Wearable Tech on Your Preschooler? Technology Education and Innovation for Children

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Updated 7/29/15

Catherine Cook School just hosted the first annual IDEA:TE (Innovation, Design, Engineering and Art: Transforming Education) conference June 23-26. The School’s Director of Innovation, JD Pirtle, talks about best practices for encouraging teachers to integrate technology into everyday classroom practices.

Please explain the purpose and some of the highlights of the IDEA:TE conference.

JD Pirtle, Director of Innovation, Catherine Cook School

JD Pirtle, Director of Innovation, Catherine Cook School

The impetus behind the IDEA:TE Conference came after having dozens of conversations with educators at many other schools here in Chicago, and with educators nationwide. Many of these teachers, librarians, technology coordinators, and administrators had been tapped by their heads of school to create and staff “Maker” labs or innovation hubs. Not only did these educators lack the expertise necessary to run and maintain the many machines and opportunities that an innovation lab necessarily includes, they were struggling with creating engaging and effective curriculum utilizing emerging and traditional technology. In response to this, I initiated the IDEA:TE conference to provide hands-on workshops led by experts in a variety of disciplines, such as 3D printing, computer programming, and textile arts, who come from teaching backgrounds ranging from elementary schools to graduate school.

It was enthralling to see such a diverse group of educators learning together. Rather than sitting through days packed with lectures, attendees were actively involved. From making interactive, laser-cut Arduino powered tea-lights to hand-sewn laptop cases, these educators had intense, hands-on experiences that are replicable in their own classrooms.

Attendees at IDEA:TE create hand-sewn laptop cases in the textile arts workshop.

Attendees at IDEA:TE create hand-sewn laptop cases in the textile arts workshop.

Workshop presenter and Catherine Cook 1st grade teacher Kate Herron demos ScratchJr for an IDEA:TE attendee.
Workshop presenter and Catherine Cook 1st grade teacher Kate Herron demos ScratchJr for an IDEA:TE attendee.

A 3D printed ring designed by an IDEA:TE attendee.

A 3D printed ring designed by an IDEA:TE attendee.

From recording and editing music and audio, to sewing wearable technologies, and even creating furniture using laser cutters and 3D printers, Catherine Cook School integrates a diverse set of technologies. Can you share some best practices from different classrooms?

In our innovative work with students and faculty, we engage almost exclusively in project-based learning. There is no “tech time” or pulling students out of the classroom for tech class. Each aspect of Catherine Cook’s IDEA (Innovation, Design, Engineering, and Art) program, which begins in preschool, is woven into the curriculum and is cross-disciplinary. 

Generally we provide our teachers with the chance to experience emerging technology for themselves, then let that teacher—who knows student’s individual learning styles better than anyone—decide how to incorporate what they’ve experienced into their curriculum. In addition to this methodology, we collaborate and co-teach with faculty across all age ranges and disciplines at Catherine Cook. Often, a teacher will bring us a specific project that just doesn’t work well for them anymore.. We look at what works and what doesn’t work about the project in question, then redesign it to reach today’s learners.

For example, our 5th grade humanities teacher has taught a large Chicago architecture project annually for many years. Typically the students have used PowerPoint to create presentations on notable architectural works, but the project was no longer stimulating for the teacher or students. In response to this, I worked with this teacher and the students to create video games and interactive presentations in Scratch to reflect the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. This was a huge success. The next year, this passionate teacher again sought my help to have his students build a large portion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to scale in MineCraft. The learning objectives and goals were consistent with what he had originally built into the project, but the outcome was radically improved with properly supported emerging technology.

Screen captures from the Columbian Exposition recreated in MineCraft by Catherine Cook's 2014-15 5th grade class.

Screen captures from the Columbian Exposition recreated in MineCraft by Catherine Cook’s 2014-15 5th grade class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook's IDEA class.
Screen captures from the Columbian Exposition recreated in MineCraft by Catherine Cook’s 2014-15 5th grade class.

From your point of view, what educational apps should find their way into every classroom?

I tend to think in terms of students’ creative goals and the desired learning outcomes, then work backward toward the most effective and age-appropriate tool to serve those parameters. At Catherine Cook, we empower students to express themselves through whatever tool is appropriate. That tool may be oil pastels, computer programming, an electrical circuit or a blogging app. When I am exploring apps, software, coding environments, robots, etc for our teachers and students, I consider several factors:

  • Will this tool set our students up to be producers, or consumers of technology?
  • Will this tool promote collaboration, critical thinking, storytelling, and systems thinking?
  • Could the students accomplish their goals more clearly and elegantly with a pencil and paper than with this tool?

An example of this arose this past school year in my work with a teacher. While meeting with the Director of Education Technology in our IDEA Lab about the assembly, a teacher, who was planning for her 1st grade class, suddenly exclaimed, “I guess I don’t need anything in here!” She was shocked that what she had planned for her students wouldn’t involve anything high-tech, but quickly understood that at Catherine Cook we are never “throwing technology at the problem.” She found everything she needed to plan her assembly, without adding technology to the project unnecessarily.

At Catherine Cook School, kids as young as age four learn in a technology rich environment. How do you balance concerns of too much screen time with an appetite for apps in young children?

We regularly allay fears from our prospective parents about the possible effects of too much screen time on young children. At Catherine Cook, this is not a zero-sum situation. We have a community of voracious readers and storytellers, who are also adept computer programmers and digital designers. We all appreciate the transformative power that appropriate technology can have on learners of all ages, and our talented faculty deftly balance a day filled with analog and digital tools. I think it’s important to ask:

  • Is this tool being used for creative expression and inquiry or as source of entertainment?
  • If the former, what role does my student or child have in this? What are the outcomes of their time spent using this tool?
  • If the latter, is this entertainment in service of a curricular goal? Is it age-appropriate?

At IDEA:TE teachers shared ways to co-create with children through the use of programming languages. Should all children learn how to code?

I firmly believe that all children should have the opportunity to learn to express themselves through computer programming. Coding is learning to create and harness the power of machines, both near and far. Through code, humans can reach out over great distances to use a robot to build a sanctuary for other humans, monitor a camera capturing a volcanic eruption, design a 3D printed dress or invent something that improves the lives of the billions of creatures that live on this planet. But coding isn’t really about machines, programming languages, or networks—it’s about learning new and powerful ways to think. By learning with our students, using computational, design, and systems thinking, we are all developing the power to think and create in new ways, and to see and understand the universe as never before.

Catherine Cook is a private School with respective resources. How do your experiences translate to the vast majority of public school students and teachers?

At Catherine Cook we are fortunate to have the gracious support of our parents, who generously enabled us to build our 200 2,000 sq. ft IDEA Lab. This facility houses myriad tools and environments such as sewing machines, an interactive tiled display wall, a laser cutter, 3D printers and shop tools. Like any effective toolset, the machines and components in the IDEA Lab extend the abstract concept in a student’s mind to a concrete thing they can hold in their hand and share with the world.

While these tools are powerful, they are certainly not the only way to build a culture of innovators in a school. One reads daily of the paradigm shift from the so-called “sage on the stage” mentality to what some refer to as the “guide on the side.” When a school is full of adults who are perpetual learners, unafraid to utter “I don’t know” to their students (and go find out together), anything is possible.

In concert with encouraging this mindset school wide, a low cost and effective way to explore making is through open source software. Many excellent coding environments such as Scratch, Processing and Arduino are open source and free to use. Open source also encourages the open sharing of resources, therefore educators who use open source tools will find a wealth of free lesson plans, projects, and tutorials created by generous communities that spring up around these tools worldwide. For example, before our lab opened, I assigned a data visualization project to our 7th and 8th grade students. They used the programming language Processing to code data sets they gathered from their daily lives. We printed the designs using a regular color printer and had a gallery show to display their work.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook's IDEA class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook’s IDEA class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook's IDEA class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook’s IDEA class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook's IDEA class.

Data visualizations designed in Processing by 7th and 8th grade students in Catherine Cook’s IDEA class.


——————————————————————————————————-
JD Pirtle is an artist and educator interested in computational, generative and algorithmic processes–particularly those that utilize and/or produce open-source software. He is currently director of innovation at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, where he founded the IDEA (Innovation, Design, Engineering, and Art) program, a preschool-8th grade initiative that facilitates creative exploration in the domains of curiosity, investigation, and design. He also directs the IDEA Lab at Catherine Cook, a hybrid laboratory+studio+classroom. He initiated and co-founded IDEA:TE, a national emerging technology conference for educators. Before joining Catherine Cook’s administrative team, JD was a researcher at the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He received a BFA from the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington and an MFA in Electronic Visualization/New Media Arts from the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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