Report from the field

Richard Glueck, a member from Orono, Maine, offered these observations from the Boston Conference:

NSTA National Conferences expose teachers to the newest in products and publications, offer tons of free maps, posters, books, DVD’s, and CD’s, not to mention all the pens, pencils, sticky pads, and magnets a person could ever use.  It’s an opportunity to talk with inventive teachers, share best lessons, meet new friends, and rub shoulders with authors and astronauts.  It’s an annual inoculation of teaching enthusiasm.

This year, two exhibits at opposite poles of time and technology, caught my eyes.  Independent film producer David Hoffman brought an original Soviet Sputnik satellite, an un-launched sibling of the sphere which in 1957, changed the future of human existence, and Toyota presented a revolutionary trumpet playing robot.

I had seen Sputnik copies and replicas before this, but here was a chance to examine one closely.  No more than a polished sphere with four “whisker” antennas, the first artificial satellite merely contained a battery and two radio transmitters which chirped it’s presence to the world.  Compared to today’s technological standards, this simplest of satellites looks more like a high school science project, but it was first and to say it “changed the world” would be a gross understatement.  Sputnik broke an invisible barrier to the way humans would eventually live. Naivety would allow us to believe that the launch of Sputnik was performed for scientific and educational reasons.   It was purely a political stunt at the time of its creation, yet the ramifications of having satellites in orbit soon allowed weather imaging from above the atmosphere, trans-Atlantic telephone conversations, and eventually, permanent human inhabitation of space.  This year, a network of Sputnik’s “grandchildren” will allow the world to watch the Olympics from Beijing, in real time.  Fifty years ago, one of Sputnik’s creators envied the people of the future the ability to see where space travel would take humanity, but allowed that younger generations could envy them for having been the first to have begun space exploration.  For teachers of the Sputnik generation, the back-up shell displayed at the conference was a touchstone with our own educations, our own lives, and a milepost pointing to where we are going as educators.

The Toyota robot was in fact, one member of a small family of mechanical creations which perform human-like behaviors.  This particular robot walked out to great the audiences, brought a standard trumpet to its lips, and played several selections.  The sound was not pre-recorded. Jointed flanges formed hands which pressed keys.  Air from within humanoid lungs actually flowed through the brass and produced music.  After a rendition, the robot lowered his instrument, turned to the listeners, and waved a greeting.  A short video program explained the potential of robots, not to merely assemble automobiles, but as healthcare extenders, domestic workers, and similar support “beings”.  This robot was definitely not “humanoid”, and although it could walk, perform, and extend simulated greetings to the crowds, there was no mistaking the measured movements, and precision timing, as anything more than mechanical.

All around the floor, internet connections and cell phones were bringing the world into our presence, and most of those connections were being bounced off satellites some 23,000 miles out in space. Sophisticated GPS servers guided planes to Logan International Airport, just behind the Conference Center.  Fifty years after a Soviet political stunt, satellites are indispensable to the world, and frankly, we’d be lost without them.

One could groan at the implication of mechanical “people” working like “C3PO”, nurturing, comforting, and managing problems for humans, but with Sputnik being displayed only 200 feet away, there came a moment of realization.   Five decades is not a lot of time.   “Trumpeter”, or one of its siblings might well be displayed at another NSTA conference one day, as an artifact of curiosity.

The NSTA conference of 2058 will, no doubt, be an interesting meeting.

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