Innovator Interview: Paul Horwitz

Paul HorwitzQ. What brought you to the Concord Consortium?

A. I was at Bolt, Beranek and Newman [now BBN], trying to figure out how to use computers to improve the safety of nuclear reactors, when someone suggested that Wally Feurzeig and I collaborate on a paper called “Microcomputers and Education.” It was a review of the different ways that these newfangled devices (Apple IIs mostly) could be used some day to teach kids. One of the people we talked to was Bob Tinker who was at TERC at the time, working out of a little storefront near Harvard Square. Bob was running an after-school program that let kids mess around with computers. He was just getting started with probes. Many years later when BBN was starting to go sour, I talked to Bob again and learned about the Concord Consortium, which appealed to me because it was small and focused on education. Since I had National Science Foundation project money, I could go anywhere I wanted.

Q. What makes the Concord Consortium unique? 

A. We’re different. We have an exciting niche and a great reputation in the field. We address all three legs of the tripod—technology, science, and pedagogy. Very few of our competitors can match that.

Q. You’re famous for dragons. Tell us about that.

A. First of all, I didn’t invent the dragons—Joyce Schwartz did. She had been using them for years to teach high school biology, taking off on the Anne McCaffrey books. Second, I didn’t know beans about genetics when we wrote GenScope, the original “dragon program.” All the science smarts came from Joyce and Eric Neumann, who is both a computer scientist and a biologist.

I don’t know why GenScope became so popular, but maybe it’s because it’s a general-purpose tool (like Molecular Workbench). Those are the ones that innovative teachers can pick up and adapt. Also, the interface is very carefully designed. GenScope hits a sweet spot—it’s powerful without being off-putting.

Years ago, I was preparing a talk at a meeting and running GenScope on a big screen. A woman I didn’t know watched me for a while and then said, “That’s a nice little program,” and walked off. And I thought to myself, “We slaved over this program for years! It’s got umpteen gazillion lines of code and…” And then I caught myself. “Wait, dummy, that was a compliment! This thing is really complicated and multilevel and all that, yet it came across to her as a ‘nice little program.’ That’s just what we’re looking for!”

Q. Are you excited about the future of educational technology?

A. Yes! Admittedly, there isn’t much data, yet, to back this up, but I keep thinking that things are going to get better. Maybe as a society we’ll figure out that education is important. Rather than just saying it is, we might actually come to believe it and support it accordingly. Obviously the technology gets better every year and I think we’re getting better at figuring out how to use it. And whenever I get depressed I think about what a kick it is to watch students get turned on by the right technology. It happens routinely. Kids come in at recess to breed dragons; they bug their parents at home with science questions. We can grab these kids—including the ones who think they’re uninterested in school. We can teach them really hard things and get them excited about learning, once they realize that they can do it. And I’ve seen that so often, I’m no longer surprised when it happens.

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

A. I wear my “98% chimpanzee” and “Viva la Evolución” tee shirts to the gym. I have a big collection of dragons—stuffed animals and figures. And I like photography. I’ve been on two safaris and my travel companions and I would joke, “That’s a National Geographic shot.” But not just safaris, photography generally. Next, I’d like to learn how to mount the pictures.

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

A. Two projects – Evolution Readiness and SPARKS (Simulations for Performance Assessments that Report on Knowledge and Skills). They span such a wide range—from 10-year-olds to 20-year-olds! What we’re trying to teach is very different, too. Evolution is really hard. It’s very abstract, very far removed from the life of an individual child, so it’s very hard to teach.

Electronics is much more specialized and the learning goals are more concrete—measuring voltages, troubleshooting circuits. College students, for the most part, are motivated to learn and pass the course. So if you let them practice doing something, give them points when they succeed and helpful advice when they don’t, they’ll do it over and over until they get good at it.

Q. What do you imagine doing in retirement (though we don’t want you to ever retire!)?

A. I’ve asked myself that. Who knows? I have no idea really, but I don’t think I’ll be bored. I’m not bored very often. There’s always something interesting to do. Maybe I’ll learn sign language—I’ve always wanted to do that.

Q. Why are you jumping in this photograph?

A. The idea came from the Jump Book by the portrait photographer Philippe Halsman. Whenever he photographed celebrities he would get them to jump, and they would all jump in different ways. He put all the pictures into a book. My wife and I went on safari last summer and we watched this African dance ceremony where the men all jumped. The idea was to jump as high as possible. And at one point the men grabbed me and I jumped with them. So maybe I was thinking of that.