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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Custom Search