Makers in the Making PBL (Project-Based Learning)

SparkTruck: Making Educators

The K12 Lab at Stanford’s has designed a series of CreativityBoosters for Educators, to explore experiments in teaching & learning and building creative confidence. On Saturday in collaboration with MakerState, SparkTruck hosted a session on how to incorporate hands-on activities into lessons.

In true fashion the brightly-colored post-its and creative juices were flowing. Inspired by the truck itself, the SparkTruck team created the session on a framework of IT BEEPS Identity, Teamwork, Brainstorming, Prototyping and Storytelling.


They did a terrific job modeling how to conduct activities like this with students and emphasized the d.mindsets that fuel their work: radical collaboration, bias to action, building to think, show don’t tell and overcoming stuck points. We began with a group activity centered around a common problem that has been frustrating teachers since the beginning of time–


Groups jumped into the brainstorming process, moving on to prototyping and then went around and shared what they had made. Then MakerState took over and set up several stations around the room where participants could practice different maker-focused activities, such as creating a pop-up book or a 7sec stop-motion animation.

What was most impressive is the diversity of educators and enthusiasts that attend these events. In my own work with TeacherSquare I know how difficult it can be for educators to take time out of their schedules for sessions like this, no matter how engaging or relevant they may be. It is clear that schools that create a community and incentives around these experiences reap the most benefits.  For example, a group of teachers and their principal made the trip down from Tiburon together, and I’m sure it helped that they were all being compensated for their time and participation. However, I doubt everyone in the room receives that type support from their schools.

I’m optimistic that collectively we can change the face of PD by creating more opportunities like this for educators to put themselves in the place of students in engaging experiences and be compensated for their time and energy.

Wan to see for yourself? The next sessions are on March 8th and April 12th- RSVP here.

PBL (Project-Based Learning) Tech in the classroom

Pleasant from the Beginning…


It’s that time of year when most of us are resting, reflecting and resolving to start (or stop) doing things in the coming months. My recent reflecting lead me back to Paulo Bilkstein’s research paper, Travels in Troy with Freire, which captures some of the key education theories and thinkers behind the current maker movement in education. In thinking about designing effective learning environments, there are so many factors to consider, however I agree with Freire’s thinking that the trick is to balance the rigor with the fun. He captures this perfectly, stating that “it is important the child realize, from the beginning, that studying is difficult and demanding, but is pleasant from the beginning.”

KA Discovery Lab

The biggest potential technology offers is to serve as an ‘agent of emancipation’ as Bilkstein puts it, empowering learners to see themselves as creators and not just consumers. If we praise the current edtech movement for simply shifting students from boring offline lectures & exercises to slightly less boring online lectures & exercises, what is so pleasant about that?

I speak with many edtech entrepreneurs and while I don’t expect everyone working in this space to be an expert on education theory, I think this paper offers valuable insights for anyone exploring the intersection of education and technology. I hope some of you will find it useful and even more hopeful that 2014 will offer some pleasant education innovations. Happy New Year!

Edu Startups PBL (Project-Based Learning) Tech in the classroom

Meograph: Storytelling as a Service

Meograph for Edu
Storytelling is the oldest form of communication and such an essential aspect of our communities. While anyone can tell a story, as an art form, it significantly improves as the storyteller is coached and inspired. Meograph seeks to empower each of us to tell our stories in a digitally rich way without requiring deep knowledge of complex and expensive creative products. Current SF resident and founder Misha Leybovich has always been a natural storyteller (at one point in his career he was a clown at kids’ parties), but struggled using the existing creative tools.  So he founded Meograph, which he refers to as ‘Adobe for anybody,’ to help tell his own stories and make this rich digital storytelling process accessible to everyone. (You may recognize him from his pitch at the January SF Edtech Meetup- Teacher Tank.)

With the surge of interest in the ‘flipped classroom,’ Meograph saw many teachers bringing this tool to their classrooms, creating content themselves as well as assigning projects for students to craft their own stories. This student created story on the ‘Causes of the Civil War‘ is a cool example of some of the projects created using Meograph.

This step of simplifying the creation process is critical to ensuring widespread adoption of project-based learning strategies, where studente take control of their own learning, document their progress and demonstrate understanding. While Meograph didn’t intend to be an ‘edtech’ startup they have responded well to the significant interest and feedback from the educator community on how this can be used as a learning tool.

Beyond bringing life back to current presentation methods, the larger vision is to power some of the Maker Movement rhetoric by simplifying the creation and sharing process. Striving to be the next suite of creative tools, Meograph is working on creating an authoring tool that can be embedded on other websites. Next steps for the team is to figure out deeper classroom support such as connecting these stories/projects to lesson plans and creating a rubric for grading and assigning project. You can learn more and connect with the team on Twitter @Meograph or email them at

(And if you happen to be at SXSW this week check out their pitch during the Startup Accelerator on Monday March 11th. Good luck!)
Blended Learning Conferences/Events PBL (Project-Based Learning) Tech in the classroom

Education: Thinking Beyond School

Seth Godin recently gave a thought-provoking TED talk that has been making its way across the web. He explains how the current school system, which hasn’t changed much since the Industrial Revolution, is optimized for generating interchangeable units of people, and is “the thing we built to indoctrinate them into obedience.” Godin pushes us all to ask, what is school for?

Inspirational talks like this get me fired up about my own work to help improve education, redesigning the future of teaching and learning to rethink what is possible in schools and communities. Here is another great short film, also featuring Seth Godin, that celebrates the potential of how technology will revolutionize education. (Note that this one is focuses more on specific mobile tech solutions as it was produced by Ericsson.)

While these videos definitely help bring awareness and energy to modern education reform efforts, I often feel that they skip over two very important aspects at the root of why there is such education inequality in the US: motivation and culture.

We’ve all heard the rationale behind the current school system’s batch-processing model designed for military and/or factory based models to create many of the same type of person/consumer. This message is not new. We know this model doesn’t align with our growing emphasis on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. So, let’s assume for a minute that we actually can shift to a student-centered, project-based learning school system. Continuing this dream, let’s then assume that teachers and schools automagically have the tools and resources (money) to support this type of individualized system. Would this solve the problem?

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to get to this type of system, which I think is necessary, but I don’t believe we can have a conversation about true education reform without acknowledging what is happening outside of school. Seth is a genius and outlines an ambitious goal for all of us to ask ‘What is school really for?’ yet I wish he, and others who give talks like this (Ken Robinson, etc), would take it a step further and address the role that motivation and culture play in the learning process and how much that actually matters when we compare the US education system (mainly through test scores) to other nations.

Families and communities establish important cultural norms for kids, which directly influence their motivation and willingness to engage in school, no matter what that system looks like. We cannot talk about addressing comprehensive education solutions without talking about parents and what is happening at home and in neighborhoods.

People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. I think the true role of education is to help learners discover ongoing opportunities and feel competent to pursue them. We must realize this goes beyond just what is happening in schools, and that it is our collective responsibility if we want an educated society.

Conferences/Events PBL (Project-Based Learning)

Behind RemixEd: How to Host an Edu Hackathon

(This is a longer post that I wrote for the Edtech Handbook that I also wanted to share with my readers here.)

In an effort to engage educators in the edtech movement edShelf and TeacherSquare hosted RemixEd, an education focused hackathon, designed to bring together teachers, students, developers and designers to build tools for K12 schools. I have been thinking a lot about how to engage education practitioners in the education startup ecosystem and this was one of the events we piloted to see what this type of collective problem solving could actually look like. Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf and I both shared our specific reflections on RemixEd on our respective blogs. Here I outline more general tips for anyone thinking about hosting a similar event in their community.

Set Clear Expectations
RemixEd was not about launching a startup. It was not even about building a full-fledged product. A hackathon is usually about identifying and building a shortcut or quick fix to a problem. Setting clear expectations about the focus, schedule and deliverable for the weekend before the event begins will help ensure you attract the right participants and set them up for success. For RemixEd we emphasized that the event was more about ideation and the collective creation process than about pitching a fully outlined product with business plan. For future events, we are also considering setting a theme for the projects, such as “Digging into Data” or “Supercharging Productivity & Operations.”

Share the schedule for the entire weekend and remind teams halfway through the event what the end goal, in this case the demos, should look like. Few suggestions for more structured knowledge sharing:

  • Kick-off the event with a design-thinking workshop (~1 hr)  to get everyone into brainstorming mode and set the tone for the weekend
  • Have local edtech startups conduct mini-workshops (~20-30min) to share their expertise and approaches to their product development

Focus on Your Target Audience
For RemixEd we were optimizing for the teacher experience. Since most teachers have never even heard of a hackathon, the more resources and support you can share in advance, the better. We started with asking teachers to submit a potential idea or details around a problem they have been struggling with to begin the ideation process a few weeks before the event. (Future Tip: Ask teachers to submit a ~1min video of them describing their problem/idea. This will help them practice articulating and give you some content to share with the group during and after the event.)

Then, the week before the event we shared general resources to begin introducing some of the technical elements, APIs, etc that will be part of the building process during the weekend. This scaffolding prepares first time attendees, especially who are non-technical, to begin thinking about their weekend hacks.

In keeping with our theme all of our judges were current or former educators with varying levels of experience using technology in the classroom. This helps create an authentic audience for presentations and feedback. Figure out what motivates your attendees and design prizes/incentives accordingly. Being so focused on teachers we could have done a better job with prizes and creating incentives for the designers and developers. Teachers love swag- collect stickers, t-shirts and other tchotchkes from sponsors and other known brands and create little bags for each team.

We ended up with quite a few student participants and could’ve done a better job providing support for them. For future events we are also planning on having students as coaches and judges.

Space Matters
We spent several weeks looking for the ideal space for this event, which was based on geography as well as the size and functionality of the room. 500 Startups was a wonderful space for collaboration and brainstorming and worked out very well for RemixEd. Many of the teachers and students were inspired by just being in the same space as other startups, making the technology world feel slightly less foreign and more accessible. Other highlights were the space is close to public transportation, between San Francisco and the South Bay with great natural light and modular furniture layout so teams could rearrange the space as needed. The only downside was that it was tricky to access the building on the weekends which made it difficult for people to freely leave and come back, which is important when you want to encourage them to take breaks.

Keep it Healthy
We were particularly focused on making this a healthy hackathon, with nutritious food/snacks, reasonable working hours and even a Zumba break on Saturday afternoon. Yet often times we assume we know when to take a break, grab a snack and re-energize. We learned that especially with students involved, you should set explicit times for everyone to take a break, get outside and walk around the building anything that engages the group and gives everyone a chance to recharge. This also creates more opportunities for the teams to mingle, share progress and let new ideas take shape. We also had a great rotation of general and technical coaches circulating throughout the weekend, supporting teams as they progressed.

Back to School
We have received great feedback and interest in hosting RemixEd events all over the country, as well as planning our next Bay Area event this fall. It is inspiring to see that others are also thinking about how to create opportunities like this to bring together educators, students, designers and developers to work on challenges in our K12 schools together. To truly make an impact, we realize this type of collective problem solving has to find its way to the traditional school environment. In thinking about how to integrate this into the school system here are a few suggestions:

  • Introduce the event through a mini-workshop at a teacher in-service day to build awareness and buzz to attract more teachers
  • Partner with a school district and have a set number of teachers and students from each school attend, then present back to others who ideally would attend next time
  • Break the event into 3-4 hour chunks spread over a few days (ie. 2-3 consecutive Saturdays) so that those who can’t give up an entire weekend can still participate. Maybe start with a short three hour session during the first weekend could be used to brainstorm ideas. Then, the week could be spent conceptualizing and prototyping a first model. The second weekend could be an opportunity to present the model, get immediate critique that is then taken into account when the students (and their teacher guides on the side) work with hackers to build out a more sophisticated model or perhaps even the next version of the prototype.

Taking it to the Next Level
Ideally we’d like to keep the conversation and the hacking going, but that really depends on each individual team and participant. Mike outlined some “After RemixEd” resources to support those folks who want to build off some of the momentum for the weekend. If you are thinking about hosting a similar event in your community, I’d love to hear from you and offer some support. You can connect with me on Twitter @TeacherSquare.

Conferences/Events Edu Startups Entrepreneurship Learning to Code PBL (Project-Based Learning) Tech in the classroom

Hacking the Future of Learning

What an awesome weekend! In partnership with Mike Lee, co-founder of edShelf, and local educator Rob Rinsky, I hosted my first education-focused hackathon, RemixEd K12, at 500 Startups in Mountain View, CA. Mike posted some great reflections on the edShelf blog, sharing more about hackathons in general and some of the questions and challenges we faced.  There are more pictures and information about hosting RemixEd in your community on TeacherSquare. I storified some of the tweets and you can see them all at #RemixEdK12.

As I continue to develop my scope and vision for TeacherSquare, it is clear that hosting events like these to bring together teachers, students, designers and developers to think about challenges and opportunities in the K12 space are so valuable to all involved. This quote really captures the educator experience beautifully.

“I felt like such a student. I learned so much this weekend.”

The teachers were thrilled to have a platform to share their ideas, collaborate on the very early stages of product development and then present their findings to the diverse audience. (I’m always surprised at how teachers, who spend their lives speaking in front of groups, get nervous addressing crowds outside the typical school environment 🙂 I’m convinced that if TeacherSquare can get more educators to participate in events like this they will be inspired to bring these new practices and a culture of experimentation to their schools and classrooms.

Not surprising, the students were the best part. They jumped right into the activities and their energy (as well as a Saturday afternoon zumba break) kept the teams going.  While this was a successful inaugural event, of course we have a growing list of how we can improve for next time.  For one, I’d definitely like to be more explicit about students sharing their ideas in advance and also include them as coaches and/or judges. (And there were clearly some avoidable tech and presentation issues.)

Audrey Watters, a friend and well known edtech blogger, showed her support throughout the weekend and dives deeper in the role and potential for these types of events in her post on Designing Education Hackathons. I optimistically see this collaborative learning format as part of the classroom of the future. This type of event is the embodiment of project-based learning (PBL) and I’d love to explore how to bring elements of this directly into schools and districts.

I’d like to express tremendous gratitude to our panel of judges, all education practitioners themselves, who not only provided feedback to the teams but also helped coach Mike, Rob and I on how to continue creating opportunities like this for teachers and students. And we couldn’t have done any of this without the generous support from our sponsors, especially New Schools Venture Fund.

We are continuing to gather feedback and there is so much more to share, so keep an eye out for a follow-up post on best practices for hosting an education-focused hackathon. This is just the beginning and as we collectively explore the potential of the flipped classroom I hope others will think about bringing this format of project-based learning to their schools. I’m thrilled to see all the enthusiasm to carry this work forward. Onward!

Blended Learning PBL (Project-Based Learning) Tech in the classroom

Re-engineering Summer Camp

The most exciting (and challenging) aspect of flipping the classroom is figuring out how to bring real hands-on learning activities back into the school day. Khan Academy, often at the center of the flipped classroom conversation, is exploring some interesting project-based learning efforts during their Discovery Lab Summer Camp. A few members of the team are in the middle of running 3 2-week long sessions at the International School of the Peninsula for middle school students and I got a chance to stop by for a bit this week and observe their lesson on reverse engineering.

The ~20 students in the group were asked to bring in pretty mundane household items, ranging from an old-school telephone to a toaster (one student even attempted to take apart an iPhone), to reverse engineer. One of the newest KA team members, Karl Wendt, shared his example of deconstructing a hair dryer and identifying the various parts, their functions and the materials used to construct the object.

While it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from a brief observation session, it was clear to see the students were engaged in the work and doing some interesting research to understand the mechanics and history of their products. Creating this experience in a 2 week summer camp environment reaching ~ 100 kids is great. Integrating these projects into classrooms across diverse schools and communities during the school year is a massive challenge.

People have strong feelings about Khan Academy, and even the assumptions behind the flipped classroom model. (I think we should acknowledge that people often have strong feelings about a lot of things and move on to what really matters.) To appropriately address this massive challenge of making learning engaging and relevant for all students, we need to continue to attract all forms of energy and talent to create solutions.

I think the best ideas often come from diverse teams bringing new and creative ways of approaching the problem. This is what excites me most about the recent surge in energy and attention focused on the education space, which has brought more people into the conversation who typically wouldn’t want to take on the massive challenge of fixing what’s not working in schools right now.

Personally, I am drawn to solutions that come from entrepreneurial teachers, however I believe we should embrace that diversity of perspective, focusing more on the solutions and their potential for future impact, rather than rejecting approaches that come from ‘non-traditional’ sources. I think that’s the best way for us to collectively re-engineer the future of education.

Conferences/Events PBL (Project-Based Learning)

Making the Classroom of the Future

The Maker Movement is rocking the education world in a big way.

Kudos to EdSurge for organizing all the activities in the Education Pavilion during this year’s Maker Faire, modeling the classroom of the future. From Thursday’s educator meetup to Saturday’s ongoing interviews with Steve Hargadon, that team and extended community of volunteers really kept the Maker-Education conversation buzzing. The several hours I spent there this morning flew by and I have a feeling that even if I were there the whole weekend, I wouldn’t have had the chance to absorb all the amazing creativity, art and energy flowing in this community. While I spent most of my time in the DIY Learning: The New School area with usual edtech suspects like Motion MathRoot-1 & Educreations, I’m glad I got to catch a glimpse of some of my favorite new tinker toys in action, especially LittleBits and Roominate.

As amazing as this weekend was, the dream is to figure out how to truly make classrooms of the future that embody all the making, doing and learning that is at the essence of Maker Faire. Of course, for me the highlights were initiatives that are trying to bring these types of experiences to communities beyond our own.

SparkLab was there showing off their newly suped-up SparkTruck, channeling the energy from their Stanford class and successful Kickstarter campaign. They are kicking off their summer road trip over the next few weeks, on a mission to spread “the fun of hands-on learning and encouraging kids to find their inner maker.”

Friend and current Harvard Ed Doctoral Fellow, Karl Wendt, was demonstrating some of his creations from his newly launched non-profit, Discover-Create-Advance (DCA), trying to bring project-based learning (PBL) to all students. They are “currently focused on building a library of highly motivating projects, providing alternative funding for great projects, and posting a series of videos that assist teachers and students in facilitating project based learning.” By empowering teachers, through instructional videos and funding, this effort gets at the core of what makes it so difficult to really bring PBL to every classroom. His video deconstructing a hair dryer is one of my favorites and I cannot wait to see what comes next from DCA.

Ideally, newly launched efforts like the Maker Education Initiative will help channel all the inspiring energy from Maker Faire and other DIY/PBL initiatives to bring these learning opportunities to kids all over the world. The classroom of the future will be whatever we as a society want… so we just have to Make It Happen!

PBL (Project-Based Learning)

Fabulous FabLab

Spent the weekend at the Stanford FabLab for their workshop on Digital Fabrication in Education. It was really fabulous to connect with so many educators from the Bay Area and beyond that are thinking about how to bring some of these tools and lessons into their STEM and PBL focused classrooms.

Surrounded by sophisticated tools like 3D printers/scanners, laser cutters and simulators, it was really amazing to hear from the student panel that some of their favorite tools to use were the hot glue guns and hammer/nails. This really speaks to the essence of building something cool and that you don’t need really expensive/shiny technology to create a fun, fabrication-focused environment. Any school can create their own design lab using simple tools (few pairs of scissors, card board, post-its and sharpies…) — It is more about developing a culture that embraces the project-based learning practices.

I really hope that SUSE will continue to create workshops and resources like this that are closely tied to classroom practice with real-world applications for K-12 teachers. It really was fab!