TITLE: The Workaday Byproducts of Striving for Higher Goals AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 03, 2013 3:17 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Why set audacious goals? In his piece about the Snowfall experiment, David Sleight says yes, and not simply for the immediate end:
The benefits go beyond the plainly obvious. You need good R&D for the same reason you need a good space program. It doesn't just get you to the Moon. It gives you things like memory foam, scratch-resistant lenses, and Dustbusters. It gets you the workaday byproducts of striving for higher goals.
I showed that last sentence a little Twitter love, because it's something people often forget to consider, both when they are working in the trenches and when they are selecting projects to work on. An ambitious project may have a higher risk of failure than something more mundane, but it also has a higher chance of producing unexpected value in the form of new tools and improved process. This is also something that university curricula don't do well. We tend to design learning experiences that fit neatly into a fifteen-week semester, with predictable gains for our students. That sort of progress is important, of course, but it misses out on opportunities for students to produce their own workaday byproducts. And that's an important experience for students to have. It also gives a bad example of what learning should feel like, and what it should do for us. Students generally learn what we teach them, or what we make easiest for them to learn. If we always set before them tasks of known, easily-understood dimensions, then they will have to learn after leaving us that the world doesn't usually work like that. This is one of the reasons I am such a fan of project-based computer science education, as in the traditional compiler course. A compiler is an audacious enough goal for most students that they get to discover their own personal memory foam. -----