Let’s End STEM

June 11th, 2015

It seems like not a day goes by that I don’t see an article published in all fields promoting the need for our education system to focus on Stem – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Teaching critical thinking is for sure something we must do and hopefully a good science and engineering education will do that.

However, I truly believe we need to forget STEM and concentrate on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

I can’t enumerate the number of technical graduates I have met in my long career who have a very narrow field of interests, mostly if not exclusively technology. Place them into a social setting and if the conversation doesn’t come around to technology they soon become silent. What I have found is that the most creative of technologists I have met are well rounded people with broad interests, studying the liberal arts not only makes them interesting people to be around it appears to boost their creativity in their highly technical fields.

So, let’s try to drop that extra letter “A” into STEM and go full STEAM ahead with the next generation of creative technologists.
Keep soaring … Sid.

Without a shadow of a doubt – really?

May 18th, 2015

“It’s a scientific fact, without a shadow of a doubt!”

Well how many times do you read that and think one of two things; “rock solid truth” or “really?” If you really understand what science is and how its practitioners work you should have answered “really?”

This may surprise some readers given that I am a really strong proponent of using a science based approach to teaching and training both our fellow humans and the animals we share our lives with. The strength of the scientific method is not that once a fact is proven it is incontrovertible and set in stone forever. It is this “set in stone” perception that I believe has caused many previous supporters of the scientific method to begin to question it. How many remember when scientists announced that eggs and butter were bad for our health only to later reverse that position? If one were in the camp that said scientific facts are set in stone I am sure it would rock (pun intended) one’s faith in science.

What science presents is the best knowledge to date on a particular subject. That knowledge is based upon carefully conducted experiments with methodical collection and analysis of the resultant data.

The scientific method depends upon several crucial points:

  1. Peer review of the testing process, results collection, and of the methods used to evaluate a hypothesis.
  2. Repeatability of the experiment by independent researchers.
  3. Ongoing openness of the participants and scientific community to challenging established “facts.”

The first two points act as a cross-check of not only the premise of the test scenario but also the methodology used to collect and analyze the results. There have been several cases in the popular press that demonstrate these two points in action, e.g. the attempt to link vaccination with autism.

However it is the third point that in my opinion truly drives knowledge forward. If once a theory was established it was set in stone there would be little progress towards new knowledge in the area covered by the theory. The major force for advancement of knowledge is a skeptical reader, someone who when they read a new theory asks themselves “really? Is that really all there is to it?”

It is this last point that I feel should be taught in our schools, all our schools from pre-K onward. In fact I feel so strongly about this being a driving force for our society’s future I believe it should be a prime objective of parents to instill a respectfully questioning mind in all our children.

You may be wondering why this subject popped up on a bird training blog? The fact is that I was inspired to write it while reading a bird related post online today where the writer used the “without a shadow of a doubt” phrase. It is becoming one of two pervasive approaches to information; either because a researcher establishes a position it is set in stone or science is always wrong so discard it. What we need in all aspects of our lives is, not surprisingly, somewhere between the two. What we need is “respectful skepticism.” This will lead to new discoveries and to growth of the human knowledge base.

Keep soaring,
Sid

The Instant Expert

May 24th, 2013

I have a new post over on the Companion Bird World Blog … just a short one. Hop over and take a look.

http://companionbirdworld.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-instant-expert.html

Sid.

 

Extinction Defined

May 8th, 2013

One often hears about this procedure in connection with undesirable behaviors such as excessively loud vocalization by companion parrots. It is also a term that is often used incorrectly so here is a short discussion of extinction.

In operant training, the procedure of withholding the reinforcers that maintain a behavior.
Paul Chance – Learning and Behavior.

While this is fairly simple to understand there are a couple of challenges with the use of this procedure. First it requires that the trainer really knows what the reinforcers are that are maintaining a behavior. In addition to this the trainer needs control of those reinforcers and sometimes the reinforcers are not in our control, making the application of extinction just not possible.

There is one more term that is worth discussing here with extinction and that is the extinction burst.

A sudden increase in the rate of behavior during the early stages of extinction.
Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior.

This effect of the extinction procedure is one that can set the caretaker of the parrot up to end up reinforcing a higher level vocalization just because they cannot stand the extinction burst level and they reinforce the higher level by reacting to it. This reinforcement, because it is not delivered after every vocalization is what is called intermittent reinforcement. A term to be discussed in a future article. For now the important part of understanding intermittent reinforcement is that it builds behavior that is more resistant to extinction. This serves to make the effective application of an extinction procedure even more difficult.

 

Just ignore that screaming bird!

May 6th, 2013

Undesirable loud noises, typically referred to as “screaming” by parrot owners, is a common issue. So common that it inspired me to tailor a presentation for conferences and bird clubs called “The Accidental Trainer”. The basis of the presentation is that screaming and also biting, are so prevalent in companion parrots that they must be inherently “noisy biters.” It is not my intention to cover the ground that my presentation covers in a few hundred words of a blog, I encourage anyone interested to contact me so that I may bring the full presentation to their club. What I would like to discuss is the often advised strategy of behavior change called “extinction” as a solution to the noise issue. My point will be that extinction alone is not enough, indeed suggesting only extinction as a fix for a noisy bird may well be setting up the bird and the caretaker for failure.

First let’s take a quick look at exactly what we mean when we speak about extinction. The word itself and its common meaning sound like the right approach:

Extinction – Noun

1. The state or process of a species, family, or larger group being or becoming extinct.

2. The state or process of ceasing or causing something to cease to exist.

The first definition is obvious and is probably the one that people are most familiar with. The second definition is not surprising either and seems to be what we want with this noisy bird behavior, we want it to cease to exist, the behavior that is 😮

From a behavior science perspective we get a tighter definition, one that leads to how to apply the strategy:

1. When a behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring.

This also seems clear, we simply ensure that whatever consequence has been reinforcing the behavior is no longer available. Simple right? Well not so much. The first challenge in any attempt to reduce the frequency or strength of an undesired behavior is to try to discover two things. First what is the signal in the environment that informs the bird that if they vocalize loudly it will produce a desirable outcome? Second, what is that desirable outcome produced by the behavior of vocalizing loudly that is maintaining the behavior. Only once these two things are discovered and in our control do have the tools to enable an attempt to reduce the undesirable behavior.

If we are lucky we will discover and be able to control the event that is signaling the bird to begin the behavior. For example I have heard of a bird that was placed in a cage near a window and their caretaker discovered that each time a large hawk appeared on the bird table in the yard their bird would begin screaming very loudly. The caretaker would appear and talk to the bird or bring it treats to calm it. For this situation the owner chose to move the bird table into the rear garden, out of sight of the parrot … the screaming went away. The signal to the bird to scream had been removed.

More often the signal to scream is the caretaker leaving the bird alone by going to another room. In these cases not leaving the room is probably not an option. This is when many trainers advise the use of extinction, “Just DO NOT respond when the bird screams” becomes the mantra. This advice on its own is not setting up the bird or the caretaker for success. While extinction does work and has been proven to work through countless experiments it is just too hard to execute properly for most caretakers.

What the advice to use extinction is ignoring is the principle that all behavior has function. This means that the behavior of screaming is used by the bird to generate some desirable outcome. It is part of the bird’s control over its environment. A much more successful strategy asks the question, from the bird’s perspective, “What’s in it for me?” If we can figure out what the outcome the bird expects the screaming to deliver then perhaps we can work out a different, more acceptable way of the bird getting that outcome.

Many times the screaming escalated from initial much lower volume attempts by the bird to simply stay in contact with the caretaker when they left the room. If we have a bird trying to make contact then we can begin by heavily reinforcing an acceptable vocalization, while trying to ignore the loud stuff as much as possible. When the caretaker leaves the room they can reinforce the acceptable noises by responding and fulfill the function of the vocalization, assuming contact is the bird’s desired outcome.

However, there are times I hear of screaming birds that do not respond to this strategy, usually because the noise is about getting the caretaker to return to the room and not simply vocal contact. In such cases how can we replace the function of getting the caretaker to return? It may well be we cannot directly do that. Now the strategy becomes one of developing a degree of independence for the bird. This is where teaching your bird to interact with toys and also to forage for food may come to the rescue. A bird that is engaged in independent play is much less likely to “demand” the caretaker return to the room if just prior to leaving the caretaker refreshed the foraging toys or placed some other toy in the cage for their bird.

In closing I must say that this short blog is just an attempt to get caretakers to think about strategies that do not reply upon extinction alone. By just removing access to reinforcers that previously maintained a behavior we are likely setting the stage for escalating noise or other undesirable behaviors. Teaching our birds to forage and play independently will go a long way to reducing the likelihood of screaming for attention behaviors.