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Side Projects: DrTechniko Makes Computer Science Accessible to Kids

Posted in Knerds on August 29, 2012 by

Nikos as DrTechniko teaching "How to Train a Robot"

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.