Kindergarten Coders and the New Toy Tablets

The introduction of tablets to the kindergarten crowd sounds like a phenomenal opportunity to assert the leading role of American innovation.

Kindergarten Coders and the New Toy Tablets

When we look back at 2012 years from now, the biggest tech launch of the fall season will not be the new Apple iPhone 5 – it will be the new 7-inch toy tablet from Toys"R"Us that promises to bring digital education to the kindergarten and pre-school masses. Just like similar tablets for the adult market, this new toy tablet - the Tabeo - comes packed with pre-loaded apps, access to over 7,000 free educational apps for download and lots of features for the tiniest members of the future digerati – like a built-in camera and Wi-Fi connectivity. Since the new Tabeo is being targeted to the 3-to-10 year-old demographic, it means that the same concerned parents who once went all-in on Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart will now have another way to give their kids an educational head start.

Toys"R"Us has already selected the Tabeo as one of its hot holiday toys for 2012 - and it's no surprise why. Two years after Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad, the numbers are finally starting to roll in on how kids are using tablets. According to Mashable, there are now 20,000 apps for kids in the iTunes store, and nearly 80% of the learning apps out there specifically target kids. If, at first, tablets were primarily used by teenagers and tweens, it now appears that pre-schoolers and kindergartners are now embracing tablets at record rates. As these tablets increasingly become a fixture within schools themselves, these numbers will only increase. Consider that 39% of all kids age 2-4 and 52% of all kids age 5-8 have used tablets. In tablet-owning households with children under the age of 12, 70% of those children have used a tablet or similar digital device.

For people who think in terms of education and its impact on future American economic competitiveness, the introduction of tablets to the kindergarten crowd sounds like a phenomenal opportunity to assert the leading role of American innovation. Using tablets like the Tabeo (or the iPad or the LeapFrog LeapPad 2), U.S. educators will finally be able to bring digital technology into the classroom and expose kindergartners – both boys and girls – to the joys of computing at an early age. Presumably, a good number of the 20,000 educational apps out there will teach kids things like Mandarin Chinese and robotics and artificial intelligence, thereby preparing them for the future. At $149.99, the introductory price point for the Tabeo is just inviting enough for parents who are already plunking down $45 for a new pair of shoes for their young ones every few months. 

However, let's take a step back for a second. Are tablets and an app-centric, media-centric education really the future path that we want to take for our kids' education?

Since we're already linking education to future innovation and economic competitiveness, consider what Estonia is doing to prepare for the future. Instead of just handing out tablets with pre-loaded apps, the country has become the first in the world to implement a mandatory education in computer programming for all first-graders. The goal is for kids to become developers of technology, rather than just mindless consumers of technology. Rather than relying on toy tablets for the "consumption" of education and the "gamification" of education, the Estonian focus is more on using the tablets as a way to stimulate active knowledge of how technology works. They view programming and a core knowledge of computer science as an important skill to ensure future national competitiveness.

In many ways, we are at an inflection point in the future path of education. Technology has opened so many doors, including the new generation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the "flipped classroom," that we sometimes don't consider that how we teach is just as important as what we teach. At a time when Apple is becoming more integrated than ever within the educational system through its textbook publishing and iTunes U initiatives, we can look for other tech players also to ratchet up their involvement within the educational sector, probably through devices such as tablets. For example, it's hard to imagine Google standing by idly with its Android tablets while Apple wins over the hearts and minds of our kids with its iPads.

Tablets can obviously play a key role in improving both the accessibility and effectiveness of education - but we need to ensure that the children of the next generation don't just view education as something to be passively consumed, the same way they might consume games or music or video. Think about tiny Estonia. Better to have our kids become Script Kiddies and Kindergarten Coders, with a solid understanding of how the underlying technology actually works.

image: Happy Child With Tablet Computer / Shutterstock

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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