Ariel Anbar: I’m Ariel Anbar. I’m a President’s Professor at Arizona State University, and I’m the Director of the Center for Education Through Exploration. And I’m here to talk to you about two of the most pro­found changes that this plan­et has ever seen. One hap­pened a lit­tle more than two bil­lion years ago. It made the plan­et what it is today. The oth­er is hap­pen­ing right now, and it’s going to deter­mine our future. I want to talk to you about how these changes are sim­i­lar and about how they’re dif­fer­ent. And about how they com­pel us to rethink our entire approach to edu­ca­tion as we go for­ward into the future.

Today, the air is loaded with oxy­gen, but it was­n’t always that way. During the first half of Earth’s his­to­ry, there was almost no oxy­gen in the atmos­phere, or in the oceans. Maybe one mol­e­cule of a mil­lion was a mol­e­cule of O2. That world was dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the one we know today. 

It was a world in which only microbes could sur­vive. No ani­mals, no trees or plants. Probably lit­tle or no life on land at all. 

Things are very dif­fer­ent today. Today, one out of every five mol­e­cules in the air is O2. From one in a mil­lion to one out of five is a mas­sive, mas­sive change. And that change began 2.3 bil­lion years ago, and that was the time of the Great Oxidation Event. That trans­for­ma­tion paved the way for more com­plex forms of life, and even­tu­al­ly to us. It was one of the most dra­mat­ic changes in the his­to­ry of the planet. 

Now, why did this change hap­pen? We’re pret­ty sure that the Great Oxidation Event was a result of ancient bac­te­ria fig­ur­ing out how to har­ness the ener­gy in sun­light through pho­to­syn­the­sis. They cap­ture ener­gy from sun­light to grow and pow­er them­selves, and in the process, they make oxygen. 

Photosynthesis was an incred­i­ble inno­va­tion. Because there’s a tremen­dous amount of ener­gy in sun­light. Figuring out how to cap­ture that ener­gy trans­formed the kind of life that we found on the plan­et, which even­tu­al­ly trans­formed the plan­et itself. In fact, one of the best ways to look for evi­dence of life on oth­er worlds is to look for the O2 mol­e­cule in their atmospheres. 

Now the evo­lu­tion of oxy­gen in Earth’s atmos­phere is what my stu­dents and I have stud­ied for twen­ty years. We invent­ed new ways to tease infor­ma­tion out of ancient rocks. We dis­cov­ered some of the ear­li­est evi­dence of oxy­gen in the envi­ron­ment. The National Science Foundation recent­ly gave us $5 mil­lion to con­tin­ue doing this kind of research. Pretty suc­cess­ful, right? 

Then one day, my son asked me one of those ques­tions that stopped me in my tracks the way only a child’s ques­tion can. Dad, all this Earth his­to­ry and astro­bi­ol­o­gy stuff you do is real­ly cool. But how is it solv­ing any prob­lems here at home?” So I start­ed think­ing about it hard­er. What does the past teach us about our rela­tion­ship to the plan­et? How does it mat­ter in the future? 

And that brings me to the sec­ond of those pro­found changes that I men­tioned before, the one that’s going on right now. It’s us. It’s what we’re doing to the plan­et. That’s what my son was talk­ing about. He’d heard some peo­ple say that we’re destroy­ing the plan­et, and he’d heard oth­ers say that that’s all a lie. Neither claim is very hope­ful or inspir­ing about the future of human­i­ty on Earth. 

So I tried to step back and look at it like a sci­en­tist would on an alien plan­et, study­ing life on Earth. What would she say? That alien would say that we humans are the lat­est evo­lu­tion­ary inno­va­tion in life’s long his­to­ry on the plan­et. What’s the essence of our inno­va­tion? It’s our big brains com­bined with our hands. Big brains plus hands equals the abil­i­ty to design and to build. And on the back of the bio­log­i­cal inno­va­tion of big brains and hands, we’ve built our tech­no­log­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion. A civ­i­liza­tion that’s chang­ing the plan­et, just like the bac­te­ria did. 

To feed the hun­gry we turned forests into farm­lands. To tame the rivers and quench our thirst, we built dams and canals, and drained great aquifers. To shel­ter our­selves and go about our work we build great cities, vast roads, and all man­ner of machines to move our­selves around, in the process tear­ing down moun­tains for their iron and their coal. And in doing all that, we’ve changed the make­up of the water that we drink, the air that we breathe, and the cli­mate in which we live. Just take a look at the night side of Earth from space, the way that alien sci­en­tists might look at us. And it’s inescapable: human beings are reshap­ing plan­et Earth. 

Now how do we do all those things? The key was that using our big brains and hands we invent­ed clever ways to har­ness ener­gy. Burning wood and then coal and oil. Nuclear reac­tors, wind tur­bine, solar pan­els. Energy. Remember that first inno­va­tion, the rise of oxy­gen due to the inven­tion of pho­to­syn­the­sis? That was also about energy. 

So what these big changes have in com­mon is that they’re dri­ven by inno­va­tions in the abil­i­ty of liv­ing things to obtain and use ener­gy. When those bac­te­ria fig­ured out how to cap­ture sun­light, they wound up chang­ing the world for­ev­er. And a cou­ple of bil­lion years lat­er, some apes fig­ured out how to make fire and they wound up chang­ing the world for­ev­er as well. 

Geologists are try­ing to rec­og­nize the mag­ni­tude of this change by giv­ing our epoch a spe­cial name: the Anthropocene,” the age of humans. Some peo­ple find this depress­ing because they think that the Anthropocene is inevitably a bad thing. But it’s not. Because we aren’t bac­te­ria. Those brains that give us the abil­i­ty to har­ness ener­gy also give us the abil­i­ty to shape the way the plan­et is trans­formed. We can design our future. A future in which we don’t just sur­vive but thrive.

So now I’m not just study­ing Earth’s past and the prospects for life beyond this world. Because of my son’s ques­tion I’m also engag­ing the future of this world. The key to thriv­ing in the Anthropocene is that we need to learn how to think and act dif­fer­ent­ly. Which brings us to how we teach and learn, and how we need to rethink our approach to education. 

Today when we teach in our schools and uni­ver­si­ties, we focus on stu­dents mas­ter­ing knowl­edge. We teach as though kids enter schools as emp­ty ves­sels and our job as teach­ers is for them to leave as full as pos­si­ble of facts, vocab­u­lary, process­es, pro­ce­dures, and equa­tions. Because for hun­dreds of years that is what was impor­tant for our suc­cess. To do all those things we just talked about, we need­ed mil­lions of peo­ple who knew a lot of stuff. 

Is that what we need in the future? Of course, we’re not going to give up on mas­ter­ing knowl­edge. But that’s no longer enough. Because in the Anthropocene we’re all wired togeth­er. The future demands that we each know when and how to use knowl­edge, how to obtain it on our own, when we need it, and how to fig­ure out how to use it, wise­ly. That’s much hard­er to teach, and it’s much hard­er to learn. It’s like when my daugh­ter first learned how to walk. When she was a tod­dler, it was enough to know how to get around with­out falling. She did­n’t real­ly care where she was going. All that mat­tered was that she knew about this amaz­ing new abil­i­ty that she dis­cov­ered in herself. 

But as she grew into a teenage bal­let dancer, she came to care a lot. And had to learn a whole new set of skills that aren’t easy. Because danc­ing isn’t just about know­ing how to move, it’s about learn­ing when and why to move, in all sorts of dif­fer­ent ways. 

As a species we need to make the same tran­si­tion from tod­dlers to teenage dancers, on a plan­e­tary scale. And we need to teach and learn how to solve prob­lems; how to eval­u­ate the qual­i­ty of infor­ma­tion; how to think crit­i­cal­ly; how to per­sist through fail­ure; how to tack­le prob­lems that no one has solved before, or maybe even real­ized exist­ed before. How to be like an explor­er nav­i­gat­ing the unchart­ed waters of the Anthropocene. We need to trans­form learn­ing from mas­tery of what’s known, to explo­ration of the unknown. How are we going to do that?

It turns out that we know how to do it—it’s called active learn­ing. Where stu­dents don’t just sit in a lec­ture hall, and instead they roll up their sleeves and fig­ure out how to do stuff. They explore. They ask ques­tions. They fol­low their inter­ests. They learn by doing, not by lis­ten­ing and repeat­ing what they’ve been told. They aren’t assessed by what they can remem­ber for a test, but by what they are able to fig­ure out and do. 

But here’s the big prob­lem: active learn­ing is usu­al­ly done in small groups. But small groups won’t cut it on a plan­et of bil­lions of peo­ple. In the Center for Education Through Explorations that I’m lead­ing, a group of us are try­ing to do bet­ter. We look at the cours­es that you can take on a com­put­er and com­pare them to oth­er things that you can do in a com­put­er. Like great video games and movies and social net­works, and fan­tas­tic visu­al­iza­tions like Google Earth, and we ask our­selves why can’t we built online edu­ca­tion expe­ri­ences that way? Why can we build online cours­es that have the nar­ra­tive pow­er of Star Wars, the inter­ac­tiv­i­ty of Halo, the con­nec­tions of Twitter and Facebook, and intel­lec­tu­al rig­or of the great­est cours­es that you’ve ever tak­en? Courses that engage us by tack­ling big ques­tions that inter­est us. That take us on intel­lec­tu­al jour­neys that feel more like games than like cours­es. Where solv­ing prob­lems and over­com­ing chal­lenges is the heart of the process, and in the process we learn how to solve prob­lems and over­come challenges. 

Our first exper­i­ment was an online class called Habitable Worlds, a sci­ence course for stu­dents who aren’t major­ing in the sci­ences. Thousands have tak­en it over the past few years. It’s orga­nized around one of those Star Trek ques­tions that turned me on as a kid: Are we alone in the uni­verse? The entire course is built around game-like sim­u­la­tions and vir­tu­al field trips that take you on an intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney from the nature of stars, to the evo­lu­tion of life in Earth’s past, to the future of our civ­i­liza­tion. It ties togeth­er every­thing that I’ve been talk­ing about. How to take a big ques­tion and break it down into small­er ques­tions. How to turn ques­tions into hypothe­ses that they test by mak­ing obser­va­tions. It’s not an easy course, but most stu­dents love it. And they tell us that they love it because it trans­forms the way they look at things. Habitable World isn’t the end. It’s not Star Wars meets Halo meets Cosmos. Not yet, any­way. That’s we want it to be some­day. We want Habitable World and the cours­es that fol­low it to inspire a rev­o­lu­tion in how we teach at mas­sive scale. 

Remember that Great Oxidation Event? Our dream is to cre­ate a Great Education Event. But for now, Habitable Worlds is a begin­ning. It’s our own way of learn­ing by doing. It’s my way of answer­ing that ques­tion that my son asked, what am I doing to solve prob­lems here at home? And it’s my way of fol­low­ing my daugh­ter learn­ing how to dance. Thank you.