(Transcript) TechNuns, DOLS, and Erasing Kittens

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Many of you must have heard of BASIC — Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code — the programming language that came pre-installed with most microcomputers in the 1970’s and 80’s. In fact, if you studied computer languages of any sort during that time and even up to the late 90’s, you might have studied BASIC at school.

The development of BASIC is officially credited to John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, who developed it at Dartmouth College in 1964. But what not many people know is that one of the key members of the team that worked on it was Mary Kenneth Keller. Or, to give her her full title, ‘Sister’ Mary Kenneth Keller, a Roman Catholic nun and educator. In 1958, armed with a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, she became the first woman to work at the computer science centre at Dartmouth College, which broke its male-only rule just so that she could work there. In 1965, she and Irving Tang at Washington University in St. Louis were the first people to get a doctorate in computer science — so she’s also one of the first women to do so.

Mary Kenneth Keller didn’t stop there. She went on to set up the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa in 1965, which she then chaired for 20 years. She also established a Master’s programme for computer applications in education. In fact, she was one of the earliest advocates for women in computing, and believed that information was no good unless it could be accessed by more than just computer scientists.

If you’re asking yourself ‘why have I never heard of this woman before’, you’re not the only one. A lot of people we asked hadn’t either.

Coming up, we’re going to hear from some women who are playing an important role in building a positive future for edtech, just like Mary Kenneth Keller did.

This is Nevertheless — a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology, supported by Pearson Education.

Many of the female pioneers in technology came up in their fields because prevailing social and political norms forced their hand.

Unveiled in 1946 by Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was used to perform computations during World War II. At the time, almost all the leaders and managers working on the project were men — in fact women were told that they could not get the professional ratings required to become managers. But with the war, there came a time when not enough men were available, and women were pushed into supervisory positions. By November 1946, women began receiving professional ratings too.

Six women were selected to work on ENIAC. Most had degrees in mathematics. Three other women mathematicians were actively involved in programming ENIAC, and one of them, Adele Goldstine, is actually the author of the ENIAC manual.

At the time, by circumstance, women were encouraged to work together.

Mickey: I’m actually a member of something called the Dirty Old Ladies of Software that’s been around since the mid 80s and all the women who are involved were with tech companies from way back.

We have shirts. The acronym is D.O.L.S. And at one point sometime in the early 2000s the men who got to go to all the same conferences were like ‘can we have we join your organization’.

That’s Mickey Revenaugh, a co-founder and Director of New School Models for Pearson. She also helped launch the E-Rate Program, which helps schools and libraries in the United States to obtain affordable Internet access. Dirty Old Ladies of Software, the organisation she references, is a professional networking organisation for women who work in the business of education. In the latter half of the 1900’s, when those six women were working on ENIAC and Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was part of the team that worked on BASIC, those kinds of networking organisations were few and far between. But the projects that these women worked on made a huge contribution to society, like many others before and after.

Mickey: One of the things I think women do especially well is understand and tap into really universal needs and especially the needs of children and families. So I hate to say that it’s a softer approach to what the needs are that require innovation, but is definitely a more universal approach and one that thinks about how we are in relation to each other, how we are our communities and our families and our society. So I would argue that in fact the road to innovation for our future is really driven by women and that the innovations that we may come up with may be smaller in scope, maybe less costly, may be less engineered and more adapted to people’s everyday life and the classroom is a perfect example of that.

That’s the interesting thing about small-scale approaches to innovation: very often they’re the ones that have the biggest impact. In a classroom scenario, the best way to do that might be to get children to develop those innovations themselves.

Bethany Koby is one of the founders of Technology Will Save Us, who are on a mission to spark the creative imagination of young people using hands-on technology products. Here’s what they’re doing to change the way kids think in the UK.

Bethany Koby

Bethany: We are testing all the time so we have a group of young people that are part of a club called The Future Inventors Club, which has about 300 kids across the UK that participate in product development with us from the beginning. So we’re not asking them what we should develop. We’re actually putting them into scenarios where they’re testing opportunities with us to ensure that the outcomes we’re creating are again really helping them to engage with certain skills.

So our products, we call them play experiences because they have digital and physical products at the hearts of what you’re doing. But really what you’re doing is an experience around learning STEM skills.

Bethany showed us some of the products they are building, such as Electro-dough.

And so with a Electro-Dough, we have three different kinds. One is the sounds kit which allows kids to basically make instruments and music using a smart controller and electronic dough. One is all about bright creatures where kids can build creatures like dinosaurs whose eyes light up and fire breathing dragons melting icebergs, I mean they’re four to six. The imagination is great but essentially what they’re making is circuit and they’re turning on lights. And then the last one is electro machines where kids are actually moving motors with electronic dough and they can build all kinds of machines. And so each product has a little smart controller which has the electronics that actually make the outcome happen and conductive Play-Doh. So thats electronic dough. And it works with existing dough but the dough we provide is more conductive. So it’s makes things brighter and makes things move faster etc..

So that’s a beautiful way that kids can learn through physical product — which is a change in the oft-used narrative that the future of learning is all about software. But that’s the thing — learning through technology doesn’t need to be just one kind of learning. And learning through software isn’t just one kind of learning through software either — it doesn’t mean you need to be sitting at a desk typing code into a screen all day. Or if you are, then the way to do that is to use it as a creative pursuit.

That’s what Erase All Kittens does. It’s a unique, story-driven game that introduces professional coding languages such as HTML to children. The Erase All Kittens team carried out extensive research interviewing hundreds of students aged 8 to 13 — analysing the most popular cartoons, games, movies and books which don’t pander to gender stereotypes — before creating their learning tool. And the results show: their game has over a hundred thousand downloads in over a hundred countries. And over half their players — 55% to be precise — are girls.

Shwetal Shah

Shwetal: The reason why the founders wanted to start this was because from their experience, especially Dee, who is the co-founder and CEO, she’s worked in this industry and she found that it was very male dominated. And part of the reason was because even the way coding is taught, it is very dry and instructional and it doesn’t really appeal to the way girls learn. And so they just wanted to encourage more girls to get in this industry and that was the reason why they started this. Just to close the gender gap within technology.

Shwetal Shah is the Head of Partnerships and Outreach for Erase All Kittens. She was just talking about why one of the founders of the game, Dee Saigal, embarked on the project. Kids over the age of 8 learn how to code through Erase All Kittens by building game levels even as they play. They get real-time feedback, so they can see that if they drop parts of the HTML — like a semi-colon or a bracket — there is a corresponding error in the game.

Shwetal: So that is one of the main differences because we believe that if young people, we don’t teach them the actual application of what they are learning then they may not really be interested in pursuing programming. So that is the one to one point of differentiation within our game. And the other difference is also its a real time editable game. So every player would have a different approach to how they play the game based on their own creative thinking skills and critical thinking skills because they would be editing the code in real time, which would then ultimately govern the gameplay.

So it’s about allowing kids to understand the principles that govern technology, so they can learn to use them in interesting ways. And that’s brilliant for kids who are self-motivated and have access to computers at school and at home. But how about kids who don’t have that?

Rafranz Davies

Rafranz: In terms of the way my community works as we are about above 70 percent live in poverty where we live. Our students tend to not have access to you know sometimes technology or the internet. Aside from a cell phone when they leave us at the end of the school day so school becomes their lifeline to connect. And so we are kind of at the beginning stages of connecting our students. We are not one to one but we are getting there. We are kind of building from the ideology and from our belief system and the way we think about teaching and learning first before we just jump in and throw devices into every single classroom.

Or in other words, consider the why before the what.

Rafranz Davis is the Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning at Lufkin Independence School District in Ennis, Texas, in America. She is also the 2017 winner of the International Society for Technology in Education’s Outstanding Leadership Award. Rafranz is pretty clear about what the role of teachers should be in helping different kinds of children learn. She believes that teachers need to put themselves in their students’ shoes if they want to really get ideas across.

Rafranz: So it is honestly about making sure that we can provide opportunities to learn in multiple formats. But more importantly also providing students with multiple ways of showing what they’ve learned. And so that has meant you know whether that meant bringing in an outside partner to come in and talk to our teachers about what that means or exposing this idea of learning through our leadership first so that it filters to our campuses. You know it’s it’s not just going online to look up the definition of what personalized learning means. It really does mean internalizing to think about who you are as a learner and how you approach that moving beyond yourself and thinking about the students that we teach every day.

And that’s because information can be accessed at the click of a mouse — or the swipe of a finger, more likely, for today’s grade school children; in fact, many of you probably saw the popular video of a 2 year-old child swiping a magazine as if it was a screen a few years ago. So it doesn’t matter what answers you teach children today — they can probably ask Google quite quickly — it matters what questions you encourage them to ask.

Rafranz: The memorization part of what we used to believe was important to education is no longer necessarily important education. So recognizing that and then providing students with more opportunities to answer deep questions to solve real problems and then to think about you know, where does technology fit in the scope of doing those things. But I think it comes first with empathy and problem solving first and foremost. And technology is somewhere within that mix.

So are the old methods of teaching just not relevant anymore? And what is the role of students — the learners — in all of this?

Mickey: There’s a phrase that’s been used here in the US in education circles probably since the early 90s which is this idea of being the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage. Because, you know, the traditional form of education in higher ed and then all the way down through kindergarten is that the teacher is the wise one. The kids have empty heads. Basically you just pour knowledge into them. That’s not the way learning ever works frankly, and certainly not the way it works now. So the idea of a ‘guide on the side’ is partly directing students to information and helping them consume it make it their own.

But it’s also attending to their needs as learners. This idea of metacognition — Johnny learns best when he’s able to get up and walk around the room in a room and talk to himself about what he’s learning whereas Susie does best when she’s in conversation with another person. Whereas Andy really needs to get his hands on and build a physical model of what he’s learning. The teacher is in a position to actually help students learn in all those different ways when they don’t have to be the sage on the stage anymore. And instead they’re sort of moving around among learners helping them tap into information and knowledge, but then guiding them and making it something more than just information.

That was Mickey again.

So it’s pretty clear that no matter how much people say iPads are a kid’s new best friend, if they’re learning in any sort of classroom environment then a lot depends on the teacher. Technology is only a means after all, never the end. Here’s Bethany, from Technology Will Save Us.

Bethany: Technology will enable different ways of learning better ways of learning more distributed ways of learning faster ways of learning.

You know all of those things however products in themselves will not deliver better education. It is an experience that has to be about relevant engaging content that kids care about like first and foremost and it has to be about teachers that passionately care about what they are presenting to their students in all different kinds of scenarios.

One way of making knowledge relevant and engaging is by seeing it play out live. Hack days, where people get together in the same place to use different tools to solve a set problem, or problems — are becoming more and more popular partly for this reason. Not only does it train kids to become problem-solvers, a useful skill for when they become adults, but it sets them on the path to becoming entrepreneurs by motivating them to start building new products.

Here’s Rafranz Davis again, on a hackathon that she was part of recently.

Rafranz: So we were actually challenging them to develop using Raspberry Pi and the Windows ILT platform. And the interesting thing was some of them actually opted out of that platform and went with Raspbian instead because it served their project much better. Some of them chose to use Arduinos. But one group decided to do button so they designed a button on the school desk that would be an emergency alert in case something happened in class that they could send press the button and send a silent alert to an officer or an administrator when they needed them to come to class without drawing attention.

Another one was there were a group of girls that said you know we want to talk to some students who are hearing impaired. So they were working on a program that would translate American sign language into text and they could have conversations with their peers who were hearing impaired without necessarily needing the translator. The interesting thing there was that they learned more sound language by trying to design the program than the program actually translated for them and that was also cool because they could still have those conversations with their peers.

So you could say that placing children in situations where they need to solve problems rather than learn abstract concepts is a much better way of developing emotional intelligence. But beyond that, emotional intelligence results in more well-rounded people who are able to deal with adversity better. Science supports this — in the 1970’s psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues at Harvard discovered that the people who were good at identifying others’ emotions were more successful not only in their work but in their social lives as well.

So discovering useful applications of things you learn about can dramatically change who you are. It instils confidence, a valuable life skill if there is one. Here’s how Technology Will Save Us does that.

Bethany: So electronic dough. There’s plant detectors, speakers, synthesisers, gaming devices, wearables. Kids need to be and want to be exposed to all kinds of technologies.

Some of them are new and some of them are really old. Some of them are science, and some of them are math, and some of them are engineering, and we want to create the most what we call category defining range of play experiences for kids to essentially make and create and invent with technology throughout their childhoods so that when they do become adults making choices they have a lot of confidence a lot of skills that they can tap into to navigate that future.

But confidence can only come with learning from failure, something that is often swept under the carpet.

Bethany: Failure I mean we have a learning pioneer in the business that develops a lot of contact with us. Oh my God. Failure is such an important thing and you know I don’t know any toy companies that are like that’s the help kids like to make mistakes and solve the problem. So that’s really important.

The hope, through this kind of skill-building through technology, which like it or not is here to stay, is that young people will want to work on projects for the greater good.

Shwetal, from Erase All Kittens, admits that this is in fact one of their driving goals.

Shwetal: And our ultimate aim is to actually maybe create future innovators and makers who would probably get a spark of inspiration by playing this game and maybe they could come up with solutions for major problems that we’re facing right now. For example eliminating child poverty, global warming, pollution all of that.

There was this recent quote which I read from the Aspen Foundation based in the US. And so they are also training young people like preteens to use technology to come up with solutions like create an impact at scale. And they said that they want the future technologist to be millionaires in a way that they impact a million people, so coming up with solutions that would impact a million people. And that is where our game is also probably based around.

So there’s hope for the future yet, because this change, of young people being motivated to create change is real. They’re using different ways to get there, but get there they will if the mindset that they need to take risks and build things is encouraged — and even if they have to create their own jobs. Here’s Mickey from Pearson.

Mickey: So the innovation mindset I think is incredibly important as we prepare young people for the world of work that they go into. Because I am of the mind that the jobs that they go into don’t exist yet. In fact some of them will have to make up jobs.

They will apply for jobs, they’ll create jobs, and that the future of our world really depends on the innovators who will find new ways to do things better for the good of all society. We can help kids get a little bit of the taste of that when they’re still in elementary school. So much the better for all of us.

So if technology is a tool, what does the next evolution of that look like?

Mickey: When we think about the advances that have been made in AI, where an AI assistant for example, folks on the other end of that don’t even necessarily know it’s not a real person because they’re able to do those nuts and bolts tasks in such an efficient way that they actually free up human beings to do higher order things.

Someone who gets you as a learner just knows how you learn best can help you stay on track, can do little assessments to see if you’re really getting the material, can suggest a different way for you to approach it. All the while sort of feeding data back to your teacher who ultimately is your guide on the side. So if you imagine the guide on the side with a really handy very sweet and personable AI assistant in some ways you’re seeing the future of what you’ve been a brick and mortar face to face classroom could be but certainly an online or blended classroom.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller predicted the use of artificial intelligence in helping humans learn better nearly fifty years ago. The women in today’s show, just like Sister Mary decades ago, are truly forging new paths in education. Paths that we hope a new generation of teachers and learners will tread with passion — and yes, it’s likely Artificial Intelligence will give them the tools to do so in completely new ways.


Nevertheless is a Storythings production — writing and editing by the team at Storythings, music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer, Executive Producer Nathan Martin, supported by Pearson Education, with this episode presented by me, Anjali Ramachandran.

For show notes go to neverthelesspodcast.com