From Pranks to Profit

A photo of the Georgia Tech building.

Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

It seems like a very minor piece of hacking—Georgia Tech student Ryan Pickren used an HTML loophole to sneak into the event calendar of rival college University of Georgia to post this message on the date of a football game between the two schools:

Sat., November 29, 2014 / 12:00 pm / Get Ass Kicked by GT.

Inter-school pranks are a long American tradition, but the simple elegance of this one made national news when it happened in 2014. Pickren was arrested and convicted of felony computer trespassing, but it seems the judge was nearly as admiring of the prank as his own grandfather. The offense is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Pickren got 12 months of community service. After completing that, which he did in early 2016, his record was wiped clean.

More than that, the computer engineering student, who was able to continue working on his degree during his sentence, has been deluged with job offers. His community service was served at Techbridge, a nonprofit tech-support agency for other nonprofits. In that time, he developed security tools to protect clients from hackers like himself.

Now he’s working in the security sector. He is the top contributor to United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program, a freelance initiative wherein UA rewards hackers for finding and reporting security flaws in their digital presence.

With the only rule being that hackers have to keep their fingers off of any onboard systems, the program gives away up to a million free air miles for every flaw found. If they’re found, they can be fixed. The program debuted shortly after a security researcher tweeted that he could hack the onboard system to drop its air masks.

Pickren, who chose to work in United Airlines’ program mostly because he needed the air miles to help him through an out-of-state internship that would have resulted in a lot of travel, says that he grew quickly to love the work. He’s earned over 15,000,000 frequent flier miles, a third of which he’s donated to his school.

Teen Develops App to Help Others Make Friends at Lunch

A photo of a young boy looking down at the ground as his fellow classmates point and laugh at him.

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Bullying is a serious issue as it can have repercussions throughout a child’s life. Study after study has shown that it’s a problem that we have to tackle, and there have been numerous suggestions on just how to do that. We know, for example, that when the “cool kids” take a stand against bullying, it tends to catch on and reduce student conflict overall. We also know that kids can be bullied for almost anything, so finding ways to prevent them from becoming targets in the first place can have a strong impact on a student’s life.

High school junior Natalie Hampton knows that all too well. She spent her entire 7th grade year sitting alone at lunch. She was the target of a lot of bullying and her self-esteem suffered tremendously. Bullies tend to pick on kids who are perceived as weaker than themselves, and the implied rejection of always sitting alone signals weakness.

That’s why Hampton has developed a mobile app called Sit With Us, which allows kids to find table with open chairs that they can feel welcome at. Users can sign up as ambassadors, who are willing to open up their table to new faces, or they can look for tables that have ambassadors. She launched the app early in the school year and is already getting positive feedback on it.

Hampton is an example of a student who’s thinking about the bigger picture and who managed to take her personal experiences of bullying and funnel it into a constructive project. While she’s set an excellent example for other kids, she’s also set an excellent example for educators. Educators have a different perspective on bullying and they usually have a better understanding of the psychology behind it as well. Educators should use their own knowledge to the best of their advantage to help students feel included.

In An Age of Technology, Does Handwriting Matter?

A close-up image of a young boy writing in cursive.

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If you’re on Facebook at all, you’ve probably seen the image of cursive writing that reads something like “In the future, this will be a secret code.”

This meme was formed in response to the removal of cursive writing from elementary school curricula when the Common Core standards replaced handwriting with a goal of competency in keyboarding rather than penmanship.

For those of us who grew up in a bygone era, learning cursive was almost a rite of passage: “grown-up writing” enabled us to write more quickly than standard printing, and it also, at least in theory, offered neurological benefits to those who learned it.

But is handwriting really necessary in an age of technology?

Anne Trubek, a self-admitted “left-hander with terrible handwriting” who watched her own son struggle with penmanship, argues that it isn’t.

“The desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters. Why go back?” she writes.

Having seen some school kids practically standing on their heads as they attempt to hold a pencil or pen, we can certainly understand where the view of handwriting as an unnecessary struggle has its origin. But the fact is, at least one study has shown that learning how to write is crucial to learning how to read.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did functional MRI scans on children before and after they learned how to print. Before, “Their brains [didn’t] distinguish letters; they respond[ed] to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said. But after they were taught to print, they responded to letters differently and there was increased activation of an area of the brain responsible for our ability to read and process written language. Some experts also argue that cursive writing helps children learn how to spell and write better.

Ultimately though, even if schools end up focusing exclusively on keyboarding at the expense of teaching the ability to write quickly and legibly, the fact is that technology is not infallible and kids do need to learn how to write by hand. Whether that writing is in print or in cursive matters less than the fact that they know how to hold a pen and put letters onto paper. Being able to sign your name is also a good skill to have.

What do you think? Are you in favor of children learning to write cursive, or do you believe it’s an antiquated system of writing that isn’t necessary in today’s technological age? Let us know in the comments.

Robot Can Shoot Rocks with Lasers…On its Own

An image of Mars from the rover.

Image: Shutterstock

There’s a robot on Mars with lasers… and it gets to choose its own victims. This isn’t a science fiction story, and don’t worry, that robot doesn’t want to kill humans. The robot in question is the Curiosity Mars rover, which has been cruising around Mars and taking all kinds of samples for several years now. One of it’s many tools is called ChemCam, which is a laser system mounted on the top of its mast. ChemCam can zap rocks to find out their chemical composition.

This is an incredibly useful tool because it allows us to learn a lot more about those rocks than photos would ever tell us. For the most part, the rocks Curiosity shoots are chosen by scientists back here on Earth, based on what looks interesting from here. But they’ve recently uploaded some new software, called AEGIS, which lets Curiosity identify and target some rocks on its own. There are quite a few benefits of this.

For one, there isn’t always somebody on staff to keep an eye on Curiosity in case it stops by some compelling rocks. As such, there are certainly times when the rover wouldn’t be taking those kinds of samples, and that’s inefficient. No scientist wants to have too little data when they can possibly have too much, least of all NASA.

Another benefit is accuracy and time management. When scientists picked rocks in the past, they’d have to take several shots at them to make sure they hit them with the ChemCam laser. But the AEGIS system vastly improves Curiosity’s aim. That’s useful when it’s choosing its own targets, but it also helps when we’re picking those targets. With the AEGIS system, once a rock is chosen as a target (regardless of who is choosing it) the laser can hit it right on target the first time, and then move onto other samples more quickly.

Can Pokémon Go Be Used As An Educational Tool?

A young boy finds a Pokémon on his cell phone.

A young boy using the Pokémon Go app. Image: MichaelJayBerlin / Shutterstock

A quick summary in case there’s someone still out there who’s not familiar with Pokemon Go: The newest installment in Pokemon’s 20-year history of video games, the popular phone app requires players to walk around the real world to find virtual locations and virtual creatures, all the while collecting, strategizing, and battling. Immediately after it’s launch in July, it surpassed Twitter to become the most-downloaded app ever, and the largest mobile game in the history of the industry.

Creator Niantic wisely chose to release the walking-based game in midsummer, but as September approaches, parents and teachers alike are curious about the game’s educational potential. On the flip side of the coin, others are worried about privacy and safety risks.

The game features local landmarks across the country as Pokéstops—places where players collect in-game items—which educators are hoping will spur a widespread interest in students who want to learn about local history and resources. Players online have been talking excitedly about discovering features of their own towns that they’d never known before.

In the words of James Gee, a researcher in educational video gaming from Arizona State University, the app “enchants the environment.” After all, it is firing up a new interest in real world surroundings. The non-gaming generation has long bemoaned youth’s alleged lack of interest in their environment. With Pokémon Go, school-aged children can rediscover their home towns, and even organize outings and clean-up events in popular places.

Players can also use features of the game to track individual Pokémon, teaching them the concepts of triangulation and orienteering. Math, too, is a part of the game for those who want to calculate which of their Pokemon will evolve into the strongest creature at which level.

The biggest concern of detractors is that of safety and privacy (players have been accosted while following the game into unsafe areas, and game play requires your phone to be tracking you at all times). But with prudence and supervision, it will be interesting to see how education becomes the next thing to enfold this social mega-phenomenon.

CivilizationEDU

People surrounding chalk image of game controller

A new, educational version of Civilization will bring together gaming and the classroom.
Image: Shutterstock

Video games in our schools aren’t a new thing. Back in the early nineties, students were learning to do math with the help of virtual race cars and using reading comprehension to catch a school-themed supervillain.

The Civilization franchise isn’t new to classrooms, either. Civilization III and IV, released in 2001 and 2005, respectively, have both been used by history teachers as a way to illustrate topics about imperialism, expansion, arms races, and geography. Civ IV came complete with modes to guide the game as close to historical realism as could be managed, featuring real-world plagues and disasters to influence the growth and death of a player’s civilization.

With Civilization V, Take-Two Interactive, the game’s publisher, is taking an active role in how we can engage students in learning world history. A modified edition of the game called CivilizationEDU, developed with ed-tech company GlassLab Games, will be available for high school classes starting next September. Analytics will be added to the game so teachers can set goals and track progress for students. Tutorial videos and lesson plans for teachers will also be included, so they can easily integrate the game into their usual curricula.

GlassLab Games has an education-focused resume. They make their own educational games, and also have partnered with major game companies like EA to craft classroom-aimed versions of popular games. Use Your Brainz is a version of Plants vs Zombies, for instance, and they are also behind SimCity EDU.

“For the past 25 years, we’ve found that one of the fun secrets of Civilization is learning while you play,” said the creator of the Civilization series, Sid Meier. That secret’s been out for a long time, and if there really is educational value in seeing if you can get Gandhi to become a berserk warlord (a well-known and loved game feature, originally a glitch), then these should be a fun addition to the toolbox of history teachers everywhere.

Minecraft: Free Trial of Education Edition Launches

Young girl playing Minecraft on tablet

Microsort is releasing a new version of Minecraft to be used in the classroom.
Image: Bloomua / Shutterstock.com

Microsoft has released a free trial of the new edition of the building game Minecraft, intended for use in schools. The new version of the game includes extra features that make it classroom-friendly, says Microsoft. The company has provided lessons for students in primary, intermediate, and secondary schools that help them develop a variety of skills.

Minecraft in schools is meant to help students develop skills in digital citizenship, empathy, and literacy. The program can be used to study coding, science, city planning, or to get a unique perspective on history. Lessons included in the game include “City Planning for Population Growth,” “Exploring Factors and Multiples,” and “Effects of Deforestation,” as well as several others like lessons on story settings, climate change, and Rube Goldberg machines.

The version just released isn’t the game’s final form, but it should give a good overview of what Minecraft Education has to offer. Teachers can try it out over the summer and begin making lesson plans, and they can offer feedback to Microsoft to improve its performance. The new edition includes a number of suggestions the Minecraft team received from teachers’ experiences in the past, so the game now allows for easier classroom collaboration, non-player characters, and can allow students to snapshot their work.

Teachers can change the program to suit their students’ needs. An electrical engineering teacher could implement rules for the game for an assignment teaching students to hardwire a city’s power grid. How cool is that!

Up to 30 students can play in a world together without needing separate serves. Students can also work in groups or as individuals, but in the future, Microsoft hopes to offer a “Classroom Mode” which will provide a map and list view of all participating students, teleport capabilities, and a chat window.

Minecraft: Education Edition will be available for purchase by schools, libraries, museums, and participants in nationally-recognized home school organizations, says the product’s website. The game will cost between $1 and $5 per user, depending on the size of the organization and what kinds of qualifications it has. Microsoft anticipates that Minecraft: Education Edition will be available this coming September.