FableVision Studios has been working with The Concord Consortium for several years now. The nonprofit research and development organization in Concord, MA and the San Francisco Bay Area in California focuses on transforming STEM education through technology. At its helm is Chad Dorsey: educator, scientist, explorer, maker, and long-time FableVision friend. Together with Chad and the team at The Concord Consortium, we’ve collaborated on innovative game-based learning solutions, including Geniverse and GeniConnect, which focus on genetics and biotechnology for middle and high school students.
“To The Concord Consortium’s delight, we find that our work brings out the inner scientist in everyone,” shares Chad. “To us, of course, that’s no surprise, because we see fascination lurking in the world around us every day. But it’s the biggest treat in the world to be able to bring amazing phenomena and concepts out for everyone to discover and appreciate.”
By identifying the best uses of educational technology, The Concord Consortium is working to produce a new generation of STEM-literate learners, workers, and citizens. And after chatting with Chad, we think you’ll agree that fascination is, indeed, lurking all around.
Tell us a little bit about your role at The Concord Consortium and the work the organization does.
The Concord Consortium has been creating innovative educational technology for over twenty years—since the Web was a toddler!—and I've been here as President and CEO for the past eight of those years. I have the distinct honor of being able to work with a ton of fascinating projects and amazing people to forge new and better ways of teaching and learning science, math, and engineering. We provide our resources and technology available for free to learners, educators, and developers around the world and continuously conduct research to help better understand the learning they make possible.
What makes The Concord Consortium's worldview stand out as distinctive? How is that reflected in how you approach your work?
We have long recognized that technology has exceptional potential to facilitate teaching and learning in STEM areas. A great many STEM topics involve concepts that are difficult to convey or grasp through traditional teaching methods. With technology, we can open up huge opportunities for tackling ideas that might otherwise be inaccessible. We recognized this from our early years, as we pioneered the use of probes and sensors for collecting data (often using mobile devices, but long before any concept of a smartphone existed). We saw how the ability to collect hands-on data about the world in real time made phenomena come to life and enabled students to explore things we never would have imagined.
That same notion really carries through all of our work—whether we’re adapting algorithms from research chemistry to create a world of interactive molecular simulations or creating tools that make intriguing patterns jump out from within complex datasets, we employ technology in ways that make the invisible visible and explorable.
The Concord Consortium has programs for formal classroom settings and informal learning spaces, including afterschool programs, for grade levels ranging from elementary to higher ed. How does this affect your approach to building content and programs for so many audiences?
We try to think about the world as learners first and foremost, so holding tight to that notion of exploring concepts and phenomena helps keep our work centered on a core that can apply to all audiences and settings in different ways. We also mirror aspects of this approach in our technology development. For example, when creating new simulation technology, we tend to create general purpose engines for simulating whole aspects of a domain (e.g., molecular motion, ecosystem dynamics, motion of fluids, and thermal energy). Doing this means that we can create open-ended, accurate, virtual representations of phenomena deliberately geared toward exploring and learning STEM concepts.
Because these simulation engines are so flexible, we can easily use them in different ways depending upon the scenario—in one case, we may develop sequenced classroom lessons around a set of simulations, whereas in other cases, we may develop a game or even a museum exhibit powered by the same underlying simulation engine. Keeping the science at the center in this way ensures that all of these uses are meaningful ways of engaging with the topic. We’re even finding that this approach, together with today’s ubiquitously available technologies, permits us to explore how learning can bridge across settings. We’re creating experiences that allow learners to encounter the same concept in a museum exhibit, back at home and again at school, each time in a manner appropriate to each setting, so that each encounter extends and builds on the learning from the last.
How did The Concord Consortium’s path happen to cross with FableVision’s?
We have been lucky enough to have Penny Noyce on our board of directors through the years. As part of her work with the Noyce Foundation seven to eight years ago, she ran across FableVision and suggested that we might find some kindred spirits there with complementary talents. As usual, she was very right! Now, Penny is writing and publishing great science-related fiction stories for kids through her company Tumblehome Learning. I guess she has always had a nose for sniffing out the intersection between science learning and great storytelling.
What has your experience been like working with FableVision on Geniverse and GeniConnect?
It’s been an absolute blast! These projects have been close to my heart, because they grew out of the work that brought me to Concord in the first place. And they’re just so much fun—who couldn’t love developing games and simulations in which students breed dragons to learn genetics? The work itself draws on a long heritage carrying across from Paul Horwitz’s early educational technology work decades ago, so it builds on a wealth of know-how and research. But the work with FableVision has brought it to an entirely new level, making it a beautiful, engaging world while retaining its scientific accuracy and kids-as-active-scientists ethos.
And as Penny suggested we would, we found ourselves striking common chords with FableVision’s people and approach from the very first moments. The working relationship has been excellent at all times—I think this is because both companies focus so much on having great people who deeply love what they do. We’ve also discovered lots of “inner geeks” around FableVision’s halls as we’ve worked together. I like to think we’ve been responsible for coaxing them out into the open! (I have it on good authority that more than one FableVision developer has clocked late hours at home unexpectedly hooked on trying to crack our dragon genetics puzzles!)
What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?
What am I not excited about? There’s just so much cool stuff we’re doing right now. We’re working on projects that will pass virtual thunderstorms straight through middle school classrooms, with students "taking data” and building meteorological computational models to issue forecasts and predict where the storms will go. We’re creating new modeling and simulation engines to allow students to explore plate tectonics and geophysical processes in a hands-on way. We’re applying intelligent tutoring and machine learning techniques to provide real-time feedback to students and teachers as they go through games and curricula or as they engineer 3D houses and design solar panel arrays. We’re using infrared cameras that “see” heat energy to transform the chemistry classroom experience. We’re giving students from all over their first maker experiences by allowing them to quickly design and construct moving mechanisms out of paper and cardboard and then control them electronically. And I probably just missed a dozen others…
What has your own experience in the classroom and laboratory taught you about the importance of STEM education for the modern learner?
In my years as a middle school and high school physics teacher, I learned the importance of letting students grapple with ideas for themselves and engage in "productive struggle” to learn through inquiry. As a physicist by training, I have also personally seen the benefit of figuring out solutions through persistence. I’ve found that people with STEM backgrounds often have a worldview influenced by these types of experiences, and I’ve seen it show in the way they approach the world. Experiences that derive things from first principles, either mathematically or logically, convey a sort of secret power that transfers to many applications far beyond science. In today’s world, where problems are messy and complex and so many solutions need to be discovered for the first time, this perspective is crucial. For both work and basic citizenship, I believe the practices of STEM learning are more and more becoming the practices we need for modern life!
Word around town is that you’re a big maker! What is the importance of the Maker movement for STEM education?
It’s clear that the Maker movement is mirroring huge changes in society. It’s amazing—new and affordable fabrication technologies, open software, idea exchanges on the Internet, and streamlined supply and manufacturing chains have come together to really change the entire game. The transformation from raw idea to actual sophisticated, working thing has never been more accessible to so many people. Though this is a very exciting change societally, finding the meaningful place for it in STEM education has been a bit more elusive. I view these days as analogous to the Heathkit days of computing—it was clear that something big was afoot as early computers began to arrive onto the scene, but the path from that point to future educational applications was still shrouded in the fog. Many of our early jumps reflect this unsurety today; there is a ton of positive energy around makerspaces, and the hobbyist tools I play with in my spare time and with my kids are incredible, and still I sometimes don’t know how to make the solid connection to STEM education.
I do think that some things are clear, though. I’ve definitely come to believe that today’s children need to grow up with the notion that anything you can imagine can be created. I know that they need to understand that computers and electronic devices should be thought of as modular building blocks that exist to be bent to their will, as a medium for their ideas. I believe that this notion will become an important aspect of what "computational thinking” means in the future. And I believe that engineering is in many ways redefining itself in real time in front of our eyes.
Listened to any good podcasts / read any good books lately?
Great question—how much space do we have?
There are always the true classics: Radiolab and 99% Invisible are absolute must-listens for anyone and everyone. Newcomers like Startup and Serial have really upped the game. The irreverence of entries such as Reply All, the first season of Surprisingly Awesome and the gem that was Mystery Show is really refreshing.
And then there has been the whole crop of political podcasts that have become essential listening for us as Americans: Slate’s classic Political Gabfest and the New York Times’ The Daily are as important as the newspaper, and Politico’s Nerdcast is a close companion.
For dessert, all the fun ones: future tech views from Flash Forward and Futuropolis, new ideas from Tell Me Something I Don’t Know or TED Radio Hour, or erudite dives into language with Lexicon Valley are all great as well.
What are five places that you’ve traveled to that you’re most likely to recommend?
Hmm… I guess the best way to characterize travel is through those unforgettable moments tied to places on the globe. A few everyone should have on their bucket list:
- Traveling by dugout canoe up a river in rural Malaysia to view the secret colonies of synchronized blinking fireflies
- Participating in an all-night new year’s ceremony by bonfire in a Lisu hill tribe village on the border of Thailand and Burma
- Soaking in the view from the top of a mountain in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth range
- Climbing Budapest’s hills at night to identify the buildings stringing along the banks of the Danube below
- Wandering down pretty much any back street in Paris, stopping to gaze in a patisserie window on every corner
And I’ll hopefully have another one soon—in a few weeks I’m heading to Dubai to be part of the first-ever set of educational technology demos at GESF, the “Davos of Education.” I hear Dubai is more like visiting another planet than another country, so I’m excited to see what it’s like.
Chad Dorsey is President and CEO of The Concord Consortium. Chad's professional experience ranges across the fields of science, education, and technology. Prior to joining The Concord Consortium, Chad led teacher professional development workshops as a member of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. There, he developed technology-embedded assessments, analyzed Web-based phenomena and representations for an online library, and co-authored an NSTA Press book of science formative assessment probes. Chad has also taught science in classrooms from middle schools through college and has guided educational reform efforts at the district-wide and whole-school levels. While earning his B.A. in physics at St. Olaf College and his M.A. in physics at the University of Oregon, Chad conducted experimental fluid mechanics research, built software models of Antarctic ice streams, and dragged a radar sled by hand across South Cascade Glacier. Learn more about The Concord Consortium and the work they do on their website.