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Khan Academy: Out of the Screen, Into the Physical World

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Khan Academy

In just the past couple of years, Salman Khan has built a huge following for the Khan Academy. He's created more than 2,700 educational videos that have been viewed tens of millions of times over. He’s been on CNN, NBC Nightly News, PBS News Hour, and other major media. His videos are being incorporated into school curricula across the country.

But the videos are just the beginning. Using part of a $5 million grant from the O'Sullivan Foundation, Khan is planning the next iteration of the Khan Academy, which will soon find its place in the physical world. This summer, he will run a camp for kids very similar to the program he co-organized at the We Teach Science camp in Silicon Valley two years ago.

Far from just watching videos, kids at the We Teach Science camp got their hands on a slew of math, science, and engineering projects. They organized a Sumo wrestling match between Lego robots they’d built using Lego NXT kits. “Whichever robot falls off loses. If no robots fall off, it’s a draw after three minutes,” Khan said.

They played a “paranoia” version of the game Risk to understand the theory of probabilities using Monopoly money, where kids trade securities based on the outcome of the game. “Some of the kids couldn’t see the board, which is indicative of what a lot of traders are doing right now,” Khan said.

They orchestrated a crowd-sourcing project to test the wisdom of the crowds by posting a one-day online photo contest that drew more than 1,000 participants. The kids put together a pile of objects, took a picture of it, posted it on Mechanical Turk, and asked players to guess the measurements. What happened? “The people who guessed online did better than any of our experts,” he said. "We didn’t know how it would turn out because it was totally open-ended. We had a fun discussion about wisdom of the crowds, when it works, when it doesn’t work, why does it works."


The upcoming summer camp will be similar to We Teach Science. “It lets you rethink what the physical experience should be like, what I’d call deeper, higher order type of stuff that most schools don’t touch on right now,” he said. “The videos are great for learning things at an academic level. You can learn intuition for what a derivative is and about Newtonian mechanics through the online exercises, but this is another level of learning.”

Kids will learn a little about probability, modeling, negotiating skills, game theory, and once they go through it, “maybe they’ll look at the stock market or the housing market differently,” he said. “One of the things I hope these kids will have is a more visceral, ingrained, intuitive sense of science and analytical thinking about the world around them than even most adults do.”

At this early stage, it’ll be a bit of an experiment, too. Khan wants to see which of the exercises engage students best, which they’re really learning from, and which might be replicable for other teachers. “Maybe we can build software that can help others replicate the proejct,” he said. “That’s where it’s valuable to our mission as a whole.”

But the details are still fuzzy about logistics. At the moment, one person is dedicated to organizing the camp, but if the demand is high enough, Khan will allot more resources. It should be noted that the first year of We Teach Science in 2009, Khan brought a total of seven kids – three of whom were his cousins (the now-famous Nadia, for whom he created the very first YouTube video was one of them). The second year, 26 kids signed up. No doubt the demand will be somewhat higher this year.

Khan can confirm that it will take place somewhere between Portola Valley and Sunnyvale in Silicon Valley and will not be organized by grade level. They’ll probably target middle- and high-school students, but wouldn’t turn away the enthusiastic fifth-grader who showed initiative. Those interested can sign on to be considered here.

Beyond this coming summer, a physical, brick-and-mortar Khan Academy school is well within the realm of possibility. But when or if it were to come to fruition, it would be attractive to kids and parents who are comfortable with open-ended learning, he said. “People who don’t want predictable answers. It’s not about writing a lesson plan where after 45 minutes, you know what the outcome will be.”

Right now, Khan is focusing on building a full curriculum online first. “We have a long way to go before we can do a full curriculum,” he said. “I don’t know if there will be a physical school called the Khan Academy. I would like for something like that to happen."

He added: “If nothing else, I’d like a kid who’s gone through the Khan Academy to be able to say, ‘I’ve learned accounting, law, and I can write as well as someone who’s graduated from Andover. That’s empowering.”

Read more about Khan's plans to allow educators to upload their own videos and create their own curriculum using the Khan Academy's analytics and reporting tools.

Take a look at a clip the Lego Robot Sumo Wrestling at the We Teach Science camp:


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