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In Conversation With... Ethan Danahy, Collaboration Partner to LEGO Education

This month we are in conversation with Ethan Danahy. He discusses what we can expect from his innovative talks at GEF 2014, projects in the pipeline for LEGO, what he believes are the most pressing matters in education and the greatest challenges for educators today.

How long have you been working with LEGO Education? Please describe your role working with them.

At Tufts University, in addition to being a professor in computer science researching educational technologies, I also work at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO). This Center is an organization dedicated to thinking about education, focusing on STEM education, and investigating better integration of engineering into our classrooms, from young children all the way through post-secondary university students. Formed almost 20 years ago, the CEEO started using the first LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics toolset (back with the RCX programmable brick) to bring engineering concepts into classrooms. At that time, Tufts University partnered with LEGO Education (along with National Instruments) to develop the ROBOLAB software, a graphical programming language geared towards classrooms and educational applications for controlling LEGO robots.
Based on this initial relationship, I personally started doing research with LEGO MINDSTORMS back in 2000 while in graduate school at Tufts. My first project at the CEEO, sponsored in part by NASA, was to build a digital environment used for STEM education around the ideas of remote sensing, providing students the opportunity to control remotely located robots through an internet-based portal. Called SENSORS (Science and Engineering NASA Site of Remote Sensing), this website provided students insight into remote exploration, simulated via a webcam pointed at a LEGO robot exploring a mock moonscape set up in our lab. Children from around the world were able to log in to the platform and submit programs and then collect and analyze data. This all happened live, but with a pretend delay incorporated, to mimic the experience real scientists have when controlling rovers in distant environments.
After finishing my PhD, I started working with LEGO Education much more closely. While only a part of my role at Tufts University, many of the ideas I’m exploring as a researcher overlap with initiatives happening internally at LEGO. These fall into three categories of work that I’m doing at Tufts: (1) oversee and prototype new educational technologies, from hardware to software to interfaces, (2) keep abreast of new trends in education, and investigate and develop new alternatives and creative adjustments to those ideas, and (3) travel around the world to talk with children, teachers, administrators, and policy makers in the education space to not only promote and discuss the ideas of integrating more hands-on, project based learning in the classroom, but also run workshops with these groups to train, influence, and inspire this inclusion.

What can we expect from your talk at GESS this year?

I am fortunate enough to be giving two talks at GESS this year. Last year (2013) was my first visit to GESS, and I was encouraged by the size of the event, as well as inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants who want to learn more, both about what is happening locally and also what new ideas from around the world can be incorporated into their education systems. As such, I’m structuring my talks to provide insight into these concepts, as well as include some concrete examples that will be of immediate benefit for attendees.
On Tuesday March 4th, I’ll be talking about Integrating Robotics into STEM Education. I personally believe that robotics provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore technology and, especially with toolsets like LEGO MINDSTORMS, get started doing advanced engineering at a very young age. However, in most implementations of robotics in education, it is only happening after-school or in special topic classes that are limited to only a select few students who can participate. I believe there exists an opportunity to integrate robotics fully into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and therefore reach all our young learners. Through inclusion like this, we can see activities helping students with their math and science learning as well, creating an approach with more impact than just memorizing equations and facts, but rather applying those concepts to real-world projects.
The following day, Wednesday March 5th, my talk on Innovation in Education: Developing Creative Thinkers will take a broader view of education and preparing our future workforce. With emphasis on standardized test scores, I see a worrisome trend in education away from innovation and invention. Thinking beyond just the acquisition of content, I’m interested in helping develop well-rounded students who not only possess the knowledge, but also the skills to apply that content, such as communication, collaboration, and in general creative thinking. These are attributes necessary to produce leaders that can thrive in our ever-changing world. This talk will explore the ideas of creativity and innovation, especially in the STEM fields (which are often seen as fact based disciplines only consisting of right-and-wrong answers) and what we can be doing in our classrooms to help foster these types of thinkers. 

What type of audience do you think would most benefit/ appreciate the workshop?

I really try and make my talks as accessible to everyone as possible, highlighting the general issues I’m trying to solve and proposing some potential pathways to addressing the problems. Note that I don’t have the magic solutions; these are really difficult problems in education and there aren’t simple answers that can be packaged up and distributed. However, there are tools available (advanced classroom technologies, innovative teaching pedagogies, creative assignments, and new ways of structuring the learning environment) that can benefit a wide range of educational systems. My hope is to highlight these, and inspire my audiences to take those next steps down a path towards change.
My talk on Integrating Robotics into STEM Education (Tuesday, March 4th) will be best suited for teachers of STEM fields who are looking for ideas on how to better integrate robotics into their classrooms. Administrators who oversee departments and schools and who are trying to understand this integration better will also benefit.
When considering Innovation in Education: Developing Creative Thinkers (Wednesday, March 5th), my primary goal is to reach the policy makers and school leadership that are trying to fundamentally change the path their educational system is on, and understand the long term effects of developing a better prepared workforce. That said, my talk will focus on specific classroom examples, and as such, I anticipate teachers being inspired to want to immediately implement changes in their own classrooms as a result. However, I’ve found worldwide that even motivated teachers can sometimes be restricted by administration, which is why for this talk that would be my primary audience. By reaching them, I hope I can help inspire some far-reaching change.

Are there any new projects in the pipeline for LEGO that you are particularly excited about? 

For sure! Having access to the “behind the scenes” process and the internal developments within LEGO Education is always exciting. And not only seeing what is happening, but also being part of the conversation so as to provide my own insights, expertise, and thoughts on the direction new initiatives should take and how best structure them to be most effective. That said, until they are announced publically, I’m unable to reveal any details myself.
There are a few initiatives, however, that indicates ideas LEGO Education value and directions they are currently heading. For instance, an online community (http://community.education.lego.com) was recently created that brings together teachers worldwide, providing an opportunity for them to connect and share what they are doing in their classrooms. This points at the understanding of the importance of networks and providing support for teachers from other teachers, as well as starting to create a global community, where teachers can have insight into the ideas, practices, and activities from other classrooms around the world.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing matters in education? What are the greatest challenges that educators are being faced with at the moment?

Unfortunately, I think these are different questions. I would like them to be the same: that educators are feeling challenged by the most pressing matters in education. However, from my experiences traveling the world and talking with a wide variety of educators, this is not the case.
In education, I think that our more pressing matters are around motivating the students, inspiring them to learn, and providing an environment that fosters good, quality education. In today’s world, we are competing with a vast array of other sources of distraction (video games, TV, etc) and the profile of our students is changing rapidly which also requires us as educators to change our educational techniques in response. Further, there is a global acknowledgement about access to education, and an understanding that is should be available to all. As a result, we as a community are looking for new methods and activities for better reaching our students, with new considerations of location, background, skill set, learning style, and personal interests. Our old techniques (lecture, memorization, etc) only reached a small subset of students whose personality and internal self-motivation matched that delivery method; now we, as educators, need to be flexible in our classroom structure to appropriately address this wide range of learners. For me, that’s what draws me to educational toolsets like those developed by LEGO Education, that are capable of being transformed and used in countless ways, shifting away from the lecture-based classroom to one incorporating hands-on, project based learning. However, that shift doesn’t happen overnight, and isn’t just attributed to the physical materials in the classroom. It involves a change in mindset as well as proper training and experience around these new pedagogical methods.
Which brings us to the second part: the greatest challenge that educators are facing. Here I feel it is the ridged, long-standing educational structures that already exist that prohibit innovative, inspired teachers from “breaking the mold” and trying something new. The techniques that I describe for changing the classroom environment require a lot of hard work and risky experimentation on behalf of the teachers, but in the current environment teachers are feeling, perhaps now more than ever, increased pressure from administration, school districts, and ministries of education to demonstrate increased performance within their classrooms, often as measured by standardized tests. As a result, there is no room for creative teachers to develop creative students (even if this is fundamentally in what a teacher believes), due to the (real or perceived) pressures from above. Changing this isn’t easy. Increased availability of money is part of the solution (as funds help outfit classrooms with more adaptable tools and provide teachers extra time and energy to train and plan new approaches), but we are also talking about some fundamentally radical updates to how education is perceived, by everyone from the students themselves to the teachers to the parents to the leaders. As well as changing it across a variety of ages, from our pre-K children up through the university system. Clearly a big task at hand, but one that more and more people are realizing is necessary and are being more willing to address in order to remain contributors to a well-educated, productive society.

How do you think education will change/progress in the next decade?

Based on the existing need to shift a lot of our educational practices in order to better reach more students, I see several potential changes happening over the next 10 years. The first is a shift away from uniformity to one of diversity. That is, primarily an understanding that our students all learn in different and unique ways, and thus we need to be able to provide them a multitude of pathways for accessing the materials. This will be shift away from pure teacher lecture and student memorization within the classroom to an environment where learners can also read, watch, listen, and most importantly “do” in order to gain crucial educational experiences. But this concept in diversity isn’t only applicable to the methods we use for interacting with our students, but also in the work the students are doing themselves. Looking at standard classrooms we see students all generating similar outputs (from comparable book reports to the same lab reports to identical answers to math problems). If we value creativity, and believe in student agency and innovation, then we expect to see a diversity of solutions in what students are creating in the classroom during their educational experience.
If this shift is to happen, then we also expect to see a shift in the way that the education is being evaluated. (If we assess students for arriving at the same answer on a standardized test, then we shouldn’t expect to see students expressing unique and different ideas within the classroom.) This is, of course, a much more difficult change to enact, but there is interesting research and efforts currently being made at examining alternative ways of measuring student learning, and better analyzing what students create (vs. just what students answer). To do this effectively, of course, will also require better tools for capturing student work, and not just the final artifact but also the process, steps, and partial designs that were created en route to the final development. The more data we as educational researchers can collect about what’s happening in the classroom, the better chance we have at accurately evaluating the quality of learning. A summative test of multiple-choice questions does not provide enough insight.
Finally, the third shift I anticipate is a change away from teacher delivered instruction aimed at individual students to a classroom that emphasizes collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. In a traditional lecture style classroom, the teacher becomes the bottleneck of information, and students are limited in how deeply they can explore any particular topic. The teacher is still a very valuable resource, but I believe more in a mentorship role leading small groups of students working together. So the shift I see is away from students scared to collaborate (because “looking at someone else’s work is considered cheating”) to a classroom where peer-to-peer learning is encouraged, group work is considered the norm, and students might even become specialized experts in particular sub-topics in order to share with each other and achieve a common educational goal together.

Who would you like to see (this may be speakers/exhibitors etc) at GEF 2015 and what issues surrounding education would you like to see being discussed?

What is powerful about the GEF conference model within GESS is that it brings together such a great list of thought leaders from around the world to share their experiences in education. The importance isn’t in having similar ideas represented, but rather a range of thoughts as means to get people thinking and attendees talking. Thus, making sure some of the “hot topics” in education are discussed, and by those from the front lines trying to get change enacted, is important to ensuring lively discussion and making GEF a potential catalyst for not just spreading existing concepts but also developing new ideas itself.
While this year’s theme around the ideas of skills, opportunities, and challenges is something I’m very passionate about, I think a future topic around thinking about access to education could provide some innovative outcomes that directly impact the direction some of our educational systems are heading. Around the idea of access, there are some current trends taking hold (MOOCs, “devices for all,” etc.) that while good intentioned struggle in implementation when scaled to large populations. How do we maintain the quality of small-group learning when scaling educational initiatives to big numbers in an effort to reach all deserving learners? There are no easy answers to these questions, but using an environment like GEF provides an opportunity for deeper thought and an exchange of quality ideas across the international list of attendees.

This year’s theme for GEF, our conference programme, is 'Education and the 21st Century: Skills, Opportunities and Challenges. What skills do you think are crucial to any young person studying in the UAE who intends to enhance their future career?

Not too long ago, in a time of emphasis on pure content knowledge, judging how “smart” someone was equated to evaluating the quantity of what they understood. The more you knew, the more valuable you were (especially in the eyes of higher education and the working world). This has begun to shift, especially with regards to education in the 21st century, to society understanding the need for well-rounded students, who not only possess the knowledge, but also the skills to be able to apply that content to a wide variety of contexts. And this application is not something you can memorize or read in a book to understand: this is something you need to experience to internalize. It also, much like an analogy to playing sports, is not something you can do once and master, but rather needs to be continually refined and practiced iteratively. Additionally, it is not something that will come naturally, so it requires an understanding (on behalf of the student, but also by the teacher and administration) that failure is a key component to the learning process, and it is inevitable (or, perhaps even, necessary) that there will be moments along the learning path where things don’t go right. But these moments are a chance for reflection and deeper learning towards even greater understanding. These practices develop the necessary skills for better application of existing content to new fields as well as confidence on behalf of the learner to take those risks to be creative and innovate. That mindset will be valued in their future career.


Ethan Danahy is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department Computer Science at Tufts University outside of Boston MA USA, having received the B.S. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and a Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering in 2007, all from Tufts. Additionally, he acts as the Engineering Research Program Director at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), where he manages educational technology development projects while researching innovative and interactive techniques for assisting teachers with performing engineering education and communicating robotics concepts to students spanning the K-12 through university age range.