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Alan Kay Colloquium: Squeaking by on New Ideas

Can fourth and fifth grade students write a computer program that teaches them gravity?

B.J. Allen-Conn thinks so, because she has them do it in her classroom. Allen-Conn is an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District who uses a new program called "Squeak" to teach all her subjects-including math, science and literature. "There is no way I could have taught gravity in any other way. You can read about it, but to really understand the concept and find a way to create gravity...this program allows you to do it."

Alan Kay introduced the program in a colloquium given to a packed Milbank Chapel on April 10th. The colloquium was the keynote address for a series of workshops on Squeak. The event was sponsored by the Mathematics, Science and Technology Department and CEO&I under the guidance of Danielle Kaplan, Assistant Professor of Technology and Education.

Kay is a pioneer in the computing field; as a member of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center from the late 1960s, he saw the creation of the now ubiquitous technology of personal and laptop computing and the "Windows" or Graphical User Interface (GUI) type of operating system. Kay also has a deep interest in educational uses of technology.

Kay spoke on how teachers can effectively use technology to teach mathematics and science. Squeak has numerous applications, which allow kids to explore math and science through visual, hands-on exploration. Using Squeak students engage in complex mathematical reasoning while having fun and experimenting on their own. At the colloquium Kay demonstrated how, using Squeak, students can draw a car, figure out how to drive it, and make it a robot car using mathematical reasoning. Other applications allow students to visually explore how gravity works, how ants find food, and how slime molds operate.

The driving motivation behind creating this program is to let kids have fun while engaging in real learning. Kay pointed out that students are capable of much more complex thinking than what is required for most school tasks. According to Kay, school mathematics is only a very small part of what he calls "real mathematics."

Real mathematics involves a deep understanding of relationships. Children can access this knowledge through real-world demonstrations that are fun and challenging, such as those provided by Squeak. Kay said his work is inspired by Maria Montessori, who threw away any of her inventions that the students didn't think was a toy.

"Squeak is a powerful technological tool for teaching kids math and science while still having fun," said Kay.

To underline the point, Allen-Conn said that to really learn, you must make something yourself. "If you don't build it yourself, it's not inside your heart. You don't internalize it. You really don't know it. That's what my passion is about Squeak and teaching in general."

Kim Rose, CEO of Viewpoints Research Institute, a non-profit group founded by Kay, is trying to get the word out on Squeak. The TC-Squeak connection arose when Kaplan saw Kay speak at an educational technology conference, said Rose. This ultimately led to the colloquium and workshops.

Rose said she is excited by the possibility of further collaboration with Teachers College. "The people here at TC can help us think about things that we think are important: curriculum development, professional development, how to get both teachers already in service and ones that are pre-service thinking about educational technology." She is also co-authoring, with Allen-Conn, a book of sequential projects to teach students the skills of using Squeak.

Kaplan, who worked with Lara Tilmanus and Bruce Strothenke to assist the participants, said that new ideas and tools like Squeak need to reach practitioners and teachers in service. She said that she would like to encourage all teachers, beyond those already technologically inclined, to take advantage of educational technologies like Squeak.

For more information, visit www.squeakland.org.

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