Archives for category: technology

Here are some guidelines for making the most out of the How To Build A Simple Computer Out Of Anything activity.

The idea of this activity is to teach kids that computers do not need to be these complex unfathomable machines. Computing and computational thinking happens everywhere. When you engage with the kids in this activity make sure you remind them of that.

Motivate them

Randomness and probability are such fundamental mathematical concepts that your kids will be exposed to them no matter what they study in life. The applications of random number generation in computing are endless. It is the basis of computer security, fault-tolerance, distributed systems, and more. Not to mention exotic areas like quantum computingDNA sequencing and self-driving cars.

Give them examples of applications to keep them motivated. Especially stuff they interact with on a regular basis. One thing I tried with my son (who was five at the time) was to get him to generate 4 digits so he can set the passcode on his mom’s iPad and have her try to break the code. The fact that he had a secret in his head that was so powerful made him ecstatic! (Of course, I gave his mom the code and told her to pretend she didn’t know.)

Explaining randomness

Randomness is better explained in the context of a real application. You want to get the kids thinking along the lines of something like: “Imagine you are making a secret number for a combination lock or your iPad so a thief can’t open it. If the thief watched your computer doing work but didn’t see the numbers that came out, would he be able to guess the numbers if he repeated what you did?”

After they do the activity for a while and if you feel the kids are advanced enough, you may follow with questions about the quality of the random numbers. Are they truly random (well-distributed)? Can a “thief” easily guess them if he ran the computer a few times and picked the most popular outputs?

No computing in their heads

One thing that will likely happen is the kids will come up with a design where the random number is created by their own decision. That’s “cheating” so to speak. For example, their design might be to flip a card from a set of cards laid out on the table. They select the card, flip it and write down the number on the card. This is not a good design because they chose (in their head) which card to flip. So, keep reminding them that they can’t “choose” by themselves. The computer has to “choose”. A good design will involve actions that create entropy like mixing a bunch of things, throwing stuff in the air, or pushing or smashing something.

Help but don’t interfere

I’ve seen kids do all kinds of designs. From throwing a bouncy ball around the house to elaborate arts-and-crafts projects like a fully colored wheel-of-fortune. As long as the kids don’t compute the random numbers in their heads, let them be creative. The more they enjoy building and using their computer the more engaged they’ll be. Don’t hesitate to give them ideas to make their computers more “extravagant”.

More designs to play with

After the kids have designed their own, a great follow up exercise is to give them the “computing” materials first and then ask them to design a random-number generating computer using only the provided materials.

Here are some ideas on how to build a computer using only:

  • A bouncy ball.
    • How: drop it in the air and count how many times it bounces.
  • A long string.
    • How: drop it in the air. When it lands, count the number of times it crosses with itself.
  • A measuring tape with any of the above.
    • Measure distance travelled, length, width etc.

Share!

Use your phone and post pictures of your kid’s designs to the DrTechniko Facebook Page. I will personally respond to your posts.

Also, don’t hesitate to send me a personal message via the Facebook page if you need help.

I hope we learned something useful today,

DrTechniko

 

After popular request, in this post I explain how to teach the “How to train your robot” class.

The class is split in two parts.

Part 1 – Guess The Robot

The first part is a game called “Guess the robot”. I show kids slides of different robots and they have to guess what the robot is or what it’s special ability is. At the end of the presentation I explain to them how robots work. In addition, I had a real robot that moved when kids clapped or screamed at it. I used it to show the robot parts and we had some fun making it move around.

You should be able to finish this part of the class in 15-20 minutes depending how many questions the kids ask.

Part 2 – Train Your Robot

The basic process was to get all the kids together to explain to them the game. I use my slides to do that. Then I hand out the dictionaries and pen and paper. I gather all the kids an parents and we first act through all the moves. Then I write a simple program on a piece of paper “move forward, turn left, move forward” and I ask kids to show me what it does. After that we start doing the obstacle course (which I have setup before starting the class).

After they get their “robots” to bring back the ball you tell the kids to invent their own “moves” and so they have their parents doing funny stuff 🙂

You should be able to finish this part in 30-40 minutes before the kids’ attention span degrades to zero…

Class Materials

The materials I put together to run the class:

  1. Presentation Slides (and Presenter’s Notes) [ΕλληνικάDeutsch – Christian Mennerich]
  2. A laptop or iPad to show the slides.
  3. The Robot Language Dictionary [ΕλληνικάDeutsch – Rita Freudenberg]
  4. One pen and paper per kid (for kids to write programs and hand them to their robot parents).
  5. A space where you can arrange obstacles (one or two obstacles to make kids add turns to their programs is enough. I used a gym as you can see in the videos posted on Facebook, but I’ve also run the class in a room with chairs arranged as obstacles).
  6. A ball per kid-robot pair (the ultimate goal is for the robot to get the ball and bring it back to the beginning).
  7. Optional yet fun: A real robot. I bought and built my own basic robot ($50). It took about an hour to assemble.

Class Dynamics

  • Five year olds are better when left alone to create their special moves. They get very creative.
  • Seven year olds need more guidance because they have too many ideas. They’d rather be told what moves to invent.
  • I’d recommend no more than 6 kids in the class, so you can have the situation under control.
  • Try to regroup the kids after their robots get the ball. Explain to them that now they can invent new moves.
  • Parents beware, you may have a serious workout. Kids love to make you repeat stuff 100 times. I advise to wear comfortable clothes.

I would love to hear your findings and see photos from you running the class at home or school.

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 Letter R and the Number 4 bumped into each other in front of the same box in a crossword puzzle.

The Letter R wanted to get into the box.

But the Number 4 would only let the correct letter into the box.

“Arr! I’m the letter R and I’m the rowdiest letter of all. This box is super-duper perfect for me. I’m jumping right in!”

But the Number 4 was not willing to let things get out of order.

“I’m the Number 4 and I’m guarding this box, because this box is the fourth box. Only if you are the fourth letter in the word I will let you in.”

“Well… the word is ‘FOUR’ and I’m the Letter R, so spell ‘FOUR’ and see if I’m at the right box.”

“I’m… I’m… I’m… a Number. I can’t spell.”

“How sad… Now, can you move aside so I can get into the box?”

But the Number 4 did not move.

The Number 4 did not let things get out of order.

“If you spell ‘FOUR’ then you ‘ll see if you are the fourth letter.”

“Only then I will let you in.”

“I’m a Letter. I don’t do counting.”

“And I’m a Number. I can count but I can’t spell.”

“Arrr! If you knew how to spell ‘FOUR’, then we wouldn’t be sitting here forever!”
“FOUR”
“F…”
“O…”
“U…”
“Arr!”


“Well, I like sitting here. I like counting over and over. It’s quite soothing…”
“1”
“2”
“3”
“4”


“Arr! Arr! Arr!” yelled the Letter R in frustration.
“F..”
“O…”
“U…”
“Arrr!”

“1”
“2”
“3”
“4”
And suddenly…


The Number 4 had an idea.

“How about you spell ‘FOUR’ and I count at the same time?”

“I ‘ll stop counting when you say ‘R’.”

So the Letter R said, “OK. Let’s start.”

“F…”

              “…1”

“O…”

             “…2”

“U…”

             “…3”

“R…”

             “…4”


“Arrr! So I am the fourth letter in the word ‘FOUR’ after all!”

“I believe this is correct,” said the Number 4.

“Arrr! Arrr! The box is mine!” said the Letter R and jumped inside the box.

“This is the greatest box ever.”
“Too bad you’ll never have a box of your own, Number 4.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“How about you look OUTSIDE the box?”


“That’s good.”

“A bit more…”

“Very good”
“Just a tiny bit more…”

THE END

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

“We need to catch one of these viruses and …” but before Daena could form a plan, the big hungry monkey head with the twisted sharp teeth started approaching them.

“DannyBot, this Ugga Ugga seems to take an interest in us. We should head back and reevaluate. I’m not in the mood for drama.”

They turned around but another Ugga Ugga virus blocked the exit.

“Dannybot, without being too dramatic I think we are …”

The virus zoomed at them, mouth wide open.

“DOOMED!”

But the next instant the virus was caught by a lasso made of DNA coming out of … DannyBot’s body. The lasso wrapped the virus around the mouth and body tight as a squeezing tentacle. Once Daena realized they were safe she headed to the exit, DannyBot and their new prisoner behind her.

“If I were not under the shock of a near-death experience, I would be impressed. Dannybot, I didn’t know you could do that.”

“It’s quite a basic function I’ve been designed for. My lasso makes bonds at the molecular level with the object so the object is unlikely to escape,” said DannyBot as if he had lassoed a harmless-looking water molecule.

They dragged the Ugga Ugga prisoner to the closest White Cell headquarters, at the tonsils.

DannyBot constructed a message from DNA, asking for permission to see the Warden and gave it to the nearest guard. It felt like a lifetime until the gate opened. When they found the Warden he was floating around his office, eating random proteins. He looked quite well-fed in fact.

“What can I do you for, Miss Daena?” asked the Warden.

“First of all, it’s DNA Detective Daena. Second, you ‘ve been infected by a genetically engineered virus. As proof, I brought a sample right here into your office.”

“He don’t look so dangerous to me. Just a monkey face. We ‘ll take the prisoner from here. Off you go now.”

The guards escorted them out of the headquarters.

“I assume the mission has been completed. Shall I set course for the extraction point?” asked DannyBot.

“Nothing would cheer me up more, but I have a depressing feeling about this. Let’s just wait out here. How much time left?”

“There are three hours left to total infection.”

It felt like forever until finally the gates opened. At first, it looked like the Warden coming out of the gates. But as he moved out of the gate and into the light, he didn’t look as white as before. He looked dark and ugly and had twisted sharp teeth. Like an Ugga Ugga virus!

The two guards at the gates tried to swim away, but before they could escape, a hoard of hungry monkey faces stormed out of the gates and brought an end to them.

“Eat my children. Eat and multiply!” said the Warden as the monkey heads swarmed the area. Then his eyes fell on Daena. He started eating his way towards her in a steady pace.

“This doesn’t look good. DannyBot, let’s hide before more of these monsters realize we are here!”

“Don’t go Missy. Come and feed me,” said the Warden, and then gulped down a couple of his children.

They zoomed away from the tonsils and went into hiding behind the nose. “The Warden might be slow, but his children are multiplying. How much time left, DannyBot?”

“We have entered the last hour.”

Daena sighed. This was all very stressful. She wished she was back inside her vial even if it was not near a window, even if had to look at the same sticker all day:

-The recipe of life and death lies in the DNA-
The recipe lies in the DNA, she thought. Her mind drifted off to her first class at the detective academy and the principle-of-life rule they all had to memorize:

The DNA recipe is written with 4 letters.

What are they?

T, G, C and A.

And when DNA splits in two

Each half is called RNA

And every letter T is replaced by a U.

“That’s it!” Daena jumped with excitement. “I figured out how to kill the Ugga Ugga virus! The recipe of life and death lies in the DNA. Get it, DannyBot?”

DannyBot blinked.

Daena sighed. “Ugga Ugga’s DNA contains the recipe for making an Ugga Ugga virus. It’s like when you read a message written in DNA language using the T, G, C and A 4-letter alphabet. Only the message is also the recipe. Do you see?”

“I don’t see how this helps us defeat the Ugga Ugga virus,” said DannyBot.

“Well, here is the missing puzzle piece. DNA doesn’t make the Ugga Ugga directly. It has to first split into two RNA strands, and in the RNA alphabet T is replaced by a U.”

“I don’t see how this helps us defeat the Ugga Ugga virus,” repeated DannyBot.

“Don’t you get it? What’s the code name of the Ugga Ugga virus in RNA alphabet?” said Daena as if explaining the concept to a hydrogen atom.

“U-G-G-A-U-G-G-A,” said DannyBot.

“Can you search your data for the U-G-G-A-U-G-G-A sequence in the Ugga Ugga virus’s RNA?”

A few moments later DannyBot said “I searched. I found the pattern.”

“Great. I want you to synthesize the same RNA strand but replace the U-G-G-A-U-G-G-A pattern with the G-A-G-A-G-A-G-A pattern.”

DannyBot synthesized the mutated Ugga Ugga virus strand. One by one he glued together A’s and C’s and G’s and U’s until he had a full RNA strand.

“The sequence is ready. But I don’t see how this helps us defeat the Ugga Ugga virus,” said DannyBot.

Daena closed her eyes. She wished she had a hydrogen atom for a partner.

“Because if we get the Warden to eat this mutated Ugga Ugga strand, then he will use the wrong recipe to make children. His children will be Gaga Gaga viruses instead. Then the Gaga Gaga viruses can fight the Ugga Ugga viruses. I think it’s time to pay a visit to these depressing monkey faces.”

They zoomed back to the tonsils with the Gaga Gaga strand in hand. The Warden eyed them with a hungry look.

“Bring them to me, my children!”

Before Daena and DannyBot realized what was going on, they found themselves wrapped by DNA lassos from a bunch of Ugga Ugga viruses.

“My calculations tell me he means to eat us,” said DannyBot.

“You depress me.”

“Miss Daena. Why so gloomy? You should be happy, because you’ll make a tasty snack,” said the Warden and opened his mouth.

“Wait, wait! You don’t want to eat me like that. I’m more tasty if you eat this first as an appetizer,” Daena waved the Gaga Gaga virus strand in his face.

“You ‘re a real lady,” said the Warden and he gulped down the Gaga Gaga strand. He burped and said “Missy, that was really yummy. Remind me to get the recipe after I eat you.”

He came closer to Daena, opened his mouth and was about to close it over her head, but instead he grew and grew and grew until he… burst and a bunch of Gaga Gaga viruses came out of his body.

Soon a war begun between the Ugga Ugga and the Gaga Gaga as they started eating each other. Whenever an Ugga Ugga ate a Gaga Gaga, it gave birth to Gaga Gagas.

But, whenever a Gaga Gaga ate an Ugga Ugga, it gave birth to Gaga Gagas. Soon the Ugga Ugga’s were wiped out.

“He should not have eaten the Gaga Gaga strand before checking it, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to tell him,” said DannyBot.

“DannyBot, you are learning. Yet you still have ways to go to before you understand the genius of my scheme that killed the Ugga Ugga virus.”

“There was nothing to understand. It was based on a pair of positive and negative feedback loops. It is quite a very elementary and primitive principle of life,” said DannyBot.

“You really depress me.”

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

-The recipe of life and death lies in the DNA-

Daena sulked as she looked at the message on the sticker of her vial.

“I’m depressed. I haven’t been assigned anything interesting since I graduated from the Detective Nanoengineering Academy and placed into this horrible tube in this horrible lab. I was voted the most beautiful nanoengineered virus in the Nature Journal. They could have at least placed us near a window to get some sun. Don’t you think, DannyBot?”


“I don’t see the importance of sunlight radiation,” said DannyBot.

“Are all nanobots as entertaining as you are?”

“Nanobots are robots made of DNA strands. We are not made to entertain. We are made to decode DNA, to synthesize DNA, to take apart DNA…” DannyBot went on and on about his functions.

“Booooriiiing. What’s the point of using DNA, if you can’t build something to have fun? Look at the humans in the lab. They are made from DNA like us, but they get to work on interesting things and laugh and go out. Why not us?”

“Because we are not humans,” said DannyBot.

“You depress me.”

Daena decided to swim around. She was kicking a bunch of floating aminoacids, when a human moved towards the vial and squeezed a drop of liquid into it. A DNA strand appeared into view.

“Looks like we got a message. Another boring mission I bet,” said Daena.

DannyBot swam towards the floating DNA strand, hooked himself onto it and started reading it base by base like a tape: A, T, G, A… Then he decoded the message.

“Message Start. Detective Daena. The chairman has been infected with a genetically engineered Ugga Ugga virus. The chairman will turn into a monkey in the next 12 hours. If word gets out, the government will close the lab and destroy all genetically engineered viruses including you. Your mission is to locate and neutralize the virus. You and DannyBot will be injected into the chairman’s body. Extraction coordinates have been provided. Extraction will commence once the virus has been neutralized.”

DannyBot spit out the last base of the DNA strand. “Message Stop.”

“I really hope we take care of this virus. I don’t want to end up inside the body of a dumb monkey forever.”

The lights went out as the vial was put into a box. When Daena saw the light again it was at a great speed as she was injected into the body of the chairman.

“We are into the blood stream,” said DannyBot. “Cell analysis shows our location to be the chairman’s butt.”


“That is so humiliating,” said Daena.

“Actually, humility is considered a virtue in some human cultures,” said DannyBot.

“You depress me.”

Daena tightened up. “Let’s go catch this Ugga Ugga virus and feed him to the white blood cells before he spreads. What is the most likely infection scenario?”

“Most likely scenario is airborne infection through the throat,” said DannyBot.

“I’m not looking forward to getting coughed at, but let’s head for the throat.”

They floated inside the bloodstream through the digestive track to the stomach and from there climbed all the way to the lungs and then the throat. When they arrived, the throat seemed normal.

“I do not detect any viral activity in the proximity,” said DannyBot.

“Great. We are back to nothing. DannyBot, how much time do we have left?”

“10 hours.”

“And how long will it take us to search the entire body?”

“21 hours. The math indicates we have less than 50% chance to find the Ugga Ugga virus in the next 10 hours,” said DannyBot.

“Simple math won’t get you anywhere, DannyBot. Set course for the brain’s thalamus, the pain processing center. If the chairman didn’t breathe in the virus then someone forced it into him. We can figure out where if we follow the pain. I should be working with humans. I should be named the greatest DNA detective in the world.”

Daena stretched proudly.

“Actually, you are the only DNA detective in the world, so by definition you are both the best and the worst detective,” said DannyBot.

“You depress me.”

They jumped into the blood stream next to the spinal cord and followed all the way up to the brain. DannyBot mounted on top of a nerve center and waited for pain signals. After a few minutes, they heard one of the nerves scream “Ay!” “Ay!” “Ay!”

“The pain signal appears to be originating from the left eye,” said DannyBot.

“I’m not looking forward to meeting this Ugga Ugga virus, but let’s head for the left eyeball.”

And so they floated from the brain to the nose and from there to the eye. As they entered the eyeball they shook from their horror. Thousands of big fat viruses that looked like hungry monkey heads with twisted sharp teeth swam inside the eyeball. Some would attack and try to eat each other, but most of them attacked the chairman’s cells. Their jaws would grab onto a cell and eat their way into it. Once they disappeared into the cell, there would be a moment of silence. But only a moment. The cell would then grow and grow and grow like a balloon and then explode.

“Bang!” a cell exploded near Daena and out of it came a hoard of ugly twisted monkey heads. They swam towards a bunch of eyeball cells nearby. But one of them, a really big one, turned and looked at Daena…


To be continued…

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