Sandra Okita, an assistant professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City, creates computerized avatars and robots in a quest to produce learning tools for children, including a two-foot-tall plastic robot named Projo. / EVAN KAFKA FOR USA WEEKEND
In 2006, Seth Andrew opened the first of a chain of Democracy Prep public schools, now one of the key charter-school networks in the USA.
Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi are hard at work selling touchscreen-powered blocks, dubbed Sifteo Cubes, with a suite of learning games and puzzles. / TEVE LABADESSA FOR USA WEEKEND
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that nothing in this world is certain “except death and taxes.” But if he had thought a bit more, he might have added:
“… and school.”
More than 79 million of us — one in four Americans age 3 or older— are enrolled in school, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While many critics say school has barely changed in the past century, USA WEEKEND would like to introduce you to six innovators who offer a fresh perspective on how to re-energize learning.
Robots in the classroom
When children interact with a robot or other computerized gizmo, says Sandra Okita, the question “Is it alive?” is never an all-or-nothing proposition. “It’s in bits and pieces,” says Okita, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. “The child will say, ‘It doesn’t grow, but it will still eat.’”
For the past decade, Okita, 38, has used that understanding in her research, creating computerized avatars and robots in a quest to produce “the ideal peer learner” for children. She has been working in the field since 2003, but her research has lately gotten more attention as she field-tests one of her newest creations: a two-foot-tall plastic robot named Projo.
The soft-spoken robot, whose name is short for "projective agent," has human-like features helps students learn in part by making mistakes to keep them vigilant. “The goal is to help the child self-correct by practicing on robots,” Okita says.
Two-dimensional computerized tutoring programs have been around for decades, but “there’s something about being able to share the physical space” with a lifelike tutor that makes a difference to kids, she says. “With robots, you can share and manipulate the same physical space.”
In this case, Projo can actually sit on a desk or table, seeming to stare at the same work that a student does, taking turns solving a set of math problems, for instance.
“It creates some wiggle room for imagination,” Okita says.
Like many researchers who are pushing to use technology more effectively in school, she says one of the benefits of computer-assisted instruction is its ability to constantly monitor students’ progress and adjust a lesson’s difficulty moment-to-moment, to give students more practice at just the right degree of difficulty.
“You want the right amount of challenge,” she says, “so the child keeps trying.”
'Change the world' charter school
Seth Andrew, 35, always thought he’d be a politician. But his first campaign, at 19, cured him of politics. While attending Brown University, Andrew ran for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives and lost by 79 votes.
The defeat taught him that he “hated running for office” and that voters knew next to nothing about how government worked.
Better schools, he knew, could change that. A year teaching in South Korea convinced him that schools could do it in a different way. In 2006, he opened the first of a chain of Democracy Prep public schools, now one of the key charter-school networks in the USA. Focused in New York City’s Harlem and Camden, N.J., they serve 100% minority students, 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Their motto: “Work hard, go to college, change the world.”
Democracy Prep sets itself apart from other “no excuses” schools by focusing on what Andrew calls the “civic engagement gap.” Starting in sixth grade, students take end-of-year field trips that eventually bring them to five continents. After his first graduating class finished in June — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke at commencement — the students visited Egypt in the midst of a democratic revolution and South Africa as the nation focused on ailing former president Nelson Mandela. All return home with a deep connection to a profound time: “You couldn’t do that from reading about it in a textbook or talking about it in a classroom,” Andrew says.
Reintroducing the classics
Asked to teach a basic English composition course, most community college instructors might assign a few modern non-fiction titles. Since 2009, Katherine Boutry has asked English 101 students to read Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway and her feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own.
An associate professor at West Los Angeles College, Boutry, 46, studied the early 20th-century British writer as a Ph.D. student at Harvard. Woolf was “a middle-aged white woman in London in the 1920s,” Boutry says, but her voice is universal.
The novel takes place during a single day as its narrator, Clarissa Dalloway, plans a party and considers her life. Her voice is “so human” that students empathize with her as they face major life changes of their own.
The novel becomes a perfect match for students as they tentatively navigate adulthood. In one key scene, Dalloway passes a bookshop window and spies the Shakespeare quote: “Fear no more the heat of the sun.” Boutry says students get it: “They’re all apprehensive about being in college. They’re all wondering what their place in the world is going to be.”
English 101 is required for students in California’s state university system, but Boutry notes that some students simply don’t regularly read books. “If we’ve got one shot to get our students to read a book, shouldn’t it be a work of great literature?”
A few students have paid her the ultimate compliment: At least three have gotten tattoos with the phrase “Fear no more.”
A hands-on library
Growing up in Kansas City, Kan., in the early 1980s, Nichole Pinkard thought about one thing: basketball. So it’s a good thing that her coach at Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences was also her eighth-grade computer-science teacher. When he assigned kids to build a computer game, she made a basketball one.
The experience set her on a path to Stanford University. At the time, she was one of the few women of color in its legendary computer-science program. Then, as now, she says, “there are few opportunities for an urban kid to try programming.”
Pinkard, 43, has done as much as anyone in the USA to change that. Now an associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago, she has pioneered research on how teens use digital media, paving the way for a groundbreaking chain of new public library spaces nationwide that inspire teens to take up programming and other pursuits.
Resembling a busy teen center, the centers are chock-full of computers, digital music keyboards, video-game consoles and tools to produce music, videos and games. Pinkard chose neighborhood libraries because teens feel they are welcoming. “They don’t feel overwhelmed.”
Private and federal funding have created 16 “YOUmedia” spaces; 40 are planned. The first one opened in 2009 in the shadow of Chicago’s downtown Loop.
Interactive building blocks
Dave Merrill, 35, and Jeevan Kalanithi, 35, met as sophomores at Stanford University, where they were studying how people learn through technology. Both ended up at MIT’s Media Lab, where they began looking for ways to “enchant everyday things with the magic of interactivity,” says Merrill.
Soon they found their enchantment: During a brainstorming session, they began toying with the idea of tiny “siftable” computers no bigger than lima beans. Users could play with them, combine them, stack them and move them around any way they liked on a tabletop. “We didn’t really know at first what you could use them for,” Merrill says.
They soon settled on the idea of computer-powered blocks, and in 2006 the pair began building a basic model: three battery-powered “Siftables,” 1.5-inch cubes that use accelerometers, tiny wireless radios and other technology to communicate with each other and display interactions on their screens. In 2009, their startup began producing the blocks, and Merrill gave a TED talk (nonprofit conference and talks devoted to spreading ideas) demonstrating them — it went viral and has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. The talk is rated one of the top five “most engaging” TED talks ever.
Now Merrill and Kalanithi are hard at work selling a new, touchscreen-powered version of the blocks, dubbed Sifteo Cubes, with a suite of learning games and puzzles. They don’t market to schools, but teachers report buying the kits to help students understand math, logic and spelling, among other subjects. When people see them set up for demonstrations, Merrill says, they can’t wait to try them. “As soon as they’re actually moving the cubes around, that’s the ‘a-ha’ moment.”
Greg Toppo is USA TODAY's national K-12 education writer (@gtoppo).