Using science and mathematics to capture the imagination of young minds, Boris Berenfeld, president and CEO of International Laboratory of Advanced Education Technologies, is a champion of schools around the world wanting to craft a new approach to learning that combines new technologies and bold curricula to bring these topics to life. Berenfeld’s London-based consultancy and technology provider seeks to reinvent teaching and learning in emerging fields like life sciences, nanotechnology, engineering and robotics. A Russian-born educator, technologist and biophysicist, Berenfeld spoke to Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about his leading-edge work to develop new ways of classroom learning and the magical ideas that inspire them.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What inspired you to get International Laboratory of Advanced Education Technologies (ILAET) going?

Boris Berenfeld: About 20 years ago, computers began reaching schools in large numbers, but schools were not prepared to use them. It was very much a marketing push rather than [an educational pull]. For some time, [computers] sat idle in schools, locked in computer labs. Simultaneously, many advanced technologies were trickling down to education technologies from aerospace, the military and other fields….

A teacher or administrator would order ‘technology type A’ from one vendor and ‘[type] B’ from another; then they had all this stuff, but nobody knew how to integrate all of it. My laboratory was thought up as a large-scale education technology integrator providing turnkey solutions, whether it is a class of tomorrow, Schools of the Future [which is a global initiative to change schools, starting at kindergarten] or our latest development called LearningGrounds.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you provide some examples of what you have in mind?

Berenfeld: ….LearningGrounds is an [extracurricular] "playground" for kids interested in [learning about] science, mathematics, engineering, design and biology. If you feel that a child has an inclination to construct something but you don’t catch this child’s desires at the right moment, you will lose him — very often to some dumb computer game.

We had a very interesting example in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The country, unfortunately for military purposes, wanted to develop a huge number of scientists and mathematicians. I was part of this process because I lived in a small town. One day, a graduate student came — dressed in jeans, no tie, nothing formal — and said, "How about having a mathematics Olympiad?" He gave us some problems to solve. It was fun. Those who did really well were invited to a specialized school, and then graduate students and professors worked with those students. It was the beginning of a pipeline producing very bright mathematicians and scientists. You identify kids who love to solve problems. They can be in any neighborhood, in any setting, and you give them a good, fast-track education.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the right age at which you start appealing to students using technological intervention?

Berenfeld: Ideally, three or four years of age, but in reality, I would say upper elementary school. [Ages 10 to 12] is a very sensitive period in a child’s formation …. LearningGrounds should be a place that can spur the imagination and provide the technology to enhance self-esteem. Children can also see the different use of technologies — not just for playing silly games [where the characters try] to kill each other. They can play with molecules and atoms. They can build and construct things. Ideally, every university in the world, every college, should have outreach programs with such facilities.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you do the outreach? It is one thing to develop interesting technology and quite another to get it adopted by large numbers of students.

Berenfeld: No matter how rosy I am, it is still about hardware and software. We are talking about US$2 million at least to make it work. So another set of products that I am developing are two virtual LearningGrounds. One of them is called Global Laboratory. Global Laboratory is based on the premise that learning is fundamentally social. Textbooks will build your vocabulary. But learning occurs when we learn from each other. By being in a community of learners, you feel that you are needed. With Global Lab, every learner also becomes a teacher. Together, the [learners] create new knowledge when they measure and monitor their own environment. They see that knowledge is not what the teacher said; it is what they collaboratively construct.

Another product is NanoSchool. You may remember that in the 1980s, we were talking about information literacy. Why? Because we could foresee the advent of computers and networking on a large scale. Now I am trying to move forward with the concept of molecular literacy. It is a completely new set of literacy, with skills that allow you to see the world around you in terms of atoms and molecules and their interactions. You should be able to explain things in your everyday life in terms of atoms and molecules.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What have the adoption levels been of these education technologies and how do you measure their success?

Berenfeld: In the late 1980s, together with the National Geographic Society and the Technical Education Research Center, a spinoff from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we developed a kids network project. It got students from all over the world measuring the acidity of rain and doing other collaborative investigations. In its peak year, we reached 22,000 schools in 40 countries. Now, with support from the World Bank, I started the Global Lab in Russia. In no time, I got 120 schools, from Khabarovsk to Moscow to Ukraine. When you work together, and when you study and do research together, it is very hard to build an image of an enemy.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How sustainable is your revenue model, especially if you deliver the content online?

Berenfeld: Fundamentally, you should not — and you cannot — make money from education. Moreover, you should spend money on education. Unfortunately, it is very hard to measure your productivity. How much will it cost if you make a society 1% smarter? Therefore, we need to charge. With Global Lab, a simple subscription model can help us break even, whether you involve 1,000 or 5,000 schools. You need a moderator for every cluster for this course to be productive. They have online forums and I want instructors to be able to extract everything that the kids are saying in this forum and use it to grade them.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is this model applicable mainly to scientific education or can it be applied to other areas?

Berenfeld: Certainly to social sciences…. You can teach wonderful subjects that [you don’t learn in schools], like ethnography or cultural anthropology. There is a wonderfully small field of science called toponymy, the history of geographical names. With the help of your students, you create maps. For example, we made a map of all the places in the world with the word "hope" in their names. You had New Hope, Hope and Hopeless.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What about languages?

Berenfeld: I don’t think you can [apply the technology to languages], because I believe that languages should be taught in context. The first time I came to MIT, they asked if I could give a "brownbag" the next week. Well, I didn’t have [an actual] brown bag to give. It took me some exploration to understand that they meant a lunchtime presentation. With projects like Global Lab, you communicate with native speakers in context. You can learn a great deal. I would rather integrate that into Global Lab.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Have you monitored whether more boys than girls are interested in using this, or are able to use it or have access to it?

Berenfeld: I don’t have data on gender differences. But Global Lab, with support from the National Science Foundation [a U.S. government agency], had external evaluators from Stanford Research Institute [a nonprofit R&D organization]. They studied the pedagogical effect on Global Lab. If anything, they found a big difference in children’s perceptions about themselves, about their curiosity and about their thoughts about future occupations. The importance of international participation was stressed.

One school in San Antonio, Texas, loved Global Lab. After a teacher reported to us that the kids measured acid rain, we provided little devices to measure carbon dioxide (C02) levels. Because part of the school was located in trailers, they had pretty high C02 levels. The students thought that people might have been getting sick because of the C02. They went to different classrooms and measured C02 levels, and found a correlation with how many kids and teachers got sick. They made a big fuss and the school called in environmental inspectors. The teacher said the inspectors were very skeptical, but they began measuring CO2 levels and found the very same data the kids found.

We had a scientist who told them, "You have an elevated level of C02. You have an elevated level of respiratory illnesses. You see a correlation. But does this mean a cause and effect? Maybe something else causes both things." They learned a great lesson in that correlation does not mean causality. They eventually understood that a poor ventilation system caused both things — the illnesses and the high C02. They learned not only content, but also science process skills. Eventually, this poor school got an environmental award from the governor of Texas…. I think we could have more schools like that.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is your dream for what you can do with education technologies?

Berenfeld: I have to admit that I didn’t read Harry Potter. But I saw the movie. And there is a scene in it when the child is on his way to visit the school and he is in the train station. He walks through a wall and the magic starts. I would feel happy if I could build something like that, where kids go through the wall of education, and then magic begins with technologies and learning.