In her twelve years as a researcher at EDC, Katie Culp has observed how children use computers in many different settings—at school and play, in after-school programs, and at home. She has evaluated innovative programs for improving technology use in K-12 classrooms and after-school programs, and has conducted qualitative studies of technology integration at both the classroom and district levels. These include a review of technology use in elementary schools in Chicago, and one of the earliest studies of laptop computer use. She is currently overseeing evaluations of several of Intel Corporation’s Innovation in Education Initiatives, ambitious efforts to support direct use of technology by students and teachers. In her tenure at CCT, she has been a research assistant, research associate, and senior research associate, before assuming her current position.
Tell me about a project you’re excited about now.
We have an exploratory grant from the National Science Foundation to look at how school technology programs influence the ways kids use computers outside of the classroom, across different settings. We selected 2 progressive suburban middle schools that are similar demographically, but one puts very little emphasis on technology while the other has a thoughtful long-term technology program. We’ve been doing interviews with the kids about how they use their computers at home and in other environments. Well it’s pretty amazing—the difference between the 2 groups is much bigger than I had anticipated. In the tech-savvy school, the whole set of messages about what you can do with computers has really gone out to the community and the families. One kid told us about how he uses PowerPoint to makes presentations for his study group at his Hindu temple. Another described how he used a database to devise a scheduler for his friends because they were all fighting about who got to use his Gameboy next. The kids in this school have come to see computers as generally useful tools and they see themselves as people who can use these tools to solve their own problems. Whereas for the kids in the other school, computer use is isolated from one spot to the next. They say things like, “Yeah, I learned Excel in computer class, but when would I ever use it?”
I love this line of research because the kids are at the center. We’re not saying to them, “Here’s this way we want you to use technology.” We’re saying, ‘Show us what you are doing.” And we’re discovering some amazing things.
Describe a day recently that inspired you.
A colleague and I were doing a school visit to observe how teachers are using a design and engineering curriculum that we’re evaluating. We were invited to judge the 6th grade science fair. For this fair the kids had done inventions so we went around and talked to them about their products and the process they had gone through to develop them. They had done a needs assessment—they had asked their friends questions like, “If you could design a better locker, what would be different about it?” Then they developed a prototype, tested it, and made a statement about whether their design idea had been successful or not. Well it was a lot of fun to talk to the kids and see what they had come up with, but what I found most interesting was that several of the kids had designs that hadn’t worked out, but they were OK with that. They discussed the process they had gone through and identified where things had gone wrong. The teachers had really engaged them in the process of the work, so they understood that there was a lot to be learned from mistakes or problems.
What do you like best about working at EDC?
The culture of mentoring at CCT is very important to me. You know I started here as an administrative assistant. I had just finished college and moved to New York. I knew I wanted to work in education, but I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I took a job at CCT to learn what people were doing. Well, it really stuck. The staff encouraged me to go to graduate school and for nine years I worked at CCT and went to Teacher’s College at Columbia. The staff here made a huge investment in me. I really believe that it’s our culture of mentoring that made it possible for me to get through graduate school and learn to do my work well.
EDC is a very humane place to be. We manage to maintain a certain amount of intellectual conversation and a real excitement about the ideas that are import to us. I think it’s great to have that at your work.
What do you find challenging in your work right now?
Working with Intel has challenged my thinking in some interesting ways. I manage a set of evaluations of some of their programs for K-12 educators. For the last three years we have been evaluating their professional development program for teachers in the U.S. and recently they’ve invited us to get involved with their international education work as well. Intel is really good at scale. They make computer chips all over the world a million times a day. So when they go about choosing what programs to support, they think, “Whatever we do, we’re going to do it big.” In contrast, at CCT we have an education reform mindset where you start locally and build up from there. It’s not that I’ve thrown those notions out the window, but I’ve learned that there are virtues to thinking about scale from the outset.
What makes you feel hopeful about your work?
Teachers make me feel hopeful. They work so hard and they care so much about what they do. If we can just figure out how to get it right for them—in terms of the resources they need, the right working conditions—then they can do anything. My mom just retired as a first grade teacher. Every year she started out with 18 kids in her class who didn’t know how to read and didn’t know how to add. And every May they all knew how to read and they could practically multiply. That’s amazing.