If you’re like most people, you probably don’t associate algae with cutting-edge technology. The thought of algae may call to mind things like pond scum and oceanic dead zones. But, contrary to their lowly reputation, algae are among the most diverse and widespread organisms on the planet, and algae research is fueling some very exciting new research and applications.
Based in Meridian, Mississippi, Algix is one of the companies at the forefront of algae research and commercialization. I spoke with their Director of Research and Development, Ashton Zeller.
Tell me a little bit about what you do at Algix and how you got involved with the company.
ZELLER: I got involved with the company back in 2011 when our co-founders Michael Van Drunen and Ryan Hunt decided to spin-off a business to develop an algae-based plastic. They got a Georgia Research Alliance grant from the state of Georgia in order to pursue that business opportunity. So, with the grant and some assistance from the University of Georgia, they started a research program and hired me to lead the research.
I started out with them at the University of Georgia. Today, our research scope has broadened beyond just trying to demonstrate algae-based plastics to focusing on making specific formulations for different customer applications – for example, we have a range of 3D-printer filament. As a company, we focus on algae harvesting, drying, dewatering and collection opportunities because we had to develop our supply chain.
I saw that you have a fish farm in Jamaica. Is that part of the supply chain?
ZELLER: Yes. We acquired that fish farm so that we could have year-round production capability in Jamaica. The long-term goal is to produce fish and produce algae as a byproduct. But we don’t currently operate the farm for algae collection. We’re currently working to stabilize that business for fish production.
What led to the decision to pursue the commercialization of algae-based plastic?
ZELLER: Our chief technology officer, Ryan, came from a bioengineering background and was working on a project at the University of Georgia for making fuels out of algae. They were trying to look at wastewater treatment strategies for algae and trying to produce fuel off that algae, but they were not having a whole lot of success. And what they realized is that it’s really hard to get the algae that produces fuel from competitive strains of algae. They ended up with a lot of protein-rich algae and not a lot of fuel-rich algae. So Ryan, through his relationship with Mike Van Drunen, began working with a professor at UGA to try to make a plastic out of it.
Mike Van Drunen had been working in the packaging industry making packaging machinery for a decade and he realized the potential value of algae’s environmental story and the environmental impact it could have on the packaging sector. So that pushed Ryan to have a significant interest in researching algae-based plastic, and that’s what led Ryan and Mike Van Drunen to start the company.
So you can use a broad range of algae species to produce plastics?
ZELLER: Right. That’s really what made our technology successful since we aren’t limited to specific strains or species to create algae-based plastics. The algae fuel industry has been around for a while and people haven’t demonstrated a lot of success in going that route. And that’s mainly because you do need these specific species and strains. But, for us, as long as we are working with areas that have very nutrient-rich waterways, the most beneficial algae for us are also going to be the fastest-growing algae in those environments. The most competitive algae are also, generally speaking, the most protein-rich algae because those proteins help in the process of growing and cell division for those algae.
What’s the basic process for turning algae into plastics?
ZELLER: It’s very simple in terms of explanation, but very complicated to actually accomplish.
Our process is based on some very old technology. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the opening of the Middle East for crude oil production to global markets, most plastics were protein-based. Henry Ford’s door liners for his original Model Ts were all made using soy-based plastic. So proteins have a long history of being used for plastics, but they lost out to cheap and readily available crude oil. That’s largely because the crude oil alternatives outperform algae in the sense that they can be easily processed into a bulk material that can take on a variety of shapes. They also have a lot better elongation characteristics than protein-based materials.
The process for turning a high-protein content material into a plastic uses high heat to denature and elongate the proteins so that, when they cool, they form a solid object that’s a grouping of polymer chains rather than folded proteins next to each other.
We more or less took that old process and figured out how to make it work using modern plastic processing technology so that we could blend the algae-based plastics with more conventional materials and deliver products that are competitive in terms of performance and processing ease in the marketplace.
What types of products are you now producing?
ZELLER: Right now, we have two divisions that we own: We have a product called Bloom for the foam market. In that market, we currently have surfboard traction pads. We’re also looking at, in the near future, to be selling those foams for yoga mats and also shoe insoles and midsoles. Those foams really offer a tremendous improvement in the performance of the material.
The 3D printing market is another opportunity. Currently, 3D printing creates a lot of landfill waste because you’re using plastics for typically short-term applications. The algae filament that we produce offers a significant advantage for that market because it biodegrades much faster. It has a better environmental story and a cool, natural aesthetic that you don’t really get in conventional plastics.
We see huge possibilities for algae in those markets. But we’ve also worked with extruders, injection molders, blown film, cast film, blow molding – a very wide range of markets and opportunities for our materials.
How do algae-based plastics compare to traditional plastics in terms of environmental benefits?
ZELLER: Our algae-based plastics that use compostable resin significantly increase the rate of biodegradation. So we have taken materials that could not biodegrade in marine environments and made them marine biodegradable through the addition of algae, which is good for our marine and aquatic environments.
We’ve also shown that the algae can provide a slight nutrient supplementation for agricultural products that need to decompose. So instead of a material just decomposing and providing no benefit to the soil, you have a product that decomposes and provides nitrogen and phosphorus which both enhance plant growth.
In the durable plastic market, we’ve shown significant carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions relative to almost every resin that we’ve compared to our products. In fact, we have not yet put out a resin that doesn’t significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. That’s largely due to the algae consuming large amounts of CO2 during its growth cycle and then storing that in the biomass that we are providing to the plastic process.
We’ve had third-party, peer-reviewed, LCAs (life cycle assessments) done which, depending on which resin you’re talking about, show a wide range of positive impacts. Depending on which resin you’re talking about, you see human health impacts, ecosystem impacts and non-renewable resource utilization impacts.
What about the environmental benefits of harvesting algae?
ZELLER: Algae has been really hitting the news over the last several years. As human populations increase and we pollute our waters with more small molecules that feed algae growth, and as global temperatures increase, we’re creating perfect growth conditions for algae. All around the world, you’re seeing algae take over ecosystems and really get out of control.
Most algae blooms are caused by high levels of nitrates, nitrites or ammonia in water and/or high levels of phosphate. Those are important biomolecules that all plants need in order to grow. Those contaminates typically come from over-fertilization of fields somewhere upstream from where the algae bloom is occurring, but those nutrients may end up in our waterways where they feed algae growth. But if we harvest that algae biomass, we’re basically ending the cycle of those nutrients cycling through that ecosystem because, instead of those nutrients being returned to the water through the breakdown of the algae, the nutrients are removed from that ecosystem with the algae biomass.
We work with local governments and wastewater treatment providers – a wide range of people in different areas all over the world – to harvest that algae and make use of it. So we, basically, take that “pond scum,” that annoyance to everybody and make it something that’s useful to them, a viable product that has tremendous environmental benefits.
Do algae-based plastics have any performance benefits?
ZELLER: From a material properties standpoint, you do see some benefits. In injection molding, for example, we’ve been able to show reduced cycle times due to quicker hardening of the material in the mold. With foams, we’ve been able to show increased properties like tear strength, elongation of foam materials which extends the life of foams that need to survive several iterations of being compressed, like a shoe insole or a yoga mat.
For our 3D printing markets, we just had a high school student place pretty highly in the Mississippi state science fair using our algae filaments and showing that algae filaments can be stronger than PLA filaments that you can find and buy on the market. In general, algae is not going to enhance the strength of 3D-printed materials, but it is definitely not being scoffed at in terms of the material properties it can deliver combined with the benefits of enhanced biodegradability and low toxicity. So the benefits to using algae are really myriad and situational. It depends on what market you’re talking about, what the potential benefits might be.
How did Algix come to be located in Meridian?
ZELLER: Our company spent a good bit of time acquiring the ability to tap into these algae blooms, these algae problems around the world. When we first started out with our business and first demonstrated that we really could make an algae plastic, one of the biggest problems that we had was the supply chain. There’s just not enough people out there that are growing large enough quantities of algae for you to be competitive in the plastics market. So what we had to do is really develop the supply chain ourselves.
We built our first production facility in Meridian, Mississippi, because of the algae problems faced by American catfish farmers. Catfish farmers introduce nutrients into their ponds every single day in the form of fish feed. Some of those nutrients don’t get consumed by the fish and they just rot in the pond and create algae problems, and those algae problems can be detrimental. At night, algae consumes oxygen rather than creating oxygen because there’s no light for photosynthesis and that can suffocate fish causing massive fish kills if the farmer doesn’t control it. Meridian just happens to be in the center of the majority of the catfish farms in the United States – I think about 90 to 95 percent of the catfish farms we were aware of are within a 100 mile radius. Since catfish farms are where we started developing our supply chain and developing our technology, Meridian was an ideal location for us.
At the risk of the MWB Blog looking increasingly like a tavern, I feel compelled to write a postmortem on our latest #MWBeer30 event. Jon Fisher, Donnie Brimm, and Bethany Cooper from Oxford-based FNC gave a great talk reviewing many of the practices and protocols their company has put in place designed to stir innovation and creativity. I think attendees of this event (4/17) will agree that it really was inspiring to hear a Silicon Valley-esque approach to innovation being undertaken by a company who is committed to being headquartered in Mississippi.
Like I’ve said a million times before, Silicon Valley was an apple orchard 60 years ago. There’s no reason we can’t turn the Delta, red clay hills, pine woods, gulf coast, and mini-Appalachian landscapes that are Mississippi into something at least equally as impressive. And I don’t want to gloss over the fact that FNC – like so many other thriving entities – is committed to a robust corporate headquarters in our state. The company counts the majority of the top 20 banks in the U.S. as clients utilizing their applications. They are rapidly expanding operations into Brazil and Canada. I have a feeling new products are in the offing. FNC basically invented a category and is the market leader. Not bad for Oxford, Mississippi. Heck, that wouldn’t be bad for Oxford, England.
But back to the main point, the latest #MWBeer30. We had a great crowd attend representing Innovate Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Clarion Ledger, EatShopPlayLiveJXN, C Spire, and various other highly innovative individuals. After a brief announcement about TEDxJackson 2015 (coming 11.12.15) and watching the newest Star Wars Trailer (yes, it looks uber cool) the folks from FNC took the floor. Here’s what we learned from their 6 minute 40 second presentation:
1. A 6-minute, 40-second, 20 slide presentation is called “Pecha Kucha.”
Here’s Jon Fisher from FNC getting into their talk. Many of you may be familiar with the “Pecha Kucha” approach. I was not. This is a presentation that consists of a total of 20 slides and each slide lasts no more than 20 seconds. Jon’s pictured here taking us “through the wormhole” that is FNC’s innovation process. The story I was told was that #MWBeer30 was the first time these guys had used Pecha Kucha in a talk… and they didn’t practice, either. They really had it down seamlessly, so I don’t know that I necessarily believe that “we didn’t do a run-through” story. Either way, they nailed it. This was a highly effective and engaging way to present information, so three cheers on the style points!
2. Play-Doh isn’t just for kids anymore.
Bethany Cooper of FNC talked specifically about some of the (dare I use the phrase) out-of-the-box exercises that the company utilizes to get the creative juices flowing. These include actual Play-Doh planning sessions. Don’t be skeptical. There’s a reason four-year-olds think they can do anything.
Other hyper-cool practices FNC has implemented include developing and maintaining their own internal Innovation Team, an annual all-night hackathon called The Forge (props to Jon Fisher for having a product from The Forge now in development), and their implementation of the “80/20” work principle. The latter of these, being a concept pioneered by 3M and really made famous by Google, roughly states that an employee has the freedom to spend 20% of their time working on pet projects they believe will contribute to a company’s mission, outside of “sanctioned” job functions.
3. People will show up and talk… for beer… (and for other reasons, too).
Many, many apologies to FNC, but I didn’t learn until they pulled into our world headquarters about 2:45 p.m. that they had actually missed out on the annual FNC crawfish boil to some speak to the attendees of #MWBeer30. I hate the thought of making someone miss their own event like that, but I will also say that we’re not BYOB. We had great craft beer (much of it brewed here in the great state of Mississippi) on hand for sampling. There are so many innovative people in Jackson and across Mississippi that we feel honored to provide a forum to evangelize the growing nature of our state’s knowledge economy, the great creative assets that we possess, and the how companies, organizations, and individuals are really fostering a culture of innovation.
Tasha Bibb (top) and Lynlee Honea (bottom) were among a contingent from Innovate Mississippi who attended #MWBeer30. Innovate Mississippi is a great organization who are champions of innovation culture and entrpreneurialism across our state. Always very glad to see these folks in attendance.
4. Mississippians are engaged and ready to support our knowledge-based companies.
Plain and simple, we (Mississippians) get a bad rap. “We’re a backwater…” “we really can read and write…” “thank goodness for Arkansas…”. Well we say phooey on all that nonsense. And apologies to our friends from the Travelers State, no disrespect intended. I’m just trying to convey the point here that we’re poised and ready to springboard into a prominent place in the 21st century.
Here’s Donnie Brimm from FNC talking. Donnie and the rest of the FNC crew got peppered with questions after their 6 minutes and 40 seconds were done. And I don’t mean peppered in a “Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes GOTCHA” kind of way. The people at #MWBeer30 were genuinely curious and supportive of great knowledge-based business like FNC and wanted to know more about the industry, the development aspect, and especially what kind of stumbling blocks had the company encountered in implementing a real culture of innovation.
They say that an indicator of creativity and intelligence is the ability to ask great questions. That being said, we certainly had a highly creative and intelligent group of people who attend #MWBeer30. Being a connoisseur of great craft beer is simply a plus. By the way, our craft beer is courtesy of the great guys at LD’s Beer Run, serving a huge selection of local, regional, and national craft brands. Stop by and see them if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
5. Star Wars The Force Awakens looks super cool.
One of the warm-up acts for FNC’s presentation was screening of the new trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To quote Mississippi icon Marshall Ramsey, “I watched it at least a dozen times and I felt my heart swell when Han said, “Chewie, we’re home.” To quote MWB VP Keith Fraser, “OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod.” Yes, it certainly sends chills throughout your spine. The folks gathering at MWB world heaquarters gave a standing ovation after the trailer. Well, technically they were already standing, but I feel certain if they could have levitated, they would have.
6. It’s ok to hire people with purple hair.
This was actually a happy little coincidence of parallelism. A couple of years ago FNC CEO Bill Rayburn was giving the luncheon keynote talk at Innovate Mississippi’s annual luncheon. During his impassioned delivery (those of you who have ever heard Mr. Rayburn give a talk know exactly what I’m talking about), he made the statement – I’m paraphrasing here – that in the new economy we have to get over not hiring people because of things like tattoos and purple hair and instead be meritorious in our approach. Basically, hire the most creative, innovative, and driven person for the job at hand.
Well MWB new hire Erica Robinson just happened to show up at her first #MWBeer30 sporting a rather glamorous “Friday wig,” as she calls it. Everybody loved it. She’s a great addition to our creative staff and innovative culture and certainly the embodiment of how not to let individualism and self expression be an impediment to raising your organization’s intellectual talent. Can’t wait to see this Friday’s colour-de-jour.
In fact, one of the best TEDx talks I’ve heard was given by purple-haired Heather Crawford at the TEDxAntioch event I also spoke at in 2014. Check out Heather’s talk here, titled “You really ARE what you eat.”
Correction, 1:37 P.M. Also do not be afraid to hire people who’s names are spelled in unconventional ways. I just realized her name is actually “Hether Crawford.” Our apologies, Hether.
So anyway, a great time at April’s #MWBeer30. Again, many many thanks to FNC for sending down some of their most impressive folks to give a great 6-minute, 40-second presentation. We’re already working on the agenda for #MWBeer30 in May, so if you want to keep up with this and other #MWBeer30 events, please opt into our MWB Tap special alter system. Cheers!
Ray Harris (MWB), Tasha Bibb & Lynlee Honea (Innovate Mississippi), various unidentifiable pairs legs.
All photography via MWB’s Tate Nations.
We have a great #MWBeer30 lined up for April. The good folks from FNC in Oxford are stopping by the MWB World Headquarters to give a talk about innovation drivers they have incorporated into their company. If you’re interested in the 80/20 model, intern innovation, hackathons, or various other creative strategies for building a corporate culture of innovation, please join us 4/17 at 3:30-ish.
Oh, and as always, there will be a great selection of Mississippi craft beer on hand for sampling.
See you then!
Brought to you from the Creative Cafe at Maris, West & Baker, we’re excited to launch the MWB Podcast! The show, dubbed a weekly 17-minute exploration into the world of creative chaos and enigmatic innovation, debuted it’s inaugural episode with special guest Dr. Sumesh Arora of Innovate Mississippi. Show host Tim Mask and Dr. Arora discussed the theory of diffusion of innovation and how it can be used within and extension model to spur creativity and economic development.
New MWB Podcasts will be posted weekly to the SoundCloud podcast platform and will be available via the MWB website. Each week a special guest will discuss some aspect of creativity and/or innovation relative to a wide range of topics including digital literacy, art and architecture, economic improvement initiatives, technology, and many, many more. Semi-regular show segments include monologues, feature profiles on companies and organizations that are engaged in innovative projects, and “The Coolest Thing I’ve Seen” series.
We invite you to tune in each week to the MWB Podcast. If you’re interested in making a guest appearance on the show, by all means please contact us.
At MWB, we’re always doing fun things that also substantively spur creativity and innovation for ourselves and our clients. Creative Director/Short Order Chef Marc Leffler institutionalized Friday breakfast several years ago. A group of us meet at lunch to watch/discuss/speculate about what’s happening with Game of Thrones. We’ve invested our resources in promoting innovative companies and aspects within Mississippi with our Innovation Article series. And as of today, we’re opening the MWB Creative Caffeine Café.
We’ve documented the association between caffeine and creativity. So what better way to spend a little time than rapid fire of innovative ideas over a cup ‘o joe? So, conveniently located downstairs in the office of Tim Mask, we’ve opened a creative café. And the best part is, you’re invited. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, feel free to stop by 8:30 – 9:00 a.m. and we can discuss new and innovative ideas on economic development, healthcare, education, etc. (might want to tweet me first if you’re coming by… just to make sure I’m in the office that day). The only catch before you can partake in caffeinated goodness is that you must write one innovative idea on the big white board conveniently located to the right of the coffeemaker.
Let’s enjoy a good cup of coffee and generate some valuable, creative, and innovative ideas. See you soon at the MWB Creative Caffeine Café!
Mississippi has never hosted a TEDx event before. As of 2014, that’s all about to change. MWB is among a small group of organizations and individuals that have worked to make TEDxJackson a reality.
With our application granted this month, the stage is set for TEDxJackson to happen November 6th in the Fondren neighborhood.
The spirit of TED is all about “ideas worth spreading.” TEDxJackson will remain true to that mission. The theme for this event is Fertile Ground, a reference to the great opportunity that exists in Mississippi. The committee is currently working to recruit a diverse range of speakers both from inside and outside the state. Talks will focus on ideas relevant to the global TED community, but subjects will center on issues that connect with the needs and interests of Mississippi – health, education, creativity, and the economy.
A website for the event is currently under construction, and information about attendance applications and tickets will be available soon. Anyone interested can, in the meantime, connect with TEDxJackson through social media platforms, listed below.
Organizing committee members include our agency, C Spire, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, Innovate Mississippi, with additional participation from the Jackson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the Mississippi Development Authority.
Jackson Attorney David Pharr has taken the position as lead organizer of the event. You can read a great interview David gave about plans for the event.
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.
Tim Mask, Vice President of Brand Planning & Development at MWB, has published an article at his blog discussing some of the special projects MWB staff are spearheading with support from the agency. These projects revolve around promoting innovation and creativity as economic drivers for Mississippi.
Creative Directors Randy Lynn and Marc Leffler are leading efforts advocating the adoption of digital skill instruction (coding) within our primary education system, and utilizing advertising/graphic arts as a structured program for career planning with at-risk youth. Tim Mask is the founder and current director of the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission, focusing on keeping Mississippi’s intellectual capital in Mississippi.
Check out the article to learn more about how and why an ad agency would be investing in Mississippi’s economic development and enhanced quality of life.
We’ve launched a new digital magazine focusing on creativity and innovation in the world of marketing. MWB staff Tim Mask, Randy Lynn, and Marc Leffler are the magazine’s primary content wranglers. The magazine is created via a platform allowing for optimized viewing via tablet or smart phone. New editions will be available every 7 – 10 days, and will chronicle the innovation happens that make advertising one of the world’s most rapidly evolving industries. The publication, called INNOVATIONS is available by subscription or can be viewed by clicking here. MWB’s Twitter feed will also note when a new issue has been posted. We all hope you enjoy!