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Education vs. Training
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.

Do you know the difference between education and training? Although the SETI League is officially chartered as an educational and scientific nonprofit organization, its mission includes a distinct training component as well. Because the two endeavors often overlap, they are easily mistaken one for the other. The distinction is a subtle but important one.

As a gross oversimplification, you can consider education as the imparting of knowledge, while training involves the acquisition of skills. In the context of a disciplined Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, prior knowledge is often necessary before specific skills can be acquired. Conversely, prior specific skills can often enhance or accelerate the accumulation of knowledge.

In my role as SETI League Executive Director Emeritus, as well as in my capacity as a professor, educational activities fall clearly within my purview. I am tasked with developing curricula and materials both to teach my own students, and to help other educators teach courses on radio astronomy, astrobiology, and other SETI-related topics. Often, this has nothing whatever to do with The SETI League's direct search activities, and everything to do with the interdisciplinary nature of the SETI enterprise as a whole. If you think SETI is only about aiming a dish and tuning across the water hole, perhaps you are missing its full educational potential.

Training within The SETI League generally involves helping our members to master the nuts and bolts of assembling and operating an effective Project ARGUS station. It seeks to foster manipulative skills, thus requires hands-on practice with real equipment. The SETI League's training cadre is our growing network of volunteer Regional Coordinators, organized through a structured Membership Services department, communicating largely through the ARGUS email list. If you need a helping hand in making your station play properly, you can thus turn to your fellow members for swift and skillful training.

There is a lot of overlap between these two distinct areas, however, so our educational and training missions are cooperative in nature. As an educator, I sometimes find myself helping fellow teachers to lash together a surplus TVRO dish with a feedhorn, LNA, microwave receiver, and some DSP software, so their students can gain hands-on SETI observational experience. And many's the Regional Coordinator who has had to educate local members in everything from Keppler's laws to Doppler shift to the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation, so they could understand the science behind the technology they employ. Perhaps this is why the two distinct functions become blurred in the minds of many.

SETI serves us well as an educational tool. It not only captures the imagination of students, but provides them a concrete means for applying scientific theory that might otherwise seem abstract. But before such education can take place, one or more people in the classroom may need to be trained in the physical operation of electronic equipment. This makes tangible what might otherwise seem distant and abstract.

Conversely, before the typical SETIzen can be trained to search for signals of artificial origin, a little formal education in coordinate systems (azimuth, elevation, right ascension, declination, latitude, longitude, and altitude) is probably in order. Without a solid educational background, operation reduces itself to "push this button, twist that knob, and hope for the best."

If education involves the acquisition of facts, training leads to a mastery of tasks. The factual emphasis in education is well suited to the classroom environment, so textbooks and the Internet make excellent educational tools. The task-oriented nature of training, on the other hand, means that it most often occurs in the laboratory. The amateur SETI station is a laboratory of sorts, and thus an excellent training ground. When you show someone how to interface the hardware, aim the antenna, scan the skies, and collect data, you are training him or her in important manipulative skills. When you help a fellow member to use these skills in calculating relative motion from Doppler shift, analyzing a data file, or estimating sky coverage, you are engaged in education.

Still not convinced that the distinction between education and training is a significant one? Consider this: if you have school-age children, they probably receive sex education in the health science classroom. Sex training, on the other hand, most likely takes place extracurricularly.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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