A crowd has gathered at one of the parking lots on the Pittsburgh campus of Carnegie Mellon University. Photographers mill about. Suddenly, a double-decker bus comes into view, prompting cheers. The bus pulls into the parking lot; when the doors open, there are more cheers. Out steps U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It’s all part of the Ready for Success Tour, which is a 10-day, multi-state journey spotlighting “how states and local communities are working to increase access and opportunity from early learning to college.” After 10 previous stops, the tour arrived at CMU for its final visit.

Duncan reaches into the community-wide crowd, shaking hands. He has a charismatic style, but as the longest-serving cabinet member in the Obama administration, he has faced his share of detractors. In an effort to make students more college-ready, he shifted the focus of the country from a basic No Child Left Behind accountability to a higher-standard Common Core curriculum. In so doing, he opened himself up to criticism, especially because the pilot has yielded lower tests results among students. On this day, though, the crowd is supportive.

Professors, politicians, and high school administrators walk with Duncan to CMU’s student center, where there will be a panel discussion of education experts, including, among others, CMU researchers. There’s not an empty seat when the Town Hall discussion begins. The engaged audience asks questions about important issues facing the secretary today: the higher standards of the Core Curriculum, the emphasis on testing and assessments, the effort to close the achievement gap.

No one knew it at the time, but it may have been one of the last times Duncan would face these questions. Two weeks later, on October 2, 2015, President Obama announced Duncan’s resignation, effective at year’s end. During the White House press conference, the President pointed out: “[Duncan] has done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else. America will be better off for what he has done.”

Is that the case?

Crumbling Infrastructure

Imagine if only one in three bridges in this country could be considered safe. Or if only 40% of our buildings could be called sound. Or if only one in three electrical appliances worked. Now consider that only one in three eighth-graders score proficiently at their level in math, and only 40% of 12th-graders are proficient readers. What is wrong with this foundational pillar of society called education?

We have engineers for so much infrastructure-buildings, roads, energy systems-but not education, despite the fact that it is as important to society as engineering, if not more so. Where are the engineering blueprints for learning? CMU’s Ken Koedinger has spent his career addressing that question. He is a professor of human-computer interaction and psychology as well as Co-Coordinator of CMU’s Simon Initiative, named for the late Nobel and Turing laureate Herbert Simon, which aims to measurably improve student learning outcomes by harnessing a learning engineering ecosystem that has developed over several decades at CMU. 

Koedinger is well aware that today only 50% of high schools in the United States offer calculus, only 63% offer physics, and 10%-25% offer one (or fewer) typical core math and science courses such as algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry. There is also a particular shortage of such courses for students who are under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—currently a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students don’t offer algebra II, and a third don’t offer any chemistry.

Policy change can dictate placement of teachers for these classes, but effective systems for teaching the subjects must be developed, too. Just a month after Duncan’s visit, the National Assessment of Educational Programs released data showing that for the first time since 1990, math skills of American students in grades 4 and 8 have dropped.

We can blame teachers and administrators, but to do so is to ignore a staggering, critical fact, Koedinger will tell you. Most experts in a field don’t know how they learned what they know.

Learning Engineer

When it comes to those who teach, up to 70% of what teachers know they simply can’t describe, primarily because they can’t recall how they learned it. In fact, they make assumptions that are often wrong or irrelevant. One of Koedinger’s favorite examples of this black hole of learning can be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, his bestseller book about how humans make decisions. The author interviewed a top tennis coach, Vic Braden, about his work with champion tennis players. Looking specifically at top-spin forehand, almost all of the tennis pros said that at the moment of impact with the ball they would roll the wrist forward to generate top spin. So Braden’s team used digital video cameras to tape those top-spin forehands. But not a single player did so at moment of impact with the ball; the wrist was absolutely fixed. The roll came afterward. They didn’t know what they know, researchers concluded, because much of our intelligence about what we do is on an unconscious level.

But what if we could capture the moment that turns a novice into an expert? And then share it?

There is one area of learning in which this kind of capture has occurred: the development of cognitive learning models that Koedinger helped create. It’s called cognitive modeling, built upon the groundbreaking cognitive science work of the late Simon—who was a CMU professor—and it has been applied through countless years of study to the way students learn algebra. The cognitive model for algebra, in part, offers personalized instruction by tracking each keystroke and movement by students to ensure each student achieves mastery before progressing to the next topic in the curriculum. It was so successful that it became a commercially produced software for K-12, developed through a CMU spin-off company called Carnegie Learning. Today, the company, which was acquired by Apollo Education Group in 2011, says that its approach is proven to nearly double a typical year’s worth of learning through personalized, student-centered math instruction. Rigorous testing of the Cognitive Tutor has resulted in more than 50 peer-reviewed publications’ validating the effectiveness of cognitive modeling. Since its creation, millions of students have used the Cognitive Tutor in thousands of schools, including middle and high school mathematics, computer programming, and college-level genetics. Cognitive Tutors typically speed learning or yield greater learning relative to conventional problem-based instruction.

A cognitive model could be developed for anything we learn, Koedinger is convinced, from how preschoolers learn physics to how middle-schoolers learn to write to how high-schoolers learn chemistry. Lately, Koedinger has begun to think of himself as a learning engineer—someone who gets the necessary insights on how knowledge is built and then creates systems that promote its organic advancement.

Gorilla in the Mist

A gorilla dances on a large flatscreen before an elementary-schooler. Between the child and the screen is a table about the size of a large classroom desk, and colorful blocks of different shapes sit in bins on either side. The gorilla invites the child to try two different block stacks to test for sturdiness. The child must pick blocks that match the shape on the screen. One is thick with an even thicker base. Another is shaped somewhat like a one-legged stork with a big beak: top-heavy. The child places the shapes. A depth-sensing camera registers their placement and then prompts the child for a hypothesis on which block stack will fall and why. Then the child activates the table into shake mode and gets to test the hypothesis. Why did one fall first, it asks? Stability, wider-base, more weight on top, symmetry? These are basic principles of physics for elementary school children.

Nesra Yannier, a CMU PhD student in the School of Computer Science, developed this learning system, with Koedinger and Scott Hudson as her advisors. She calls it NoRILLA, which stands for Novel Research-Based Intelligent Lifelong Learning Apparatus. It’s a new mixed-reality educational system that bridges physical and virtual worlds to improve children’s science learning and enjoyment in a collaborative way. To date, it has been tested with hundreds of children, with promising results, which are a much-needed contrast to a recent study by the National Center for STEM Elementary Education. Those findings indicate that a third of students have lost interest in science by fourth grade. Yannier can see how that might have happened to her, remembering how she kept asking why, while she was growing up in Turkey, and could not always get satisfying answers to her questions.

She believes that one of the main reasons students stop asking “why” is that teachers don’t have the right tools to teach them science and inquiry, even though they believe it’s important. As it gets harder to engage today’s children with traditional approaches in education, many teachers turn to technology, in the form of screens—computers, tablets, smart phones—as the answer. But a new source of worry for teachers is that the students are learning in isolation. There aren’t enough technologies that promote physical experimentation, productive dialogue, and deep understanding.

This is one reason teachers have been so responsive to Yannier’s NoRILLA, because it uses technology in an engaging, communicative, and non-isolating way. The youngsters gather around the table and cheer each other on, arms pumping the air in imitation of the friendly gorilla.

Most promising, research to date on NoRILLA has shown that it increases children’s learning by five times compared to equivalent tablet- or computer based-learning.

College Bound

With the pending leadership change in the Department of Education, one might wonder how we’ll achieve President Obama’s goal to produce the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. The administration has repeated often that part of that goal was to ensure that universities better connect with communities.

An activity on the Carnegie Mellon campus one blustery Saturday morning serves as a reminder that federal mandates can drive community involvement. In 2002, new requirements from the National Science Foundation went into effect in which proposed research would provide proof that the work will, in part, provide educational benefits to the surrounding communities. The Broader Impacts standard has helped change the relationship between major research institutions, such as CMU, and their surroundings, opening up new doors for meaningful connection.

Along a long hallway of classrooms at CMU on this particular Saturday, you can barely hear yourself think over the excitement and chatter of K-12 students. Parents help their children find their rooms behind more than a dozen doors: “Bug Bots,” “DNA Detection,” “Reimagining Houses,” “Wearable Computers,” and more. It’s a Saturday session brought to neighboring families by the Gelfand Center at Carnegie Mellon, which supports more than 75 outreach opportunities for students and faculty to connect to the community.

Catalina Achim, associate director of nanotechnology at CMU’s Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology and professor of chemistry, is observing Professor Bruce Armitage’s class about DNA. Four high school girls learn how certain synthetic forms of DNA, called PNA, can provide stronger bonds to strands of DNA—an approach that can be used to create tools for better diagnoses and treatment of disease, superior analysis of crime scene evidence, and improved anthropological recording. Armitage passes out goggles and arrays of tiny vials. First, the students must practice using the pipettes to fully extract and transfer samples. This is hands-on learning, a quality that has been proven to work with the Cognitive Tutors and NoRILLA.

Achim, creator of the successful DNAZone program, which conducts outreach around the city of Pittsburgh, is rarely on the observing side like this. When she’s not immersed in her own research or teaching, she is doing her own community outreach: delivering science kits and providing training to teachers so they can perform experiments for students in classrooms all over the region.

Achim grew up in Romania and always thought she would be a teacher—but by the time she had progressed up the university chain in the States, she had resigned herself to the idea that the youngest people she might teach would be undergraduates. If it hadn’t been for the changes to the NSF funding, her assumption would have been correct.

But now she is witnessing firsthand K-12 students getting a feel for the kind of learning that takes place on a college campus, which ideally will intrigue them enough to set their sights on higher education.

Igniting Interest

There is general agreement among educators that proficiency issues in K-12 can no longer be ignored. The results of college entrance exams suggest that only about 25% of graduating high school seniors nationwide are ready for college. In community colleges, more than 40% of all students take at least one remedial class.

Why isn’t K-12 education more compelling and engaging? Eric Reeder, a CMU sophomore mechanical engineering major, wondered this when he first arrived on campus as a freshman. He was startled that he’d never heard the term “material science” before college. What if application-rich fields like materials science were introduced in K-12? He became obsessed with thinking about how high school could be more interesting on a day-to-day level, and more obviously connected with solving real-world problems. Without realizing it, he was acting like a learning engineer. And he was creating a new model for mentorship—one that might serve to drive similar programs across the country.

Reeder uncovered research that reveals that students’ motivation is central to their success. He learned about a promising method called “inquiry-based learning,” which focuses on having students drive their own learning, pursuing individual interests in the real world.

He discussed the possibilities with his classmates Jonathan Merrin, a sophomore computer science major, and Allison Perna, a senior in materials science and engineering. The end result is Project Ignite, a program—with the support of Judith Hallinen, CMU’s assistant vice provost for educational outreach—in which undergraduate students serve high-schoolers as project advisors, not to dictate what the students do, but to help the students navigate the roadblocks that will inevitably arise when trying something new.

Area high school teachers are enthusiastic about the concept by the three CMU undergrads. “There really isn’t anything like this,” says Drew Haberberger, a physics teacher who has spearheaded the STEM initiative at the Mt. Lebanon High School in suburban Pittsburgh. “It’s what’s needed: connections to what learning takes place in college.”

Hallinen agrees: “We’re busy creating new concepts in universities, but we need to introduce them to the high schools as well.”

Dozens of local high school students have already signed up to collaborate with and receive mentorship from CMU students. Project Ignite, says Hallinen, could very well establish a new model of mentorship.

Next Stop?

Duncan has cited personal reasons for his pending departure from the Department of Education. At an October roundtable discussion with reporters, he did give a sneak preview of what he believes will be good news, citing high school graduation gains, which currently stand at 81% nationally but appear to be on track to rise for the third year in a row. Final results won’t be available until 2016, but Duncan says, “It looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction.”

Duncan’s successor, John King, also took part in the roundtable; he told reporters he plans to build on Duncan’s progress and noted that expanding access to early learning will be one of his immediate areas of emphasis. That approach should resonate with the likes of Koedinger, Yannier, Achim, and Reeder because no matter who is in charge in D.C., there can be no final stop in improving education.