A Personal Journal of Notes and Thoughts


NASA Tricks:
Learning in Groups

This is an exerpt from an e-mail that was sent to me by a fellow member of the M100 mailing list. It describes his participation in NASA groups. I really though this needed to be saved and explored by others. If anyone gets to implement this kind of group please let me know how well it works.




Learning From NASA
"Far and Near" Groups
By Ron Wiesen

The only other forum I've found that has such a valuable mixture is at NASA. Lucky for me, I live a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and get to participate in the "Far and Near" groups. NASA is strict about participation. First, NASA seeks new participants to keep their pool of folks large. NASA simply invites a person to register -- it's fine if they don't, if they accept then they are registered as part of the pool. Right after registration, NASA meets a new participant and ascertains what scientific, technical, and practical disciplines are:

FAR from the person's experience and background
NEAR to the person's experience and background.

Looking ahead by months or years, where NASA can see some challenge they start a FAR and NEAR group. To NASA, a challenge is some task either with no obvious approach or an approach exists that has uncertain viability. Using "biased" random selection from the pool, NASA invites individuals to form a FAR and NEAR group. An individual can refuse or accept -- it's strictly voluntary.

Group make-up is between 20/80% FAR/NEAR and 40/60% FAR/NEAR. No less, no more -- NASA is strict about this. Say that NASA sees 30/70% FAR/NEAR as best for a particular challenge -- that will be the make-up... period. In that case 30% of the participants lack discipline and 70% have discipline with respect to scientific, technical, and practical aspects of the challenge. THE MIX IS IMPORTANT -- it's the "bias" used in random selection. If NASA can't get the mix, the FAR/NEAR group isn't formed.

The hope is that FAR participants will ask questions that are "stupid" from the perspective of NEAR participants. Such questions are natural to a FAR participant, and no NEAR participant would ask these questions. That's the hope. But if a question doesn't get asked, it has little chance of consideration -- exactly what NASA does not want to have happen. Questions that begin "What if..." and "Why can't..." are typical FAR questions.

Here's what always happens in every FAR/NEAR group I've been in. A FAR participant asks a question and all the NEAR participants stare in disbelief with mouths open and have no answer. After that, the NEAR participants get real lively and say things that begin with "We can..." or "But maybe..." and eventually end with "That's it!"

NASA keeps records. Every individual is forced into the same sequence of participation: FAR, NEAR, and NEAR. Then the sequence repeats. Nobody can decline FAR offers and expect to get a NEAR offer when it's their turn for FAR participation. Decline a FAR offer, and the next offer will be a FAR. You're just declining a particular challenge. You can't escape FAR participation.

That's how it's done Ross. It works well. As many times as it's happened, I still get shocked when I'm NEAR. My mouth hangs open and I'm dazed and speechless. Afterwards I wonder why such a "simple" idea never occurred to me -- it's because I'm too near to have such a "stupid" idea!



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