Monday, August 14, 2006

SciFoo Camp Highlight1 - HowToons and Science Education Reform

I am going to post some blogs on some of the more interesting things I saw at foo camp.

I think by far and away the thing that made the biggest impression on me at scifoo camp was HowToons. From their description:
Howtoons are cartoons showing kids of all ages "How To" build things. Each illustrated episode is a stand-alone fun adventure accessible to all. Our Howtoons are designed to encourage children to be active participants in discovering the world through Play-that-Matters -- fun, creative, and inventive -- and to rely a lot less on mass-consumable entertainment
In this day and age, science, math and engineering is becoming more and more important for the world. And yet despite much lip service, we seem to be doing a pretty poor job of reaching out to kids and to people not currently interested in these areas. I have been involved in this area for some time and have seen a bunch of different approaches:
  • When I was an undergraduate at Harvard I and another student (Alison Lingane) pushed Harvard to create an undergraduate major in Environmental Studies that covered science, policy, economics, etc but did not take any "pro" or "anti" environment position. The secret goal behind this was to bring science to students who might end up becoming lawyers, congresspeople, senators, etc. Harvard created such a major a few years later called Environmental Science and Public Policy.
  • When I was a graduate student at Stanford, I served on the committee that was charged with redesigning Stanford's science, math, and engineering requirements for non science majors. (A little aside - although this was over 10 years ago now, the web site I created is still up here - it slipped through the cracks of the Stanford delete mafia). In the end, we came up with a plan to create full year integrated courses that covered a particular are and had science, math, and engineering embedded within the course. None other than Condoleeza Rice was in charge of the committee and I thought the idea for the new courses was so great that I helped design and then teach one of them (a course on heart disease). I was really proud of this course (and won Stanford's biggest teaching award to boot). But in the end, I think college may be too late to reach students and get them to really appreciate science, math and engineering.

That is why I was so excited about Howtoons. This is one of the most creative and elegant ways to reach out to kids I have ever seen. What they have done is create hands on modules to teach various principles of the world (some engineering, some science, some math). These modules are based on having kids create experiments out of various household goods they have lying around (e.g., 2 liter soda bottles play a big role). The modules are just stunningly cool (I would want to do them as an adult). For example, they have one where the kids make their own safety goggles out of soda bottles, or make ice cream with explanations about why it works. But that is not the best part. The best part is that the instructions for the modules are done in comic books, with beautiful artwork, and entertaining side stories, and are things kids would actually want to read. If you have kids, or do are involved in any way in K-12 science, math or engineering instruction, you really have to check out Howtoons.

They are coming out with a new book soon that enbeds all of their best modules. You can make preorders on Amazon.

Some other cool education related activities were discussed at scifoo. One of the others that stuck with me was a presenation about using the online world SecondLife for education. I will try and write more about that in a later posting.

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