Innovator Interview: Bill Finzer

William FinzerQ. Tell us about your background.

A. I wrote my first computer program for statistics education in 1979. It was a game called “Guess My Bag” for the 8K Commodore PET. You drew colored balls from three bags and tried to figure out which bag you were drawing from. I’ve been working on stuff like that ever since.

Q. Why not just have students use professional data analysis packages for learning?

A. The first time I showed Fathom to a group of data analysis practitioners I dragged a point on a scatter plot, and someone aghast asked, “Are you really changing the data?” Software designed for learning gives the learner opportunities to change things and see the effect. Fathom has this dynamic manipulation capability at its core and became one of the most highly respected computer learning environments for teaching statistics and math from a data-driven point of view.

Q. You’ve collaborated with legendary math educator Marilyn Burns. Tell us about that.

A. Marilyn and I became friends with our shared interest in teacher professional development. She told me repeatedly “you have to be in the classroom” in order to understand what’s possible with teachers and students. Though I agree, I’m never able to do it—partly because of temperament and because the programming I love to do takes so much time.

Q. You started out as a programmer?

A. Not at all. My training was in physics. Out of grad school I worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science, leading teacher workshops. After a year, I knew I needed more teaching experience, so I helped start an alternative school, where I encountered my limits and learned I needed good people to mentor me. I was lucky to find such people at San Francisco State University and Xerox PARC.

Q. Say more about Xerox PARC.

A. I worked in Alan Kay’s Smalltalk group. It was fantastic to work with the interdisciplinary team—from artists to computer scientists—he assembled. We were using, and helping to develop, one of the first GUIs! I was there the day Steve Jobs toured, but of course I had no idea where that was going to go.

Q. Describe CODAP [Common Online Data Analysis Platform].

A. Cliff Konold and I realized we could embed games in Fathom and TinkerPlots and have the games be the sources of data. This led to the Data Games project where kids analyze their game data to figure out how to improve their score. CODAP was based on the realization that in order for students to work with data, curriculum developers need easy access to data analysis tools and an environment that can be embedded in their materials.

Q. What is the new role of data in education?

A. People encounter data in all aspects of their lives. Data science is the union of ideas, skills and practices that come from math, from a discipline and from computational thinking. Data scientists help turn data into useful stuff, whether for business, science, government or education. Data science education will help students become data scientists.

Q. What’s exciting about the Concord Consortium and
Concord West?

A. There are so many wonderful people who are passionate about learning and about technology as
a tool for learning. It’s an exciting, stimulating environment! Putting together a team in the new Concord West is rewarding, and with today’s high-bandwidth channels we feel very connected to Concord East.