Archives for category: discussion

This may be the most rude story I’ve ever written, but I had fun doing it, because it illustrates one of my strongest beliefs: “give kids the tools to innovate and don’t limit them”.

Originally I wanted to write a story to teach kids how to draw the different shapes, but I found too many stories and e-books about that subject online. I thought it would be better to write a story about imagination, creativity and innovation and how sometimes we stifle it when we teach our kids in school.

Our hero goes above and beyond and turns squares and circles into works of art. But, no matter how creative our hero gets, the Rude Rollerball Pen will find a way to either take credit or belittle our hero. Our hero is patient until she has had enough and so she drains the Rude Rollerball Pen and all of its suppression.

The lesson here is simple: push your kids to innovate, and if anyone tells them they can’t do it, teach them to have the strength to set these rude repressors aside.

 

I hope we learned something useful today,

DrTechniko

Last week I finished an online digital painting class at schoolism.com taught by the legendary Bobby Chiu. To show you how effective the class was, I learned how to turn this:

Into this:

And then into this!


All from the comfort of my home and time schedule using only Photoshop and a digital tablet.

I’m not a professional illustrator (yet), but I feel like I learned some amazing skills from a world expert on the subject and I felt like a kid having fun. So, I wondered “Could kids benefit from online schooling?”

So I thought of some benefits and drawbacks of online schooling compared to traditional schools:

Benefits:

(The online schools I include above do not target children per se, but I don’t see why their models couldn’t be adapted for children.)

Drawbacks:

  • Schools are not just about knowledge transfer, they ‘re also about making friends and getting exposed to the real world away from home.
  • It’s hard to enforce the “rules” when the teacher is not physically around.

As far as “enforcing rules”, a “virtual teacher” technology can easily be applied to record scores and progress as if the teacher was around (with deadlines, online testing etc.). So the most serious drawback of online schooling is the lack of the ability to socialize. Even though there are options that mimic social interaction online a la Facebook (schoology.com), unless kids leave home and meet other kids in person, they will miss out on a big part of life lessons if we replace schools with online learning.

So how about turning schools into “social activity centers” to get kids to play and interact together while they get schooled online? For the first time in history, we could give kids the opportunity (especially in developing countries) to get quality education from anywhere anytime at the fraction of the cost of traditional schools.

What do you think?

Many times I’ve heard people ask first graders “what is your favorite class in school”. The child is forced to choose one subject: sports, math, language etc. That trend continues throughout school and students tend to become one-dimensional. Too much focus too early ends up hurting our problem solving skills, because we lose the opportunity to build extra thinking tools and models that can be composed together.

StoRy 4 illustrates that taking a step back, thinking outside the box and composing abilities can solve a problem even if it appears to be unsolvable. Not until the Number 4 and the Letter R realize they can combine their spelling and counting abilities can they figure out that R is the fourth letter in the word FOUR.

The story also introduces the array, a data structure that appears everywhere in science (especially in computer science). An array, is basically a list of items that can be identified by an index/position. In our story, the array is an array of characters (F-O-U-R), also known as a word.

Here are some comprehension questions you can ask your children:

Q: What is the 4th letter of the word LETTER? What’s the position of the letter B in the word NUMBER?
A: T. 4.

Q: What’s more useful: Counting or Spelling?
A: Both are equally useful.

Q: Why was the Number 4 smiling at the end?
A: Because at the end, FOUR had 4 boxes and R only 1 inside the crossword puzzle. Moreover, it was all because the Letter R jumped into the box thinking that this would make it win the argument against the Number 4. If the Letter R hadn’t jumped into the box, then the Number 4 would not appear in the crossword puzzle at all.

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko

The second part of Story 3 explores more aspects of the DNA molecule both when used as a message and when used to create new organisms. Also, we take a look into biological processes that are defined in terms of positive and negative feedback loops.Here are some questions you might want to discuss with your kids:

Q: What happens when we change a sequence in the DNA or we start messing with the DNA strand and we cut and paste pieces from other DNA strands into it?
A: We get an engineered DNA strand that may or may not exist in nature. The change can be as small as changing the color of your hair or as big as transforming you into a new type of organism altogether, like a mutant.

Q: What do you think is Daena’s best quality that makes her a great DNA detective?
A: First, she knows her biology. Second, she is inventive and tries to find solutions based on her knowledge. Third, her solutions are not complicated. They are simple and they work.

Q: How did Daena beat the Ugga Ugga virus at the end?
A: First she changed the DNA of the Ugga Ugga virus to create a stronger (and not evil) virus, the Gaga Gaga virus, and then used the Gaga Gaga virus to kill the Ugga Ugga virus by creating a negative-positive feedback loop.

Q: How does a negative feedback loop work? Can you show an example of a negative feedback loop at your home?
A: A negative feedback loop works by regulating the amount of something. The more of the “something” we have, the feedback loop will try to make this “something” less. The less of the “something” we have, the feedback loop will try to make this “something” more.
This is for example how we maintain temperature in a house using a thermostat. In this case the “something” is the “heat”. The more heat we have, the thermostat will tell the A/C to blow cool air into the house to bring down the heat.

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko

The last day of my children’s book writing class we did a show-and-tell of our favorite children’s books. Instead of bringing a book, I brought in an iPad and showed Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat In The Hat” app from Oceanhouse Media. The comments I got from my classmates (among them many parents and teachers) were mixed. Some liked the extra features of the app that can only be done in a digital medium. They liked for example that a kid could click on the fish on the screen and have the word “fish” pop up. Some disliked them. They found for example the voice of the actor/narrator unfit or distracting.

If one looks at the industry news for book publishing it is clear that digital publishing is making huge strides as e-readers improve. What should we expect digital storytelling to turn into in the future?

I believe with more experience, application developers will learn what works with kids and parents and what doesn’t. At the same time, we ‘ll also learn how to get the most out of digital storytelling, the same way we learned to get the most out of our books. Especially because I think the line between what is considered a digital book and a video game will be blurred.

I was fortunate enough to interview one of the entrepreneurs in digital storytelling, Andrew Gitt, the founder of storytimeforme.com about his vision on digital vs printed storytelling and what the advantages of each medium are for educating our children.

Andrew, tell us a bit about what your vision behind storytimeforme.com is and who your audience is.

You can check out our mission and target audience at http://storytimeforme.com/about-us.

What’s unique about your site is that even though you offer digital stories, you also do prints. What led you to the decision to do both?

We recently started the personalized activity book as we recognize teachers and parents are also looking for hands-on activities.  We started off just as an online library which we plan on expanding of course. We already have over 40 books complete which we’ll slowly be releasing.

How does your technology help children learn how to read?

A child is assisted by having the text highlighted as the story progresses. However, technology really serves our higher goal. Our motto is not to teach kids to read. Honestly, that’s not what we do. What we are trying to do is make reading fun and have the national average of 4 hours of TV be replaced by more
reading.

What would you like to see the future bring for digital storytelling?

I would like to have hundreds of books with many publishers and authors with a lot of variety and be a place where kids can ‘plop’ in a safe environment and read instead of watching TV.  That’s our goal at storytimeforme.com at least.  Also I would love to see stories offered into other languages. It’s one of our future goals as well.

***

I’m curious to hear what you guys think. Here is a poll to pick your brains.

I hope we learned something useful today,

Dr. Techniko

Story 3 hopes to demonstrate some of the latest advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology and biological computing.

All these sciences leverage the unique properties of the DNA molecule that can be used to build molecular structures and to encode and decode information using the A, C, G, T alphabet. The key is to think of DNA as both a message and a recipe. You can read a recipe like any other text. But if you also buy the ingredients and then follow what the recipe says then you are actually “building” something: a dish that can be served.

Here are some questions you might like to discuss with your children.

Q: How does a virus infect a cell?
A: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rpj0emEGShQ

Q: What is a bioengineered virus?
A: It’s a virus that is synthesized in a laboratory. Typically scientists start with a real virus found in nature. They study the virus in a safe environment inside a laboratory and then they try to modify some of its properties by manipulating the DNA code.

Q: Aren’t viruses supposed to be evil?
A: Viruses are typically labeled as “evil” or “harmful” because they can harm a human cell. However, if a virus is engineered it might have a positive effect on a human body. For example, scientists have engineered a virus that infects bacteria in the human body and prevents them from being resistant to antibiotics. This helps the human body recover faster from a bacterial infection.

Q: How is DannyBot a robot?
A: Not all robots are made from metal and wires. Nano-robots (also known as nanobots) are made from molecules like DNA. There is a whole field called Nanorobotics, which studies how we combine molecules into little machines. Check out this walking nanorobot for example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVqJdAqTD4Q

Q: How can DannyBot read and decode DNA?
A: DannyBot does this using a method known as DNA sequencing, which is a fancy term for “figure out the sequence of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s in the DNA if we read it from start to end”. We know that A binds to T and C to G. So, the way to read the sequence of the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s, is to try to bind to them with all possible letters in the DNA alphabet and see which one sticks. So if we use a T and we see that it binds to the DNA then we know that we have an A in the sequence.
So, here is an easy exercise for you: what will the DNA sequence be if we see that GAGAGAGA matches? (answer: CTCTCTCT).

Here is a video that explains this in detail (the video is advanced):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91294ZAG2hg

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko

I’ve been reading lately about new approaches to teach children science and technology through storytelling via the use of specialized software and portable devices. The most notable effort I’ve come across is Alan Kay’s Viewpoints Research Institute which is integrated with the One Laptop Per Child project. The idea is that through the use of media and the integration of activities in one interface, children can understand complex concepts in science.

Another tool I came across is called Processing. Even though this software is not really targeted for children, it serves the same purpose: teach complex concepts through an intuitive user interface. Maybe in the future it could be tweaked for teaching kids how to write software.

Given the highly sophisticated educational software out there and the web’s ability to find knowledge fast, it’s fair to ask why would a teacher-in-school setting be necessary in educating our children in the future? In fact there are examples, where teachers start being replaced by devices running educational software.

An approach by Microsoft research relies on a multi-point mouse interface and off-the-shelf PC equipment to allow children in developing countries to teach themselves without the need for a teacher.

A start-up company called Knewton uses adaptive algorithms to coach students on standardized tests (e.g., SAT) in a personalized fashion by “understanding” their skill level. In addition, online services like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, teach university-level classes through rich-media content from the comfort of one’s home.

At the same time, the current generation of portable devices (iPad, iPhone, Android tablets) expose simple to use interfaces. Simple enough for children to use on a daily basis. So children could carry them around, meet with their friends and play and learn together. Not only that, but there are already games available that provide alternatives to learning how to read or count.

So, it won’t be long before schools have children carry around portable devices through which they enhance their learning. In fact, some schools have already started doing this.

So the obvious question is: will school teachers be entirely replaced? After all, intelligent portable software and a great user interface provide a powerful interactive storytelling medium that can not only capture the attention of a child, but also convey very sophisticated concepts that a teacher and a blackboard cannot.

On the other hand, after reading “Work Hard, Be Nice”, I see how much power an effective teacher can have in a child’s life. The passion and persistence of the founders of the KIPP schools is hard to replicate using software running on a personal portable device. The teachers made each class a ritual and enforced a “no shortcuts” culture in their schools by confronting students in person. Even unmotivated students responded positively. An iPad can’t do that.

What do you as current or future parents, teachers and educators think on this matter? I’ve created the following poll to pick your brains.

I hope we learned something useful today,

Dr. Techniko

The story of the Dragon’s Treasure Makeover aims to teach both a problem-solving skill and a technical skill.

First, the problem-solving skill is “try to understand the nature of a problem before you attempt a solution”. Imagine your printer is not working and you say “It worked fine yesterday. What happened? It broke. I’ll call support,” when in reality someone by mistake pulled the printer’s plug.   In the story, all three wizards use the Spellopedia Magica, but only Thinkalot picks a useful spell out of the book. That’s because he asked questions in order to understand the true nature of the Dragon’s problem. Understanding the nature of a problem is most of the time harder than coming up with a solution. It’s a skill that takes time to acquire, but it’s invaluable. If your children are stuck on a problem you can teach them by saying:

“Understand the problem and you ‘re more than half way towards the solution.”

Second, the technical skill is “if you organize things based on an identifier then it’s faster to search through them”. In this information-loaded age, information management is a great skill to acquire, so this story will provide a good discussion framework for you and your children on this topic.

I’d be interested to hear your opinion or reactions of your children on these topics.

Here are some comprehension questions you might want to ask:

1. If you were a Dragon which wizard would you hire and why?
(Thinkalot because he would try to understand my problem before he cast a spell.)

2. If you were the Dragon how would you change your ad in the Magic Network to make more clear what your problem was?
(“looking for wizard to help with search of treasure. I would like to be able to find any item in my treasure in about one day. I don’t want to lose any of my treasure” etc. The goal is to write a more specific ad.)

3. Thinkalot’s solution splits the treasure based on the first letter of each item. That splits the treasure in 26 piles. What if half of the treasure items started with “A”? It would take the Dragon half a month instead of a day to search for an item starting with “A”. So Thinkalot would be in trouble! Can you help Thinkalot find a better solution before the Dragon finds out?
(One way to solve this is to split the “A” pile into 26 piles using the second letter and so on. There are even better solutions if you are creative with your sorting criteria. I’d be interested to hear what your children can think of!)

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko

The story of the Three Little Pigs teaches us about hard work and strong foundations in preparation for the possible dangers in life. While hard work is essential to learning and success, we can do better. A lot of times we work hard, but we sometimes take too long to see results or don’t rip great enough benefits. One of the reasons this happens is because a lot of work goes to waste.

The prequel I wrote to the Three Little Pigs emphasizes the benefits of doing your research before attempting to solve a problem. All three pigs need a house so they have to allocate a budget for it. Bennie, the first pig, is afraid of running out of food. However he hasn’t validated his concern. So he spends a disproportionate amount of coppers for food and leaves only one copper for building the house. Vinny is simply not in touch with reality. He assumes all will be well and so spends most of the money for pleasure.

Johnny, on the other hand, does his research before making any decisions. He has ideas of what he’d like, but he is patient. Although he likes the keypad lock, he doesn’t buy it. Before he decides how to spend his coppers, he checks online about possible dangers that he should take into account. Once he collects all the information, he makes a more informed decision on what to do with the house. Making an informed decision, not only increases his success-to-effort ratio, but saves his life and the lives of his brothers as well.

I would expect 3rd graders to be able to read the story on their own. For younger children you will probably have to read the story to them. At any rate, here are a few comprehension questions you can ask at the end (feel free to mix them with your own ones):

1. What did Johnny do differently from his brothers that helped him build a brick house?
(he did his research)

2. Why is it important to collect as much information as we can before doing something?
(so we don’t go the wrong way or spend our time doing work that is not relevant)

3. If you run into a problem that you don’t know how to solve, what is the first thing you should do?
(research and information gathering related to the problem)

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko

A lot of times I wish I could travel back in time and whisper to my seven-year-old-me (plus/minus a couple of years) a thing or two about scientific research and technology. Maybe I could explain how a scientific team makes a discovery or how a database works. This information would have made it easier for future-me to deal with school, projects and career. I think, though, it would have also empowered future-me with more than just techie knowledge. It would have taught me early on – among other things – how to make trade-offs, deal with life’s complexities, recover from failures and successfully collaborate with others.

But how would learning about databases or quantum bits empower a child’s life? Not because science and technology are expected to give all the answers to every possible problem a growing child will encounter. But because they will provide the child with a framework. A framework that helps to research an unknown, then think through a problem, break assumptions, work with persistence, and “build” the answer. Whether fixing a broken window or creating a painting or raising a family, this framework would come in handy. After all, our life struggles boil down to problem solving.

Don’t we already learn those things as grown-ups? Why start at such an early age? True. Brain plasticity postulates that we learn until the day we die. But, the rules we learn as children have more impact on our future decisions. If you were told as a child “don’t touch this”, “don’t try to understand, just accept” or “who cares?” would you rather – later as an adult – just do your job or become passionate about something? Would your instinct be to follow or to lead? Will you do what your friends tell you or assess a situation before making a choice? To give children good foundations, a framework that promotes an open mind and strong problem solving skills should be taught even before we learn our ABCs.

Wouldn’t someone need a Ph.D. to understand the principles of science and technology? Far from it. From my experience, the principles behind science and technology are simple enough to be taught to children. Sure, one would need a Ph.D. to learn the depths of a particular science or technology. You’d need to learn byzantine fault-tolerance algorithms before you build a distributed system for a bank. But you don’t need this information to understand that “single points of failure are a bad idea”.

Can a kid sit patiently and learn such concepts? My seven-year-old-me wouldn’t. If my mother ever tried to explain, I’d be looking outside the window at the soccer ball that’s inviting me to kick it. But if she instead told me a story about robots, aliens, wizards and dragons, I’d like to hear it. Maybe a story about a robot who always likes to get the latest and greatest (yet untested) accessories and ends up having all sorts of disastrous mishaps. Or a story about a dragon that has lost track of her treasures and hires a wizard to organize them with a “treasure sorting” spell. Sci-fi and fantasy stories can convey the message.

Would seven-year-old-me absorb the message? If the story was crafted well enough, he would. Children are fascinated about science and technology and its manifestation in science fiction and fantasy stories. Their imagination is computing like an overclocked chip. But that’s not all. I see children today handling laptops, browsing the web and playing with computer applications in a way that my parents will never comprehend. So the seed of knowledge is there as well. All we have to do is tie their excitement and exposure to science and technology to the principles behind it. If we do that, we can make them better observers and problem solvers in life.

Hopefully, the stories I write in this blog can help parents and teachers find material to tell their children. I will post each story first and then follow up with a post with meta-information about what I want to express and teach in the story. That way the story will be easy to print and read and the discussions can happen in the meta post. Between stories I will sometimes post material related to teaching science and technology to children from research I’ve done to trigger further discussions.

I hope we learned something useful today,
Dr. Techniko