Walking through life can be fun and interesting, dull and boring or
simply frustrating. Our walk is based not on our talents but on our
decisions. Our skill in making decisions that add a little spice to each
day depends on our ability to bring together facts and concepts, develop
a picture of the desired outcome and then make a decision that brings us
closer to that outcome.
In our experience, making decisions is simplified if one understands
what we call ``main ideas''.
We emphasize main ideas because
most of us have difficulty remembering unrelated facts. For us,
our memory works best
when there is a framework, or scaffolding, on which we can hang facts and
concepts. The scaffolding provides the links between facts and concepts that
help with recalling and manipulating some of the stuff in our memory.
The simplest scaffolding is built from main ideas that often
reflect an oversimplification of an area, but nevertheless,
provides the essential framework for building an understanding of
more complex systems.
The Internet and efficient search engines allow us to focus our energy
on understanding main ideas rather than memorizing all of the facts
and concepts associated with a particular area of interest. In the
21st century we can
justifiably question cluttering our memory
with detailed knowledge when we can retrieve this knowledge
from an Internet search and quickly reconstruct the details
from our scaffolding built from main ideas. The concept of
building our framework by concentrating
on main ideas is simply a more efficient
way of thinking. Moreover, it is an efficient way of educating
oneself. Main ideas feeding the construction of scaffolding,
mixed with a good dose of curiosity, provide the substrate for
life-long learning and restore the fun of learning.
Within this context, education is no longer
arbitrary and something we are simply told to do. Instead it is fun
because the process of discovering a new main idea, adding to our
scaffolding, gaining a new insight
and trashing irrelevant knowledge is refreshing.
How do we identify what to learn and what we can safely disregard?
We find problem-based learning to be the tool for separating
the information we need
to solve a particular problem from what we can safely ignore. Content-mastery
requires we start at the beginning of a book and learn
all the stuff between the first and last pages. We can be easily
evaluated by testing what we remember.
Success with problem-based learning requires we readily identify what
we don't know. We identify what we don't know with mental images. If
we can paint an unambiguous picture of what we are thinking about
then we have no gaps in our understanding. If there are gaps in
the picture, then new learning is necessary.
If we easily recognize what we don't know then when we start to solve
a new problem, we quickly realize the gaps in our tools for solving this
particular problem.1Our approach here is to provide you with the main
ideas or concepts upon which you can acquire enough new knowledge to
solve a problem of interest. Our approach to main ideas is
based on mastery of three
concepts: problem-based learning, Internet-searching and Internet-memory.
Here we present main ideas (or central concepts),
acquired over the past 35 - 40 years,
that have facilitated work in areas ranging from cardiac
pharmacology to biostatistics to software engineering.
In addition, we present some HOWTO segments that introduce you to
tools we find generically useful: octave for modeling, xmgrace for
displaying data, cvs for collaboratively developing a document or
The underlying theme of ``main ideas'' is the fun of learning
derived from the beauty and elegance
of simple yet powerful concepts.
Simple concepts usually arise from simple questions and
simple questions more often arise from children than from adults.
Perhaps one of the most challenging activities for us as adults
is to rediscover the fun of learning through asking childishly simple