Tag Archives: side projects

Nikos as DrTechniko teaching "How to Train a Robot"

Side Projects: DrTechniko Makes Computer Science Accessible to Kids

This is the latest installment of our blog series about Knerd side projects.

Nikos

When he’s not busy coding at Knewton, Senior Software Engineer Nikos Michalakis keeps busy writing stories and making up games for kids. I talked to Nikos to learn a bit more about the website he runs, called DrTechniko.

What’s the purpose of DrTechniko?

DrTechniko educates young kids (starting at age 5 or so) about computer science and technology through stories and games.

Technology is accelerating and becoming more and more pervasive in our personal lives. Understanding how technology works and how to use it in creative ways to solve problems is not taught today, unless you get an engineering degree.

DrTechniko makes engineering and computer science concepts easy to understand and helps kids practice creative problem solving. The stories I write try to expose kids to different problem-solving techniques or uses of technology, and the games are designed to teach them programming and problem solving.

Where did you come up with the idea, and how did you get started?

I was frustrated by my own education. I felt I was wasting a lot of time in school and not learning real skills.

I was fortunate to go to MIT, where I was exposed to a mentality of creative problem solving and developed a skill set that now helps me both at work and at home. I realized that a lot of the principles we were taught about engineering and programming were simple enough that I could teach them to a five-year-old by reading them a story or playing a game. So I started the DrTechniko blog in October of 2010 to post stories for kids and my thoughts on these matters.

In the beginning I was trying to cover everything about science, but then I decided to narrow it down to computer science. This way, the site would serve a dual purpose: expose kids to this field early on, while also teaching them creative problem solving.

The turning point with DrTechniko happened about five months ago, when I decided to bring games into the blog. I introduced the “How To Train Your Robot” game and taught it a couple of times to 5+ year-olds (check out the picture at the beginning for the post to see the class in action!). It got a great response from the international community. I’ve since made the materials for the class public and now others are teaching the class in the US, UK, Netherlands, Chile, etc.

What’s one of your favorite DrTechniko projects?

I’d say the most fun for me so far has been teaching the “How To Train Your Robot” class, but I’m working (in secret) on a picture book that will combine a story and instruction on how to play the game. Writing and illustrating the book has been my biggest source of fun lately. I hope I can find a good publisher. :)

Where did your interest in educating children come about? How does your work at Knewton complement your work at DrTechniko? 

I have been interested in education for a while now. I believe that learning at school is highly inefficient. We have these artificial rules around when someone should be learning one thing and when they should be learning the next thing and so on. This model of education does not work anymore. We are all living examples of this — I doubt most people have found more than 10% of what they learned in school useful in their work or home.

This is why I like Knewton’s vision. Adaptive learning gives us the power to make learning part of our daily routine anywhere and anytime, shape it to our abilities and interests, and make it a lifelong process. We should have very high expectations for the future generation.

Any future plans for DrTechniko?

I’m hoping to get more time on my hands and keep up adding stories and games and setup a schedule to teach classes for kids at our new Knewton office. If people are interested in DrTechniko updates they can visit my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/drtechniko.

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Side Projects: English Majors Unite

This is the latest installment in our blog series highlighting Knerd side projects.

I started the literary magazine LitCouture 4 years ago, right after I graduated from an MFA program in creative writing. Using my own network of writers and my knowledge of small presses, I was able to build up an organization fairly quickly.

Right off the bat, I was thrilled with the kind of talent we were able to attract. We published winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize as well as Guggenheim and NEA fellows and hot emerging voices. In 2009, we came out with a lavish, full-color print edition which was sold in bookstores nationwide. We had a great circulation rate for a lit mag, and we were sold in Barnes & Nobles, Borders, and independent bookstores all over North America. Once we launched, I got substantial interest from undergraduates, and soon after, I built up a fairly substantial internship program.

We’ve had over 20 interns over the years, and many of them have received grants to work with us from their respective undergraduate institutions. It’s a very intellectual internship (as much a class as a work experience). For instance, the internship has a “reading list” which includes authors like Nabokov, Calvino, Borges, and three of my favorite contemporary authors, Steven Millhauser, Rikki Ducornet, and A.S Byatt.

The first week of our meetings, everyone reads Dana Gioia’s famous essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” which was published to acclaim in the Atlantic Monthly in 1991. (Gioia is a businessman and poet who has controversial ideas about making poetry relevant in society again). Here is a quote from Gioia which sums up my reasons for starting the organization in the first place:

“American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group…”

Gioia goes on to outline some of the ways we can draw poetry back into mainstream American life: hold readings that are more creative (readings people actually want to attend); showcase poetry with music, visual art, and dance; emphasize performance as well as analysis in classrooms.

With LitCouture, we’re putting a lot of these ideas into action. We’re infusing our literary endeavor with a sense of pleasure, beauty, and enchantment. This all reflects my view that the literary experience is glamorous and exhilarating; it is not high brow or low-brow; it is no-brow.

When I started working for Knewton, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up the print publication, and I wanted to experiment with more digital stuff anyway, so we just kept everything online.

One of English Majors Unite’s featured images. Source

This summer we started English Majors Unite, which is the scrappy, irreverent side of our whole operation. That’s where we scour the earth for literary stuff: literary bathing suits, literary cakes, literary homes, literary birthday parties, literary bars, literary drinking games, literary cars, literary perfumes, literary jewelry, literary younameit. We search the world for the most charming literary things and showcase them in one place. And once a week or so, we pair original fiction and poetry from our archives with a “maker” — a visual artist of some kind — preferably in a category that defies categorization (public art, street art, wearable art, renegade art, etc.). Ultimately, what we want to do is provide a belletristic lens for viewing the world and a space which reflects our total obsession with aesthetics.

This concept of “makers” probably requires a little explanation.

Whenever I see artfully designed things on the streets or in stores, I think, “This reminds me of Calvino. Or Borges. Or Steven Millhauser.” Our blog is a collection of all these baroque, eccentric, idiosyncratic, painstakingly crafted objects — the sort of things you look at as an artist and feel a sort of kinship with. Perhaps it’s different for others, but I know that whenever I see anything beautiful — whether it’s a ballet or a leather handbag — anything that reflects total discipline on the maker’s part–it inspires me to write, to aspire to perfection — and of course, inevitably fail. The striving is the point: it’s part of this Romantic sensibility which I am trying to cultivate around our project.   

Side Projects: Rhythm Rhyme Results

Here at Knewton, we put a high value on creativity and entrepreneurship, and it shows in the way our team members choose to spend their time outside of work. At any given time a large number of Knerds are working away at side projects — artistic endeavors, business ventures, athletic competitions, and more. 

Robbie

Before he started working in edtech at Knewton, Senior Marketing Associate Robbie Mitchell was working on a different educational project: rap songs.

Robbie is the co-founder of educationalrap.com, also known as Rhythm Rhyme Results (RRR, pronounced “Triple R”), which sells educational rap songs for middle school teachers and students. The songs cover math, science, language arts, social studies, and economics.

I talked with Robbie recently to learn more about his experiences running RRR.

How did you get started?

My close friend Ben and I had been making music together since high school. He’s an incredible musician with teaching experience; in the winter of 2005 he and I were living together, and we spent a week working on some songs and recording them in our apartment.

One of those original songs was the Circulatory System:

We shared the demos with our friends and family and they all got a kick out of them.

How did you move from just doing this for fun to making a business out of educational rap?

We kept being told we should do more with the songs. After some pilot testing in schools, we got together with Ben’s parents, one of whom was an orchestra conductor, the other a trained musician with many years of music education and arts administration. They stepped in to help as angel investors.

At the time I was working at Harvard as an assistant to a couple of economics professors. I was trying to do entrepreneurial things while there, but realized that I wasn’t long-term interested in economic development and trade. So, I left my job to work on RRR full-time. Ben would be the music guy and I would be the business guy.

After building a network of professional contributors — we hired lyricists, producers, and performers for every song — and producing four albums, we put them up on iTunes, but there were some downfalls with that — we didn’t get any data, the money was delayed, we had little control over presentation. I also arranged meetings with VPs at big companies like Disney and Viacom, but they didn’t really know what to do with the songs.

Eventually I put together an e-commerce system where teachers could buy the songs (or CDs — which we created due to popular demand) with credit cards from our site, and that’s when we really started selling. We also contracted with some people to build an inexpensive streaming system that we could use to sell subscriptions to schools and hooked it up to be an automated signup and billing process. And that’s where we are today. iTunes is a small part of our business. Most of our revenue now comes from individuals buying the downloads or CDs, or subscribing to streaming. All of the songs now include related games and worksheets for teachers to use with students.

What lessons did you bring to Knewton from your time running RRR?

The cool part about RRR early-on was that I was doing a little bit of everything myself. By the fourth album I was overseeing production, running the website, customer service, drumming up business development meeting, learning about SEO… The nice thing was that I got a really strong sense for tight feedback loops. People would call for support because they didn’t understand something on the website, so I would go back and edit it so it was clear. I figured out how to automate a lot of things that were annoying. I came to Knewton with a bunch of tools that were really helpful that we use here now, like WordPress and Formstack — tools that helped me do things quickly by myself.

Do you have a favorite song?

There are so many. Over time, we put a little more money into songs and we got better at the collaborative production process. We also did an economics album with Flat World Knowledge aimed at high-schoolers — we had gained more experience by then, and the songs reflect it.

Here are two of those:

My favorites from the “core subjects” songs are probably “Layers of the Earth”, “Dots and Dashes (Punctuation)”, “Don’t be Negative”, and “Civil Rights Movement”. I’m really partial to the production in the songs (like in general music) and these songs have such interesting things going on. We put a lot of care into things you might not hear unless you listen to an instrumental version. (Each song pack and CD includes each song in four versions, including instrumental.)

Students have also made some great YouTube videos out of the songs for class projects and extra credit. There’s a playlist of our favorites, and here’s one of them.