Learning with Robots at UNC

This week in “The Maker Movement and Education,” a UNC undergraduate class taught by Professor Keith Sawyer:

This week the students are exploring how to use programmable robots to help children learn. I asked the students to find a lesson plan activity on line, one that uses one of three robots to help children learn math: OZOBOT Evo, Sphero, and Dash. (The robots are surprisingly affordable, around $100 each, but when you buy enough for 35 students you’re talking a couple of thousand dollars! Thank you to the School of Education for supporting this class!)

Here’s a photo of the OZOBOT Evo, being controlled by the smartphone you see.

Here are a few other photos, with OZOBOT Evo and Sphero Mini:


Carolina’s Maker Class: Using Making To Help Children Learn

My UNC Spring 2018 class, “The maker movement and education,” is turning out to be a lot of fun! If you want to learn about how making stuff contributes to learning, you really have to make things yourself. So I’m guiding my students through a variety of making activities that have been influential in re-visioning schools as places where students create.

In Tuesday’s class, pairs of students created cardboard automata, in a making activity created by the San Francisco Exploratorium Tinkering Workshop, by its founders Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson. This cool activity captures the hands-on style of inquiry and creativity that the Exploratorium is famous for. And it brings together artistic creativity with the physics of movement and mechanics–an awesome example of STEAM education.

At the end of class, all of my students placed their creations outside the classroom door–check out this collective creation! I highly recommend this awesome book, that shows educators how to use these same activities in their classes: The Art of Tinkering.

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Creativity in the Classroom: Everyone Agrees that We Need More

A new study from Adobe, on the importance of teaching creative problem solving skills, found that educators and policymakers agree that we need to weave creativity throughout the school day, in all subjects.

The study surveyed 2,000 teachers a policymakers from the U.K., Japan, Germany, and the U.S. They all say that creative problem solving is a critical skill, especially because of future workforce needs and careers, and they say what schools need to do to better nurture schools for creativity.

  • 97% of educators say that creative problem solving is important for students to learn
  • 74% of educators, and 76% of policymakers, believe that jobs that require creativity are less likely to be impacted by automation
  • 86% of educators say that students with high creativity skills will have access to higher-earning jobs
  • 69% of educators say that classroom curricula don’t do enough to teach and foster creativity
  • 80% of educators and 67% of policymakers believe that creative problem solving should be integrated into all courses.

The study hasn’t been published yet; keep checking my blog and I’ll let you know more details once the full study is available.

What You Do Afterwards

Creativity is all about what you do afterwards.

I’m thinking about something that Miles Davis said about jazz improvisation:

It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note–it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.

In improvisation, you don’t know what an action means until later. The group creates meaning, by responding and building on that action. This happens all the time in improv theater, and it’s what gives it such creative power. I call it retroactive interpretation. In improv, actors intentionally speak lines of dialogue that are ambiguous, utterances that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Actors do this on purpose–not because they’re lazy thinkers, or they’re just trying to fill up time. Improvising these ambiguous actions takes a lot of creativity. It’s not easy to say something that opens up possibilities for the scene, and doesn’t close down possible futures, but something that also provides enough specifics to drive a scene forward, to give other actors something to work with.  Actors know that the improvised dialogue that follows their action will soon provide a meaning to what they did.

I think this is so fascinating! Imagine: To act, without knowing what your action means. To act, trusting the group to interpret your action later. To act, while you relinquish control over what your own action means.

This isn’t what most of us do in everyday life. When you say something, you own it. You get to say what it means. If someone else interprets it differently, you jump in and correct them. To do improv, you need to completely change the way you approach conversation. You have to give away power and control, to the conversation itself. The conversation creates, not the individual speakers. The conversation takes on a life of its own. Meaning emerges from the collective, sequential, unfolding utterances of each speaker.

In group improvisation, no single person gets to decide what everything means. No single person even gets to decide what their own actions mean. The group creates, not the individual.

Plato: The First Educational Software

It was called Plato, and it was created in the 1960s and 1970s, at the University of Illinois. Even though it was used by tens of thousands of students, all over the U.S., most people have never heard of it. That’s why we need Brian Dear’s new book about Plato, called The Friendly Orange Glow. I was amazed to learn how many ed tech innovations were created first in Plato:

  • flat-panel graphic displays (they displayed only one color, orange, hence the book’s name)
  • touch screens
  • collaboration apps for students to work together
  • online communities
  • multitasking: That means, many people can use the same computer at once–that used to be a serious technical challenge! PLATO was created before the personal computer, so it all ran on “mainframes,” with students using “terminals” (in 2017, it seems like those old-fashioned words need quotation marks!)
  • support for instructors to develop lessons without being programmers
  • remote computer terminals so that students didn’t have to be right next to the computer (which was really big, and behind a glass wall in a “computer room”)
  • PLATO was an open platform, meaning that anyone could build a lesson (foreshadowing today’s open source software)
  • a chat room where users could post messages
  • instant messaging between users
  • an email system

Plato was killed by the growth of the personal computer in the 1980s. Plato was shut down in 1993.

(Plato stands for “Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations”)

Inventor James Dyson on the Creative Process

Billionaire James Dyson is the inventor of the famous vacuum cleaner, the equally famous air-purifying fan, and many other products. In today’s New York Times, he writes about his creative process–and it’s exactly the non-linear, iterative, hard-work process that creativity research has documented in every creative field. Here are his words of advice:

  • His success is due to “perseverance, taking risks, and having a willingness to fail.”
  • “Inventors rarely have ‘eureka’ moments.”
  • “Developing an idea and making it work takes time and patience.”
  • “We fail every day. Failure is the best medicine–as long as you learn something.”

I’m really interested to learn that Dyson is launching his own university in England, called the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. It’s right where the company is based, in Malmesbury, England. Unlike in the U.S., the U.K. ministry for universities has recently introduced reforms that make it easier for companies to get into education. The minister, Jo Johnson, then suggested that Mr. Dyson should start his own university.

*Weekend confidential, “James Dyson,” by Alexandre Wolfe. New York Times, Sat/Sun, Dec 9-10, p. C11.

The Inventor of Emergence: George Henry Lewes, in 1875

Emergence and complex systems: These concepts are more and more important, with the growth of the Internet, distributed intelligence, social media, and collective consciousness. “Emergence” refers to higher-level phenomena “emerging” from lower-level components, organized into complex systems. For example, mental states — like memory, attention, emotions — are said to emerge from neurons and their interactions. The biological brain is a complex system, with its many components interacting in multiple and different ways.

Today “emergence” is associated with the Internet and social media. But “emergence” isn’t so new, after all. It comes to us from the 19th century. The term “emergence” was coined in 1875 in a book by the British philosopher, George Henry Lewes. The issue at that time was: Why doesn’t all science ultimately reduce to physics? After all, everything in the world is composed of atoms. So the science of atoms and how they interact could, potentially, explain everything. If everything scientific reduced to physics, then all of the other sciences would potentially be unnecessary: biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, you name it. If that seems wrong today, then it seemed even more wrong in the 19th century, when science was a lot more primitive than now. But you can’t just say it seems wrong; you need a scientific and logical argument for why everything doesn’t reduce to physics.

“Emergence” was the answer to why all science isn’t physics, even though everything in the world is made up of physical stuff. (This is still, basically, the answer of today’s philosophers of science.) In 1875, George Henry Lewes wrote about the difference between mechanical effects (which he called “resultants”) and chemical effects (which he called “emergents”). (Lewes was borrowing from a similar distinction made by John Stuart Mills in 1843.) Lewes’ example of emergence was the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Because water doesn’t have any of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, its properties were “emergent” from the combination. Contrast that with a steam engine: It’s a complicated system, to be sure, but the properties of the whole system aren’t that different from the properties of the components, the metal, water, and coal that make up the engine’s operation. They are “resultants.”

I tell this history in my 2005 book Social emergence: Societies as complex systems.

You’ve probably already noticed a serious problem with the emergence argument: In 1875, Lewes didn’t know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a few years later, scientists were able to explain water, and how the properties of water were explained by hydrogen, oxygen, and their combination. Water doesn’t seem so “emergent” any more. This is why the reductionists, the people that argue that everything can be explained by lower-level sciences, dismiss the emergence argument. Sure, they say, it seems to us that consciousness can’t be explained in terms of neurons and the brain. But just wait a couple of years, a couple of decades, and we’ll see that everything is really just neurons.

I was reminded of G. H. Lewes this weekend, when I read a book review of the new book Reading the Rocks  by Brenda Maddox. The book is about Victorian geologists (it sounds like a snooze-fest, but the review calls it “engaging” and “absorbing” and it sounds like my kind of book!) and it starts with the novelist George Eliot. It turns out that she was a geologist, as well as a novelist. She was introduced to geology by–guess who–George Henry Lewes. They spent vacations together, hammering at rocks.

One sentence in the book review jumped out at me: “Ms. Maddox traces the emergence of geology in Britain during the 19th century.” Emergence is everywhere! But we still don’t know for sure: Does it really happen? Or is it just a figure of speech?

 

The Maker Movement and Education

New UNC Course for Spring 2018

Course title: The Maker Movement and Education

Instructor: Professor Keith Sawyer

Education research shows that people learn better when they move, they work with their hands, they manipulate objects, and they design and make things. We’ve known this for years, but it’s been very hard to design activities for children where they can move and make, and at the same time learn the required course material. But today that’s changed, thanks to exciting new technologies that bring learning and making together. Today’s parents and teachers can choose from a big variety of research-based toys and software apps that engage children in playing, making, and creating. Libraries, schools, and museums are opening “maker spaces” where children can use tools to create and make their own ideas.

TInkering 3This semester, we’ll learn the research behind these new learning technologies. We’ll learn about the software designers and education experts that design and build them. We’ll learn how to design activities so that children learn while they create with these new technologies, and we’ll learn how teachers and parents can use them effectively. You’ll learn by designing with new technologies, and by engaging with learning sciences research on how and why these activities contribute to learning.

3D printerThis is an active, hands-on course. For most weeks, one of the two classes will be a design studio format, where you work with technology tools to create and design, with critique and feedback from the professor and your peers. In the second class, we’ll learn the research in the learning sciences, about what works best and why these designs work.

In this class, we will:

  • Learn the research on how children learn
  • Learn how to design research-based learning environments for children
  • Learn about the new toys, robots, and programmable objects that are designed to help children learn
  • Experiment, create, and make things with these same new technologies, to experience how children engage with and learn from these devices, tools, and apps
  • Learn how to design learning environments that incorporate these new technologies, in activities that are aligned with the science of learning, so that making and designing leads to the desired learning outcomes

Ozobot on pageHere are some examples of the learning technologies we may study in Spring 2018. These are current as of Fall 2017, but this is a fast-moving area, and new technologies and toys are released all the time. The course will change to keep up. Here are examples of what we might be studying and designing: Dot and Dash, Ozobot, Arduino, Hummingbird, Lilypad, Virtual Reality, 3D printing, the Scratch and Blockly visual programming tools, Sphero, the Looking Glass story animation tool, wire-framing user interface tools…

Tuesday and Thursday, 12:30 to 1:45

Undergrad: EDUC 390-002

Grad: EDUC 790-002

No programming experience is required. Anyone can take this course! As long as you’re open and ready to learn, and you’re comfortable experimenting with new apps and robot toys. (Keep in mind, these are all designed for kids in middle school and younger!)

Dash

Sphero

snap circuits

Blockly

 

 

Where Entrepreneurs Have Ideas

Where do successful entrepreneurs get their best creative ideas? Molly Reynolds* interviewed some entrepreneurs to find out. Here are my favorites :

  • John Goodman, John Goodman PR: Takes a three-hour walk and that’s “when I have my best creative ideas. My head de-clutters, and I start thinking clearly.”
  • Kat Quinzel, Cash Cow: “I get my best ideas when I’m making food. I think it’s because I tend to forget about everything else.”
  • Bian Li, The Hungry Lab: His ideas come while scuba diving.
  • Allen Klein, author/speaker: “my best ideas come from times when I’m walking my dog.”
  • Lisa Kipps-Brown, Glerin Business Resources: “I get my best ideas when mowing the grass with a push mower.”

These stories align with creativity research. Researchers have found that ideas are more likely to come when you take time off from your hard work. We call it incubation. It often happens when you’re doing something physical, like walking or cooking. (Warning! It only happens if you’ve worked hard and long before you take this time off.)

*Molly Reynolds, Kiplinger news service, “Inspiration points: Entrepreneurs reveal what sparks their creativity.” July 2017.

Writers’ Drafts: Who Needs Them?

Like all creativity, writing is a wandering and iterative process, where the creator doesn’t know where it’s going. A writer makes hundreds of creative decisions along the way–sometimes, a hundred in just one day. Which word to use; choosing a comma, period, or semicolon; moving a paragraph a few pages forward, or maybe up at the beginning. Then, the bigger changes. Realizing that your protagonist just isn’t carrying the story forward. Noticing that the words are telling you: Over here! Here’s where the story is. Here’s where you explore, where you need to go.

In the old days (before word processors) writers had to write by hand, edit by hand, type by hand, and then edit the typescript by hand and retype everything. Each full version of the manuscript was called a “draft.” Now that concept is obsolete, says writer Sarah Manguso.* When everything is on your computer as a file, you never have to print it out. You can edit a word here, a paragraph there. Delete an entire “page.” Rewrite the first two pages and leave everything else the same, to be explored a few days later. Here are some excerpts from her wonderful essay:

A novelist friend works on books one draft at a time, and she saves each draft. Another novelist friend works on the computer and keeps just one digital version. They are both successful and prolific.

I used to compose my work on paper, revise on the computer and save the initial drafts. Now that I compose on the computer, there’s only ever one extant version, and no drafts at all….Now that writing can take place digitally, [it] effectively removes the idea of the draft from the work process. There’s no need to finish a draft before you can go back to the first sentence and start revising it again. There are no drafts….After some duration of continuous work, the piece is done.

I think the concept of the draft is an anachronism from the time before laptops and word processing software.

What do you think? How do you write? If you generate drafts, what do they look like (printed? a computer file?) and how do you edit them toward the next draft?

*Sarah Manguso, August 6, “Paper Trail,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, p. 9.