Equipping Students to Lead In Our Rapidly Changing World

[Throughout the country students are tackling real world problems in their communities. In this Getting Smart article students from the Anne Arnundel County Public Schools in Virginia address water and space issues. In my work in Western Pennsylvania I’m working with students on sustainability projects around energy and food. I work with colleagues who are getting students involved in a variety of other real world projects, ranging from creating a marathon to raise funds for a family who lost their home to redesigning an auditorium for a historic building. In all of these cases students work as engineers, designers, and scientists to address a real world issue that tackles a social issue in their community.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

By Vipin Thekk, March 4, 2017

“We talk about consumers and producers. In much of education, the student is a consumer. The Changemaker movement has helped us to help teachers help students become producers.”

~ Maureen McMahon, Deputy Superintendent for Academics & Strategic Initiatives, Anne Arundel County Public Schools

Eighty percent of the best jobs of tomorrow do not exist today. And increasingly, social problems are outrunning the solutions. We can see that in all aspects of human life – from climate change to unemployment to racial inequality. We are living in a world where change has become the only constant.

In such a world, the art of changemaking–or working empathetically with a team to solve a community problem–becomes essential. When children and adults master the skills of empathy, teamwork and leadership to solve problems which they care deeply about, they are realizing their own power to catalyze change; learning that the status quo can be challenged, and discovering that our collective success increasingly depends on our individual strength as change agents.

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Hacking the government to try to solve the world’s problems

[In this LA Times article students from Stanford try to combine technology and Human-Centered Design. The students are enrolled in courses that require them to “hack” national problems from the Defense or State Departments. I work with teams of high school students around real world problems that are part of the Energy Innovation Center or the Parkway West Career and Technology Center in Pittsburgh. Students are creative thinkers, but often their first ideas do not work or do not fit the situation. It’s vital to use a human-centered design approach to test an idea against an end-user’s needs.]

Steven Weinstein, center, an instructor of a class called Hacking 4 Diplomacy at Stanford University, helps students from a variety of fields come up with strategies to solve real-world problems. (David Butow / For The Times)

Steven Weinstein, center, an instructor of a class called Hacking 4 Diplomacy at Stanford University, helps students from a variety of fields come up with strategies to solve real-world problems. (David Butow / For The Times)

By Tracey Lien, December 9, 2016

They’re some of the brightest students in the country — a group of wunderkinds known for hacking their way through any problem thrown at them. So what could possibly stump a Stanford University student?

Government bureaucracy, it seems.

In a lecture hall nestled in Stanford’s Environment and Energy building, dozens of engineering, science and arts students were put through the bureaucratic wringer this year when they took Hacking 4 Defense and Hacking 4 Diplomacy.

The courses — taken for credit and taught by Stanford instructors — let teams of students choose from a list of real problems plaguing the government, paired them with sponsors from the Defense or State departments, and tasked them with not just finding a solution, but coming up with a viable product that the government would actually use.

“It was really humbling,” said Katie Joseff, 21, a human biology major who took Hacking 4 Diplomacy this fall. “My team had to make lots of pivots because over and over again our assumptions just weren’t correct. We had to first break through the bubble of Stanford, then Silicon Valley, then California, then the U.S.”

The problems included  finding ways to track objects in orbit to prevent space collisions, developing tools to assess the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces, and in Joseff’s case, designing a platform for a coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Like many students, Joseff went in thinking there would be an easy technological fix: Perhaps an app that would enable nongovernmental organizations to communicate with refugees, or a platform on which NGOs could share information with each other, or another app through which refugees could send feedback to NGOs.

But after interviewing more than 100 people in the sector, she realized that apps aren’t the answer to everything. In fact, some 200 apps had already been developed to help with the refugee crisis, and only two of them were in use.

With each interview, Joseff’s team learned that many NGOs already had ways of reaching refugees — they didn’t need another app. They also learned that NGOs are reluctant to share information on a platform because so much of their data is sensitive. And if refugees had a way of sending NGOs feedback, who exactly would that information go to? Was there even enough personnel to handle the information?

“People are obsessed with hacks and hackathons, and they think they can solve these issues with technology,” Joseff said. “But we learned that the human element is still needed.”

The classes come at a time when Washington is trying to forge deeper connections with Silicon Valley, with the hope that the region’s tech-savvy and innovative streak will rub off on government agencies.

The Department of Defense opened its Defense Innovation Unit in Mountain View — Google’s stomping ground — last August. The State Department created the role of ambassador to Silicon Valley this year and appointed the director of its Strategy Lab, Zvika Krieger, to the post (Krieger teaches Hacking 4 Diplomacy alongside Stanford professors). The Department of Homeland Security last week held a meeting with local tech start-ups to offer funding to companies developing technologies that the department can use. And earlier this year the Obama administration invited representatives from Silicon Valley’s top firms to Washington to brainstorm ways to fight the militant group Islamic State online.

“So much of what we’re doing is at the intersection of policy and technology,” said Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who visited the Hacking 4 Diplomacy class in November. “At the same time, many of us don’t have the background and expertise when it comes to tech. We need technologists and innovators in the room just to tell us whether we need technologists and innovators in the room.”

Stanford University has a reputation for being a breeding ground for technological innovators, counting among its alumni founders and executives of Google, Yahoo, PayPal, Netflix, LinkedIn and Instagram. Long synonymous with Silicon Valley, the university is often the first stop for tech firms looking for engineering talent — and the place where hot companies such as Snapchat got their start.

Class instructors admit there was some trepidation over how Hacking 4 Defense and Hacking 4 Diplomacy might be received by students, given the school’s history as a hub for private-sector tech, and the general distrust between Silicon Valley and the federal government. Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and the high-stakes encryption fight between the FBI and Apple have heightened longstanding tensions between two vastly different cultures, which both believe they know what’s better for the world.

But they were surprised to learn that, far from being cynical, students were drawn to the opportunity to solve some of the toughest problems facing the country and the world.

Over 10 weeks, students in each class wrapped their heads around the bureaucratic workings of the Defense or State departments, interviewed at least 10 stakeholders a week, and learned the Lean LaunchPad method — an approach to start-ups and entrepreneurship that helps company founders identify markets for their products. For many, it was the first time they’d used the skills learned in school to tackle real-world problems. And nearly all butted up against challenges that technology alone couldn’t fix, and were forced to throw out their ideas again and again.

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Middleschoolers design and build STEM carts for younger students

[Read about a wonderful example of student innovation at Hampton Middle School, near Pittsburgh. I work with Ed McCaveney, the Technology Director, at Hampton, on several projects in the region and nationally. Hampton received recognition from Edutopia last year, and with projects like this, more national attention should be on the way. I, personally, work on Design Challenges sponsored by the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh with teams of high school students from the Parkway West Consortia. On November 8, I’ll present with teachers and students some of our findings at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference.]

October 28th, 2016

School cart competition put creativity to the test. Now, grant funding will get them built

cartimage2-300x300Team by team, 50 Hampton seventh-graders recently pitched their competing blueprints for a rolling cupboard of educational aids.

Their assignment: Design a cart to carry today’s tools for STEM learning — the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math — in Hampton Township’s three elementary schools.

“We are Spark Engineering — lighting your world on fire one idea at a time,” Mia Conte, 13, told the 15 judges who ultimately chose her team’s cart design for production.

Later this year, Hampton High School students will manufacture three of Spark Engineering’s mobile carts — dubbed Tech Eddies — for use in Wyland, Poff and Central elementary schools.

As part of their product development, Mia’s classmates computed each Tech Eddie’s production cost: $235.

To boost their cart’s child appeal, Mia’s teammates proposed to coat each Tech Eddie with chalkboard paint.

The carts are being designed and manufactured by Hampton Middle and High School students for use in the elementary schools as part of a $20,000 grant coordinated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit Center for Creativity, school officials said. Funding came from Chevron, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Grable Foundation.

Glenn Geary, technology education teacher at Hampton Middle School, supervised the seventh-graders’ weeks of data gathering, measurement taking, cost estimating and cart designing that preceded each team’s 15-minute presentation to judges Oct. 13 at the middle school.

“Please don’t be nervous,” Marlynn Lux, acting principal of Hampton Middle School, urged the presenters.

“We’re excited to hear you” said Lux, one of 15 Hampton administrators, teachers and business people who judged the proposed cart designs and oral presentations.

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