2019 TRETC: The Future of Learning

I love going to conferences to network with colleagues and discover new ideas. The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) in Pittsburgh on October 14 offers a variety of opportunities for educational leaders:

  • Engaging keynote speaker – former Pixar Senior Scientist, Tony DeRose;
  • Over 40 sessions lead by local leaders and innovative educators;
  • Classroom proven strategies that teachers and administrators can implement immediately;
  • Opportunities to network with cutting edge practitioners and local start-ups;
  • Centrally located and free parking – no need for flying across the country or driving for hours to connect with districts and leaders with national and international recognition.

TRETC 2018 ShowcaseIn addition, this year’s conference at the Baldwin High School, near Downtown Pittsburgh, brings a Spotlight on Pittsburgh Innovation. This past year Remake Learning of Pittsburgh sponsored an opportunity for projects to showcase the innovations that they have developed. Over 70 projects from the greater Pittsburgh area submitted a proposal. At TRETC nine of these educational programs will give Ignite Talks and share their success stories. In addition, seven university and corporate projects will join the Innovation Zone at TRETC to highlight their stories.

TRETC has become the premier K-12 learning event in the Pittsburgh region. This year the conference also hopes to draw future educators from local universities and colleges in the region. The conference includes presentations, poster sessions, a student showcase, an Innovation Zone, an Exhibitors Space, and time to network and learn more about the amazing things happening in classrooms and learning spaces around Western Pennsylvania.

Here’s one event where everyone comes out a winner.

Alexa, What’s on the High School Menu Today?

When the Montour School District launched America’s first Artificial Intelligence Middle School program in the fall of 2018, many questions arose. Why middle school? Why teach Artificial Intelligence? How? (Just to name a few). But, as a student-centered and future-focused district, the thought process was not if we should teach AI, but what if we don’t teach AI? Also, why isn’t everyone teaching AI?

To better answer these questions Dr. Justin Aglio, Montour’s Director of Academic Achievement, and I met with two eighth grade students who were part of a special project that tapped into AI. The students provided great information about the “why” and “what” for learning about Artificial Intelligence and Justin added some key elements explaining how the program will grow in the upcoming years.

Tema and Aidan, two of the four eighth grade students, really played up the fact that it’s not about teaching AI in school today, but why hasn’t anyone started sooner. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” report from the World Economic Forum points out that we need to understand our changing environment, challenge our assumptions, and continuously innovate. Schools and all institutions will need to begin to think about the impact of AI and Robotics. It’s not only jobs that will be affected. It’s our moral code; it’s our training for all learners to become informed citizens for the 21st century.

For K-12 schools that means we need to rethink how we define and evaluate learning. Montour is one of school districts who are rethinking what graduates in the 21st century need to know, understand and do. Montour believes that all students need to become data fluent. They need to know how to analyze, interpret and create data to solve problems. They need to be able to design frameworks to solve real world problems using data. Learners also need to understand the underlying processes and ethical issues behind modern technology. In Montour that’s exactly what students discover. Through a Media Arts course developed by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) all students investigate moral issues related to Artificial Intelligence. Topics for the Montour course include: algorithmic bias called gender shades, the trolley problem, or ethical matrix design.

However, as Tema and Aidan pointed out that doesn’t explain how AI works. You need to get behind the modern 8 ball and discover how to use AI to solve a problem. We don’t want students to become just better consumers of AI; we want them to become better creative producers using AI. So what’s a problem that middle school students have on their minds? The Montour middle school students wanted to know what to expect when they head to high school.  It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s something different to develop a “skill” for Alexa to explain what to anticipate at the high school level. Amazon provides a developer’s kit that the Montour students used. The Montour team first conducted a survey of their peers and then used the data to develop the questions that would be part of a pilot project with Witlingo. Each of the four students in the development team not only conducted the research, they also recorded their answers. So, today when you ask for Montour “Hey Google, talk to Montour High School,” or “Alexa, Launch Montour High School,” you now can learn about the high school program through the research and voices of Montour students.

While the middle school program has had great success, it’s not enough to just drop AI in the middle of a student’s life. What will prepare students for the world of machine learning? According to Justin Aglio you need to arouse student curiosity at the elementary level. So next year Montour will include in its elementary program Experiments with Google AI to introduce students to AI concepts and traveling AI robots around the school that interact with students.

Once you have the students asking questions and conducting research, you want to have them go further. At Montour high school students will soon have mentorships with companies, like Google or Argo. Students will have opportunities during their Personalized Learning Time (PLT) to take additional courses, such as AI4ALL’s Open Learning program.

Transformations

Over the holiday season a new Transformer movie appeared. There’s something engaging about the concept of transforming from one concept or shape to another. In education transformations are also quite engaging and worth investigating. This past semester I coordinated two Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with schools from the Parkway West Consortium of Schools. Each Design Challenge required the student consultants to think out of the box and come up with a transformative set of ideas.

Student teams from Parkway West, Quaker Valley, and Keystone Oaks tackled the transformative challenge of “Rebranding Careers.” How do we rethink the language and images to describe technical workers? How do we change the perceptions of students and parents regarding the value of alternative choices to a college program? The student consultants developed a website with a marketing campaign, an app, and a video to address the transformative questions.

It was fascinating to watch the student consulting teams go through their own transformations. The student teams had to learn to work with not only their own team members, but with fellow consultants from other schools. The design process of moving from a set of questions to a solution requires an ability to listen to a client’s needs. For most students this is a transformative challenge. Our traditional school approach is based on a teacher-focused orientation. Students respond to the need of the teacher who, in turn is trying to look at a standard or final outcome that is built into a curriculum. What happens when you transform this process? How do teachers and students handle their roles as facilitators and consultants?

For the student teams and teachers it takes time to adjust to this challenge. However, the final product for the Rebranding Careers Design Challenge demonstrated the success for the process. What could have been three individual projects,  turned into one website that linked to each of the student consulting teams ideas. The client team from the Energy Innovation Center responded positively to the student products and intends to seek further funding to work on the prototypes shared by the consulting team.

The Bedford Facade Design Challenge had similar positive effects based on the student consulting teams’ efforts. In this case teams from South Fayette, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West collaborated to generate a three-tiered lighting plan for the original entrance of the Energy Innovation Center erected in 1930 as the Connelley Trade School. The Design Challenge process I use enlists the aid of a series of professional experts who work with the student consultants from the kick-off through the final presentation. For this Design Challenge the Energy Innovation Center brought to the table two experts from the Duquesne Light Company of Pittsburgh. The experts explained at the kickoff that consultants often outline different financial packages in their response to a Request for Proposal (RFP). The student consulting teams took this to heart and delivered silver, gold, and platinum options for the Design Challenge.

For the student consultants the ability to think about multiple solutions was a transformative moment. In our traditional classes we tend to look for one solution that is already known, but for this Design Challenge the notion that there could be multiple approaches for a problem was quite challenging for the student teams. The client team from the Energy Innovation Center, praised this approach. It met the real needs for the project. Now the Energy Innovation Center has a much better idea on the actual costs and what would be associated with each option.

I also wanted the student teams to use a model for the building as part of their presentation. The students don’t usually think about three-dimensional elements to explain an idea. The team of students from Parkway West welded a metal model that became the key for each consultant as they visually explained how each part of the solution would work. For instance, when the student consultants talked about the use of a Lumatrix lighting solution, they were able to point to the model to indicate exactly where the projection system would go.

The key to the final success for the Design Challenge will be the actual transformation for the Bedford Avenue facade at the Energy Innovation Center. The student consulting teams outlined a thorough proposal that included CAD drawings, a cost analysis, and a 3-dimensional model for the site. The Energy Innovation Center will now look at opportunities to use the student ideas to transform the building to highlight the rich history of the building and its bright future as a center for sustainability.