Comstock's magazine 1218 - December 2018 - Page 46

EDUCATION I n 2015, Shari Anderson wanted to make changes in her school’s traditional computer lab. As the prin- cipal at Valley View Elementary in Rocklin, she saw the lab as a place where kids would tinker — “doing a little research or trying out a typing program or something,” as she puts it — but it wasn’t inspiring them to explore technology. So she got approval from the district to tear down the wall between the library and the lab for a sin- gle space, then filled it with tech equipment like batteries, motors and circuit boards. By January 2016, the new lab was rolling. She scheduled a weekly class for students to build things with the equipment, hoping to inspire them toward innovation, creativity and problem-solving. After a year, she realized she needed a more structured curriculum that would push students to improve upon what they’d already learned. Then she ran into Stephane Come, founder of PodPi, at a local science and tech fair. PodPi offers interactive comic books that teach students JavaScript, how to build circuits and create gizmos that work in the Internet of Things. Anderson bought subscriptions for the lab, and the books have been a hit. She watches students who are quicker to catch on move around the room helping others. That fits with a key goal of the new Common Core curriculum, she says: collaboration, a skill that many employers say graduates lack. And she’s watching the course turn her students into problem-solvers by making failure — and the experimenting needed to deal with it — a normal part of their learning. Education-technology ventures are often thought of as disruptors that are out to take over how learning happens. But contrary to prediction, massive open online courses (or MOOCs), Khan Academy, and electrode-embedded head caps haven’t yet replaced teachers or professors. Instead, area edtech efforts reflect a sector that’s out to boost teach- ers’ ability to help students reach academic goals, get youth interested in and ready for college and careers, and hone their problem-solving skills. ED TECH, NOT ALWAYS HI-TECH PodPi dates back to 2011 when Come’s 6-year-old son wanted to build a robot. Come has a background in electronics, and as they worked together, Come watched a new world open up for his son. So he launched a Meetup group at Hacker Lab in Sacramento to teach children coding and electronics. Two years in, the group had reached 1,000 members. Come couldn’t keep up; he needed a teaching tool that would replace his in-person sessions. His first iteration of the com- ic books was online. Kids seemed to enjoy it, but something was wrong: Because they were online and not interacting, 46 | December 2018 they didn’t retain what they’d learned. “It was like they were connected to the Matrix,” Come says. “I’d spent a lot of mon- ey on something that was sucking the life out of them.” So he did the unthinkable, converting the books from a digital format to paper. It worked: The hard-copy books came back to him beat up, with notes scribbled all over. Bet- ter yet, in group sessions, students talked about what they were reading and helped each other solve problems, as An- derson later found with her own students. For Come, that was as important as the tech skills. As an Oracle systems ar- chitect, he’s seen a lot of software projects get wrecked by coders’ failure to talk to each other or the customer. Come says PodPi is being used in about 40 schools so far, some of them local. ED TECH’S EQUITY OPPORTUNITY Unlike Anderson, many teachers find it tough to integrate new learning tools and software into class given the sheer volume of available options. The number of edtech apps now hovers between 500,000 and 750,000, and teachers are overwhelmed, says Brian Sharp, the Folsom-based CEO of SmartEdTech, creator of an electronic app platform that lets teachers choose apps appropriate to specific learning goals. It’s an obstacle Aaron Watkins set out to address a few years ago. He’s long headed a Sacramento-based app mar- keting company called Appency. But on the side, he worked on a product that would let schools and teachers test paid teaching apps for free. Then he met Jon Corippo of CUE (formerly Computer Us- ing Educators), a Walnut Creek-based nonprofit that helps teachers integrate technology into the classroom. Corippo ran a program that let schools use STEM products donated by manufacturers. But the pro bono nature of it meant there was never enough to go around — he had a long waiting list. That got Watkins attention: Waiting lists mean demand. What if he rented out those products to parents and schools? That was the beginning of STEMtrunk, a service that Watkins calls the Netflix of STEM teaching gear. Customers pay a subscription for access to the 35 or so “trunks” in the portfolio — coding kits, circuit board toys, droid-building kits, programmable robots — and return them when they’re done. His customers so far are parents, homeschool organi- zations and contract STEM teachers. The service is designed to make technology available to schools and parents across income categories, while keeping gear that’s no longer a good fit from gathering dust in a closet. Watkins’ larger goal is to teach kids a systematic way to think about problems. His own undergraduate degree is in neuroscience, which wouldn’t seem relevant to his work at