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Benjamin MacLaren

Benjamin MacLaren

Pittsburgh, United States

Using the teaching of biological content as a way to teach not only the themes of biology, but also a mental model of scientific reasoning in biology.

About me

My background is computer science and Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie Mellon.  More than twenty years ago I worked on an AI model for scientific discovery that was based on a qualitative understanding of how processes worked.  This was the basis for the inspiration for the pathway algebra curriculum.  I started working with Beth Jones and Albert Corbett on a cognitive tutor for genetics.  As I read journals on genomics, systems and synthetic biology (trying to understand what core skills we might try to build into the tutor), I realized that the representations of the data modern biologists used (e.g., microarrays) reflected the models in the early AI systems I was trying to build.  I then started trying to build it into a broader curriculum for teaching biology.

Researchers and educators at CMU like Beth Jones, Albert Corbett, Linda Kauffman and Aaron Mitchell have helped make this educational tool a reality.  Beth was the original project leader (and head of the biology department) and later Albert Corbett (a well-known cognitive psychologist and one of the founders of Carnegie Learning for cognitive tutors in mathematics) led the project. 

Why do you want to be a part of the HundrED Community?

Biology is a beautiful science, but the way most people study it is all wrong.  Life is not a multiple choice test. 

I want to change the way the next generation thinks about biology and understands their health.  Students have to be part of this process.  Without making biology real, relevant and interesting to them, we can't do this.  After all, STUDENTS are the only part of this equation that is absolutely necessary.  Making biology real, interesting and a career option to consider, especially for underrepresented groups out there, is my dream.  Achieving this would be better than winning the lottery!!!

How can education support students to flourish?

Education, done right, opens your eyes to the world.  It changes the way you think.  It can be exciting in a deep real way.  Children who don't see options ways of stimulating their dopamine pathways naturally, sometimes turn to dead end options.  Education is never a dead end, but it is not always seen as exciting.

We need to set goals for students to work toward.  Those goals should focus our efforts to design innovations to help students meet them.  These should be real life long goals, not multiple choice exams.  The latter lead to boredom and zero retention.  The former lead to life-long engagement and life changing educational experiences.  We can achieve this. 

The 21st century belongs to biology.  It should NOT belong only to the students of wealthy parents.  Life is not a multiple choice exam!


What role does innovation play in education change?

Innovation is evolution.  Evolution is progress.  A lack of progress leads to stagnation and boredom.

I have started teaching a bit in high school, because good students teach teachers as much as the other way around.  For anybody who understands anything about education, this is obvious, but far too often ease of testing takes priority over education.  Testing and teacher evaluations can lead to a cycle involving teaching to the test, which may provide short term progress, but ultimately leads to stagnation and boredom in students.


Three HundrED innovations you love. (and Why?)

I just learned about HundrED last week, so I'm focusing on trying to convince people to love CTAG right now!  I'll answer this question soon!  :-)

Three innovations you would love for HundrED to know about. (and Why?)

"The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is a worldwide synthetic biology competition that was initially aimed at undergraduate university students, but has since expanded to include divisions for high school students, entrepreneurs, and community laboratories, as well as 'overgraduates'." (wikipedia)

One extreme in high school biology education is the national Keystone exams, which are multiple choice, and the worst form of education.  On the other end is iGEM, where high school students are starting to design and build new life to do amazing things to help save the planet.  The problem with iGEM is that it requires a wealthy infrastructure and highly trained teachers/researchers to support it.