Interview report: Dean Kamen | Inventor, entrepreneur, advocate for science and technology, and founder of FIRST

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Dean Kamen, participated as keynote speaker in the 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation. As an inventor, holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of healthcare worldwide. He is also the founder of FIRST, an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology (FIRST, 2017). 

Observatory: How can we innovate education in science and technology to make these subjects more interesting?

Dean Kamen: If you said to kids, "We're going to play football soccer tomorrow” and they showed up but there's no field, no ball, there's only a 50-page textbook called “The History of Soccer” and then after that, there's a quiz, to see if they know the rules. But if they never played, never kicked the ball, never ran, nobody would like soccer. Well, isn't that how we teach science? We learn this formula, then that formula, and then there’s a quiz on this formula, and then a test on that formula. But, if you said, "We are going to build a robot” and to build a robot, students got to connect this to that, and need to understand voltage and current, and got to understand how to measure things, cut things and assemble things. And then, my robots are going to run around, and if I didn't do it right, it's going to fall apart like the first time you tried to kick a soccer ball and missed. But then you practice, get better and come back, and you see your robot doing more, and that's exciting, and you're proud of it. 

So, when they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. They learn facts. They learn names. They learn formulas. To this day, I don't remember which law is which. I don't care what the label is. I know what the laws mean and how to apply them. I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

When they say they're teaching science in school, they're not teaching science, they're teaching the history of science. They learn Isaac Newton, 1687. They learn Archimedes, 275 BC. [...] I believe that we should stop teaching the history of science. Science isn't about studying those guys.

Observatory: What is FIRST?

Dean Kamen: FIRST stands for (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation of young kids to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. It was founded in 1989 and has served more than 300,000 young people, ages 6 to 18, in more than 60 countries around the globe. My goal in starting FIRST was to create a generation of kids that embrace technology and see it for what it is: a powerful tool to fix the world and give them great careers. Studies have shown that FIRST alumni are highly motivated to pursue careers in science and engineering (FIRST, 2017).

Observatory: What are the competencies that you see in children who have experienced the FIRST program and that differentiate them from other kids?

Dean Kamen: People used to tell me, "Dean, you're not going to teach kids how to be a roboticist in six weeks." And I'd say to them, "You're exactly right." Of course, I don't plan to do that. In fact, FIRST, as I said today, F-I-R-S-T, education isn't even in our name. We are For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. If the kids recognize it, if they are inspired by it, they'll go get an education. It will take them 10 years. We're not going to give them an education. That's what schools are for. To answer your question, they have self-confidence and self-respect. They understand how to work with teammates even when they disagree with them. I think FIRST is a model to show kids what the world could be like if people are open-minded and willing to learn and work hard, and willing to fail and pick themselves up and try again. That's what they learn.

Observatory: What inspires you to work on an invention, and how do you decide what project or idea to work on?

Dean Kamen: It's very hard to explain to somebody why we worked on a specific project. But when you look at all the projects we work on, I think the safest thing I can tell you is, there are so many big problems to work on, we end up sort of stepping onto one if we think our engineers are uniquely qualified to do it better than anybody else, based on their experience. And maybe we believe we need to do this one because nobody else will do it. So, we don't work on any project unless, fundamentally, we believe we're going to make a big difference. If we do this and it happens right, it'll make a big difference to the people that need it.

For example, we worked on a water machine because we can help the largest number of people on this entire planet. It's the biggest problem, there is no water. But, also, we worked on a prosthetic arm for a few hundred soldiers, and we hope they won't need anymore because we hope to stop sending them out into battles to get their arms blown up. So, I guess a long answer to your question is, we finally pick the project to work on mostly if we think we're really going to make a difference. If we had to compete with five other companies for the project it means we don't need to do it, they'll solve this problem and can take care of it. What I’m saying is I'm not in this to compete.

Observatory: What personality trait makes you who you are?

Dean Kamen: I guess curiosity about the world is what's always driven me, believing that if you think about it long enough you'll understand it, you'll have an insight, you'll figure out how to solve a problem if you really understand it. So, curiosity is a driving force in the world of innovation.

Observatory: Do you think higher education is efficiently delivered? 

Dean Kamen: I think it could be made more effective. It could be made lower cost, and therefore it could be delivered to millions more people that desperately need it. I believe there are many things we could do to make it different. For example, I would make sure kids use the education piece for the education. In other words, I think people confuse education and training, and we use schools to do the training, and we should use schools to do the education. And for the training, schools should say to students, "If you want to be able to do this, here's this program." It's Word, or it's Inventor, or it's some software program. "Go study this and learn how to use it." You don't need a professor to train you to use this program; you just need to practice it. That's training. And then come to class and use the classroom for the education of taking your training and doing something valuable with it.

Observatory:  What's your opinion about this 3rd International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Dean Kamen: I see a lot of people from Tec de Monterrey and its 26 campuses and 37 high schools, and others that came from other institutions in Mexico and other institutions around the world, including South America. It seems like there's a lot of energized people, energized universities, energized companies, energized parents, energized professors, and energized government people that really get it. They realize that if they want the future to be really successful and exciting for these kids and for their country, they've got to double down on tech, and they've got to give kids the inspiration and the tools to make tech part of their future. And, so far, that seems to be the mission of this convention, and that's pretty exciting.

FIRST (2017). Founder, FIRST President, DEKA Research & Development Corporation.


Interview report: Leonardo Garnier | Former Education Minister of Costa Rica

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Leonardo Garnier Rímolo, Former Education Minister of Costa Rica, has several publications in journals and books on economic and social topics related to development. He promotes the theory of subversive education, defined as helping students become who they want to be.

Observatory: How can we develop skills in students based on emotional intelligence?

Leonardo Garnier: In many countries, education is based on subjects, which is one way of organization, with its advantages and disadvantages. One of the most interesting experiments in the world right now is being conducted in Finland. They are scrapping subjects and working only on projects, something that the Jesuits are also doing in Spain. However, an exceptionally mature educational system and an extremely highly-trained faculty are required to develop skills in our students on the basis of emotional intelligence.

For example, teachers who work only with projects, without subjects, they need to have a command of the subjects even though they are not being taught as such. They must have the highest pedagogical capacity, since it is so much easier to teach in the traditional way. I think you have to be very careful and consider educational reforms as part of a gradual process.

One of the most interesting experiments in the world right now is being conducted in Finland. They are scrapping subjects and working only on projects.

Copying a Finnish reform in Latin America wouldn´t be recommendable if you don’t have the organization or culture; I would opt for reforms that do have this more ambitious vision, but that take into account which stages need´s completed so an organization can gradually change and, above all, so that the culture can change.

Another way of responding would be to work with projects within the subjects. In Costa Rica, an interesting strategy was to mix soft subjects (music, art) with hard subjects (mathematics or science), and, all of a sudden, students are working on a joint project for both subjects. So, the teachers coordinate with each other, but keep their own subject. Why not scrap subjects? Because I don’t think we’re ready to scrap them, just yet, even though in theory it might seem the right thing to do.

Copying a Finnish reform in Latin America wouldn´t be recommendable if you don’t have the organization or culture. 

Observatory: Based on your experience in education in your country Costa Rica, and in other Latin American countries, what is the main obstacle to developing or implementing innovation?

Leonardo Garnier: There are two main obstacles that are tied in with each other. In the education area, a permanent battle has been between the conservatives and the liberals. The conservatives have understood education very much in the style of the inquisition: preparing obedient, well-behaved children whom follow instructions, they have to memorize all information. In Latin America, many people have tried to break up this paradigm. This conservative resistance is deeply set in not only in the education system, but also in parents who usually think: "I’ll send my child to school so they can teach him to be obedient ". It’s such an old-fashioned mentality: you should fulfill your role as a parent and the school should make the child creative, free, audacious, but not obedient, that’s another matter entirely.

Leonardo Garnier at  CIIE 2015 .

Leonardo Garnier at CIIE 2015.

In Latin America, we have two key issues: if the teaching profession is not well respected or well paid, we can’t attract the best people to this profession. That’s crazy.

The second challenge is that in order to achieve an education with freedom, well-trained teachers are required. In Latin America, we have two key issues: if the teaching profession is not well respected or well paid, we can’t attract the best people to this profession. That’s crazy. If you look at countries like Korea or Finland, among other countries that have been successful in education, the teachers are the most highly respected and valued profession in their societies. But it’s not enough just to recognize teachers or pay them well; the problem we have is on teacher training, including the institutions that produce teachers.

Observatory: In your conference, you mentioned that we have to learn to follow rules, but also change and challenge them. In your opinion, what is holding us back from this subversive education?

Leonardo Garnier: I tend to be rather liberal, open, flexible, but I don’t know what it means to be a high school teacher and stand up in front of forty teenagers. That can’t be easy. An example would be one of the reforms we implemented: in Costa Rica, if students got a bad conduct or behavior report, they failed their academic courses. So, there were many students who were failing academically, not because they hadn’t passed their classes, but because the teacher had given them a poor conduct report. So, the conduct report had replaced the ruler and chalkboard eraser that were used to keep us in check when we were at school.

Our responsibility is to educate, but they say: "No, students have to learn to obey rules.” If blue pants are part of the uniform, they have to come to school wearing blue plants. If they don’t like it, there’s a process for changing the uniform and they can participate, maybe successfully and the uniform is changed, maybe not and they will just have to put up with the uniform. However, I think it is a very important lesson that’s not black and white; there are also grey areas.

Teachers are afraid of the students.

Observatory: How do you think teachers see themselves in front of the students in the classroom?

Leonardo Garnier: Teachers are afraid of the students. I can understand it in some way, but I think we have to stop being afraid. Education is much richer when we remove fear from the equation.

Observatory: What should be the first change made to revolutionize education?

Leonardo Garnier: Teachers need to undergo a transformation. Here we are, thinking that when we train teachers at university, with critical thinking and the theories of Freire, Piaget, Vygotsky and others, they will go out to teach like that. But they leave college, get hired in educational institutions, and on the first day of classes they turn into their old high school teacher.

The new generations of teachers aren’t teaching as they were trained to do at university, but in the same way that they were taught at school 20 years beforehand. Shining away from this is extremely dificult, but that’s the challenge. There are many teachers who do manage it. Something that helped us to understand was that we weren’t inventing anything new, but there were already many teachers doing this in their classrooms.

Observatory: What recommendation would you give to our teachers?

Leonardo Garnier: That’s a tough one. To start with, I really like the way in which Tec de Monterrey is evolving, changing direction towards an education based more on projects and reviving the topic of citizenship, leadership, I think it’s fantastic. Moreover, the goal of increasing the percentage of students who come from socio-economic sectors that could not normally pay for a university like Tec de Monterrey, I think that’s being socially responsible.

The students’ experience will transform the institution, because they won’t just learn from the teachers, but also from their classmates. We can build a rose-colored bubble where everyone comes from well-o- families and the like, but we’ll gain a completely di-erent picture of the world if the kids all come from di-erent backgrounds. I think it’s a fine educational proposal. My congratulations to Tec de Monterrey because I think it’s moving in a direction I like and which is part of its objectives, to place the student at the core of the process.

Observatory: In your opinion, why is it important to hold events like the International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Leonardo Garnier: There are two reasons: first, education is an indispensable tool to turn each student into the person he or she wants to be. It is the most crucial tool for change. And second, activities like this congress are important because in general, our educational systems tend to be very conservative, resistant to changes and old-style ways of understanding learning, which, instead of driving education, holds it back.  

2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from 2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from masters/leonardogarnier/

Interview report: Juan Freire | Co-founder of TEAMLABS

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Juan Freire is the co-founder of the TEAMLABS “laboratory”, also known as the classroom-, teacher and exam-free university that aims to create learning experiences through team projects and the "Learning by Doing" method. TEAMLABS forms part of the international network for education in entrepreneurship, Mondragon Team Academy (MTA).

Observatory: What are the biggest challenges a teacher currently faces in the classroom?

Juan Freire: The main challenge teacher faces is their changing role. They are no longer the only source of information or the only means of transmitting knowledge to students. Nor do they decide which information is relevant or not. You don’t need a teacher for that. Nevertheless, the teacher is more important than ever.

Teachers can be called facilitators, companions or coaches. In fact, I like the concept of a coach, because in sports, the coach doesn’t play the game, but gets others to play. In other contexts, the coach also asks good questions: in this case, asking the right questions is more important than giving the right answers. This new role for teachers implies a complete shift in their teaching practice.  

The main challenge teacher faces is their changing role. They are no longer the only source of information or the only means of transmitting knowledge to students. Nor do they decide which information is relevant or not. You don’t need a teacher for that. Nevertheless, the teacher is more important than ever.

Observatory: Which skills or competencies do our students need to develop to face the challenges of the future?

Juan Freire: I think that there’s one core skill and that’s entrepreneurship, which doesn’t mean that the student is going to become a businessperson. Entrepreneurial skills include autonomy, activity, being proactive, having the capacity to address challenges or problems, finding solutions and implementing them. I think it’s a fundamental skill for the world we live in.

Personal and social knowledge, or emotional and social intelligence, are other key skills. In other words, we need to be able to deal with and relate to others. Critical thinking implies understanding global diversity and its complexity, becoming aware of and participating in, rather than rejecting, this plurality in order to generate new opportunities. There are also several technical skills that I call “the new languages”. Nowadays, digital, design and innovation languages are technical abilities that have also become transversal skills and universal languages. When we were younger, we learned to read and write and now we need to learn these new languages.

Juan Freire at  CIIE 2015 . 

Juan Freire at CIIE 2015

Nowadays “the new languages”: digital, design and innovation languages are technical skills that have also become transversal skills and universal languages.

Observatory: How can we help to develop a spirit of innovation in children or the new generations?

Juan Freire: Children and young people need spaces where they can experiment, innovate, create new things, and learn by experience, practice or actions. Therefore, we must create spaces that offer freedom and confidence. We were brought up in a highly structured educational setting where everything was planned, scheduled or predefined. Spaces that are quiet, inspire confidence and offer freedom must also be allowed to exist.

2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from 2nd International Congress on Educational Innovation (2015). Retrieved from  

Interview report: María Acaso | Pioneer of the rEDUvolution concept in Spain and Latin America

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


María Acaso, Latin-American leader of the rEDUvolution and professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, talked to us about the difficulties of generating innovation in education. She also discussed about Sexy Pedagogy and Art Thinking, in other words, the need to incorporate pleasure as the core component of education, and creativity as the primordial quality for teachers.

Observatory: What are the difficulties of innovating in teaching?

María Acaso: Each country’s specific situation should be analyzed. In Spain, for example, the teacher training faculty has one of the lowest passing scores, so ultimately people who teach do so because they don’t know what they want to do, because they couldn’t find anything better to do. I find this approach nefarious. We are always talking about Finland, but the truth is that what Finland does is select the best students so they can go into education, not engineering or suchlike, but education. Being a teacher is a profoundly intellectual job that requires extremely high capacities at every level. It’s a job that everyone who is a teacher knows is exhausting. It’s a very political job, and, therefore, that’s where we need the best people. And these people need to be well trained.

Moreover, what I see in the teacher-training curriculum, or master’s for secondary education, is that they are completely outdated for what is required of a teacher in the 21st century. There are subjects such as: "Didactic unit scheduling III"; this course is pointless now. You need to inject humor, substance, power dynamics, disruptive assessment systems. In other words, teacher training overall needs to be radically different and also keep on changing. In other words, it can’t be a curriculum that will be relevant for the next 10 years.

The teacher-training curriculum its completely outdated for what is required of a teacher in the 21st century. Teacher training overall needs to be radically different and also keep on changing.

Observatory: How important is creativity in a teacher?

María Acaso: I think that the most important competency for a teacher to have is to be creative. For me, it is almost more important than being knowledgeable in the subject. If you have a creative teacher, who is capable of designing all these different learning spaces, then you’ve already won 90% of the battle.

But it would also be interesting to reformulate what creativity means in the 21st century. In the 21st century, creativity isn’t the creativity of the 19th-century genius who would get up in the middle of the night to paint. Right now, creativity is the remix, it’s remixing. And remixing isn’t copying. You are not copying someone’s idea, because what you’re doing is appropriating that idea. You link this idea with your thoughts and you create another new idea. This leads me to a concept I like a lot, which is viewing the teacher as a DJ: DJs take other people’s songs and their contribution is the combination of songs on their playlist. I think that nowadays, as teachers, we need to work in the same way. Teachers take content from different people and their contribution is how they combine it in the class itself. We have to understand creativity rather as this process of creating new ideas based on other people’s ideas, and that our contribution is the combination of others’ ideas.

I think that the most important competency for a teacher to have is to be creative.

Observatory: How can art be used to educate disruptively?

María Acaso: Actually, the new concept I am developing is called Art Thinking, which is drawn only to some extent from Design Thinking, since it is larger. Art thinking would be like using art to transmit any subject, understanding that art incorporates dynamics, performance, installations, images… So, it would mean training teachers in these possibilities offered by the arts, not just visual arts, but also literary arts, musical arts, everything that concerns divergent thinking, in order to teach their classes in a methodologically different, fashion. I always use it. Every time I teach a seminar, or a workshop, I look for different materials and don’t know what the outcome will be. But, generally speaking, the outcome is always better than before. Sometimes I’ve used white sheets, at others squid, and others doughnuts. And this different material inspires astonishment, it works well because people don’t get bored. These materials excite people intellectually, which makes the learning process far more interesting.

Observatory: How else can creativity make a course more engaging?

María Acaso: Something I love doing is to use naming in pedagogy. I think that what we need to do to address pedagogy in the 21st century is to take concepts from other disciplines and transfer them to pedagogy. Naming is a marketing discipline that consists of designing names. Why do banks have such interesting names? Why do chefs give their dishes such interesting names? So, why to educators use such boring names? One of the values I think creative teachers have is naming their classes, which is very important. These names have to be as interesting and as exciting as names in advertising.

María Acaso at  CIIE 2015 . 

María Acaso at CIIE 2015

For example: In Madrid we had a biology center that nobody went to, which was called the National Biology Center. They changed its name and called it Faunia, and now you have to queue up to get in on a Sunday. In other words, names make you want things, desire things, and that’s what we as teachers need to achieve. So, all my lectures, all my concepts, and those that teachers must develop, should be linked to a name that catches your attention. "Sexy Pedagogy", right now I can’t remember when I thought that up, but it works very well. You say “Sexy Pedagogy” to someone and they are already smiling. And that makes you think: What does this mean? So, astonishment works and from there, knowledge starts. If I call a conference “Methodological strategies for education in the 21st century”, everyone would fall asleep.

2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: page4 aulaplaneta (2014). María Acaso llama a los profesores a emprender la revolución educativa en rEDUvolution. Retrieved from: uploads/2013/12/noticia114a.jpg mediacionartistica (2015). Foto María Acaso. Retrieved from: vez-en-arco-2015-entrevistacon-maria-acaso/  

Interview report: Thomas Frey | Executive Director and Senior Futurist at DaVinci Institute

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation


Thomas Frey is the Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute and Google's top rated Futurist Speaker. He participated in the Second International Congress of Innovation in Education (2015). Thomas Frey raised a number of predictions for 2030. He estimates that the average person will be able to: print their own clothes, live in a printed house, receive packages delivered by a drone, have more than one robot, use a self-driving car, among others predictions.  

Observatory: What are the skills students will need to tackle challenges in the future?

Thomas Frey: The skill set that we're going to need in the future is going to shift into different areas. Some of them will be about being able to work with virtual reality, augmented reality, and big data and also thinking three-dimensionally is I think an important skill for the future. All of these new industries that are being developed are going to shift, morph and change over time and so we have to continually expand our thinking learning techniques and tools that didn't existed five years ago.

So as a technology evolves let's just take 3-D printing as an example, 3-D printing is still very crude right now, It's very slow, very methodical and the number of materials that we're able to use with 3-D printing is starting to expand very significantly.

Thomas Frey at  CIIE 2015 . 

Thomas Frey at CIIE 2015

And so as this expands, then we're going to have people that have to become very good at understanding what's the right material to use for this particular application, I want to create this one part specifically, maybe it's a part for a jet engine and a jet engine has lots of forces on it that has heat issues, it has pressure issues, it has vibration issues.

And so you're going to need just the right composite material for that particular application. Having people that know the right material to use at the right time, that's an interesting skill set that probably nobody has right at the moment. And so as our options increase, then it's going to be more complicated over time. So, somebody that gets into this field, which is kind of metallurgy field, a new product material, new material development field as that expands over time, the possibilities are many in different directions.

The biggest challenge that educators will face in the future is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind.

Observatory: What is the biggest challenge that educators will face in the future?

Thomas Frey: One challenge I have is staying up to date constantly. Every morning I wake up and say, "Okay, what has changed today?", If I don't spend at least two hours every day doing research, I'm going to get le behind. And that's the same with the professors, whatever they're teaching. There are new tool sets, new techniques and there are new challenges in every profession. They need to be on top of all that. And so, we have all the tools for doing all this research. You can do it right at home, you could just work late at night and do that research. But you need to be committed to doing that. So, if you created a curriculum ten years ago and it hasn't changed, you really shouldn't be teaching anymore.

Observatory: How can we develop the spirit of innovation in future generations?

Thomas Frey: I think challenges need to be more relevant. I think you need to actually put some real world problems in there that they're solving. And actually, I love the idea of having prizes that whoever does the best job, they get to claim the victory. I don't believe in everybody getting the participation ribbon. I think everybody needs to be recognized for what they accomplish. By putting these challenges together, I think that stimulates a lot of interesting thinking. And it creates natural alliances between the students, it tells you how to work on teams, and that sort of things. It ends up being lots of communication issues that you're dealing with, lots of project management issues, and all of this gets tied in with a challenge like that.  

2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: /page12 2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: about-the-future-of-education/

Interview report: Tyler DeWitt | Research Scientist and Professor

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation

Tyler DeWitt participated in the 2nd International Congress of Educational Innovation organized by the Tecnológico de Monterrey. He is a research scientist, high school teacher and digital content author. Tyler holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology from MIT. As a teacher he has been dedicated to developing educational models that encourage critical thinking and creativity using the art of storytelling.

Observatory: What is the most important skill a student must develop to face the challenges of the future?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many, but in my mind as a scientist, are scientific reasoning skills. I think students really need the ability to look at information, to look at data in the world around them, and be able to make sense of it, to make logical conclusions based on information that they see in the world.

One of the most important challenges teachers face nowasays is that they need to teach students how to think, not just how to memorize.

Observatory: What are the most important challenges that teachers face nowadays?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many challenges for teachers. The one that is most important for me is teaching students how to think, not just how to memorize. These are two very different skills. And I think traditionally a lot of education has focused on memorization, learning lots of lists of definitions and facts. That can be important because you do need a foundation in some basic knowledge, but once a very basic level of background has been taken care of, that's when teachers need to shift their educational focus, and start teaching students how to think through problems, how to engage in creative problem solving and critical thinking and all that sort of thing.

Observatory: What has been your experience in the 2nd International Congress of Educational Innovation?

Tyler DeWitt: There are so many different people all over the world engaging education in very different ways, and it's a great opportunity to come together and talk about what they're doing in their own corners of the world.

2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: 2do. Congreso Internacional de Innovación Educativa (2015). Retrieved from: -and-excitement-to-the-classroom/

Interview report: Kristine Clerkin | Executive Director, College for America at Southern New Hampshire University

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation  


The College for America, is an accredited nonprofit college and is dedicated to make achievable the possibility for working adults of getting a college degree through its unique competency-based education model. Kristine Clerkin, leads a team in charge of building College for America and is focused on disruptive innovation, technology, and new knowledge about learning to help more people achieve their goals through higher education (cbe network, 2016).  

Observatory: What conditions or drivers have you seen are happening in education worldwide, that are driving or pushing forward competency-based education?

Kristine C.: I think a lot of this is being driven by work, by careers, by the need for all of us to learn and to be lifelong learners. And I think that it’s no longer enough to graduate from college with a degree and some grades. I think employers all over the world want to know that graduates have real skills, and they want evidence of that. I mean, grades mean very little, really. They signify a progression of time that someone has accumulated credits, but they don’t mean that you can do basic.

I think that it’s no longer enough to graduate from college with a degree and some grades. I think employers all over the world want to know that graduates have real skills, and they want evidence of that.

In the US in particular, I think the cost of higher education. And I think this is happening in other places around the world, as well. The costs are going up. There’s less and less public funding from the governments. Students are taking out loans. They have debt. I don’t know if that’s a problem here in Mexico. They have debts. They can’t even pay the debt with a good job so they need to make sure that they have skills. That they know what those skills are that they can show. And we think competency-based learning really helps with all that. And then I would say third thing is the need (in the US but also around the world) older adults, non-traditional students who were not able to go on for higher education for college. Their work life is changing. And they have special needs when it comes to education. They need much more flexible kinds of education. Their needs are different. They have families. They can’t come to a campus, and spend four and a half years.

So, I think that the non-traditional student has driven much of online learning in general and I think that competency-based education for certain types of students is a really great format because they can move quickly, they need to have a flexible format. So the flexibility of format is very important, and I think just in general another driver is technology. I mean, the ability to create personalized learning for students.

This industrial model of sitting in large lectures, it still funds most of our universities - the lecture. But really, we have the technology and the capability now to personalize learning to what students already know, what they already can do, to help them move more quickly. We can do so much, and I think that we haven’t done it yet, as some of these speakers were talking about it today, we are starting to realize the impact of all of that.

Observatory: Why hasn’t it occurred the impact of competency-based education yet?

Kristine C.: I think it’s very early still. And the technologies are still developing. I mean, I think the main reason is that higher education is a very entrenched institution. It’s very conservative, very difficult to move. You have entrenched stakeholders like faculty, administrators, boards of trustees, and even students and alumni sometimes don’t see it. They want things to stay the same sometimes.

Sometimes the public funding, the regulatory aspects around in the United States, for example, with the Department of Education, Congress, the states all have regulations and views about how higher education should be done. So sometimes it’s really hard to innovate around those. So you have entrenched stakeholders. You have regulations. You have the economics are still not really favoring education. I mean, students can still get a lot of money for loans, and many students, I mean, the traditional students really still value that leafy campus. We call it the coming-of-age experience. It’s nature. Because we have a beautiful campus too and it’s for 18 to 23-year-olds who are learning how to manage their time, manage their money. There’s a real benefit to that. But that’s not most of our students. And I think that too often the way we still think, as in the public perception of education is still too much about that campus. The campus experience.

Observatory: Is there a difference in the online college versus traditional school?

Kristine C.: I think our president Paul LeBlanc of the Southern New Hampshire University , has said this, in many ways online learning of all types is better than face-to-face for many people because you have so much more, you understand more about the student. You have data. We live in our program in a sea of data. We’re swimming in it. We have so much data, and we use it, we act on it. But right there, what do you pay attention to is the most important part.

Observatory: Do you have a special department that makes all that analytics?

Kristine C.: We do and so within our larger online unit, we have 20 some people who collect analytic data and run reports every day. So when you come in the morning, you know exactly what you have to work on that day, which students are doing well and where they’re not doing well.

Kristine Clerkin

Kristine Clerkin

Observatory: How does your institution use the richness of this data?

Kristine C.: A lot of it was originally driven by marketing and enrollment management. But I think that we’re seeing a shift, or least an expansion of data analytics to learning analytics, to understand what the student demographic characteristics are? How students are learning? Where are they struggling? I think that’s the opportunity. I think not many institutions are doing that well. At College of America, for our program, we built our whole platform, our learning platform on a Salesforce.

Observatory: What are some of the differentiators of your program?

Kristine C.: In our program at the College of America, we focus a lot on our feedback and fast feedback. We provide feedback usually within about 30 hours, so student will submit a project. We don’t have exams, exams are not part of our model, and it’s all project base learning. Student will upload a project, it’s usually audio, video, presentation, essay, writing a pieces of some kind, worksheets, and then they’re scored by faculty reviewers against a rubric. They get detailed feedback, it’s not just a grade, and it’s not A, B, C. Here are the things you did well, here are the things that you need to improve or here are the learning resources that you can go back to.

The feedback in a mastery model, and most competency-based programs have a mastery model, there is no 80- 90-95%, it’s all 100% Everyone has to achieve 100% and so you have to try again and you can resubmit or you can go back. Formative assessment by far in many ways contributes more to learning than summative assessment, and that’s exactly right. The whole point of this is to learn what you know and what you don’t know. At some point someone has to assess you and make sure you know what you’re doing.

Observatory: What other institutions are doing competency-based education besides New Hampshire University?

Kristine C.: There are some other ones. For example Lumina Foundation is really supporting this and also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I think we’ve had a good environment in The Department of Education, The Federal Department, President Obama brought in a strong culture of innovation around education. He wasn’t able to move as quickly as he probably would like in government, things don’t move enough quickly.

Observatory: On average, how old are your students?

Kristine C.: College for America is mostly older adults, nontraditional. The average age is 35 to 40 years old. We do have some younger students though.

Observatory: Do you see that segment of market growing?

Kristine C.: The segment is huge. In the US alone there are something like 40 million students, 40 million people.

Observatory: Do you think competency-based education it’s going to be a consumer-driven, in other words people are going to ask for it?

Kristine C.: Yes, I think people are going to ask for it. Because they’re going to see advantages. Right now they don’t understand what it is, because it’s new. But I think as it grows they’ll see, I can do this more quickly, I can do it at lower cost, that it will help me save money, employers value it because I have real skills. Or, I can go slower if I need to. I think they’ll see over time and then they’ll start to value it.

College for America web site: Imagery: cbenetwork (2016). Competency-Based Education Network. Retrieved from: steering-committee/kristine-clerkin/ College for America at SNHU (2015, september 18).

College for America at SNHU’s Photos [facebook timeline]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook. com/CollegeForAmerica/photos College for America at SNHU (2015, november 30).


Interview report: Shane Nestle | General Manager of TechShop Austin-Round Rock

Interviewed by the Observatory of Educational Innovation

TechShop is a platform focused on democratizing access to the tools, information, resources and community needed to design and innovate. TechShop Austin-Round Rock is a 17,000-square-foot facility packed with cutting edge tools, equipment and computer software. It offers classes, workshops and meet-ups for people of all ages and skill levels, that are interested in creating new things for themselves (TechShop, 2016).  

Observatory: What are the different areas inside the TechShop?

Shane N.: We have a woodworking shop, a textiles area, the metalworking which includes welding, thin gauge metals, rolling, shaping, and bending for tanks or enclosures. Also there is a water jet which cut through about six inches of anything, the paint coding areas with sand blasting, and the plastics area where you can bend, fold, shape, injection molding, and vacuum forming.

On the other hand there is also the hub, which is the center of all activity. It’s really the point where all the intellectual exchange typically occurs, we get to talk to people, see the other people’s projects and where everything comes off of. We also have the conference areas for private meetings, or for large gatherings. We have the computer work stations spread out through the hub, and some in groups as well. The electronics lab and a machine shop.

Observatory: Are there other configurations of tech shops in different places that have other kind of machinery?

Shane N.: For the most part, they’re the same. We try to keep everything very close to being the same type of offerings, because as a member at one store, you’re a member at all of the stores. And that means also the training part of each piece of the equipment, in order for you to use it.

Observatory: Are you planning to incorporate new areas that you have seen, that there’s interest for your membership?

Shane N.: Yes. We’re always open to that, so we evaluate each piece of new technology as it’s coming out to see if it makes sense to put into the stores. A lot of times, one store will test it and see how it works, before we decide to roll it out to other stores.

Observatory: What would you say has been the impact that this TechShop has generated in the two years that it is has been in Austin?

Shane N.: That’s a good question. Really, we’re giving a lot of people the ability to start their own businesses. There’s a lot of people who are coming in here who were either laid off, or just got out the military. We do have a large veteran’s membership package.

Just for example, for them, they come in after being in the military, they’re looking for a job or an opportunity to do something. And so, there’s actually a lot of veterans who’ve come in, and they’re starting to build their own businesses using the tools and resources here. That’s actually a common thing with a lot of people outside of VA as well. They come in and start their businesses or their ideas, or they just come in here with an interest, and they find that what they’re doing is part of a lot of other people’s questions and curiosity, or they want to buy it or deal with it. And then, they start thinking, “Well, I can build a business.” And so they start experimenting with that. And, we greatly reduce the cost for these people, in order for them to start their businesses. They don’t have to have that capital investment that is often necessary.

Observatory: How fast would you say people that comes here with no previous experience, can start to do stuff or prototype?

Shane N.: It’s going to greatly vary from person to person. What we’re primarily set up to do is, first teach you to use the tools safely, just so you can then experiment. And then we do have classes beyond the first use of the tool, to try to help you start learning the next step how welding for example the first class is basically the basics of getting the machine running, what you’re trying to do, and just get you safely starting your first steps. Then we have a series, a ladder of classes. So the next classes come in and learn how proper weld looks, how to set the machine, and you start going up into different materials. You go into aluminums. You go to different steps that take a little bit of time. But the advantage too is that, we provide all of the tools and equipment that you need. So that you can literally just come in, sit down, and experiment on your own time, and put the time in without even investing another dime into any of the equipment and materials to learn kind of rapidly increases your learning capability.

Back to saying it depends on each individual, how much they’re willing to do the research, and how fast they learn, how quickly they learn and how inquisitive they are. That’s the big factor too. A lot of people who are inquisitive are willing to make mistakes. I think that’s a big thing in the United States, is that we’ve taught, “Don’t make mistakes. You need to be perfect.”, and so people are afraid to try. But successful people overcome this obstacle. They understand that they’re going to make mistakes. And so, they’re willing to go and make the mistakes. And there’s a saying here basically that says, “Fail often, fail fast. So that you can get to the solution” so, depending if you’re already somewhat technically knowledgeable in the software, you can rapidly prototype virtually with the software’s. We’re partnered with Autodesk, and they have software inventor which you can actually build a machine, you can put it into motion, you can check the stresses, you can check the heat and so on. You can see if things are going to collide. You can build your machine virtually first, and then start building the parts. So that part alone just being able to see what it’s going to do and tweak you parts, or say, “What if I change this part to this?”, is really where the rapid advancement comes.

Observatory: You have to pay for a course or the courses are part of the membership that you pay?

Shane N.: You pay for each course as you like it or need it.

Observatory: What’s the average cost of a course, and how long it last? Shane N.: Generally, like 30 to $40 USD an hour.

Observatory: Do I have to pay a fee to be a member of TechShop?

Shane N.: Yes. Membership is fee-based, and it’s daily, monthly, yearly. We give you different options. Pricing is on the web as well.

Observatory: What do you think about that TechShop can contribute to educational sector?

Shane N.: There are people who already have the knowledge base and the knowledge set, who are willing to talk to their fellow members and share that knowledge. The instructors are also typically from the membership. Almost every instructor is a member as well. We get our instructors based on the fact that they already typically have a very deep knowledge set in that specific area. And that they’re willing to come in and share that information with others, just because like to do that. We also compensate them. We’re looking for people who do have the depth of knowledge in the area, not just to try to read a piece of paper and lead a class.

Observatory: How do you find your trainers, or how do you select them?





Shane N.: It’s generally kind of the word of mouth within the shops. For new stores I have to go out and advertise looking for people who have that expertise.

Observatory: Do you have an idea of how much does it cost to open a TechShop?

Shane N.: Generally, I mean these shops are about $2 million dollars including building, materials and equipment.

Observatory: How do you decide the location of a new TechShop?

Shane N.: Typically through partner with a major investor, like this location is partnered with Lowe’s. It’s an experiment for the nation, for Lowe’s, to see if there is a good symbiotic relationship. Some of the other stores we have a store on the campus in Arizona ASU. We’ve got this partnership with Ford. We have a partnership with DARPA. Basically, if somebody is interested in TechShop, there is a fee that they are going to pay to do an experiment, or an analysis of the location and the area, and see if it’s feasible to open up a TechShop. And then from there, we need to have the partnership funding that goes into building that location. Right now, all of the stores are basically partnership base. That’s also part of the investor analysis when they’re opening up a store, is to determine what the risk and reward is on that market share.

Observatory: Do you know how this partnership with ASU has worked?

Shane N.: Very well. It’s been very successful for them, and they’re actually looking for continually expanding the integration of TechShop into the university.

Observatory: What’s the time when the TechShop is busier?

Shane N.: We got the business people and they’re going to tend to use it more in the daytime. And then we got the person who works all day. And then in the evening, he’s ready to come in and take classes, or work on their projects. The overlap tends to happen in the late afternoons of 5 o’clock to 7:30 or 8:00, is when we also offer most of the classes. We survey our people every day as to when the best time is for them to class, when they’d like to see classes, when aspect, we find out what works in the classroom, the class aspect. That’s when a lot of the people are coming in to do the work. Otherwise, you just-- we see fluctuations depending on which day it is. What has the average-- how busy it is, just kind of varies from day to day, like Saturday typically is a lot busier than a Sunday. Most of these stores are located in downtown areas, where people don’t have access to space to work on their projects, or necessarily to have tools.

Observatory: Do you have TechShops in other countries besides the United States?

Shane N.: Not yet.

Observatory: Will you be interested on doing something in Mexico, in a Mexican university?

Shane N.: Always. Anywhere, yes. TechShop is open to partnering with anybody who’s like-minded. And we feel we can provide a service to, and who wants to work on expanding the Maker Movement as well. Absolutely.

Observatory: Do you organize some events for networking, and making more makers know what all the people are doing? Where do you organize them?

Shane N.: We have events all the time with anybody who is interested in using the space for public meet up. If they want to have a meeting that’s open to the general public on topics, then we offer our space for those types of events. Because it brings in new people. It informs our membership as well as to what’s occurring. It creates dialogue. We do activities open to the public at different times as well. We promote the shop every quarter, so we have an open house to invite all the public in, and see what we’re doing. Like I said, anybody who wants to host an event that’s maker related. If they’re doing it to make money, then we will rent out areas for them to do that as well. But we have meet ups, public meetups multiple times every week through the shop.  

TechShop web site: Imagery: Kane, E. (2015, february 27).

Inventors Club every Friday morning at TechShop Chandler. Retrieved from: eileenmkane/16497601148/ Krejci, K. (2013, junuary 21).

TechShop. Retrieved from: Techshop (2016). About TechShop, Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.techshop. ws/TheMakerMovementManifesto.html Vacher, S. (2011, june 11).