NAEP Technological Literacy Hearing

January 25, 2010
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I received the following information in an email.
“Thursday, January 28, The National Assessment Governing Board is conducting a public hearing to obtain comment on the draft Technological Literacy assessment framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Public and private parties and organizations are invited to present written and/or oral testimony. The hearing will be held in the Washington Court Hotel, 525 New Jersey Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001 from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. EST. For more information, please see

The framework covers a broad range of content and practices related to technology and society; design and systems; and information and communication technology. The draft document was developed by a wide panel of experts in fields such as education, engineering, policy, business and communication, with their recommendations of what knowledge and skills students at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades should have in technology. The Governing Board is responsible for developing the content and design of all assessments in NAEP, for which the Board sets policy.”



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Creativity versus Feasibility

January 23, 2010
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My job for this game is to write the design documents. My love is the creative part, my interest is public policy but those two are not always easy to combine. Public policy is not very exciting to many people. Sure, people pay attention to big events- presidential campaigns, wars, big stimulus packages to educational institutions, etc. But most people are not very interested in the little details of how public policy happens. Even as engrossed in public policy and urban planning as I am, sometimes it still requires quite a few cups of coffee for me to finish reading about the effects of certain decisions the player can make.

When we first began to brainstorm for this game, the sky was the limit. This was the easy part.

Then, I began trying to figure out how to make some of these things happen in our game. Often some of the decisions in our game are quite complicated in real life. They often have to be approved by committees and then go through various vetting and negotiations processes. Creating committees in the game is not difficult in terms of programming but it is most definitely boring. I want to make this fun and yes, maybe some of the effects of certain decisions may not be as close to reality as some policy wonks would like, but this is for nine-to-thirteen year olds.

Deciding on what to put in a game that is both fun and feasible has been a huge challenge.

When we first wrote the proposals, our first true love was the idea of a vertical farm. Indeed, we have kept the vertical farm. My heart and soul are attached to the vertical farm. On the flipside of that, I am also entirely guesstimating on the effects of a vertical farm in Pittsburgh. Precedent is not a helpful indicator when it comes to vertical farms.  However, I decided to do my best and just hope it works out.

But then I came across a solar-powered highway last week. A solar powered highway is undeniably awesome. But just understanding the technicalities of it seems rather complicated, much less figuring out what the effects of a solar powered highway would be were it to be  built in a former industrial town. I could guesstimate but it is really even worth putting a solar powered highway? I am not sure. As exciting as it would be in the game, is it really a feasible option?

I was watching the news the night of the special election in Massachusetts. I kept going from analyzing the fact that so many channels were using what I termed, “web 2.0 boxes”, to focusing on what the anchors were actually saying. Do the boxes matter? Did the first 1% of election results matter? It is this type of repetitive type of thinking that goes on in my head all day-except with public policy decisions and fun. (Really. Go watch the news. You will see the use of these squares. They have not always been used like they are now being used.)

I was invited by my mentor from the summer, Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, to go tour the new Penguins arena. The arena is still under construction. Some citizens are very upset about the location of the arena for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons include the historical and racial context-  the first arena ruined a vibrant area where famous jazz players of the 20th century spent time, also, it was predominantly African-American area. Then there is the fact that an energy company named, “Consol Energy”, is the sponsor of the arena. On the other hand, Pittsburgh is a big sports town and the Pens won the Stanley Cup last year. In terms of having a fun city, you don’t really want to get rid of a hockey arena. When I toured the arena, they gave us a booklet of 3-d models depicting what the arena will look like when it is finished. First, I had all of the thoughts about varying opinions of the arena going through my head, then suddenly I found myself doing an unintentional analysis of the 3-d models. I turned to someone else in the group to joke about the fact that someone hadn’t used certain keystrokes to make sure the pictures of people were enlarged to be proportional. They gave me a strange look as if to say, “What? How is that important at all? ” Actually, the reason I noticed them was because there were many white, blond women who looked like they were supermodels. I could only imagine what the activists who had been upset about the arena because of its historical- socio-economic-racial- context would say about the pictures. Although not all of the pictures of people were white, the majority were. But then again, these 3-d models were supposed to depict what the actual structure of the arena would look like. Still, the 3-d models of the people do not depict what the people in the surrounding neighborhood look like, at all.

Then I began to think about possible alternatives to having the arena where it is now. This type of thinking is what our game is trying to promote. My first thought was whether we could have put the arena somewhere else. Personally, I would rather have it in the city so that the city receives the tax dollars from sports fans. I live in the city and taxes are pretty high- although the cost of living here is really not very high, at all. I am still trying to determine where the arena could have been built. No solution so far.  My mentor walked over to me to ask how I thought the arena could better help nearby restaurants. Many people like to go out to eat and then to the Penguins games. Another puzzle! In fact, if she had not brought it up, I would never have really thought about it that way. I did think about the fact that people come into the city, go to the games and leave again. I had not thought to myself, “What could we do to make it more helpful to the nearby restaurants?”. I still have not come to a conclusion on this question, either.

Personally, I have not been to a Pens game since I was in 3rd grade. I would rather go to an art gallery event,  see a movie, or just hang out with friends and play video games. But after studying how public policy is made, I have noticed that this type of thinking seems to be  how bad public policy is created. “I think this is right for me, so it must be right for everyone else”. Quantitative analysis combined with citizen input can be difficult to do but it has become clear to me how necessary both are.

The puzzles abound but until they are solved, it leaves space for creativity to collide with feasibility and duke it out until they come to a conclusion.

I saw Shepard Fairey’s exhibit today at the Andy Warhol Museum. While I was perusing the bookstore, I bought a book about shapes and how famous artists have used them in creative ways. The artist Ellsworth Kelly (who uses squares) “bases his paintings on personal experiences”. This seems rather similar to the way interface designers for news agencies are using squares. Reporters and commentators are placed in squares to discuss events taking place. Perhaps Ellsworth Kelly has taken a normal object (feasibility) to express his personal experiences (creativity). When the two collide, we are left pondering something in a new way.


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How I’ve had to relearn how to think.

January 22, 2010
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The project we are working on is definitely not alone in the field of hyperlocal, interactive mapping applications for the masses. Mobile applications, game development engines and other related mapping ideas are all being developed right now. However, no one else is making a game just about Southwestern Pennsylvania- although I have spent some nights worrying about whether I will wake up in the morning and someone will have launched the same game three months ahead of us. I usually calm down by reminding myself that Southwestern Pennsylvania is not the most exciting place to build a game around. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the only successful movies made in this region were about zombies and two were about Pittsburgh’s odyssey of renewal from old steel town to home to some of the newest scientific, technological and medical inventions in America.

The point of this post is not really about Pittsburgh’s image although that actually probably does play into this.  It is about the way my generation- and possibly other generations- have been taught to think about success and failure. My mom has heard me ask the question, “What if this project doesn’t work?” more times than any human being should ever hear one sentence in their lifetime.

When Gregg Behr, the executive director of the Grable Foundation, first met with us about this game, he said, “You know you’re crazy, right?“. We nodded, well, at least,  I did. When I attended a meeting of people who work in educational technology and gaming, he announced my MacArthur grant. He said, “Before I hand the microphone over to Laura, I just want to say something and I don’t want to embarrass her. But, when I met with her and Ben, I told them they were crazy.” It was funny. Yet, some days, I really do wonder if I’m insane (which I may well be). However, he also have been incredibly supportive. He has not said he will kill us if it does not work. He has encouraged us, put us in touch with people who could be helpful and has generally had our backs.

But what exactly makes this such a crazy idea? I think it is really the idea of a big project being undertaken and the question of whether it will fail or succeed. People have asked me more than once, “how could that possibly work?”. I, too, ask that question. But the one thing I have learned is that when you ask the question, “how could that possibly work?”, it should not be the explanation of why something cannot happen. It should be the motivating force for making it work.

An overriding fear of failure has set in at times. My name is attached to this project. What happens if it is totally wrong in how it teaches urban planning concepts, is boring and a complete disappointment to people? I once spoke to a reporter who told me that the only reason he heard about this project was because he happened to be talking to one our advisers who mentioned it. I told him that I had not been sure whether I wanted people  to know about the MacArthur grant. He was shocked. His face clearly said, “How could a person your age not want people to know they had been given a grant from the MacArthur Foundation?”. I looked down  and said, “it wasn’t a very good plan, I guess.”

Actually, it was not a fleeting thought I had had one day. It was the fear of people seeing the project and awaiting it with skepticism, cynicism and criticism ready to put into words and then into emails and instant messages. The scenario of opening my email one morning to see my inbox full of  emails from people writing to say, “Yeah it’s okay. I mean, this, this, this and this are totally incorrect. You misspelled this. It took a long time to load. Why did you add this in? It seems irrelevant. But,  it’s okay, I guess.” It’s not exactly an unfounded fear. I have never taken an urban planning class, I am not a political science major nor am I an experienced game developer. I have taken some programming classes, I have spent time on some campaigns and I have only taken a couple of classes dealing with 3-d modeling and animation. (Sidenote: out of fifteen students, only three were girls). Yet, all of those basic efforts have made a huge difference to this project. The time spent door knocking has given me a chance to speak to citizens all over the area, my midterm assignment was the moment when I realized I really enjoyed making 3-d models and my midterm assignment was the 3-d model I sent in with the MacArthur application.

There is also a reason I had the idea for this game. As I already said,  I have door knocked all over this city for various campaigns and thus listened to politicians talk about their policy stances and I am a fairly visual learner. I have often wished I could see the policy decisions they were speaking about in picture form. As it has turned out, I’m not alone in wishing I could see those decisions in a visual form. I have been surprised to hear how many other people wished they could see visuals for the region’s policy decisions.

While I was at the MacArthur conference in Chicago, someone was speaking and said, “We have to stop fearing failure” (that is not verbatim). I looked down and thought, “Great. Just what I need. Another person telling me I might fail.” I looked at Ben and he smiled at me. Apparently, this statement didn’t seem to be having the same impact on his psychological well-being  that it was having on mine. He was excited. I was terrified.

There have been quite a few times when Ben has said, “Hey. Send over what you have, I want to take a look at it.” Fear once again set in. I should say and it is more than 110% true that Ben is incredibly supportive of my ideas. He almost asks me for my input on things (unless it’s about filing financial information) and encourages me to follow through with ideas I have had. There really is no reason to be afraid of sending drafts to him. “Give me a day”, I always say. “Why?”, he asks. Truth is, I don’t want anyone to see it. What if it’s awful? He recently has taken to reminding me that it is not as if I cannot revise drafts and send them to him. As a millenial, mistakes are not encouraged. We are told to be excellent or we will not get into college and then life as we know it will be over. The process of achieving excellence does not include failing.

Recently, I was cleaning up my apartment which also serves as my office. I began to see just how many drafts I have gone through. I really have done a lot of work. A lot of failure and revision and improvement has taken place. These drafts of past work have seemed like a bad thing to me. “What was I thinking? How did I go through all of these drafts? Why did I write this?“, I ask myself unhappily and condescendingly. These drafts have seemed like a trail of failures to me, not work that has developed over time and turned into something I am much more willing to show to Ben, Aaron (our CFO) and our developers.

Recently, I have become much more comfortable with the idea of failure. But it has also required that I revise the way I define failure. Failure is not a life or death situation. Failure is a process by which you see mistakes and gaping holes and then fix them and  fill them in to something better. Failure does not mean I will be living in a cardboard box, next to one of the three rivers, under a bridge, in a month’s time should I turn in a draft that is not one full of genius algorithms and earth shattering ideas. Failure just means a mistake and a situation where I can use my creativity and brain to find a new solution.

I was wandering through Borders the other day and came across a book titled, “Street Sketch Book: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists.” I excitedly bought the book and immediately opened it when I got home. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Maybe ideas that would solve every puzzle I was trying to find a solution to in my game.

I looked through the pages. “This is it? These are their sketches? ” They were most definitely not some of the impressive works of graffiti I have seen in other countries. There were random patterns, sketches of animals, and random things that seemed totally unlike almost all of the graffiti I have ever seen in my life. “Well, that wasn’t very helpful”, I said as I set the book down near my bed. But actually, it showed me something. Even some of the best graffiti artists in the world, have to start somewhere. That place may just be a doodle of a panda intertwined with a headless person randomly standing or maybe it is floating (?) nearby.

I read an article recently about Teach for America and how they decide which applicants they allow into the program. The characteristic they found to be most successful in teachers was, “Grit”. Yes, grit. They have ten years of data to back this up. Grit? That’s their conclusion? Wow. Okay.

But over the past couple of weeks, I have come to view things differently. I have come to the conclusion that maybe creativity may not just mean coming up with a world-shattering idea. It may mean looking at five “failures” of drafts and saying, “Alright, Laura. *Inhale…Exhale.* Let’s try yet another approach and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, well, then, we’ll try again.” Maybe creativity requires grit, too. It is a determination to find a new way of doing something and accepting that it may or may not work. Maybe creativity is not made up of ideas spewing from my brain like light bulbs marching in a parade. Maybe it is just grit in a different form.

I have been trying to define why hyperlocal reporting is so exciting and enticing to people. I have not gotten very far. So, I put out a call to others on facebook and twitter to ask what other people thought. I did not get many responses but at least I got a couple. It’s something and it’s better than nothing.

Once I come up with something better than a question, I will post it on the MacArthur blog. In fact, maybe I should just post the question and see what people say. Maybe it’s okay to ask a question without posting the answer, as well. Maybe that’s okay, too.

Hm. I better get back to work.



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Dorkbot Pgh is coming up soon!

January 21, 2010
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“This dorkbotpgh event is part of the Contestational Cartographies Symposium, co-organized by the Miller Gallery and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.

Chris Harrison. Chris is a Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. His research interests primarily focus on novel interaction technologies and input methods – especially those that leverage sensing and the environment in unconventional and expressive ways. In his free time, Chris gets excited about large data sets and how, through computation, they can be given form. Often, this is through the use of simple visual primitives that self assemble into rich information tapestries.

Susanne Slavick. Susanne is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon. Graduating from Yale University in 1978, she subsequently studied at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and earned her MFA at Tyler School of Art in Rome and Philadelphia. Susanne has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, her paintings have also been recognized through an artist fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and four awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Susanne was honored as 2008 “Artist of the Year” by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts where she premiered “R&R(&R),” an ongoing series of works on paper that convert our military expression for “rest and recuperation” to images of “revelation, regret, and restoration.” These and new works will be featured in a January, 2010 solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.”

Time: 7:30pm/8-10 PM

Day: Thursday, 28 January 2010

Where: Brillobox, 2nd floor.

I ❤ Dorkbot Pgh! More info about dorkbotpgh here.

About Dorkbotpgh
“dorkbotpgh is the pittsburgh chapter of dorkbot. Our meetings reflect what people in this area are interested in. Maybe it’s military robot prototypes reborn as art projects. Maybe it’s el-wire costumes, neon art, and backlit stained glass by local arists. Or perhaps it’s cutting edge animation from local students and hackers or a local pneumatics expert showing off technology that artists might use in an installation.

We don’t know exactly what dorkbotpgh is.

You do.”


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Carnegie Mellon University to host “The Contestational Cartographies Symposium”.

January 21, 2010
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“Maps represent, maps reveal, maps entice, maps distort. They selectively omit, they unwittingly exaggerate, and they even make outright lies. Though maps strive to project authority and objectivity, they cannot help but embed the biases, blind-spots and idiosyncrasies of their human authors. As our lives are played out in increasingly networked realms, we have become carto-literate as never before; we read maps produced by governments and corporate interests, yes, but also collaboratively author maps online, inscribing new representations of ourselves and our priorities. Contestational Cartographies introduces the thoughts of leading “experimental geographers” who employ mapping techniques in new modes of critical practice and cultural research and, in so doing, help us “read between the lines” of the world around us.”
More info here.

I’m excited. This looks very interesting.


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January 19, 2010
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Welcome to the CivicsLab blog!

As we prepare to go into development, we wanted to start a blog and keep you up-to-date with the newest developments at the CivicsLab (virtual) headquarters!

You can also check us out on the HASTAC blog, twitter and flickr.

Talk to you soon!

The CivicsLab Team

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About author

Focusing on the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, CivicsLab puts elementary and middle school students in virtual control of decision-making in their communities to encourage civic participation, critical thinking, and sense of place. In CivicsLab, players will assume positions of power in the community from an urban, suburban or rural perspective and explore how decisions-based on social need and demand, proper planning (as defined by our civic experts), political pressure, and most importantly, their imaginations-might impact the community. Through manipulation of real mapping information and current data sets, students navigate social and political pressures to explore the cause and effect of civic investment and public policy as they attempt to create a sustainable future for their region.