Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

CSE News Story

New York Times article on Professor Elliot Soloway

August 14, 2003 FROM THE DESK OF DAVID POGUE Students and Palmtops In today's edition of Circuits, I reviewed palmtop software for the college-bound. But the man who originally turned me on to the notion of palmtop software for students was Elliot Soloway, a professor of engineering, education, and information at the University of Michigan. He runs a unique program called the Center for Highly Interactive Computing -- Hi-Ce for short -- that is funded by the National Science Foundation, corporate backers and others. Its mission is to develop palmtop software expressly for the kindergarten-through-12th-grade classroom. Make that develop and promote, thanks to Dr. Soloway's outspoken enthusiasm for the concept of palmtops in the school. He points out that for school boards and parents, palmtops are an economic no-brainer: for the price of a single laptop, a school can buy five or ten Palms or PocketPC's. He points out that the current ratio of students to computers in schools is 6:1 -- make that 9:1 in urban schools. But if a school system buys palmtops, every student can have his or her own Palm or PocketPC. Not only that, but students can use their palmtops h% of the time, for all learning activities, as opposed to using a computer for 15 or 60 minutes a week for some specific activity," he says. Of course, there are the standard productivity programs: text editing, spreadsheets, drawing, and so on. Science teachers, according to Dr. Soloway, love the probeware for the Palm (from imagiworks.com, for example): software and sensors that let students test temperature, pH balance, light intensity, and so on. But that's only the beginning. At a recent technology-in-education conference, I met students and teachers who have used Hi-Ce's Sketchy program (a simple animation program) to create time-lapse drawings of atmosphere layers, life cycles of trees or animals, tadpole-to-frog development, and so on. Dr. Soloway adds that he's seen math teachers use Sketchy to show the steps in a proof, or to show intermediate steps in a multi-step problem. (You can download all of Hi-Ce's free programs from www.goknow.com.) Another Hi-Ce opus is Cooties, which uses the Palm's built-in infrared transmitter to let kids study how viruses spread. "They beam a message, either germ-laden or germ-free, to each other in a group of 5-6 kids. After a while, each handheld gets 'sick.' The task is to figure out 'who made me sick,'" Dr. Soloway explains. "The act of pointing a handheld and beaming (meeting) is a powerful moment, and the kids get a great deal from this sort of experience. There's no way to do this sort of thing on a desktop or laptop." Hi-Ce's latest project is larger in scope. Soloway and his team are working on participatory simulations that involve merging the interaction data from many students' palmtops at once, to study ant-colony behavior, genetic drift (sudden, Galapagos island-style changes in the genetic makeup), economic simulations (each Palm is a country; students beam "finished goods" or "raw materials" to each other by pointing and beaming), and so on. "This is very powerful stuff," Dr. Soloway says. "Kids are doing something to each other; there's an emotional connection, a physical connection." This more sophisticated software, expected to be finished in another year, lets the teacher's PC collect the data, via built-in wireless or Ethernet networking, so that the net effect of all of the smaller transactions is visible on the big screen. "Our image of the future classroom is: little computers, big screens," he says. At the moment, Michigan legislator Rick Johnson is pushing a $40 million bill to give every sixth-grader in the state a laptop or a palmtop. Man, some kids have all the luck.