Innovator Interview: Robert Tinker

Robert TinkerQ. Tell us about the coffee klatch that led to the Concord Consortium.

A. For over 10 years Barbara [Tinker] and I met with a group of Concord friends on Saturday mornings. We were all interested in education, though we came at it from different angles. One worked in a medical clinic for the disadvantaged, one was a spiritual psychologist, one designed educational discs, and so forth. We were looking for new places to channel our energy, so we created the Concord Consortium as a lifeboat of sorts — and I jumped in headfirst. I read up on how to make a nonprofit and we set one up with the klatch as the board. Our part was called the “Educational Technology Lab” and, with three grants, it soon overwhelmed the others in the klatch. Those with little interest in managing a growing technology-based nonprofit graciously withdrew from the board.

Q. You ignited the whole field of probeware. How?

It was a direct result of a grant to TERC in 1984 called Microcomputer-Based Labs from NSF. Stephen Bannasch and I had been advocating probeware for a decade by building prototypes, giving workshops, and even participating in a funded grant to develop probeware for the “Voyage of the Mimi” project. But the MBL project provided the ignition. The grant allowed us to develop and market a dozen complete labs using probes, create the game-changing ultrasonic motion detector, stimulate research on probes by holding two conferences and giving researchers hardware, and seed competition by selling hardware kits at cost. We also invented the name “MBL” so we could track the influence of the project. The term is forgotten now because “microcomputer” is anachronistic, but for a decade it was synonymous with “probeware” and was ubiquitous. Even the Texas Instruments “calculator-based labs” or CBL was an acknowledgement that we had created a market for MBL products.

Q. Can you describe some major milestones in the history of probes?

A. It all started with the single board computer, the KIM-1, which was designed by MOS Technology. They had a very sweet, inexpensive microcomputer chip—the 6502—and distributing the inexpensive ($245) board was a way to familiarize engineers with the chip. The KIM-1, released in 1977, had an entire 1K of RAM and the operating system was in 1K of ROM!

Some students and I designed an expansion board for the KIM-1 that doubled its RAM and ROM memory and added the ability to input probe data and to generate an output that could be displayed on an oscilloscope as a graph of the input over time.

The AAAS ran a program in their Chautauqua Series, which was professional development for college teachers. I was a regular course leader, offering an electronics workshop that morphed into using the KIM-1 as a general instrument. Some of the participants were AAPT [American Association of Physics Teachers] members who got really excited by the KIM-1 as a lab instrument, so we decided to make it an official AAPT workshop. We gave dozens of workshops until small computers like the Apple II became common in the mid 1980s, and got a lot of people in the physics community interested in the idea of probeware. One of our experiments included the KIM-1 with the expansion board, a test tube, thermocouple, relay, and heater—all mounted on a big board for display—along with an oscilloscope. We ran a program stored on the ROM to heat up naphthalene in the test tube and then let it cool. This resulted in a liquid-solid transition and the probe data generated the resulting cooling curve on the ’scope that clearly showed the distinct plateau during the transition—heat flow without temperature change! We dragged this all over and it made quite an impression on a lot of people. That was only one of a dozen or so neat experiments we could do with the expansion board and ROMs. Those were the good old days!

When the NSF Education Directorate closed in 1981 as part of the Reagan Administration’s drastic changes to the federal role in education, all federal money flowing into TERC stopped. Arthur Nelson, founder of TERC, helped us keep staff together by funding us to take our expertise on the road and do workshops on computers in education for teachers. We developed a traveling show that offered three days of workshops with four parallel workshops each day. We had a passel of faculty to teach programming of LOGO, BASIC, and Pascal, probeware electronics, and more. We’d do three or four of these shows a year and had the wildest collection of computers—the KIM-1s, hobbyist computers, some with our own graphics boards, PETs, Apple IIs, TI99s, and CompuColor IIs. A typical workshop required 40 boxes. In those days before security screening, a dollar per box slipped to a Red Cap would get the entire load on a plane!

Once, we did a workshop at the Ontario Science Museum. Tim Barclay and I rented a truck and drove there, but we hadn’t gotten certification that we had brought all this equipment into Canada. So when we left we had a truck full of contraband. The customs office closed for the weekend at midnight and it was 11:55 p.m. when we arrived. We were nervous that they would hold us for the weekend and kill us with tax on all the contraband, but, anxious to get home, they waved us through. That’s the sort of life we led! Getting out on the road and meeting educators crazy enough to come to these meetings was the most important benefit of these road shows because we made a lot of friends. For instance, David Vernier learned about probeware at one of our workshops in Beaverton, Oregon. [David Vernier has since founded Vernier, which produces data loggers, sensors, and software.]

Arthur lost money on us, though he never complained. He was the cheeriest, nicest person, and he taught me a lot! He kept us going because good people are important to retain. In 1983, things loosened up [in the federal government] and we got a subaward from Bank Street to create probeware for the Voyage of the Mimi, and then funding for probeware and other projects. In the 1980’s, when I was at TERC, we often had college faculty members take sabbaticals with us. One was Jim Pengra from Whitman College in Washington. When Stephen and I noticed a Polaroid ad about an ultrasonic range finder developed for their Sun camera, we asked Jim to figure out how fast it could repeat measurements. Two days later, he had written machine code on the Apple IIe that graphed distance measurements ten times a second. This was the birth of the motion detector, which is now widely used in science education. And it was only possible because we had expert extra help not tied to grant deadlines.

Q. What excites you most about probes?

A. In some ways, it’s easier to simulate the real world than to actually take measurements. But probes are a nice counterbalance to models and simulations. It’s important in education to do as much as you can with your hands. A well-equipped computer with a bunch of probes is an instrument that can be used for many scientific measurements—it’s unprecedented what kids can do. That’s the dream, but it’s expensive. Maybe with the new standards with two detailed sections on the process of science and experimentation, there will be more incentive to get probes in the classroom. There are a dozen different ways to reduce the price of a fully equipped lab—it just has to happen!

Q. You were also instrumental in inspiring Molecular Workbench. Tell us about that.

There had been a long history of computer simulations of atomic motion. The Apple IIe had something truly amazing. It was a hard-sphere model where atoms collided and went off in different directions. It could handle 1,000 atoms and generate realistic statistics on velocities and such, which was appealing at the college level. Though the graphics were just single pixels moving around the screen, it always stuck in my mind as a model. In 1998 we won a grant to explore the feasibility of molecular dynamics. Boris Berenfeld found a website that looked like what we wanted. Charles Xie had created very erudite and powerful stuff on biological molecules, so on the way back from Israel where I was giving a speech, I interviewed him in Europe, and hired him on the spot. He was off and running, I just pushed him in the right direction. Charles knew intermolecular forces. That opened up a whole new world. The Molecular Workbench is very solid and really original.

Q. What’s the larger significance of Molecular Workbench?

A. The triumph of the 20th century was the discovery that everything is made of atoms and molecules. It’s only when you treat atoms and molecules as physical objects with charge, motion, and interactions that you can understand a huge range of phenomena. Everything can be explained through molecules.

Q. What do you hope for educational technology?

I want a deeply digital curriculum. Technology offers a new and powerful way to learn complicated concepts in a qualitative way. A lot of scientists sneer at conceptual understanding, but research in cognitive science shows that understanding deep concepts is almost always conceptual. When we take that capability and allow it to change the curriculum, we’ll have real change.

Q. Anything else you want to tell us?

A. I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.

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

Even though my musical skills are limited to turning pages for Barbara, I enjoy classical music immensely. I can listen endlessly to the Bach sonatas for violin, ’cello, and piano. I’m currently fixated on the chaconne of the violin partita #2. I adore the great requiems, Mozart and Rachmaninov piano concerti, the Mendelssohn piano trio In D Minor. My all-time favorite is the Mozart clarinet concerto.