Innovator Interview: Dan Damelin

Dan DamelinQ. What brought you to the Concord Consortium?

A. While teaching high school chemistry I saw a presentation by Bob Tinker and Carolyn Staudt on using handheld devices with probes to collect real-time data. This was before iPods and smartphones, so it was new to have something so small that could be used in the classroom. I had just reduced my teaching load to free up time to design a website that would integrate my class materials, provide a place for students and parents to monitor grades, and link to interactive models to explore chemistry. Bob described several projects at the Concord Consortium, which were similar to ideas I’d been toying with. A day or two later I sent Bob an email explaining my background (triple majors in Chemistry, Computer Science, and Environmental Studies, with a Master’s in Teaching from Tufts) and suggested that we collaborate. He replied immediately and asked me to come in. The Concord Consortium needed someone to coordinate the development of a multidisciplinary online course for the recently created Virtual High School, and it was a perfect match for me. For eight years, I taught part time and worked for the Concord Consortium. I’ve been full time here since 2007.

Q. How does your time teaching inform your work at the Concord Consortium?

A. Having teaching experience is essential to do this kind of work. I have firsthand experience with everyday issues related to classrooms, students, and teachers, which affects the way I think about designing student materials, how I plan and execute professional development workshops, what kinds of teacher tools and supports I develop, and what kinds of problems I’m trying to solve when considering new ideas to pursue. I also worked as the tech coordinator for the science department and filled in as the non-print media coordinator for the school for a year, which has given me a great deal of technology insight regarding the nuts and bolts of getting a computer-based innovation into schools. While splitting my time between the classroom and the Concord Consortium, I was able to use my own classroom as a test bed for new methods and models. There’s no better way to research the effectiveness of a curricular innovation than to teach with it!

Q. What excites you about the future of educational technology?

A. When I started teaching in 1993, I saw the enormous potential for computers to improve education, mostly for students, but also for teachers and administrators. Access to computers was pretty limited then, but it has grown tremendously over the years. The greatest impact will be when students and teachers have anytime access to technology, so I’m very interested in the one-to-one movement where each student has their own computer. Unfortunately, technology access has often been the limiting factor in allowing teachers to naturally incorporate interactive models and probe-based activities into their everyday work. The kind of formative feedback that is possible with computers can only become a systematic part of classroom teaching and planning if incorporated on a daily basis. Ultimately, the computer is a creative tool that can play a significant role in student learning, can help students share and collaborate, and can form the basis for deep discussions about how the world works—in science and in other fields that benefit from increased access to resources and information. I recently stumbled upon an original manuscript written by Walt Whitman that was scanned and posted online in the Library of Congress. It showed his editing process, so it was a fascinating new dimension to his composition, biography, poetry, and more. Today so many tools exist to help students learn to write, read, and collaborate. History comes alive through immersion in 3D simulations, allowing students to explore and learn through discovery. We are so close to being able transform schools with technology. Many of the tools already exist. There’s pent up demand for this kind of change, and I want to be a positive force in this movement.

Q. You’re leading a new effort to help learners of all reading abilities engage in science. Tell us about your work with Schools for the Future.

A. The project is in its earliest stages. Schools for the Future (SFF) is developing an innovative school environment and structure that works with students who have become disconnected from standard school programs. These students have been held back and are performing significantly below grade level in reading and math. One strategy for working with these students is to engage them in a curriculum that is relevant and performance based. The Concord Consortium has developed numerous interactive computer-based activities that SFF developers felt would fit well in their program. Part of their strategy is to have teachers deeply engaged in creating the curriculum. Using our technology, it’s easy to adapt and edit existing activities. We’ll work with SFF teachers to help them find relevant resources, use our activity management system for feedback on student progress, adapt materials for their target population, and learn how to teach with models.

Q. Can you describe the projects you’re currently working on?

A. I spend my time on five different projects, including Schools for the Future.

I direct the Rhode Island Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (RI-ITEST) project. Over the past three years, 100 teachers have participated in an intensive professional development program to learn how to incorporate computer models into physics, chemistry, and biology classes. They also made connections between the computer models used to teach and learn science and careers that use computer modeling. This project is winding down now, but the materials are still freely available at our website: We’re still analyzing data, but preliminary results show that both students and teachers gained in conceptual knowledge and that using more model-based activities is correlated with larger gains in content knowledge.

The High-Adventure Science project aims to inspire students by introducing them to cutting-edge research in Earth and Space Science. Students work with computer models much in the same way professionals in the field explore unanswered questions in the areas of climate change, the existence of life in space, and future water resources. I help develop models and activities and assist with teacher professional development.

Geniverse is a game-based environment for high school students to learn genetics concepts through tasks and challenges. Students breed drakes (which are a lab mouse analog of a dragon), moving from Apprentices to Masters in the Drake Breeder’s Guild. The activities promote discovery of key genetics concepts and build student skills so they can use modern bioinformatics techniques in their quest to cure disease or solve other genetics-based puzzles. I’ve helped with game development and have recently become part of the programming team.

For the Electron Technologies project, I develop models and activities to help students understand the nano-world of electrons. Dynamic quantum models made with the Molecular Workbench allow students to explore the behavior of electrons, which are so small that quantum physics plays a major role in understanding their motion and interaction with atomic nuclei and other electrons. Because processing chips and other electronic components are ubiquitous in the many devices we interact with every day, we wanted a way to open the black box and give students a chance to understand this fundamental particle through exploration and modeling.

As you can see, there’s a theme here—inquiry through computer-based models. This is one area where I think computers provide a unique learning opportunity for students, a type of experience that research has shown is one of the best ways to learn scientific principles.

I’ve also had the opportunity to co-author a high school chemistry text called “A Natural Approach to Chemistry,” which emphasizes conceptual learning before tackling ideas using formulas and equations. I drew significantly from my multidisciplinary background to build in connections across science topics to make the book more accessible and the concepts more relevant for students. Of course, there are many inquiry-based labs and activities included.

Q. You’ve developed many Molecular Workbench models and activities. What’s your favorite?

A. I think my favorite Molecular Workbench activity is Intermolecular Forces. Interactions between molecules are such a central idea in understanding so many different concepts in physics, chemistry, and biology.

Q. What do you like to do outside of work?

A. Does eating chocolate count? I love outdoor activities, music, and photography. When I was teaching I was the Outdoor Club coordinator and we often went on backpacking, biking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing trips. Musically, I’m most interested in jazz. I’ve studied trumpet, saxophone, flute, and I like to noodle around on the piano. Nowadays, I spend most of my free time with my family, and love rediscovering the world through the eyes of my four-year-old daughter.