“That’s the problem with the Malagasy people” my biology student, Etienne, explained to me in response to hearing about the recent theft of seven new computers in our neighboring psychology department. Etienne isn’t in any of my classes, but many students across our small institution are terribly upset by the loss of this scarce resource. These seven computers were to be shared by over 75 students, and now there are none.
What are the students to do?
Our young scholars at the University of Toliara have had to deal with political turmoil in the past, yet too often their solutions have actually boomeranged and come back to negatively impact their own education. A simple example occurred about a year ago when angry students cut the new internet cable to their rural campus in protest of a variety of economic and political challenges. Clearly - we have a community need to explore the role of democracy in our educational system here.
Our unique educational model of BIG Content + Applied Context provides a simple formula for richly integrating evolutionary sciences within the fabric of our learning environments. Let me spare you the theory, and just cut to what we are actually do on the ground.
A BIG History of the Democratic Brain We have identified a clear problem in our educational community, the theft our common-pool computer resources. So - as scientists of the human condition, how should our students understand the context to such a problem? Is it, as my biology student suggested, "the problem of the Malagasy people"? That is - is there some essential difference between the Malagasy people and people from Universities where computers don't get stolen? That's one hypothesis that appears popular among my students, but I offer a different theory. I suggest to my students that perhaps the causal explanation for the thefts lie not in differences among people, but in differences among the organization of groups of individuals. How can we test these competing hypotheses?
Students explore a BIG History of the Democratic Brain, by reviewing selected chapters of history from a Unified Human Sciences perspective. Criss-crossing among disciplines and scales of time and space, a coherent narrative begins to form around group dynamics, human decision making, and the functions and scales of democracy.
Part of this BIG History also includes the many Little Histories of the science of the BrainMind and Human Culture itself.
It is here that we drill deeper into the functioning of groups, and it is here where we start to do something I call STEAMing a BIG History. In the education world, there is a growing movement to integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) into a cohesive integrated approach (Yakman 2008, 2010). We are connecting this with the innovations of BIG History and channeling both into applied service-learning projects. Let me explain.
Mix with technology and democracy training and let ferment until ripe
I met with Etienne and his student colleagues to "train-the-trainer" - in a variety of technology development areas. For these students, using computers is a whole new world, we start with the very basics of Gmail and internet searches. Yet, within about three hours he has started to develop his Biology Departments struggling website, and - we were able to examine our hypotheses about the stolen computers through experimental modeling.
Using the actor-based modeling software, Net Logo(Wilensky 1999), we explored a social-dynamics model called "Prisoner's Dilemma N-Person Iterated model" (Wilensky 2002) . Here, the "actors" in the model walk around randomly, and when two actors meet, they play a simple game. Each actor can either "cooperate" or "defect". If both players cooperate, both will get 3 points. If one cooperates and one defects; the cooperator gets nothing and the defector gets 5 points. If both players defect, both get 1 point. Very simple rules, yet as we saw - some very complex dynamics emerge.
By altering the behavioral strategies of the actors in our little world - Etienne and friends get to literally play with a multitude of societal scenarios:
What if we live in a world where half the people always cooperate and half always defect?
What if we live in a world where reputation matters and there is monitoring and enforcement of cooperation?
Through experimentation and discussion, we found there may exist critical thresholds of social organization within which free-riding on the group becomes the less attractive option, social environments where cooperation is king! When we overlay this with the history of Elinor Ostrom's generalized principles for group-level functioning(Wilson, Ostrom, and Cox 2013), and discuss connections to our BIG History perspective - the development of our democratic technology committee is increasingly imbued with a rich new context of community change.
In the past, Etienne and his friends would have kept on believing that this computer theft was simply "the problem of the Malagasy people". Today, they have been given the tools to create group-level changes to prove that in fact, the Malagasy people are every bit as good as the rest of the world - we just all need environments that allow the better angels of our nature to emerge and flourish!
Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. Evanston, IL: Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, Northwestern University. Retrieved from http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/
Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010
Yakman, G. (2008). STEAM education: an overview of creating a model of integrative education. Proceeding of PATT on 19th ITEEA conference.
Dustin Eirdosh, M.Sc., is the curriculum designer for the Berlin-based NGO Big Red Earth, working to cultivate capacity in Madagascar’s southwestern University of Toliara, supporting leadership in applied studies of sustainable development.
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