2014 Spark! Lab Invent It Challenge

Press Release from ePals. ePals Corporation is an education media company and Global Learning Network. 

ePals Corporation, an education media company and Global Learning Network, today announced the launch of its third annual Spark! Lab Invent It Challenge in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The Challenge honors K12 student winners whose creative inventions best demonstrate the Spark!Lab process of invention, with a patent filing and Camp Invention scholarship among the prizes. The Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge is open to students globally, with age-group categories from five to 18 and both individual and group submissions accepted.

“The challenge, designed to inspire and support students, empowers them to recognize the inventor within as they identify and solve problems,” says Joan Auchter, ePals Vice President of Education. “ePals is delighted to offer the third annual global student challenge in partnership with the Smithsonian.”

The challenge requires students to follow seven key steps in the invention process, including identifying a problem, conducting research, sketching, building a prototype, testing, refining and marketing the product. Results may be demonstrated through PowerPoints, videos, photographs, Word documents or other media. The process reinforces a range of 21st-century skills, including the use of digital technologies, and also meets several Common Core, STEM and other learning standards.

Past winning inventions include a portable transport vehicle for children and elderly refugees fleeing conflict and famine; a “sand sleeve” wrist guard to steady the hands of the elderly; a “turbo scraper” for vehicle snow and ice removal; a water conservation device; and other imaginative offerings. For videos of past winners talking tips and inspiration, visit: www.epals.com/invent-it.

“The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center believes that kids are natural innovators,” says Tricia Edwards, education specialist at the center. “The Challenge invites them to develop their original ideas and be recognized in a way that encourages their growth as entrepreneurs and global citizens who can add value to the world.”

A panel of Smithsonian and ePals judges will select winners after the April 11th close of contest. Winners will receive global recognition and prizes from sponsors, including Smithsonian book sets, eligibility for a patent application filed by the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP law firm, a Camp Invention scholarship and LEGO products.The deadline for submitting inventions to the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge is April 11, 2014 for uploaded or email entries and an April 8, 2014 postmark for mailed entries. For challenge details, including past winners, submission categories, a challenge template, guidelines and scoring information, visit:  www.epals.com/invent-it.

Thoughts on the Mobile Classroom

Guest post by Claire Teck.

Keep Taking the Tablets?

As Google prepares to fight with Apple for a share of the fast-expanding market, educational apps are really taking off. It’s been shown that gaming and social media can inspire students, helping them to engage with problems in the real world. Apps also have a role to play in educating students with disabilities, including young people with autism. The evidence is that many apps for children and teens can be valuable – as long as they are interesting enough to hold student attention.

It’s estimated that 3.5 million tablets will have been sold to schools across the country by the end of 2013, a rise of more than 40% over the previous year. The majority of those are being used by K-12 students, since college students usually have their own computing equipment. For each tablet sold, a range of apps will also be purchased for use on the device, teaching everything from basic math to ways of getting on together as a community.

Growth in Apps

Mayank Jain is CEO of Splash Math, which produces educational games for younger students, aiming to give a balance between learning and engagement. He said: “We just wanted to bring fun back to math.” Programs like these teach the basics, but without relying on traditional worksheets, while the use of tablet touchscreen technology helps to make them more engaging for younger children. Meanwhile, Trip Hawkins, of Electronic Arts fame, has set up a new company called If You Can. It is launching new game ‘If” for the iPad, where cats and dogs don’t get on – so children have to work to make them live together in peace. The idea is to teach greater empathy and the Pokemon-style game even features input from counselors.

These are just a couple of the ever-growing range of educational apps for tablets and mobile phones, which are now the cue for the latest battle between Apple and Google. Apple has had the lion’s share of this market up to now, with more than 90% of those schools which decide to buy tablets going for its iPads. However, Google Play for Education has just been launched, aiming to sell schools the rival Nexus 7 and other products in the pipeline, as well as the apps that go with them.

Helping Students with Autism

As part of the ConnectED initiative, which aims to spread broadband and high-speed wi-fi to students across the US, 10 “Champions of Change” have just been honored at the White House. They are all educators who use technology to enhance students’ learning experience. One of those honored was Mark Coppin of the Anne Carlsen Center in North Dakota, which has pioneered use of apps to help students with autism. Among those helped by Mark and the center is Cade Brademeyer, 11, who has been enabled to communicate better with his parents and teachers by using a tablet, together with special educational apps. These methods do not work with all students, and all experts recognize that the tablets must be used together with other methods of teaching students with disabilities to be effective. However, while tablets and apps can’t supply a magical solution to problems faced by students with autism and other disabilities, there is growing evidence that they have a role to play in special education.

Cost Issues

The speed at which the market for educational tablets is growing shows the demand for this technology in our schools. The flip side of this, though, is concern about the costs involved. In Los Angeles, there has been a controversy over a plan to provide iPads to students across the city at a cost of up to $1 billion. The program had to be adjusted after concerns were raised over higher-than-expected prices, and there were also problems at some of the first schools to get the technology when some students deleted security software.

Some educators have voiced fears that use of tablets will lead to an over-reliance on a standardized curriculum. There is also an argument that other types of computer, such as laptops, can make a more valuable contribution in schools, because they are better geared to group teaching. It seems as if debate will go on over the right balance of technology, but, in the meantime, many students are being excited and inspired by particular apps, both in and out of the classroom.

SHSAT and Testing Stories

One day, I’d like to do a study on the impact of high stakes testing on families. There is a lot of research and opinion on the impact of testing on students and teachers, but very little (if any) on the impact of testing on the student’s relationship with his parents. We can assume that the successful test taker is lauded and rewarded, but what happens to the student who does not do so well? How is he received? I suspect he might be chastised: You’re not trying! What’s wrong with you?

Several students said their parents did not shy away from corporal punishment as a means of motivating them.

That’s a quote from a New York Times article about academic testing and the Asian (East, South, North and West) community. The article concludes with a description of Emmie Cheng’s perspective on testing:

Still, Ms. Cheng, a director at a shoe importing company, said guiding her daughter through this process — which cost her about $2,000 this year alone — paled in comparison to what she had experienced earlier in her life. Her father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war. And once here, she said, she watched her mother struggle in a garment factory.

The article was most likely inspired by the complaint that the NAACP filed last year claiming New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint is not that the test is biased but that its implementation and its use as the sole criteria for admission has caused an imbalance of racial representation in the student body of the city’s “specialized high schools”.

Among the claims the NAACP and its supporters are making is that the SHSAT is bias because many black and Hispanic families cannot afford the high cost of third party test prep, tutors, or cram schools. I have to disagree and feel that the claim may reveal some of the NAACP’s own biases and their perpetuation of the Model Minority myth. Most of the Asian students mentioned in the New York Times article are immigrants or children of recently immigrated parents who work low paying jobs.

Another New York Times article provides some insight into the income of cram school patrons by noting:

they still catered to the children of Chinatown vegetable sellers who pay in $10 bills. But in recent years, they have also worked hard to draw in the white lawyers, bankers and artists who populate Lower Manhattan.

The article is about the rising popularity of cram schools (educational establishments specializing in tutoring and test prep) in New York City. The quote refers to a school started by Elma Moy in a low-ceilinged storefront on Henry Street. Relocated to Tribeca and renamed “Florentine”, the school hopes to attract a more affluent clientele.

In “To Be Black at Stuyvesant High” (yet another New York Times article), Rudi Miller’s experience as one of the few black student at Stuyvesant High School is described. She resents the attitude of her peers that “black students do better in the college-admissions game because of their skin color.” Another black student, Opraha Miles, expresses her frustration over their social ineptitude and insensitivity. She cites an incident where an Asian student speaking on student demographics states “Something to the effect that it wasn’t our fault, but that blacks aren’t smart enough; they don’t work hard enough” to get in.”

The statement is particularly offensive coming from someone who is supposed to be “the best and the brightest” in a city as diverse as New York. However, it is representative of what occurs when a culture (in this case the Stuyvesant school culture) lacks diversity.

In the film he is currently producing, Tested, Curtis Chin (who also produced Vincent Who? a movie about the legacy of Vincent Chin) seeks to tell the personal stories of a diverse group of eighth graders preparing for the SHSAT. I attended a fundraiser for Tested and had the opportunity to hear Curtis and others involved in the project speak about their involvement and what it means to them. One parent interviewed in the trailer they debuted summed up the frustrations of all parents perfectly when she said there should be a choice of the right school for your child but that the reality is that there is only a choice between “good schools” (implying high educational standards and personal welfare) and “bad schools” (low performing, dangerous schools).

There is the potential that the film may tell a deeper personal story about the attraction of a school like Stuyvesant. Many parents will tell you that Stuyvesant is one of the “good schools” but why? No one has asked what it means to a family if their son or daughter gain entrance. Outside of the SHSAT what makes Stuyvesant and other schools like it more desirable than others?

I wonder if Curtis will interview any teachers at “bad schools” and at “good schools” on what the SHSAT means to them and their students. And how about the students that don’t get in? How are their lives changed by the experience? And what does it mean when an organization like the NAACP says there aren’t enough minority students at Stuyvesant, when 72% of the student body is Asian? These are just some of the interesting questions (and possibly answers) that Tested promises to engage.  You can view a trailer for the movie and support it here:  http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1943067753/tested

Social Media Week Ideas for Teachers

Social Media Week is one of the two New York events that inspire me and inform my perspective on developing curriculum. The New York Comic Con is the other. While they may seem tangential at first glance to classroom teaching and curriculum design, they actually offer a model of and insight to creating moving narratives which I believe drives effective learning.

It was at a Social Media Week session two years ago that I learned about Timehop. Timehop is a social media service that places your tweets and wall posts into an historical context. On any given day, you are sent a reminder of what you tweeted and posted on the same date last year. This includes news items you retweeted and shared. When you compare what you tweeted a year ago to what you tweet today, you have the beginnings of an autobiographical narrative (a personal history).

Currently, Timehop only presents you with an account of day-to-day social media activity. What I am hoping to see somewhere down the line is a “timeline” feature. I am certain there would be some meaningful classroom applications, if Timehop users were given the option to view day-to-day activity over multiple days, weeks, months, and even years.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions this year. I was particularly disappointed about missing the Cowbird workshop. Cowbird describes itself as a “community of storytellers”. I like to think of it as a great online anthology of flash non-fiction filled with examples of folksy wisdom and lazy Sunday observations over coffee or tea. Cowbird is definitely meeting its goal of building a “public library of human experience”.

I particularly admire Cowbird’s resistance to video and hope it continues to ask its community to take the time to contemplate the pictures and sounds (the individual components of video) and text they chose to tell their stories with. There is a risk of forsaking these individual pieces when composing directly in video.

Cowbird offers classroom teachers in the age of Common Core a powerful tool to create personal narratives. It also provides teachers with a way for engaging in informational texts especially in “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas” where in eighth grade students are tasked to “Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.”

Happily, I managed to attend the “gsummitX – Gamification in NYC” presentation with Gabe Zichermann from Gamification.co. In the classroom, teachers understand that playing games is an effective way of engaging students. However, with the rise in the number of free online video games and the increased portability of traditional console games, students are much more sophisticated edutainment consumers than we Generation X’ers were with our Colecovisions and Commodore 64s.

Gabe was speaking from a Sales/Marketing perspective when he stated the challenge of retaining consumer attention. However, I don’t think you need to stretch your imagination too hard to see how even with the onslaught of educational online video games that student attention retention can still be a challenge for teachers.

Gabe made several interesting comments during his presentation. First, he stated that gamification is a process not a product (Sound familiar?) It’s what those who favor a constructivist approach to education believe. He then said that (I’m rephrasing slightly) games allow players to play with the limits of the reality of their jobs. In classrooms, this might mean games allow students to play with the limits of the reality of their… classrooms? subjects? tests? school? community?

Writing about Jane McGonigal’s TED presentation, “Gaming Can Make A Better World” I suggested a game that addressed the school dropout crisis. The role playing games that Jane has worked on fit well into Gabe’s statements on gamification. In creating a game that challenges students to solve the real world problem of dropping out, the challenge would be to convince the player to find value in the rewards and prizes. There are plenty of good commercial games available but also an equal (if not overwhelming) amount of bad video games. And there are instances where a game comes highly recommended but the player does not see value in continuing it.

For A Future of Education

The first two parts of Be Social Change and the Center for Social Innovation’s three-part series on the Future of Education began with attendees sharing in small groups their personal transformative educational experiences outside and inside of the classroom. At both meetings and in both instances, the general opinion was that transformative educational experiences were personal experiences that felt “out of the box” or “above and beyond” what was expected.

What has been clear in both Future of Education Meetups is that these transformative experiences are currently missing from college and K-12 classrooms. Both teachers and students are dissatisfied with the current education system and has chosen to value.

From the educational entrepreneurs at the first Meetup, who spoke about their role in complementing and enhancing core college curriculum with hands-on job experiences, to the K-12 educators at the second Meetup, who spoke about an “educational ecosystem” and the necessity for self-efficacy and the acceptance of failure, the resounding message was that there is a disconnect between the classroom and what students want to know. Ivan Cestero of the Avenues school and a panelist at the second Meetup put it best when he said as educators we needed to “meld the passion piece with the stuff they (students) need to know.”

Lyel Resner, co-founder of Startup Box: South Bronx and moderator of the second Meetup began the discussion by asking the audience: What is school for? I was reminded of something Eduwonkette wrote years ago, conveying historian, David Labaree’s vision of school as an environment that nurtured children’s ability to

  • prepare children for their place in the economy
  • achieve democratic equality
  • nurture social mobility

Participants responding to Lyel’s question echoed Labaree’s vision. They responded that the purpose of school was to prepare students for civic engagement and to teach them how to apply their passions, as well as build their social and emotional skills.

Like going to an art opening and dropping words like “derivative” or “jejune”, for the past couple of years, the password into educational cliques has been “Common Core” (sometimes “STEM”, sometimes “21st Century skills/literacies”). When the topic of Common Core State Standards came up, there was no overtly negative criticism, only a cautionary thought from Ivan Cestero that the standards required “habits of mind, passion, and social skills to be meaningful.”

When the issue of standardized testing came up, panelist Tim Shriver, Dream Director at The Future Project said “test scores won’t matter to students if they are not hopeful about their future success.” Most everyone in the room (including me) believed portfolios are a superior and more accurate assessment than test scores.

Panelist Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser, Computer Science Teacher & Consultant at the Academy for Software Engineering NYC, spoke of the trial and error process that software engineers engage in when writing code. She said that it was important to get students to try and fail at something and then try again. She said “self efficacy” needed to be cultivated. Students need to believe in their ability to solve difficult problems and overcome seemingly impossible challenges. Most of the room agreed with what Leigh Ann was saying.

What has interested me most about these Meetups is the pragmatism. There is a lot of talk of innovation and “new” ways, but it has been tempered with talk of “accreditation” on the college level and systems level implementation in the K-12 grades. Andrea Coleman, CEO of the Office of Innovation at the New York City Department of Education, cited her office’s partnership with The Future Project. I’m looking forward to that same pragmatism in the final Meetup of this series.


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