This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Sandbox Summit at MIT. At the conference I was able to meet people from beloved companies like Nickelodeon, Sesame Street Workshop, and PBS as well as academic colleagues and journalists, nonprofit fundraisers, and start-ups. It was thrilling to have the opportunity to share my passion for enhancing the learning and playing of young children with such an eclectic group of people.
The focus of the summit was exploring ways we can help children play, learn, and connect. Despite my own challenges with getting to and from the Summit, including inclement weather and missed flights, I was able to attend most of the sessions. Upon arrival, and already behind schedule, I joined a session called Playing on the Internet: Look What I Discovered, presented by a high school student, Jack Andraka. At age 15, Jack was able to create a paper sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer simply by doing research on Google and Wikipedia. Even more incredible, this test takes 5 minutes and costs as little as 3 cents. Throughout his candid presentation, his humor and personality shone through. He was welcomed as a scientific peer at Johns Hopkins. Throughout his talk, I was continually struck by the thought: If he could do it, why not me, or anyone? I came to the realization that access to technology allows people you would never expect to make a contribution to the world. I was already inspired, and had only just arrived.
Next, I attended “A Conversation with John Hunter”. John Hunter is the creator of The World Peace Game, which is a political simulation game built on a 4’x5’ piece of plexiglass. This game shows students how their actions can literally and virtually change the world. I found this to be a very interesting concept, and really enjoyed how in the digital world we live in, and at a conference hosted by one of the leaders of world-wide technological innovation, people still care about creating a concrete, real-world educational experiences. That is what ISA is all about – creating meaningful and impactful face-to-face learning experiences.
With this game, kids are given a great deal of freedom to explore and take risks, which creates a very open-ended learning situation. This lack of structure, however, along with the complexity of the game, could create a potential challenge in the educational outcome. More scaffolding may be needed to be more successful. While I enjoyed so many aspects of this game, I was left to question why the game must always end in world peace? Shouldn’t kids be allowed to fail? If it always ends up with peace, we are not necessarily communicating what the world can actually be like.
After lunch, I attended a workshop called Learning to Play: How to Shape a Good Game led by Barbara Chamberlin, a Professor from New Mexico State University, Peter Stidwill, Executive Producer of the Learning Games Network, and Allisyn Levy, Vice President of GameUp at BrainPOP. This workshop focused on educational game play, and how to build the scaffolding surrounding it to make it effective. In addition to providing hands-on learning and interaction with a variety of games, this workshop also lent itself to socializing and conversing with people who had similar interests.
One of the games I played was called Ratio Rumble, a math game to support the learning of ratios. This game is similar to the popular game, Candy Crush, which requires you to connect similar objects in order to make them disappear. Unlike traditional board games from our childhood, we were not given a set of directions, or rules, to read before playing. Instead, like many computer games, you learn how they work as you go. The game was fun and enticing, and overall accomplished the goal. At one point, however, I came across what I initially considered to be a bug. I was given a ratio to which there was not a correct match on the screen. I was forced to go ahead to the next ratio without answering. Upon further reflection, I realized that this is not necessarily a bug, but rather a learning opportunity to show that you are aware that the ratio is not there. As a whole, I really enjoyed this workshop. I played some great games, met some great people, and had some great conversations.
Later, I found myself watching sci-fi in action with the brain-controlled devices demonstrated by Steve Castlelotti, CEO of Puzzlebox. Steve’s company harness brain-waves emitted during states of concentration to control objects — with devices that take advantage of “brain-computer interfaces” (BCI). His presentation surveyed what is currently available with BCI and predicted what we can expect in the future. It was very inspiring to see sci-fi becoming more popular using this technology, and amazing to think of the possibilities for what this technology can do. While I was fascinated by the brain-controlled toys, I had an issue with the fact that the technology could only do one thing at a time. It does not matter what a user concentrates on, so long as the user concentrates on something his technology will convert the observed brain waves into mechanical action. This technology is very useful for training someone to focus but not really useful for “doing” anything in the world. But, maybe in the not so distant future, there will be an opportunity to multitask brain control. Steve’s BCI framework could lead to a world where there is real-world observations of someone’s cognitive control — so those kids who are weaker at concentrating can be given appropriate environmental or behavioral support. That would be brain-based education.
As I wrapped up Day 1 of the Sandbox Summit, I couldn’t have ended on a better note. Filled with inspiration and thought provoking information from the day, I listened to a presentation about online charity by Katie Bisbee, Chief Marketing Officer at DonorsChoose.org. She provided attendees with a gift card to put toward an online charity of their choice. As I reflected on my day, and the gesture of this company, I couldn’t wait to sit down with my kids to discuss charities, and come up with one together to send this donation.
One of the highlights of Day 2 was a presentation by Mitchel Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at MIT, called The Media Lab Approach to Learning. Mitch discussed the 4 P’s (project, peers, passion, play) that he thinks are responsible for fostering creativity and innovation at the MIT Media Lab. he suggested ways that the MIT Media Lab has used these 4 P’s to create for young children the conditions for creative problem solving. We also got a sneak peek of the Scratch Jr. iPad app for that is set to be released in May. Scratch Jr. is based on a version of the Scratch programming language for children between the ages of 5 and 7. It was very exciting to see the potential this game had for supporting storytelling with technology. Some concerns I had, however, were that there seemed to be limitless options, which can be overwhelming for anyone, especially children. It could use more structure, or possibly a curriculum built around it, so it could be successfully used in an educational setting.
Finally, I went to see Allison Druin, Chief Futurist in the Research Division at the University of Maryland, and Katie Bessiere, Sr. Director of Digital Consumer Insights & User Experience at Nickelodeon. Their presentation, A Co-Design Journey: Random + Ridiculous = Fun, was a great way to end the conference. They discussed how their co-design process brought children into NickJr.com’s redesign effort. I can see how children were able to develop a sense of empowerment while learning about the design process, which consists of thinking about the question of the day, working together to answer in co-design groups, kids presenting what they found, and adults identifying trends. The researchers then use takeaways from this process to inform the next steps they will take. I certainly saw the entertainment value in this, but was struggling to find educational value. I feel that for it to truly be an educational experience, it needs more guidance and structure. But one thing is for sure, as the name of the presentation suggests, random + ridiculous does in fact equal fun! ISA will try to incorporate some of this FUN into its stories but only in a way that adds to an educational goal and not in way that detracts from learning (c.f. the seductive details phenomenon).
Overall, the Sandbox Summit met and even exceeded my expectations. Like the Summit boasts, I was able to play, learn, and connect. I met and conversed with people at all stages in their careers, and still made connections with them because, at the end of the day, we were all there for the same thing: inspirations for playful learning. It was exciting and uplifting to see people in the industry side of our field who are truly invested in the education of children, and not just interested in selling their product. I will definitely be returning to the Sandbox Summit.