Life at KA
Maker Faire: Are you a maker?
This past weekend, Khan Academy’s Karl Wendt teamed up with Los Altos School District at their booth at Maker Faire, showcasing student-made robots. Interested in making your own? Check this out: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/projects/robots
Thank you, teachers!
I recently passed by a sign that said “I teach. What’s your superpower?”, and was reminded of the teachers that have been superheroes in my life. There were a few precious teachers who encouraged a shy little girl to love learning, changing the course of her life forever.
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we take a moment to say a big THANK YOU to superhero teachers, including the 30,000 teachers across the world that are using Khan Academy in their classrooms, and changing the lives of students.
We salute you as you endeavor to provide more personalized, mastery-based and interactive learning experiences for your students. Thank you for putting in the long hours, for giving it your heart and soul, and for being a role model and an inspiration to students to be lifelong learners and explorers.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane…yup, it’s a plane, a pretty cool plane: Aussie James arranged for us to check out the Solar Impulse when it was at nearby Moffett Field last month. It was pretty cool to get up close to this ultra-lightweight solar plane that can fly day and night. Apparently its wingspan rivals a commercial airliner but it weights as much as an SUV.
Reason #68 to love my job: Best. Deskmate. Ever. Earlier in the week, we bonded over our love of the classic blue box! The next day, an awesome surprise landed on my desk. Thanks Rishi and @kraftmacncheese!
A Khanversation with…Peter Collingridge, KA community contributor
To say that Peter Collingridge is a Khan Academy user is an understatement. He has 6.4 million energy points, is an active member of the KA community as a moderator, and has authored dozens of computer science programs and math exercises, which makes him a standout contributor in our book. We decided to get to know this shy Englishman a little better.
What do you do at Khan Academy?
Everything I can! When I first signed up to Khan Academy, I aimed to complete all the exercises and watch all the videos (I still have about 1000 to go). Then the Q&A were added to videos, so as I watched them, I tried to answer questions, particularly any biology ones. Last year I was made a Guardian, so I now help delete spam and off-topic posts.
About a year ago, I began to learn how to make exercises, with the aim of making some chemistry ones. I submitted a simple exercise on sequences after watching a video about it and seeing that the top-voted question asked where the exercise was. It is now on the site and I’m working on more exercises, mainly about rational expressions.
Given your involvement, how would you describe the KA online community?
I’ve been very impressed by the KA community as a whole. Compared to most online forums, the questions and answers are generally of high quality and very supportive. Most people are very keen to learn and to help others and it’s quite amazing how much effort some people go to to answers the questions of others and how much they know. Possibly the most interesting development is how people have used the discussion boards on their computer programs to creates forums and teams that collaborate on projects.
What drew you to creating content?
I was hugely excited when the Computer science section was added. Initially I converted programs I had written for a tutorial aimed at teaching Pygame, Python and physics. Then I started experimenting with 3D programs. I had recently taught myself the basics of 3D graphics and the CS section was a much quicker tool for testing ideas and had the bonus of getting a lot of feedback from other students.
Then, whilst working my way through the videos I found several instances where I wanted to explore an idea further by creating an interactive example or simulation. Primarily, these programs were just for me because I was curious to see how changing one parameter in a system would change the whole system, or just wanted to see if I could make a good model of a system.
At university I often found I could understand concepts more concretely by making simple simulations or even just spreadsheets in which I could alter parameters and see the effect on a system. I found this particularly useful for emergent or dynamic systems with several feedback loops, such as a metabolic networks, where it’s very hard to visualise how all the interactions combine.
When you have a model you can manipulate, then trying to understand a concept becomes indistinguishable from playing. You can quickly and easily satisfy your curiosity and discover ”what happens when I do this?”. Not only does it help make a concept more concrete, but it often gives rise to a lot more questions and leads to further explorations. I really hope other people have the same sense of enjoyment when playing with my programs and perhaps use them in ways I haven’t anticipated.
How long does it take you to make an exercise / program?
I’ve only just started making exercises so each one is easier than the last. It probably takes 5-8 hours to make an exercise, maybe more if you include the time spent learning how to use the various exercise libraries.
Writing a programs is more variable. I can make a 3D model of a molecule in a couple of minutes because I’ve written a script that extracts atomic coordinates for a file and spits out arrays of atoms and bonds I can paste into a Khan Academy program. On average I think a program takes 2-3 evenings (3-8 hours), maybe a whole weekend if it’s big.
That said, it’s hard to say when a program is actually complete. About half the programs I’ve made I’d like to return to, to improve the code or to add new features. Occasionally, I start a program, hit a difficulty and leave it for several months before returning to it. I started a simulation for Rishi about 5 months ago and still haven’t finished it. I suspect I just need to sit down with it for 3-4 hours and work through the problems. Soon, I hope!
What is your background?
My background is in biology. I have a degree in biochemistry and a PhD in pathology from Oxford. I currently work as a molecular biologist at a marine biology centre in the UK, looking at how a single-celled algae transmits signals along its two flagella.
I taught myself programming more for fun than anything, but it has occasionally proved useful in my work, specifically for data analysis and visualisation. In my free time, I have also done some bioinformatics work with a friend. This combined my interests in programming and biology and culminated in us publishing a new algorithm for aligning protein sequences. I also learnt the basics of web development so I could put a version of our algorithm online.
What did you want to be when you grow up?
When I was young I wanted to be a deep sea diver, so it’s slightly ironic that I now work in a marine biology lab, but don’t do marine biology nor have much interest in it. Later I wanted to be either a scientist or an inventor, and now I am a scientist and making programs is essentially inventing things.
How did you find out about Khan Academy?
I first found out about Khan Academy when a friend tweeted a link to a blog post about some finance videos, which I then watched. Then about six months later I saw Sal’s TED talk and went back to the site and saw much much it had changed. I signed up and started working through the exercises. At the time, I was also trying to work out how to make 3D graphics, so the videos on linear algebra (something I never learnt at school) were invaluable.
What do you think makes Khan Academy interesting?
One obvious factor is just how engaging the site is. I find I can learn about elementary subjects, without getting bored and sometimes find a new way to look at a topic I thought I understood inside out. I’m also interested in the huge potential Khan Academy has, particularly in the use of interactive elements to help people grasp ideas. Perhaps most exciting is the fact that it’s such a huge resource, allowing anyone with an internet connection to educate themselves for free.
What are your life goals?
One long-term goal I’ve had since university is to simulate life at the molecular biology level. The simulation would be of single-celled organisms that reproduce, interact and evolve. They wouldn’t necessarily have terrestrial biology, but I would like them to be sufficiently complex that genuine science could be used to investigate their biology and evolution. I have made several attempts to evolve simple cells with some success. Every now and then I go back to the simulation and play with it some more, normally completely rewriting it. I’ve also simulated a few molecular biology techniques such as DNA gel electrophoresis which I use to investigate the results. My dream would be to create a sufficiently interesting biology so I could simulate science itself, perhaps as a game in which people could exchange samples, publish their results and review and reference the result other people had published.
Other than that my life goal is the purely selfish one of being happy and having the freedom to pursue whatever projects take my interest at any given time.
In 100 years, what do you hope Khan Academy will be?
In 100 years we will probably be able to inject Khan Academy directly into our brains. But assuming society hasn’t changed beyond all comprehension, I hope Khan Academy will exist as a resource for anyone wanting to learn anything, be it a single, simple concept, or an entire high school or university topic.
Perhaps you are just curious about a topic, or maybe you want to apply for a job, say as a rocket scientist. I would like to think you could log on to Khan Academy, and based on your past activities, it would be able to guide you from what you currently know to what you want to know. Then employers of rocket scientists could see that you know what they need you to know, and if not, they can direct you to the area in which you need to demonstrate your ability. I hope this would include practical areas, such as working in a team (spread across the globe) to design and build a model rocket. I hope Khan Academy can provide a platform where people can get together to exchange ideas and collaborate on all manner of projects, such as designing and making computer games, films, new technologies or whatever else interests them.
Craig’s list of favorite children’s books
Over lunch, our informal lunchtime turned into a fascinating discussion about children’s books when Craig shared his personal list of favorites. We reminisced over the ones we adored and proceeded to judge the childhood literary tastes of each other - exclaiming things like, “How could you not have heard of “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”?!?! Below is the list courtesy Craig.
Thanks to Craig for the lunchtime entertainment and a reminder how much we all love reading!
My Favorite Children’s Books
Really, these are Young Adult books, though I do include some books for youngsters at the end. (I don’t know very much about that age group though.)
I’ve listed them in approximate age order, though I’m not very good at judging these things.
- Winnie the Pooh + The House at Pooh Corner — Milne
- The Book of Three + 4 sequels — Lloyd Alexander
- The Phantom Tollbooth — Juster
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland + Through The Looking Glass — Carroll
- Charlotte’s Web — E.B. White
- The Trumpet of the Swan — E.B. White
- The Hobbit — Tolkien
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH — O’Brien
- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe + 6 sequels — C.S. Lewis
- The Wizard of Oz — Baum
(Note: a zillion sequels, but they’re not really all that good)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — Dahl
(Note: those who like this will probably like any other Dahl book as well, eg James and the Giant Peach & Danny Champion of the World).
- Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book — Silverstein
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — Konigsburg
- Ella Enchanted — Levine
- The White Mountains + The City of Gold and Lead + The Pool of Fire — John Christopher
- The Dark is Rising + 4 other books in the series — Susan Cooper
(Note: Dark is Rising is probably the best of the 5. It’s the second book in the series, but can be read first. The actual first book is enh.)
- A Wizard of Earthsea + Tombs of Atuan + The Farthest Shore — LeGuin
(Note: there’s a 4th book in the series: Tehanu. Opinion is sharply divided on it. I refuse to read it, out of fear it will retroactively ruin my enjoyment of the first three books.)
- The Westing Game — Raskin
- Peter Pan — Barrie
- Holes — Sachar
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone + 6 sequels — Rowling
- The Princess Bride — Goldman
- The Golden Compass + The Subtle Knife + The Amber Spyglass — Pullman
(Note: the first book is much the best of the lot.)
- Howl’s Moving Castle — Diana Wynne Jones
- Bridge to Terebithia — Patterson
(Note: I love this book, but others — particularly those forced to read it for school — often hate it.)
- The Giver — Lowry
- Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams
This isn’t a children’s book, but was my favorite book when I was 12 or so, to the point where I’ve probably read it 7 or 8 times:
- Dune — Herbert
Finally, some actual books for tykes:
- Good Night Moon
- Where the Wild Things Are
- The Monster at the End of This Book
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar
- Harold and the Purple Crayon
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
- Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
- Interrupting Chicken
- Pish Posh, Said Hieronymous Bosch
- Suess I particularly like: Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hatches an Egg
on building a better product + team
“it is not a distraction from our work because it is our work.” on devs taking time to recruit/interview. With phrases like “…a continuous and glorious swirl of teaching + learning…”, how can you resist reading on?