First Excite, Then Educate

May 10, 2016

Brent Bushnell says the bewitching hours begin at 3 p.m., when school is out and the balance of power shifts as kids have more control over their time. That’s when some of them end up at his “high-tech carnival,” which uses lasers, fireworks and video games to teach the fundamentals of science and math. 

“Let’s appeal to what kids already like—let’s hijack the learning,” he said onstage at the Milken Institute Global Conference session on “STEM Education: Preparing Kids for Jobs Their Parents Don’t Understand.”

Bushnell takes that thinking to the extreme, arguing that the U.S. education system should be upended: For starters, do away with letter grades and standardized tests. Instead of relying just on books, students could learn math skills and strategic thinking by designing and playing computer games.

Hearing these radical suggestions, Bushnell’s fellow panelists cautioned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Stanley Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation and a former deputy chancellor of schools for New York City, did agree that the education system was broken, delivering high school graduates who were not prepared for life or the workplace. For example, he cited a survey in which Fortune 500 companies said 70 percent of their new hires lacked good writing skills—which, along with the ability to problem-solve and make presentations—are considered key.

However, Litow said it would be foolhardy to ditch the current grading and testing system. Though flawed, he said, they are important tools for assessing a student’s knowledge and capabilities. He favors reengineering high school, providing teachers with more support and integrating basic math and science skills into all parts of the curriculum.

IBM has developed a new type of public high school called P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) that combines high school and college classes and integrates basic skills into a technology-focused curriculum. At the end of six years, students graduate with an associate’s degree in applied science, engineering, computing or related fields.


From left: Kimberly Bryant, Founder and Executive Director, Black Girls Code; Brent Bushnell CEO, Two Bit Circus and Board President, Trash for Teaching; Caroline Fairchild, New Economy Editor, LinkedIn

Thomas Kalil, the deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said projects like P-TECH are showing promise as they are rolled out across the country. Also critical, he said, is the president’s 100Kin10 initiative to produce 100,000 more science and math teachers by 2021.

Ensuring that more of those future STEM jobs go to girls, particularly girls of color, is Kimberly Bryant’s passion. When she studied engineering in the 1980s, women represented 35 percent of the computer science industry. Today, she said, that figure has dropped to 12 percent, with women of color making up just a fraction of that.

Bryant, the founder and executive director of Black Girls Code, said it is never too early to begin providing young and pre-teen girls with the basic skills they will need to succeed in a university-level computer science program. Her Oakland-based organization offers after-school programs and summer camps featuring coding and Web design.

The key, she said, is to hook them before middle school, when research has shown that girls start to lose interest in technology careers, in part because of pressure from peers, parents and even teachers.

“We’re able to start them now very young, at 6 or 7, with little skills that relate to design thinking, computational thinking,” she said. Equally important to developing technical skills, Bryant added, is encouraging girls to think of themselves as future leaders and entrepreneurs in the industry.

Watch the Full Discussion