Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lifelong Kindergarten at the MIT Media Lab

I'm in love.

Take a fire-breathing upshot who is bent on changing the world. Mix in a passion for learning and improving the lives of children everywhere. Have a Pritzker Prize Architect design a building and put him inside. Inject $27 million from the former CEO of Sega to create a dedicated laboratory, while connecting him to the brightest and most creative minds in the world. Give him colleagues and professors who are dedicated to making a difference, and have done so for years... and place it all in an environment that takes creativity, passion, and performance for granted.

Welcome to the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.

My entire life is dedicated to changing the world of education. I want so badly to influence the future to be better for children and others than what is available in the present - to take the blessings of education and share them across the boundaries of time and space... and now seems like the best time to be applying to study at MIT (work hard, play hard) with Lifelong Kindergarten.

Here are a few of the current and past projects at the MIT Media Lab.

Scratch is an easy-to-learn programming language that puts complex computer programming into simple terms. Using a friendly user interface, Scratch turns code into visual block-like elements that can be connected and interchanged to create anything, from games to dance competitions. The language was designed to be incredibly simple, and it's incredibly successful, with tons of users and uploaded projects on the site. Forums, "game creation companies", and other collaborative entities have all been created due to the program, engaging children of all ages. When was the last time you played a computer game or watched an interactive story written by a 12-year-old? By manipulating code and creating their own modes of expression, children learn important skills while creating lasting, useful projects. The possibility of collaboration has also created a society around Scratch, complete with jargon and teenage experts... and there is so much more.

One of my visions for Scratch is to find ways to insert it into present-day educational systems. I would love to completely change the way that we assess students, but since that will not happen in a heartbeat, creating bilingual assessment tools (that effectively engage children and allow them the freedom to learn through play... while also communicating through the bureaucracy to "prove" learning has taken place) is a way to prepare classrooms for when it finally happens. Delineating all the skills that can be gained by students using Scratch, and finding ways to show the development of those skills, could increase its use in the world substantially. And since increasing the user base of Scratch also increases its value (due to user submissions), more and more applications would become apparent for traditional classroom use.

Crickets are little boxes that can be programmed to respond to a variety of external stimuli. Like Scratch, Crickets were designed to be simple, requiring very few initial instructions, so that children could immediately learn as they constructed a vision of the object's functionality from their own experiences.

Programmable Beads, Crickets for the Blind, Tradable Bits...
I mention these because they truly denote the environment at MIT. Get an idea about anything. Add passion, an injection molder, and a circuitboard constructor, and you have a working prototype. I would have trouble valuing invisible bits instead of trading cards, but someone had an idea and took it to fruition. At MIT anything is possible.

LEGO Programmable Bricks:
To a kid who has played with K'NEX all his life, the very thought of moving to LEGO's made me cringe. I have always been completely sold on the multiple methods of connecting, the freely moving parts, the lack of sharp edges, and the anti-choking feature of air holes in each piece (not that I ever ate my K'NEX, but it was comforting to know that, if I did, I wouldn't choke to death if they got stuck on the way down). But bricks that move on their own is way beyond the little motors that come with K'NEX - and they allow a freedom of motion I only dreamed about playing with K'NEX. Programmable bricks (or K'NEX pieces) would enable people to create interactive sculptures - able to respond to input and change according to the viewer... Maybe while I'm there, I'll create programmable K'NEX. Then I wouldn't have to be torn between beauty and function.

The New MIT Media Lab Building:
For 10 Years MIT has been planning a new building for its Media Lab... but a dozen things have stood in the way. In the meantime, the media lab has grown so crowded that Administration has taken down cabinets in the affectionately called "Cube" so that there is more space. The new building, which will attach to the old one via a series of beautiful walkways, was designed by a Pritzker Prize winner - a major prize in architecture - and focuses on openness. There will be plenty of open spaces, allowing passerby to see into the building and the research groups, and enabling the easy collaboration between groups. Sounds like my favorite study area - the NoShhh! Zone.

The Okawa Center for Future Children:
Now it starts to get really incredible. Isao Okawa was an incredible man who believed that children held the key to the future... and that we, as members of society, should look to them for the solutions to problems in life. As a businessman, he was amazingly successful, running dozens of companies including SEGA and CSK. The Okawa Center for Future Children at MIT is a sister center to one created in Japan, and was funded by a generous $27 million donation to MIT. At the center, professors and graduate students (probably including those in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, and hopefully including me) will have the opportunity to interface with students to innovate and create new technologies and teaching tools that will benefit the lives of students all over the world, especially those in third-world countries. Think about it - what tools or technologies could we create to improve the learning of children all over the world?

Mitchel Resnick:
As Director of the MIT Media Arts and Sciences Program and the Lifelong Kindergarten research group, Mitchel Resnick has been on my list of potential heroes for a while. He is the hero of my thesis advisor here at BYU, and worked closely with Seymour Papert in the early days of the MIT Media Lab. I've never met him in person, but over the last few years I've read his books and papers, watched his webcasts, and followed his classroom blogs. I can hear his thick Bostonian accent and see his face light up when he talks about enabling children to learn through play. Mitchel Resnick is one of the reasons I've wanted to attend MIT - to better understand the pathway that is being beaten between play and the rigors of academia. I really believe that in the directed chaos seen in play there are the seeds of a better world... and, in the field of education, where the destiny of mankind and civilization hangs in the balance, I think there is no better place to learn.

My Plans:
MIT accepted applications until Dec 15. I chose incredible people for my letters of recommendation, spent hundreds of hours working on my portfolio, and wrote and re-wrote my "Statement of Objectives" essay dozens of times... The website says that they schedule interviews for some groups during February, while acceptance letters are mailed March 31 - my little sister's birthday. I'm praying that I'll have the opportunity to grow and learn in the best environment possible... and I'm hoping that environment is MIT.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Living Life as it Comes

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm sitting in the Chicago O'Hare Airport and snow is falling quickly enough that the sky is a mix of gray and white that I've only seen during a Midwest winter storm. My flight is delayed, which means I'll be missing more classes than I originally intended, but I can't really complain – I love to meet new people no matter what the occasion... and I still haven't written this letter.

Imagine the scene. Half a dozen children racing around the house at top speed, turning sharp corners faster than seems possible. Regular intervals of alternating screams and laughter echoing through the halls. Multiple parts of the same piano pieces played over and over again. Preparing food, eating, cleaning up the messes... and preparing food again. And the rare quiet moment when family members stop and talk. To an outsider, it may resemble barely controlled chaos... but to me, it's home. I had the opportunity to go home for Thanksgiving this year and I loved every minute of it. From the 10 hours spent in the Salt Lake Airport trying to fly standby to the hours we are spending waiting for our plane to be de-iced, life takes its twists and turns and I am happy.

We found a little store this week called Nuts 2 You. We were driving home Wednesday evening, with kids screaming in the back seat, and I saw a huge sign that read, “NUTS.” I pointed it out and we decided to go. We walked into the little shop and I fell in love. The walls were lined with bins of loose nuts, dried fruit, candy, and other items, and the manager greeted us with a thickly accented, “Hello sweetie, are you finding everything?” We browsed the shelves and learned she was diabetic (hence why she couldn't suggest a favorite candy... and also why there was a large sugar-free section of the store) and from the Ukraine. We were the only people in the store who didn't speak her foreign tongue (wither Russian or Ukrainian - I couldn't tell which)... which made reading labels nearly impossible. We found some great deals on dried fruit and dried tomatoes, but as we checked out she motioned to me to follow her into the back section of the store with a grocery bag. She proceeded to dump a whole box (10 pounds!) of Russian Marmalade into the bag, smiled at me, then grabbed a few boxes of chocolates and placed them in my arms. When I realized what she was doing, I was somewhat taken aback – the last time a storekeeper had just given me boxes of food was on my mission.

I only have a few weeks of school left before finals... and then I begin teaching physics at Riverton High School. At some points, I feel incredibly excited to be out teaching... making a difference in the lives of students... helping them to gain a love of the natural world. And other times, I wonder if I will ever be able to put into action the ideals I've carried with me all these years. Can I really be an incredible teacher? Can I communicate and instill a love of learning for my students? Or will I end up using the same old ineffective teaching tools that I learned in my worst nightmares of classrooms?

Finally. 4 hours after our initial departure time, the plane has taken off. What began as a crew delay turned into waiting in line for hours for de-icing and then into a taxi all the way around the airport when our scheduled runway was closed for snow removal. But we're safely flying now, and there were no problems with the landing gear or flocks of geese getting caught in the turbines (some of my past experiences with flying). And I've had a great conversation with a woman sitting next to me.

I think the message the Lord is trying to teach me this week is to live life as it comes. I love to make plans for life – to think that I know what I'm going to be doing in 10 years or 2 years or 2 weeks – but it's rarely true... and that's ok. Life doesn't need to go as planned from our perspective to go right from His. We never planned to find that nut store, I originally planned to be a Horticulture / Music Dance Theater major, and I know my flight was supposed to leave at 7:25. But as I look back on my life, I can see how the spontaneity of the Lord's plans have often been right on time... even when they may have destroyed my prior plans. We make a quick left turn into a shopping center and find my siblings' new “favorite store.” I realize a love for teaching and dedicate my life to the profession. And long hours give me time to reflect on the things I've learned at the hand of the Lord these last few days. Looking to the future, with plans of graduate school and a career sparkling in my mind, I wonder why lays in store. I guess the right answer would be this: whatever happens, if I look to the Lord for my strength, it will all be for my good.

Life has an endless supply of impromptu bumps for each of us. Some are trite, like being delayed a few hours in the airport or losing a set of car keys... but others can tear our world apart as we know it. The lesson I am learning is this: even when life doesn't go as planned, it is going according to His Plan. The Lord is with us – cheering when we succeed and mourning with us when life is hard. He knows our fears, our hopes, our dreams, and everything we need in order to be ultimately happy – after all is said and done... and He loves us enough to send the blessings and trials necessary to make that possible. I know that He loves us and is with us. There will always be reasons to smile and give thanks, whether you are delayed in a snow-covered airport or praying at your bedside. James 5:11 – Behold, we count them happy which endure... Give the Lord your burdens, and share the gift He has given you... Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. Go out and be missionaries!

I love you all!


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