New EdTech and More at SXSW
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Episode Show Notes
Robots, role models, rap, and more all stood out at the 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festival. Pius highlights products, programs, and ideas at SXSW that might especially interest engineering educators.
Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
New EdTech and More at SXSW
[Pius Wong] Thanks again to listener Victoria Villarreal. She told me her favorite episode so far was about the nonprofit push for girls in engineering from back in December 2016. So go check out Victoria’s recommendation. She pledged to the show at the Engineer level at patreon.com/pioslabs. And if you pledge, too, today, you can hear me do an original rap about engineering, freshly produced during South by Southwest. More on that later. Now, on to the show.
[opening music fades in]
[Pius Wong] It’s March 20th, 2017, and this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius, narration] South by Southwest [SXSW] has finished up here in Austin, Texas – you know, that big international conference and festival full of creative people and groups that want to talk and show off their work. Well, it opened with four days of South by Southwest EDU, the education portion of the event, and I was there to find out what this industry is thinking, doing, and feeling these days related to engineering education.
[opening music fades out]
[Pius, narration] I’m Pius Wong. I’m an engineer who now works in educational technology, and one reason I came to South by Southwest this year was to learn as much as possible about what’s new in the field.
[clip of a crowd fades in]
[Pius] And I’m recording at the SXSW EDU Playground Wednesday afternoon, and there is a presentation going on with a guy holding twine and nails, and they’re doing some kind of big old hands-on project.
[Pius, narration] This conference is big. Too much to cover in one episode. So this first episode SXSW is focused on new technology products and programs for engineering education. There will be another episode on equity and politics in education, which was an enormous unignorable theme this year, which might get pretty dicey when I produce it. So thanks for giving me more time to prepare that one. First, we’ll cover the shiny new toys at SXSW.
[clip of crowd fades in]
[Pius] So I just stopped by a booth here, and I just was wondering, could you briefly say who you’re here with and what you’re representing?
[Woman, WE Rep] Sure, so I work for WE, which is…
[Pius, narration] Computer science, or CS, of course was a big deal at South-by this year. One group that offered something new in that space was WE, spelled W-E. It’s a Toronto-based charity and social enterprise that’s worked with the College Board to integrate the Advanced Computer Science A curriculum with service learning.
[WE Rep] Yeah, so it’s definitely for students. So these are the courses that teachers would normally be teaching. We’ve added in these service teaching modules that are new as of last year, written by AP teachers themselves, very well-integrated into the existing content that teachers would normally be teaching. So it’s not any additional work. It’s that service component that really enriches the course for the student and gives them a kind of leg-up when applying for university and when applying for jobs.
[Pius] That sounds really interesting to me. I’m an engineer. I’m pro-coding and all that stuff, but I’ve never heard of service learning in AP Computer Science A. So if I wanted to know more about it, how would I find out, like, what that actually looks like?
[WE Rep] Yeah, so if you go onto the College Board website – that would be www.collegeboard.org/apwe, we have descriptions of all the courses and how service is kind of integrated into each one. So for example, with computer science, we’re hearing a lot from our pilot teachers in that course about certain projects, like a lot of app design for use in certain social issues. For example, we’ve heard of one student who wanted to design an app to support students with anxiety problems. So, you know, you could plug into your app, and it’ll explain how to help them when they’re having a panic attack or something like that. So a lot of it is very directly related to the coding and app design side of it. But yeah, we’ve heard some really interesting ideas so far.
[Pius] Cool. So they can go to that website and look at sample curriculum and see if it’s right for them.
[WE Rep] Yeah, exactly.
[Pius] Alright. Awesome. Thank you so much.
[WE Rep] No problem.
[Pius] What’s your name, your first name?
[WE Rep] Alexandra.
[Pius] Thank you, Alexandra. I appreciate it.
[Pius, narration] A lot of South-by attendees were keen on this pattern of integrating CS with other fields. Charise Taylor of the CS for All [CS4All] campaign of the New York City Department of Ed explained how they're training non-CS teachers in different levels of CS, so they can bring it to a greater number and greater diversity of students. She gave an example, showing a video of one school mixing music and web design.
[clip of drum beats fading in]
[Man, teacher] The drum that we play is called djembe, which means unity, and it's about community, unity, working together.
[children, chanting in unison] S-R-C equals quotes U-R-L end quotes, close tag.
[Pius, narration] You might recognize that those kids were practicing learning HTML scripts with drumming and chanting.
[Woman, teacher] We have a drumming program at our school, because many of our students come from West Africa and from the Caribbean, and this is a part of their histories. We feel like there's resonance there for them.
[Man, teacher] Five, six, ready, and...
[Pius, narration] In the next year or so, New York City teachers will be mixing in computer science concepts in different subjects at all levels. Keep an eye out for how it turns out.
[Pius, narration] Along these CS themes, many businesses showed off coding products and services, including the Japanese company Glico in the main exhibit hall. You might know Glico as the makers of Pocky, those thin and sweet biscuit-like sticks, have covered in chocolate or some other frosting. Glico made an app called GLICODE so that if you arrange your Pocky sticks on your table in certain ways, you can then snap a picture of the treats and translate the arrangement into code. That code then moves cutesy characters in their app. It’s a funny mix of brand marketing and edutainment, and you can check it out.
[Pius, narration] In the quieter upper floors of the convention center, another booth displayed a comparable product that teaches code to kids.
[Jacob Hanchar] My name is Jacob Hanchar. I’m the CEO and one of the largest investors in Digital Dream Labs. I’m presenting Puzzlets, showing everyone at SXSW our first game, which is Cork the Volcano teaches coding, K through 2.
[Pius, narration] There was a tray on the table, and a bunch of tiles with images on them lay neatly along the tray.
[Pius] Is this what I’m looking at – Is this right here what it is?
[Jacob] Right, and we call that the Play Tray. The Play Tray syncs via Bluetooth to an iPad or any other connected device, Samsung, et cetera. And what you’re seeing here is Cork the Volcano, which is our coding game. We have a math game and an art game that have come out. But here you see each in sequence, to move the character through the maze in order to get the puzzle piece, and that’s the objective. It teaches kids about logic and sequencing skills.
[Pius] Oh, I see. So if someone was familiar with block coding, for example, these little tiles that I see in front of me are like the coding blocks.
[Jacob] Exactly. That’s exactly right. Yeah. So you can think of: OK, we’ll put all the blocks together. And this feeds into a lot of programs. For example, Dot or Dash, thinking about the robotics, and you go far enough with these blocks, you can start looping, you can put modifiers. You know, this is a negator, for example.
[Pius, narration] So the kids would lay out those literal code blocks, or those plastic tiles, and the tray would detect what they physically coded and would use it to manipulate characters in an app. You can’t eat your code in this case, though.
[Pius, narration] At SXSW, there was some interest in using games for education, both in and out of computer science. In at least one meeting of educational game developers, there was even a call to try to make games more political, or to have game players reflect on moral and sociopolitical conflict. That’s heady stuff, so if you teach CS today by making your kids develop games, realize this trend could be rising in the industry. And maybe this will offer you a chance to integrate CS with your social science and humanities courses.
[Pius, narration] On the non-political gaming side of things, I played around with Kahoot, a system that’s meant for teachers to build quiz-show style games for their classrooms.
[Woman, Kahoot Rep] You go – So say you’re the teacher, whoever’s hosting the game. They play on the big screen. I’m the student or player. I go to kahoot.it. All I need is an internet connection and a device, and the game pin...
[Pius, narration] The Kahoot team demoed the system for me, as if I were in a geography class.
[Kahoot rep] All we’re going to do is answer the questions as they come up on the screen. But the whole point is that you can see the questions and answers on the big screen, but on the individual devices, you just see the corresponding tiles, these ones that are here.
[Pius] I see. And they choose their answer.
[Kahoot rep] And the reason behind that is it’s been designed that way, so that you’re not looking down, you’re looking up.
[Pius] Oh OK. I see.
[Kahoot rep] So you watch students and people playing Kahoot. They’re always engaged, looking up and around them, because they’re not playing on their own devices individual. It’s a social experience.
[Pius, narration] The bright colors and sounds in this quizzing game reminded of the You Don’t Know Jack video game series, and it could capture short attention spans in the classroom. They don’t have premade questions for STEM education yet, but teachers could still make their own questions in Kahoot if they want.
[Pius, narration] Related to CS, there was also plenty of robotics. A winner of the student startup competition at SXSW Edu last year was 16-year-old Rohit Srinivasan, and he created a STEM education kit called Trashbots. Just like how it sounds, kids can use the kid to make lower-cost robots our of cheap, everyday stuff, or out of trash.
[Rohit Srinivasan] So your name is Pius, right? So if we wanted to, we could write – We could write… Give me a second to connect with it.
[Pius, narration] Rohit showed me how to program the robot with his own original block programming platform.
[Rohit] After you click play, and then a P appears on the board of our robot. Through that you could teach kids the idea of programming, and so on. At the same time, you know, one of my favorite things to do is – I’m holding a plastic bottle I drank the other day. You can attach it on to our robot, and you can make it like, now it becomes a maraca or like, back and forth, you know. You can do things like that using found materials, and it spurs kids’ creativity, and it allows kids to understand the world around them.
[musical interlude] Down the exhibit hall, a less kinetic robot was sitting there, with rows of little green plants inside its clear-walled chamber
[Woman, Polybot Rep] We have created the Polybot, which is a hydroponic plant-growing machine for the classroom. So we’re growing plants in water instead of soil, and we pair that with a hands-on science curriculum for students in grades K through 8th grade.
[Pius] K through 8th. Awesome. And I am looking at something right now. Could you describe it for people who can’t see it?
[Polybot Rep] Sure. The Polybot is like this big acrylic box, and what it does is it controls your own little environment. You can set the temperature. You can set the lights. And that allows you to create so many different worlds inside this little box here. So you could simulate the climate of the Andes Mountains and grow quinoa in here, or you could simulate, you know, the desert and grow some cacti. It’s a really cool way to bring nature into the classroom and engage students in a really hands-on and immersive experience.
[Pius] Awesome. And I see that Arduino in the back. I guess students program that.
[Polybot Rep] So it is capable of being programmed. The one that we put in classrooms right now has already been programmed for kids, but we’ve had kids in classrooms who’ve hacked it, so that, you know, kind of mess with the lights, put a webcam in here for live updates. We definitely encourage them. We’re looking for our next version to have a more hackable, engineering, hands-on way to interact with the bot.
[Pius, narration] So if you need a plant environmental simulator in your classroom whose Arduino you could possibly hack, here’s an option.
[Pius, narration] Finally, at the main SXSW festival along the bars of 5th Street, there was the Kuri robot. That’s K-U-R-I, not the curry you eat.
[Girl in video] Hey Kuri, do you want to play? Come on.
[Pius, narration] California-based Mayfield Robotics has been showing off its security camera robot over the internet for a while now, and its two-foot tall alpha prototypes were roaming around the wooden floors of this downtown Austin event space, being cute, and hopefully reassuring everyone that they wouldn’t freak out their pets and children. Unfortunately, a Kuri engineer there told me that, as of now, there’s no hackable education kit in the words for the impressive robot. But, who knows? Maybe educators could pressure them into making it hackable in the future, like Roomba from iRobot.
[Pius, narration] For more hands-on products, I visited the SXSW Playground, where one makerspace director set the mood there.
[Cedric Bleimling] My name is Cedric Bleimling. I’m from France, actually, but now I live in Odessa, Texas, and we just opened six weeks ago the Permian Basic Fab Lab.
[Pius] What do you guys do over there?
[Cedric] Well, the Fab Lab is all about making. This place is all about allowing and empowering people to make things, and the motto is: We can make almost anything, so it should be, what are you not making?
[Pius, narration] In front of him was a digital piano with touch-sensitive real bananas as the keys. “What are you not making?” really was a good question here. They believe in making for making’s sake, which might fall in line more with tinkering and fun rather than engineering, but Cedric argues that this enhances education and engineering education, too.
[Pius, narration] If teachers are looking for projects more geared toward mechanical engineering, they could check out the booth around the corner.
[Beau Trifiro] My name is Beau Trifiro. I started Open Source Skateboards, and Open Source Skateboards is basically a way we bring skateboard building into the classroom, and combine that with engineering, applied mathematics, applied technology, and art.
[Pius] I see you’ve got a lot of example things here. What am I look at, for people who can’t see?
[Beau] Yeah. So we’ve got a couple different things here. On my right, your left, we’ve got this vacuum bag, which shows basically the process for students to make their own custom boards. This is our main program. This is typically run as a summer or an after-school program, and students are literally building their boards from start to finish from scratch. They’re designing, they’re creating a CAD model, they’re making the full mold themselves, they’re laminating the board, they’re cutting it out, and they’re finishing it with their own custom artwork. On your right side here, we have a computer, which shows on our website – This is a free open source program. It’s a skateboard 3D modeling program…
[Pius, narration] Beau explained that he’s a mechanical engineer and skateboarder, himself, so based on his interests, he started selling kits and providing curriculum.
[Beau] And this basically has everything an instructor would need to run a program, and it’s actually not that complicated. It’s really a student-run project. I mean it’s about the students doing stuff, themselves, but we just provide, you know, the lesson plans, the time estimates, as well as reference materials, like guides, checklists, and video tutorials online.
[Pius, narration] The Panoform booth was exhibiting a tool for anyone getting introduced to creating worlds for virtual reality, or VR.
[Payod Panda] My name is Payod Panda, and I’m from the Panoform team at North Carolina State University College of Design. We are really excited about getting people to create for VR rather than just be consumers of VR, but the state of things in VR right now is such that the barrier of entry to get into creating for VR is really high. You might need to learn a programming language, or you might need to learn a fancy tool, some fancy 3D modeling tool, but kids might not be willing to do that, or they might not have the resources to do that. So what we are building at Panoform is essentially a tool that can take a sketch that anyone can create. We are providing all the resources for people to help make the sketches, and you just upload that sketch to our website, and it will wrap it around you. So kids can go from viewing sketches in front of them to being inside their sketches.
[Pius, narration] Payod demoed the technology for me, and when I put on the VR headset, I could see inside a crayon world sketched by someone else. I was surrounded by a green alligator.
[Payod] You just need our grids, which are free on our website. You need our tool, which is free to use. But you need a cardboard viewer, which is about fifteen to twenty dollars. There are some for $5. It’s a really, really low-cost entry into the world of creating for VR, rather than just viewing VR movies or playing VR games. Kids can create their own VR environment.
[Pius, narration] As you might guess, a lot of complex geometry and math is folded into this VR tool, and I could see applications to the university level down to elementary. However, no curriculum seems to be available with Panoform yet, and educators who don’t have time to play with too much, themselves, may have to sit tight for more guidance on how to use this to teach.
[Pius, narration] South-by had plenty of programs, products, and ideas relevant to STEM education in general. One of the more memorable ideas came from Tom McFadden, science teacher and star of the YouTube channel “Science with Tom.”
[Beats fade in from track “Everybody’s Got Questions (Yup)”]
[Tom McFadden, rapping live] Easy sailing?
[Tom] Gonna learn from failing?
[Tom] Answers gonna be cursory?
[Tom] Know the importance of diversity?
[Tom] Do you have to be a scientist?
[Tom] Appreciate it and always applying it?
[Tom] Everybody’s got questions. Most interesting ones don’t have easy answers.
[Pius, narration] That’s Tom. He talked about how he uses hip-hop to get kids thinking about science, and he led participants into writing their own science-themed raps, so that they might know how to do that with their students. It was a process of summary and reflection about a scientific topic, and then systematically distilling it into key words, rhymes, and lyrics. Talk about integrating art and science. And, yes, I even wrote my own very first rap lyrics, which just so happened to be about the structures and functions of bridges. Later that night, some colleagues at the bar pressured me to perform.
[laughing fades in]
[Pius] Alright, whatever. I’m just gonna go with it.
[Woman] Don’t worry about it. I’m really bad at beatboxing.
[Pius] These bridge loads heavy, holding hundred Chevys, doing it with concrete and metal geometry. Strong enough for cyclic loads. Survive fifty years to stay up to code.
[Pius] Yes. No. Peer pressure.
[Woman] Do you want to start over?
[Pius, narration] Sadly, the full rap isn’t here. If you want to hear the full version, you can find it on this podcast’s Patreon site, if you donate: www.patreon.com/pioslabs. Let me tell you. You’ve got to try writing and performing a nerd rap at least once, if you haven’t. It’s kind of awesome.
[Pius, narration] One startup at SXSW saw a need for tools to streamline project-based learning in the classroom, which is very relevant for STEM these days.
[Vinesh Kannan] Yeah, my name is Vinesh Kannan, and our company is called Omnipointment. We help students and teachers have better group projects. So we built a web platform that helps students with finding time to work together and giving their teammates constructive feedback, which are two of the biggest problems we’ve seen kill students teams. And we also provide metrics to professors, so that they can intervene in teams that are struggling before it’s too late.
[Pius] Are you looking to expand to K-12 level or other groups?
[Vinesh] Yeah, super interested in K-12. One thing for our team that really interests us is when students’ perceptions about teamwork form, because a lot of students default to a greedy strategy of: Let’s split up all the component tasks. Everyone work on your own, and fuse it the night before the presentation. Which, over and over and over again, anecdotally I see it producing really bad outcomes. The students don’t seem to learn anything about communication or teamwork. We’re really interested in the high school level, because I think K through 12, if those students work in genuine group projects where you’re doing real, collaborative activities, like brainstorming together, critiquing each other’s idea, co-teaching, co-learning, we would have much better team outcomes at the college and even professional level.
[Pius, narration] Vinesh’s product, Omnipointment, has mostly been used in colleges so far, but it will be interesting to see if tools like this could help in K-12 STEM projects, if students have to work more independently and are giving constant peer reviews of each other.
[Pius, narration] In the SXSW Edu exhibit hall, there was Project Paradigm, a national project-based STEM competition for youth.
[Blessing Roland] My name is Blessing Roland. I’m a student ambassador for Project Paradigm. We’re a private foundation. We’re nonprofit, and we give up to $250,000 to students and teachers every year. And this promotes project-based learning in the classroom, you know, innovating, thinking, coming up with ideas. For this year’s challenge, which is to find ways to reduce waste, they can come up with inventions. They can, for engineering teachers, they can make websites, they can make, like, fliers and posters and stuff. They can do scientific research for science classes. They can do community service projects, which can, like, you know, have community service. What they do is they submit their ideas on the website. We also have lesson plans for the teachers to use to show the kids, and we also have videos that are led by teen inventors who have been vetted before, and so the kids know that, oh, there are people who have done it before. There’s a way to win. There’s a way to actually do it. And then the top one hundred teams win cash prizes.
[Pius, narration] This year, the Project Paradigm challenge theme is waste reduction, and the deadline for entries is May 1st.
[Pius, narration] STEM summer camps and after-school programs were also very abundant at South-by. The rep for Explo talked about their programs for STEM education, while I was cutting up some cardboard for an activity they were doing.
[Woman, Explo Rep] Oh my God, teachers, we love you so much! No, real talk, real talk. Mostly we love the students, but I guess we love you, too. Real talk, real talk. Explo is an educational nonprofit. It’s been around almost forty years, founded on the basis of MIT’s IAP, or Independent Activities Program, wherein you just explore. You explore things outside of your major, and you get to learn things just by, just learning through exploration. So for forty years, we’ve been developing these summer programs where kids from all over the world come, second graders through twelfth graders come learn through exploration. It’s a beautiful program. It legitimately changes people’s lives. Like, alums come up to our booths from all over the beautiful places in the world. People over the years keep asking us, can you please start your own school? Can you please start your own high school, middle school, elementary school, so I can send my kids there? And we’re saying, we’d love to, but instead, here’s what we’re going to do. We just started Explo Studio, and Explo Studio is an opportunity for – Oops, careful. Explo Studio has a job of making or facilitating learning through exploration throughout the entire year. So not just summer programs, but now the entire – when the kids are the classroom for the ten months, right? For the other ten months.
[Pius, narration] On the mentorship side of things, there were programs that link up girls with woman leaders in engineering and other STEM disciplines. No Barriers USA takes an interesting angle by connecting STEM to the idea of international travel and exchange.
[Woman, No Barriers USA Rep] So we bring a group of girls in the Denver corridor area to CSU, which is Colorado State University, for a day of STEM engineering, working with engineers, particularly women engineers, to talk about innovation around people with disabilities or solving global issues in the world. Spend a whole day doing that. And then we take them to Lake Tahoe, California, in June for a four-day summit, where they get to present their ideas and share with other girls from around the world.
[Pius] Oh wow. Are they, like – They’re being creative and designing things at this?
[No Barriers USA Rep] Yup. They design things for our Innovation Village, which is a place where girls get to come together, think about a global issue, solve the problem, and then create an experience or a product or a service that actually tries to solve for that.
[Pius, narration] Then ChickTech has a more sustained mentorship program in cities across the country. I spoke with a rep for the Austin branch.
[Woman, ChickTech Rep] ChickTech Austin is part of a national organization that’s focused on training and keeping women in technology, and we sponsor a yearlong high school program. We take a class of a hundred girls, have a two-day kickoff workshop in November, exposing them to different technology concepts, the types of jobs in technology. And then once a month from then to the end of school, there’s a one-day workshop with a different technology company in Austin, such as IBM, HomeAway, CDK, where they get to look inside that company, see what they do, see the types of jobs available, and learn something about the technology that company produces.
[Pius] Very cool, and if someone wants to know more about how – a teacher wants to know more about how to get involved, how would they do that?
[ChickTech Rep] You could go to chicktech.org, [http://austin.chicktech.org/] would get you to the Austin site, and then chicktech.org will get you to the overall national organization.
[Pius] Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
[Pius, narration] Those were my picks for interesting new and not-so-new products and services for engineering education here at SXSW. If you couldn’t make it here, I hope this helped you get you up to speed. Listen next time as we go deeper into the simmering and seething mood of this conference and festival, as many attendees vocalized how education – including STEM education – is the civil rights issue of our time.
[closing music fades in]
[Pius] Links to the resources mentioned in this episode are in the show notes and at the podcast website k12engineering.net. Episode transcripts are also there. Please subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast player. Share it with your friends, and follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for listening, and I hope you join me next time.
[Pius] Our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at patreon.com/pioslabs.
[closing music fades out]