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Fostering Big Ideas to Solve Problems in Education

Greetings from stunningly gorgeous Half Moon Bay, Calif., where I am covering the 2012 Big Ideas Fest, hosted by ISKME. ISKME, or the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, which runs the OER Commons, brings together educators across the P-20 spectrum, along with policymakers, entrepreneurs, and education thinkers to tackle major challenges in education.

The conference kicked off last night with a keynote from Karen Cator, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. She spoke about the convergence of factors leading to "education's Internet moment." Digital content, big data, 24/7 mobile Internet access, and social interactions for learning are finally coming together in more powerful ways to create better approaches for teaching and learning, she explained. (In case you haven't heard, Cator plans to step down from her position in 2013 once her replacement is picked.)

Cator also detailed three projects spearheaded by the federal government that reflect this shift in K-12 education, including Connected Educators, which aims to build an online community of educators for professional development; the Education Data Initiative, which works to expand the use of data while continuing to protect personal privacy; and the Learning Registry, which allows multiple providers of content to register their content so that teachers can be connected to resources from a variety of different places in one spot.

The theme of innovation and taking advantage of new potential continued during this morning's session, where we heard from three people who are harnessing the power of technology to create new opportunities for learners.

The first presenter was Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, which launched in April 2011 with the mission of helping African-American girls between the ages of seven and 17 learn computer programming. Only 3 percent of the computer science workforce is made up of African-American women, Bryant explained. She began holding workshops for girls in her community to teach them how to program, and in 2012, she arranged a Black Girls Code tour with the goal of teaching 200 girls in seven cities how to code, visiting such cities as Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas and even Johannesburg, South Africa. By the end of the tour, the group had educated more than 700 girls. About 75 percent of the girls in the workshops did not have access to a computer and/or broadband access in their homes, the organization's research found, but by the end of the workshop, 70 percent of the girls said they were interested in pursuing a career and additional education in IT.

Next, Nirvan Mullick, creative director of the Imagination Foundation, spoke about the launch of his foundation, directly inspired by the wildly successful viral video Caine's Arcade, which Mullick created. The video features the entrepreneurship and passion of 9-year-old Caine Monroy, who created his own arcade made out of cardboard boxes in the back of his father's auto parts shop in Los Angeles. The film that Mullick made about Caine and his arcade became very popular once it hit the Internet, garnering more than a million views during the first day it was posted. In fact, if you haven't seen it, get ready because it has a powerful message.

Inspired by the video's success, Mullick began a scholarship fund for Caine shortly after the video was posted. The fund raised $60,000 for Caine within its first day, and within five days, the fund had grown to $152,000. Mullick seized the energy and potential around Caine's Arcade as inspiration for the launch of the Imagination Foundation, which seeks to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship among kids. So far, 100 schools in nine different countries have used the Caine's Arcade video to teach math, science, and engineering, said Mullick.

Lastly, we heard from Stephen Ritz, the founder of the Green Bronx Machine, an initiative launched by Ritz in his South Bronx high school that uses concepts about farming and growing fresh food to engage students academically at the school, which primarily serves underprivileged students. The project grew exponentially, with the students selling the food they produced at farmers' markets and beginning to earn money through their work. The students were hired to help install green roofs on houses in the Hamptons, build wall gardens at the Rockefeller Center, and transform abandoned buildings into livable, sustainable landscapes. "We're moving kids into the economy," he explained.

Through the project, Ritz' school saw a jump in attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent, and the project has expanded to include many schools within New York City and around the country. Hear more about the project from the enthusiastic founder himself in this TED Talk video:

All of the speakers this morning leveraged the power of social media and the passion of kids to solve problems within their schools and communities. Finding solutions to problems that seem overwhelming is a theme of this conference, and I am excited to hear more from the speakers here over the next two days.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the Big Ideas Fest here on the Digital Education blog.

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