and poorly constructed microworld of electronics understanding and the structure/function of the redstone. I didn’t have a deep and nuanced body of EECS knowledge that I was disappointed to see unrepresented in Minecraft. Instead, I had a half dozen beliefs that I had hung into a loose scaffolding, but individual components were flimsy and couldn’t bear my weight.

Does Redstone constitute a learning microworld for electronics? As a brief overview, the Redstone “circuits” offer a purely digital system, where a wires and component can only be powered or unpowered[0]. There’s no analog for voltage or amperage, which means that there’s no equivalent for capacitors, resistors or transistors. Redstone signals propagate in neat 1/10 second hops. In short, there’s a robust system that can produce wonders, but a student who only studies Redstone will fail a 3rd grade multiple choice quiz about electricity.

Papert’s microworlds aren’t judged by the richness or complexity of the objects that can be produced within. It’s lovely that the Geometry turtle can create wonderful art, but the value of the microworld isn’t dependent on whether the learner created the AlHambra or a box house. In a sense, the Papertian value of a microworld comes from how it can evolve in response to the learner.

There’s certainly a thriving world of Minecraft extensions, many of which extend the redstone system or build up alternative signaling/power system within the same blocky world. But the tools used to create those mods are wholly distinct from the in-world construction tools. Minecraft utterly fails the challenge offered by LOGO, LISP, and Squeak, and offers no path from being creating within the game to creating/modifying the game.[0]

The other criteria for evaluating an microwold is how it exposes learners to “powerful ideas” and if those insights/experiences can transfer to other microworlds or other learning domains. This forces me to realize that I’m not sure what the powerful ideas at the heart of “electronics” are! My list looks similar to the Nell’s insights from Castle Turing throughout King Coyote’s realm in Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Complex systems are often simple systems in aggregate. Careful design makes powerful tools from tedious processes. There’s nothing on my list that looks like a learning objective from 6.002.

My stance is that powerful microworlds don’t have to teach Ohm’s Law, but prepare students to seek out and make use of Ohm-like Laws.

[0]Or maybe not! Since the last time I build redstone circuits, Minecraft has added power levels to Redstone, including components that respond to those power levels and direct comparators

[0] There are some confusing edge cases to this. The RaspberyPi edition of Minecraft exposed an early API, with Javascript and Python libraries, so that players could write/run code that would affect the Minecraft world. There’s great examples of this tool bridging the digital/physical divide, making a light switch in Minecraft that triggers a set of LEDs in the real world. Scriptcraft goes a slightly different direction and exposes the Minecraft API to Javascript commands typed directly from the in-game console. Not that the console line is a pleasant text editor, but it does close the loop and allow for modifications to the game system from within the game itself.

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