Tech Transfer Spotlights


Detroit News Article: Innovative Software Paves Way for Learning (Feb. 20, 2005)

Elliot Soloway: Making an Impact on Education

There's a quiet revolution taking place in classrooms from New York to Norway. Thousands of K-12 students are trading in their textbooks for handheld computers loaded with software programs that are both powerful and fun to use. Thanks in large part to these new educational tools, students are not only enjoying the learning process as never before but also excelling in national standardized tests. In fact, scores in math and science are jumping by as much as 15 percent. Surprising? Not to UM computer scientist and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Elliot Soloway, who helped set the revolution in motion and-along with his students-developed the software that's powering the handheld movement.

The Evolution of an Educator: Computer scientist. Inventor. Mentor. Consultant. Software designer. Businessman. Elliot Soloway is all of these things. But the role he relishes most-the one that defines him and inspires him-is that of educator.

It hasn't always been that way. Back in the 1980s, as a junior faculty member at Yale University, Soloway devoted himself to research in artificial intelligence (AI). But in 1988, the year he was recruited to the University of Michigan, everything changed. "As a new faculty person and a new parent, it suddenly dawned on me that instead of making machines smarter, I should be using my time to make kids smarter. So I stopped doing AI and started working in schools, trying to make technology an effective tool in the classroom. Then I discovered that schools don't want technology. They want curriculum."

That rude awakening led Soloway to UM School of Education Professor Phyllis Blumenfeld, who became his collaborator in creating educational tools to promote inquiry-based learning in middle school science. By 1990, Soloway and Blumenfeld were working with Professors Joseph Krajcik, a specialist in science education, and Ronald Marx, an educational psychologist. Following a spate of National Science Foundation grants and the launch of successful software programs, the four core faculty established HI-CE, the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education, a research collaborative that continues to attract faculty from around the University.

Reaching Out to the Digital Generation: "Kids today are digital-age kids," says Soloway. "Technology is an integral part of their lives. And we have astonishing data from 28 middle schools in Detroit proving that technology is the hook, the way to engage digital-age kids in science." To make learning more appealing, Soloway and his colleagues began promoting handheld computers as the most task-appropriate classroom learning tools, based on their size, cost and power. With generous funding from NSF, Microsoft, Intel, and Apple, they developed nearly two dozen educational software programs.

In 2000, guided by UM Tech Transfer, the HI-CE faculty formed a start-up called GoKnow, Inc. for the purpose of licensing its software and introducing its technology to as many schools as possible. As Soloway explains, "No one understands our products better than we do. So, with the help of UM Tech Transfer, we decided to create our own business and our own distribution channels."

Helping Students Learn How To Fly: Soloway's goal, always, has been to give students the tools and freedom they need to make their own discoveries. As third-grade teacher Janine Kopera emphasizes, "He understands how students learn, and he places that knowledge at the core of his work."

It's a pedagogical model that Soloway uses in his own university courses as well, preferring to let his students "learn how to fly." Beginning in the summer of 2001, Soloway-who holds appointments in the School of Education, the College of Engineering and the School of Information-enlisted undergraduates in the task of creating software for grades K-12. One of those students, Adam Wieczorek, observes that Soloway has "a rare gift for understanding how technology can be applied in the real world." This freewheeling approach has led to the development of an entire suite of productivity tools for handheld computers.

Of course, the point of all this immense creativity has been to move technology out of academic research settings and into real-world classrooms. "I'm grateful for the opportunity we've had to launch our own business," says Soloway. "We now have customers in England, Norway, Canada, and Mexico as well as the U.S."

A Teacher-First, Last and Always: Despite his successful venture into the business world, Elliot Soloway's real love is education, and it shows. Two years ago, he won the University's Golden Apple Award for Teaching, and this year he was named Teacher of the Year by the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Honor Society. "I've found my calling," he declares. Ph.D. student Katy Luchini Colbry couldn't agree more, describing Soloway as "an outstanding teacher at the forefront of ed-tech research, who offers a combination of computer science, education and classroom work that's simply not available elsewhere."

And what will Elliot Soloway be doing in the near future? "I want to give something back," he says, "in gratitude for my own excellent public school education. A lot of my work will continue to be focused in Detroit schools. That's both a privilege and a painful experience. The kids in Detroit don't have a lot of hope. But when you see them dancing with the technology, you see that there is hope. And where there's hope, there's life. And where there's life, there's opportunity. For me, technology is a vehicle for building hope and opportunity."

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