The Social Challenge

Groundbreaking technology that could have significant implications in autism therapy.

GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Margolin

CREDIT Robots4Autism Renaming-ZenoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced a study stating 1 in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – up 30 percent from the previous estimate of 1 in 88, which was released in 2012. The continual increase of prevalence leads to a sense of urgency to answer the many questions raised by these numbers.

But with more than 3 million people in the U.S. diagnosed, we’re still uncertain of an autism cause or cure.

Fortunately, incredible strides have been made in autism treatment and intervention. The widespread use of tablets and mobile technology has resulted in a proliferation of apps that assist individuals with special needs. The trend also increased the awareness of assistive technology and communication devices, making them more accepted in classrooms and daily life. And more accurate diagnoses at earlier ages means early intervention is implemented more often, which has the potential to decrease the $3 million individual lifetime costs by up to two-thirds.

A robot can repeat the same lesson over and over again without growing tired or frustrated.

I embarked on a journey to help the autism community, seeking to use my experience to add to the diverse toolset now available for helping these individuals grow and thrive. My background in mechanical engineering and computational neuroscience led to a career in robotics research. After spending a few years designing and building humanoid robots, it dawned on me: this groundbreaking technology could have significant implications in autism therapy.

Many individuals with autism struggle with social interactions. The unspoken social rules that are ingrained into us come across as a foreign language to those with autism. They also struggle to communicate their emotions. Consider the vast number of facial expressions and gestures we convey on a daily basis, or the effort we put into reading those of others. For an individual with autism, it feels like living in a different culture, unable to recognize and respond to social cues.

This is why social and emotional learning is critical for students with autism. The challenges posed by developmental delays, combined with the strict social rules of our society, can create a significant disconnect for students with autism. Educators must provide guidance in these areas to achieve the best possible outcome for their students – independence later in life.

Many students with autism are drawn to technology. Introducing a robot into the classroom could easily increase motivation. Additionally, robots serve as a non-threatening platform. They don’t possess the same unpredictability as humans – they’re patient and even-keeled. They’re, well, robotic. A robot can repeat the same lesson over and over again without growing tired or frustrated.

Furthermore, the robots we developed have human-like faces, which can display an array of natural facial expressions. Students with autism are comfortable with the robot, and are more inclined to engage with it. As they engage, they mimic facial expressions and learn to pair them with the appropriate emotions.

The robot is not intended to replace the educator, but to extend his or her reach. It’s a transitional medium – one that motivates students to learn, but is easily transferable to real-life situations. The robot teaches natural social interaction, including appropriate eye contact and reacting to others’ facial expressions. These lessons can then be duplicated at school, home and in other settings.

Initial interactions between students and the robot have been encouraging. Two children were reluctant to engage with their educators and therapists, but once introduced to the robot, began speaking with it almost immediately. Once these children become comfortable with robot interactions, the goal is to translate the engagement into daily life – enhancing relationships with family, friends, educators and therapists.

* * *

Interested in more information? Visit the Robots4Autism website, and meet our robot. In fact, he needs your help! He’s new to Earth and is looking for a human name. Do you have a suggestion? Enter the Name Our Robot contest today!

Richard Margolin received his Bachelor of Sciences in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. Prior to founding RoboKind, he performed robotics research at The Manufacturing Automation and Robotic Systems (MARS) Lab and the Heracleia Human Centered Computing Lab. Richard began designing and building humanlike robots in 2008 as the Director of Hardware for Hanson Robotics.

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STEM Matters

Attracting K-12 students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics through competition.

GUEST COLUMN | by Bernie Skoch

CREDIT AFA CyberPatriot programThe United States is losing the global race in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies. Results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, released in December 2013 by the National Center for Education Studies, show that over the course of four years, U.S. teenagers slipped from 25th to 31st in mathematics and from 20th to 24th in science. We were mediocre four years ago; we are worse now.

But does this matter? Or is this just another “education challenge” to be discussed, vetted, and put on the “to-do list” of our busy educators? And the answer is, of course, yes! This matters a lot. And it is far more than an education issue.

And the answer is, of course, yes! This matters a lot. And it is far more than an education issue. 

Our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education issue is a workforce development problem, and it threatens our very way of life. We simply can’t remain the world’s leading economy if we aren’t growing a fresh generation of STEM-qualified workers ready to feed an economy built around STEM capabilities and industries.

And more to the point, there is a growing need for professionals with specialized computing skills in the U.S. across all industries. The demand for cybersecurity professionals over past five years grew three times faster than the demand for information technology jobs. Furthermore, this demand grew 12 times faster than all other jobs in the country.

Cybersecurity jobs are rewarding jobs. They offer an average premium of about $12,000 over other computer-related professions.

The goal is to close the global gap and get students interested in STEM fields and technical careers early-on — before entering college. And one of the ways to get students excited is by introducing the element of competition.

We’re learning that while many lessons can be taught in a classroom, there is no substitute for practical experience. Project-based, hands-on exercises with real-world application allow students to take control of their educational experiences and direct their own pathways. Competition is a natural partner that excites students and allows them to apply their lessons collaboratively.

By incorporating competitive challenges into education we can increase motivation and develop a stronger investment from students.

An example of this theory in practice is CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program that focuses on cyber safety, cyber ethics, and cybersecurity. At the program’s center is its annual competition in which youth across the country engage in cyber defense challenges. The team competition encourages collaboration and primes students for education and careers in cybersecurity. CyberPatriot, created by the Air Force Association, has attracted public and private industry supporters to create partnerships that are setting the standard for the advancement of STEM studies in K-12 education.

The competition is structured so that team members work together to secure “virtual network images” that contain intentional cyber vulnerabilities. Teams work to fix the vulnerabilities within a specified time period.

CyberPatriot launched six years ago with eight Florida teams of high school students.  Today more than 1,600 teams compete from all 50 states and Canada.

The CyberPatriot VI champion team in the Open Division (crowned last month) was from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in California. LAUSD is among the largest school districts in America, and it struggles with graduation rates. The district got involved with the CyberPatriot program to help students become more familiar with basic technology, and to get youth  from modest means better acquainted with cyber systems.

Since it started competing, LAUSD has increased its graduation rate of after-school students to over 90 percent , which is statistically higher than the general student body’s graduation rate. And even though the majority of students attending the district live below the poverty line, LAUSD has advanced more teams to the finals of CyberPatriot than any other district in the country.

In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julián Castro is committed to creating high-tech industry jobs and preparing the city’s youth to enter a globally competitive workforce. Since San Antonio is a Texas hub for technology corporations, city leaders have turned to programs like CyberPatriot to interest students in cyber jobs and drive economic development.

In 2011, San Antonio joined the CyberPatriot program with 21 teams. By 2012, that number had risen to 36 and by 2013, 55 teams had registered for the competition. This past year San Antonio fielded 85 teams, which included 12 groups from middle schools in the city. Capitalizing on its success with the CyberPatriot program, San Antonio launched the CyberStar cyber tutorial program to engage the entire community in investing in technical fields of study.

America is experiencing a workforce crisis in addition to an education deficiency. The more our nation relies on computer technology, the more vulnerable we all become. We need K-12 students to protect our future, as well as their own, and introducing competition is a significant way to get them interested in STEM.

Responding to this challenge begins in the classroom, but must be moved outside into our cities and local communities. Building enthusiasm and increasing motivation can help students learn the skills that will advance our economy. And allowing them to test their knowledge and skills against each other is the answer to getting them engaged.

Brigadier General Bernie Skoch (USAF, Ret.) is the Commissioner of CyberPatriot, the Air Force Association’s national youth cyber defense program. As Commissioner, Skoch oversees the planning and implementation of CyberPatriot as well as provides leadership and support for the program’s development.

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Left to Their Own Smart Devices

3 lessons educators can learn from the enterprise BYOD trend.

GUEST COLUMN | by Omer Eiferman

CREDIT wikipedia iPhone5As anyone immersed in education will tell you, today’s students rely on their mobile devices more than ever before. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 78% of teens have a cell phone, and nearly half of those teens own smartphones. College students, on average, own 7 different devices, with a laptop and smartphone topping the list.

Benchmarking the enterprise shift to the bring-your-own-device era, educators should consider that students prefer to use their own technology to stay connected. As with the enterprise space, students now own devices and tools that are better than what institutions can provide, and in addition, enjoy a much faster refresh cycle. In the education space, compared to the enterprise, smart devices are capable of more than providing students with ubiquitous connectivity — they are also an excellent vehicle, or control mechanism, for aligning education stakeholders, such as the student, institution, government and business, for the efficient delivery of educational resources and learning. Educators should consider these three lessons learned by enterprises:

  1.      Target any personal device as a vehicle to deliver education – The availability of powerful personal devices in the hands of students, and the continuous refresh cycle of the latest and greatest, supersedes the ability of educational institutions, similar to enterprise IT, to keep up with technology. Institutions need to refocus the delivery of education, moving away from controlling delivery devices and formats, to focus on consumption. The delivery of education should be standardized so it can be consumed by any personal device.  
  1.      Adopt multi-persona technology to bring the most salient resources to students – A recent blog post by Peggy Johnson, Executive Vice President Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., visualizes the future of education by demonstrating how to separate out device use scenarios that are directly related to making educational gains. Just like in the enterprise space, educators can utilize multi-persona technology on smartphones to even further align students, institutions, government and businesses. The separation in personas enables students to isolate their learning from other use scenarios and enables government, institutions, and business, to assure that subsidies and resources are delivered for the sole purpose of education, and not for personal or business gains. The latter is especially important when businesses are reluctant to deliver materials to students when it can be used for non-educational purposes, cannibalizing revenue from business channels.
  1.      Understand the benefits that smart devices bring – Beyond ubiquitous connectivity, devices are able to bring more granularity to the consumption, and delivery, of education. For example, using a device’s GPS capabilities, an institution or content provider can “geo-fence” the delivery of content to when a student is within the university walls, and disallow use outside of the institution’s boundaries. This prevents an out-of-scope use, for personal, or business gain. Devices can also allow for temporal constraints, disallowing the use of materials or connectivity on a summer break. The isolation of educational resources also benefits institutions in that it can allow the institution to have clean data, and insight, in to what students use, and how to improve and optimize resources and delivery. One may even imagine experimentation where different content is served to different students to measure the effectiveness of that content.

Educational institutions should enter the mobile age and embrace the opportunity to be more effective, efficient, and cost sensitive than ever before. The challenge, like with any disruption, is to rethink the system design and utilize new concepts, such as multi-persona, that align with this new age of mobility. Exciting times are ahead for educators.

Omer Eiferman is the CEO of Cellrox, a multi persona BYOD platform.

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E-Rate Update

The program’s guidelines haven’t been updated since its 1996 introduction.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Cathy Cruzan

CREDIT FCC Portals II Building WashDCOn March 6, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Public Notice revealing E-rate program reforms under consideration by the agency. The notice seeks public reaction to proposed modernization efforts. It also outlines changes proposed by educators, school administrators, school districts and consortia, and librarians.

The FCC announced three proposed goals for this process:

  1.      Ensure schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband to support digital learning.
  2.      Maximize the cost-effectiveness of E-rate funds.
  3.      Streamline the program’s administration process.

In order to achieve equitable broadband distribution, the Public Notice seeks comment on several topics, including: how to best distribute support among applicants for high-speed connections to school and libraries; how to prioritize applications for deployment

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) surveyed school district leaders, and found that 57 percent believe their schools’ wireless networks cannot handle a one-to-one student-to-device deployment.

costs in the event that the demand for such funds exceed availability; and which objective impact efficiency metrics to use in prioritizing applications.

The Public Notice focuses on three areas that will encourage cost-effective purchasing: consortium purchasing and bulk buying, technology planning and data collection, and transparency.

To streamline the administrative process, the Commission wants input on how best to minimize the administrative burdens and overhead associated with applying for, and receiving, E-rate support.

Changes are slated for Funding Year 2015 and planning begins this fall, with changes impacting the flow of funds to begin no earlier than July 1, 2015. The Public Notice requests input from stakeholders, with comments due by April 7, and reply comments due by April 21.

The Public Notice also seeks input on restoring discounts for on-campus broadband connectivity, and doing so in an equitable manner for all eligible schools and libraries. In addition, it asks for comments on a one-time targeted surge of support for schools and libraries that lag behind in broadband connectivity. A reduction or lower prioritization of support for analog telephone services, and further ideas for well-defined, time-limited demonstration projects to achieve cost savings and innovation within the E-rate program, are also being examined.

Although the Public Notice does not directly address increases to the program’s $2.38 billion annual budget, the FCC did leave open the possibility that other changes not listed in the Public Notice could be made by the Commission.

Modernizing the E-rate program is a pressing concern—the program’s guidelines and principles haven’t been updated since its introduction by President Clinton in 1996.

Since then, Internet use has increased exponentially, yet funding has lagged behind the demand. In a March 13 webinar, John Harrington of E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning, made a compelling argument for E-rate reform. Harrington pointed out that demand for funding tripled between 1998 and 2013, from $1.3 billion to $3.6 billion, while funding remained frozen around $2.4 billion.

Harrington also explained that a 2012 Funds for Learning survey of E-rate applicants revealed that only 10 percent of schools feel they are “ready for tomorrow.” This means that 90 percent of schools do not have the infrastructure to support contemporary learning technology. In support of these findings, Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) surveyed school district leaders, and found that 57 percent believe their schools’ wireless networks cannot handle a one-to-one student-to-device deployment.

The Public Notice marks a commitment to President Obama’s goal of connecting 99 percent of schools to high-speed Internet within the next five years. Internet access is necessary in today’s schools to utilize modern learning techniques, but many schools are lacking a sufficient connection. The need for E-rate reform is most pressing in poorer and rural areas, where schools have inadequate Internet access compared to more affluent areas. This need will become even greater as more schools adopt the Common Core State Standards. The new guidelines for academic instruction require students to take assessments online. This puts a tremendous strain on the bandwidth capabilities of many U.S. schools. Increased E-rate funding, along with other changes, will make it possible for under-equipped schools to acquire the bandwidth they need to help students succeed.

The Public Notice is an important first step in a process that will change the E-rate program in the near future. If you support increasing E-rate funding for impoverished schools, reach out to the FCC and your congressional representative.

Cathy Cruzan is president at Funds For Learning, one of the nation’s largest e-rate consulting firms.

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Not Your Daddy’s Printer

How a 3-D printer enhances learning in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Darin Petzold

CREDIT Airwolf 3D  XLThink of it, model it, make it – that’s our motto at Serrano Intermediate School’s Tech Academy where we embrace Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) education as we transition to Common Core. Our Tech Academy serves 102 7th and 8th grade students and consists of courses in sketch art, computer web design, stop motion animation and modeling design, and woodshop in a classroom equipped with an Airwolf XL 3D printer for manufacturing.

The 3D printer is a critical tool to enhance the learning process in our Tech Academy. It provides vital options that help us move our students forward in developing their creativity, critical thinking,

The 3D printer is a critical tool to enhance the learning process in our Tech Academy.

communication, and collaboration skills needed for success in the 21st century. For instance, this year our students will work collaboratively to create, design and manufacture a full-size, detailed prototype for an innovative product. 

What You Need To Know

First and foremost, the 3D printer is an exciting, cutting-edge technology tool (emphasis on the word “tool”) that we can effectively employ to engage students as we help them explore, learn and understand core principles. It is the perfect complement to our woodshop manufacturing. 

Second, 3D printers are a whole lot slower than laser printers. Manufacturing time can vary from one to seven hours depending on the size and complexity of the design model, which makes full-size models for 30-36 students in a 52 minute class impossible. To address this and keep students engaged, we teach students to design models scaled to miniature size, allowing us to produce more students’ products in a viable timeframe by putting multiple computer models in a matrix for the 3D printer. 

Our 3D printer allows us to produce more intricate and detailed products with a larger variety of material to choose from than we could manufacture in traditional woodshop, which is exciting for our students. For example, our students are making “Mini Me” bots with articulated limbs and detailed heads. Students will create an idea for their bots, sketch out their idea and then make the bots’ bodies and limbs with woodshop tools and create the head with the 3D printer. There are woodshop tools that we just don’t have the time to teach the students how to use safely to produce a detailed head, but we can teach them to design a computer model and program the 3D printer to make it. 

For the full-size prototype project, the students are making a sketch drawing to communicate their idea for everyone to review, then they will vote and select the best idea. The students will then have the opportunity to collaborate on designing the model and manufacturing the selected product for entry into our county’s 2014 Maker Challenge—a collaborative project of Career Technical Education of Orange County that provides an opportunity for local students to participate in an integrated STEM design project. Their challenge is to use 3D modeling and printing to design and build, or significantly repurpose, products that will solve problems, needs or wants. 

Our Tech Academy Process

Think It – Students create a product in their mind and then must be able to communicate it graphically to others. In the art course, students are learning to sketch their ideas utilizing single-point and two-point perspective drawing techniques. Without these art skills, students would not be able to transform their idea into a computer model design for manufacture. Once they have successfully communicated their idea in a drawing, students move on to the next stage of development.

Model It – Our computer course uses “Sketch Up” software to teach students how to design the model for their product to be manufactured. As part of this design process, students will need to use their knowledge of proportion and scale to design their model on a miniature scale. Not to mention being thoroughly engaged as they design a viable computer model.

Make It – Students learn to transfer their computer model to the software that will run the 3D printer to manufacture their product. 

Moving Forward

Our Airwolf XL 3D printer will continue to play an integral part as we move forward into our “STEAM” Academy next year, providing more sophisticated design, modeling, aerodynamics, automation and robotics engineering experiences for our students with the Project Lead the Way curriculum. With the variety of filaments available for our 3D printer, we will also be able to design and manufacture some of the parts that we will need for robotics and other projects. 

Darin Petzold teaches Wood Shop, Tech Academy and Science at Serrano Intermediate School, Lake Forest, California. Write to:

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