The 25th annual Texas Computer Education Association convention was in high gear in Austin on Thursday with a record paid attendance of 8,362, a record total attendance of more than 13,000, and two notable speeches–one an expected highlight and the other a hidden gem.

The expected highlight, a keynote speech by Dr. Willard Daggett, President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, lived up to its advance billing while coming across in a frank and often critical tone.

Hours later, a less-publicized speech by Forrest Mims III was sparsely attended, but very well received in an off-site session at a nearby hotel.

Organized by iScience Project in support of the company’s newly-updated, more powerful version of the HOBO data logger, this session brought Mims, the most widely published science writer in history, to Austin. Speaking about the road that led to the HOBO, Mims discussed the history of data logging–beginning with the log itself.

He began his riveting talk by showing the audience a tree ring, which acts as a natural data logger. By cutting the tree and studying the rings that form during its annual growth cycle, Mims explained, a recording of data like climate, sunlight, fire damage, flooding, and a variety of other environmental factors could be determined. This might not be so practical for portable use, but the tree ring is a great example of how technology can learn from the simple functions of nature. Mims then tracked data logging systems in detail, discussing everything from pen and paper recordings of conditions to devices constructed from smoked glass to measure light penetration.

Daggett’s speech was also quite technical but far more sobering. Indeed, if Wednesday’s address from motivational speaker Ron Clark was about renewing a passion in educators, Thursday’s keynote was about using that energy to examine the deficiencies of the nation’s K-12 schools.

“I’m never politically correct; I say what is on my mind,” Daggett began by saying.

He then went on to explain how his organization has identified the top thirty schools in the nation.

“High-performing schools spend a lot of time not talking about the latest [technological] gadget, but talking about the changing world,” Daggett said.

Daggett ordered the crowd to consider a young person in their personal lives–someone under the age of 7. “What year was it when you were that child’s age? Was it the ’50s?” he asked. “What was cutting edge technology of the ’50s? Television? Do you remember manual typewriters and carbon paper?” Daggett said that teachers could not have imagined what the world today would look like.

“Here’s my prediction: there will be more technological change in this country in the next four years then there has been in the history of mankind,” Daggett told a hushed crowd.

He said the world outside public schools won’t use “information technology” by 2008. Biotechnology, nanotechnology (a branch of science that seeks to control individual atoms and molecules to create incredibly small computer chips and other devices), and information technology will increasingly overlap and continue drive change in all fields. Education, he said, must keep up with this change.

Daggett examined specific developments in those fields. For instance, he discussed the development of a watch-sized computer that, through nanotechnology, projects all the content of current PCs directly onto a physical surface and, in the same manner, projects a keyboard that can read keystrokes.

By 2008, Daggett said, consumers will be able to buy a device in a drugstore that reads DNA through saliva and–through interface with another readily accessible device–discover if they are personally predisposed to thousands of different diseases. Expectant mothers will be able to discover the same for their fetuses.

In the realm of information technology, through the use of a developing technology known as the semantic web, Daggett said “we will no longer search for data through keywords and headers, but by asking broad questions.” When retrieved, he said, that data will come instantaneously and be highly malleable.

All of these technologies, Daggett said, are interdependent of one another:

“By 2008, it won’t make sense to speak of information technology. We’ll just be speaking about technology.”

Daggett said that, through the current emphasis on compartmentalized learning in schools with a heavy testing element, the increasingly interconnected nature of these fields is being ignored–an oversight that will have incredibly negative results for the children currently being taught by educators.

“You know what’s scary to me?” he asked the audience rhetorically, “you can’t imagine the world my five grandkids are going to live in.”

Daggett called for radical reforms in curriculum design that reflect that interdependency. “Our children are going to drive the use of these new technologies. We need to be aware of them.” He was especially critical of remedial programs in the United States.

“There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that pulling a kid out of a class that he likes to teach him stuff that he doesn’t like works,” he said–suggesting instead that educators seize opportunities to do things like teach math through the language arts and music, and vice versa. He said that technology can be used to do just that.

The most successful schools,” Daggett said, “don’t use technology to make improvements on the current system that doesn’t work; they use it to change the system.”

Educators at TCEA seemed to have mixed feelings about Daggett’s presentation.

“I agree with him that our curriculum should be more integrated,” one educator from Irwin, Texas said. “But I don’t know if many of the older teachers would be open to changing their habits this late in the game.”

Meanwhile, without the benefit of a large crowd, Mims discussed his background in the exhaustive recording and study of atmospheric conditions and how he now uses the HOBO data logger for a variety of different purposes. He’s used it to examine the amount of light projected from a spider’s back when it defensively bounces on its web to frighten away predators. He has also used it to correlate the effects of atmospheric smoke pollution in Brazil to lung illnesses by way of UV ray penetration.

Mims said he used earlier versions of the HOBO to study UV ray penetration through the Brazilian atmosphere, which is made smoky by the excessive burning of waste materials. He studied those results against hospital records on influenza-like symptoms that can develop when people do not receive enough UV sunlight, and hedetermined an exact correlation between the symptoms and UV penetration.

Mims has developed every kind of atmospheric recording device, from those that are the size of a desk, to adapting earlier models of the HOBO to suit his specific needs. His experience in environmental study is extensive, and one could imagine how he could be a bit overwhelming in the role of product spokesman for iScienceProject. But his passion for the material kept the small audience glued to his presentation.

“Kids wouldn’t be intimidated by science if they had a device like this,” Mims said in describing the HOBO data logger,which records and charts external light, temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and a variety of other atmospheric conditions. Mims noted that a third grader can easily operate the matchbox-sized device by simply pressing a button and downloading the climate information recorded on the device to a computer. Yet this same powerful tool is also used by researchers for a wide variety of complex projects, including determining the effects of volcano eruptions on global air quality or the difference in ultraviolet sun ray (UV) penetration at varying depths of water.

Links:

International Center for Leadership in Education
http://www.daggett.com/

iScienceProject
http://www.iscienceproject.com/