Tech for good: working with pre-K ed-tech

Kalvin T. Lam
Sep 19, 2018 · 3 min read

Hi, I’m Kalvin, and this past summer I had the opportunity to use my technical skills for good. For me, that meant working with Cognitive Toybox, an early childhood platform for kindergarten readiness. Working with this organization was a dream come true since my interests lie in the intersection of education and technology. I was an ardent user of KhanAcademy growing up since I didn’t have many educational resources at home. Since KhanAcademy helped me so much, I wanted to give back to Cognitive Toybox, in hopes that their platform will be able to help young children prepare for Kindergarten.

The hackNY Cognitive Toybox team (from left to right): Cynthia Zhou (h’17), Calvin (h’18), Janice (h’18), Kalvin (h’18)

Working with this organization helped me understand some crucial things about the social good world. For one, it’s often difficult for these organizations to find engineering talent, so whatever help we were able to provide them, they really appreciated. From the get-go, Tammy Kwan, the CEO, made it clear that the web platform we were building for them would not just be a prototype. She let us know that they were planning to build on top of what we built. Essentially, we had the privilege of building out Cognitive Toybox’s core web platform. On one hand, it was a lot of pressure to know that we were building something that would eventually be distributed to many schools and school districts and school administrators and students. However, on the other hand, it was extremely satisfying to know that we could play such a pivotal role in the development of such an impactful, educational product.

Personally, I had the chance to work on the data visualization of the platform. Within the Cognitive Toybox platform is data from all of the students in a school district, data about their performances on a wide gamut of assessments. The purpose of the graphs to help educators facilitate educational improvements. There’s a whole treasure trove of data in the platform, but we had the privilege of helping make sense of the data in clear, easy-to-understand visualizations. To make these visualizations, we used the chart.js library for its simplicity and usability.

This chart shows the number of results per school
This chart shows the average level by domains

The technical challenge in implementing the data visualizations was that there were many different types of assessments at each school, so it was a nontrivial challenge to sum every type of assessment to get a final number. Further, another challenge I faced was that I had to handle nested API calls, due to the structure of the backend API.

Social good has always been something that has interested me. In high school, I spent several hundred hours volunteering for clubs like Interact, National Honor Society, and Sunday Friends. These hours were spread between teaching English to native Spanish speakers, passing out water at 5K runs, playing with the elderly at Vintage Senior Homes, and even tutoring underperforming students at the local middle school. Though I’ve always been involved in social good initiatives, I had never before used my technical skills to help others.

Participating in the social good portion of the hackNY Fellows program has taught me that with great technical talent comes great responsibility. As software engineers, the things we build have the potential to reach millions, even billions, of people around the world. Since we have the potential to do great good, it means we also have the potential to do great harm. With that in mind, I come away from this experience knowing that as software engineers, we have to be extra careful about the platforms and applications we build. It’s vital that the work we do contribute to the world in a positive manner.


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