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Google parent company Alphabet is bringing a helper robot into the kitchen.

Google’s parent company Alphabet is infusing robots with artificial intelligence so they can help with tasks like lending a supporting arm to the elderly or sorting trash that can understand natural language commands. Alphabet has been developing robots that can carry out simple tasks like fetching drinks and cleaning surfaces. The trash-literate robot part of a project called Everyday Robot has been in development for years. The bots have now been given an upgrade like improved language understanding courtesy of Google’s large language model (LLM) and PaLM (Pathways Language Model).  

Google is infusing LLM in-home robots:

Google has dubbed the resulting system PaLM-SayCan, the name capturing how the model combines the language understanding skills of LLMs with the affordance grounding of its robots. GPT-3 first showed that large language models (LLMs) can be used for few-shot learning. PaLM was trained using a combination of English and multilingual datasets that include high-quality web documents, books, Wikipedia, conversations, and GitHub code. The robot filters this instruction through an internal list of possible actions and interprets it as fetch me the sponge from the kitchen. They are going to try to build robots that can, you know, live amongst us and help us out in our daily lives. The hope is to make robots less reliant on human coding for their skills, and capable of adapting quickly to complex new tasks and environments. The Retriever robot could be incredibly useful for people with limited mobility but we’re still a long way from the do-anything robot butlers of our dreams. Google said that by integrating PaLM-SayCan into its robots, the bots were able to plan correct responses to 101 user-instructions 84 percent of the time and successfully execute them 74 percent of the time.  

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Google’s parent company Alphabet is infusing robots with artificial intelligence so they can help with tasks like lending a supporting arm to the elderly or sorting trash that can understand natural language commands. Alphabet has been developing robots that can carry out simple tasks like fetching drinks and cleaning surfaces. The trash-literate robot part of a project called Everyday Robot has been in development for years. The bots have now been given an upgrade like improved language understanding courtesy of Google’s large language model (LLM) and PaLM (Pathways Language Model).Google has dubbed the resulting system PaLM-SayCan, the name capturing how the model combines the language understanding skills of LLMs with the affordance grounding of its robots. GPT-3 first showed that large language models (LLMs) can be used for few-shot learning. PaLM was trained using a combination of English and multilingual datasets that include high-quality web documents, books, Wikipedia, conversations, and GitHub code. The robot filters this instruction through an internal list of possible actions and interprets it as fetch me the sponge from the kitchen. They are going to try to build robots that can, you know, live amongst us and help us out in our daily lives. The hope is to make robots less reliant on human coding for their skills, and capable of adapting quickly to complex new tasks and environments. The Retriever robot could be incredibly useful for people with limited mobility but we’re still a long way from the do-anything robot butlers of our dreams. Google said that by integrating PaLM-SayCan into its robots, the bots were able to plan correct responses to 101 user-instructions 84 percent of the time and successfully execute them 74 percent of the time.

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Home Is Where The Hurt Is

Home Is Where the Hurt Is Slone Epidemiology Center uncovers link between zip codes and health

BU epidemiologist Yvette Cozier has studied the effect of poorer neighborhoods on the health of black women. Photo by Sandy Hatfield, Slone Epidemiology Center

There is a health gap among American women, and it has stymied public health officials and health-care providers for years. Black women are afflicted with several major diseases, such as colon cancer and heart disease, at higher rates than white women. And when black women have these diseases, they more often die from them. For instance, they are 35 percent more likely to die of breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

These disparities persist even among women of the same education and income levels. Now, research from Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center suggests that part of the blame could lie in the neighborhoods where black women tend to live.

In a study appearing in this month’s American Journal of Public Health, Yvette Cozier, a School of Public Health assistant professor of epidemiology, found that living in a poorer neighborhood increases a black woman’s risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), which is itself a risk factor for heart disease and kidney disease. This result was found even among women whose personal characteristics, such as higher incomes, frequent exercise, and relatively low body mass index, would tend to mitigate their risk.

Nationwide, hypertension affects about 24 percent of all adults. But its incidence among black women is between two and three times that among white women. To investigate the reasons for this, Cozier and a team of researchers from the Slone Center, the SPH department of epidemiology, and Smith College used data from the ongoing Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), administered by the Slone Center and Howard University since 1995.

The BWHS compiles data from about 59,000 black women nationwide, who provide information on their overall health, including diet, exercise, tobacco use, and any health problems they’ve experienced, by means of a mailed questionnaire every other year. Researchers use this data to track associations between risk factors and the diseases to which black women are disproportionately susceptible.

Cozier decided to study so-called “neighborhood effects,” based on research indicating that black women tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than do white women of the same education and income. She and her fellow researchers identified cases of hypertension among BWHS participants with U.S. census information connected to their addresses, including median household income, percentage of residents with white-collar jobs and college degrees, and proportion of families headed by single female parents.

Of all these variables, median housing value was most closely correlated with hypertension. Overall, women living in neighborhoods with the lowest housing value had a 30 percent greater risk of high blood pressure than did women in neighborhoods with high property values. The researchers also found a significant association between housing value and hypertension risk even after adjusting for median household income, education, and common health risk factors. For instance, among the thinnest women, a group generally considered at low risk for hypertension, incidence of the condition among residents of poorer neighborhoods was 76 percent greater than it was among those in wealthier communities.

“These results really point us in the direction that community does matter in determining individual health,” says Cozier. “Physicians and health-care providers need to be aware of that when dealing with patients or putting together a public health program.”

The hypertension study is one of the first looking at neighborhood effects to come out of the BWHS, according to Lynn Rosenberg, an SPH professor of epidemiology and the principal investigator for BWHS. But Cozier’s research, Rosenberg says, is part of a growing number of studies showing that “it’s not just the personal characteristics of people and their health behaviors that affect their health.”

In addition to studying neighborhood effects, researchers from BWHS have been looking into the role of genetics in disease susceptibility. One recent study questionnaire included questions about family disease history, and the researchers have obtained between 25,000 and 26,000 cheek cell samples from study participants for DNA analysis. In a related effort, this fall Boston University and Howard University began another collaboration — scanning samples of African-American DNA for genetic associations with common health ailments, including hypertension.

“It’s being discovered more and more that genes and environmental factors don’t act in a vacuum and that disease is often the result of some kind of interaction between them,” Rosenberg explains.

Cozier’s next step could be to see if similar associations exist between median housing value and other diseases prevalent among black women. She hopes also to learn more about the correlation her study uncovered — the particular aspects of poorer neighborhoods that are most detrimental to good health. 

“We still need research to know what exactly is the mechanism that goes from community to individual health,” she says.

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Less Tvs In The Us, Is It The Economy Or The Internet?

Less TVs in the US, is it the Economy or the Internet?

I am considered an oddity among some of my friends and family because I don’t have cable. I do have a TV, but I rely on DVDs, Netflix and my Roku player for my television viewing. When someone asks me if I’ve seen a commercial, I just smile and say “no”. In fact, my daughter (at 4 years old) was shocked the first time she watched Nickelodeon when the commercials came on. She had never seen one. But maybe my odd choice is becoming less odd. A new report by Nielsen shows that for the first time since 1992, there are less US households with television sets. To be sure, the vast majority of households still own TVs, but the percentage has gone from 98.9 percent to 96.7 percent. Part of the explanation is the economy, and the change to digital. But is there another explanation?

Nielsen’s latest report includes data from the 2010 census, as well as 50,000 Americans in the national sample. The data shows that many of those without TVs are households earning under $20,000, who also don’t have internet access. These are people whom the economy has hit hard, and who may not have been able to afford the upgrade to digital despite government subsidies. But there is another group, younger people who prefer to watch on their computers (and increasingly on tablets and phones), and who are opting not to buy a TV set. Instead, they watch TV and movies online.

I guess I don’t fit into the TV-less group, but my TV is just a screen that makes it easier for me to watch, as I would prefer not to watch on my laptop. I have no plans to get cable or a satellite dish anytime soon. Just not interested. Anything I really want to watch, I can do it online, and not having cable means I’m less likely to spend hours watching TV and am more selective about what my family watches. I suspect that point of view is unlikely to become mainstream, but I do think that the group of people who are willing to pay a premium price for cable is likely to shrink, especially as more and more content is available online, and is available immediately. Also, the rise of Smart TVs and set top boxes like the Boxee Box, Apple TV, and the Roku make watching internet content easier and more accessible (you don’t have to hunch in front of your laptop).

Nielsen is now looking at including internet video in their surveys, something that I think is already overdue. According to the report:

“While Nielsen data demonstrates that consumers are viewing more video content across all platforms — rather than replacing one medium with another — a small subset of younger, urban consumers seem to be going without paid TV subscriptions for the time being. The long-term effects of this are still unclear, as it is undetermined if this is also an economic issue that will see these individuals entering the TV marketplace once they have the means, or the beginning of a larger shift to online viewing.”

To further gauge interest in streaming, we have a poll running right now asking our readers their opinions on Smart TVs.

The vast majority, 46%, say they have no plans to buy one. Only 11% say that they have a Smart TV and use all the features. This is not really surprising, since most Smart TVs come with a premium price. Vincent Nguyen just reviewed the Samsung D8000, which sells for around $3500. It’s a beautiful TV with a great picture and amazing features, but priced out of the range of many. There are cheaper options, like the Sony Google TV for $999, and if you go the set-top box route, the cost is much lower, starting at $59 for the lowest-end Roku.

Kristine at chúng tôi has an interesting perspective, as after she got a $170 cable bill, stated weighing the cost of cable vs. the cost of cutting the cord and going with a Roku player. She found that she would save about $740 per year by dumping cable, which was enough to justify the switch, and even allowed for some extra purchases renting movies on Amazon.

I don’t see people giving up their TVs, the TV is still the center of the American living room, and TV ownership is well over 90% in the U.S. and likely to stay that way. But I can definitely see cable subscribership declining, and more people cutting the cord and watching via streaming. Paying for cable, or even satellite, is going to start making less sense as more options pop up for getting what you want when you want it, and for less. With Netflix now getting original content, and seemingly everyone getting into the content streaming game, namely Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Epix HD, possibly Facebook, and most recently Warner Brothers, there is no question that online streaming is where content delivery is headed.

If Nielsen wants to stay relevant, they had best start studying internet TV viewing sooner rather than later, and if cable networks want to stay in business, they will need to step up their efforts to work with streaming companies like Netflix and others instead of trying to oppose them. I’m quite happy with my Roku and my Netflix subscription, and even with small kids, I don’t feel that I need Nickelodeon. My kids are fine with their DVDs, and watching the shows that are available via Netflix streaming. And I am happy with the choices I have watching on the Roku or on DVD. The one thing my husband and I sometimes miss is being able to watch live sports, especially football. But that isn’t enough for us to justify paying for cable. If I was more of a dedicated TV watcher, though, I might feel differently. So what do you think? Have you cut the cord yet? Would you? Or if you really love having cable, why would you hate to give it up?

A Ban On Autonomous Killer Robots Is Inevitable

Last week, the Future of Life Institute (FLI) released an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons. The institute defines these as systems that can “elect and engage targets without human intervention,” and proposes that, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is—practically if not legally—feasible within years, not decades…”

But the content of that letter is pretty irrelevant. It’s a breezy, 437-word document that’s more Facebook post than rallying cry. It’s also the second such warning about the dangers of AI that FLI has made this year. In January, they issued an open letter about AI safety, referencing issues of privacy and workplace injury, as well as the existential threat of machines that might wipe out humankind. That document attracted widespread attention, in large part due to famous signatories like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Now, both have also signed the new letter.

But Musk and Hawking’s involvement isn’t of much note, either. They’ve gone on the record in the past with shrill and unsupported fears of AI, using the language and logic of science fiction rather than any research-based conclusions. Their bias is established, and despite their clear brilliance in other matters, the topic is outside of their professional and academic purview. Hawking studies high-energy physics, and most famously fretted over AI in an op-ed tied to the 2014 movie Transcendence. And Musk’s many futuristic ventures don’t yet include AI. Even the co-founders of Vicarious, the AI firm that Musk has personally invested in, have effectively debunked his claims that researchers are actually working to avoid an apocalyptic outbreak of runaway machine intelligence.

So what’s important about FLI’s letter, if not its content, or its most prominent signatories?

It’s that virtually every major player in AI and robotics has endorsed it. The growing army of signatories signatories currently includes more than 50 Google engineers and researchers, many of who are from DeepMind, the AI firm that Google acquired last year for $400M. Also on the list are Yann LeCun, director of AI research for Facebook, and Yoshua Bengio, an AI researcher from the University of Montreal. They’re pioneers in the field of deep learning, a subset of AI that’s often associated with the potential to create truly human-like machine intelligence. When I interviewed them for a story about the dangers of AI fear-mongering, they viewed such handwringing as largely irrelevant, and detrimental to the field. In Bengio’s case, he even worried about researchers being targeted by people tricked into seeing AI as an apocalyptic threat. And yet, the very people who are concerned about the increasing backlash against anything robotic are on board with the idea of banning autonomous weapons.

What we’re seeing is the beginning of an inevitability.

What we’re seeing is the beginning of an inevitability. The open letter comes on the heels of the second United Nations conference on the subject of banning lethal autonomous weapon systems, or LAWS (an unfortunate acronym, in the context of a ban). Those meetings have yet to produce a binding agreement or proposal, and were presented as an ongoing discussion, rather than a prelude to political. But the final line of FLI’s letter is more direct. “Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.”

Human rights groups want these systems banned. A huge number of AI researchers and roboticists do, too. That consensus is only going to get bigger as autonomous killing machines become more feasible, or actually find their way onto the battlefield. This is a doomed technology.

The questions that remain, however, are not trivial, or obvious: What exactly are we banning, and when?

* * *

The central goal of the anti-autonomous weapons movement can be summed up in a single term: meaningful human control.

You can read a lot into those three words, including some misconceptions. There are fringe elements within their ranks, but most critics of LAWS aren’t afraid of a Terminator-style robot uprising. The desire to control armed machines is about preserving the human decision to kill. There are philosophical reasons for not allowing robots to determine when to use lethal force—that it should be a hard decision, for example, with an emotional cost—as well as more practical concerns. FLI’s letter warns about the risk of proliferation, that with their eventual low cost and inherent ease of use, “autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.” If a swarm of disposable bomb-carrying robots can be fielded by anyone, then what prevents their use by everyone?

Heather Roff, a political scientist and visiting professor at the University of Denver, also worries about LAWS creating a new class of blameless atrocity, where the killing of bystanders or surrendering hostiles can be chalked up to a glitch. “Suddenly everything becomes an accident,” says Roff. “There is no more definition of war crime, because there’s no intention.” The line between the misuse of autonomous force and a genuine malfunction already seems hopelessly blurred, even before LAWS have reached the battlefield.

In 2013, a UK-based nonprofit called Article 26 coined the term “meaningful human control,” in an attempt to pin down what critics of autonomous weapons are actually seeking. But as effective as the term has been in unifying anti-LAWS sentiment, there’s no real sense of what it means. “It gives us a really useful analytical framework,” says Hoff. “In the past year, meaningful human control was cited very often, in papers and presentations. Right now, the question is, Yeah, we all like the way it sounds, but what does it mean?”

So Roff and Article 26 are collaborating on a research project to explore the specific parameters of meaningful human control. That includes giving the anti-LAWS community a more concrete sense of what it’s against, to help codify what it’s proposing. For the past six months, Roff has been building a database of semi-automated killers, starting with systems from the five nations that export and import the most weapons. “Everybody discusses artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons and semi autonomous weapons,” says Roff, “but there seems to be a lacuna of what that means, and what we’re talking about.”

The Phalanx CIWS (close-in weapon system) can automatically target and fire at incoming missiles.

What’s the difference in autonomy between, for example, a Phalanx system on a naval vessel, that can be set to scan the horizon for incoming missiles and fire on targets at will, and the Harab, a drone that can loiter over an area, and then nosedive into the first radar emitter it detects (the assumption is that it’s detonating over a Stinger or similar surface-to-air missile launcher)? And as new systems show up, what criteria will we use to determine which might full under a potential ban?

On July 1, Roff and Article 26 were approved for a grant of $104,000 from FLI, to fund a year of research into autonomous weapon systems. The money was part of a $10M donation from Elon Musk, to be distributed among proposals for AI safety-related projects. Though Roff is still looking for funding for another year (the proposal mapped out two years of research), she can finally pay her graduate students for their participation, and devote more time to the question of what actually constitutes autonomy in weapons, and meaningful control.

Here’s an example of why this kind of basic research is relevant. What if, to avoid any ugly outcomes involving the killing of humans, a nation developed drones that were strictly anti-materiel, meaning they could only attack other drones. That would seem to counter to concerns that groups like Islamic State wouldn’t be constrained by a LAWS ban. A swarm of drone-hunters would be the robotic equivalent of a missile defense system, like those ship-based Phalanx systems. Problem solved, right?

But what happens when a counter-drone swarm discovers enemy bots within a crowd of civilians? If, like the Phalanx, the drones are designed to faster than a human can respond—who could have to cue up and approve 1000 different targets in a matter of moments—they might take action immediately, and descend and self-destruct in the immediate vicinity of civilians. Authorities could express their regret at what amounts to collateral damage, and possibly blame the other side for finding a loophole on their autonomous rules of engagement. Now repeat that event, in countless permutations throughout various conflicts around the world. And that’s not to mention the potential for LAWS to be used in covert actions, with governments denying their involvement in an assassination. “All of a sudden the world looks a little more bleak,” says Roff. “Artificial intelligence starts to be really scary.”

* * *

It’s embarrassing how wrong I was.

The going assumption in the anti-LAWS community is that, when you read between the lines of Pentagon-sourced material, such as DARPA’s requests for proposals or the U.S. Navy’s projections of where warfare is headed, autonomous weapons are coming. I’m not entirely convinced. There’s a connect-the-dots quality to some of this rhetoric, that’s uncomfortably close to conspiracy theory. The internet has brought much-needed scrutiny of the defense industry’s every move, and my view was that, until a nation attempts to develop, why bother debating one out of an infinite number of applications for robotics? The field is already saddled with outlandish fears. Rampaging killbots are yet another sci-fi-inspired fever dream.

But I wasn’t grasping the complexities of this issue, or the growing momentum among researchers who study robotics. Roff’s work is just one of many examples of attempts to apply data and scientific rigor to what originated as an impassioned, but somewhat vague political argument.

I’m most embarrassed, however, at missing an obvious point: There’s no harm in banning autonomous weapons. With researchers like Roff actively mapping out the parameters for such regulations, it’s clear that a ban on LAWS wouldn’t be a blanket restriction on other kinds of autonomous robots. And an international ban would give nations political options for dealing with governments who deploy them anyway.

The only harm is in waiting for autonomous weapons to start killing.

The only harm is in waiting for autonomous weapons to start killing. What if we could have banned chemical weapons before the first clouds rolled over soldiers, killing between 30,000 and 90,000 of them outright in WWI (estimates vary widely), and causing an unknown number of lethal cancers in others? And what if the public had known about nuclear weapons during their development in the 1940s? Cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki might still have been targeted, and fire-bombed with conventional weapons. A-bomb apologists have argued that more Allied lives might have lost, if Japan hadn’t been stunned in surrender by a horrifying new technology, capable of leveling entire cities with a single bomb. Still, is there any doubt that, when faced with the prospect of the global proliferation of radioactive doomsday weapons, the world would have at least considered banning their creation?

In hindsight, it seems inevitable that chemical and nuclear weapons would be fully or at least partially banned. Those actions came too late for thousands of victims. Autonomous weapons might never be considered as inhumane or as politically destabilizing, but the potential for increased suffering and chaos is hardly worth the benefits of automating lethality, whether by design or accident. We have a unique opportunity to preempt some amount of tragedy before it occurs, and before there’s a chance for runaway proliferation.

It’s a case I can’t even muster the full effort to make, because it so obviously makes itself. But for this inevitable ban to be effective, researchers like Roff have their work cut out for them. The academic basis of any such regulations has to be data-driven and respectful of human dignity, without being merely pacifist. “I’m a just war theorist, so implicitly that means that sometimes I think war is okay,” says Roff. “ It’s about thinking this issue through. Because technology is not value-neutral. It is value loaded.”

What Is Google Lens And How To Use It

Have you ever seen someone with something, and wonder where they got it? Or even what it is? By using Google Lens, you can do a search of objects using your device’s camera and get more information.

How to Access Google Lens

The fastest way to access Google Lens is to long-press on the home button until Google Assistant Opens. When it does tap on the compass icon to the right.

Once the Explore page opens, you’ll see the Google Lens icon to the left of the mic icon. Tap on the Google Lens icon, and if you’ve never set it up before Google will welcome you and offer you the links to read its Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. Tap on Got it to continue.

How to Use Google Lens

You should now see dots all over your display, looking for something to analyze. As an example, you have a California souvenir mug. If Google Lens has a hard time analyzing it, you’ll be asked to tap on what you want it to focus on.

Tap on the Shopping cart icon or search icon, and you’ll get search results on what it was able to find. As you can see, it was able to find the mug on eBay.

How to Translate Text in Real-Time

The first option in Google Lens is the option to translate text in real-time. The original text will be covered with the text of the language you want it translated to.

If you have the setting set to auto-detect, Google Lens will detect the language on its own. If you would instead choose the language yourself, tap on the option that shows you the languages.

On the next page, auto-detect will be underlined, tap on it, and choose your language. Repeat the process for the second language.

How to Add a Business Card to Contacts with Google Lens

Even in the digital age, some people still hand out business cards. To turn the one you’ve received into a contact, have Google Lens scan it with the search option.

Besides getting online results, you’ll also see an Add Contact option. When you press the option, the information on the card will be added as a contact. You’ll also see the options to add the info as a new contact or search for the one you already have and add the info.

Scan Bar Codes with Google Lens

Thanks to Google Lens, you won’t need one of those supermarket scanners to get info on a product. If you notice that it has a hard time focusing on the bar code, tap on it to select it and tap on the search option.

As you can see in the image above, Google Lens shows search results for tea. Tap on the image, and you’ll get all sorts of information on what you searched for, even where you can buy it.

How to Know if Google Lens Saves Your Activity

If, in your Google account, you have Web & App Activity turned on, your activity will be saved. If you want to check if it’s on open the Google app and tap on the More option at the bottom right.

Once you’re there, go to:

Settings

Google Assistant

Manage your Google Account

Privacy & personalization

Under Activity controls, you can see if Web & App Activity is on or not.

Conclusion

Taking The Plunge: Diving Into A Collaborative Project

Months before Americans chose Barack Obama as their forty-fourth president, Crista Lawson, from Aubrey Park Elementary School, in Eugene, Oregon, had a hunch that the 2008 election would prove to be historic. “I wanted my kids to pay attention and be informed about this election,” she says.

She had another hunch, too: Getting fifth graders to pay close attention to the presidential campaign and election would require different teaching methods than she had used in the past. Lawson notes, “In previous election studies, it always seemed more like theory and not like something that was happening right now that could affect the kids’ lives.”

Venturing into New Territory

To make this national event more immediate, relevant, and memorable, Lawson decided to tackle her first collaborative project with teachers and students in locations across the United States. That meant using a variety of digital tools and resources, many of them new to Lawson, to connect and collaborate with classes in New York and Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Oregon. “It was a steep learning curve for me,” she admits, “but I wanted to do whatever it would take to make this election relevant for my kids and to get them thinking about the wider world.”

Lawson got a running start by taking a summer course called Reinventing Project-Based Learning, led by my colleague at the University of Oregon, Jane Krauss. The intensive professional-development experience caused Lawson to rethink how she operates in the classroom, even after more than a decade of teaching. “When I did project-based learning before,” she reflects, “I had everything spelled out for the kids. I’d say, ‘OK, you’re going to do this, this, and this.’ I didn’t allow them much choice or direction about where it was going to go.”

According to Krauss, the key to designing a more meaningful project is to ask oneself certain questions: “Why does this matter?” “What’s important about this?” “Why is it worth my kids’ time — and mine?”

“It’s important for teachers to ask those questions all the time,” she says. Lawson took those questions to heart as she mapped out her instructional plan for the Kids Decision 2008 Project.

The summer course not only gave Lawson extended time to plan her ambitious project but also gave her a crash course in Web 2.0 tools. Lawson mentioned, for instance, that she might want to find some teachers in other states to join the project. Krauss immediately sent out a call for collaborators on Twitter, illustrating the value of that microblogging tool for connecting with a network. (Read this chúng tôi article and this Spiral Notebook blog post about Twitter.) “It was all a little overwhelming,” says Lawson, “but I just went with it.” She felt encouraged when two of the teachers who joined the election project turned out to be old hands at teaching technology-rich projects.

Hand in Hand with Students

Fall arrived, and Lawson shifted from planning to implementing the project with her students. And as the election project unfolded, her learning curve continued. Instead of giving students step-by-step instructions to follow, she focused on more open-ended questions and pushed herself to give them time to think about how they were going to do things. “I took time to solve problems with them. In the past, I just did it myself,” she explains. “This way takes more time, and for some kids it’s uncomfortable. But my goal is to get them to think for themselves, and this is how you do it.”

Seeing how students have responded to the election project has convinced Lawson that it’s been worth the effort. Before the election, her students interviewed their parents to find out which issues mattered to them. Then they analyzed the candidates’ stands on those issues. On conference calls, they compared what they were learning with what students were finding out in other communities across the country.

As the election drew near, Lawson’s fifth graders paid close attention to the trends on projection maps and followed the presidential debates closely. The students showed an interest in subjects ranging from third-party candidates to the mechanics of the Electoral College, which surprised Lawson. “They brought up all kinds of questions I didn’t expect,” she says. They even got interested in local election issues. Fully informed about the presidential candidates, her students took part in an online mock student election. And after the official results were tallied on Election Day, they spent more class time analyzing video clips of Obama’s acceptance speech and John McCain’s concession remarks.

The Final Product

The election has now become a part of history, but Lawson’s students are still going strong. With their partner schools around the country, they are producing a video that will capture their own messages about the future that they want to pass along to the incoming president. “We hope to have it ready by January,” says Lawson, just in time for the inauguration.

For other teachers new to a project-learning approach, Lawson acknowledges that it might be easier to start with a less ambitious plan. “It would have been nice to join someone else’s project the first time around to see how it all works without having to take the lead,” she notes. But at the same time, she knows that she’s showing her students what it’s like to take risks. “I keep telling my kids, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before. We’re all going to learn together.'” And that may turn out to be the most memorable lesson of all.

How have you taken part in collaborative projects with your students? What made it worth their time — and yours? We look forward to reading about your experiences with this process!

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