Tag: Innovation Series
Matt Richardson is a creative technologist, maker, author and the Executive Director for North America of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Foundation provides outreach and education to help people access computing and digital making using low-cost, yet powerful, Raspberry Pi computers. Since the release of their first computer in 2012, more than 11 million Raspberry Pi units have been sold. Products include the Raspberry Pi 3, a small single-board computer with a quad-core CPU that retails for $35; the Pi Zero single-core computer, which is available for $5; and the Pi Zero W, which adds built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality for $10.
Matt Richardson. Used with permission.
Tell me about your path to becoming the Executive Director of North American for the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
RICHARDSON: I used to work in the television industry in New York City, but I grew up exposed to technology and computers and have had a passion for technology for a long time. As I was working in television, I noticed that people were creating and making things with computers and technology, and it really captured my attention. I thought it was something I wanted to try to do, so I started off as a hobbyist maker. I was creating things and putting them out there, making projects – you know, all the fun and interesting things that I wanted to do for a long time. Because of the maker movement, I was able to do these things that I wasn’t able to do before.
I was involved in the maker community for a long time before the Raspberry Pi came out, and I immediately liked how we could now use computers as a material for making things. And I loved the price of Raspberry Pi. So I quickly became an unofficial evangelist for the platform – I wrote a book called Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi with a good friend of mine, Shawn Wallace. And I would talk a lot about what Raspberry Pi is all about just because I was passionate about what the community was about, what the product was about, and what the Raspberry Pi Foundation was doing.
In late 2014, Eben Upton, one of the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team in the United States, and I jumped at the opportunity. I started at the Foundation at the beginning of 2015 as Raspberry Pi’s first U.S. employee.
Raspberry Pi has both a commercial business and a foundation. Can you outline for me how those two organizations work together?
RICHARDSON: We are unique from other charities that are associated with technology in that other major charities are often a technology company first and have a charity, sort of, on the side. We’re different in that we are first and foremost a foundation that happens to own a technology company, and that’s the Raspberry Pi Trading Company. Raspberry Pi Trading handles the engineering and product and all the stuff that goes around that, and that’s owned by Raspberry Pi Foundation, which does all the charitable outreach. All the “mission” work is done by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
The Foundation got its start in the U.K. What kind of activities does the Foundation support here in the U.S.?
RICHARDSON: The Raspberry Pi Foundation has global ambitions. We started off in the U.K. but we expanded into all of Europe. We want to be making a difference all over the world. We want to be achieving our mission all over the world, and we are doing that in several ways.
One thing we’re doing in the United States is training educators. We piloted Picademy, our professional development program for educators,last year in 2016, and it’s now an ongoing program in the U.S. We also do a lot of work involving direct-to-youth outreach in the United States. For instance, we look at events like Maker Faires and science festivals as opportunities to get young people to try out coding and technology – many of them have never had exposure to it before. So we want to find opportunities where we can get the Raspberry Pi out there and get people we normally wouldn’t reach, getting families and children to sit down at a Raspberry Pi and try to write a line of code and try playing with electronics.
I saw that the Foundation recently joined forces with Code Club and Coder Dojo. How do these mergers fit into the Foundation’s U.S. ambitions?
RICHARDSON: Our mission is to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world. When we talk about digital making, we talk about using technology to create and make things. It’s not just about coding. It’s electronics. It’s design thinking. There are a lot of things that encompass digital making. Code Club and Coder Dojo are great examples of organizations that go out there and provide resources for people to do outreach to youth. Code Club and CoderDojo have a positive impact on hundreds of thousands of youth worldwide, and it’s something that they’ve really figured out. So they’re a natural fit for our organization, and we expect that working together, we can expand this impact even further.
It seems like there’s a technology product for everything these days. Why is it important for people to learn how to make their own things?
RICHARDSON: What’s really important to us is the idea that anyone can be empowered to create things with technology, and we’re not all relegated to being consumers. Technology has never been more accessible and affordable for all people. We need to do the work to push that as far as we possibly can. That’s why we make Raspberry Pis as affordable as possible, and it’s why we create resources for anyone to be able to use the technology to do the things that they want to see happen in the world, whether they’re making a project for themselves for fun, learning something new, prototyping a product, solving a problem that matters to them.
We want people to understand that digital making isn’t just for people who are interested in technology itself. It’s for anyone who is interested in anything. If you are an artist, you can use technology to create art work. If you’re interested in biology – for example, you want to know what’s going on in a particular stream or river – you can use the technology to your advantage. You don’t need to be a technology enthusiast, a hobbyist or expert, and you certainly don’t need to be an engineer. That’s a big part of what we’re all about, making sure that everybody knows that they can use technology for what they see fit.
What caught my eye, initially, about the Raspberry Pi was that it was a very low price computer. I think $35. How has the affordability factor influenced the Raspberry Pis place in the greater world of technology?
RICHARDSON: Affordability is absolutely critical for us. It goes hand-in-hand with accessibility. When we talk about accessibility of technology, we’re talking about making it easier for people to get started. A common barrier is price. So we have worked really hard to overcome that barrier by making Raspberry Pi as affordable as we possibly can. The affordability factor changes this idea that you shouldn’t touch, hack, play or tinker with technology because you’re afraid you might break something. Driving down the price of this technology means that more people will be able to hack or tinker with impunity, without being worried about breaking anything. It means that more people are going to give it a go. If the computers and the technology are more affordable that means more people can take a chance on it. And then it’s just a numbers game – the more people you have taking a chance on a technology, the more people you have running with it and staying with it.
To answer your question a little more directly, it means that other companies see the success we’ve had and, I think, it has put some downward pressure on the price of technology items, making them more affordable. That’s good for everybody. If we’re influencing other companies to make technology more affordable, we’re achieving our mission.
You lowered the price barrier even more with the Pi Zero. How does that product fit into the Foundation’s mission and, in particular, an idea I heard you mention at the InfoSys Crossroads conference – that a computer can be a material, not just a tool?
RICHARDSON: In the 1980s, there were young kids coding with computers, but the context of computing was a keyboard, monitor and mouse sitting in someone’s room. It was a sort of fixed concept of computing. But some visionaries like Seymour Papert saw a future where technologies were treated more like a material, as opposed to a tool, to create and make things with. So he created the Logo programming language so that young people could use the computer to draw and also guide “turtle robots” that would roll on the ground and draw designs according to your instructions. You could even add sensors and actuators. He was really a visionary. I think that things like the Raspberry Pi Zero have really helped spread the idea that if you create something with a computer that’s affordable enough, that computer can be a material, too.
Even just ten years ago, when the maker movement was just getting rolling, you might have one Arduino [single-board microcontroller] in a project. Then when you were done with your project, you didn’t want to rip the Arduino out of your project to start a new one because you might not be able to afford multiple Arduinos. I would love to see more and more people, with more and more affordable computers, say “I can dedicate a computer to this project. I can dedicate another computer to this project and that project over there, too.” So the computer becomes a material in the project and people can think of it just like, say, they think of a canvas if they’re making art.
Tell me a little more about Picademy and how teachers can take advantage of that professional development opportunity.
RICHARDSON: All over the world, there a lot of really passionate and engaged educators who already “get” what we do and what we’re all about. They were already doing this before us. They understand concepts like project-based learning and computer as a material. For educators like them, we provide a professional development program called Picademy.
We bring educators together for two days, and they learn about digital making and creating with computers using Raspberry Pis. Then they work together and collaborate to create their own projects. The Picademy is meant to provide an introduction for using the Raspberry Pi as a material and thinking about digital making in the classroom. We piloted it last year in the Bay Area; Austin, Texas; and Baltimore, Maryland. This year, we are going to be in Providence, Rhode Island; Irvine, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Boise, Idaho. We’ll be training even more educators this year, and we will be giving them the tools to bring digital making into their classrooms.
It’s not just for teachers. We include classroom teachers, librarians, community educators, after-school educators, museum educators – educators of all types. This kind of learning doesn’t just happen in classrooms. It happens in lots of different educational contexts, and we want to support that.
We know that not everyone can take two days out of their life to come see us where we are, although we try to bring Raspberry Pi as far and wide as we can. So we also host an online professional development opportunity through a platform called FutureLearn. We run courses online for educators that take about two hours per week for four weeks. It’s perfect for educators who know that this is the kind of thing for them, but don’t have the time or resources to come see us at Picademy.
I saw something about Raspberry Jams on your website. What are they, and how can people get involved?
RICHARDSON: Raspberry Jams started with our community. This wasn’t something that we initiated. If you’re familiar with the early heyday of computing when homebrew computer groups were happening, these events started happening organically where members of the community gathered to see each other face-to-face, talk about what they’re doing, and show off their projects. Raspberry Jams started out like that. As more people began to organize these events, we as an organization supported Raspberry Jams by giving the organizers promotional tools and resources they could use. We put a Jam Map on our website where anyone running a Jam could add their event to the map with a link so that people could see it, come by and meet other people working with Raspberry Pis near them.
A month or two ago, we stepped up our game in terms of how we support Raspberry Jams by providing guide books for anyone who wants to start their own Jam. We see Jams that are just three or four people getting together every month, and we see jams that are huge events with a Maker Faire vibe and associated lectures and workshops. The guide book is meant to be, not only for people who want to get together and hold an event and find out what Raspberry Pi has to offer them, but also to communicate what other Jam organizers have to offer in terms of best practices. The guide book covers all the things you want to know, and it gives you tons of ideas and inspiration for activities you can offer. For people who organize Jams and commit to creating ongoing Jams, we support them with collateral materials – stickers, flyers and other graphical assets – so they can give their Jam a nice, professional look.
You started out as a product evangelist for the Raspberry Pi Foundation. What advice do you have for those who want to evangelize the product here in Mississippi? What do we need to do to build awareness and get people excited about computing and digital making with Raspberry Pis?
RICHARDSON: We always like to start looking at where there’s some momentum already happening in a particular region. It could be that, in Mississippi, there’s a classroom educator community that has already tapped into project-based learning and technology. It could be that the librarians are the ones who are already on this path. It could be tech and science museums in the area. Or it could be nonprofits that do after-school work.
We provide free resources to support all those different audiences, no matter what they’re doing. We offer guides for classrooms and after-school clubs. Anyone can register a Code Club and get tons of resources for free and tap into our network of educators. I think the Code Club network is a great way for any type of educator in Mississippi to get involved.
I believe the Raspberry Pi platform has a lot of potential here in Mississippi, not just because of the affordability of the computers, but also our need to encourage greater homegrown innovation to inspire economic development. Are there any other things we could be doing?
RICHARDSON: You’re absolutely right that the affordability of our products is the kind of thing that can help a lot. I’m not really that familiar with your area – is there a good Maker Faire?
I know that Meridian, Mississippi has had some Mini Maker Faires. I think they have been the only one so far.
RICHARDSON: You know, the Maker Faire here in the Bay Area has been going on for about ten years, and it has grown quite large. There are a lot of Mini Maker Faires all over the world that have really come into their own as a big annual event for that whole community. But it really takes an institution to step up and take this Maker Faire idea, tap into their network and keep the conversation and momentum going. Having been involved in things like this, I know it takes a lot of effort to keep events going and to keep people interested.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
RICHARDSON: We’ve talked a lot about education – classrooms, libraries, museums. But there’s a whole group of people who are just hobbyists, and supporting them is important. People pick up a Raspberry Pi and try a thing or two. And what often happens is that they learn and experiment on their own as a hobby, but then that becomes something more. It becomes a product, or the idea turns into a business. We’re big proponents of the hobbyist realm of the maker movement and not just the educational side of making. It can lead to intergenerational learning, with fathers and mothers working with their children and trying things out. It exposes kids to the idea of tinkering with things in the home – that’s something we try to encourage. Our hobbyist community is enormous, and we love to see what these people are doing. It’s also just a huge source of inspiration for what can be done with the technology. Beyond all the wonderful formal education that’s happening, the informal at-home education is critical to us, as well, for getting the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world.
Robert Thompson is interim director of the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI). Thompson is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in polymer science and has played a guiding role in the growth of the Mississippi Polymer Institute over the past 19 years. We spoke about MPI, The Accelerator and the role of polymer science in Mississippi’s economy.
The Mississippi Polymer Institute, located within The Accelerator at the University of Southern Mississippi
How did the Mississippi Polymer Institute get started?
Thompson: MPI was established by the Mississippi legislature in 1983. Funding came in ’93, so we really started up activities in 1993 and have been going strong ever since then. Dr. Shelby Thames, who was instrumental to the polymer science program at USM, also started the Mississippi Polymer Institute.
What’s MPI’s mission?
Thompson: We’re here to help grow Mississippi’s economy using the resources and capabilities we have here at MPI, as well as those available at the school of polymers and high-performance materials at USM. We make those technical capabilities and resources available to businesses here in Mississippi to help them grow. We provide our technical expertise in polymers for businesses, as well as for startup organizations and inventors.
In layman’s terms, what is meant by polymer science, and how is it important to Mississippi as an economic development driver?
Thompson: Polymer science is the study of the development and use of polymers. You know how you can form a chain with paperclips by hooking them all together? Well, the paperclip is a basic building block of that chain. With polymers, we have what are called monomers and those are the basic unit. You can hook many of those together to form a polymer. For example, polystyrene – everybody’s familiar with polystyrene coffee cups – the monomer is styrene and polymer is polystyrene.
The thing about polymers is they’re basically everywhere around you. They’re in paint, on automobiles and housing, in clothing – cotton is a natural polymer – but you also have things like polyester spandex, Gore-Tex, which is Teflon. They in your shoe soles and automotive tires. There are also polymers in personal care products like toothpaste and makeup. You have Boeing and their Dreamliner, the 787 – it has a large bit of composite materials, which also use polymers. So polymers are everywhere you look.
What kind of technical services does MPI provide to Mississippi companies?
Thompson: When we first started out in ’93, we were largely utilizing the capabilities at the Department of Polymer Science at USM. Over the years, we’ve added capabilities. So now we utilize both the resources that MPI has internally as well as those that the polymer science research center has. We have a lot of highly scientific equipment for physical and analytical testing. It helps you identify stuff, figure out how strong something is, where it breaks, what it’s made of – those sorts of things. MPI has been in the prototyping business since around ’95 or ’96 in earnest, really. And more recently, we’ve switched over from prototyping to what everyone’s referring to now as 3D printing.
On the consulting services side, we offer personal expertise, which I think is just as important as the equipment. We offer those capabilities to help companies, whether they’re startup companies or established companies, and we also do a lot with economic development agencies. If there’s a prospect or a group that’s interested in the area, they want to know what kind of technological support they can access. For those folks who are interested in moving to Mississippi, we can help them through our consulting services.
Aside from economic development, why is polymer science and the polymer industry so important for Mississippi?
Thompson: Polymers are everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. The companies producing these polymeric materials – whether they’re making the plastic itself or a coating or composite materials – their products touch so many areas. If your product is metal, for example, you’ll need polymers to coat that metal to keep it from rusting. Polymers are important for all of the manufacturing processes. The science associated with it and the skill sets and the type of individuals who work in polymer science all contribute to the economic growth of our state.
How does MPI support innovation in our state?
Thompson: From the start, MPI has been involved, largely through prototyping, with inventors. We see inventors come in who are looking to have a prototype part produced so that they can approach investors. Or sometimes, the inventor has their part and their investors, they’re just looking for help for how to make their widget, as we like to say.
Four years ago, we moved from the Polymer Science Research Center at USM to The Accelerator in The Garden at USM. The main reason for that move was to help support startup businesses here in The Accelerator. USM has an effort underway to support the research coming out of the university and help those companies that want to be closer to the university to access that research. So we support companies here at The Accelerator, as well.
We have outreach efforts looking at bringing new industry into the state. On the existing industry side, with which MPI plays a big role, we’re helping to grow the folks that are already here. But also there’s that third effort – the organic growth portion. We’ve started playing a role with events like Startup Weekend and the New Venture Challenge. I applaud all those efforts, and I think they’re great way to help the state of Mississippi through economic development.
Does MPI have any programs to reach out to students before they get to college?
Thompson: We’re very proud to have helped establish nine high school polymer science programs in Mississippi. We started out this effort around ’97 or ’98 at Petal High School. Since that time, we’ve added eight additional high schools across the state. Those schools are Alcorn County, Madison County, Simpson County, Marion County, Hattiesburg High School, Hancock, Moss Point and Pascagoula. And, I’d like to make a plug for the program – I want to work with interested school boards across the state to expand into more schools.
I think one of the important things about this program is that students get to experience our industry through job shadowing. They have the opportunity to visit companies in their area and they see what those folks do every day. They can decide to go straight to work when they graduate high school, or go to the community or junior college to develop that additional advanced skill set, or they can go to the university and get that engineering degree or polymer science degree. I think it’s very important that we give high school and younger kids the opportunity to learn about our industry to help them set their direction in life.
Can you talk about some of your favorite success stories that you’ve seen come out of the Mississippi Polymer Institute?
Thompson: I have a lot of favorites. Most recently, on the workforce development side, I would have to say [MPI Workforce Development and Technical Leader] Ty Posey’s efforts building up the composites program with GE Aviation. GE Aviation has a production facility in Ellisville. All of their production employees come through the Mississippi Polymer Institute, as well as Jones County Junior College. There are four classes they take, which give those employees a good foundation in 1) what are high-performance composite materials, 2) what are some of the ways that you manufacture and produce these things, 3) what’s the science behind it. I’m really excited about that program and we’re proud to have GE Aviation as a partner.
MPI has been doing commercial development for several years. We started out initially working on a project with the James Rawlins’ research group at USM for a coating for Marine Corps uniforms. That was probably the start of that effort. Since that time, we’ve had a lot of successes along the way. Of course, I can’t mention a lot of those things because of confidentiality agreements.
On the physical and analytical testing side, we’ve done thousands of projects in Mississippi. But, recently, last year, we became ISO 17025 accredited. For a university lab to become accredited is very unique.
Why is that?
Thompson: When Dr. Thames helped set up MPI, his intention was that we would exist to help industry. That’s our focus. So we’re out there, every day, working with industry, visiting them, talking to them about the problems that they’re seeing. The ISO accreditation is very important to those folks because their customers are asking, “How are you having this checked?” They want to know who’s checking it and who’s checking the people that are checking it.
The ISO accreditation means a third-party coming in and, more or less, says the processes that MPI has in place, as well as the techniques that we’re using, are what they say we’re doing. Part of it is proficiency testing – our test results are compared against numerous other labs’ test results and, basically, you’re looking for all the labs get the same results. It’s a third party stamp of approval, you could say. It gives some legitimacy to the process you’re using when your laboratory’s testing is accredited.
What else would you like Mississippians to know about the Mississippi Polymer Institute?
Thompson: First and foremost, I’d like everyone to know that we’re here to help. Our whole purpose in being is to help grow Mississippi – to help further our state.
I would also encourage business folks to come out and take a look at The Accelerator and visit with [Accelerator Manager] Robbie Ingram. And I would encourage people to let us show you around the Mississippi Polymer Institute to see all of the exciting things that we’re doing here.
Jon Mattingly is the co-founder of Kodable, an iOS app that teaches basic computer programming concepts to young children. We talked about the Kodable app, why kids should learn to code, and the potential computer science education offers for economic development in Mississippi.
Tell me about your background. How did you get interested in programming computers?
MATTINGLY: I actually learned BASIC, an old programming language, when I was about six or seven. I had this old Windows 3.1 computer my parents let me use. So I started playing around with that and I found BASIC. As I got older, I wanted to start a company and I realized how important programming was so I picked it back up and kept running with it.
Did you study programming in college?
MATTINGLY: I went to the University of Louisville to play football as a walk-on there for a couple of years. I was in the business school and interested in entrepreneurship, and I just wanted to start my own company. I realized that if I wanted to start a tech company, I shouldn’t outsource it—I needed to know what I was doing. That was around my junior or senior year. It was already too late to change my major at that point, so I got an entrepreneurship minor and taught myself programming on the side.
How would you describe Kodable?
MATTINGLY: It’s an iPad app that teaches kids the fundamentals of programming. We teach kids logical thinking. We teach them to think critically. We teach them to problem solve. We teach them to think like a programmer. You need to know how to come up with solutions to problems—you take a set of conditions, a certain situation, and then create a solution to that problem. Another thing that’s pretty simple to understand with Kodable is you just have a maze. You give your fuzz [game character] instructions to get through the maze.
How did you come up with the idea for your app?
MATTINGLY: I had an initial idea for an online rewards program, called Surfscore, for web apps, and it didn’t really work out too well. Later, we were talking to some parents, and they kept mentioning how they wanted to teach their kids how to program. So, we decided it sounds like there’s something here. With my history of learning to program when I was so young, we decided to take it and run with it.
You have a co-founder, Grechen Huebner. How has it been to have a female co-founder in the male-dominated tech industry?
MATTINGLY: It’s been great for our company. She loves what she does. Her personality is evident in Kodable. I always tell her that there’s no way a programmer like me could make something that looks as good as Kodable because she doesn’t come from the “head down in a text editor, programming” mindset.
Grechen is really passionate about getting more girls involved and has really tried hard to make a product that looks attractive to both genders. We’ve actually got more girls using Kodable than guys. Over half of our users are girls right now, and I think a lot of that is because you can see her personality and her drive reflected in the app.
Kodable is designed to teach programming concepts to kids as young as kindergarten. How quickly do kids that young pick it up?
MATTINGLY: We’ve actually had kids as young as 18 months using Kodable, which is amazing to us. The best age range is from five to eight.
Some kids, especially ones who’ve grown up on iPads with parents that are pretty tech savvy, just get it. Right away, they’ll be zooming right through all the levels and they can finish it pretty quickly. But if they haven’t been exposed to the thought process and the thinking, then usually it takes a little longer. But kids tend to pick it up, either way, pretty quickly. It doesn’t take much longer than, say, five or ten minutes for a kid to figure it out.
Why do you think young kids should be learning these programming concepts that your app teaches?
MATTINGLY: It’s like learning a language. If you start learning a language too late, it’s hard to pick it up because your brain does most of its development before you’re 12. With young kids, their minds as still open—they can learn how to think critically and problem solve. And the earlier you can start kids learning that, the better off they’ll be with it later in life.
It doesn’t mean they have to become a programmer. But it can help kids in so many different ways just by teaching them when they’re still young and their brains are more receptive. They’re like sponges. They just pick up everything.
I understand the app has been piloted in some schools?
MATTINGLY: Yeah, we’re being used in quite a few schools. It’s numbering in the hundreds now, maybe even thousands. They end up finding out about us through word of mouth, and we try to maintain relationships with as many schools as possible. I email everyone that signs up for the Kodable learning guide. I email them personally and talk to them to see how they’re doing and make sure that everything’s going alright.
Our focus has been to help people teach with Kodable. Because a lot of these teachers, they want to teach programming because they realize how important it is. But they don’t actually know where to start. So our goal has been to demystify the process in a more adult-friendly way and relate actual programming to what we do in Kodable. So teachers can see how you’ve got this concept in programming—maybe it’s functions—and we explain how functions are used in actual programming. And it’s catered toward Kodable specifically. It’s not like a programming textbook. You know, famously, programming text books take you through one chapter of really guided stuff and then they just drop you off a cliff and then teach you all these crazy concepts and you just give up because it’s so frustrating. You want to make sure that adults can see it’s not as hard as some people might think it is.
How has the reception been from teachers? What kind of things are you hearing?
MATTINGLY: One of the best things that we’ve been hearing is that kids that use Kodable are farther along and have it easier when they move on to products like Scratch that are targeted to older age ranges.
I had one person who emailed me about the Hour of Code. One of the apps that their school was using was Light Bot. That person’s child was the only one in the entire class who understood some of the material that they were teaching. Because he’d been using Kodable already, he was actually able to go out and help the other kids, to teach them how to do it.
Can a state like Mississippi that has relatively few tech companies, and many challenges related to education and poverty, benefit from teaching people how to program computers?
MATTINGLY: I think it could be huge. One of the best things about computer science is it’s become so cheap to program and to make apps. You know, you don’t really need a whole lot of money anymore to start a company or become a programmer. The Raspberry Pi costs $35. You hook up a keyboard and a TV to it, and you can program and make apps.
There are so many resources right now for learning how to program. Just the other day, there was an article about a homeless guy who learned to code and he put an app in the app store. So, if you want to learn, there’s really no excuse why you can’t. You want to focus on finding something you love—a problem that you want to solve—and build on it, make it better, make that problem go away for you.
How important is it for schools in Mississippi to teach coding?
MATTINGLY: It’s a tidal wave that’s coming and you don’t want to be left out. The UK is actually mandating programming education for the entire country starting next year. Every child in China learns programming. And, you know, it’s happening in America, too.
Parents see how important this is. Over 18 million people participated in the Hour of Code. It shows that people want computer programming to be taught.
Mitchel Resnick, PhD, is a LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. His research group developed the “programmable brick” technology that inspired LEGO MindStorms robotics kits. More recently, the group developed Scratch, a popular programming environment for kids. Dr. Resnick received the 2011 McGraw Prize in Education and was listed by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.
We spoke about the importance of creative learning, effective strategies for digital literacy, and the impact of initiatives to introduce computer science into more classrooms.
Dr. Mitchel Resnick. Photo by Joi Ito.
What is the Lifelong Kindergarten Group?
RESNICK: My research group, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, develops new technologies and new activities to engage people in creative learning experiences. So we help people learn through designing, creating and expressing themselves.
We call the group Lifelong Kindergarten because we’re inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten. In the classic kindergarten, children are constantly designing and creating things in collaboration with one another. They build towers with wooden blocks and make pictures with finger paints—and we think they learn a lot in the process.
What we want to do with our new technology and activities is extend that kindergarten approach to learning, to learners of all ages. So everybody can continue to learn in a kindergarten style, but to learn more advanced and sophisticated ideas over time.
I understand there’s a long history at MIT of using computers as a tool for education.
RESNICK: It goes all the way back to the 1960s with Seymour Papert, who started working on the Logo programming language. It was a way for kids to be able to write computer programs to control things. Now, at the time, most people thought it was crazy because computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Seymour recognized that computers were going to become less expensive and would proliferate throughout the world. So he saw there was an opportunity to use computers as tools for young people and that young people would have access to that technology. He knew that the best experiences would result from not just using computers to deliver information, but letting kids take control of the technology so they could create things.
Seymour would say it’s important that you don’t want the computer programming the child; you want the child programming the computer. You want the child to be in control. So Seymour started these ideas all the way back in the 1960s. His ideas then started to get out into the world when personal computers became available in the late 1970s into the 1980s. The Logo programming language became one of the most popular ways children were using personal computers in schools in the 1980s.
I was deeply influenced by Seymour. He was my most important mentor, and I continue to be inspired by his ideas about children learning by designing and creating things. Our work on LEGO Mindstorms and Scratch were deeply inspired by the ideas from Seymour Papert.
Why is it important to provide kids with opportunities for creative learning?
RESNICK: The process of making things in the world—creating things—it provides us with the opportunity to take the ideas that we have in our mind and to represent them out in the world. Once we do that, it sparks new ideas. So there’s this constant back and forth between having new ideas in your mind, creating things in the world, and that process sparking new ideas in the mind which lets you create new things. So it’s this constant spiral of creating and generating new ideas.
We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Things that you learn today could be obsolete tomorrow. But one thing is for sure: People will confront unexpected situations and unexpected challenges in the future. So what’s going to be most important is for kids to be able to come up with new and innovative solutions to the new challenges that arise. That’s why it’s so important to develop as a creative thinker. Just knowing a fixed set of facts and skills is not enough. The ability to think and act creatively will be the most important ingredient for success in the future.
You’ve spoken about “learning to code” versus “coding to learn.” What’s the difference?
RESNICK: Many people are starting to get interested in learning to code, or learning to program computers. One reason a lot of people are interested is because it provides opportunities for jobs and careers because there’s a growing need for professional programmers and computer scientists. So that’s one reason for learning to code—there really is a need and there are economic opportunities.
But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity. I often make the analogy to learning to write: Some people who are learning to write will become professional journalists or novelists, however most people aren’t going to make a living just through their writing. But we still want everyone to learn to write, because once you learn to write, it lets you organize your thinking, and it helps you express your ideas in new ways. I see it as being the same with coding. Although coding does provide some economic opportunities for jobs and careers, I think the most important reason for learning to code is it lets you organize your ideas and express your ideas.
Coding lets you learn many other things. So that’s why I think what’s most important is not just learning to code, but coding to learn. As you’re learning to code, you’re learning many other things.
What kinds of skills does coding teach?
RESNICK: You learn how to organize your ideas. That is, you take complex ideas and break them down into simpler parts: How to identify problems and then “debug” the problems. How to take the ideas of others and reformulate those ideas to meet your needs. Those are all common things that people do when they’re coding. But those are also common things you do in all types of problem-solving activities and design activities.
Even if you’re doing something that has nothing to do with coding—if you’re organizing a birthday party for a friend or developing a new marketing plan for your company—you use some of those same ideas. So those approaches, which you can learn through coding, can then be applied to all different kinds of activities both in your personal life and your work life.
Should every child learn to code? Should coding be a school subject like algebra or chemistry?
RESNICK: I do think every child should learn to code, and I would approach it similarly to writing—the same way we teach children to write and then let them use their writing in all other courses. You learn to write and then use your writing in writing book reports and writing science reports—you use it in all other subjects. And I think similarly, it would be great for all kids to code and then use that knowledge in many other classes.
Events like Hour of Code have raised the visibility of coding and given people an opportunity to get some sense of what coding is all about. But it only will be meaningful if there’s a follow-up and follow-through. If people take that initial spark and turn an hour of code into a day of code or a week of code or a month of code where they continue to explore the possibilities of coding.
So it’s the same thing. If you just spend an hour learning to write, it wouldn’t be so useful. On the other hand, if that sparks your imagination and then you continue to do more things with it, then it becomes meaningful.
How is Scratch changing the way people think about computer programming?
RESNICK: We emphasize that Scratch is a way to express yourself creatively, to express your ideas. It’s also a social activity: You can share your projects with others and learn from what others are doing. Many other organizations that are trying to help people learn to code don’t focus on those ideas. They often are just focused on students learning the concepts of computer science or learning how to solve puzzles with programming.
We take a different approach with Scratch. We see Scratch as an opportunity to express yourself creatively and to work collaboratively. I think it’s really important to have that as a core underpinning for what coding is about. Our ultimate goals with Scratch are to help young people think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. We think those skills are incredibly important in today’s society.
In Mississippi, we have some big challenges relating to education and poverty. Can computer science be a game-changer for us?
RESNICK: I think it’s always dangerous to assume that there’s any one thing that’s going to make a big cultural change. But it could be one element.
Before you can think about changing living standards, you need to change learning standards. I think computer science provides new opportunities to help people become better learners. I think the thing that’s going to guarantee success in the future is people developing as creative thinkers and creative learners. Doing creative work with technology through learning to code is one pathway to that. It’s not the only pathway. But I think what’s probably the most important thing is having young people grow up with opportunities to think and act creatively. That’s the key.
Would you say that computer science can engage students that may otherwise be not that interested in school?
RESNICK: I do think it’s incredibly important to build on young people’s interest. People are going to be most interested in learning when they’re working on things that they really care about. The computer, if it’s used the right way, has the opportunity to engage kids in doing things that they really care about. But I want to add that doesn’t happen automatically. The computer can also be used in a way that kids won’t be interested in.
So it’s not just about using the computer—it’s the way in which it’s used.
There aren’t very many credentialed computer science teachers out there. Are credentials necessary for teaching computer science to young people?
RESNICK: I agree with you that there’s a challenge. Many teachers don’t have much background in this area. I think further into the future, we’ll get more teachers over time with more expertise. But, for now, I think there are great resources for teachers to learn enough to help young people get started with coding and using computers in creative ways.
I would also encourage schools to support teachers in learning new things so that they can help support these young people—and also hiring new teachers who can bring new expertise into the schools. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a long-term process.
How should K-12 schools approach the teaching of computer science?
RESNICK: We should make sure all subjects are taught in a way where kids get a chance to learn through creative expression. And not just computer programming. In a science class or physics class or biology class, teachers should allow students to have creative learning experiences.
We should rethink all school subjects so there are opportunities for children to learn by designing, creating, experimenting and exploring. That’s also true when we use computers. We should use computers to design, create, experiment and explore. But we should apply those ideas to all classes and all media.
So you’re saying more hands-on learning?
RESNICK: Well, it depends on what you mean by hands-on. I would emphasize learning by creating and experimenting. If you put your hands on something, and you’re just following the instructions to build a model, then that’s not a very good activity even though your hands are involved. What’s important is to give kids the opportunity to create things and experiment with things, to use their imaginations and to think creatively.
What are your thoughts about getting more women and minority students involved in computer science?
RESNICK: I think that’s linked to what we talked about earlier with supporting people and building on their own interests. Often, in all school subjects, including particularly computer science, you’re taught in one way which might be appealing to some people but not others. We need to make sure we provide multiple pathways into activities.
For example, when we developed Scratch, we made sure that people can use Scratch to do all types of different things. You can make a game, you can make a story, you can make an animation, you can compose music. That’s because different kids have different interests. If we only had computer programming for making games, that would be appealing for some kids and not for others. We wanted to be sure to provide multiple pathways so that kids from all backgrounds and all interests are able to follow their interests and become creative learners.
Cameron Wilson is the COO and VP of government affairs at Code.org. We spoke about Code.org’s work to expand computer science education in the U.S., including their wildly successful Hour of Code initiative. Currently more than 24 million students have participated in the Hour of Code’s online tutorials. We also talked about the prospects for expanding computer science education in Mississippi.
Interested in joining the movement? Be sure to visit Code.org’s website to get the facts about the current state of computer science education in Mississippi.
Code.org: “What Most Schools Don’t Teach”
You have celebrities, business leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle speaking out for computer science education. How did you get such widespread support?
WILSON: I think everybody recognizes that, for our country to lead in the world, we have to lead technology-wise. All of the technology that surrounds us on an everyday basis has its roots in computer science, and everybody recognizes that. The political leadership of this country, I think they’re willing to use the bully pulpit to bring that message to schools and to students.
From a corporate perspective, the issue businesses face on an almost daily basis is hiring problems. They need more people that are software engineers, that have a background in computer science to create the applications that they need. And it’s not just the tech companies. Everybody sort of thinks that this is a Microsoft problem or a Google problem. Those companies hire a lot of technology workers, but 70% of the jobs are actually outside the IT field in jobs like manufacturing, the service industry, finance, banking. Computer science is at the core of a lot of services they offer, so that really brings together the corporate community in a huge way.
Were you surprised by how many people participated in Hour of Code?
WILSON: It was amazing. Our goal was to get 10 million students to take the Hour of Code, and we ended up with that within the first three days. We had 18 million by the end of the first week.
The unbelievable reach—teachers getting it into their schools, students participating and parents engaged—was more than we could have hoped for after basically coming up with this idea in July and trying to market it to schools. So it really did explode, and we were incredibly happy at the response.
About half of the participants were girls, another amazing statistic when you consider how many girls have participated in computer science in the past. So all of those things were really heartening.
The data is amazing. But, to me, the most gratifying piece is the outpouring of stories from teachers about how they had never experienced anything like this before. They had students working together. They had entire schools that were participating. They had kids coming back and asking for more.
I think, from our perspective, it really showed not only the capacity for our teachers to really take and run with something like the Hour of Code, but just the massive amount of demand that students have for learning about computer science and creating this kind of technology.
The schools that didn’t take part in the Hour of Code – what do they need to know?
WILSON: Number one, they can do it any time of the year, and they can do it next year – we’re starting the planning for next year. Number two, they can immediately engage students with computer science education through the blended learning course for K-8 students that Code.org offers.
We have about 500,000 students participating in the K-8 program and 10,000 teachers that registered these students, which makes it one of the largest computer science programs in the entire country. So there’s lots of things that schools can do starting now, whether it’s in school or after school. Parents can do it at home, too.
How much demand is there for computer programmers right now?
WILSON: The demand changes from state to state, but it’s usually like two to five times larger for computing than it is for the average of all other occupations. And then nationally, it’s about four times greater.
Computing is a Bureau of Labor Statistics category, so that encompasses a fair number of jobs that are all computing related. So software engineering, both on the applications and operations side, and programmers are the biggest elements of it. But there’s also networking engineers and database engineers that are part of it, as well.
One of the things we point out is, whether you’re going to go into any of those broader IT fields or software engineering – or really any field nowadays – a computer science component at the K-12 level helps provide a really strong foundation for the fundamental knowledge you need.
If you look at projected job growth in STEM-related fields, about 70% of the new jobs and about 50% of total jobs are in computing-related fields.
There’s been a shift in looking at computer science as a “vocational” skill to more of a “foundational” skill. Why is that?
WILSON: I think it’s a bit of both, really. We definitely view it as a foundational literacy for the 21st century. All of the things that you get from computer science, whether it’s understanding how the technology works or it’s actually understanding how to think about problem solving in creative ways —how to deal with data and information—all of those things are really critical for lots of different jobs.
So, for example, a lawyer nowadays might be faced with a privacy lawsuit where he needs to understand how encryption works or how data transfer across the Internet works. I’m not saying he needs to know the nuts and bolts of it, but he needs to have a basic understanding.
Additionally, computer science provides critical-thinking skills and data-analysis skills that are sort of unique in science. So that’s why we consider it to be foundational for lots and lots of different fields. It’s just something that every student should be exposed to.
If you continue on a pathway in your career by taking more computer science classes and get a computer science degree, there are lots of great jobs out there. There’s the knowledge component and the skills component.
How can Mississippians become advocates for computer science in our state?
WILSON: The first thing is to organize – build a community of people who understand the issue of computer science education and want to improve it in the schools.
Connect with educators. With the school districts that are offering great quality computer science programs, you can use them as models to scale up. And then engage with policymakers with the “make it count” agenda, which is trying to make computer science count for math or science credit. That can either be done at the state level or locally and often both. That’s the first step on the pathway toward expanding computer science education. But then they can work with school boards – either the state school board or their local school boards – to begin a conversation.
One of the things Code.org is trying to do is to expand the number of teachers that understand the content knowledge. So we have announced partnerships with multiple districts in the country where we’re actually offering professional development for teachers around our Exploring Computer Science Curriculum and Computer Science Principles Curriculum, and our K-8 curriculum.
So we expand the number of teachers that are out there and expand the number of schools that are offering it. All of those things can be pushed locally as well. I think that would be the major task to any community organizer to help build capacity and infrastructure around that issue and then going off and talk to local school boards, talk to legislators, allow the big issues and the need to understand computer science education in this way.
How do the school district partnerships work?
WILSON: Code.org will enter into a partnership with school districts around the country. We’re just finishing up districts where we’re going to be putting in courses for 2014.
Basically, what we will do is offer to pay for all the teachers’ professional development for computer science courses. We pay stipends for teachers to go through the professional development program. We give all the curriculum away for free to the school districts. And then we handle all the workshop logistics for professional development, both for the online development and in-person.
So that’s what we do on our side. The expectations for the district are that they will put these courses into place, the teachers who go through the professional development program will actually teach the course, and that they will continue to expand computer science offerings within their school district.
That’s the overall approach we take on the education side to help initialize the system to have more computer science education. And then, hopefully, it becomes part of what administrators value, what principals value and what superintendents value, so that it just becomes part of the everyday educational experience.
You’re working to get states to count computer science as a math or science credit, rather than an elective, for high school graduation. Have you run into any resistance to this idea?
WILSON: For the most part, we’ve taught education in this country for 150 years or so roughly in the same way. When new subjects like computer science come into the education mainstream, there’s often not a very good picture about how to treat that subject. I think there’s a growing recognition and general acceptance that computer science should be part of a student’s general experience or part of the core subjects that students should expect to be exposed to. We’ve seen very little resistance to that idea. The question really comes down to how you implement those programs at the local level.
We’re up to 17 states plus the District of Columbia that allow computer science to satisfy a math or science credit. And that’s just largely been an awareness effort. Since we’ve really focused attention on this in the latter half of 2013, we’ve had five states change their policies, either from a legislative or a regulatory perspective. And that’s happened in red states, blue states, from a variety of actors. So you see wide support for it because it’s really just making people understand and be aware that computer science should be treated as part of the core.
Who ultimately makes the decision about graduation credits?
WILSON: Each state is different, and each state handles graduation requirements differently. Take the state of Washington, which took a legislative route that was passed by the house and senate and signed by the governor with huge bipartisan support. They legislated that local school boards would have to treat computer science as a mathematics or a science credit depending on how the local school board wanted to implement it. So that’s the legislative route.
Maryland passed legislation earlier that called for the state board of ed to review their overall graduation requirements for mathematics. But in the process of going through that, the state board of education added computer science to the mix for allowing it to count toward a mathematics credit. So that’s a regulatory route.
If you look at Tennessee, they were another one where the state board of education simply passed regulations to make the shift. So it depends on where the levers of power lie, and it depends on whether there are actually statewide graduation requirements.
Take a state like Colorado. Colorado is a completely local-control state. They don’t have any statewide graduation requirements. So you actually have to go district by district to have this discussion.
What are the next steps for expanding access to computer science in the states?
WILSON: Code.org’s goal is to expand access to computer science education for all students. So, from our perspective, that means making sure that states have good professional development programs for computer science, that school districts are actually putting in high-quality computer science education courses, that the state has standards that help define and frame what computer science education should look like at the local level, and then, additionally, that states have teacher certification programs that are connected to content knowledge.