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I took control of my educational path when I was a sophomore in high school.


I had my first exposure to philosophy and religion studies, and it was a turning point in my life. I realized that there was a term for what I was — an atheist. So instead of focusing on the humanities or participating in group sports, I chose to look down at the rocks below my feet, to observe the world around me, and seek to understand the world that existed before me.


After that class, all I craved was information about the physical world. I contacted the school and arranged to move up and study advanced environmental science with the seniors. I also took biology over the summer because I didn’t want to interrupt my learning with a two-month break, and by the time I reached the winter of my senior year, I had enough credits and a satisfactory GPA to graduate early.


I applied to three universities: Illinois State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. I got into all three, but I moved to Olympia the moment I graduated high school. I chose Evergreen State for a few reasons:

  • I was able to design my own curriculum

  • Each course offering was a mix of at least four disciplines

  • There were no “core class” requirements

  • Evergreen State used a non-traditional grading system using narrative evaluations

  • I was able to design my own classes and choose my faculty

  • There were plenty of opportunities to do undergraduate research

Evergreen functions on the quarter system, and the first class I took spanned two quarters. It was called “Drawing on the Earth,” and it included instruction in geology, drawing, and the study of Earthworks, or using elements you find outside to create temporary art installations in nature. Most of our projects included synthesizing what we learned about geology into something beautiful and communicative in nature. This was my first exposure to science communication using art, and it is something I am still very passionate about.


That course translated to twelve credits in Earth Science with Laboratory and Field Work, plus four credits each for Introduction to Drawing, Art Appreciation, Experimental Art with Earth Materials, Seminar and Expository Writing, in addition to Research Paper and Oral Presentation.



IAEA fact-finding team leader Mike Weightman examines Reactor Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on May 27, 2011, to assess tsunami damage and study nuclear safety lessons that could be learned from its meltdown. (Greg Webb /IAEA)


My undergraduate research project materialized as an independent learning contract about two to three years later after I had become more knowledgeable about soil science, which I chose as an underlying focus in all of my classes. I wrote a proposal to look into the potential absorption of radioactive chemicals in the clays along the Pacific Ocean and within the Puget Sound after the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. I chose Evergreen’s Science Operations Manager as my advisor as he was the only one I knew with a license to work with radioactive chemicals, and because we had very productive ideation sessions together that really encouraged my exploration. I chose to take on this research at a perfect moment in time because according to the information we have on ocean currents and the rate of circulation, two to three years was ample time to see appreciable differences in chemical absorption on the other side of the Pacific (if there was any).


At Evergreen, the way we kept track of our educational progress was to write evaluations of our courses: how we felt we did, how our professors felt we did, and a summary of what we learned. My official transcript is between thirty and forty pages. The unofficial is boiled down into a two-page academic summary, and it denotes the number of credits received per course — if you don’t do well, you lose credits. You graduate when you finally receive 180 credits.





Although cumbersome and unlikely to be read by anyone but me in its entirety, my official transcript is an extremely detailed record of what I’ve learned, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. When I look back at it today, the information floods back to me in detail. I appreciate the effort to refresh my future self on what I learned, what I was good at, and what I needed to work on. It means a lot more than a number. It’s a clear picture of my progress and process of developing certain skills, and it is full of lessons.


In order to thrive in an academic environment like this, you must be very self-motivated and self-directed. In other words, nobody is going to tell you what to do, so you must figure it out all on your own. I realize not everyone can thrive in such a boundless environment, but I personally found immense value in this sort of educational approach. It allowed me to create my own view and understanding of the world, and it allowed me to really understand and study myself at the same time.


Absorbing information in such a rationally sound, non-traditional environment created space for my creativity to take flight — for ideas to synthesize and metaphors to arise from symbols on paper. Oftentimes, I would find that in order to understand geological or biological concepts, I would innately retrieve complementary examples from my lived experiences, and suddenly it would all make sense. I began to see overlapping or transferable concepts, ideas, and patterns everywhere, which consequently led to the awareness and understanding of systems design. Eventually, the details I spent time memorizing for a test disappear and become feelings and understanding. If I can remember something holistically and fill in the details from reliable sources when I need them, I can then begin my open-ended exploration across multiple disciplines. Information then becomes a part of me; it is with me wherever I go, with every decision I make.


I would find that in order to understand geological or biological concepts, I would innately retrieve complementary examples from my lived experiences, and suddenly it would all make sense. I began to see overlapping or transferable concepts, ideas, and patterns everywhere, which consequently led to the awareness and understanding of systems design.

The most important step for me was realizing the importance of taking failures or being wrong as opportunities to learn and grow instead of giving up in defeat or acting like a sore loser. After internalizing that concept, I flowed into a state of mind where one thing inevitably leads to something greater and unexpected, where I embrace the imperfect, and where I see potential in all things. As I navigate, I experience both extreme caution and extreme fearlessness in the face of uncertainty, and I will always have to work to maintain this balance when making decisions and judgments. This is my general approach to living, processing information, and creating value.

My approach to learning may seem quite novel, so at this point, I must note a result that can arguably be seen as both positive and negative — I am not tightly bound to my opinions and ideas; I believe context and nuance abound in every story, and I want to understand them. Take that as you will. Nonetheless, it is further proof that I am tightly bound to the process of making meaning, a process that I believe provides more benefits than consequences. Being close-minded would have stopped this entire development in its tracks.


In hindsight, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to join a learning environment where I was encouraged to follow my instincts and passions, weaving disciplines and interests together like a basket. No matter the course, Evergreen provided rigorous training on how to find information, how to be skeptical, how to have discussions, and how to synthesize disparate subjects to produce practical value. I can be both a scientist and an artist in a world that is not really built to encourage such a thing. At the time, and still now in 2021, it is rare to find an academic program like it.



On the other side of Mount Olympus, La Push is the largest community within the Quileute Indian Reservation. It is most famous for its extended depiction in the "Twilight" series of books. (Courtesy of Madeline Canmann)

 

As I have explored our world, I have always sought to find where I can be most helpful; how my skills and gifts can be put to use to fulfill the potential I was born with, and do the most amount of good with them. My training at Evergreen gives me confidence that I can be a student forever, and that the award of a degree helps people easily understand your capabilities or experience, but it is not the only measure of quality or propensity to succeed. After graduation, I did not stop reading, buying textbooks, writing papers, or challenging myself. I did, however, switch courses from the physical sciences to the humanities.


As I joined the workforce and moved out of my academic bubble, I grew increasingly frustrated at how scientific information and the uptake of research were not integrated into society. In order to learn more about the obstacles facing science communication, the shortcomings of our education system, and contemporary grand challenges, I have taken over a dozen classes ranging from boosting creativity to countering terrorism. Most of the classes I have taken are through Coursera, but I have also taken classes at my local community college and library, through the Story Collider, or through environmental organizations like the International Environmental Communication Association or The Common Cause Foundation.


The overarching theme among these classes, apart from the importance of functionality, efficiency, and sustainability, is the emphasis on the process being more important than the final result. They have helped me begin to understand why people do the things we do, and why things are the way they are, and what can be done about it. Additionally, each class I have taken has illustrated and illuminated the power of care and the importance of that exchange within our social relationships.

As I continue exploring the realms of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and communication, I can see the back and forth like a tennis match - each depends on and determines the others, just as biology, chemistry, and geology all work together to make up our physical environment. These two separate worlds have immeasurable similarities, so it makes a lot of sense that I use metaphors that lend understanding to the other.


As I continue exploring the realms of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and communication, I can see the back and forth like a tennis match - each depends on and determines the others, just as biology, chemistry, and geology all work together to make up our physical environment.

As bold as this sounds, the things I learn seem to make so much sense when I am drawing on so many different perspectives and disciplines, and it sometimes feels as if I already knew. Most information that comes my way feels inherent, but I become skeptical when things make so much sense in such a messy world. I am always left thinking about Socrates’ quote: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” It is foolish, perhaps even arrogant to believe I am so tapped into the interconnectedness of the world, and yet it is necessary to have some coherent understanding of reality if I am to move forward in life. The world is complicated and unpredictable, and I am doing my best.


And I can confidently say that my world grows exponentially with every class and every piece of literature I consume. Everything I learn now informs my goals and gives me a clearer picture of our human world and our relationship with planet Earth.



Skyline of Downtown Chicago from Chicago's North Shore, where Madeline grew up and now lives. (Alex Ip)


As a scientist, the most important lesson I have learned is that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” and that in the scientific process we are not seeking truth by swimming straight for it - we are ruling out what cannot be true until we are left with an ideal unquestionable (and unreachable) truth. This is a principle that guides me as I read and write, as I realize the motivations of others, and as I deflect misinformation.


As an artist, the most important lesson I have learned is that people rely on what they see before their eyes. That, and first impressions must be very strong. When you have one shot to draw peoples’ attention, make sure you choose something that will stop them in their tracks, eager to learn more. I take note of the ways my own attention is captured and use these observations as a good place to start. Everybody’s responses will be different, and they are all valuable.


As a proud generalist, the most important lesson I have learned is that nothing is truly isolated and that the systems of the world function as a symphony. The ability to use metaphors to understand scientific concepts is a beautiful art, and it is also a very effective strategy for communicating complex messages.


This brings me to my last point: listen when people are sharing information with you, try to put yourself in their shoes, and meet them where they are at.


Everybody has their gifts, and everybody develops certain skills. Not one person can do everything well, and there will always be people in the world who do certain things well above average. I think my greatest skills are my ability to listen and observe from a place of curiosity and not judgment, and to readily admit when I am wrong. I am also great at finding common ground with people, connecting people and ideas, and taking every opportunity to inspire and share science-related information.


This brings me to my last point: listen when people are sharing information with you, try to put yourself in their shoes, and meet them where they are at.

I have been lucky, and I do not take that for granted. I have to fight very hard to defend my educational journey, but it’s a highly personalized journey I believe everyone should have the opportunity to take if they want to develop into a highly independent thinker. I feel like I slipped out the back door one night and never returned home. I am out on my own building myself up without letting the influence of others control my direction too much. I removed the canopy of trees blocking the light from reaching the forest floor in my own life when I took charge of my education, and I have allowed my world to become incredibly rich, diverse, and healthy.


 

In light of my own experience, I firmly believe that we need to support and nurture each individual’s personal talents and gifts; that a personalized and interdisciplinary approach to learning is a valuable alternative to our current system, where we often try to hammer squares into circular holes or teach skills and values that will not serve us in the long run. Furthermore, the personalization of education is an inherently nourishing approach that fosters dignity, wisdom, meaning, and purpose - the things we strive for most in life. In doing so, I believe it will pay dividends in the long run and help all of us succeed in the next chapter of our history.


Every single person on the planet deserves the opportunity to grow in a safe environment, where they are encouraged to be themselves and follow their own compass as I have. It is the duty of our educational systems to create options and structural frameworks that foster this type of positive development, and in doing so, hopefully, serve as an example for the rest of the world.


Here in the United States, our current educational system is missing some key aspects and misplacing its priorities. When students are lauded for being competitive or getting the very best grades, when training in judgment is minimal, when the expectation is to stay on a straightforward path, and when others have the ability to make or break your future, we promote mediocrity, mental illness, disparity, and personal success over contributing to the well-being of the people around us and society as a whole. The few people who will be seen as most successful (aka most wealthy), will likely keep most of their accrued value to themselves, a value that the “mediocre” create through hours of their lives spent working jobs that will likely be replaced by technology or AI.




As we charge full speed ahead towards a future entrenched in technological advances that make life “easier,” it is more important than ever to focus on building more confident, ethically-minded, critically thinking citizens. I believe so many of the world’s problems would resolve themselves if people owned their innate talents and diversified the types of roles we are called to and reasonably paid for.


I believe it is possible that our species is not doomed to war, obliteration of the natural environment, and inevitable self-destruction, even though our desire for more of everything has a correlation with unsustainable environmental attitudes and behaviors (namely resource hoarding). I believe we just need to make some changes where it counts, and that we need to take a less rigid and more fluid, transdisciplinary approach to research, communication, and education moving forward.


When students are lauded for being competitive or getting the very best grades, when training in judgment is minimal, when the expectation is to stay on a straightforward path, and when others have the ability to make or break your future, we promote mediocrity, mental illness, disparity, and personal success over contributing to the well-being of the people around us and society as a whole.


Education doesn’t have to feed into the worst impulses of society; instead, a personalized educational approach could be paired with a reimagined set of goals to encourage individuals to care more about “bigger-than-self problems” like climate change, hunger, and slavery. To care about others. To realize the importance of moral responsibility to decrease the amount of needless suffering around the world - the people, animals, and environments that are so badly suffering at the hands of mankind.


We have the power to inspire, educate, persuade, and implement change by creating new from the old, approaching communication and education from a place of care, and most importantly, connecting the dots. We are in a constant state of civilizing ourselves, and it is my hope we can creatively problem-solve our way down this path. The urgency of the climate crisis needs and demands it.


There are so many things standing in the way of progress on this front, but I know that if we work together, the positive changes I dream of are possible. Maybe it starts with hearing stories like this, from scouts that run ahead of the crowd and report back what they find. The story of reality I have created through my education is very simple, and I am comforted by that. But when I begin to feel like I’ve got it all figured out, I remind myself that I don’t and that it is my duty to continue listening, learning, and musing on the connections between the inanimate and dynamic halves of the world. I hope you do too.



 


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